Thursday, December 30, 2010

Choosing a model car fleet, Part 2

As mentioned in the previous post with this title (, I adhere to the idea of proportioning a model car fleet to prototype proportions. In the previous post, I used the example of PFE cars. Today I would like to comment on a much broader issue, the proportions of cars other than SP and PFE (called “foreign” cars by railroaders).
     The basic approach nowadays to this problem is called the Gilbert-Nelson approach, based on ideas first developed by Tim Gilbert and Dave Nelson. They had looked at extensive prototype information, particularly conductor’s time books, and realized that there was a pattern: many cars present in trains were numerically in proportion to the size of the owning road’s fleet, regardless of where in the country the data originated. Of course, as they fully recognized, this can only be true of free-running cars like box cars, flat cars and gondolas which are not specially equipped, and is likely true only on main lines. A coal branch, for example, will obviously be quite different.
     They also recognized that certain factors can distort the general pattern. For example, interchange requirements or pool agreements can change the data; so can “hostile” or competitive relations among railroads. It’s well established, for example, that the intense rivalry between PFE and Santa Fe’s SFRD meant that empty cars were always sent back to the other company and not reloaded as foreigns. On the other hand, the legally required preference of SP interchange with UP at Ogden would increase each road’s presence on the other. But absent such considerations, free-running foreign cars would be expected to follow Gilbert-Nelson.
     This means that one can collect data on the larger fleets of freight cars in the U.S. and use it as a rough guide to foreign cars on an SP layout. These would include the following major players:

     These data are for 1950, and are modified from total car fleets by removal of ore cars, hopper cars, and ballast cars. As an SP modeler, the likelihood of coal-road hopper cars on my layout is pretty small and I neglect it. I have also separated out the PFE cars from SP and UP. So this figure shows the major railroad ownerships I need to model, and once beyond the “top six” in this diagram, numbers don’t vary greatly.
     How might these railroads be affected by the special considerations mentioned above? It’s known that SP had friendly interchange relations with NP, RI and IC (at far ends of the system) in addition to the UP relationship mentioned above. Conversely, ATSF and WP were rivals in the far west, while MP was a strong rival of T&NO in that territory.
     The final question I’ll raise today is the proportion of home road cars, vs. foreign cars. This does not seem to have a universal answer, and Gilbert-Nelson found different proportions in different places. There is an old rule of thumb, that home road cars may be a third to a half of all cars, but that seems too high for SP in California, based both on photos and conductor time books. I will probably settle on one third, which is perhaps a credible compromise.
     Some discussion of this issue, predating Gilbert-Nelson, can be found in an article I published some time ago, copies of which can be obtained from the NMRA library. It is the source of data for the graph shown above. Here’s the citation:
Anthony Thompson, “Railroad Freight Car Fleets," in Symposium on Railroad History, published by A.C. Kalmbach Memorial Library, NMRA, Chattanooga, TN, 1990, pp. 27–44.
     In future posts, I will explore this topic in more detail.
Tony Thompson

Friday, December 24, 2010

Upgrading old models, Part 3

In this post I describe a simple fix to a widely owned HO scale tank car. This fix, though far from correcting all its faults, does correct what I believe to be the most visible one.
     This is the plastic tank car originally sold by Varney, then for some years by LifeLike (before the days of Proto2000) with an even worse frame molding, and finally by Walthers. To Walthers’ credit, they considerably improved the frame, but repeated very nearly the same tank. The most visible defect to me is the immense manway atop the dome, which for some reason is modeled with huge hinges as well as being fully twice the diameter of the manway it is supposed to represent.
    The tank is also pretty big, around 11,000 gallons, and probably was scaled up from some smaller prototype so it would “have presence” or something. But for now I will just look at the manway problem. Here is how it appears originally, in the version sold by LifeLike:

This is actually pretty easy to correct, by simply carving or filing off the offending part of the dome top, reducing it to a smooth contour. It would then look something like this (safety valves, though not well detailed, were left in place; note that fine sanding to remove filing scratches remains to be done):

Now a replacement manway cover, of correct size, can be added. The Tichy tank car detail set contains both the post-1922 “approved manway” and also an older type of screw-thread manway cover, a type which was permitted to remain in service for cargoes which would not develop significant pressure in transit. Since most of my tank cars have “approved manways,” I decided to use the screw-in type to represent an older car. Here’s the result for a Walthers car, with an unaltered LifeLike car on the adjoining track:

