Saturday, July 1, 2023

Standards for layout freight cars

Everyone has some kind of standards for freight cars in their fleet, though they may well be implicit rather than stated explicitly or written down. I have written about this topic a few times in the past in this blog, but thought it might be useful to summarize some of my previous points again, as well as describing some new perspectives I have developed. 

I first touched on this general subject area in a post back in 2011 (see it at: ). In February 2017, I wrote one of my “Getting Real” MRH columns on this topic, and there is a blog post describing that article (the post is here: ).  A little of that material is repeated below.

Although I divide my freight cars 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 standards can be divided into three groupings: performance, detailing, and weathering. But weathering has been well covered in my “Reference pages,” linked at the top right of every post, so I will discuss that topic more briefly.

Performance. The primary aspects here are trucks and couplers. Trucks need to be free-rolling, have metal wheels,  and in tram, that is, with axles parallel to each other and 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 “wide tread” wheelsets, but new cars and most upgrades for a number of years received Reboxx wheelsets of appropriate length. I regard their performance as outstanding, and I like the appearance of the 0.088-inch treads. Since Reboxx products disappeared, I usually use InterMountain or Kadee wheelsets with 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, such as #148. 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 accepted any of the “copycat” couplers made in China, 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.

My testing of coupler height and trip-pin height are carried out on this test track given to me by Jim Ruffing years ago. It has Kadee gauges at each end and an Atlas re-railer in the center. It’s a quick and easy process to check any car. I use it all the time to check newbies, repairs, or cars that have not performed well.

All these aspects and more are checked in my “rookie test”  (for example: ), and subsequent posts enlarged the topic with more detail about the procedure in later years (see one of them here: ). It’s routinely applied not only to a new or repaired car ready to enter service, but to any older car that exhibits any problems in operating sessions.

My rookie-test record is a form like the one below (not exactly, but generally like this), so that I know whether adjustments were needed on a car, and which ones. It also includes a switching test, with moving a string of cars, including the test car, through closely-paced No. 5 switches to check for overall performance, as described in the two posts cited in the previous paragraph. 

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 which 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 (the most common prototype make was 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 Red Caboose 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 when made of plastic. 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 used to say, 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.

Weathering.  I do weather almost every single car. Photos of prototype cars 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 all the way 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.

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 will continue to address it in future posts.

Tony Thompson

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