Freight Car Friday – Beyond the Rails

20 09 2013

After a long and useful career on the railroads, many freight cars find their way into a second job off the rails in their retirement. Trains have been used for a variety of functions, from restaurants and motels to storage sheds, even bridges. These can all make interesting modeling projects (especially for that old boxcar that’s fallen to the floor one time too many!)

caboose office

This caboose office was the inspiration for our own scrap yard caboose project.

We covered a few of these conversions in our Railroad Bone Yard modeling project. From a caboose-turned-office to reefer and tender storage sheds these projects required very little modification to the models. The same is usually true for prototype adaptations. While the train car serves a practical function, the owners often like to preserve its history. This is almost always the case in cars re-purposed as office, sleeping or eating spaces. While the inside of the car may be gutted and transformed into a functional space, the authentic railroad look of the exterior is a big part of the draw and charm – even if it’s no longer painted for the railroad to which it once belonged.

Boxcars and now intermodal trailers are common storage solutions. This one also forms part of a wall.

Boxcars and now intermodal trailers are common storage solutions. This one also forms part of a wall.

Although functionality may be the primary motive in purchasing these old rail cars, they have been a major savior to the rail preservation interests as well. Often unknown survivors of a “lost” car turn up in backyards or work sites. While often not in original condition, they are the best starting point for historic restorations. Take Camden and Amboy coach No. 3 as an example. Now the second-oldest surviving passenger car in the United States (the car is owned by the Smithsonian and on loan to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania) this 1836-built car toured with the John Bull to World’s Fairs and exhibitions all across the country. It was restored by the Pennsylvania Railroad after being discovered on a farm converted to a chicken coop.


Even within the confines of a museum some cars are put to creative use. The Pennsylvania’s “Queen Mary” flatcar’s deck has ample room for a concert stage in Altoona.

Even if they never return to the rails, these out-of-place trains are always a great find on a road trip across the country. The American southwest is dotted by dozens if not hundreds of retired 40′ Santa Fe boxcars and steel reefers being used as sheds. Caboose motels offer a unique overnight experience – even if the accommodations have been “civilized” over the original appointments. And those iconic cabooses show up in community parks just about anywhere the rails ran (and even in a few places they didn’t) since their widespread retirement in the 1980s.

You’ll even find some cars working hard in their retirement as part of a retaining wall or even the classic flatcar bridge. Beneath the Susquehanna River lays the twisted wreckage of hoppers and gondolas used to plug the whirlpool created by the infamous Knox Mine collapse in 1959.

So clearly a freight car’s utility goes far beyond the gauge of the rails! Do you have any favorite off-the-rails freight cars? Have you added any to your layout?



One response

20 09 2013
Fred Patton

I added this comment to the boneyard post, but it really belongs here. When I was a kid, a restaurant was built in my neighborhood from some boxcars. They called it Victoria Station, and they left the outside looking like boxcars so you really got the feeling of being around trains. That was 40 years ago, and it’s still a restaurant, though it’s now Vietnamese and they’ve disguised the origins of the place. Here’s the Google Street View link:,+Sunnyvale,+CA&hl=en&ll=37.337715,-122.015748&spn=0.022417,0.049567&sll=37.269174,-119.306607&sspn=10.746411,25.378418&oq=homestead+road&hnear=E+Homestead+Rd,+Sunnyvale,+California&t=m&z=15&layer=c&cbll=37.337705,-122.015529&panoid=AV9hN2FzfbxjMwrAqbhIyg&cbp=12,357.95,,0,4.74

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