Freight Car Friday – Reporting Marks Quiz

6 06 2014

The school year is winding down, so let’s get in one more quiz before summer vacation arrives! Nothing too complicated here, just your ABC’s. Let’s see how well you recognize your favorite railroads by their reporting marks.

weight data

Reporting marks are a subtle but essential part of railroad operations.

Reporting marks are the unique set of initials assigned to every company that owns a railroad car. Containers and trailers which ride the rails get them too. Along with the road number, these marks identify the car and provide the railroads’ operating departments a way to route and track it correctly.

Usually the reporting marks are related to the railroad or company name or initials. In some cases the marks seem strange, particularly where the initials are based off of the official roadname and not necessarily the one with which we’re most familiar, like Cotton Belt’s “SSW” for example.

Here is a list of 26 historic and contemporary reporting marks. In addition to well-known railroads, there are some smaller companies, private car owners, intermodal shippers and leasers included to make it a little more challenging. How many do you know?


When cars are sold, often the reporting marks are changed without completely repainting the car.

  1. AA
  2. BN
  3. CSX
  4. DTI
  5. ETTX
  6. FW&D
  7. GM&O
  8. HLCX
  9. ITC
  10. JBHU
  11. KCS
  12. LBR
  13. M
  14. NOPB
  15. ONT
  16. P&WV

    X31 boxcar

    Some roads, like the Pennsylvania and Southern, spelled out their entire name on cars into the 1960s. Automated car tracking systems and computers would make such a practice impractical and reporting marks are now limited to 4 letters.

  17. QC
  18. RDG
  19. SFRD
  20. TRRA
  21. UTCX
  22. VC
  23. WC
  24. XOMX
  25. YV
  26. ZCAX

How did you do? Check out the answer key to check your work and learn a little more. If you want some more chances to test your knowledge, look for the next issue of the LRRC’s Inside Track – coming to members later this month!

Freight Car Friday – Tracking Trains; Automatic Car Identification

13 12 2013

At any moment, there are tens of thousands of freight cars on the move across North America today, each with its own destination. A single freight train entering a yard may have cars for more than a dozen outbound trains. How do the railroads keep track of it all?

For a long time, it was all done by hand with paper forms physically handed from one yard operator to the next. The process to automatically track freight cars, and thereby their contents, began in the late 1960s. Today, the railroads have taken this process into the digital world. Shippers can find the location of their freight with the click of a mouse on a website. And while the role of conductors and office clerks remains, theirs is now a world of computer screens and servers, not row upon row of filing cabinets filled with carbon-copies.

ACI (Automatic Car Identification)

ACI tag

ACI tag

The first attempts at tracking cars were similar to the way a retail outlet tracks their inventory – a bar code. Unlike the black and white bars of varying thickness used on just about every product sold today, the ACI tags used a set of 13 bars in 12 combinations of 4 colors. There were color combinations for digits 0-9, a validation number and start and stop tags.

The tags were read from bottom to top. After the start code, there were four digits which corresponded to an assigned number for the railroad (or private owner) reporting marks. Then there were six places for the road number. Above that came a stop code and a validation number code.

The system was developed by KarTrak in the 1960s and in 1967 the Association of American Railroads mandated that the placards be applied to all equipment. This included freight cars, locomotives, maintenance of way, even piggyback trailers – anything that would pass the scanners and could be tracked. Tags were to be applied to everything by 1970.

covered hopper

This PTLX covered hopper, built in 1975 still has its ACI tag in 2011.

To implement this, the custom tags had to be fixed to everything in relatively short order. This is not as simple as it sounds when that equipment is scattered all across the continent. It was not uncommon for a general service freight car to stay away from home rails for more than a year at a time.

Once the cars arrived at a terminal with the tags, they had to be sent to the car shops for the application. Some tags were adhesive stickers which could be placed directly on the car. Most were applied to steel plates which were then riveted or welded on. This was especially true in colder months when the stickers apparently did not adhere well to the cold steel. Excessive dirt on the car also had to be cleaned for a good fit. And of course both sides of the car had to be tagged and at the proper height.


Zooming in on the PTLX car, the modern AEI tag can also be seen just below the side sill. Note the visor welded above the ACI tag to help shield it from the elements.

