A railroad car float in the Upper New York Bay, 1919. A tugboat (towboat) stack is visible behind the middle car.
1912 PRR map showing the Greenville Terminal and its car float operations, also the current crossing

A railroad car float or rail barge is a specialised form of lighter[1] with railway tracks mounted on its deck used to move rolling stock across water obstacles, or to locations they could not otherwise go. An unpowered barge, it is towed by a tugboat or pushed by a towboat.

This is distinguished from a train ferry, which is self-powered.

Historical operations

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It has been suggested that this article should be split into a new article titled Car float operations in New York Harbor. (discuss) (March 2024)

U.S. East Coast

During the Civil War, Union general Herman Haupt, a civil engineer, used huge barges fitted with tracks to enable military trains to cross the Rappahannock River in support of the Army of the Potomac.[2]

Beginning in the 1830s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) operated a car float across the Potomac River, just south of Washington, D.C., between Shepherds Landing on the east shore, and Alexandria, Virginia on the west. The ferry operation ended in 1906.[3] The B&O operated a car float across the Baltimore Inner Harbor until the mid-1890s. It connected trains from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and points to the west. The operation ended after the opening of the Baltimore Belt Line in 1895.[3]

The Port of New York and New Jersey had many car float operations, which lost ground to the post-World War II expansion of trucking, but held out until the rise of containerization in the 1970s.[4]

These car floats operated between the Class 1 railroads terminals on the west bank of Hudson River in Hudson County, New Jersey and the numerous online and offline terminals located in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan.[5][6] Class 1 railroads in the New York Harbor area providing car float services were:

As well as the offline terminal railroads:

Car float service was also provided to many pier stations and waterfront warehouse facilities (that did not engage in car floating service directly) by the above-mentioned railroads.

At their peak, the railroads had 3,400 employees operating small fleets totalling 323 car floats, plus 1,094 other barges, towed by 150 tugboats between New Jersey and New York City.

Abandoned float bridges are preserved as part of this history at:

Several other abandoned but unrestored float bridges exist in other locations around New York Harbor. A complete list is available at Surviving Float Bridges of New York Harbor

The Bay Coast Railroad formerly operated a 2-barge car float connecting Virginia's Eastern Shore with the city of Norfolk, Virginia across the Chesapeake Bay.

U.S. Midwest

An Erie tugboat and barge on the Chicago River in 1917

Between 1912 and 1936, the Erie Railroad operated a car float service on the Chicago River in Chicago, Illinois.[33]

U.S. West Coast


Woodfibre, British Columbia
Car float in Howe Sound

Existing operations


The Alaska Railroad provides the Alaska Rail Marine rail barge service from downtown Seattle to Whittier on the central Alaskan mainland.[38]', CN Rail provided the Aquatrain rail barge service from Prince Rupert, British Columbia to Whittier.[39] Service ended in April 2021.[34]

New York / New Jersey

The car float docks at Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York.

The only remaining car float service in operation in the Port of New York and New Jersey is operated by New York New Jersey Rail. This company, operated by the bi-state government agency Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is the successor to the New York Cross Harbor Railroad. Car float service operates between 65th Street / Bay Ridge Yard in Brooklyn and Greenville Yard in Jersey City, New Jersey.[40] The service exists because freight cars do not run in the East River Tunnels nor the North River Tunnels (under the Hudson River), in part due to inadequate tunnel clearances of the New York Tunnel Extension.

See also


  1. ^ Lederer, Eugene H. (1945). Port Terminal Operation: Port Terminal Management, Stevedoring, Stowage, Lighterage and Harbor Boats. New York, NY: Cornell Maritime Press. pp. 291–292.
  2. ^ Wolmar, Christian (2012). Engines of War. London: Atlantic Books. p. 49. ISBN 9781848871731.
  3. ^ a b Harwood, Herbert H. Jr. (1979). Impossible Challenge: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Maryland. Baltimore, MD: Barnard, Roberts. ISBN 0-934118-17-5.
  4. ^ Cudahy, Brian J. (2006). Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. pp. 45–47. ISBN 0-8232-2568-2.
  5. ^ Flagg, Thomas R. (2000). New York Harbor Railroads in Color, Volume 1. Scotch Plains, NJ: Morning Sun Books. ISBN 1-58248-082-6.
  6. ^ Flagg, Thomas R. (2002). New York Harbor Railroads in Color, Volume 2. Scotch Plains, NJ: Morning Sun Books. ISBN 1-58248-048-6.
  7. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 16–23.
  8. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 26–29.
  9. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 24–33.
  10. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 38–39.
  11. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 34–45.
  12. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 40–51.
  13. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 46–55.
  14. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 52–57.
  15. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 56–61.
  16. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 58–63.
  17. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 62–65.
  18. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 64–67.
  19. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 66–83.
  20. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 68–93.
  21. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 84–91.
  22. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 94–97.
  23. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 92–101.
  24. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 98–109.
  25. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 110–116.
  26. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 118–125.
  27. ^ Flagg, 2002, pp. 120–127.
  28. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 126–127.
  29. ^ Flagg, 2002, p. 118.
  30. ^ Flagg, 2000, pp. 110–117.
  31. ^ Flagg, 2002, p. 119.
  32. ^ a b Flagg, 2002, p. 117.
  33. ^ Sennstrom, Bernard H. (1992). "Erie Railroad's Chicago River Service". The Diamond. 7 (1): 4–10.
  34. ^ a b "The Last AquaTrain". 2021.
  35. ^ The Pere Marquette Marine Fleet, Pere Marquette Historical Society, 10-MAY-2011, accessed July 16, 2012
  36. ^ "car float". Archived from the original on 2021-04-26. Retrieved 2021-04-26.
  37. ^ Greg George
  38. ^ Alaska Rail Marine [dead link] Archived December 21, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  39. ^ "Aqua train". Archived from the original on 2018-09-30. Retrieved 2011-03-05.
  40. ^ "Route Map". New York New Jersey Rail, LLC. Retrieved 2017-06-03.