Freight Car Friday – Auto Parts Cars

29 03 2013

Lionel’s new scale autoracks will make it possible to model the transportation of finished automobiles like never before. But this is only one side of the story. Railroads also form an integral part of the automotive assembly process. Moving auto parts is an important business for the railroads, not only in quantity but with premium prices paid for just-in-time delivery.

Parts and Assembly

Lordstown Assembly Plant

Assembly plants, like this one in Lordstown, OH, can stretch for miles. But you don’t have to model all of this to add the auto industry to your layout.

The vast majority of vehicles assembled in North America are not built in a single integrated facility. Engines, body panels, interiors, tires, electronics – all are built in separate facilities and then brought together in large assembly plants. This is good news for railroads who are needed to bring in raw materials for components, carry the parts to the assembly plants and then take the finished vehicles to market. The automotive industry made the assembly line famous, and railroads are a critical part of that line.

For modelers, this opens lots of opportunities to model an industry that, taken as a whole, can be far more complicated and sizeable to fit on most model railroads. You can model one part of the process, or just model the transportation between hubs and run an amazing variety of equipment.


86' hi cube

The 86′ boxcars were rolling billboards for the railroads. Today, the paint schemes are more simple and many have become a canvas for grafitti.

Although many cars are used in the entire process, the one car most associated with auto parts is the boxcar. These cars come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the specific loads they carry.

The most obvious auto parts boxcars are the enormous 86 foot high cube cars which began rolling in the 1960s. These cars broke all sorts of records for boxcars when new, and they are still among the largest cars on the rails.

Conrail box

8-door cars like this were prefered by GM. This car was originally owned by the New York Central.

What is less obvious from looking at these huge vehicles is their relatively light capacity (in weight.) The load limits on these cars is not much different from a typical 50 foot boxcar. The loads they carry, usually body panels, are large and bulky but relatively light. So it takes a lot of cubic capacity before the weight limits of the trucks are reached.

There are many subtle variations in these cars’ designs, coming from different builders and changing over time. The most noticeable difference however is the number of doors. Some cars a single pair of doors per side, others two pair. Different car companies prefer one or the other. GM prefers the 8-door cars while Ford, Chrysler, Honda and others prefer only 4-doors.

60' Grand Trunk

Cars were assigned in pools by the railroads that served the plants. Railroads in the midwest and northeast had some of the larger fleets.

With the doors closed, the cars become great rolling billboards for the railroads. Many applied colorful paint schemes with bold graphics in the 1970s. Today’s paint schemes are a little more subdued, but the cars still grab your attention.

The slightly smaller cousins to these 86′ monsters are the 60′ cars. These cars carry somewhat heavier parts and subassemblies. Like the larger cars, these loads are carried in special racks. These racks provide a secure ride while making loading and unloading of the car much faster.

CN box

Canadian National inherited many cars from the DT&I and GT. 60′ cars like this were common for 40 years.

There is a lot of variety in the 60′ parts car fleet. Lionel’s model represents one of the most common, built by Pullman Standard. Cars of this design first appeared in the 1970s and were common into the early years of this century.

These cars typically operated in a dedicated pool between a specific part manufacturing and assembly plant. Often the code for the pool was printed on the side of the car. If more than one railroad was involved in the movement between those two points, each would contribute cars equally based on the amount of miles they contributed. For modelers, this means that seeing the same car in the same train and siding over and over again is quite prototypical!

storage lines

Economic downturn and age brought long lines of auto parts cars to Altoona. Many of these cars traced to the PRR and NYC – most had carried their last load.

In addition to these specialty cars, it is not uncommon to find more typical 50′ boxcars serving the manufacturing plants. Having a few of these mixed in with a cut of high-cubes would look perfectly normal. And of course prior to the arrival of the larger cars, these 50′ cars were the standard.



One response

29 03 2013
Andrew Falconer

I am planning on getting the GTW and CN P-S 60′ Boxcars, when they arrive at L&J Hobbies.

If Lionel can make the 86′ Boxcars for Detroit & Toledo Shore Line, Detroit, Toledo & Ironton, and Grand Trunk Western, I would buy them. Perhaps the 86′ Boxcars can be made in the USA

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