Freight Car Friday – Bunk Cars

7 09 2012

Railroad work crews go where the tracks go. Sometimes this can mean extended periods away from home, and in parts of the country even time away from towns of any size. For years, railroads supplied lodging for these men with work trains. Bunk cars, kitchens, offices, even recreational cars traveled with the work equipment to distant outposts.

Rio Grande Bunk Car

Many early crew cars were made from boxcars like this Lionel model (6-22150).

As is often the case with maintenance of way equipment, railroads often make these cars from older freight and passenger cars. Everything from boxcars to Pullmans have been used in the past. No matter how luxurious the cars were in their regular service lives, by the time they made it to work train duty conditions were far less enjoyable.

Coming from retired railroad cars, often these bunk cars suffered from deferred maintenance. Leaky roofs, drafty windows, poor plumbing systems or none at all characterized bunk cars. Sleeping accommodations were usually simple cots or bunk beds. Long wooden tables and benches characterized the dining cars.

PC Bunk car

This former Penn Central bunk car began life as a Pennsylvania Railroad solarium observation. Note the silver roof which helped keep the car cooler in the summer months.

Adding to the discomfort of these living conditions was the nature of the work itself. Most trackwork is performed from mid spring to early fall. The work is very demanding and physical. Track gangs were traditionally filled with men who often roamed the country looking for seasonal work. Take a gang of men working in the summer heat for eight to twelve hours and bring them back to a small steel car with no working air-conditioning or shower and, well you get the picture.

In later years, some railroads purchased trailers which were carried to sites on flatcars. These were generally an improvement over the older converted boxcars and coaches with modern plumbing, heat and air-conditioning, but over time they too show signs of their hard use. Some of these cars are still in use today on railroads like Norfolk Southern. Most major lines now send workers to nearby hotels instead of maintaining their own housing.

Camp Car

This former Conrail “camp car” is now being restored by the Conrail Historical Society. Cars like it are still in service on Norfolk Southern.

An unintended benefit of the older work cars has been the preservation of many unique freight and passenger cars that otherwise would simply have been scrapped at the end of their careers. Today many museums are holders of some of these cars. Some await restoration, others have been returned to their original glory, and some have even been restored to their work train appearance – all part of the amazing story of railroading.

You can add a bunk train to your layout too. Lionel has made some cars for you already. You could also select from our many different varieties of freight and passenger cars. Sometimes the cars kept their original paint, but most often they were repainted in the railroad’s maintenance of way colors. Simple paint schemes of gray, yellow or brown were most common. Roofs of these cars were often painted white or silver to help reflect the summer sun and keep the cars a little cooler.

In addition to track gangs, these cars often accompanied the wreck train, where workers would be on the scene of the derailment until work was completed. So a few of these cars would look great with your crane, wheel cars, etc. or with other work cars like flatcars and gondolas loaded with rails and ties or hoppers of ballast. Whether parked in a yard awaiting assignment or out on a remote siding, the camp and work train makes an interesting scene and equipment on any layout.

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