I have written a number of posts for this blog on the subject of choices for freight car fleets. In addition to some rather general ones (for example, see this one: http://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2010/12/choosing-model-car-fleet-2.html ), I wrote a series by car type, explaining how I chose cars for my layout needs (primarily on the basis of traffic). There were originally 12 of those posts, with five or more later add-ons to the original series, and they are most easily accessed by using “choosing a model car fleet” as a search term in the search box at right.
But this was brought back to my attention by a recent email from a fairly experienced modeler who is only now embarking on building a layout. He has a fair number of freight cars already, but asked me what I would recommend as a general principle — or principles — in choosing more cars.
I answered him by starting with the importance (to me) of era. I think it is essential to choose as narrow a time to model as possible. Though there have been some who have chosen a particular month (Richard Hendrickson chose October 1947) or a particular year, as I have done with 1953, some people want a little more flexibility, and choose a longer span of time.
But as Tony Koester has pointed out this is a slippery slope. His statement of the problem is that if, for example, you say you are modeling the 1950s, what you are really doing is modeling 1959 badly.
Having chosen an era, ideally not more than about a year, you need to have, or start to develop, a sense of what freight trains looked like at that time. By this I mean, first, color. For example, modeling an era of mostly boxcar-red cars had better have a fleet dominated by cars that color. For any era, it would help to have a sense of dominant colors.
I still remember being struck by the wisdom of a comment years ago by Rick Tipton in a Model Railroader article (June 1977, page 94). He pointed out that the plainer the colors of the cars in a train, the longer the train would look, because your eye tends to see only the entirety of the plainer consist, rather than picking out individual cars to look at. We always have less layout space than we want, and have to run shorter trains than we want, so anything that makes them look longer is a benefit.
In the steam era, this would mean a predominance of boxcar red cars, as I mentioned; in more recent eras, it might mean a lot of plain gray covered hoppers and plain black tank cars. The point is to avoid distinctive cars.
The photo below shows a train on my 1953 layout, with pretty generic colors of boxcar red, orange and black, and one stand-out red tank car. The tank car paint scheme is accurate and authentic for its era (incidentally, it’s an old Athearn metal “shorty” tank car). And this single car does not make the train look odd. But more such cars, say three brightly colored tank cars, would make the train a little odd unless it serves a chemical plant. On the other hand, a 1960s freight train would show many more vivid paint schemes. So fleet color needs to be both period-correct and balanced appropriately.
But in talking about how trains look, I also mean car types. Were there a lot of ice reefers, or mechanical reefers? What proportion? If there were covered hoppers, what type and what size? Striving to achieve freight trains that look like prototype photos of your era, in your location, is I think an important element in realistic modeling. Obviously some research is needed to find out what were typical car types in your railroad’s trains in your era and locale. (More on this below.)
Then we come to a couple of age-old questions. What proportion of the fleet would be home-road cars, and what proportion foreign (non-home road) cars? And which car types? On home-road proportions, I am convinced there is no single answer, because differing circumstances on different railroads gave rise to different home-road proportions. Estimates have ranged from a quarter, to over half, of all cars in the fleet being home-road, and as I state, your answer will depend on your particular era and railroad. For my layout, I described what I need in a previous post (see it at: http://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2011/03/modeling-freight-traffic-coast-line_11.html ).
I have discussed in previous posts the Gilbert-Nelson idea about the proportions of railroad ownerships among the foreign cars in a car fleet (see the post cited in the first paragraph of the present post), and this can help in choosing railroad names for your freight cars. Most of us already have lots of freight cars we “like” for one reason or another. It takes concentration to decide on buying, and perhaps having to build, cars we don’t feel the same attraction to, just to extend realism. Obviously that’s an individual priority if you choose to follow it.
Now let me return to car types. An issue of the ORER (Official Railway Equipment Register) for your era will show you the fleet content of your own railroad, and that of every other railroad you are interested in. The graphs below compare the car fleet of the entire United States in 1950, to the car fleet of the Southern Pacific in the same year (percentages are given above each bar). I believe the differences are readily seen to be considerable. This is, in my opinion, the kind of information you need for every railroad you model, and it’s easily acquired. (You can click to enlarge if you wish.)
Within the topic of choosing foreign cars is the possibility of “signature” freight cars, that is, cars distinctive for and representative of, each railroad’s fleet. I wrote about this topic in two of my “Getting Real” columns for Model Railroad Hobbyist or MRH, in the issues for April 2013 and March 2015. You can read on line, or download for free, any of these past issues of MRH at their website, www.mrhmag.com .
So choosing a car fleet, if you want to achieve some degree of realism relative to a chosen railroad, era, and locale, has several dimensions. Personally, I find learning about all these factors to be not only interesting but actually fun, and it informs how I work on my car fleet and on my layout, and how I set up operating sessions. If you haven’t delved into this topic before, I urge you to explore it a little bit. I think you may well find that you enjoy it.
Certainly agree with your comments. Having selected 1955 certain helped contain my expenditures since I could not purchase, among others, really good looking 1957 SP covered hoppers.
Regarding color, my 30 cars on my switching layout are predominately shades of XM red with a sprinkle of black tanks cars (3), orange or yellow reefers (6) and a few blue private road name cars (4). Overall effect is very realistic for the era and y eyes do not tend to focus on one or two cars.
One last thing that needs to be considered is the distribution of car types for the selected era, location and specific railroad, as you point out. 1950's meant lots of box cars in some parts of the US, but not necessarily other regions. If you are modeling the big valleys of CA, then reefers would abound. When I modeled the SP in New Mexico, scheduled reefer blocks heading east represented half of all the scheduled trains.