Freight Car Friday – Railroads Around the Bay

1 03 2013

We’re setting up for our final World’s Greatest Hobby Show of 2013 today in San Mateo, California. The San Francisco bay area has been a transportation hub for California since its earliest days. As both an important port and railroad hub, that tradition continues today.

Since we’ve covered many of California’s historic railroads through our previous stops in the state, let’s take a look at what the railfan might find today in a trip around the Bay.



BNSF stack trains are a common sight around the Bay.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe came to San Francisco in 1995. It’s local tracks are all from the Santa Fe side of its family tree.

The Santa Fe was the Southern Pacific’s biggest competitor in the Bay Area. The railroad had some very interesting operations including tug boats and ferries across the Bay itself.

Today, BNSF trains serve the busy port of Oakland and other large local industries. Double-stack trains are common, as are autoracks, tank cars and other general freight.

From the Bay Area, trains can travel North, South or East. Many of the trains travel southeasterly over the famous route across the Tehachapi mountains. Thanks to shared trackage rights, it is not at all uncommon to see trains of both BNSF and Union Pacific on the same lines.

Union Pacific

The Union Pacific has many historical routes into the region including trackage from the Western Pacific and Southern Pacific. Most of UP’s Bay Area operations can be traced to the Southern Pacific, acquired in 1996.

Tank Train Car

The famous Tank Trains were once a common sight over the nearby Tehachapi Mountains. Tank cars of oil and other commodities are still common.

The Southern Pacific had some of the most extensive trackage in the Bay Area, including electrified operations. The Southern Pacific mainlines led north and south from San Francisco. Union Pacific trains can head north and east to Sacramento and the original transcontinental route, north to points in Oregon and Washington, or southeasterly over Tehachapi to connections to eastern and southern points.

The UP can also has former Western Pacific tracks serving local industries and stretching easterly through the Feather River Canyon and connections with the former Rio Grande.

Like BNSF, intermodal trains dominate the traffic. Not only will you see lots of international containers arriving from the ports, but domestic container and trailer traffic for these busy markets. There is also plenty of general merchandise variety as well.

San Francisco Bay Railroad

CR Autorack

Autoracks are a common sight around the port, with both imported and export vehicles.

This five mile shortline serves local industries and connections with both BNSF and Union Pacific in Richmond and the Port of San Francisco. Like many shortlines, this carrier has a lot of character. Motive power includes a trackmobile and two Alco switchers. And these venerable locomotives haul everything from containers to general freight.

This line is the last remaining active element of one of San Francisco’s first railroads, the State Belt Line. The Belt Line’s first rails were laid in 1889, and served customers around the region. With the Port of Oakland taking on more shipments, service dwindled following World War II. The state sold the railroad to the city in 1969 and it was subsequently sold into private hands for the first time in 1974.

The two Alco S2s running today date to this original line in 1946. The railroad also prides itself on its environmental record. They were the first railroad to convert their entire roster to biofuels. Perhaps even more interesting, they use a herd of goats as opposed to herbicides to keep the weeds at bay.

Mass Transit


Amtrak and others offer regular passenger service around the region.

San Francisco has long been one of the most famous cities in America for its mass transit. From the classic cable cars to trolleys to buses to the modern BART trains, the San Francisco area has a lot to offer mass transit fans. Add to all that the CalTrans and regional and long-distance Amtrak trains and you have lots to see. (You can even watch the CalTrans commuter trains from our Lionel booth at the show!) Whether you’re looking for a historic ride on a cable car or just a fast way to your next railfan location, this region’s mass transit has you covered.

Freight Car Friday – The Auto Train

30 11 2012

Part passenger train, part freight train, all fun! The Auto Train hauls both passengers and their automobiles between Virginia and Florida and is the longest passenger train in the world. Similar operations can be found across Europe, including through the Chunnel as part of their high-speed rail network.

Auto Train Corporation


Part passenger train and part freight, the Auto Train is huge in equipment and service.

The original Auto Train concept was pioneered by a for-profit company in 1971. The Auto Train Corporation used equipment acquired from a variety of sources to make up its unique train.

This included large dome cars, dining cars, sleepers and coaches from a variety of railroads and of course auto carriers which were among the first enclosed auto carriers built. These came from Canadian National and helped pave the way for future enclosed auto racks to follow.

end doors

Track after track of auto racks await loading at Lorton, VA. In addition to providing an excellent travel experience, the terminals are among the few places you can safely watch loading and switching operations like this.

In typical 1970s railroad style, the train was painted in rather non-traditional railroad colors of white, red and purple from the locomotives to the caboose. The train ran daily over the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac and Seaboard Coast Line between Lorton, Virginia (just south of Washington D.C.) and Sanford, Florida (about 30 minutes north of Orlando.)

Despite high ridership and a loyal customer base, the corporation went into bankruptcy after ten years of operation. Accidents, high operating costs, and unsuccessful expansion attempts were simply too much for the service to carry.


