Freight Car Friday – Coal Cars

20 12 2013

When we think of coal cars, we traditionally think “hoppers.” But over the long history of moving coal by rail, many different types of cars have been used. So in the spirit of the season, let’s take a look at what might be bringing the coal to your stocking this year! (No train lover would ever really consider that a bad present after all.)

Early Coal Cars

early coal

Early coal cars, like those pulled by the Stourbridge Lion, showed little engineering imagination.

Coal was among the very first commodities carried by the early steam, gravity and horse-drawn railways of the Nineteenth Century. The first coal cars were the most simple of affairs. Essentially a topless wooden crate with pair of axles beneath it, these small cars held only a few tons of coal at best. Cars were unloaded by hand, or simply toppled over and then put back on the track. Chains served as couplers and brakes…who needs brakes?

As the efficiency of rail transportation and the potential power of steam locomotives became clear however, the need for refinements to these primitive designs were equally obvious. Gondolas would remain the car of choice for the first few decades owing to their simplicity of construction and the fact that hoppers would have to be spotted over some sort of pit or bridge to make gravity unloading practical. But standards, appliances and car capacities all quickly improved.

The first hopper cars, which could unload their contents from doors on the bottom, began to emerge in the 1850s. Prior (and even subsequently) to this there were drop-bottom gondolas which featured a doors in a flat floor. The angled ends (slope sheets) would offer faster unloading however and the lower hopper doors and bays improved both capacity and the cars’ center of gravity.

Wood to Steel

steel hopper

Pennsylvania 33164, a GL class car built in 1898 shows construction details typical of early steel cars. It is preserved today at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

By far, the majority of coal cars produced prior to 1895 were made predominantly of wood. The B&O had experimented with some iron “pots” as early as the 1840s but their tare weight was much too high. It was not until the pressed steel designs of the end of the Century that the railroads could begin to seriously consider steel as an option.

At first railroads were reluctant to switch to steel for its weight and cost. After only a few years in service however, the comparative economics of the more durable material became obvious. While wood remained a common building material for boxcars and reefers for the next several decades, the conversion to steel for hoppers happened relatively quickly. By 1910, with the exception of some composite wood and steel cars during the wars, construction of wood hoppers had nearly completely ended and those that remained in service would be retired over the coming decade.


Nickel Plate

The 55 ton hopper was a standard size for decades. The offset-side design was one popular option.

After the switch to steel, there were numerous variations on the design of coal cars. Some of these were in search for a better construction method, lower tare weights or to address the concerns of specific shippers. Others were centered around increasing the overall capacity of the car. Since you could easily fill a book on the various designs, we’ll focus on the general capacity changes here.

The “standard” car from 1900 to 1960 carried 50 to 55 tons of coal. The 55 ton hopper remained common into the 1970s. There are a variety of reasons this capacity remained the standard for so long. From the shippers’ perspective, this size worked well for a variety of coal uses. Coal for home heating for example was typically shipped in smaller quantities to local distribution centers. Larger consumers still enjoyed the advantage of these small cars by blending several carloads of different grades of coal to get just the formula they demanded.

For the railroads, the size had as much to do about standardization of the dimensions and mechanical parts, in particular the wheels and journals, to make interchange of the coal cars easy among all carriers. There were however clearly cases where a larger hopper offered greater savings.


The Pennsylvania’s H21 class of 70 ton cars were among the most numerous of this capacity produced before WWII.

Next up from the 55 ton car was the 70 ton hopper. These were generally used by larger customers including power and steel companies and for export coal. Although this size of car first showed up in the 1920s, they wouldn’t become a new standard on many lines until the 1960s.

There were also some early experiments into truly enormous coal cars for their day. The most successful of these were 100 and 120 ton gondolas built by the N&W and Virginian. Used only on their own routes for export coal, these “Battleship Gondolas” greatly reduced operating costs between the mines and new rotary car dumpers in Newport News, VA. It was a concept sixty years ahead of its time.

Unit Trains and the Return of the Gondola


Pennsylvania Power and Light was one of the first utility companies to embrace the unit train concept.

By the late 1960s, the economics of coal were changing. While it remained the number one commodity for the railroads, its shipping patterns were changing and coal cars would have to adapt to keep up. Smaller individual car-load shipments were giving way to bulk orders. New competition from government-funded coal slurry pipelines and inland waterways posed a significant threat.

Railroads met the challenge in two ways. First, unit trains offered improved service and much faster turnaround. The efficient dedicated trainload service cut railroad operating costs significantly. Consequently they could pass huge savings onto the big customers to keep them happy.

When these new schedules were combined with new larger equipment, the economic gains were magnified. First 70 ton and then quickly 90 and 100 ton hoppers became the standard. In the span of a decade, the average capacity of a coal car in North America nearly doubled.

UP train

Modern Railroading – A loaded train of bathtub gons descends Union Pacific’s Kirkwood Hill with an unmanned helper on the rear.