Though the resulting model still falls short of current standards of freight car modeling, at least (to my eye) it no longer advertises its shortcomings quite so loudly. After all, the upper parts of freight cars are what we see most clearly on the layout, and this corrects the topmost problem on the car!
     Perhaps I should mention that on my layout, cars are classified as either “mainline only” or suitable for “all service.” The idea is that cars in passing trains on the main line are really not individually examined by onlookers, and stand-ins or poorer models can serve acceptably in that environment. But any car in the “all service” category, which will undergo switching and other opportunities for a closer look, has to meet a higher standard. The corrected manway on this tank car doesn’t rescue it from its “mainline” classification.
Tony Thompson

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Upgrading old models, Part 2

One of the upgrades I’ve been working on is to correct the oversize valve cover or bonnet on the Athearn “chemical” tank car. (Though often called a “dome,” it’s not an expansion dome but an enclosure for valves and piping connections for filling/emptying these pressurized tanks.) Like the platform around the bonnet, and in fact most of the car, it’s considerably oversize. I’ll be reporting this in more detail in my tank car talk at Cocoa Beach next month, and will post further here.
     I show below a photo of the Athearn bonnet, with platform removed, followed by a photo of the same car with a replacement scale-size bonnet, which is Precision Scale’s part #31005. The difference is pretty evident. (Note also in these two photos that Athearn has used the riveted-tank bottom sheet--all those rivets should be removed for an insulated and jacketed car.) As a basis for comparison, I also show a prototype photo of a car of this size (around 11,000 gallons—an AC&F photo courtesy of Ed Kaminski), and a photo of an unmodified Athearn “chemical” tank body.

     Whether or not the car you are modeling has a platform around the bonnet or merely a walkway (like the prototype car shown), the bonnet size needs to be corrected for these cars to look “right.” And this is an easy fix. I will post later on my completed model, and on the problems of correcting the Athearn dome platform if your prototype needs one.
     One last comment: isn’t this just a poor version of the recent Atlas HO scale LPG cars? Well, kind of, but not exactly. The Atlas car is about the same gallonage but is a somewhat shorter and fatter tank, and has an AC&F underframe, while the Athearn car has a General American underframe. To me, they are different cars and for variety, I want both models in my population of tank cars.
Tony Thompson

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Staging trackage installation-2

My “transfer table” staging drawer, with background explained in the first post with this title, is now in place and mechanically complete. This post expands on the first post with some details of construction (see: ).
     My locking mechanism (or, if you will, indexing) uses aluminum strip, 1 inch wide and 1/8-inch thick, which is a size available in many hardware stores. I simply cut it to length to match the width of the table. Along its center line, I drilled 5/16-inch holes, spaced to match the spacing of my staging tracks, 2-1/4 inches. The hole size matches the bolt diameter of the two barrel bolt mechanisms I purchased at my neighborhood hardware store. The idea is that when the bolts are engaged in these holes, the table is locked both vertically and horizontally. I now have this arrangement at each end of the table.
     Here are two photos of the arrangement:

     The upper view shows the barrel bolt engaged in the aluminum locking strip, in this instance locking Track 3. The strip stands off from the L-girder to which it’s attached by means of a spacer of 1/2-inch Homasote. The lower view is a bit more distant and shows the upper surface of the table. The reason for the stand-off is evident, as it permits the bolt to extend securely through the locking strip.
     I used Atlas rerailers, cut in half, on each side of the gap between layout and table, facing so as to re-rail any wheels which wander in crossing the gap. I’ve experimented by operating deliberately derailed cars through these half-rerailers, and they do work as planned.
     So far this arrangement is mechanically very solid and dependable, and I’m continuing to test with various locomotives and rolling stock. Electrically, I have arranged wiring so that only one track can be energized at a time, and it’s possible to turn off all tracks. This is useful if one doesn’t want DCC decoders and sound to be energized on an entire yard of stored trains.
     If further developments occur with usage of this staging arrangement, I will post further.
Tony Thompson

