Freight Cars

by Dan Wexler

Part II -- Choosing and Operating the Right Cars

In Part I, we discussed the model boxcar and its construction. This time weíre going to discuss building your roster and the philosophy of freight car routing.

From the 26-foot wood framed truss rod cars of the 1860s, freight car production has evolved into todayís modern art of steel articulated well cars and 86-foot autoracks. In between, were several distinct eras of freight car production. During the 1890s, railroads began equipping their cars with safety couplers and air brakes. By the early 1920s, they started replacing truss rod cars with steel framed cars. By the 1930s, most freight cars were built entirely of steel.

To balance your roster, you need to consider three things: era, type, and railroad.


In my pike's era of 1948-52, 50% of the nationís boxcar fleet still dated from before 1928. 20% of those cars dated from WWI or before. More than a third of all freight cars still had wooden sides. Pacific Fruit Expressís fleet, a third of all reefers nationwide, was still 80% wood. To model this era, you would select your cars so that about 60% of your cars were pre-WWII and 40% post-war.

Railroads eventually scrap their older cars; the average life of a car in normal service is only 20 years. During WWII, fork lifts became commonplace and door widths increased from 6 to 8 feet. By the 1960s, wooden cars were banned from interchange traffic. By 1968, no more box cars were built with roof walks. By the early 1970s, the F.R.A. banned roof walks altogether.


Railroads exist to move commodities. You should base your freight car fleet on the commodities that your railroad would be hauling. Try not to have any cars that would not serve your specific on-line industries. For example, you donít need a fleet of reefers if youíre modeling one of the Great Lakes ore haulers, such as the Lake Superior & Ishpeming.


It's important to know what your prototype railroad carries. What part of the country do you model? What railroads are interchanging neighbors of your line? For instance, if you're a Santa Fe modeler, you're not likely to see strings of P.F.E. reefers on your train. Why? Because in most places the Santa Fe is a direct competitor of P.F.E. Your train would have SFRD reefers.

Letís make a sample roster for our railroad. We want a roster of 100 cars. Sixty cars will belong to our home road. Of these, forty would be either new or not more than 10 years old, fifteen would be 10 to 20 years old, and the remaining five would be older than 20 years. The remaining forty cars would be from foreign roads and have the same timeframe distribution.

If you model one of the railroads on either coast, your percentage of cars from the other coast wonít be as high as your cars from the Midwest. If you model a road from the Midwest, you would divide your foreign road cars evenly between each coast.

Keep in mind who your interchange partners are; most of the foreign cars would be from them. As I mentioned before, you seldom see the cars from direct competitors on each otherís trains. Also, in systems like the Union Pacific, Chessie, and Burlington Northern, the percentage of home road cars goes up because of the many railroads that make up the system.

Freight Car Routing

As a rule, freight cars donít wander aimlessly around; theyíre routed for specific reasons. (Though speaking from personal experience, they do get lost once in a while.) Until the Staggers Act of 1980, A.A.R. (American Association of Railroads) rules required you to spot empty cars to pick up loads that were heading to, or at least in the direction of, their home road.

To better understand the A.A.R. system of routing, refer to the map in Model Railroader, March 1994. The map divides the country into 23 regions. Suppose Old Dominion Furniture in Lynchburg, VA (region 19) has a load of furniture to send to the Ethan Allen warehouse in East Los Angeles, CA (region 2). The yard master in Virginia has empty boxcars from the Pennsy, Texas & Pacific, and Western Pacific. According to the A.A.R. rule, the yard master will have to spot the WP car. Even though Los Angeles isnít home for the WP, it would route the car to be as close to home as possible when it reached its destination.

Even if your railroad mostly is mainline bridge traffic, you can enjoy it more if you have an idea whatís in those freight cars, where theyíre from, and where theyíre going. Doing the research is half the fun.