Freight Car Friday – Freight Cars of York

19 10 2012

Sure, the city of York, Pennsylvania is filled with thousands of freight cars this week – but not all of them are O and S gauge! Let’s take a look at some of the historic railroads and freight cars that have called York home.

The Pennsylvania

It’s hard to go anywhere in the Commonwealth without seeing the impact of the “Standard Railroad of the World.” York was an important stop at about the midway point between Harrisburg and Baltimore on the historic Northern Central.

X31 boxcar

York was and is a manufacturing town. Boxcars like the Pennsylvania’s X-31 were a common site around the many factories as well as passing through to the many connections.

Construction on the route began in 1854. Work on the southern end of the line was greatly stymied by both finances and politics. The Civil War actually provided an opportunity for the line as it used new political connections to its own advantage. Thanks to Simon Cameron’s appointment to Lincoln’s cabinet and an allegiance with the Pennsylvania, the Northern Central was able to out maneuver the Baltimore and Ohio who had blocked attempts for the “foreign” line’s intrusion in their home city.

While the Northern Central remained a separate railroad on paper for many more years, it was operated as a division of the Pennsy. Its mainline eventually extended all the way to Buffalo and formed a critical north-south route for the Pennsy.

PP&L hoppers

Although not located in York itself, a large PP&L power plant is just a few miles away at Bruner Island. The PP&L’s unit hopper trains, along of course with other hoppers from the PRR and its successors, remain a common sight in the area.

The route between York and Baltimore featured more curves and grades than online customers. But it was the most direct route between Baltimore and Washington and the Pennsy’s east-west mainline. Although most freight was routed via the nearby Columbia and Port Deposit, passenger trains continued to use the Northern Central up until Amtrak’s arrival in 1971. Hurricane Agnes delivered the final crushing blow to through service on the line two years later.

Conrail autorack

Conrail maintained an automobile distribution yard in York for many years. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the cars had to travel via Buffalo and the Northern Central due to the tunnels on the old PRR mainline. The facility closed earlier this decade and has now become a transload facility for lumber products.

Today you can walk most of the route between York and Timmonium on a rail trail. One track remains in place on the Pennsylvania side of the border and there are hopes of returning a steam excursion to the southern end.

Although the eastbound Pennsy branch to Wrightsville and Columbia has also been largely abandoned, northbound from York, the line remains an active freight corridor. Today it is part of Norfolk Southern’s network and is served by a train to and from Enola daily.

Western Maryland

Western Maryland

The Western Maryland’s insulated steel boxcars were a common sight in the region, carrying apples and other farm produce to Baltimore markets. Many were stenciled to be returned to the WM at Hanover – just a few miles west of York.

Often overlooked in the history of York’s railroads is the Western Maryland. The “Wild Mary” reached the city off of a branchline from the southwest.

Although its route to Baltimore was less efficient than the Pennsy, the Western Maryland did represent an alternative for local customers looking for a route to the west. The railroad also brought loads and empties from other points along the winding southern Pennsylvania line from Hagerstown to York for interchange to the Pennsylvania for delivery to points north and east.

Today both this and a nearly parallel Pennsy branch are operated by Genesee Wyoming to serve local customers and interchange with CSX at the western end.

Maryland and Pennsylvania

The smallest of the roads to call York home was the Maryland and Pennsylvania. The quintessential shortline, the Ma and Pa was built up through the late Nineteenth Century from a series of independent small roads, some of them narrow gauge. The winding course from York to Baltimore rolled through the hills of York, Harford and Baltimore Counties to a terminus just blocks from the Pennsy’s Baltimore station.


Although the lettering scheme is far more simple than the Ma & Pa’s “per diem” cars, Yorkrail boxcars can still be seen all across the country, like this one in Centralia, IL.

The Ma and Pa never really represented a competitive threat to the PRR for through passenger or freight traffic however. Traffic generally originated or terminated on line. From points north of the Mason-Dixon, York was the primary interchange.

Although the lines south of the border ended operations in the 1950s, the railroad’s northern end hung on. It became part of Emmons Transportation who built a railcar refurbishing plant on the line. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, rebuilt “MA & PA” boxcars could be seen all across the country. The railroad was finally merged with the company’s Yorkrail line (a former PRR line to Hanover) in 1999. Today the property is part of the Genesee and Wyoming shortline group.