Modeling PFE reefers in 1953

I’ve been planning a serious look at both my existing fleet of PFE cars, and at what needs I have to improve and complete that fleet. In my previous post, entitled “Choosing a model car fleet,” I used PFE as an example of proportioning one’s model fleet size to the prototype. In this post I describe the paint scheme issues with PFE cars, which are somewhat complex in 1953.
     I described the history of these paint schemes in my section of the PFE book (Pacific Fruit Express, by Thompson, Church and Jones, Signature Press, 2nd edition, 2000). To summarize, after World War II the PFE shops were very active, catching up on deferred maintenance and also replacing obsolete cars which had remained in service due to wartime traffic. Since a new paint scheme had been adopted in 1946 (the two heralds-per-side, with UP in color), called 2C for short, many of the newly maintained cars, and of course all rebuilds and new cars, got that scheme. The previous scheme, with single heralds on each side and with the UP herald lacking the diagonal “Overland Route” slogan, had only come in during 1942, so aside from wartime repaints, was not applied to a great number of cars.
     In the 1930 to 1955 time period, PFE had a time guideline for repainting, with wood-sheathed cars expected to be painted after 4 to 6 years, and steel cars after 10 years (at shorter time intervals, of course, if the car had undergone repairs) and all evidence is that in the postwar years, repainting was being aggressively done. By 1952, it was six years since 1946 and ten years since 1942, so both wood and steel cars would be losing older paint schemes. My first conclusion is that in 1952 and thereafter, the “Overland Route” UP heralds were pretty rare and would be most likely on prewar steel cars. The plain UP herald in the 1942 single-herald scheme should also be fairly rare.
     The 1946 2C scheme was changed in subsequent years in several ways, which are summarized in the PFE book on page 418 (2nd edition). In 1949, most side hardware became orange instead of black (p. 179). In 1950 the UP herald became black-white, a scheme called 2BW for short. In 1951 all remaining side hardware that had stayed black in 1949 became orange, and the UP and SP heralds were restored to their positions from the 2C scheme (p. 185). Stripes around initials and number went away in  1952, periods in “PFE” in 1953. By this time, shops had caught up with the older cars and repaints, and rebuilding had been stopped, so these latter changes arrived more gradually in the fleet.
     Because so many cars were repainted with 2C in 1946–1949, that scheme would certainly still be around in some numbers in 1953. The variations of side hardware color and the 2BW scheme are each going to be less numerous because they are spread out in a span of time. My own 1953 modeling is aiming at about half to two-thirds 2BW cars, almost all the rest 2C. And remember that although most railcars  would show more and more dirt, the older their paint scheme, PFE did wash cars in this era, so truly dirty old cars can be paired with relatively clean old cars.

Tony Thompson

Monday, December 13, 2010

Staging trackage installation

Like all layouts intended for operation, I need staging for mine. I’m pretty constrained for space, so turned to a clever idea from John Signor, which he published in Model Railroader years ago (“Railroading in a Drawer,” Model Railroader, December 2000, pp. 112–114). This idea is essentially a transfer table on drawer slides, with the slide motion perpendicular to the tracks, but here the multiple tracks are on the moving table. The table tracks can be aligned with single entrance and exit mainline tracks.
     John’s table is pretty large, 16 feet long, while my table can only be 7 feet long. So I compromised on his design by only using a pair of drawer slides. I went on line and bought the same heavy-duty, “no slop” slides that he recommended in his article, the Accuride model 3600, available in a variety of lengths and weight capacities. I had the opportunity to visit John’s layout and see the installation first-hand, assess how it operates, and get suggestions from John. He felt there was little to add to what’s in the magazine.
     I designed my table to be 30 inches wide, permitting 12 staging tracks. This is probably more than I need, but we all know the mantra, “you can’t have too much staging,” and based on previous experience, that will probably prove to be true.
     Building and installing the table was pretty straightforward, but there definitely is some pivoting freedom of motion, around a vertical axis through the table’s center. This means that track alignment needs some kind of positive lock between the table and the rest of the benchwork. John used a switch machine to insert a pin into an indexing hole. I decided to use a manual lock in the form of a conventional barrel bolt, purchasable in any hardware store, which is installed on the adjoining benchwork, and an aluminum strip along the end of the table, with indexing holes drilled in it (spaced at the track spacing).
     Here’s an edge-on view of the installed table, with the slides between the back-to-back L-girders. This photo was taken before the attachment to the benchwork was screwed down, thus the bar clamps holding the lower L-girders in place. The backdrop visible above the table, incidentally, is intended for an upper level of the layout, which will be located above the staging table.

