Freight Car ABC’s: A Back to School Quiz

6 09 2013

It’s back to school time – I can hear the parents rejoicing now! In empathy for the kids, how about a little freight car quiz of our own?

Freight cars are filled with “fine print.” And all of it has special meaning for shippers, car repairmen and operators. How well do you know your freight car ABC’s? See how well you can identify the markings on these cars. When you’re finished, you can check your answers with this key.

weight data

1: CAPY, LD LMT, LT WT? What do they mean and how are they different?

1. CAPY, LD LMT and LT WT usually appear just below the railroad’s reporting marks and car number. What do these three lines mean? Why doesn’t the math ever seem to add up?

weigh date

2: “CR-AB 10-83” must mean something… 3: How can you tell what type of car this is just by what you see here?

2. What does the “CR-AB 10-83” mean? (Hint, it has nothing to do with crustaceans.)

3. Without seeing any more of it or checking a roster, what type of car is CR 878330?

Santa Fe map

4: EXW, H, IL – Why are all these dimensions important?

4. EW, H, IL – what are all of these figures and why do they matter?


5: What does “COTS” mean?

5.Today, many of the maintenance figures for a car are put in one place. These black boxes are called “Consolidated Lube Stencils” and include the car’s build date and service information. What does “COTS” stand for?

Plate C

6: What is “Plate C”? 7: “Do Not Hump?”

6. “Plate C”? What does that mean?

7. “DO NOT HUMP” – This shows up on special cars from time to time – sometimes it’s just tacked onto the car as a temporary sign. Why?

yellow dot

8: Why were these yellow dots important in 1978?

8.For a short while, this simple symbol of a yellow dot on a black square background appeared on most cars. What did it mean?

How well do you know your freight car markings? Check the answer key to see if you’ve passed your car inspector’s test.

Freight Car Friday – Owney the Railway Post Office Dog

23 08 2013

The “Dog Days of Summer” are here – the perfect time to take a look at one of the cuter faces of railroading. Chessie the cat may be the best-known railroad animal, but the Railway Postal Service had a mascot that was even more well-traveled.


Nobody is quite sure how it started. but in 1888 a scruffy little mutt found his way into the Albany, New York post office and became a regular fixture. He took from following the postmen to following the bags themselves. This took him into wagons and of course, onto the trains.


Owney was a pride and joy for the Railway Postal Service. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

Soon Owney was traveling from city to city with the clerks as they sorted mail in the Railway Post Office. He was considered a good luck charm – no train he rode every had an accident. And whenever he arrived in a new city, the postmaster added another tag to his collar. Word of Owney and his travels moved quickly – the RPO was after all the center of the nation’s communications network of the day. Owney even embarked on a world tour in 1895 via train and steamship across the United States and Asia.

The Postmaster General, John Wanamaker, took a liking to the dog and had a special vest made for his growing collection of tags. He would be featured in newspaper articles around the country. He was perhaps the most famous dog of his era, capturing the growing spirit of adventure and travel in the way only a lovable mutt can. Some of his trips were planned, but often Owney came and went as he pleased. With each stop, the tags on his vest only added to his legend.

Albany may have been home, but Owney was happy anywhere the mail and rails would take him. Image courtesy of National Postal Museum.

Albany may have been home, but Owney was happy anywhere the mail and rails would take him. Image courtesy of National Postal Museum.

Sadly, Owney died in Toledo in 1897. Official cause of death was a gunshot wound. Owney had always had an independent spirit and in his older age was growing less fond of handling, even by the postal workers. After biting a clerk and lunging at the chief of police, Owney was put down.

Postal workers from around the country took up a collection to have his body preserved. Today Owney and his medals belong to the Smithsonian and can be seen in the atrium of the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C.

In 2011 Owney was featured on his own postage stamp. He has also been the subject of several children’s books, school activities, a commemorative spoon – he even has his own Facebook page! Thankfully, although no official record of his travels remains, much can be learned from the tags and constant media coverage to document the majority of Owney’s experience. You can learn more about Owney through the National Postal Museum.

While we all like the mechanical side of railroading, it’s important to remember it has a human, err canine, side as well.

National Train Day – Rail Fun for the Whole Family

8 05 2012

This Saturday, May 12, marks the fifth annual National Train Day event across the United States. Created and sponsored by Amtrak, National Train Day has spawned events of all types all with one goal in mind – sharing the fun, history, and learning power of trains with families.

Waving to Amtrak

Some things never change – like the simple joy of waving to a passing train.

Trains really are a great family past time. Traveling by train is a much more family friendly way to go – yes it may take a little longer than a flight, but you’re adding quality time as a family and avoiding a lot of hassle at the terminal, the fares are great, and you can actually make the travel a part of the trip itself. What better way to teach your kids about the world than to let them see it – not just fly over it. Then there are all of the great excursion railroads where you can take the train not to go anywhere, but just to go!