Freight Car Friday – Pennsylvania Railroad N5c “Caboose”

12 10 2012

While cabooses don’t usually fall into the category of freight cars, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s distinctive N5c class is one of the most iconic Lionel prototypes of all time. Though Pennsy folks will be sure to tell you, it’s not a caboose – it’s a cabin car.

PRR N5C caboose

The Pennsy’s N5c, with its porthole windows, has been a Lionel classic for more than 60 years.

When the railroad found itself in need of more cabin cars to meet the increased traffic demands during World War II, restrictions caused by that same war had a profound visual effect on the design. Prior to the war, the railroad had built hundreds of class N5, N5a and N5b cabin cars. The N5c was similar in size and interior configuration but had two major external differences.

The most obvious and famous of these was the substitution of round porthole windows on the sides and ends of the cars. These were necessitated by wartime production standards and utilized glass from shops already set up to cut windows for naval ships.


The “Shadow Keystone” was one of the more attractive schemes applied by the Pennsy.

The second feature improved comforts for the crew inside. The ends of the cupola on top of the roof were extended diagonally outward and the smoke stack from the coal stove was run through the cupola instead of directly out the roof. This provided extra heat for the crew in the cupola on cold days and also a more streamlined look on the exterior.

The Pennsy built 200 N5c’s before production ended. They certainly weren’t the last or most common class of cabin cars on the railroad, but they were the most unusual. And thanks to Lionel – among the best known caboose designs in the country!

1953 model

This classic Lionel model, made in 1953, shows the Pennsy’s previous paint scheme. It still looks good nearly 60 years later.

While Lionel and other manufacturers have reproduced this car in many scales and many paint schemes, there was plenty of variety on the prototype as well. When built, the cars featured a rather simple paint scheme with a very brownish red paint and basic PENNSYLVANIA lettering. In 1954, the “shadow keystone” and brighter red paint scheme was introduced.

Red turned to orange in the 1960s, then Penn Central green and finally Conrail blue a decade later. But there were other variations as well. Five cars were painted brown by Penn Central and Conrail for dedicated service on Pennsylvania Power and Light unit coal trains. On the Pennsy, some cars were painted with yellow cupolas. These signified that the cars were in “pool service” and could be interchanged between divisions.

Lionel Lines

Lionel Lines seems as at home on this distinctive car as Pennsylvania.

Some, but certainly not all, of the cars were equipped with the Pennsy’s distinctive Trainphone radio antennae. In the 1960s, more modern radios replaced these. Conrail further modified the roofs of all of the cars by removing roofwalks and lowering ladders. Cupola windows were also replaced and many had the distinctive portholes plated over.

The cars largely faded from the rails in the mid-1980s as cabooses overall were eliminated. Among the older cars included in the Conrail caboose roster, the N5c was an early casualty. During these retirements, dozens of the distinctive cars were purchased by museums, short lines, private collectors or communities looking for a landmark to place in a local park. And one certainly has to think that the high percentage of these cars in preservation may have just a little to do with fond memories of them running around beneath the Christmas tree.

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.

Freight Car Friday – Bi-level Autoracks

14 09 2012

This week we take a closer look at the prototypes for our forthcoming scale autoracks. These modern enclosed cars have been part of the railroad scene for decades and now you can add them and their operations to your layout.


The enclosed autorack has become a fixture on North American rails. This car is very close to the Lionel model.

Autoracks come in two basic configurations. Bilevel racks have a pair of decks (including the floor of the flatcar itself) and can haul two rows of taller vehicles like vans and trucks. Trilevel racks have an extra deck and can carry three rows of conventional automobiles. Up until the 1990s, trilevel cars were far more common, but with the rise in populuarity of the SUV, the number of bilevel cars has grown quickly over the past 20 years.

Early History

For many years, automobiles were carried in boxcars like other freight. The relative light weight of the cars for their size meant that these boxcars reached their volume capacity far faster than their weight limit. Loading cars through the side doors was also challenging and inefficient. End door boxcars helped with the loading, but could still only be loaded one at a time.