     It soon developed that although my locking arrangement at one end of the table controlled that end very well, it did not entirely lock the other end. There seemed no alternative to duplicating the barrel bolt and locking strip on that end too, which is what I’m now doing. Once that progresses and is tested to my satisfaction, I’ll report further. But I can already operate trains over the table, to and from mainline track at each end, so I’m confident it will work well.
Tony Thompson

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tank car projects for Cocoa Beach

For my talk on tank cars at Cocoa Beach (Florida) in January, I will report on several upgrades of commercial model tank cars (some of which were described at the NMRA convention last July in Milwaukee). New in January will be the following:
     • A General American 8000-gallon car, modeled by placing an InterMountain tank of that size on a shortened Athearn tank car frame. The Athearn frame, though not very refined in its detailing, is nevertheless a generally accurate General American underframe.
     • An AC&F insulated 10,000 gallon car, modeled by cutting an Athearn insulated tank body down in length, and placing it on the frame of the InterMountain car just described. The IM underframe is an AC&F design. The Athearn car body is intended to represent a pressurized or ICC 105 type of tank car, but the prototype being modeled is an insulated but not pressurized car, ICC type 104, so a new dome had to be made also.
     • A 6000-gallon car, with a slender dome like an acid car but in this case for shipping hydrogen peroxide by the Buffalo Electrochemical Company (Becco), modeled with a Tichy underframe and scratchbuilt tank from Plastruct tubing (body) and aluminum tubing (dome).
     The latter project may sound familiar, since years ago Mark Feddersen published a fine article about doing such a car with a similar method. And in fact the tank portion of the ICC 104 project draws on another Feddersen article, though he used a different frame method and was modeling a different prototype. Mark’s ideas were certainly an inspiration as well as instructive for me. Here are his two articles:
Mark Feddersen, “ICC-104 Insulated Tank Car,” Mainline Modeler, October 1985, pp. 63-69.
Mark Feddersen, “The Becco peroxide tank car,” Prototype Modeler, January 1986, pp. 16-19.
     What I’ll do in forthcoming posts is report on some of the challenges (and solutions) in these projects, and provide a summary of a few of the upgrades which I did earlier. I’ll include some photos of the cars.
     You may ask, is this about SP modeling? In two ways, yes. First, of course, any layout with ordinary freight service needs freight cars of all kinds, whatever the home road is. But second, an entire fleet of SP tank cars is indeed among those upgrades, and I'll show photos of them too.
Tony Thompson

Friday, December 10, 2010

Choosing a model car fleet

There’s a general issue faced by all modelers who attempt to reproduce prototype car fleets: which cars to model, and how many. If a particular car type was commonplace on the prototype you model, then of course you’ll want to model it, whereas a car which was rare or non-existent on your prototype would be a poor choice. And beyond that, let’s say for a commonplace car, how many should you have?
     I touched on this in my post about Upgrading old models, in suggesting that the numbers of prototype car classes should guide the numbers of cars you model. In this post I go farther with that idea, choosing a specific prototype car important to my layout: Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator cars.
     I realized some time ago that the PFE car fleet, totaling about 40,000 cars in the era I model (1953), could be modeled by doing 1 car on my layout for each group of 1000 prototype cars, meaning I’d have about 40 PFE models when I was done. This was a big number but not unreasonable for my total car needs and space.
     Then the choices of cars and car classes is fairly easy. I simply looked at the 1953 Official Railway Equipment Register or ORER (conveniently available as an NMRA reprint) and tabulated the PFE fleet, omitting very small car groups as well as a few unusual cars which might be hard to model. I listed rebuild car classes by both capacities, so “R-30/40-19” means the combination of R-30-19 and R-40-19 cars. Here’s the result.

