Thursday, March 31, 2011

Model freight car standards

I want to summarize my standards for freight cars in my fleet. Although I divide these into mainline and branchline cars, meaning cars which are or are not of sufficient quality (accuracy and detail) to withstand scrutiny when stationary or in switching moves, there are some basic standards applied to all. These can be divided into three groupings: performance, detailing, and weathering.
     Performance. The primary aspects here are trucks and couplers. Trucks need to be free-rolling and in tram, that is, with axles perpendicular to the sideframes. Any truck which can get out of tram not only will generate higher friction, but facilitates derailments. Both these criteria depend on wheelsets of the correct length. An axle which is too long prevents free rolling, and one which is too short can allow out-of-tram behavior. Many of my freight cars still have Kadee wheelsets, but new cars and most upgrades now receive Reboxx wheelsets of appropriate length. I regard their performance as outstanding, and I like the appearance of the 0.088-inch treads.
     The standard coupler on my entire fleet at one time was the Kadee #5, and these are still on many older cars. But all new cars and many upgrades received the “scale head” Kadee #58, #78, or one of the whisker-sprung models. These interact acceptably with the #5 but are best with other scale-head couplers, so I expect a gradual increase in the proportion of scale heads in my fleet. I have not been happy with McHenry couplers and routinely replace them with Kadee. I have tried the Accurail scale coupler and have not found it superior to the Kadee scale head.
     With couplers it is vital to ensure correct coupler height, and free operation of both the centering mechanism and the knuckle. I am careful about this with new cars, but do find that maintenance sometimes requires restoration of one or more of these qualities. In fact any car which does not couple smoothly and dependably goes straight to the workbench for correction. The same is true of any trucks which do not perform as desired.
     Detailing. This is a difficult area about which to generalize, given the differences among car types and the wide variety of commercial models of each. But I can describe a few guidelines that I use.
     Car roofs are very visible on most layouts, given the common table heights we use, so I start with the running boards on house cars. The bad old days of terribly thick cast plastic running boards (so 20th century!) are fortunately behind us, but it’s still essential to make sure running boards look right. As I model 1953, prototype cars built since 1946 would have received steel grid running boards, as would many cars in shops for repair or upgrading. Etched metal boards are simply the best, in my opinion, though I think the Kadee plastic effort is impressive. I use model airplane canopy cement to attach the metal boards, since that adhesive remains flexible in the face of expansion and contraction of the metal part.
     Wood running boards are readily modeled with wood or styrene strip. Corner grab irons need to be there too, and though some of  my mainline cars still have cast-on corner grabs, branch cars do not.
     Nowadays most house car models have acceptable brake wheels (typically Ajax), but as more and more of the prototype specialties have become available (Equipco, Superior, Klasing, etc.), it’s often possible to apply the correct brake wheel for a particular prototype car. I don’t always do this, and sometimes it’s not easy to find out which brake gear to use, but laying in a stock of the various prototypes permits doing it correctly when the information is available.
     Grab irons need to exhibit adequate refinement. Cast-on ones are certainly candidates for replacement (except on a few of my mainline cars), and the heavy bracket grabs of early IMWX and InterMountain cars can readily be replaced with the current InterMountain parts, available for purchase as parts sprues.
     Modern kits and RTR cars usually have acceptable sill steps, though often rather fragile. Any cast-on ones are usually replaced with A-Line metal steps, as are damaged plastic ones. I still have some remaining stock of Tuttle steps, a slightly more refined part than the A-Line steps, and I tend to use them on models I regard as more important.
     Underbody detail is not something I put a lot of work into, other than making sure that some brake rodding is visible from the side of the car. As Richard Hendrickson says, I intend my trackwork to be good enough that visitors will not get an inverted view of my freight cars. Hopper, covered hopper and tank cars are an exception, as their brake rigging is much more visible and needs to be correctly modeled.
     Model trucks steadily become more accurate and provide more prototypes. As with brake gear, it’s desirable to put the correct trucks under cars, which I do when I can. The new line of Tahoe Model Works trucks is simply superb, and together with the new plastic Kadee trucks, offer us many superior examples of correct trucks.
     Weathering.  I do weather almost every single car. Photos of prototype cars which are only a month old already show some dust and dirt, so the myth of the “freshly painted car” really does not go very far. As I mentioned in my post on weathering PFE cars (see, one should attempt to create a wide range of levels of weathering, though most people (including me) don’t seem able to get there, particularly to the truly filthy dirt jobs. But at least a few cars should be so modeled, perhaps with a “wiped clean” area around the reporting marks and number for those of us who operate with waybills and car cards.
     Some cars, like tank cars, can be a challenge to weather convincingly; and open-top cars like gondolas and hoppers are a complex challenge because the interior is usually at least partly rusted, if not entirely unpainted. Each person has to find the weathering method that works best for them and then go to work.
     I have seen superb weathering done with chalks, but even with the superior Bragdon materials, I am not always happy with the results. Others prefer oil paints, or spray guns, and fine work can certainly be done either way. I personally have found acrylic washes to be the most flexible and dependable to obtain what I want, so nearly all my cars are weathered that way. As I say, however, each person needs to discover what will work best for their particular needs and skills.
     These are my most general standards. Beyond these, description becomes more intricate than is probably necessary here. Modeling challenges to represent specific prototype cars is an allied but different subject, and I intend to address it in a future post.
Tony Thompson

