Freight Car Friday – Evans “Breadbox” Coil Cars

25 07 2014

The subject for this week’s post is a very obscure prototype that actually found its way into the Lionel product line in the 1970s. Although only 60 of the prototype cars ever existed, they have been reproduced by the thousands in HO scale by Lionel and other manufacturers.

Steel coils are a challenging load. They are heavy, shift or topple easily in transit and often require protection from the elements and careful handling to avoid scratches and dents that will incur costly claims on these expensive loads. Car builders, railroads and steel companies began looking for more efficient ways of handling steel coils in the 1960s. Traditional gondolas offered easier loading but lacked the restraints necessary to support the coils or protection from the elements. Boxcars were difficult to load and presented a poor car weight / capacity to load-limit ratio.

coil car

From the Lionel Archives, the 5-8620 “B&LE Cable Car” captured the unique shape and features of these Evans coil carriers.

Evans Products would emerge as a leader in coil car design and production, but all of their designs weren’t as successful. Evans’ first coil cars came in 1964. In 1967, they produced an experimental car which more closely represented a traditional gondola. This single 42′ prototype led to slightly larger 50′ cars that same year.

The inside of the gondola held a wooden trough which ran the length of the car to support the sides of the coils. Adding to the load protection were large cushioned coupler draft gear boxes on the ends of the car. But the cars’ most distinctive feature was the large retractable steel canopy which could be closed over the load in transit. The distinctive roof gave the cars the nickname “breadboxes.”

Unlike other cars whose covers were separate pieces, the integrated design of the breadbox was conceived as a way to correct the problems these covers caused at the mills. Separate covers required additional storage space. They were frequently mismatched with other cars when being replaced which led to some colorful cars but an accounting nightmare. The hoods were also subject to rough handling by crane crews this damage could cause the covers to leak or not fit properly on the car.


Lionel’s HO model came with opening doors and a simulated cable reel load. While not a common lading, these cars did haul other products which could fit in the cradle and required cover.

The breadbox hoods were designed to be manually opened and closed by a worker at the end of the car. This eliminated the need to use cranes and, since the open hoods stayed attached, also eliminated the need to store and sort the hoods. The potential for reduced damage claims was enough for the steel hauling-giant Pittsburgh and Lake Erie to lease 50 of the cars in 1967. Bessemer and Lake Erie took another 10.

While the cars were designed so that no mechanical assistance was needed to open or close the lids, hasty mill workers often used overhead cranes to do so anyway. This damaged the closing mechanism so that when the hoods were reopened again, instead of a controlled and gradual opening they came crashing apart as soon as they were unlocked. The resulting clash of steel on steel inside a mill had to be not only deafening but put the worker on the car’s end platform at extremely high-risk of injury.

In 1973, the P&LE sent all the cars back to Evans and terminated the lease. The hoods were removed and the cars were used for transporting hot coils which did not require protection from the elements. P&LE bought the reconfigured cars and used them through 1990 when the remaining cars were purchased by H & S Railroad. Bessemer also removed their covers but did supply their 10 cars with new removable hoods. Despite the changes up top, the old breadboxes always stood out in a train with their cushioned draft gear, fishbelly side sills and a pair of large, curved side posts which once supported the opening doors. Most remained in service into the 2000s.

Although their time in the spotlight was brief, these cars commanded a lot of press and promise at their introduction. P&LE featured a rendering of one of the cars on their 1968 Annual Report. With the distinctive look and added play value of the opening hood, Lionel included these cars in two sets in the 1976 HO Catalog – one in P&LE and one in B&LE lettering. Cars were also sold separately. The tooling for the models has since been used by other manufacturers and collectors can still easily find these cars at shows and online auctions.

Freight Car Friday – Tie Cars

13 06 2014

Fathers Day is this weekend, so what could be more appropriate than a carload of ties! Of course these ties weigh about 200 pounds each, come soaked in creosote and are just slightly less fashionable than most of the ties Dad will get this year.

centerbeam flatcar

A centerbeam flatcar has a load of recycled bridge ties. Although used, the ties may have enough useful life left for resale.