Once tagged, the cars could be read by trackside scanners. Scanners could read the tags at up to 80 mph and operators would have an accurate account of what was in each train and where any car in the system was located within minutes. Scanners were typically placed at the entrance to yards and junctions or interchanges where updates were most useful.

Unfortunately the system never reached its full potential for a variety of reasons. First, the tags were easily obscured by dirt (the railroads didn’t have the graffiti problem they face today fortunately.) They also frequently fell off from improper application or were burned off from hot loads (gondolas in hot steel service) or car heaters (hoppers.) And of course, despite the best efforts, there were many cars that never got their tags.


AEI tags can be a tool to uncover the original owner and number of older equipment.

By some estimates, the system only worked about 70% of the time at its peak. Railroads like the Union Pacific put car inspectors back at the entrance of yards to record the numbers of each car in passing trains as a backup to the system. The practice of adding and maintaining the tags was officially discontinued in 1978, although some railroads did continue to add tags to new cars and use the tracking equipment for a few more years for what it was worth.

While the tags weren’t maintained after 1978 (that is probably being generous!) they weren’t immediately removed either. Some can still be found on cars today, although the number of cars still in service from those years in shrinking rapidly. As cars changed owners the tags stayed the same. Even when repainting cars, the tags were often simply covered with the new paint – often only to have it peel off soon after. For the freight car historian, these can still be a great help to track a cars original owner and number.

AEI (Automatic Equipment Identification)

Same concept, different technology. Fast forward twenty years and railroads again turned to new solutions to help automate this immense challenge. Burlington Northern was the first to look at a new system in 1988. Theirs was based upon a similar concept already being tried by American President Lines for tracking containers.


The modern AEI tag is much more discreet but even more effective.

After several years of testing and committees by BN, other railroads and the AAR, standards were finally released in 1992. By the end of 1994, all of the rail equipment in North America was to be equipped.

AEI doesn’t use a visible bar code but rather an electronic reader. These are in some ways like the employee badges found in many places today which act as a key for coded electronic locks.

While they don’t need to open any doors, as the plastic tags pass the scanner, their identity is read and communicated to all parties. Like the ACI tags, these AEI trackers are to be applied to everything. They are much more discrete than the older version – just a small grey plastic module. They are usually placed near the frame or side-sill of the car.


An AEI scanner stands watch along Norfolk Southern’s mainline in Cleveland. The small white bars are the tag readers.

The new tags are not hampered by weather, dirt, graffiti or heat. Better still, they can be reprogrammed if the car changes numbers or owner. Today, if you look closely, you’ll find them attached to just about everything on the rails. Intermodal equipment is no longer covered under the plan. Railroads can however still identify the location of a trailer or container by locating the car upon which it’s loaded.

While these technologies are seldom noticed by the public – even the train-loving public – they have made a huge contribution to the success and efficiency of today’s railroads. Freight car technology is no longer simply a matter of types of steel or journal sizes. Railroads have learned to embrace all sorts of new technology to keep the trains rolling and the customers smiling.

Freight Car Friday – Extreme Flatcars

1 11 2013

The word “extreme” today is often used as a catchphrase for anything even slightly better than average. Not so here with these flatcars. Some of the specially designed cars on today’s railroads are unbelievably big and complex. They may in fact be too big for words. But if not, we’ll settle for “extreme!”

kwux 101

KWUX 101 – owned by Siemens – rides on four six and four four-axle trucks and stretches for just over 119 feet between the couplers! The deck of this car can be removed allowing it to transport even larger loads like a Schnabel car.

What sets these cars apart from the rest? For one thing, capacity. Some of the cars seen here may carry loads approaching one million pounds in weight. Think of a Pennsylvania Railroad M1. Now picture a car strong enough to carry two of them with nearly 100 tons of capacity to spare. By any standard, that is impressive.

Although they still have a flat deck to carry the load, these cars share little else in common with a traditional flatcar. In fact, the light weight alone of some of these large cars is greater than the capacity of many standard freight cars. Supporting all of that weight requires a lot of wheels, bolsters and engineering.

KWUX 200

KWUX 200 is fresh from the Kasgro shops. In addition to carrying up to 955,000 pounds, this car can lift the load to clear obstacles.