Choosing a model car fleet, Part 7: hoppers

Modeling the SP in California means that hopper cars are simply not very visible, and moreover company cars will almost all be ballast cars with longitudinal dump doors, not conventional twin cross-hoppers. I have some versions of the SP ballast hoppers already and will build more (details below), but as with other aspects of the hopper car topic, it’s important to realize that SP, like many Western railroads, used drop-bottom or GS gondolas for many bulk cargoes which would move in cross-hoppers in the eastern U.S. Thus at least some of the bulk traffic I model will be handled in my car fleet of gondolas, not hoppers. I will discuss my fleet plans for gondolas in a separate post.
     Company ballast hoppers are only part of the story, and there are a few uses for cross-hoppers on my layout. Coal and coke fuel was used to some degree in California in foundries and other industrial heating applications into the 1950s, and this largely came from the coal fields in eastern Utah/western Colorado. Carriers were D&RGW, UP, and the Utah Coal Route, but largely in GS gondolas. In the early 1950s, D&RGW was beginning to buy conventional triple hoppers, and I can model those in addition to the GS gons.
     There are some intriguing documents relating to California coal and coke use during miners’ strikes in Utah/Colorado, with coal coming from the southern Illinois coal fields and even from the Pennsylvania/West Virginia/Virginia area. I will probably model this by occasionally operating C&O or WM or N&W hoppers which I have; all three roads did have substantial off-road customers for coal, much of it marketed through fuel brokers. When I lived in Pittsburgh, I modified an old Ulrich cast metal hopper car kit as a Montour car, and despite the unlikelihood of such a car reaching the west coast, I may operate it occasionally too.
     Limestone was moved along the Coast Line, both for processing of sugar beets and for use in foundries. Non-SP hoppers, such as ATSF, can be used for this traffic, and I have a Santa Fe hopper already which is suitable. Other “wandering” twin hoppers would be plausible for such use, such as NP or CB&Q, but as yet I have not built any such models. The SP ballast hoppers were sometimes used in this kind of revenue service also.
     There is photographic evidence for hoppers from anthracite carriers such as Reading showing up in California. The anthracite was apparently used in water treatment plants and elsewhere as an inexpensive “activated charcoal” for purification. I have not decided whether to model this traffic.
     As for modeling SP’s ballast cars, the early Hart Selective cars, with very long dump doors, present a challenge. I have modified an Athearn twin as a stand-in, but the slope sheet angle is too low and the doors are oversize to hide the hopper outlets. A correct car would require considerably more modification to the Athearn or other conventional twin hoppers. Here’s my version:

As a stand-in for Class H-50-6, this can serve in mainline use.
     After World War II, SP began to buy welded ballast cars, and changed from their earlier preference for Hart Selective designs to Enterprise ballast doors. The first of these was Class H-70-11, and this class can be modeled with the resin cars long available at Bruce’s Train Shop in Sacramento (whether they will continue to be available remains to be seen). The prototypes were built in 1953, so are just within my modeling time frame. The photo below shows one of these models.

I will need to build additional cars like this to serve, alongside GS gondolas, in company ballast service.
     Finally, this may be the place to mention SP’s elderly Rodger-Hart convertible ballast cars. By World War II, the survivors had been converted to bottom-dumping only, so were effectively hopper cars dumping between the rails. The old Silver Streak HO kit, though about 10 per cent oversize in all dimensions, does effectively model these cars, and correctly has the underbody truss located behind the plane of the car sides, unlike the plastic version by Train Miniature/Walthers. Here's my Silver Streak model for Class W-50-3:

     Beyond these ballast cars, I will have to develop the foreign-road hopper fleet for bulk traffic judiciously, and as stated will address bulk traffic more completely in a post about my plans for a gondola car fleet.
Tony Thompson

