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!

Scale Speed

17 04 2013

How fast should you run your trains? It’s one of those questions of personal opinion that can erupt into heated debate in some modeling circles. We’ll leave your idea of appropriate speeds up to you. There are certainly no posted speed limits on our model trains, but for those who are interested in reproducing a more accurate scale speed, this post should help.


Like the extended exposure on this photo, a model trains scale, our proximity to it, and other factors can create different impressions of speed.

Before you can determine what the appropriate speed is for model trains to be realistic, you need to think about what speeds are realistic for the prototype. And the truth is, that number can be anywhere from 1 to 150 miles per hour.

When switching for example, when switching cars in a yard, anything up to 4 mph is a coupling, 5+ mph is a collision. Geared locomotives like Shays and Heislers had a top speed of around 15 mph. Even a heavy mainline train on a steep grade might struggle to keep its speed above 20. Yet that same train could be rolling at nearly 70 on the level.


For a train like the Acela, full-throttle may not even be fast enough!

For passenger trains, speeds might be as slow as 30 or less on branch lines. Meanwhile, the Limited’s and streamliners might cruise at better than 100 down the mainline.

What’s “right” really depends on what you’re trying to model.

6-11368 Western Maryland

The Shay had a very modest top speed of about 15 mph. But with those three pistons and low gearing, they sounded like they were doing about 90 at that speed.

That being said, we can determine how fast our trains are really going. The numbers on the dial of your transformer or cab can give you some indication, but these rarely equate to the actual scale speed.

Instead, we can figure out our train’s speed in much the same way train crews once did: by timing the run between a fixed set of points. Train crews once used mile posts, or even telegraph poles, to help determine their speed. We’ll apply the same principle.


When 7002’s crew determined they set a record speed on 127.1 mph, they did so by timing the passing mile posts with their watches.

You can use almost anything to mark your speed zone on your railroad: telephone poles, sign posts, even just a dab of paint on a tie. All that matters is that the distance is correct and you and your other operators know where they are.

Next, simply time the train as it passes between the two points. You don’t need to be as accurate as a radar gun – these are just model trains after all – but even a general frame of reference can be helpful.

Now to make it really easy for you! Just use the tables below to determine your trains’ speed. We’ve figured this out for both O and S Scale by reducing miles / kilometers per hour into feet/meters per second. Just set your posts 3 feet or 1 meter apart. The times listed in this table are in seconds.

Print out a copy of this table (or make your own using only the data you need) and post it somewhere near the speed trap for reference. While the times are fairly precise, a good “guestimate” while you’re running should give you a pretty good perspective.

Give it a try – you might be surprised how fast, or how slow, you’re really running those trains.

15 6.55 8.73 15 11.52 15.36
20 4.91 6.55 20 8.64 11.52
25 3.93 5.24 25 6.91 9.21
30 3.27 4.36 30 5.76 7.68
35 2.81 3.74 35 4.94 6.58
40 2.45 3.27 40 4.32 5.76
45 2.18 2.91 45 3.84 5.12
50 1.96 2.62 50 3.46 4.61
55 1.79 2.38 55 3.14 4.19
60 1.64 2.18 60 2.88 3.84
65 1.51 2.01 65 2.66 3.54
70 1.4 1.87 70 2.47 3.29
75 1.31 1.75 75 2.3 3.07
80 1.23 1.64 80 2.16 2.88
85 1.16 1.54 85 2.03 2.71
90 1.09 1.45 90 1.92 2.56
95 1.03 1.38 95 1.82 2.42
100 0.98 1.31 100 1.73 2.3

Planting Fields

20 03 2013

As we usher in Spring, it will soon be time for planting. Fields of crops are an easy way to add a nice detail to any layout. They are also perfect for filling oddly shaped spaces of nearly any size. From backyard gardens to acres of farmland, these tips can be used in many applications, and even in multiple scales.

The fields you see here were completed on a pair of our full-width corner modules for our Lionel / LCCA FasTrack Modular Railroad over the course of two World’s Greatest Hobby shows.


After dampening, corrugated cardboard can be easily turned into the perfect base for farm fields.

Planting Rows

One of the keys to effectively modeling a planted field is maintaining even rows. Fortunately, there is an easy modelers trick that makes this easy. All you’ll need is some corrugated cardboard.

The corrugations will make perfect plant rows once you remove one of the face sheets. These smooth sheets are glued to the corrugated center. Fortunately, the glue is not very strong and is water soluble.  Spray a mist of water on one side of the cardboard. After the top layer is soaked, within a few seconds you should be able to easily pull it off the corrugated center strip. If it sticks and wants to tear, simply spray on a little more water.


Cover the cardboard with dirt to create the look of freshly plowed fields ready for planting.