Notice the slots in the end doors on this car which line up with the upper loading deck.

New racks fixed on flatcars began to appear in the 1960s. These cars were longer and taller so they could carry more vehicles and make full use of the weight capacity of the cars. These cars could also be loaded “circus style” like piggyback trains. A string of autoracks was spotted on a siding with a ramp at the end. Bridge plates could be lowered to connect the cars and the entire cut loaded from that one spot.

These first cars kept the weight of the rack low by making it just a skeleton frame welded to the flatcar. Damage to finished vehicles in transit however prompted railroads to begin applying side panels and eventually roofs and end doors to the cars for protection. These not only added to the weight of the final car, but especially in the case of the roof, added to its size as well. Many routes in the country could not handle the enclosed cars due to low tunnels, bridges, etc. Still today, there are some branchlines that can not handle them.

Lionel’s Prototype

Canadian National

Canadian National owns both the rack and the flatcar on this car. The remnants of grafitti seen here are just one of the reasons for the enclosures.

There have of course been many variations in these cars’ designs over the years. Some of the details are smaller like the style of side panels, roof or doors. The racks have also been fastened to many different types of flatcars.

The vast majority of cars feature racks owned by and painted for different railroads added to flat cars leased from TTX (Trailer Train.) In some cases, the railroads own both the rack and the flat. The racks can remain attached to the flatcar for decades – often for the entire life of the car and the rack.


BNSF also owned both flatcars and racks, most inherited from the Santa Fe.

Flatcars from different builders have been used. The Lionel car is based on a prototype built by American Car and Foundry (ACF) – one of the more common prototypes. Cars used for trilevel racks often have a lower deck to accomodate the additional row of vehicles without excdeding clearance limits. Although you can’t see the deck itself from the outside, these cars usually have a lower external profile as well. Both types of cars can be seen together in trains depending on the operations.

For TTX cars, you can easily distinguish between the two types of cars by their reporting marks. Bilevel cars will have “TTGX” beside the roadnumber. Trilevels are grouped in the “ETTX” series. Racks for these cars have come from many many railroads and operate in a collective pool.


Thanks to the pooling arrangements for autoracks, these trains can be quite colorful. Railroads supply racks to the North American pool based on the number of annual carloadings they deliver in their yards. Consequently, railroads that serve large automotive markets have more cars in the pool than smaller operations.

Union Pacific

Union Pacific has the largest fleet of autoracks. The “We will deliver” slogan was added to many in 1996 and 1997.

Union Pacific currently opperates the largest pool, thanks to the quantity of transcontinental shipments. Conrail, which served more assembly plants than any other railroad, held the number two spot until its fleet was split in 1999 between Norfolk Southern and CSX. At the other end of the spectrum are the 10 cars contributed by the Providence and Worchester.

Cars of all of these railroads travel freely between lines. There is no need to route cars back to a “home” terminal for loading or unloading.

Shipments may be as small as a single autorack. More commonly, blocks of cars are gathered and moved between hubs as solid trains or as dedicated blocks in other trains. Railroads try to keep these cars out of hump yards where general freight is sorted. These gravity-fed switching operations can damage the cars if couplings are made too hard. Consequently, you’ll often see autoracks traveling on expedited schedules with intermodal trains or in solid trains of their own.

Santa Fe

Some railroads opted for logos on the ends rather than panels of the car, like this Santa Fe rack. Even among cars of the same line, you’ll often find lots of variations on logo placement.

Modeling an unloading terminal can be an interesting operation. Since it was much easier to drive the vehicles onto and off of the racks going forward, the train was turned on a wye before being delivered. Wyes were often located near auto terminals for just such a purpose.

The facilities themselves are often rather simple and include a large parking area, ramps to unload the cars, a small office, and ample room for the trucks to load. For security, fencing, gates and ample lighting are a must. We’ve already covered paving roads over railroad tracks and will soon cover making your own fences in our current modeling blog project. A small regional delivery area would be a much easier project than a sprawling assembly plant or port.

Whether your delivering cars for the local dealers or just watching these big colorful beasts roll by on the mainline, the new scale autoracks are sure to be a hit on your railroad.