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reweigh article from RMC

Some of you will perhaps have seen my article on freight car reweighing in the April 2011 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman (RMC), pages 72 and 73. I originally prepared this article  at the suggestion of a modeler who felt it would be helpful to have some of the details of reweigh stenciling explained.
     Unfortunately, there were some errors and omissions at RMC in editing or preparing the article for production. Accordingly, I’m providing a correct text and complete tables in a version at Google Docs. Anyone is permitted to download or print this version, if desired. It is available at:

     The biggest issue I have with the RMC version is the omission of most of Table 1, on reweigh intervals, as well as the entire paragraph about the introduction and disappearance of the periodic reweigh requirement. These are present in the full version linked above, which also corrects a couple of typos in the RMC version.
     In the corrected article it is stated that October 1, 1967 was the date for removal of the requirement for periodic reweighing. I have since learned that effective January 1, 1968, reweigh intervals were extended to 60 months for some cars (see comment below). Beyond that, at least one individual has stated to me that this requirement was definitely absent by the late 1970s. I have not, however, yet seen documentation of any post-1968 dates. Since I model 1953, this is definitely a moot point for my own modeling, but I would like to get the facts straight if possible, and would appreciate seeing documentary evidence for dates beyond January 1, 1968.
Tony Thompson

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Waybills, Part 5

My previous post on how I make my waybills, available at, showed the final result of the blank waybill that I’m using. This post is to correct possible misunderstanding of the first post I did on this subject, called “Waybills” in December 2010, at
     In that first post, I placed a blank waybill which did not have the description of the articles of cargo as the bottom item on the bill, which is effectively how the prototype bill is laid out. The way that bill should look is shown here, with the “description” area properly located (subsequent posts on waybills did have this correct arrangement):

As I’ve stated previously, I fill out the waybills using a variety of digital typefaces which look like prototype billing typewriter fonts (always completely in upper case). The font I’ve found which looks close to the SP’s billing typewriter is called Bell Gothic. Here is an example of it, for a load to my fish cannery:

     I also use two typefaces which nicely suggest worn and dirty keys in a typewriter. One is called “Mom’s Typewriter” (literally digitized from the output of an old typewriter), available free at, and the other is called “Typenoksidi,” which Jeff Aley told me about originally, available free for personal use at Here’s an example of the latter face, an inbound load directed to a team track:

     These waybills are working well. What I plan next on this topic is to describe the procedure I use in “pulling” waybills for a forthcoming operating session, and then managing waybills and Empty Car bills in the process.
Tony Thompson

Friday, March 11, 2011

Modeling freight traffic: Coast Line, 1953-Part 7

I have analyzed the box car data in the 1948–1952 conductor’s book I mentioned in my previous post on this topic (analyzing refrigerator cars, at The box car data only extend to April of 1951 and are a mix of loads and empties.
     The sample contains 139 cars. Of these, 40 are SP cars (and 10 are T&NO cars), making the home road (SP) 29 percent of the total. If the T&NO cars are combined (and certainly SP and T&NO freely shared box cars), the SP system total of 50 cars amounts to 36 percent.
     This provides one answer to a persistent question modelers ask: what proportion of home road cars should I model? I noted in an earlier post touching on this topic (available at that I expected, on the basis of photographic evidence, to have about a third of my cars should be home road cars. That is in fact quite close to the 36 percent just stated, but only with the inclusion of T&NO cars. For SP cars alone, it is below 30 percent.
     The remainder of the box cars in this sample are dominated by a few roads. These include PRR (11 cars), GN (8 cars), Southern (7 cars), and NP (6 cars). Following those four railroads are IC and NYC (5 cars each), and SLSF (4 cars). A surprising note is struck by CP with 3 cars and CN with one, more than might have been expected; and at least two of the CP cars were being loaded at Salinas for delivery elsewhere in the U.S.
     Minor parts of this sample were ATSF, B&O, CB&Q, MP, and Wabash, with 3 cars each; and C&NW, MILW, SAL, and UP, with 2 cars each. Finally, single cars were listed for C&EI, D&RGW, EJ&E, Erie, GM&O, GTW, MKT, NC&StL, L&N, P&LE, RI, SP&S, SSW, T&P, WM, and WP.
     Are there surprises here? A few. Two roads with substantial box car fleets, ACL and C&O, do not appear. It is a little surprising that NYC cars are less than half of the PRR total, though the two roads had similar-size fleets of box cars, and roads with large box car fleets, such as B&O and Milwaukee, are lightly represented.
     What about the well-known Gilbert-Nelson hypothesis? I would hesitate to draw much of a conclusion on the basis of only 139 cars, but certainly the biggest box car fleets all show up with significant contributions, even if not necessarily in rank order with fleet size. As just mentioned, there are some surprises. In percentage terms, PRR and NYC each owned about 9 percent of the national box cars in 1953, and indeed PRR cars are 8 percent of this Coast Line sample; but NYC cars are less than 4 percent. The B&O fleet was about 4 percent of the national total in 1953, and here we observe about 2 percent B&O cars. Those same relative values, 4 vs. 2 percent, apply also to Milwaukee Road.
     There are also some roads which are, in Gilbert-Nelson terms, over-represented. These include GN, about 3 percent of the national fleet but nearly 6 percent of this sample; and SLSF, with 1.8 percent of the national box cars but almost 3 percent of this sample. But again, with a small sample, distortions are inevitable. One car more or less from some of these roads would greatly alter their standing.
     Modeling lessons here, as with many things, are in the eye of the beholder. For me, the main observation from this sample is the proportion of home-road box cars, around a third. That’s something I can and will use in my fleet planning and operation.
Tony Thompson