Although the corporation failed, the concept was highly successful and Amtrak resumed the service in 1983, using a combination of original Auto Train equipment and their own refurbished rail cars (Heritage Fleet) and locomotives.

Amtrak modernized the Auto Train with Superliner passenger equipment in the 1990s and 80 new bi-level autoracks built by Johnstown America from December, 2004 to January, 2005.

auto rack

Amtrak’s modern auto racks hold 10 vehicles each and have a clean appearance and integrated body design different from most racks used in freight service.

These replaced the original CN cars as well as some tri-level racks purchased new in 1976. Unlike the auto racks you see commonly in freight trains, these racks are all an integrated construction – not just a rack attached to a flat car. They are completely enclosed with a clean and modern appearance that complements the Superliner cars nicely.

Today the train regularly runs with consists of around fifty cars including sleepers, coaches, diners and lounges and the autocarriers. Each auto car will hold up to ten vehicles and the train will handle up to 330 vehicles and 650 passengers at full capacity. Pulled by two or three P40 locomotives, the train stretches more than 3/4 of a mile in length.


Multiple ramps at each terminal allow quick loading and unloading from both decks of the racks. Once loaded, these smaller groups of cars are gathered together and attached to the rear of the train.

Since traffic is often seasonal with “snow bird” passengers heading south for extended winter stays in Florida, empty cars may be frequently dead-headed to the opposite terminal to maintain a balance. The roster also has enough cars to cover maintenance down-time.


Some racks carry Amtrak’s Auto Train reservation number which pretty much sums it all up, “1-877 SKIP I95”

Trains operate daily in both directions, departing simultaneously at 4:00 in the afternoon from each terminal. The trains arrive at the other end at about 9:30 the following morning. Only one stop is made en-route to refuel and allow a crew change for the engineer and conductor. The train averages 49 mph over the run. While this is certainly not competition for air travel, it is competitive with driving and most passengers find it far more convenient and comfortable!

The route remains the same – though the tracks now all belong to CSX. And the train is traditionally one of the most “profitable” on Amtrak (although the train still runs at a lost, its revenue / operating costs are closer than on most runs.) While additional routes for this service have been explored in the past and may continue to be looked at in the future, for now the only firm commitment is this single market to compete with I-95. And its future looks as bright as the Florida sunshine.

Freight Car Friday – Roadrailers

28 09 2012

When is a freight car not a freight car? When it’s a truck. The Roadrailer is a unique intermodal vehicle that is both. These highway trailers / railcars have had a long and interesting story.

Early History


A Norfolk Southern Roadrailer train heads east against a summer sunset in Ohio.

Many think of intermodal and Roadrailer technology as something relatively new. The Chesapeake and Ohio introduced the first Roadrailers on the rear of passenger trains between Detroit and Grand Rapids in 1955. The short, 29′ vans were coupled to the back of the daily trains and carried mail and other less-than-carload traffic. Compared to today, the operation was as diminutive as the equipment but it paved the way for future developments.

The bi-modal concept went into hibernation for over a decade. In 1981, this very week in fact, a new generation of Roadrailers debuted on the Illinois Central Gulf. Like the earlier cars, the trailers carried their own set of railroad wheels and were connected to each other with drawbars. While this arrangement reduced tare weight on the rails vs. a traditional trailer-on-flatcar, on the highway the added weight was a detriment. The mechanics of the equipment were another potential problem as well.

Unlike the original service, these new trailers operated as their own dedicated train. After the Illinois Central, several additional railroads experimented with the concept and equipment through the 1980s. They could even be seen running behind EMD F units on CSX. Although the concept was gaining ground, the limitations of the equipment prevented most of the railroads from going forward with the experiment.

Technology Takes Hold

Triple Crown

Triple Crown’s fleet of roadrailers proved the advantages of the Wabash National design.

By the end of the decade, the Roadrailer would mature and begin to shed its railroad wheels. Wabash National, the leading builder of trailers in the U.S., purchased the technology in 1991 and redesigned the roadrailer to be much more like a conventional trailer. The noticeable difference between a Roadrailer and a road-only trailer are the extra connection pins and an air line for the train airbrakes.

The trailers are attached to railroad bogies, or trucks, in the terminal. A pneumatic suspension system on the trailer raises the body to accept the bogie. Once attached, the road wheels are then drawn up for clearance. Trains are built from the back to the front, one trailer at a time, with a single bogie supporting both the front of one trailer and the rear of another.


The “Couplermate” adaptor allows an easy connection to the locomotives. It is the only coupler needed for the entire train.

Once the trailers are connected, the air lines must be connected to the bogies which also hold the brake cylinders. An end-of-train device is put on the rear and a special adapter bogie with a standard knuckle coupler at one end is placed under the front of the first trailer.