The rotary dumper also began to become widely accepted and installed at these major consumers. This rotating platforms could dump 100 tons of coal into the plant in under two minutes. It also meant that the hoppers, especially their mechanical doors, were no longer necessary. Many railroads rebuilt their hoppers into large gondolas to extend their life and reduce operating costs.

Today, the 120 ton capacity gondola is the standard. While you’ll still find plenty of hoppers on the rails for customers who don’t have dumpers (or who prefer the security of knowing their cars can still unload even if the dumper is broken) 100 car trains of these large gons show up regularly on railroads across North America.

The traffic patterns have shifted too. Today the majority of coal used in the United States, and exported from here around the world, comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. PRB coal has even found its way into plants in old-coal states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Mines there still fill trains however, including the rich Anthracite fields of eastern Pennsylvania whose product can’t be matched anywhere else. Those modern cars however sure look a lot different from the wooden boxes which descended the gravity switchbacks and inclined planes nearly 200 years earlier.

Freight Car Friday – Eastern Ohio Rails

16 08 2013

If you’re headed to our Customer Service Open House tomorrow in Canfield, Ohio you may want to save a little time for some real train watching as well. Northeastern Ohio is a still a busy railroad area with plenty of Class 1 railroads as well as several local shortlines providing lots of action and variety. Several promising train watching locations can be found within just a few minutes’ drive from our Ohio facility.

Norfolk Southern


A Norfolk Southern Roadrailer train heads east against a summer sunset in Columbiana – just south of our facility. With the long summer days, you can enjoy the open house and still get in plenty of train watching!

Today’s Norfolk Southern has several historic ties to the region. The closest rails to Canfield are both former Pennsylvania Railroad lines acquired through Conrail. Just a few miles south of town you can catch lots of mainline action on the former PRR mainline to Chicago and St. Louis. You’ll see freight cars of just about every type here. Intermodal trains are quite common, including double stacks and Roadrailers. You’ll also catch unit trains of coal, oil and ethanol, stone, autos and occasionally grain. There is frequent mixed freight action coming and going from Conway Yard, not far away across the Pennsylvania line. Amtrak’s Capitol Limited also uses the line but normally passes here in the dark.


Traffic at Hazelton Yard in Youngstown still shows lots of cars serving steel industries.

Heading east towards Youngstown, you can also catch Norfolk Southern on the Pennsy’s former Youngstown Line. Traffic here is a little lighter but includes a few daily mixed freights, plenty of coal and ore trains along with empties, as well as local runs serving a variety of industries. Although the steel trade is not what it once was, steel products are still make up many of the loads. Gondola, coil cars and flatcars are most common.

For a completely different look, you can travel a few miles in the opposite direction to the large GM assembly plant in Lordstown. Although the plant is served by Norfolk Southern via a small branch line, most of the traffic is delivered to CSX’s nearby mainline. If you’re looking for big boxcars and autoracks, this is the place.



One of the many auto trains on CSX heads races east ahead of threatening skies. The small town of Lowelville offers a pleasant place to catch all the action – along with the NS Youngstown Line.

CSX comes through the area on former B&O and P&LE tracks. Part of their mainline west from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C., you’ll see a great variety of traffic here too. In the Youngstown area, CSX and the NS Youngstown line are often close by. With the help of a scanner you can easily catch trains on both lines all day. The lines cross at Center Street in Youngstown and the junction is easily and safely viewed from a public overpass.

CSX traffic includes lots of coal, coke, auto and intermodal trains in addition to mixed freights and locals. Lines east of Pittsburgh have clearance restrictions which limit double stacks to pairs of the shorter international containers. Scenery on this line also varies from quaint small towns to wooded hills, to the urban backdrop of Youngstown to open farmland. If you want a different view, it can usually be had in just a few minutes’ drive.

Youngstown and Southeastern

Lionel boxcar

Here’s one you just can’t shoot anywhere else!

Looking for something completely different? The Youngstown and Southeastern offers a chance to watch some first-generation Geeps hauling large unit trash trains down a single-track branch line. The line was originally the Youngstown and Southern, eventually part of the P&LE and handed down through a long string of owners after 1991. Today the line’s primary function is to serve the Total Waste Logistics trash incinerator. Trash cars are interchanged with CSX and NS in Youngstown.

When not in use, the line’s locomotives can usually be found next to the old station in North Lima. While you’re there, make sure to see the Lionel Lines and LGB boxcars!

We hope you’ll all be able to make it to our 3rd annual open house. There are lots of other great train (and non-train) activities in the region too, so make a weekend of it!

Freight Car Friday – Coke Cars

23 03 2012

Coke is a product created by baking coal, not unlike the process of making charcoal from wood. Baking removes impurities, and burns cleaner than bituminous coal. Because of this, coke is ideal for use in furnaces and stoves. It has also been used in specialty industries like malting. By volume however, the number one user of coke is the iron and steel industry. While it can occur naturally, most coke used today is man-made.

