Freight Car Friday – Strange and Unusual Part 2

16 05 2014

Sure there are many freight cars that look alike and many versions of cars that only the “rivet counters” can tell apart. But every now and again something completely different passes by in a train to reward the watcher who doesn’t put their lens cap back on as soon as the locomotives go past. We featured four of these odd characters on a Freight Car Friday post in 2012. This week, let’s look at a few more specialty cars that have evolved to meet the unique needs of customers.

Calcium Carbide Car

calcium carbide

CCKX 720 carries an interesting load of calcium carbide casks through Nebraska.

The small casks on this car look similar to the coke casks available for Lionel’s scale gondola car. The load isn’t coke however,  but calcium carbide (CAC2).

Calcium carbide is primarily used in the making of acetylene. This is created when the calcium carbide is mixed with water – hence the dangerous when wet placards on the containers. Calcium carbide is also used in some steel making operations. Toy collectors may also know it from its use in some toy cannons.

Thirty small 5,000 pound casks are loaded on a flatcar and tied down with four large covers. Although hard to see, there are small bulkheads at the ends of the car to keep the loads from shifting. When they arrive at their destination, the casks can be placed on top of a small tower and emptied from the bottom hopper.

Notice that each container and the flat car carry warning placards. The flatcar is also labeled “DO NOT HUMP.” The reporting marks belong to Carbide Industries. This car was spotted heading east along the edge of Union Pacific’s massive yard in North Platte, Nebraska.

Can Stock Car

Canstock car

CSX 504123 shows its offset door.

All boxcars look alike? Not really. While it was traditionally the railroads’ catch-all car, boxcars have become increasingly specialized since the 1960s. Whether it’s a giant high-cube for auto parts, or a kaolin car with roof hatches, the demands of different loads can create many interesting construction variations. One of the more rare modifications to boxcars are a select few customized for can stock service.

Can stock is, as the name implies, thin steel or aluminum used primarily in making metal cans. Unlike other steel coils carried in coil cars or gondolas, these are best transported by boxcar. In order to maximize the payload in these cars, the B&O went to Pullman Standard with a request for new cars in 1972. Moving both doors closer to one end of the car better accommodated the lift trucks and pushed the capacity to 8 coils from 6.

With the doors both offset toward the “A” end of the car (without the brake wheel) a plexiglass panel was added to the roof near the “B” end to allow some light in to the far end of the car. These panels were later replaced as along with the light, they also let in water.

Only 75 of these offset door cars were built. Over the years they have worn B&O, Chessie and CSX emblems.

Vinegar Tank Car

Vinegar Tank

SBIX 1634 is preserved at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis.

Looking like something from another era, wood-sided tank cars remained the best mode of transportation for vinegar well into the mid-1900s.

Vinegar is highly corrosive to metal and would have destroyed the early steel tank cars. Today, special liners can be applied to prevent this problem. Steel was used for the frame and bulkheads however which gave the car the structural integrity necessary to be handled in trains of all-steel cars. Although not all cars were painted this way, the silver paint seen on SBIX 1634 was a common way of keeping the contents cooler by reflecting the sun’s rays.

At least three vinegar tanks survive in museums in St. Louis, Toronto and North Freedom, Wisconsin.

Hot Ingot Car

hot ingot car

Looking like something out of a Sci-Fi movie, LHFX 25000 carries a steel ingot fresh from the furnace.

The steel industry is a haven for interesting railroad equipment. These hot ingot cars are no exception! Looking like something designed to haul top-secret military loads or nuclear material, it’s just hot steel now. But when Lehigh Heavy Forge is finished, that steel could easily be headed to a Navy yard or nuclear power plant.

Lehigh Heavy Forge operates out of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They are the only open-die forging company in the Western Hemisphere and produce an amazing variety of heavy forged parts for power generation, the military and industrial applications. Formed in 1997, the company carries on the rich steel legacy in this historic steel town.

The special steel used in many of their applications is produced not far away in Steelton, PA. The ingots are shipped hot to Bethlehem for forging. These heavy cars, originally belonging to Bethlehem Steel, carry the ingots inside well insulated covers. The cars can also be used to ship product to other regional mills for finishing. Because of the time-sensitive nature of the loads, it was not uncommon for Conrail or Norfolk Southern to run a dedicated train or place the cars on the head-end of priority intermodal trains to get them to their destination quickly.