Because of the tight connections between the trailers, a train of as many as 125 cars has only six inches of coupler slack. With its light weight and tight connections, a Roadrailer handles much more differently than a conventional train. While in some ways this handling is easier and more advantageous, engineers must still be careful as the structure of the trailers is not nearly as robust as a railcar. A sudden stop or start can tear a trailer in half or crush it like a soda can.

The Modern Era


BNSF’s refrigerated Roadrailers now travel on flatcars. Some retain their Roadrailer hardware however.

Thanks to these improvements, Roadrailers saw an explosion of growth in the 1990s. The largest operator then and now is Triple Crown Corporation, owned by Norfolk Southern. Conrail bought a 50% stake in the company in 1993 which returned to NS during the merger in 1999.

There were several more operations springing up across the country. Santa Fe tested five trailers specially adapted for hauling automobiles. Later BNSF ordered a large fleet of refrigerated trailers for service out of the Northwest. Canadian National and trucking companies Schneider National, Clipper and Swift also bought fleets of Roadrailers.


Amtrak’s first group of Roadrailers were only 48′ long and featured sliding side doors. Triple Crown no longer uses the side doors.

Then the technology came full circle as Amtrak purchased new Roadrailers for mail and express shipments. These rode on the rear of passenger trains all across the country.

The golden years were short lived however. Amtrak soon decided that the added delays to passengers more than offset the financial gains from its Roadrailers and other express contracts. All of the other operations except for Triple Crown also fizzled within a few months or years of inception. Many of these Roadrailers were sold to Triple Crown and are still in service. Others can still be spotted riding conventional intermodal trains as trailers.

ex Clipper

Most of the Roadrailers built in the 1990s are serving their final years on Triple Crown trains, like this ex – Clipper trailer.

Triple Crown continues to operate an extensive network across the northeast U.S. serving many automotive suppliers and other industries with the flexible service. In recent months however the company has begun to show a shift to conventional trailers and rumors abound that within a few years it too may cease Roadrailer operations. Just in case, get out there are see them while you can! Who knows if or when the revolution will begin again.

New Product Spotlight – The Acela

2 04 2012

The Acela is America’s fastest passenger train today, speeding between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C. at speeds of up to 150 mph. The comfortable business and first class seating combines speed with an efficient and enjoyable place to travel. Lionel is bringing back the popular Acela in 2012 with several improvements over our previous runs.


The improved Acela is ready to add speed and service to your layout.

Lionel worked closely with Amtrak, using original construction and paint plans to bring you the most accurate rendition of the Acela possible. These trains are packed with detail and extras, both inside and out. The Acela is sure to be a hit for everyone who sees it. And with our improvements in this edition, we’re giving you even more control over the show.

The set features a powered and non-powered locomotive, a first class and business class car. A two-car add-on set provides the cafe/bistro and an additional business class car to lengthen the consist. The powered locomotive features Odyssey II control, dual motors, traction tires, and a crew in the cab to complete the look.  Both locomotives are equipped with several more amazing features:

add-on cars

Add to the consist with another business class car and the cafe/bistro.

  • LEGACY Control: Get the best control on the market. The locomotives are LEGACY equipped but will also work with TMCC, and conventional transformer control. We’ve improved the slow-speed performance in conventional control as well.

    sound recording

    It doesn't get any closer to real than this. Lionel's sound engineer Bruce Koball recorded the sounds for this model directly from the prototype.

  • LEGACY Sound: Recorded directly from the real train, the sounds bring the Acela to life. You’ll get a quillable horn with pre-programmed warning whistles, a single-clap or automatic bell, crew and dispatcher dialog with different scenarios. The trip sequence will provide proper background sounds for an entire run as you control the speed. And you get dialog from the conductor and crew with station calls, speed announcements and more.
  • Working Pantographs: watch the pans raise and lower automatically depending on the direction of travel. The electronics for these have been redesigned to be more robust and with thermal protection.
  • Operating LED headlights, marker lights, track lights, number boards, cab interior and oscillating ditch lights.
  • Scale couplers beneath the nose cones and numerous extra metal details.
bright lighting

Controllable LED lighting helps you highlight the interior details the way you want. From full intensity...

The action continues in the cars. When the train pulls into the station, you can open the doors with the press of a button on your cab. We’ve worked to improve the operating mechanism to minimize jams and added under-door lighting. The interiors feature scale details and passengers. You’ll be able to appreciate all of the interior wonder with the improved lighting system. You can control the intensity of the LED lighting with your CAB-2/CAB-1 remote from intense full lighting which will show off the details in even the brightest room to a more subdued and prototypical level, or turn them off completely. The lights will dim and increase gradually.

lighting-dim a more subdued level perfect for darker rooms and photography.

The cars are connected by a new innovative connection system. Full diaphragms also connect the cars. The train will operate over O-72 curves.

Retail for the set is $1,699.99. The two car add-on set is $499.99 and features the same features as the cars in the train set. Make the Acela the pride of your high-speed fleet this year!