Monday, March 7, 2011

Modeling PFE reefers in 1953-2

My first post on this topic had to do with car fleet size and paint schemes. It can be viewed at:
      But in this post, I want to add something quite specific: weathering. Of course this is a relevant topic for all kinds of model rolling stock, but refrigerator cars generally are of particular importance because their (almost always) light-colored sides showed dirt and grime far more readily than their boxcar-red brethren among the freight car fleet. This was accentuated because the cooler sides of working reefers had a greater tendency to condense water from the steam exhausted by locomotives, particularly in tunnels, and this tended to trap dirt, dust and cinders (or oil smoke particles).
     As modelers, we need to depict this grime accumulation, but also to recognize that a string of reefers would show a range of dirtiness, from fairly clean to pretty darn dirty.
     It’s natural to think of cars longer in service, and with older paint schemes, as needing to be modeled with greater amounts of dirt and grime. But Pacific Fruit Express washed its cars from time to time up until about 1955, as described in some detail in the PFE book. (Anthony W. Thompson, Robert J. Church and Bruce H. Jones, Pacific Fruit Express (2nd edition), Signature Press, Wilton, Calif., 2000, pages 100, 117 and 159.) During the 1945 to 1948 period, for example, about 11,000 cars were washed per year, at a time when the total car fleet numbered about 40,000 cars. This means that there is not always a strong correlation of paint-scheme age and amount of dirt on PFE cars.
     Here are a couple of prototype images showing PFE cars with a range of weathering and dirt on them, which can serve as a guide to modeling:

This first photo shows a T&NO switcher working at the Cities Service refinery in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The string of cars happens to have at its head three PFE cars which are neatly arranged in order of decreasing dirtiness. (This is a Southern Pacific publicity photo, from the John R. Signor collection)
     A second photo shows a train of westward empties on Sherman Hill, Wyoming on the UP, behind double-headed locomotives in 1955 (cropped from a John E. Shaw photo). Here the dirty cars strongly contrast with one which looks relatively clean.

One reason to emphasize these prototype photos is that most modelers, myself included, tend to have a particular degree of grime that they are comfortable with, and to weather car after car to about the same extent. These photos show that such a procedure is not realistic.
     One good example of varying weathering to obtain model cars looking like the range of grime in these prototype photos comes from Richard Hendrickson, long an advocate of heavier weathering than most modelers like. Of course he means “heavier” when appropriate, but reefers are obviously an important instance. Here’s four of his models to illustrate the point (models and photo by Richard Hendrickson):

   At far right is an almost-new car, which does have some light dust along the side sill and trucks. Then from left to right can be seen three cars of increasing dirtiness, and these most definitely do reflect the prototype range of weathering shown in the photos first presented. Note in particular that Richard has successfully depicted the rather brownish tone usually dominant as the orange car sides got dirty.
     I have been striving to extend the range of my own weathering beyond the “light to medium” I often apply, to obtain a few cars with serious levels of grime. I think this is an important goal to reflect the prototype in the 1950s.
Tony Thompson

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Modeling diesel locomotive chronology

