Wednesday, October 23, 2019

What’s a “freight car guy?”

What’s a “freight car guy?” Probably seems like an odd question, or an odd term. Here’s what I have heard it used to mean. A freight car guy takes charge of a freight car fleet, at an individual layout (other than his own) or a club, and both maintains and upgrades it. He also, in many cases, is expected to do something with vividly out-of-era cars or out-of-the-box “brand new”shiny paint schemes.
     I learned this term when I was a member of the Pittsburgh Model Railroad Club (back in the days before it moved to Gibsonia in the Far North suburbs). I had been repairing some of the club freight cars, and one night at a meeting, a member came up to me and said, “Are you the Freight Car Guy?”  I capitalize the title because that’s how it sounded when he said it.
     Today the Pittsburgh club has transformed itself into the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum and has an excellent and quite complete layout. But in my day, it was in the basement of a brewery office building, the former Eberhardt & Ober Brewery on Pittsburgh’s North Side; the club moved out of that deteriorating building in 1986. Below is an historical club photo. If you’d like to see more of their history, dating back to 1938, visit their website at: .

     One drawback to being a Freight Car Guy is that you may find your job doesn’t get much respect in some quarters, in which case it’s time to move on. Here is a personal illustration.
     My time managing club freight cars at the Pittsburgh Club came to an abrupt end, coincidentally just after I had completed a long task of washing the dust and grime off the roofs of many dozens of the club’s long-serving cars. Some members came in on a weekend shortly after that, to adjust some wiring over the layout, above a drop ceiling, and they managed to dump all the crud inside that ceiling, right onto the freight yard and all the clean cars. That was bad enough, but none of the guilty would take any responsibility or do clean-up or even express any regrets. I basically walked out.
     But club foibles aside, being a Freight Car Guy can mean a wide range of things. In one case, I helped a layout owner choose the additional cars he should buy, to make his fleet suitable for the era and locale he was modeling. In a couple of other cases, I have offered advice (only when asked!!) as to whether particular cars fit into a layout scheme or not. More recently, I have seen to the adequate weathering of a large fleet of cars (along with adding correct reweigh and repack data) for one friend’s layout.
     A more intriguing challenge, in some ways, is to provide help to someone who really doesn’t know much at all about freight car history, and really doesn’t greatly care — but likes the idea that someone might weed out the worst of the “wrong” freight cars on his layout. And a little weathering along the way wouldn’t go amiss either. Usually I am happy to oblige.
     My first goal in such a situation is to eliminate (more on what I mean by that in a moment) the cars and/or paint schemes which are clearly out of era. We all know that a truss-rod wooden box car would be out of place in a 1980s layout, but there are many, many more subtle examples to examine. Just one example: when did Santa Fe start to apply its famous passenger train slogans to freight cars? It was at the beginning of 1940, so obviously anyone modeling an era prior to 1940 ought not to roster any cars with such a paint scheme.
     As a single example, a car I re-worked for Bill Kaufman’s layout, depicting the State Belt in San Francisco in 1944, was an old MDC box car, a 1937 AAR car lettered in the post-1954 Western Maryland “speed lettering” scheme.  I re-lettered it for one of the Southern’s large group of 40-ton versions of that design, using the pre-war emblem and lettering style from Speedwitch decals.

     It is fun to make use of one’s knowledge in this kind of project, while of course helping a friend achieve a layout that is, in some sense, “better.” At least a Freight Car Guy would think so.
Tony Thompson

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Maintaining model couplers

I have posted comments from time to time in this blog about the various needs for maintenance of freight cars to make sure they operate as they should. This is potentially a really wide-ranging topic. Probably the broadest recent post like this addressed several kinds of maintenance issues (you can read the post at this link: ).
     My recent experience with the operating weekend at VanRail in Vancouver, British Columbia showed me some compelling examples of how well this can work. (For an overview of that event, you may wish to read the post about it, which is at: .)
     In particular, I was struck by the good operation at Mike Chandler’s layout, because he uses Kadee magnetic uncoupling ramps, often in layout locations that you really cannot comfortably reach from the aisle. This means that couplers must operate flawlessly, and they did. I came away with the determination to re-examine my own fleet and try to correct any couplers that are off in height or were even a little bit sticky or not free-swinging.
     Shown below is an example of couplers that almost line up perfectly, the one on the right being a Kadee #5. But even though a coupler pair like this will work fine on the main line, it many not behave as desired in tight switching locations, or in the presence of any trackwork shortcomings.

