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Building a Realistic Freight Car Fleet

December 3, 2008

Not many modelers have realistic collection of rolling stock, which is a shame, because it’s really quite easy to build a realistic fleet of freight cars. First of all you need a theme for your layout, we’re going to use the United States as an example here:

Ask yourself these questions for starters:

-Where is your railroad located?
-What year are you modeling?
-Are there dimensional restrictions on your railroad (Many smaller eastern RR’s had small tunnels and light bridges, both of which circumstances, in their most extreme forms had to have other RR’s freight reloaded into smaller boxcars to squeeze through these restrictions. (Yankee Clipper boxcars are an example)
-Are you a standard or narrow gauge operation?
-Does your railroad interchange with any other railroad? (Most important!)
-What car construction materials were popular in the era you model? (wooden w/ trussrods, composite steel/wood or heavy steel?)
-What colors were most popular on the freight cars of the era? (Boxcar Red, Black, Oxide Red and Yellow were most popular before 1960)

Steps toward refining your fleet to fit your modeled year:

-You really should choose a “cut off” year for your modeling, one that you would unconditionally NOT buy anything built later than that particular date. (Mine is 11-54)
-If you look on the side of any car built before 1990, it usually has a date in which that particular car was BuiLT (BLT 6-42 or BLT 9-71 for example) Those would obviously be for June 1942 and September 1971 in those cases. This is your first clue to pruning down your fleet of cars.
-Be CAREFUL! there may be another date on the car, usually a later date with a three letter shop code like “SAC” or “RPKD” or even a “NEW”. “SAC 11-42” would indicate a rebuilding took place in November of 1942 at the Sacramento shops for instance. “RPKD 2-57” means that the jounal bearings on a car with friction bearing trucks were “repacked” with oil-soaked cotton waste to reduce friction in febuary 1957. A NEW date is like a built date.
– Take note that the cars you buy ride on different types of trucks, the most popular with the model manufacturers are shown in the photo below with the year it was introduced to the time the AAR outlawed that type of truck if applicable. (Please correct me if I’m wrong about the dates)

Below is a cross-section of my fleet of cars that are found on my California layout set in 1954.
(This Photo might take a while to load, be patient, it’s worth it.)

1954 freight car fleet

Notice that not all the cars are SUPER UNIQUE. They’re all interesting, and some have much more detial than others, but I have chosen cars that strongly reflect the early 1950’s. It was a diverse mix of wooden and all steel cars, with MOW cars still rolling on archbar trucks wit trussrod frames. Most of the cars were boxcar red or oxide red, with black coming in a close third. Most of the western roads had orange reefer cars, while the eastern/midwestern roads preferred white and yellow. The MKT 50′ boxcar and WP 40’er stand out from the rest of the boxcars with bright colors while most roads had intricae hearlds, slogans and logos on the side of their cars. All car still had high mounted brake wheels and friction bearing trucks. Other cars stand out for their loads, like the UP gon with the lumber load or the NKP flatcar with the motor grader. These catch your eyes and provide interesting cars to focus your eyes on while the other brown cars provide a “sea” in which to observe the different ones without confusing your eye and competing for your attention in large yards.

I personally should branch out into the world of resin cars with manufacturers like speedwitch and sunshine (I have one sunshine car, the PFE 50’er.) so that even my “run of the mill” brown cars are more unique too.

Lastly, always purchase cars you like, and buy plenty for your home road too, that will give a stronger sense of place. The typical ratio of home road/ other RR cars is (as hotly debated on the Steam Era Freight Car Group) about 50% home road, 25% regional railroads (direct interchange partners) and 20% opposite coast cars and 5% “exotic” cars (like my silver SBIX vinegar tank car above)

I hope this will help. I plan to do another more in-depth installment in the future. I need your suggestions to improve this article, send me a comment to add to this article!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2008 3:28 am

    The car ratio numbers you give above are interesting. I’m assuming that they are applicable to your era, but I’m not sure they would apply to a modern era railroad. Modern railroads transport many “X” cars, i.e. rail cars whose AAR reporting marks end in X (cars not owned by a common carrier railroad), like cars from TTX (including Railbox and RailGon cars). TTX owns the largest railcar fleet in North America. In addition to that, many tank cars are owned by chemical producers.

    It would be great if there was a source to see what the percentage breakdown is for modern mixed freights.

  2. December 5, 2008 4:47 am

    You’re correct! I haven’t done too much research into modern era equipment, but I certianly have paid attention to the large “three” types of modern era car fleets;

    -TTX is certianly the largest
    -Leasing compainies like GE capital and General American Tank Lines (GATX) Nat’nl American Tank Lines (NATX) Helm Leasing (HATX) and others own a large share of railcars as well. One of the largest fleets is owned by the Andersons Inc., a HUGE agri-business corporation that uses the (AEX) reporting mark.
    -Finally, in ever decreasing numbers, is the actual railroads owning their rolling stock. UP must have one of the nation’s largest fleets of boxcars, thanks to SP and it’s “Golden West Service” fleet.
    Shortlines have pretty much dumped their fleets of cars thanks to the end of the “per-diem era” but a few have capitalized on this for extra profit.

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