Freight Car Friday – Adding Pipe Loads to Flatcars and Gondolas

11 10 2013

We’ve shown several easy and inexpensive homemade loads already here on the blog. Now that you’ve just upgraded the deck of your flatcar, here’s another common prototype load that you can model. This is a fun one-evening project that will really help your freight car stand out.

Pipe Loads

pipe load

Pipe loads come in many varieties. The white banding stands out nicely against this black pipe. Note the blocking between pipes and grouping of the load.

Pipe comes in a huge variety of colors, diameters, lengths and materials. They can be loaded on flatcars or gondolas. Cars with a bulkhead are often preferred to prevent damage to neighboring cars if the load should shift in transit. But you will find plenty of examples of pipe in all sizes traveling on traditional cars as well. These loads would be handled with some care and probably not placed next to a dangerous load of hazardous materials.

Since there are so many varieties of pipe, there are many options when it comes to modeling it.  For steel pipe, drinking straws and stirrers make some of the best starting points. Available in several diameters, straws are already about the right length for a typical O Gauge car and they have a very thin profile (much more to scale than plastic structural tubing.) Also, you can’t beat the price!

Transforming straws into pipe is usually just a matter of paint. Black, gray, orange and “industrial green” are all common colors. You may find it easier to paint the load after you have glued your stacks of pipe together. More on this shortly.


Corrugated pipe takes a little more work, but the materials are cheap and techniques are easy to learn.

For corrugated piping, you can use the aluminum foil molding trick we’ve shown in previous articles as well. By gently pressing it against a form, you can recreate almost any shape in aluminum foil. We’ve used it for corrugated roofing and siding in our bone yard. It was also used to make culverts for some of our modules. The technique is the same for full lengths of pipe. All you need is the form – in this case a bolt – of whatever diameter you desire for your pipe.

  • Cut the foil into a rectangle of your desired length and a width long enough for one to two complete wraps around the bolt. A little overlap will and strength.
  • Smooth the foil on a hard, flat surface.
  • Wrap it around the bolt, keeping the ends square.
  • Use your fingernail to press the foil into the threads. Be careful not to press too hard and tear the foil.
  • When done, simply twist the bolt out of the new aluminum sleeve. Presto! You have a corrugated pipe.

If you mess up on a few attempts, don’t be discouraged. These can be used in scenes around the layout on construction sites, culverts, or for the really bad ones, scrap yards.

Making the Load


Secure the banding on the bottom of the load. White glue holds everything together. Give yourself enough time for the glue to dry.

Now that you have your pipes, the next step is to turn them into a realistic load. Working from a good prototype photo is a huge help in figuring out how to stack and tie down the pipes. In most cases, the pipes aren’t simply piled on the car and then secured with a single line around the entire bundle. First they are bunched in groups and banded together. These banded bunches are then banded to each other. And finally the entire load is secured to the car.

Black thread will work well to simulate the banding. Begin by bunching an appropriate number of pipes together. Glue the pipes together where the adhesive won’t be seen. The bands are just for show.


Small wood strips make easy stakes to help secure the load. Notice the stakes are loose – they will be secured to the load and will lift out easily if the car needs to run empty or carry something new.

For plastic straws, use plastic cement. There are many different types of plastic and depending on which glue and which plastic you have you may get a strong bond, nothing, or melted straws. Test yours first. If you don’t have a plastic cement that will do, just use white glue. White glue can also be used on the aluminum foil pipes. While working with these corrugated pipes, it can be helpful to slide a straw or dowel rod down the center to help maintain their form and give some added strength.

After you’ve glued each group of pipes together, band them with the black thread. Again, you can hide the ends of the thread toward the middle of the load. Here is where those prototype pictures come in!

Next you can glue and band the groups together just as you did with the individual pipes. It is easiest to stack your load upside down on the workbench so you can hide the ends of your tie downs on the underside of the load.

Securing the Load to the Car


The completed load is a nice complement to the weathered deck we made last week. Even with black-on-black, the tie downs and stakes add a lot of detail.

When it comes to securing the load to the car, you have several options. If you don’t plan to remove the load in the future, you can simply glue it, along with any extra stakes and tie-downs, to the deck of the car. For a removable load you’ll want to do a little more work.