Now all you need to do is glue the remaining cardboard onto your layout or scenery base. Some of our fields were glued directly to the wood top of the module. To create some subtle changes in elevation, others were propped up on a strip of foam core board that was handy. By softening the cardboard with water again, you can bend it to confirm to slopes and changes in the terrain to break that table-top look.

With the cardboard fields in place, the top is covered with soil first by coating with white glue and sprinkling on the turf. Then the scene is sprayed with alcohol and glued again with thinned white glue (50/50 with water). The alcohol breaks the surface tension and allows the glue to flow evenly.


Crops can be made from a variety of products.

You can begin planting your crops even before the thinned glue has dried, or you can wait. Apply another bead of full strength white glue to the top of a ridge and press on individual clumps of thicker ground foam. When one row is finished, go to the next.

If the foam clusters are loose, you can apply another alcohol / thin glue spread. You can vary the color and size of the foam plants or even use other materials to create a wide variety of crops.



A little drywall compound helps build subtle scenic contours. Don’t worry, it dries white!

Crops don’t grow without water. Even on a “flat” module, you can create the look of irrigation with some simple contours built up on the base. These can be done by raising portions of the terrain as described above, or by creating mounds and contours with a little drywall mud. You can learn more about creating a scenic base with water in mind, as well as mixing and applying this plaster coating in our display diorama pages.

To add a final touch, some simple culverts were made from aluminum foil. This is a great tip to make culverts for a variety of scenes or even pipe loads for your trains. Choose a bolt with a diameter that works for your job (not all pipes are the same size.)


These little drainage pipes are easy to make and add a nice detail.

Cut a rectangular strip of heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap it around the bolt clockwise (this makes it easier to wind and “unscrew” the finished pipe.) The ends should overlap.

Now start at the end of the bolt and press the foil into the threads with your fingernail. When finished, twist the foil pipe off of the bolt just like you were undoing a nut. The resulting pipe has a great texture and scale thickness. You can carefully trim the pipes to smaller lengths with a sharp hobby knife.

The pipes can be pressed into the drywall mud while still wet to secure them into the scenery. You can also attach them to other surfaces with white glue.


Weeds, a dirt road and freshly turned earth are just the beginning of more details that can be added to complete the scene.

Details and Finishing Touches

These modules were finished using the same general scenery application techniques. This included some bare fields, ballast for the FasTrack, and an assortment of weeds and grasses to complete the look. You could easily take the details farther. Add a scarecrow, tractor, some workers in the fields – let your imagination grow!


The finished scene covers two of our full-corner modules. The field on the left has been left unfinished to help show construction techniques.

Freight Car Friday – Barrel and Culvert Cars

15 03 2013

This week we look at some more of our favorite “fictional freight” cars. Both of these variations on the gondola first came into the Lionel line in the 1950s and we’re still producing variations of these and the accessories that go with them today.

The Barrel Car

Barrel Car

The Southern barrel car is a modern version of this operating classic.

The first Operating Barrel Car appeared in 1954. The No. 3562 car was lettered for the Santa Fe. The classic car featured a vibrating ramp which unloaded the wooden barrels by shaking them to the top where a figure waited to push them off the side. Produced from 1954 to 1958, the cars’ colors changed over the years but the basic appearance and operation remained the same. In more recent years, we’ve reproduced some of the older cars as well as new schemes.


The steadfast worker was aided by a vibrating ramp on the car.

By railroad standards, no company would have devoted this much engineering and weight for a car with such limited carrying capacity (6 wood barrels.) And of course you had to feel for that poor worker has he clung to his post while the train raced around the platform between stops. Regardless of these minor liberties, the car offered a ton of play value, especially when combined with the barrel loader accessory.

CN Barrel Car

The Canadian National car featured barrels of “maple syrup.”

A more modern variation on the car features a ramp mounted on a flat car. Gravity, rather than the vibrating ramp, is the primary aid in unloading this new car. Although more “efficient” than the 1950s design, this car would still leave a car builder shaking his head. We’ve also made this car in several roadnames with barrels “filled” with everything from maple syrup to reindeer feed.

The Culvert Car

Culvert Car

The Culvert Car features a more simple design.

Like the Barrel Car, this is another variation on the common gondola. First introduced in 1956, the Culvert Car featured a metal ramp inside a traditional gondola body. Designed to work with the culvert loader and unloader accessories, the car was definitely the most technologically simple element of the set. Although again, there would be no prototypical need for this ramp inside the car, it did make the functioning of the accessories, and hence the play value of the models, much better.

culvert loader

Action accessories make all of these “unprototypical” cars a load of fun!

The early versions of the car came decorated for the New York Central. Our most recent version was lettered for Bethlehem Steel and there have been others in between. Beyond that, there were very few variations in the car’s production.

Like Searchlight and Aquarium cars, all of these models are a stretch of prototype practice. But hey, the rivet counters can’t have all the fun!