Lehigh Heavy Forge has a handful of cars like this, but in classic steel industry tradition, no two are exactly the same. They would certainly make an interesting, and challenging, modeling project.

Cars like those seen this week are a great example of what makes freight cars such a great learning tool. What starts off as a curious car in a passing train can open a window into the history and operations of a whole new industry. What will the next train teach you?


Freight Car Friday – Coil Steel Cariers

21 09 2012

Steel products have long been a big commodity on the rails. This finished steel comes in all shapes and sizes. Among the most common is thin sheet steel rolled into large coils. Used in making everything from cars to washing machines, these coils require careful handling.


Steel coils come in many sizes and ride in different cars.

Not all coils are created equal. Depending on their final use, some require different handling than others. Often, railroads will transport rough coils from the main rolling mill to smaller finishing mills where the steel is plated or treated to refine it for final consumption. The railroad may get this haul too.

Steel that doesn’t require extra care can be carried in open gondolas. Often these cars are equipped with cradles that run the length of the car. These wedge-shaped braces help hold the coils upright. Not only is this better for the load, it also makes it much easier to unload. In other cases, the coils are simply laid flat in the car. Generally, gondolas used in coil service are restricted from hauling other loads.

open gon

Some coils are carried openly in gondolas. Most cars don’t carry a full load like this due to the weight of the coils. Coils are loaded over the trucks to reduce strain on the car.

Often, steel coils need more protection from the elements. This can come in several forms. Covered gondolas have similar coil cradles to the open cars with additional removable roof covers. In the 1970s, some cars were designed with hinged covers fixed on the cars. The added complications of these devices usually proved less beneficial than the expense to maintain them.

covered gondola

Covered gondolas offer added protection.

In the 1960s, the coil steel gondola began to evolve into a more specialized car that lowered the overall car weight while increasing the protection for the load. These cars featured a more basic frame and cradle arrangement, eliminating the sides of the gondola. Additionally, the cars were equipped with cushioned underframes and coupler draft gear that reduce damage to the load by absorbing the forces caused by coupling and coupler slack action in the moving train. Many cars were also equipped with removable hoods to protect the load.

coil car

The coil car evolved into a specialized hauler.

These coil cars have continued to evolve over the years. Then and now, many railroads gravitated to common designs by builders like Evans and National Steel Car. This meant that hoods could often be interchanged between cars and it is not uncommon to see a car with covers from different roads. Some roads like the Pennsylvania designed and built their own unique cars as well.

Coils aren’t limited to just gondolas. In the 1990s, Conrail experimented with special small cradles attached to bulkhead flatcars for smaller shipments. And although they are more difficult to load, boxcars are also an option. Weirton Steel for example uses a small fleet of old boxcars with doors removed for intraplant movements at its West Virginia mill.

On Your Layout

Because they have so many uses and forms, there are many ways to add coil steel operations to your railroad. You don’t have to model an entire large steel mill or automotive stamping plant to use the cars.


There are as many uses for coilcars on your railroad as there are styles.

Smaller assembly plants would fit many layout plans and still provide a lot of switching opportunity. Don’t forget boxcars for the finished products too! Many of these buildings could be modeled along a backdrop to save layout space.

A small finishing mill can generate shipments both ways. Inbound coils could arrive in open gondolas with finished loads departing under cover.

early coil car

This unique-looking car was built for the New York Central and is now working for its fourth owner (Norfolk Southern.) The designs have evolved a lot since then. Note additional coils in the more traditional gondola behind.

Another way to add operations without any industry at all is to include a clean out track in one of your yards. Customers shipping finished coils don’t want the steel scratched by debris left in the cradle. This could include old banding straps, broken cradle boards or other trash just tossed in along the way.

An extra track in the yard with some dumpsters located nearby and racks for workers tools is all you need to add this important but often overlooked operation to your layout. And of course you can spot other “dirty” cars here too!

And of course, whether it’s an interesting load in an open gondola or a colorful specialized car, these will look great just rolling by in a passing train too!

Freight Car Friday – Coke Cars

23 03 2012

Coke is a product created by baking coal, not unlike the process of making charcoal from wood. Baking removes impurities, and burns cleaner than bituminous coal. Because of this, coke is ideal for use in furnaces and stoves. It has also been used in specialty industries like malting. By volume however, the number one user of coke is the iron and steel industry. While it can occur naturally, most coke used today is man-made.