For gondolas, you can glue the load to a false floor as was shown with our tarped machinery load. This floor will be a little more obvious on a flatcar. Here, consider using wood stakes to secure the load. For best results, build this in place on the car. Place the wood stakes in the pockets on the sides of the flatcar (you do not want a tight fit.) Carefully glue them to the load – but not the car.

Once the glue has set, you’ll be able to lift the load and stakes off of the car. It can be helpful to write the type of car the load will fit on the bottom of the load itself.

If you don’t count the drying time for the paint and glue, this entire project can be easily completed in an evening. If you plan ahead, you could build several loads at once working only a few minutes each evening. Next week we’ll work on some new loads for your hoppers and gondolas.

Freight Car Friday – Transporting Track

27 09 2013

Seeing railroad track under a train is nothing unusual – but when it comes to trains carrying the track there are lots of options. The railroad right of way is constantly in need of attention and materials must be transported to the job site some how. How better than by rail?

“Stick Rail”

rail flat

A load of freshly rolled rail from Steelton, PA makes its first trip on a car converted from an older 89′ TOFC flatcar. Note the markings on the new rail.

Since the beginning, rail, ties and other components have been shipped to the work site in individual pieces. Rail typically came in 33 foot lengths – sized to fit nicely in most gondolas. At the work site, the rails were unloaded by a small crane and then placed by hand by several workers using rail tongs.

Rail come in several sizes or “weights.” The heavier the rail the heavier the load it can carry. In the United States, 60 pound (per yard) rail represents the light end, with 212 pounds being the heaviest. Most rail today is 152 pounds. The number of men required to move the rail depended greatly on the weight. Each pair of tongs is a two-man tool and between eight and sixteen men were typically used to move each section of rail.

Rail of this size is relatively easy to transport and install. But the frequent joints (that familiar “clickety-clack”) also increase the opportunity for wear, fatigue and failure. Shorter rail lengths are still used today in many places. In addition to the old 33′ standard, longer cars make 85′ rail lengths more practical.

Welded Rail

welded rail train.

Also coming from Steelton, this Norfolk Southern welded rail train carries stacks of much longer rail. The old boxcar serves both as a tool car and protection for the locomotive in case the rail should shift.

Railroads first began experimenting with continuous welded rail in the 1940s. Also sometimes called “ribbon rail” these extremely long lengths of rail reduce the number of joints and maintenance needed.

These rails are normally transported on long trains, spanning multiple cars, and supported on racks added to converted flat cars or gondolas. These trains make quite an impression as they snake through curves and switches. It is a testimony to the flexibility of steel and the tremendous weight of the railcars that these trains can navigate the trackwork that they do.

Even in these long trains however, the rail is shorter than what is optimal. At the end of the train, a set of special cars are equipped with a machines that can pull the rail from the racks and lower it to the roadbed. As the end of one section is reached, it is welded to the next to create rail sections over a mile in length.

empty car

An empty welded rail flat gives a better perspective on the racks. These cars were made from retired pulpwood flats.

Once deposited next to the existing track, additional machines are used to remove the old rail and replace it with new. Some of these machines can also replace ties simultaneously, rebuilding the entire track bed in one continuous automated motion.

Expansion joints must still be placed at regular intervals to account for the expansion of the rail in hot weather. Generally, railroads prefer to lay new rail when it is hot. If the rail should cool it will break apart. This will at least trigger the automatic signal systems to stop oncoming trains. Rail that expands after installation is more likely to bow out of gauge – just as capable of derailing a train but without providing any warning.

Panel Track

switch panels

Pre-made switches ride in old and newer cars. The rear car came from an 89′ flatcar. The lead cars were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

If you thought model railroaders were the only ones who used pre-made track, well think again. For fast reconstruction, railroads will often pre-build track panels to be transported already assembled to the site. This can be used for switches on busy mainlines or for regular track in the event of a derailment. In both of these cases, getting the railroad back together and in operation as quickly as possible is a priority.

These panels must be carried to the job site. Regular track sections typically lay flat on flatcars and can be stacked about three sections tall. Switches must be shipped in sections and carried on an angle due to their width. Again, a crane or other heavy equipment is essential for loading and unloading. These panels are beyond the limits of men and tongs!