Below is a second example, this time showing two cars with #58 couplers, but here they are matching perfectly and accordingly will operate all right. It’s always best to strive for complete height matching, and I am working on my fleet to get there.

The cars above are a Westerfield AC&F reefer at left, and an InterMountain SP covered hopper at right.
     Coupler height is most easily adjusted with washers at the truck bolster, and that is what I usually do to make cars match the Kadee gauge as exactly as I can. (I have written about use of the Kadee gauge before, partly because I am surprised when modelers tell me they don’t even have one; for example, the post at: ). In my opinion, you simply cannot compromise on coupler height.
     Let me add some specifics having to do with the mixture of Kadee #5 and #58 couplers, like I have on my layout. I have said several times that I find that these operate very well together, provided that they are operating properly and that one recognizes the simple fact that the scale-head coupler necessarily has less gathering range and is less forgiving on vertical curves. But how about using the Kadee coupler gauge with mixed couplers?
     I contacted Sam Clarke at Kadee to ask him about this point, because I was uncertain how I should use the gauge with two different couplers such as the #5 and #58. He began by pointing out that the definition of coupler height is from the top of the rail to the centerline of the coupler. The Kadee couplers have a horizontal mold parting line that can be discerned on the coupler face (and on the coupler horn at bottom in this image), that locates this line for you.

     Sam went on to say that the best way to set coupler height is with the coupler center lines matching, such as  with the #5 and #58 combinations. But because they are close, he suggested that matching the top surfaces of the two couplers should also be okay, as long as you are consistent.
     One other point. Especially on the layout, you may need to search a little bit for good background to evaluate your couplers when gauging them. The photo below illustrates a less than terrific choice, using my old Kadee 205 gauge (there is a new 206 plastic gauge).

Putting a piece of white paper behind the gauge and car makes it far easier to see clearly what you are evaluating (the same is true, of course, at the workbench). Note also that the trip pin correctly clears the “shelf” at the bottom of the Kadee gauge.

     One last point: you will note above that the cars are not coupled to the gauge. Coupling them may lift one coupler relative to its rest position, so you need to move the car close to, but not coupled to, the Kadee gauge.
     I am working through my car fleet, a few cars every time I get the impulse, to set coupler heights to the gauge, and of course keeping notes as to which cars have been done. It might be an ongoing project you would like to attack also.
Tony Thompson

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Roco flat car, Part 10: still more loads

I have posted several descriptions of armored vehicle loads in recent posts, primarily intended for the heavy-duty Army flat car modeled by Roco and which I upgraded for use on my layout. The most recent post about those loads was this one: . But beyond those loads, there are several additional opportunities for military loads.
     One opportunity is for non-fighting vehicles to be loaded on flat cars. Military units rely on an extensive fleet of motor vehicles, many of them with no fighting capability at all. Among these are trucks, various kinds of trailers, and Jeeps (if not modified to carry weapons). Large trucks have been shown in a previous post here, on a Richard Hendrickson model, at: . Here is a repeat of that photo, loaded on a railroad flat car (Illinois Terminal) and blocked for loading according to the relevant AAR diagram:

     In addition, Richard modeled a load of fuel trailers. These are in fact Roco U.S. military trailer models, but in the unmarked state could well represent military surplus equipment or even civilian copies of the same designs. They are loaded on Santa Fe Class FT-V flat car 91506.

     Still another choice for military loads is non-vehicular ones. Here again, there are lots of possibilities. My choice was a artillery piece, the Army’s 8-inch field howitzer, model M2A1, widely used in both World War II and Korea for its excellent accuracy in the field. Though not excessively heavy, a gun like this made a large load and might be found on a variety of types of flat car. There is a  nice Roco HO model of this piece, which I acquired years ago when it was still in production (they can still be obtained on eBay from time to time). The model even comes with a limber, used for towing. My model has attached blocking of the type seen in World War II photos.