Railroad ties are a vital but easily overlooked part of the railroad’s infrastructure. The ties both support the rails (and the trains upon them) and keep the rails in proper gauge. In North America, the vast majority of ties are still made of wood (preferably oak.) Some heavy mainlines have been converted to concrete ties, which have been far more common in Europe for decades.

Properly treated, a tie can survive many years under the rails. Wood ties are infused with creosote – a thick, sticky and stinky black tar. Like everything else, there is a lot of science behind cutting and treating these ties to ensure they provide the longest service possible the railroads.

raw ties

Loads of untreated ties are bound for a treatment plant. Some of that facility’s finished products are awaiting installation by the neighboring track.

It starts with proper cutting to ensure that the heartwood is in the center. Once properly cut to size, the ties must be dried prior to treatment. Drying requires careful stacking and can take up to eight months to reach the proper moisture content.

Next the ties are loaded into large cylinders. Creosote is added and then the cylinder is heated and pressurized (or depressurized depending on the method used) to force the preservative into the wood. The processed ties are then ready for shipment to the railroads.  The best ties will go to the mainlines. Those that don’t make the cut may still be sold to short lines or used on branch lines and sidings.

finished tie cars

Treated ties head west past the same location. CSX has added special extensions to increase the capacity of these cars.

At one time, most large railroads owned their own treatment plants. Today most have been outsourced. Koppers is the largest company and they are kept plenty busy. Railroads consume more than 20 million new ties per year on average.

Many of these tie treatment plants use their own in-plant narrow gauge railroads to handle the movement of ties in and out of the pressure cylinders. With untreated and treated ties both arriving by rail, the entire operation would make an interesting operation for a model railroad.

NS tie car

Norfolk Southern has also modified cars for tie service. These cars were once used in pulpwood service.

Railroads use a variety of equipment to get the ties from the treatment plants to their storage yards and on to where they are needed. Typically, older equipment is used for this work. Gondolas retired from revenue service are a popular choice. Not only do these company movements not earn revenue, after a few years of carrying creosoted ties, the cars’ utility for other loads is greatly compromised. Some railroads have rebuilt other cars for tie use as well. Norfolk Southern and Burlington Northern have both converted bulkhead flatcars with new gondola sides for example.

dropping ties

A CSX work train drops ties for upcoming work. The crane can creep along the rails added to the tops of the gondolas.

How long does a tie last? There are many variables that can affect that number. Natural defects in the wood are a big factor. So is the environment where the tie is laid and the track maintenance around it. If the ballast is kept properly sloped and clean, ties will last much longer even in humid climates. The amount of abuse inflicted by the trains also of course plays a role. As you would expect, heavily trafficked mainlines require replacement more frequently than sidings and ties on a sharp curve will be worn out faster than those on straight track.


Looks like the Tie-jector just went by! Stacks of ties await installation.

A typical tie will last anywhere from five to ten years on a mainline. If traffic is not as heavy and all other factors are good, a tie can last twenty to forty years. Regular inspections ensure that ties are replaced as, or preferably just before, they fail. Construction standards also call for enough ties beneath the rails that should a single tie fail, it will not cause a larger failure of the track bed or a derailment – up to 3,000 ties per mile on a heavy mainline. Therefore with consistent maintenance, if a railroad replaces 1/5 (or potentially less) of their mainline ties annually it should always stay ahead of the curve.

old ties

Old ties travel by rail too. Old hoppers and gondolas, no longer fit for other service, are a common choice.

Stacks of fresh, or old, ties are a great way to represent a tie replacement project that is about to begin or which has just been finished. Of course with the Lionel Tie-jector you can take it a step further and have some fun as you actually drop the ties around your layout. Today a track hoe on top of a gondola is a more typical way of unloading the ties on the prototype.

gon interior

A look into an empty gondola in tie service quickly shows why they don’t get used for anything else.

