"The more things change, the more they stay the same," appropriately describes both ends of Union Tank Car Company's long history as the premier tank/rail car supplier in its business.
In 1891, the nation fought a war over oil. The battlegrounds were not overseas deserts, but the halls of the U.S. Congress. The government, armed with the newly created Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and Sherman Antitrust Act, faced off against the Standard Oil Company, history's largest monopoly.
Standard Oil was better known for lubrication than for transportation, but a key to its success was Union Tank Line, its railcar subsidiary. Standard Oil leader John D. Rockefeller used tank cars as his "secret weapon" to dominate the industry by gaining control of oil shipping.
Oil refined into kerosene was in big demand for lighting and other uses. The earliest tank cars were built in 1865 to transport oil from field wells. Although they were little more than two large wooden tubs mounted on a flatcar, they were much more efficient than previous shipping options. And within five years, an improved design using the now-familiar cylindrical iron tanks made tank cars the obvious transportation choice.
The trust and the bust
As Rockefeller spiraled upward in the oil industry, he expanded his domination of rail transportation by taking over several railcar suppliers until almost all tank cars carried the now- familiar UTLX identification. When federal and state governments began flexing their new regulatory muscle against the monopoly, Union Tank Line was an obvious target. On July 14, 1891, the Standard trust dodged the legal assault by forming a "separate" corporation, the Union Tank Line Company, dedicated to transportation.
Though Union Tank Line was now technically independent, it was still owned by Standard Oil and served only the company's refineries. When the U.S. Supreme Court broke up Standard in 1911, Union Tank Line's 40 employees faced a new crisis. Previously the company's only mission was to provide efficient transportation for all Standard refineries. Now it had to make money as well.
Meanwhile, tank car design continued to evolve. Shortly after the turn of the century, cars with iron tanks banded onto wooden underframes were replaced by inventor John Van Dyke's steel "X-car" (named for the shape of its underframe), which connected tank to underframe with a specially-created anchor to keep the tank from shifting. The durable X-car permitted new commodities such as gasoline and chemicals to be shipped more safely. Heater pipes, another Van Dyke innovation, opened tank car shipping to products such as paraffin and asphalt.
Standard's crude oil was no longer the only tank car lading, nor Union Tank Line the only tank car company. And the private car builders who had always supplied UTLX cars started to pursue new markets, including the Standard companies, directly.
Soaring and sinking times
In 1919 Union Tank Line bolstered its finances by listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Executives changed its name to Union Tank Car Company so investors wouldn't misperceive it as one of the railroads which had recently come under tight ICC regulation.
During the Roaring Twenties, the tank car industry stayed on track with American business prosperity. New markets emerged for chemicals, liquefied gas and foods. And the explosion in auto ownership increased the oil industry itself far beyond the six companies of John D. Rockefeller's empire.
As competition from other companies grew, Union Tank Car continued to focus on improving quality. Forge-welded tanks, better safety valves and double riveting made cars more dependable. Insulation and new heater pipe designs helped control temperatures of sensitive cargoes.
With the collapse of the nation's economy in the early 1930s, the number of surplus tank cars began to increase dramatically. Union Tank Car bought back thousands of cars from customers and eventually leased them as business recovered, launching a trend that continues today.
Throughout the thirties, the company continued to develop new types of cars and construction techniques. It pioneered use of the relatively new fusion welding process to increase tank strength, and as a result various products were able to be shipped under high pressure.
When World War II broke out, the threat of enemy submarines kept oil tankers off the seas, and tank cars became crucial to the wartime effort. Nearly 15,000 retired UTLX tank cars were sent to repair shops, where they were refurbished to haul oil in government-run unit trains.
Each day, more than 60 of these dedicated trains rushed oil from refineries to strategic locations across the country. They were hailed as "the stopgap between the dark threat of disaster and ultimate victory."
New markets, renaissance cars
When the war ended, the tank cars' dominant role in transporting bulk liquids was increasingly threatened by the growth of both oil pipelines and long-haul trucking. In response to this competitive threat, Union Tank Car launched an all-out effort to serve producers in emerging markets such as petrochemicals and fertilizers.
In 1954 the company unveiled a revolutionary new domeless tank car without an underframe. An underframeless car had been designed back in the early 1900s by John Van Dyke, but it was rejected then as unsafe. But UTLX engineers felt that in their new design, the tank arrangement actually improved the overall strength of the car. They also proved that the top dome, long considered necessary to hold product expansion during shipping, could be eliminated simply by filling the tank slightly less than full.
