Freight Car Friday – Freight Cars of Detroit

21 02 2014

This week’s Worlds Greatest Hobby show comes into familiar territory for Lionel. For many years Lionel’s main offices and assembly operations were just a few minutes north of Detroit and we still have offices in Sterling Heights today.

While cars may still trump rails for notoriety in the Motor City, Detroit’s auto industry (and others) require an extensive network of railroads. Today the city is served by Conrail (Yes, still Conrail!) and Canadian National with a long heritage of famous fallen flags.


Conrail remains a major operator around Detroit serving the remaining automotive assembly plants and other industries.

When Conrail was split between Norfolk Southern and CSX in 1998, there were areas where there was no easy way to divide the routes and preserve competition. Detroit is one of these three “Shared Assets Areas” where Conrail still exists as a terminal switching railroad owned by NS and CSX. Conrail interchanges traffic with both railroads as well as Canadian National’s Grand Trunk.


The Grand Trunk and its autoracks and other cars are still a household name in Detroit.

Most of the current Conrail route traces its route to the New York Central and its predecessors, the most notable being the Michigan Central and Lake Shore and Michigan Southern. A former Pennsylvania Railroad branch and connecting lines from the Detroit Terminal and Union Belt Railway round out the miles. All of these lines were first consolidated under Penn Central and then became part of Conrail.


The Wabash was one of many historic roads with rails into Detroit. The tracks are part of Norfolk Southern today.

Norfolk Southern had another historic route into Detroit before the Conrail acquisition via the old Wabash.

Most domestic traffic moves south from the city to connections with the major east-west trunk lines at Toledo, Ohio or further west at interchanges in Indiana. Heading north into the peninsula, branch lines serve a variety of other industries and deposits of natural resources.


Prior to the days of big autoracks, boxcars like this were the primary means of moving Detroit’s top export.

The Grand Trunk provides an important outlet for goods moving east to Canada (from Detroit most international traffic moves east, not north.) Today’s Grand Trunk includes parts of the former Detroit, Toledo and Ironton which it absorbed in 1981.

The DT&I itself has an interesting history that very much mirrors the boom and bust periods that typify the rest of Detroit’s past. It was for a time owned by Henry Ford, who’s experiment with electrification in 1923 can still be seen in some remaining catenary supports today. The DT&I was then sold to financial holding companies of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It retained its own identity through PRR control and was even given control of the Ann Arbor railroad for a time. The Penn Central bankruptcy changed things and the DT&I went into the hands of private investors for about a decade before being sold to Canadian National.

The names have all changed, but railroads continue to cross the city like a web serving the auto industry and many others. With multiple carriers sharing limited space, operations can still get very interesting around the many yards, crossings and interchanges and the future of the rails here seems secure.


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.