A gun like this might well move on an Army USAX flat car, like the Roco model I have been showing in this series of posts, but was light enough (one source says 17 tons) that it could easily be moved on a typical 50-ton or 70-ton railroad flat car, as you see in this photo of a Westrail NP flat car. (You can click on the image to enlarge it if you wish.)

     At this point I want to mention another resource for modeling. In the previous posts, I have cited several good books about prototype armored vehicles, but there are also extensive resources on modeling. To choose just one example, I like the softbound book shown below, a collection of articles from Fine Scale Modeler magazine (it’s a Kalmbach book from 1995). It almost entirely describes large models, 1:35 scale, and not all models are American armor, but it contains lots of fascinating details one could add to HO scale armor, including Shermans and half-tracks.

     Finally, at the Cocoa Beach, Florida meeting last January (my post about that meeting is here: ), I photographed a very well-done model by Larry Lawler of a Tank Recovery Vehicle or TRV. This too was built on an M4 Sherman hull. He placed it on a reworked Roco flat car like mine, though both his armor markings and the flat car represent a later era than I model, as does the type of blocking shown, But it makes a terrific military load.

     With these models, I can bring this series to a close. I like the Roco heavy-duty flat car for its 6-wheel trucks, and it can readily host a rather wide variety of loads, as I have tried to show in these posts.
Tony Thompson

Monday, October 14, 2019

Trackside details: signage

I had a visitor to my layout recently, who asked about some of the details along my track. I have already posted individual descriptions of several of these details, but thought I would provide an overview in this post. Probably the most details may be found along the Southern Pacific main line segment which is not located in a town area. It’s shown below in an almost vertical overhead view.

Just out of sight at right is a tunnel, and the track coming from the tunnel is obviously separating into a siding off the main. A section house is just visible at far right.
     Another view of the area in the upper photo, this time from the side, with a mainline train behind SP 2-10-2 no. 3688, shows the section house well. Note also at the side of the tunnel opening that there is a black rectangle. In this is the tunnel number in white letters. This was standard SP marking for tunnels.

     One of the features in this area is the milepost marker, which SP made visible by painting white the bottom half of the telegraph pole on which it was mounted. I spoke in more detail about that kind of sign in a post several years ago (the post can be found here: ). I might mention in passing that in that post, I mentioned planning to donate the San Luis Obispo 252-mile marker to the railroad museum in San Luis Obispo, and I have now done so. Here is a view of my model marker:

     Another detail in the photo above is the speed signs that SP used, seen at lower photo center, marking locations where the speed limit(s) for either freight or various passenger trains were changed. My post about it is here: . My model sign was made by simply reducing the SP drawing for the sign to HO scale, then placing it on a post. The two speeds in the upper, white part of the sign are for passenger and freight trains, respectively, while the speed in the lower, yellow part is for streamlined passenger equipment.
     Another relevant kind of signage is the yard limit sign. According to timetable, both ends of the yard at Shumala on my layout are located out of sight, beyond the layout, but the branch line to Santa Rosalia does have a limit sign. I described making it in a prior post (you can find that one at: ). Here is how it looks, to the right of the track:

     Although not railroad signage per se, the marking at road crossings are necessary and distinctive. I have described those in several previous posts. First, the pavement markings, which include a painted “stop” line for motorists to remain clear of the crossing, and then the crossing signs, the familiar round yellow warning signs (both of these are discussed here: ). Lastly there should be crossbucks, and I am still working on a sufficiently sturdy crossbuck for layout use — I will come back to that in a future project.
     I should also mention other road signs, such as those at the end of dead-end streets. I have already researched those for my era, and added them on the layout (you can read my post about that project at: ( )
     All these kinds of signage, though railroad-specific or state-highway-rules specific, as well as era-specific, are readily researched and are a vital part of a realistic model railroad scene.
Tony Thompson