For the ultimate in flatcar technology, consider KWUX 200 built in 2013 by Kasgro Rail in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Not only can the car support a 477.5 ton payload, it is equipped with hydraulic pistons which can raise the car deck up to an additional 24 inches and move it 14 inches side-to-side to help clear obstacles along the right-of-way! This can be a huge help when navigating curves. A load this large can make even the prototype’s curvature feel like O-27.

Although this car appears to have a “depressed center” design. Thanks to the thickness of the 40 foot deck, the load is still higher above the rail than most conventional cars. The tall towers on either side help sling the weight onto the sets of trucks while keeping the center of gravity as low as possible. The trucks themselves are connected in pairs with special span bolsters. These bolsters are then connected to each other and finally to the sloping supports for the flatcar deck. This articulation gives the car both the necessary weight distribution and agility to navigate curves.

What Do They Carry?

DODX flat

Looking small in comparison to the cars above, this brand new 12-axle flatcar is being built for the Department of Defense for a variety of heavy loads.

The largest of these cars are designed for heavy power assemblies including transformers and turbines. The largest cars may make only a few trips a year – or less – but they are the only practical way to transport these loads. And a single trip or two may cover the cost of the car’s construction.

The Department of Defense is another large user of heavy-duty flatcars including both depressed-center and straight deck designs. These can be used for a variety of special loads from heavy machinery to radioactive material casks.

With their infrequent use many of these cars can stay in service for decades. The cars are also frequently modified, particularly the decks, to safely secure each unique load. It is not uncommon for newer cars to reuse rebuilt trucks from earlier heavy flatcars as well.

Special Moves


To keep watch over the special loads, many large flatcars travel with a dedicated caboose – an added bonus for modelers!

Even when empty, these large cars often require special handling. If handled in general freight they are usually placed at the very front or rear of the consist. Loaded cars however can often require a train of their own. Not only are they big and heavy, these loads must often travel at very reduced speed and stay clear of other traffic on the line.

In a dedicated train, it is not uncommon to see empty idler cars placed between the heavy flatcar and locomotives for added protection on bridges. Flatcars and gondolas are most common so that the crew will still have an unobstructed view back to the load.

Cabooses are also still common as a rider car to accompany these special moves. The railroad may provide the caboose (or an extra caboose in the days when there was still a train crew to accommodate at the rear of the train.) Today, the rider caboose is often supplied by the same company as the flatcar. the two cars will stay together – even on the empty return trip.

Freight Car ABC’s: A Back to School Quiz

6 09 2013

It’s back to school time – I can hear the parents rejoicing now! In empathy for the kids, how about a little freight car quiz of our own?

Freight cars are filled with “fine print.” And all of it has special meaning for shippers, car repairmen and operators. How well do you know your freight car ABC’s? See how well you can identify the markings on these cars. When you’re finished, you can check your answers with this key.

weight data

1: CAPY, LD LMT, LT WT? What do they mean and how are they different?

1. CAPY, LD LMT and LT WT usually appear just below the railroad’s reporting marks and car number. What do these three lines mean? Why doesn’t the math ever seem to add up?

weigh date

2: “CR-AB 10-83” must mean something… 3: How can you tell what type of car this is just by what you see here?

2. What does the “CR-AB 10-83” mean? (Hint, it has nothing to do with crustaceans.)

3. Without seeing any more of it or checking a roster, what type of car is CR 878330?

Santa Fe map

4: EXW, H, IL – Why are all these dimensions important?

4. EW, H, IL – what are all of these figures and why do they matter?


5: What does “COTS” mean?

5.Today, many of the maintenance figures for a car are put in one place. These black boxes are called “Consolidated Lube Stencils” and include the car’s build date and service information. What does “COTS” stand for?

Plate C

6: What is “Plate C”? 7: “Do Not Hump?”

6. “Plate C”? What does that mean?

7. “DO NOT HUMP” – This shows up on special cars from time to time – sometimes it’s just tacked onto the car as a temporary sign. Why?

yellow dot

8: Why were these yellow dots important in 1978?

8.For a short while, this simple symbol of a yellow dot on a black square background appeared on most cars. What did it mean?

How well do you know your freight car markings? Check the answer key to see if you’ve passed your car inspector’s test.