The baking process also reduces weight. Coke is considerably more porous and lighter than coal. This has had an impact on the freight cars designed to haul it.

LCL Shipments

coke bins

Gondolas with coke bins make it easy to add coke shipments to your layout.

Because of its clean-burning, “smokeless” qualities, coke has been a popular fuel for some smaller consumers. For those who did not want to buy coke by the carload, railroads developed smaller shipping containers which could be loaded into gondolas, similar to other early containers for traditional less-than-carload freight. The cars would be spotted on a customer siding such as a fuel company or even a team track. Individual containers would be unloaded and transported by truck directly to the consumer.

These shipments conveniently sub-divided the load, but were not very efficient from the railroads’ perspective. The loads were labor intensive and the cars had a very high car-weight to load-weight ratio. Many of the customers for this fuel would switch to natural gas or electric heat in the 1950s. Remaining customers were generally more efficiently served by truck.

Bulk Shipment

Modified hopper

CSX added extensions onto this hopper to carry more coke. Such a conversion could be done to a model with styrene plastic sheets and shapes. Conventional cars can also be seen in the train.

For large users like steel mills, coke could be purchased not by the container but by the trainload. Many blast furnaces had coke ovens located adjacent, eliminating the need for rail transport. Since the number of mills and coking facilities has diminished since the 1970s, coke is increasingly produced off site. A single coke plant may supply several furnaces.

Coke is often transported in hopper cars, or large rotary-dump gondolas like coal. Because coke is lighter, coke will fill a conventional hopper’s capacity before reaching its weight limit. Consequently, coke service cars are often built taller than coal cars. In addition to new cars, railroads often rebuild older coal hoppers with extended sides. CSX has recently gone in the other direction and shortened some large hoppers designed for even lighter wood chips.


100 ton hopper

Cars like our 100 ton hoppers are a great start to modern coke trains.

Modeling a complete coke plant would occupy more space than most of us have for our entire layouts. You can model the shipments however. Lionel’s coke-container gondolas are all you need for smaller, local shipments. Delivery to a malting plant or fuel supply depot would also make much easier modeling projects.

For larger coke trains and cars, conventional hoppers and rotary gondolas will work well.  Our 100 ton hoppers would be a great starting point. You could also add extensions to car sides like the prototype if you have an interest in customizing your models. Coke, especially when reduced to O Scale, looks very similar to coal, so you can use the same loads.

Freight Car Friday – Mill Gondolas

3 02 2012

Gondolas can carry a wide array of products, and they are also adaptable to specific services. One of the more common types of gondolas are “mill gons.” These have been tweaked for hauling the products of steel mills. These loads could take many forms, from pipe to beams to ingots to finished machinery.

WP gon

This Western Pacific car carries a load of auto frames.

What makes a gon a mill gon? Mill gons have several common characteristics – low sides (generally 6′ or less) and a lack of interior bracing are a must. Many, but not all, feature “drop ends” which can be lowered to carry longer loads. Mill gons have come in many lengths, from 40 to 66 feet. Cars of 52′ 6″ were the most common from the 1940s through the 1970s and remain a popular option today. All of this is designed to facilitate the loading of finished goods.

NYC gon

This New York Central car carries a load of coke containers. This method made better use of the car's capacity while delivering smaller loads to the customer.

Lionel has produced models of one of the more common mill gons of the post-war era. Pullman Standard’s PS-5 gon was used by dozens of railroads across the country. Similar cars were built by Greenville, Bethlehem Steel and others. Construction started in the 194os and many cars remained in service through the 1970s despite the heavy abuse often inflicted upon them. Some were retained as maintenance of way cars and lasted even longer.

drop end

By folding down the ends of the car, even longer loads could be carried.

These cars feature drop ends which allowed the car to carry extra-long loads. Poles, structural beams, girders and similar loads may be within the car’s 70 ton weight capacity but extend longer than its deck. With the doors lowered an idler car (typically a flatcar) would be added to protect neighboring cars. Extremely long loads would need to be centered on the gondola with idlers at both ends to help the car navigate curves.

You can load your models with almost any structural load, along with machinery, tarped loads, crates or other finished goods. Raw materials could also be carried, but generally made poor use of the cars’ capacity and would necessitate cleaning before loading the next round of finished goods. When loading extra-long loads, test the overhang on curves carefully!