Freight Car Friday – Taking Out the Trash

27 07 2012

Trash has become a treasure to railroads in greater and greater quantities over the past few years. If you’ve ever been trackside as one of those unit trains of trash rolls by, you’ve probably noticed!

trash train

A matched quartet of ex-Conrail SD40-2s hustle a unit trash train west from northern New Jersey to a landfill in eastern Ohio in October, 2008.

Moving refuse by rail is nothing new but as landfills fill and cities grow, our waste must often travel further from the source. This waste actually takes many forms and travels in several different types of cars. From sludge to solid waste, from rebuilt older cars to new equipment – trash is a very real part of the modern railroad scene.

The intricacies of garbage are beyond the scope of this blog, but the variety of railcars used to haul it is much more apropos to our model railroad interests.


Large trash containers can be seen on both 89′ flatcars and articulated spine cars like other intermodal traffic.

Perhaps the most obvious cars today are the flatcars and articulated spine cars hauling large containers in unit trains all across the country. Some of these cars are older intermodal equipment rebuilt for this new service, others are new construction. The containers are also much taller than the traditional shipping container. The waste they carry is relatively light and the railroads can haul large volumes.


Many companies have converted surplus autoparts cars to sludge service. Note the new vents in the corners of this car – the added ventilation prevents the loads from sweating.

Aside from their unique size and shape, these cars usually don’t carry much in the way of distinctive markings to identify their owners or their contents. Despite their dirty job, companies do make an effort to keep these containers and cars in good and relatively clean condition.

Being the on the receiving end of somebody else’s trash doesn’t usually sit well with most communities – no matter how many jobs or how much cash-flow this necessary service creates. So the railroads and the waste companies have taken the high road and do their best to maintain a positive, if low-key, appearance.

woodchip car

Cars like this Southern gondola, originally built for wood chips, are often seen in refuse service. Refuse hauled in these cars tends not to be of the municipal variety but very light density debris. Mesh nets are rolled over the loads to prevent loss in transit.

Other trash-haulers have come from very odd and interesting railcar selections. You’ll find everything from open top hoppers, old rotary-dump coal gondolas, woodchip service cars, even 86 foot high-cube auto-parts boxcars hauling various types of waste! Often these cars can be seen in general freight consists mixed in with other merchandise.

From a railroad operations perspective, trash shipments are a relatively predictable movement. Loaded cars travel from points of origin – usually near large cities – and travel to more rural reclamation centers. Then the empty cars travel back. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll probably see the same cars traveling back and forth over a designated route numerous times.

For modelers, this is just one more unique part of railroading we can include on our layouts. And of course, prototypical smells are optional.



One response

23 08 2012
Andrew Falconer

Can Lionel please offer an O Scale Ribbed Wood Chip Car with an opening end and a Tip-Up unloading accessory. Have the cars in the authentic markings for railroads like Atlanta & St. Andrew’s Bay “The Bay Line” , Great Northern and British Columbia Railway.

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