     You’ll note the right-hand column shows how many cars I chose to have of each number group, by car class. The only inconvenience is that PFE by this time had lumped together classes R-40-19, -21 and -24, but they can be proportioned by how many cars were originally in each class (see asterisked footnote). Note that the total of cars evaluated is 37,684 out of an actual total PFE roster of 38,565, so I didn’t omit many cars in my simplification. And overall, the right column totals tells me I’ll need 39 PFE models.
    I probably won’t stick to this division by car classes rigorously (I already have too many InterMountain Class R-40-23 cars), but this definitely provides guidance in what to build or buy, and almost more important, what not to build or buy. 
     This same approach can be used in a bigger arena by identifying which freight cars one needs from foreign roads across the country, but I’ll save that for a future discussion.
Tony Thompson

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Some of you will know that I’ve recently published a couple of articles about improved model waybills (the magazine citations are given below). The point of these waybills is to provide operators on the layout a more prototypical waybill, particularly one which permits the flexibility of operation of “free-running” cars like box cars. Too often, the widely-used four-cycle waybill contains little information and worse, resides in its car card pocket forever. That’s just not how prototype free-running cars were used on the railroads.
     My waybill was produced by cutting and pasting the entry boxes and their labels from a prototype waybill. This helps create the right “look and feel,” as well as providing space for more information. The Railroad Model Craftsman article described this process and showed examples. But I was still not entirely happy with the product. It failed to reproduce the prototype’s lengthwise division into shipper and consignee parts, and did not have enough space to give routing details. Prototype waybills not only show all the railroads over which the shipment will move, they also show the junctions at which interchange will take place. The latter is vital in returning empty cars via their service route.
     I’m attaching below my newest version of the prototype waybill so you can see how it looks. I expect to post more about these waybills and how they’re made, as well as some comments about how I use them on my layout. You can see some examples in both the articles cited below of filled-out waybills and of the corresponding model freight cars on the layout.
     Here are the articles published so far (another one is pending at The Dispatcher’s Office for 2011):
“Prototypical Waybills for Car Card Operation,” Railroad Model Craftsman, December 2009, pp. 71–77.
“Contents of a Waybill,” The Dispatcher’s Office (publication of Operations SIG), April 2010, pp. 17–24.
Tony Thompson

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Upgrading old models

Like most people, I have a freight car fleet that includes older models, in most cases reflecting the more limited kit possibilities of the past, along with newer models. Back when there was little out there in the way of 40-foot box cars, I modified and upgraded Athearn box cars to represent lots of things that they really can’t do.
     But before I go there, let’s look at what the cars can be taken to model. Example: SP had two classes of box cars with the sharp-corner Dreadnaught ends which the Athearn car models, B-50-18 and B-50-19. Replacing the dreadfully thick Athearn running board with wood strips, and the dreadful Athearn brake wheel, and a correct height door (or at least clipping off the huge Athearn door claws) does make a more presentable model, especially if you carry on to replace molded grab irons and steps. You’ve got something that can at least represent the 2750 cars in those two classes.
     But SP had a lot more prewar 40-foot cars than those. Since the original Athearn ends are only really right for the two classes mentioned, I’ve considered replacing them with Red Caboose Dreadnaught ends, with the W-corner-post curved shape, which would also solve the appearance problem of the molded-on Athearn end ladders. One could then be creating stand-ins for classes B-50-20, -21, and -23. But they are still stand-ins. And this is important: the three classes listed comprised 5244 cars, far more than the B-50-18 and -19 cars.
     Furthermore, adding those ends, keeping in mind that one is faced with cutting the ends out of the Athearn body and fitting new ends, leads to a natural question: how worthwhile is the work to “improve” the Athearn cars this far, still with molded-on side ladders, vs. just building a Red Caboose kit (or nowadays, searching out an RTR car from RC)?
     Here’s my decision for now. I’m leaning toward the view that the old cars which stand in for those W-corner post classes really aren’t worth further work, and I plan to replace all of them with later kits, which have better details anyway. The old cars can be put on sale.
     This same reasoning will apply to older models of other car types too. As I make progress on those, I’ll post them here.
     And if photos are of interest, I can post some of those too.
Tony Thompson

Just getting started

I’ve wondered for awhile why there aren’t more blogs specifically about modeling, or about modeling a specific prototype. So I’m going to try doing so for my own modeling of the Southern Pacific.
     I’m currently almost ready for operating sessions on my layout, partly reconstructed from the one I had years ago in Pittsburgh, PA, and partly with new sections. I plan to post about layout progress and operations.
     I’m also involved in a number of writing and modeling projects, about which more later as they develop. Currently several tank car models are in work, in preparation for my scheduled talk at the Cocoa Beach meeting in January.
Tony Thompson