For those who model the steam-diesel transition era, as I do, the chronology of locomotive introduction is important if era accuracy is a goal. Of course many choose to model an “elastic” era, in order to include whatever their favorite aspects of the SP may be, even though they are not strictly contemporaneous. That’s okay, but it’s not what I’m trying to do.
     I published an article with a diesel road locomotive timeline for the SP, covering 1947 to 1956. It was in the SP Historical & Technical Society magazine, Trainline, issue no. 29 (I think 1992). I constructed this timeline partly for my own use in modeling. I don’t want to repeat that article here, but will mention some relevant parts as I work on needed locomotives for my layout.
     The SP’s mainstay road diesels were the EMD F3 and F7 units, delivered from June of 1947 onward, and continuing into 1953. During 1953, SP management obviously changed preferences in favor of hood unit power, and SD7 as well as Alco RSD-5 locomotives were purchased to work alongside the Baldwin road-switchers already on the railroad.
     This is important because it was not until 1954 that the first SD9 and GP9 locomotives arrived. Personally, I love the looks of both of these EMD classics, especially in “Black Widow” paint, but they unfortunately are just too late to use on a 1953 layout. I own nice models of both the SD9 and GP9 engines and may occasionally run them to enjoy their looks, but properly they do not belong on my layout when it’s being operated seriously.
     I know some readers will say, "what difference can it make? Run what you want,” doubtless adding the old saw, “after all, it’s your railroad.” But everyone has to draw a line somewhere. Would you suggest I then compromise and operate the distinctive Alco RS-11 engines, very handsome also but which didn’t arrive until late 1956? Why not a few red/gray locomotives among all the Black Widow engines? Heck, why not SP’s signature SD45 or tunnel motor power, if you like them?
     Well, that’s not my approach to modeling. I choose to draw my line at the end of 1953. The same thinking applies to the recent very nice HO models of 1954-model Ford trucks. Too bad, they just won’t fit if I’m sticking to 1953. If I wish to be consistent with freight car paint and lettering to reflect 1953 (and I do), I believe it’s equally important for highway vehicles and, yes, diesel locomotives to exhibit the same consistency.
     It happens that there is extensive photographic evidence for all the 1953-era diesels mentioned above being used on the Coast Line, though the RSD-5 engines only had a brief tryout and most SD7 engines worked on the NWP in 1953. So F3, F7, and Baldwin power should be the mainstay of my lineup of 1953 Coast Line road diesels.
     All this is part of an important modeling goal for me: creation of a model scene and model operations that consistently reflect a specific era. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, to me this is more important than recreating a specific place. Diesel locomotive chronology is just part of that effort.
Tony Thompson

Friday, March 4, 2011

Modeling freight traffic: Coast Line, 1953-Part 6

The conductor train book which I discussed in the Part 5 post of this thread holds many more potential insights, beyond the ones already cited. In my previous post using these data (here is the link:, I noted that the surprising finding that only about three-fourths of the refrigerator cars were PFE cars, but that this reflects conditions at peak harvest time. Most of the year PFE was able to cover nearly 100 percent of its car needs with its own fleet.
     I was interested to see whether a factual approach to car fleet modeling was reasonable, using the fleet data from the Official Railway Equipment Register (or ORER) as a pattern. In a previous post entitled “Choosing a model car fleet” (linked at I essentially proposed proportioning my fleet of model PFE cars for the Coast Line, according to the proportions found for the entire PFE fleet in 1953 in the ORER. These conductor’s data for one part of the Coast Line can essentially test the reasonableness of such an approach.
     In other words, I asked the question, do the frequencies of the PFE car classes in this conductor’s train book match the frequencies actually present in the fleet at that time? Since there are over 800 cars present, it seemed possible that this test would show something interesting.
     The results I found are shown in the table below. I have used 1951 as a compromise date, since the conductor's data span 1948 to 1952. In the column marked “Actual,” I list the percentage of the total fleet represented by each car number group. In the column marked “Observed,” I list the percentage of that number group in the sample in the conductor’s train book.

Note that both actual and observed percentages nearly add to 100 percent.
     To me, the most striking thing in these results is that the observed percentages do track the actual car fleet percentages pretty well. There are some discrepancies which make sense in terms of the time period. During 1948 to 1952, the R-40-26 class was arriving (delivered during 1950-1951), so is underrepresented in early years of the data; the WP cars and the R-30-12 and -13 cars were rapidly being scrapped or rebuilt and so are underrepresented in the later years. But overall, this fleet-based approach does represent the data from this conductor’s work.
     I also plan to examine the box car data in the sample to see if it tracks the Gilbert-Nelson proposal, though the sample is far smaller than these PFE reefers. There are a few other interesting details, such as the evident change from Blackburn beet racks in the early sugar beet shipping, to composite drop-bottom gondolas in the later years, and I will touch on those results also.
Tony Thompson