Friday, October 11, 2019

Partial loads for open-top cars

Most open-top car loads are full loads, and in fact the common notation on waybills, that a car is loaded to ‘full visible capacity,” is a common sign of that. This would apply to practically any bulk load, from coal to ballast to sugar beets to ore minerals. It often applies as well to flat car loads such as lumber, structural steel, and many other cargoes.
     But there were conditions where this would not be true. One example is a load which originally filled a car, but part of it has been unloaded before you see the car. This might well be the case, for example, with a carload of ties, where part of the load might be unloaded at one work site, then the balance of the load sent to a second work site. This was the idea behind my own half-car tie load, described in a previous post (you can see that post at: ).
     Another example is Southern Pacific’s delivery of company coal (and probably other railroads did much the same). Company facilities such as depots, section houses, signal maintainers’ houses, and any facility with a stove, such as a freight house or sand house, would receive household coal. I discussed this in describing plans for the gondola cars in my freight car fleet (that post is at: ), and followed up on the topic with additional comments on how I make removable loads for coal and other bulk materials (visit this link: ).
     Of course, a particular depot or roundhouse or caboose service facility (coal for caboose stoves) would hardly receive a cargo of 50 tons of coal. At a large SP yard or engine terminal, where there might be several coal consumers, a whole car might be needed, but in smaller towns, a half-load or even less would be the likely delivery. I wanted to model such a load so that it could arrive at a house track or other suitable location on the layout.
     To do this, I simply made up a short platform of balsa, following the method shown in the post cited first in the third paragraph of the present post, added a little mounded shape on the top with paper mache, and glued on real coal. What you see below is the width of a gondola interior and about half the car length.

When placed in a car, this looks like around half a carload, maybe less, and I enhance the look with some added loose bits of coal. Obviously the end of a partially unloaded pile will not have neat edges. It may look like this (slightly different every time). You can click to enlarge.

The model here is an upgraded Ulrich GS gondola.
     Someone always asks, at about this point, “But how do they unload it?” The best answer might be, they unload it the old-fashioned way, with shovels. That’s what the men in this gondola are doing with a load of sand, proving that even a drop-bottom gondola is not self-clearing. And of course once all the material is on the ground, it will probably be re-shoveled into some kind of single pile (photo from the Richard Hendrickson collection).

     Another example of a useful part-load would be lumber. It would certainly take awhile to unload a full lumber load in a gondola or flat car (or box car), and one could readily encounter a partly unloaded car — and a partly loaded highway truck — on a team track. For an open-top car in this situation, one only needs to model a nearly-unloaded stack of lumber, suggesting that the stack has almost been removed, and perhaps also have some additional lumber on a flat-bed truck, drawn up next to the car being unloaded. Below is an example, using one of the lumber stacks I built for a previous post (it can be found here: ). Again, you can click to enlarge if you wish.

This photo was taken at the team track in my layout town of Santa Rosalia.
     I think using partial loads extends what we can depict with freight cargoes on a layout. I will look at more examples in a future post.
Tony Thompson

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

A little Hawaiian railroad history

During the last week of September, I attended a Thompson family reunion in Hawaii, which took place around the occasion of our donation of our great-grandmother’s diary of her life in the Big Island, to the North Kohala Library. There were 25 various descendants who attended. And yes, there is a railroad connection.
     There were a number of railroads at one time in the Hawaiian Islands, all but one of them narrow gauge, and nearly all of them built to serve sugar plantations and mills. The one standard-gauge line was the Hawaii Consolidated Railway or HCR (from 1899 to 1916, it was the Hilo Railway) on the east end of the island. It’s of interest to me because my grandfather worked at Hakalau, north of Hilo, for a number of years as a field foreman, and my father and all his siblings were born there. Hakalau was the location of a sugar mill and was on the HCR.
     The HCR was characterized, especially on its track on the Hamakua Coast north of Hilo, by many high trestles crossing the deep canyons of the east coast of the island (this 33.5 mile line had more than one bridge per mile). The photo below, from the excellent book Sugar Town, by Yasushi “Scotch” Kurisu (Watermark Publishing, Honolulu, 1995), shows a railbus of the HCR crossing one of these trestles in 1939, this one at Kolekole Gulch. Like most of the HCR’s high bridges, this one was destroyed by a massive tsunami on April 1, 1946.

     The railroad served Hakalau Plantation Company, and some of the old buildings are still standing there, as we saw on our visit. The depot was near an “armstrong” turntable, where locomotives and cars could be turned as needed. The photo below is also from Sugar Town.

