The trailer-on-flat-car, or TOFC, concept actually predates the trucking industry. From 1885-1893, Long Island farmers could ship their loaded wagons to Manhattan markets on Long Island Rail Road flatcars. Teamsters rode in their own coach on the farmers’ specials, while their horses traveled in stable cars.
The modern use of railroads to ship loaded trailers began on the Chicago Great Western Railroad (the “Corn Belt Route”) in 1935 and became widespread in the 1950s, under the leadership of a former GM executive named Eugene Ryan and early supporters that included the Pennsy, New Haven, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, Burlington, and Southern Pacific railroads.
Originally a large number of trailers were railroad-owned, and loading and unloading was done “circus-style” by driving the trailers onto a string of flatcars from one end. A major advance came in the 1960s with the advent of the first side-lift cranes, dramatically speeding up loading and unloading. Today the combination of trailer and container shipments, known collectively as intermodal, constitutes the largest class of freight on American railroads.