Freight Car Friday – Freight Cars of Detroit

21 02 2014

This week’s Worlds Greatest Hobby show comes into familiar territory for Lionel. For many years Lionel’s main offices and assembly operations were just a few minutes north of Detroit and we still have offices in Sterling Heights today.

While cars may still trump rails for notoriety in the Motor City, Detroit’s auto industry (and others) require an extensive network of railroads. Today the city is served by Conrail (Yes, still Conrail!) and Canadian National with a long heritage of famous fallen flags.


Conrail remains a major operator around Detroit serving the remaining automotive assembly plants and other industries.

When Conrail was split between Norfolk Southern and CSX in 1998, there were areas where there was no easy way to divide the routes and preserve competition. Detroit is one of these three “Shared Assets Areas” where Conrail still exists as a terminal switching railroad owned by NS and CSX. Conrail interchanges traffic with both railroads as well as Canadian National’s Grand Trunk.


The Grand Trunk and its autoracks and other cars are still a household name in Detroit.

Most of the current Conrail route traces its route to the New York Central and its predecessors, the most notable being the Michigan Central and Lake Shore and Michigan Southern. A former Pennsylvania Railroad branch and connecting lines from the Detroit Terminal and Union Belt Railway round out the miles. All of these lines were first consolidated under Penn Central and then became part of Conrail.


The Wabash was one of many historic roads with rails into Detroit. The tracks are part of Norfolk Southern today.

Norfolk Southern had another historic route into Detroit before the Conrail acquisition via the old Wabash.

Most domestic traffic moves south from the city to connections with the major east-west trunk lines at Toledo, Ohio or further west at interchanges in Indiana. Heading north into the peninsula, branch lines serve a variety of other industries and deposits of natural resources.


Prior to the days of big autoracks, boxcars like this were the primary means of moving Detroit’s top export.

The Grand Trunk provides an important outlet for goods moving east to Canada (from Detroit most international traffic moves east, not north.) Today’s Grand Trunk includes parts of the former Detroit, Toledo and Ironton which it absorbed in 1981.

The DT&I itself has an interesting history that very much mirrors the boom and bust periods that typify the rest of Detroit’s past. It was for a time owned by Henry Ford, who’s experiment with electrification in 1923 can still be seen in some remaining catenary supports today. The DT&I was then sold to financial holding companies of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It retained its own identity through PRR control and was even given control of the Ann Arbor railroad for a time. The Penn Central bankruptcy changed things and the DT&I went into the hands of private investors for about a decade before being sold to Canadian National.

The names have all changed, but railroads continue to cross the city like a web serving the auto industry and many others. With multiple carriers sharing limited space, operations can still get very interesting around the many yards, crossings and interchanges and the future of the rails here seems secure.




5 responses

21 02 2014
Peter Dudley

The first Lionel rolling stock produced at Lionel’s Chesterfield, MI factory in 1970 was an orange Grand Trunk Western SP-type caboose, sporting a white “GT” wet-noodle herald. This caboose also holds the record for being the very first modern-era car, featuring “fast-angle wheels and needle-point bearings”. These Lionel features became standard for ALL 3-rail O-gauge trains. A maroon version was produced for the Canadian market.
The Chesterfield factory was located near GTW’s Detroit-Port Huron Mount Clemens Subdivision, built in 1859. Young Tom Edison worked along that line during the Civil War.

21 02 2014
Conductor Andrew

Reblogged this on theredcaboose1.

21 02 2014
Conductor Andrew

Nice addition to Freight Car Friday. I live in Toledo. Good to learn about history of Detroit trains.

21 02 2014
Andrew Falconer

Two other short railroads to mention:
Detroit & Toledo Shore Line owned by Grand Trunk Western and Nickel Plate Road, then became all GTW owned in 1983.
Port Huron & Detroit which was merged into the CSX.

21 02 2014
Andrew Falconer

The Standard O Scale Grand Trunk Western auto carriers had a road number mistake. The road numbers are supposed to be 6-digits, not 5-digits. I will have to figure out a way to patch over and put the correct numbers on the pair I now own.

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