The mill at Hakalau was below the bluffs, down at the river, as you see in the photo below from 1920 (from Sugar Town). The lower bridge at right is the water flume, used to bring cane down from the fields to the mill. The upper bridge is of course the HCR. Those bents were later doubled, and this bridge survived the tsunami of 1946. Most of the right-of-way of the HCR is now occupied by Hawaii Highway 19, and some of the HCR bridges now carry the highway, including this one.

Actually, the above version of the panorama cuts off most of the trestle, doubtless because the wide-angle lens severely distorted it. Here is the right side of this 1920 complete image. It is of course a straight, level  bridge.

     I have not found many equipment photos for the HCR, An exception is this view of the weed-killer equipment behind engine 91, photographed at Pa’auilo in 1943 (photo from the fine book, The Hamakua Coast by Ken Okimoto (Watermark Publishing, Honolulu, 2002). The flat car is HCR 57.

     We visited the small railroad museum at Laupahoehoe, north of Hakalau, where there is a replica caboose with the HCR emblem on it. The museum building is supposed to be open on Sunday, but wasn’t when we were there. That’s my nephew Matt admiring the reproduction.

     The reunion was fun, and I met a number of cousins, many once removed, some twice removed, that I had never met. And of course it was fun to visit Hakalau again and have some insight in the Hawaii Consolidated Railway that served it in my father’s day.
Tony Thompson

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Roco flat car, Part 9: more armor loads

In the previous post in this series, Part 8, I showed how I like to vary my loads of armored vehicles, so that I don’t only model loads of M4 Sherman tanks or M3 half-tracks, as have been described earlier in this series, but added a self-propelled gun, model M7. That post can be found here: . In the present post I want to show another example.
     One of the attractive possibilities in this context might be a tank destroyer. In World War II, it was initially U.S. doctrine that tanks need not be able to take on other tanks, but would only assist infantry in breaking through enemy lines. The job of confronting enemy tanks was assigned to a vehicle called a tank destroyer, which mounted a much larger gun. The American tank destroyers did well during the war, but by war’s end, the doctrine was abandoned in favor of up-gunned and up-armored tanks.
     If you find this topic interesting, there are lots of publications that go into it thoroughly. George Forty’s book about the M4 Sherman also goes into tank doctrine and tank variants built on the Sherman hull, such as tank destroyers (M4 Sherman, Blandford Press, New York, 1987). Two more good sources are Fighting Tanks, by Ian Hogg ( Grosset & Dunlap, 1977), and Sherman: A History of the American Medium Tank, by R.P. Hunnicutt (Presidio Press, 1978), along with several of the Vanguard paperback accounts of U.S. tanks in World War II and Korea.
     I have an HO-scale model of a tank destroyer, not the most common World War II version, which was the M10, but probably the late-war M36, also used in Korea (I express uncertainty because the model is unlabeled). These had more powerful guns than did gun tanks, 90-mm high-velocity guns, and open fighting compartments instead of turrets, so that the bigger gun could be accommodated. The photo below, from Forty’s book, shows an overhead view of the M36 turret, though mounted here on an M18 chassis, not the modified M4 chassis used for production M36 vehicles.

The length of the 90-mm gun is striking in this view.
     Shown below is the model I have, which obviously lacks the muzzle brake seen above but otherwise has a fighting compartment much like the prototype photo. I may try and make a muzzle brake, as they are so obvious on many (but not all) photos of the prototype.

Here is that same model vehicle, paired with a Sherman, on my Roco flat car. The tank destroyers weighed somewhere in the vicinity of the weight of an M4 Sherman, so these two vehicles are well within the 100-ton capacity of the flat car.

Note above that both vehicles are loaded with guns facing forward. This was the most common practice in this era, though photos exist of tanks shipped with turrets turned to the rear.
     These kinds of armor loads are, as I have mentioned previously, appropriate for SP’s Coast Line because of the presence of Camp Roberts, home of the 7th Armored Division in my modeling era. Here is another example of a waybill I might use, a U.S. Government waybill since this is government property:

This bill, which happens to have been filled out with a Teletype type face, reflects a movement from what was the primary Army armor training center in 1953, Fort Irwin, near Barstow, California, to Camp Roberts.
     Armor loads allow some indication of the recent (for my layout) Korean War and training in its aftermath, and in addition are suitable for my layout’s locale on SP’s Coast Line.
Tony Thompson