The baking process also reduces weight. Coke is considerably more porous and lighter than coal. This has had an impact on the freight cars designed to haul it.

LCL Shipments

coke bins

Gondolas with coke bins make it easy to add coke shipments to your layout.

Because of its clean-burning, “smokeless” qualities, coke has been a popular fuel for some smaller consumers. For those who did not want to buy coke by the carload, railroads developed smaller shipping containers which could be loaded into gondolas, similar to other early containers for traditional less-than-carload freight. The cars would be spotted on a customer siding such as a fuel company or even a team track. Individual containers would be unloaded and transported by truck directly to the consumer.

These shipments conveniently sub-divided the load, but were not very efficient from the railroads’ perspective. The loads were labor intensive and the cars had a very high car-weight to load-weight ratio. Many of the customers for this fuel would switch to natural gas or electric heat in the 1950s. Remaining customers were generally more efficiently served by truck.

Bulk Shipment

Modified hopper

CSX added extensions onto this hopper to carry more coke. Such a conversion could be done to a model with styrene plastic sheets and shapes. Conventional cars can also be seen in the train.

For large users like steel mills, coke could be purchased not by the container but by the trainload. Many blast furnaces had coke ovens located adjacent, eliminating the need for rail transport. Since the number of mills and coking facilities has diminished since the 1970s, coke is increasingly produced off site. A single coke plant may supply several furnaces.

Coke is often transported in hopper cars, or large rotary-dump gondolas like coal. Because coke is lighter, coke will fill a conventional hopper’s capacity before reaching its weight limit. Consequently, coke service cars are often built taller than coal cars. In addition to new cars, railroads often rebuild older coal hoppers with extended sides. CSX has recently gone in the other direction and shortened some large hoppers designed for even lighter wood chips.


100 ton hopper

Cars like our 100 ton hoppers are a great start to modern coke trains.

Modeling a complete coke plant would occupy more space than most of us have for our entire layouts. You can model the shipments however. Lionel’s coke-container gondolas are all you need for smaller, local shipments. Delivery to a malting plant or fuel supply depot would also make much easier modeling projects.

For larger coke trains and cars, conventional hoppers and rotary gondolas will work well.  Our 100 ton hoppers would be a great starting point. You could also add extensions to car sides like the prototype if you have an interest in customizing your models. Coke, especially when reduced to O Scale, looks very similar to coal, so you can use the same loads.

New Product Spotlight – Offset Hoppers

27 02 2012

From the early 20th Century to the 1960s, the 55 ton hopper was a standard of North American railroading. The size worked well for smaller deliveries of coal and rock (as opposed to larger 70 and later 100 ton cars). This was especially true for anthracite coal which dominated the home heating market. Even larger consumers often made good use of the smaller cars. By loading cars with different grades of coal, customers could blend coal on site to achieve specific mixtures at more economical prices.

Nickel Plate

The Nickel Plate was not thought of as a big coal hauler, but the road did operate an impressive fleet of 55 ton hoppers.

These 55 ton cars came in several typical designs. Nearly all featured two bays, or sloped sets of doors and a length of around 34 feet. The two biggest variations are what modelers commonly call “outside braced” and “offset side” hoppers. On the former, the vertical supporting posts are on the outside of the sheet metal sides. On the latter, the sheet metal sides bulge out to wrap around the posts.

WLE Hopper

The Wheeling and Lake Erie's hoppers were a common sight around the steel centers of eastern Ohio and beyond.

The offset side hopper offers increased volume capacity without increasing the overall width of the car. But there is a drawback. The primary commodity hauled in these hoppers, coal, is highly acidic. A combination of coal dust and moisture causes residue to cling to the interior surfaces of the car, which in this case includes structural supports. Consequently, repairs to offset side cars were more extensive and expensive. Use of the cars was largely up to the preferences of individual prototypes. Some roads, like the New York Central and Lehigh and New England relied heavily on the design. Other big coal haulers like the Reading and the Chesapeake and Ohio had large fleets of both offset and outside braced cars. Then there were roads like the Norfolk and Western and Pennsylvania that few or none.

By the 1970s, changing markets spelled and end for the 55 ton car overall and the offset-side cars in particular. While a few lasted long enough to see Conrail and Chessie System paint, the cars were all but extinct by 1980.

Lionel’s Scale Models

CP Hopper

Three more road names will be rolling on to dealer’s shelves on these popular cars in 2012. The Nickel Plate, Wheeling and Lake Erie and Canadian Pacific were all users of these cars. And unlike today’s unit trains, in their time these cars roamed very freely onto other railroads in single-car shipments or as part of equipment pools in larger coal movements. So feel free to add some more variety to your roster no matter what railroad you model.

The scale models feature sprung metal trucks and working couplers with hidden uncoupling tabs. A metal carbody provides plenty of weight for tracking. A realistic one-piece coal load is included and the cars feature working hopper doors for those who’d like to ship real loads. The cars will negotiate O-31 curves and retail for $69.99. Look for these on your dealer shelves just in time for summer!