The Case for Flat Cars

by Dan Wexler

Recently while going over the roster of cars assigned to service on the S.S.P. It struck me as odd how few flatcars are assigned to the railroad. In the days before piggyback flats and center beam lumber cars, 40 and 50 foot flatcars were among the most prevalent types of rolling stock on American railroads. They are designed to carry loads that don’t need protection from wind, rain, and dust or that are too large, cumbersome, or odd-shaped to fit in a box car.

Loads are easy to make; you can use a lot of the stuff in your scrap box. Lumber loads are most often made of various lengths and shapes of lumber stacked on a flatcar in a series of bundles strapped with metal bands. You can also hide weight in your load. Most of the cast metal construction and farm equipment offered by Woodland Scenics make wonderful loads.

Here at the club some of our members have created unique flatcar loads. Among my favorites are Bill and Jason Karol’s pipe train. These loads are nothing more then half-inch copper pipe painted black and cut into sections 20 to 30 scale feet in length and secured with blocking to the freight car deck. The train includes a flatcar equipped with a small gantry crane, wooden bunkers for carrying chains, and assorted tools for unloading the pipe. I also like Steve Whiteside’s wrecked freight car on a TOFC flat.

Athearn, Con-Cor, M.D.C., and Walther's all make excellent models of 40- and 50-foot flatcars. If you promise not to say you heard it from me, some of the older Tyco models are also good. They require little work to bring them up to club standards and have nicely detailed heavy metal frames and correct brake apparatus.

Here are a few tips I use to make my flatcars look better. To simulate the wood decks, I brush the deck with Floquil’s foundation, but any color tan will work just fine. Once that has dried thoroughly I brush on a wash (approx. 4-1 thinner to color) of Floquil Roof Brown (you can also use the new water based paints). Bruce Bloch likes to use Floquil’s Walnut Stain in place of the Roof Brown. To give the deck an older, more weathered appearance, make holes in the deck with a small awl to represent the nail holes caused by the blocking and bracing. Then give the deck a final wash of Grimy Black. Once you've achieved the desired results, seal it all under Dull Coat. American Model Builders has peel-and-stick laser cut wood flatcar decks available for most of the models I mentioned earlier. I have their numbers 320 and 321 kits for Athearn cars and they are beautiful. Now that you’ve made that deck so pretty, you may not want to cover it up with a load!

Al Daumann suggests that by not installing the small rib/brake gear part of the Athearn chassis you have plenty of room to load the underside of the car with weight. An ounce and a half of our quarter ounce weights fit nicely under there. Once the weight is in, paint the underside of the car the same color as the car body. While you’re under there, paint the truck side frames also.

Remember that I mentioned correct brake apparatus? In all the years I’ve been railfanning and researching freight cars, I have yet to see a brake stand as grotesque as those on the Athearn and Con-Cor cars. I suggest replacing it with Tichy’s part #3003; it’s a perfect ratchet brake wheel assembly. A $1.50 package includes parts to make four brake wheel assemblies. To install one, cut off the existing brake wheel assembly and file the area smooth. Shave off the leftside grab iron on the B end of the car, file the area smooth, then attach the assembled brake wheel with ACC midway between the coupler pocket and the car sideframe. You may or may not attach a new grab iron at this point. I, of course, suggest you do, but it’s a matter of personal preference.

I hope these tips are useful and you’ll use one or more of them. There’s something about a string of empty flatcars going around a layout that looks really neat and somehow dangerous.