After the ties are replaced, the old ties aren’t simply left to rot by the side of the tracks (at least they shouldn’t be.) Old ties are also gathered as soon as practical after a work project and carted off for proper disposal or resale. Old hoppers and gondolas are popular choices for hauling off the old ties. An old hopper filled with used ties would be an eye-catching model and a great way to add a car that would otherwise be “too old” for your era to your layout.

concrete ties

Concrete ties are transported in much the same way, but in smaller quantities per car.

Ties are an important part of the railroads’ operation. With a little creativity, they can add a lot to your model railroad too.


Freight Car Friday – Bethlehem Steel

28 02 2014

Most modelers may associate Bethlehem Steel with products they’d find loaded on a train car, not necessarily a builder of the cars themselves. But Bethlehem did have a long history of freight car construction.

Bethlehem Steel acquired it railcar operations through the acquisition of Midvale Steel in 1923. Railcar construction was based out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Bethlehem continued production at this plant until 1991 when the division was sold and became Johnstown America. While the company built many different types of cars, it has always been best known for coal car production.


Pennsylvania Power and Light was one of the first utility companies to embrace the unit train concept – aided by Bethlehem Steel.

As a division of a steel manufacturer, it is no surprise that the company was always an innovator when it came to the steel make up of its cars. The company first used its Mayari R steel in an all-welded hopper for the Lehigh Valley in 1947. This highly resilient steel was well suited for coal cars as it resisted corrosion from the acidic coal loads. (Many later cars were not even painted except for the necessary markings.)

ppl hopper

A testament to construction and materials, the original side sheets of one of the first PP&L hoppers are seen here in 2010. The cars were not painted yet most of the original graphics applied to the Mayari R steel are still clearly visible nearly 50 years later.

Bethlehem saw its markets explode in the 1960s. Working in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Railroad and Pennsylvania Power and Light, Bethlehem began construction of large numbers of 100 ton capacity hoppers for new unit coal trains. The origin of the design can be traced to a Norfolk and Western prototype. With the PRR being the common connection between all of the parties (owning a majority interest in the N&W, primary transportation provider to PP&L and a long-time partner with BSC whose Johnstown plant sat adjacent to their historic mainline) the 100 ton car quickly spread beyond the Virginia and Pennsylvania coal fields.

UP Gondolas

Bethlehem moved on from hoppers to gondolas as the industry evolved in the 1990s.

Besides selling finished cars, Bethlehem Steel often supplied its cars in “kit” form. Partially completed frames, sides, trucks and hardware were loaded into gondolas and flatcars and shipped to a railroad’s home shop for final assembly. This hastened production, cut costs and helped some railroads keep their own shop forces busy. Thousands of kits made the short trip over the mountain and around Horse Shoe Curve to the Pennsylvania’s own car shops in Hollidaysburg well into the Conrail era.

CR gon

Conrail assembled many Bethlehem gondola “kits” in its Hollidaysburg Shops. The cars were rebuilt on the frames of older hoppers – most also built from BSC kits!

Bethlehem Steel followed on the success of their unit train hopper cars with pioneering coal gondolas in the late 1980s. This included cars built predominantly and somewhat ironically of aluminum. Like the hoppers before them, these rotary-dump coal gondolas would become the standard for many railroads and utilities. Some of Bethlehem / Johnstown America’s more interesting coal cars include the Burlington Northern’s experimental “Trough Train” – an articulated gondola.


BSC built more than coal cars. The flatcar under this autorack is another Bethlehem product.

Besides hoppers and gondolas, BSC’s most common cars were 89′ flatcars used in intermodal and other services.

Successor Johnstown American became FreightCar America in 2004. The company now has operations in four states. Today they are the leading builder of aluminum-bodied coal cars in the United States, with additional car designs for ore, aggregates, automotive and intermodal traffic – all continuing the strengths established decades before by Bethlehem Steel.

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.