But without a doubt, one of the greatest family hobbies is model trains. Not only do you share and learn together, but you create something all your own – and a tradition and bond that goes way beyond the edge of the platform. It’s great to see the railroads themselves helping share in that delight and tradition.

From big railroad companies like Amtrak, Union Pacific, BNSF and Norfolk Southern to railroad museums and historical societies, model railroad clubs, even zoos and aquariums – just about anybody with a connection to trains has jumped on board this event. Many of these special programs are offered free of charge and are designed to appeal to audiences of all ages.

For a complete list of what is happening this year, check out the National Train Day website. Amtrak is sponsoring big events in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. These events will include all sorts of train displays, from equipment tours to live entertainment to model layouts. You can check out the Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club in Chicago’s Union Station. The myriad of additional programs offered are far to great to list here.

How Can You Share in the Fun?

Well for starters, you can take your family to one of these events! But of course there is much more that you can do. Maybe there just isn’t something that close to home or you’ve already made your plans this weekend. (Or did you forget that Sunday is Mothers’ Day? Yikes!) Have your own family train day at home. Set up the trains, work on a building kit together, invite the neighbors over to see your layout… you get the idea!



Amtrak’s 40th Anniversary train will be on display in New York City. Additional heritage locomotives and equipment can be seen at their other major stops as well.

And while you’re at it, give some thought to National Train Day 2013 – maybe you could help bring an event to your hometown. It’s a great way for local clubs to involve the public. You could also host an event at a local library or community center. Give a clinic on how to set up a layout. Read children’s stories. Help the local scout troop with their Railroading Merit Badge. Invite railroaders, active and retired, to come for a dinner and roundtable discussion – that’s guaranteed to be an evening you’ll never forget!

There are really only two things required for a Train Day event – trains and sharing. We know you’ve got the trains, we hope you’ll share the hobby with those around you. And please, while you’re at it, share you’re pictures and stories from your National Train Day with us!

The Song of the Rails

17 04 2012

Railroads have had more than their share of influence over our popular culture. Nowhere is that easier to see than in our music. Since their arrival in the 1830s, trains have chuffed, chugged and locomotioned their way into song. Sometimes the songs are about the trains themselves, often the train is a metaphor for something larger. From Bluegrass to Folk to Rock and Roll, the rhythm of the rails remains a popular theme in our music to this day.

Songs About Trains


Trains became part of our popular culture as they became part of our daily lives.

The number of tunes which make mention of trains is too great to count. We’ve had Crazy Trains, Love Trains, Peace Trains, Party Trains, Ghost Trains, Leavin’ Trains, Mystery Trains, Downbound Trains, Runaway Trains, Fast Trains, Slow Trains, Last Trains even Soul Trains. From the 3:10 to Yuma and to the Midnight Train to Georgia, Engine #9 to the Little Red Caboose, for the engineer, conductor, gandy dancer, porter and hobo, from the station to the subway to the endless miles of lonely rails, whether you Take the A Train or the Last Train to Clarksville, if you are connected to trains there is a ballad for you.


Trains and music go hand in hand - so commemorative cars like this Lionel Elvis train are a natural fit.

From childhood classics to spirituals, to modern dance jams, whether it is just an extension of the fascination with trains or the 4/4 timing and rhythm of a steam locomotive – a train just lends itself well to music. What is even more amazing is the number of songs written not just about trains, but about specific railroads, trains, wrecks and events.

From the Wreck of the Ol’ 97 to the Orange Blossom Special, many popular songs have come from specific trains and railroads. Trains were the way we traveled and connected and events on the rails were national events. Some songs helped shape the way the world looked at railroads and railroaders. The Ballad of Casey Jones forever changed the way an engineer and a tragic-but-preventable accident are remembered.

train in the distance

"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance." - Paul Simon

Not only the songs, but many artists have made trains a part of their public persona. Johnny Cash, Rod Stuart and of course, Niel Young come to mind almost immediately when we think of railroads and musicians.

One song became so popular that a railroad named a train after it! The Wabash Cannonball was so popular that the Wabash renamed its flagship train between Detroit and St. Louis in 1949. The origins of the song date from 1882 and 1904 and its popularity began to skyrocket in the 1930s with recordings by the Carter Family and Roy Acuff.

The Train as a Symbol

Perhaps Paul Simon sums it up best, “There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.” Of course that long, low whistle has been


The railroad has become part of our landscape, both physical and cultural.

interpreted as mournful and foreboding as well. The image of a train has been used for everything from death to freedom. It has been a journey home and a ticket to a new life. It has been both nostalgic and a new beginning.City of New Orleans is a song about an Illinois Central train, but really speaks more to the troubles of America as a whole. In Bruce Springsteen’s Land of Hope and Dreams, the train extolls the best of American values and ideals. The freedom of a train is a much more painful longing in Johnny Cash’s classic Folsom Prison Blues. In Josh Turner’s contemporary country classic Long Black Train it is temptation.

What are your favorite train songs? Which of the ones we mentioned here will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day?