Saturday, May 22, 2021

The “unusual” cars on your freight roster

 The present post follows two recent posts, summarizing contemporary knowledge about the proportions of individual railroad representation in interchange, based on considerable existing writing (see the first one at: ), and followed by some details to assess the kinds of cars within those proportions (the post on that topic is at this link: ).   

The idea that your freight car fleet ought, to some extent, mirror the largest parts of the national freight car fleet has been around for some time, and the two previous posts presented several examples. But what about the lesser roads? Not only the smaller of the Class I roads, but the roads that were smaller still? How can you apply these ideas to those kinds of railroads?

{A Class I railroad for many years meant income above $1 million, Class II from $1 million down to $100,000, and Class III below that. In 1956, the Class I distinction was raised to $3 million. Today these numbers are far higher.)

Naturally, smaller railroad fleets will be far less visible in interchange than the cars of bigger roads. But how much less? Well, let’s look at the data. We can begin with the table I showed in the previous post, which I’ll reproduce here for convenience (from the 1953 Cyc).

Note across the tops of the columns that the first column is “all steam railways” (meaning that interurbans are omitted), the second is just the Class I railroads, and the third is private owners. The difference between the sum of the second and third columns, and the number in the fourth column, is the non-Class I railroads. For box cars, it is 3582 cars, only 0.5 percent of the total: one half of one percent.

That is, of course, a small percentage, and in the notional model fleet of 150 foreign-road box cars that I discussed in the previous post, does not quite equal one car. But there are lots of familiar railroads in this category: the Western Maryland with 2284 box cars, the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton with 3151 box cars, the Western Pacific with 2473 box cars, and lots of others. Even the well-known Georgia Railroad only had 709 box cars in 1950. So the 3582-car total of non-Class I box cars is not that small.

But of course we can still portray the freight car fleets of smaller roads, just as some large roads were depicted in the previous post. For example, here is the interesting fleet of the Western Pacific, with considerably higher proportion of flat and stock cars, compared to the national average, and practically no hopper cars.

But let’s return to box cars. What do these small railroad sizes mean, in light of the notional model fleet of 150 foreign-road box cars? In effect, it means that you have to add up the many roads that have car fleets well below one percent of the national fleet, and consider representing the group of them as a whole. In saying this, I am following a suggestion of Tim O’Connor some years back.

In other words, my response is as follows. Yes, any one tiny railroad has a vanishingly small chance of showing up somewhere in the country; but taken all together, the many, many small railroads do add up to something significant. By one estimate, the small railroad car fleets taken all together, comprised more than 5 percent of the national fleet. Going back to that notional 150-car group of model box cars, this would say that about 7 of them ought to represent small or tiny railroads. And you can choose.

Now let’s consider one of these much smaller roads, the Duluth, South Shore &Atlantic, which in 1950 owned 318 box cars. That is about 0.04 percent of the national fleet, and to have, statistically, an accurate representation of the DSS&A fleet, with a single car, your total car fleet would have to be more than 2200 box cars. But hardly any modeler has that many; and the same calculation can be made for many, many minor railroads. 

But of course the DSS&A falls into our estimated 5 percent of all railroad box cars, and can be one of the roads whose box cars are chosen to fill out the “minor road group” in our notional fleet. I’ve chosen one of these cars for my own fleet: rare, to be sure, but just part of the “rarity group” in my fleet. It’s an InterMountain model, shown here being switched by SP Alco 1389 in front of the Shumala depot on my layout.

I continue to muse on these freight car fleet issues, and will doubtless return to the topic in future posts.

Tony Thompson


  1. Tony -
    On thinking about the proportion of foreign and small road cars, it occurs to me that the assumption that foreign road cars were free-running, especially in the 1950s, is probably misleading. In my experience railroads typically divided other railroads into three categories: connections (e.g. UP, to SP), competitors (e.g. ATSF, to SP), and Neutrals (e.g. PRR or NYC to SP). Railroads would generally see many inbound cars from connections, and would be somewhat likely to spot those cars for return loading. Railroads would see few inbound cars from competitors, and would return them empty rather than willingly spotting them for return loading. You might see ATSF reefers in peak ag season when SP was short, but SP would actively avoid providing ATSF cars to on-line customers. (It is true that some customers would specifically make troublesome requests as bargaining leverage.) Pooled cars would be an exception, but it would also be rare for a railroad to enter into pooling with a competitor. Neutrals would show up depending on where on-line customers bought their goods, and would be returned empty. If Jupiter Pumps had a supplier on the DSSA in Duluth, you might see DSSA boxcars regularly. These practices changed in later years as multi-carrier pooling for major customers, such as GM and Ford, became more common. But free-running cars have always been the exception. That exception was why the incentive per-diem boxcar program led to colorful short-line boxcars all over the country in the 1980s.That's also why TTX stenciled "Next load any road" on Railbox cars - it was the exception.

    So bring that DSSA boxcar onto the layout once a month with a load of castings for Jupiter, but be sure to send it back empty!

    1. Thanks for the interesting comments, Dan. You raise several issues, some of which I agree with, some of which I disagree with, and some that surprise me and for which I'd like to know the source. It seems to call for more discussion than I want to do here, so I'll postpone a response to a new blog post, coming soon. But thanks for the challenge.
      Tony Thompson

  2. What about small class 2 railroads? Especially branch line operations that did not own their own cars and fed bigger RR's? For my small New Mexico based Sierra Central RR, the vast majority of rolling stock are of ATSF and SP origin. Plus one BAR reefer per your previous blog. The rest (<20%) are a southeastern/southwestern roads.

    1. I'm glad you raised this, Lou, because it's an important point. Any small railroad, very likely devoted to one kind of traffic, or almost any branch surviving after WW II, almost certainly could not obey Gilbert-Nelson.

      The situation you describe usually turned out to be an agreement with the "big neighbor" to supply cars, and the simplest way to do that is with the company's own cars. Volumes would be small enough that the relative obedience to Car Service Rules wouldn't really be affected. But in times of car shortage, I'd think the big road would indeed send over all kinds of foreigns. Your call!
      Tony Thompson