Steel products have long been a big commodity on the rails. This finished steel comes in all shapes and sizes. Among the most common is thin sheet steel rolled into large coils. Used in making everything from cars to washing machines, these coils require careful handling.
Not all coils are created equal. Depending on their final use, some require different handling than others. Often, railroads will transport rough coils from the main rolling mill to smaller finishing mills where the steel is plated or treated to refine it for final consumption. The railroad may get this haul too.
Steel that doesn’t require extra care can be carried in open gondolas. Often these cars are equipped with cradles that run the length of the car. These wedge-shaped braces help hold the coils upright. Not only is this better for the load, it also makes it much easier to unload. In other cases, the coils are simply laid flat in the car. Generally, gondolas used in coil service are restricted from hauling other loads.
Often, steel coils need more protection from the elements. This can come in several forms. Covered gondolas have similar coil cradles to the open cars with additional removable roof covers. In the 1970s, some cars were designed with hinged covers fixed on the cars. The added complications of these devices usually proved less beneficial than the expense to maintain them.
In the 1960s, the coil steel gondola began to evolve into a more specialized car that lowered the overall car weight while increasing the protection for the load. These cars featured a more basic frame and cradle arrangement, eliminating the sides of the gondola. Additionally, the cars were equipped with cushioned underframes and coupler draft gear that reduce damage to the load by absorbing the forces caused by coupling and coupler slack action in the moving train. Many cars were also equipped with removable hoods to protect the load.
These coil cars have continued to evolve over the years. Then and now, many railroads gravitated to common designs by builders like Evans and National Steel Car. This meant that hoods could often be interchanged between cars and it is not uncommon to see a car with covers from different roads. Some roads like the Pennsylvania designed and built their own unique cars as well.
Coils aren’t limited to just gondolas. In the 1990s, Conrail experimented with special small cradles attached to bulkhead flatcars for smaller shipments. And although they are more difficult to load, boxcars are also an option. Weirton Steel for example uses a small fleet of old boxcars with doors removed for intraplant movements at its West Virginia mill.
On Your Layout
Because they have so many uses and forms, there are many ways to add coil steel operations to your railroad. You don’t have to model an entire large steel mill or automotive stamping plant to use the cars.
Smaller assembly plants would fit many layout plans and still provide a lot of switching opportunity. Don’t forget boxcars for the finished products too! Many of these buildings could be modeled along a backdrop to save layout space.
A small finishing mill can generate shipments both ways. Inbound coils could arrive in open gondolas with finished loads departing under cover.
Another way to add operations without any industry at all is to include a clean out track in one of your yards. Customers shipping finished coils don’t want the steel scratched by debris left in the cradle. This could include old banding straps, broken cradle boards or other trash just tossed in along the way.
An extra track in the yard with some dumpsters located nearby and racks for workers tools is all you need to add this important but often overlooked operation to your layout. And of course you can spot other “dirty” cars here too!
And of course, whether it’s an interesting load in an open gondola or a colorful specialized car, these will look great just rolling by in a passing train too!