The new tank car, nicknamed the "Hot Dog" because of its appearance, broke 80 years of tradition and is still the standard of tank car construction today. Its flexible design spawned an unprecedented variety of cars customized to the needs of specialty chemical producers and other shippers.
Union Tank Car innovations during the sixties included:
Such an explosion in tank car creativity was a great benefit for customers, but it amplified a problem Union Tank Car had faced for years. The company was very dependent on others for manufacturing many of its car components. The problem was solved to a great extend in 1969 when Union Tank Car opened a plant in East Chicago, Indiana. The facility was one of the most modern, efficient railcar fabricating facilities in the world. Its technological highlights included automation on the production line and a machine shop then equipped with tape controlled machine tools to assure precise quality control. But the biggest newsmaker was its 12,000-ton, hydraulic cold-forming tank head press, the largest anywhere. The four-story press enabled consistently uniform head dimensions not possible with more conventional hot-forming presses.
Diversification, new owners
In the meantime, the company had acquired 20 other firms, many of which had nothing to do with tank cars. In 1969 the Trans Union Corporation was formed as the parent holding company, with Union Tank Car refocused on rail transportation equipment.
In the 1970s the company stressed quality in its tank cars, and backup services. Programs launched during that period include:
Trans Union Corporation became part of The Marmon Group of companies in 1981. Union Tank Car continued as a separate company primarily dedicated to tank cars.
The 1980s saw computers enter the company's manufacturing process. Computer-aided design (CAD) of railcar components improved fit-up of car components. On the plant floor, computer-controlled lathe and robotic flame cutters and plasma burners literally put Union on the cutting edge of tank car quality.
The company continued to bolster its reputation for service. Mobile repair units traveled to customer sites, eliminating shop time for minor repairs and maintenance. And as most firms in the railcar business were scaling back operations, Union Tank Car expanded its service capabilities by opening a major new repair center in Valdosta Georgia. Car tracing once done using telephones in the 1980’s improved with the advent of fax machines, then, considered the most modern technology. UTLX began educating our customers at the Customer Seminars held at our manufacturing plants.
The 1990’s saw changes in government mandated tank car regulations, the purchase of the Sheldon Texas Manufacturing Plant, the impact of the world wide web with web sites and e-mails. UTLX and Procor combined talents and shared development of Link-Net to provide customers with important information about their leased fleet of cars and self-service reports.
The new millennium introduced our slogan, “The Tank Car People”, and saw the retirement of our East Chicago Indiana Plant which produced 70,000 tank cars during its forty year history. In 2006 the most modern tank car manufacturing plant in the world was constructed in Alexandria Louisiana which introduced new technology and unique assembly methods. While the new car assembly plants were highly visible, the UTLX Repair Business Unit was streamlining operations to improve shop turnaround time and efficiency, and built a new repair facility in Celaya, Mexico in December 2005. The UTLX Research and Development Department studied ‘The Next Generation of Tank Cars’, recommending further investigation to make tank cars as safe as possible.
Union Tank Car began its second century with a strength that would probably impress even the demanding Rockefeller. Computers, robots and microwave technology make it a far cry from the original company that tracked cars by pasting sheets of paper to long roller shades. In-line manufacturing plants located in Alexandria, Louisiana and Sheldon, Texas provide high quality car supply for both leasing and sales. Car repair, maintenance, and qualification are provided by specialized repair shops, On-Site® mini-shops, and Mobile Repair teams. Tank and plastics hopper interior coating and rubber lining facilities continue to raise the bar for lining performance and reliability.
Union Tank Car, along with its Canadian affiliate Procor and its Mexican agent Carrotanques Unidos, is the largest tank car lessor in North American.
Now and in the future, safety, performance, security and environmental stewardship will drive equipment and operating improvements. “Our industry’s 99.8% safe delivery record is commendable, as is the on-going effort to eliminate non-accident releases,” said William Constantino, Leasing Business Unit Manager. “The performance confirms that transportation safety and security are operational imperatives not only for THE TANK CAR PEOPLE®, but also for shippers and the railroads. We are working together to find and implement every possible safety improvement.”
Over the past 130 years, Union Tank Car Company’s products and services have always been the top choice for bulk rail shippers. Continuing to lead the industry will be the UTLX goal for the foreseeable future.
To view our "UTLX Strength To Partner" video click here.