Friday, October 7, 2016

Choosing a model car fleet, Part 13: more on box cars

Back in 2011, I wrote a series of posts on my car fleet planning, divided by car type (you can find them all by using “choosing a model car fleet” as a search term in the search box at right; or you can consult the list of the entire series in this post: ). One of those posts, the one relevant to the present post, was a broad commentary about box cars, and it is at this link: .
     I have discussed in a number of prior posts the suggestion originated by Tim Gilbert and Dave Nelson, referred to as the Gilbert-Nelson idea, that freight cars observed in many situations scale with the size of each car owner’s fleet. I give some background and elaboration of the idea in the following post: ). I continue to follow that idea in choosing foreign-road cars, especially box cars, for my layout.
     A second, additional idea I have tried to follow whenever possible, when choosing which freight car of a particular railroad’s fleet, is to select a “signature” car whenever possible. The idea of signature cars essentially identifies distinctive and numerous cars owned by a particular railroad. There have been two of my columns in Model Railroad Hobbyist (MRH) going into this in much more detail, so I won’t discuss it further here. They were in the issues for April 2013 and March 2015. (You can download these and any other issues of MRH for free, at their website, .) There was also a blog post on the subject, which can be found at this link: .
     Here is an example. In the second of those MRH columns on signature freight cars, I identified two cars for D&RGW that I have in my fleet, a single-sheathed box car and a 46-foot GS gondola. But in the late 1930s, D&RGW began to add a number of all-steel box cars, which were built with some distinctive features, such as straight side sills, 12-panel sides and Duryea underframes. I decided to add one of those to my fleet also. There was a Sunshine kit for one group of those cars, kit 96.9, which builds into a car from the number series D&RGW 68000–68399, delivered  in 1939 with wood running boards. Here is a photo of that model in completed form.

The car is spotted at Pismo Marine Service in my layout town of Santa Rosalia.
     Eventually D&RGW had 2400 cars of this general appearance, including six-foot doors, though cars delivered after the series shown above had steel running boards. Another distinctive feature is the 12-inch lettering on the reporting mark initials, which AAR had recommended to be 9 inches. But that was only a recommendation, not a requirement, and D&RGW, like several other railroads, chose a different size for reporting marks. In fact, the retention of the ampersand in reporting marks by D&RGW also ignored a recommendation of both ARA and its successor, AAR, to eliminate that character from reporting marks. Again, only a recommendation.
     Another railroad of special interest for an SP modeler, though not of much Gilbert-Nelson significance, is the Cotton Belt (St. Louis Southwestern, SSW). Owned by the Southern Pacific after 1932, the Cotton Belt continued to follow its own shop programs until the 1960s, and in particular rebuilt a considerable number of older box cars to more modern configurations. But they only owned 5185 freight cars in 1953, similar to Western Pacific at that time, and far down the list of railroad freight car fleets ranked by size.
      Many of the individual SSW rebuilt car groups are very interesting freight cars. Sunshine Models produced kits for a number of them, in particular kits 52.10 and 52.11 for the wood-sheathed rebuilds with “kitbashed” steel ends and 10 ft. 2 in. inside height. These cars originated in a purchase by SSW in the 1920s of 2500 wood-sheathed box cars from American Car & Foundry. They had Hutchins roofs and Murphy corrugated ends, and were only 8 ft. 6 in. inside height. They looked like the USRA cars built a few years earlier, though the USRA cars were 9 ft. inside height. The Cotton Belt’s 8 ft. 6 in. height was obsolescent even when the cars were built, and in the 1930s, Cotton Belt began to rebuild them.
     Most of the cars were rebuilt with 10 ft. 2 in. inside height, which at the time was pretty large. The contemporaneous standard car was the 1932 ARA box car, 9 ft. 4 in. high inside, and even the 1937 AAR standard box car was only 10 ft. inside. The increased height meant that Cotton Belt had to add an extending panel to the re-used steel ends. Sometimes these panels were sections cut from surplus Murphy ends, but some were made from sheet with welded-together carlines as stiffeners, giving quite an unusual appearance. (Kit 52.10 models the Murphy added panel, kit 52.11 the carline panel.) By 1938, over 1000 of the original cars had been rebuilt this way; by 1948, more than 2000 had been rebuilt, making these cars a “signature” car of the Cotton Belt.
     My Sunshine kit 52.11 was assembled by Dennis Williams and lettered and weathered by me. It’s shown on the house track in my layout town of Shumala, with a clear view of the extended steel end with its carline-reinforced panel. (You can click on the image to enlarge.) Cotton Belt did paint boxcar ends black in this era.

     These two cars, from D&RGW and SSW, are ones I found interesting to add to my freight car fleet, and do represent cars with a “signature” quality, even if not perhaps the first cars a person might choose for that category from either railroad. Both are often present in my operating sessions.
Tony Thompson


  1. I gather then that for the purposes of fleet selection you treat the SSW as a foreign road? I've made a somewhat preliminary list for my own planned freight car fleet (well, more accurately, a "okay *this* is the final list... or waitaminute, maybe if...") for my own layout-to-be (for which I took much inspiration from you; mine is also a fictitious branch of the Coast Line, but starting at Carpinteria). This is something I've vacillated on, as I'm not sure which way would give the more accurate result - counting the SSW as a home road (or at least, weighting it in favour of a higher likelihood of appearance), or to treat it strictly as a foreign road?

    I suppose time period might be a factor in this decision, too? For practical purposes (namely the absolute lack of North American steam in TT scale, and the fact that the models that *are* available or forthcoming, like GP38-2, SD45 etc, as well as in freight car terms, are more towards the 1960s period than the mid 1950s that I'd prefer) I've decided on 1966 as the year in which to set my layout. Per my understanding of things, by 1966 the two roads were more or less integrated... but still, I don't know. And my personal recollections of the ten half-years I spent in Carpinteria as a kid/early teen in the 80s and early 90s is mostly limited to lots of Golden Pig trailers on flatcars and the occasional "oh cool a Cotton Belt locomotive!", so not of much help either. In any event if you'd be willing to spare a moment for a brief thought on this matter, I'd much appreciate it!


  2. The answer depends very much on era. You are certainly right that after 1960, SP took over much more control of Cotton Belt, and in the '60s it was definitely not a "foreign road." I model 1953 and would regard it as only partly foreign at that time, but its car fleet was so small, I'm not sure it matters exactly how you regard it.
    Tony Thompson