A switch panel car or welded rail train would require a lot of modeling effort. Hauling stick rail of various lengths or even straight panel sections however is an easy load project. In addition to the rails, you’ll want to include wood blocks and tie downs to keep your load secure. Send along a crane and some track workers and you’ve got a great scene for a corner of your layout.

Lionel Tackles E3 – Mission Accomplished

21 06 2013

The Lionel team had a great time at E3 in Los Angeles last week! While many were surprised to see us at a video gaming conference, our booth sure turned a lot of heads, garnered positive interest and in many cases brought back great memories.

Equipped with several Ready to Run sets and our Legacy System (which was powered by an iPad) the booth drew huge crowds from train enthusiasts and gamers alike. Of course, the big buzz came from the introduction of our new Lionel Battle Train iPad app, displayed on two large monitors where attendees had a chance to try out the game and save the world from evil Dr. DeRaille’s enemy RoboCars.

We had the pleasure of talking to several folks at the show, and there was much excitement about Lionel embracing the digital age and making a statement around technology – both through Lionel Battle Train and our iPad-powered Legacy Set. Lionel continued to amaze viewers with the ability to show real train replication, incorporating sophisticated sound and movement engineering while displaying imagination with our new app.

An interesting trend evident during the show was that many of the gaming companies were pushing physical toys to accompany their games. AllThingsD reporter Eric Johnson actually wrote a great piece on this – and even mentions how Lionel is doing just the opposite. That said, we think Battle Train will be an excellent way to bring classic trains back into kids’ hands and develop a new generation of Lionel fans. Stay tuned and get your iPads ready – because we are only a few weeks away from bringing Battle Train to the iOS store!

For more information, go to

Lionel's E3 Booth

Lionel’s E3 Booth


Environmental and Budget Friendly Model Railroading

23 04 2013

Railroads are one of the most environmentally friendly means of transportation available. Whether we’re talking a packed commuter train rolling into a city, or a mile-long train of shipping containers crossing the continent – the economies of scale and the mechanical advantages of the railroad make a world of difference.

bone yard

It may not be a happy scene, but this locomotive’s scrapping will lead to new creations.

Despite the iconic image of smoking steam locomotives, railroads have long had a tradition of supporting the environment. Some railroads designed locomotive fireboxes that could burn culm – or waste from coal mines that was too inefficient to use elsewhere. Cinders were used for ballast in rail yards. Old equipment was reassigned to work service or rebuilt to extend its life. If it couldn’t be reused, scrapped rail cars were melted down into new steel. Recycling like this wasn’t just good for the environment, it was good for the bottom line.

Our model railroads can do the same. There are endless options for recycling everyday materials for use on our layouts. From making interesting loads, to scenic details to re-purposing older models like the prototype, the thrifty modeler can accomplish a lot on a tight budget. In honor of this week’s Earth Day celebrations, take a look at some of these recycling tips from our modeling pages:



Using natural and recycled materials, this scene was finished for less than $10!

Scenery is one of the easiest ways to accomplish a lot without breaking the bank. After all, what could be better to reproduce nature than natural materials? These supplies are convenient, realistic, easy to use and cheap! Take a look at our scenic display diorama. This whole project was completed for under $10 by using recycled materials from around the house.

Here are some more specific tips you can use for any model railroad:

Recycled Loads

tie down

A plastic bag, thread and scraps make a great load.

Freight cars are always more interesting when we add loads to help tell the story. You can turn almost anything into an interesting load for a gondola, flatcar or even inside boxcars. I’ve seen everything from soda straws to building blocks to a broken camera lens turned into amazing loads with nothing more than a coat of paint and a few extra details. Here are a few we’ve made:

  • Tarped Loads – A plastic bag and scraps of foam and thread make a great mystery load.
  • Scrap Loads – Turn your broken parts into something new.

The Bone Yard

bone yard

Rows of equipment await their fate in the bone yard.

Follow the prototype’s lead and reuse some of your older equipment. This project made use of old shells and broken  models to create a realistic scene. From turning a caboose into an office and a reefer into a storage shed, to cutting up old locomotives, this yard has lots of examples of reuse. You’ll also find great simple and cheap scenery tips to build your own:

All of these tips will help you save money and reduce your scrap pile a little. But best of all, you won’t be sacrificing quality at all as you add your own character to your layout. Give some of these tricks a try – and feel free to share some of your own!