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Modeling Gaffe 5- How am I going to Unload this car?

February 20, 2009

How am I going to unload this?

How many model railroads have you been to where a wide variety of cars are just parked next a (probably inadequately sized) industry with no way to unload even a boxcar?

This irksome trait is found almost all the time in beginner layouts, for which they are excused, but also on too many modelers who consider themselves “serious” railroad modelers. It’s especially annoying when they enjoy superdetailing and weathering their models, while their buildings are either straight-out-of-the-box or simple structure kits. I’d say a majority of model railroad industrial building kits won’t support (regular) rail service. Walther’s has succeeded in making some nicely porportioned kits that look believable enough to support traffic, but most other manufacturers fall short, with a few really excellent exceptions.

More often than not you see modelers ignore the specific hardware found on the cars and either:
-Create inadequate loading docks that are either too high or low for boxcar and reefer traffic.
-Ignoring completely how you’d logically unload a specific type of freight cars, like that gravel old gondola on the coal trestle with a SOLID floor, mimicing a drop-bottom gondola, and failing.
-I VERY rarely see a realistic unloading/loading apparatus for covered hoppers, be them cement, grain, plastics, or sugar. Almost always they disappear under a little metal shed and are “unloaded” as if by magic!
-Woodchip hoppers and scrap steel/structural steel gondolas are frequently just put on the siding, to be “magically (un)loaded”
-An overwhelming majority of modelers ignore TANK CAR unloading apparatuses, despite being repeatedly written about in modeling magazines. (in some cases, all you need is a valved spigot sticking out of the ground.)
-Don’t even get me started about Intermodal Facilities or Piggyback Trailer loading facilities, they’re almost never modeled correctly, and I can say with certianty that only a handful of modelers actually have dedicated the space to these industries that dominate the modern scene.

It's a mystery how you're going to load up these woodchip hoppers

Team tracks, while oddly ignored by many modelers, provide perhaps THE greatest flexibility of any industry, take little space and can (with proper detailing) accept ANY type of freight car.

The best remedy for addressing this problem is RESEARCH! Go out into the world and take photographs of interesting industrial buildings and attempt to match the details found on them, remember that Industrial buildings only have the bare-essential details on them compared to commercial/residential structures, and we at least must model that bare-bones detail.

IF you’re period modeling, the Library of Congress (US) has the HABS/HAER Historical Building database, with scale drawings, written historical documents and plenty of detail photographs. Also University Libraries or even your local library has plenty of photos of local, state, and sometimes nationally important industrial buildings. Some time spent researching here will benefit you in the future. I’d bet OSHA has modern documents profiling how to safely unload many types of freight cars. Army Transportation Corps manuals also have this information.

Don’t forget to check out modeling magazines or books, some authors really care about this sort of thing, and provide really valuble information about how a freight car was unloaded. Safely and properly.

All the resources for the proper and realistic (un)loading of freight cars are out there, you just have to make the extra effort to find it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2009 7:08 am

    Could you provide more info on what details help out a team track? I’m including two team tracks on my railroad and would like to see what would make them look good.

  2. February 21, 2009 4:57 pm

    I’m new to model railroading and I found your blog while doing research over the holidays. I just wanted to tell you I’m enjoying these model critiques you’ve been writing. They’re helping me with the process (still in the mental stage) of figuring out what to do and not do once I get going on construction of my own model.

    Keep ’em coming.


  3. February 25, 2009 6:54 pm

    These are great posts, and the layout photographs are wonderful. You make lots of good points about the blunders that so-called “serious” modelers make in their attempts to create realistic layouts. But I think lots of modelers may be more concerned with having the layout look cool than with absolute historical accuracy and realism. I guess your high standards of accuracy are something to strive for, but might be just too stringent for the average modeler.

  4. February 25, 2009 9:33 pm


    I agree with your assesment that modelers are more concerned with making their layouts look cool, but to make them look “right” in your mind’s eye it takes just a tiny (less than 5 minutes usually) bit of research to make sure there’s a reason for everything you put on your layouts.

    They’re not exactly high standards, these are simple, elementary level mistakes that modelers make all too often.

    Most of these things can be spotted by the average modeler, which surprises me why so many people make these mistakes.

    The funny thing is that they’re the opposite of stringent, by doing a tiny bit of research you can discover a whole world of new, more interesting options than RTR locomotives, shake the box car kits and “ploppable” buildings.

    If I were to get nit-picky and whip out a ORER (roster of every freight car in service that particular year) and check the numbers against the roster of cars on your layout, but that’s absurd!

    It’s silly to get overly nitpicky or serious, because it’s a fun hobby anyway you look at it!

  5. Wobblywp permalink
    March 14, 2009 2:58 am

    Right on!!! Those industries which would take a month of Sundays to fill a boxcar are still being produced and unfortunately still appearing on layouts and still have a track to them. Much better if they were associated with road transport.

    I like your use of chinagraph pencils for marking roads instead of paint or coloured paper. One modleer had used paper – looked out of place in the photo on his webpage and I suggested he might find the chinagraph pencil more realistic and I was told to get lost!

    Great site you have.

  6. April 15, 2014 10:20 am

    Great article. I think the opposite viewpoint on this topic is the idea that at the end of the day, our model railroads will almost always be a facsimile or caricature of reality – not a “true” model. Putting the wrong kind of hopper on a coal unloaded isn’t such a faux pas in my opinion, because its not actually going to mechanically dump its load on the layout – it’s just a visual representation to assist out imagination where most of the real action occurs. For me and many other modelers, a hopper (regardless of type) is close enough to make sense.

    Plus, often one had an industry and rolling stock that is close but not quite correct. So what? Are we supposed to be forbidden from operating that industry until we purchase the exact right type of car?

    I think this post is in fact more stringent than the author realizes. I’d bet my life that modelers with this type of serious & nitpicky perspective are hugely outnumbered by modelers for whom close enough is good enough.

    Most of us are not building a museum model, and even if we were – we might want to fudge things a little in the 20 years before our layout reaches museum quality historically accurate status.

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