Freight Car Friday – Santa Fe’s Water Tank Cars

27 06 2014

Railroads carry an amazing variety of liquids in their tank cars. As the summer season starts, it’s a reminder that one of the most basic tank car commodities can also be the most important – water.

water tank

An old Santa Fe water car stands ready in Victorville, California as a BNSF stack train hurries past on its way to Long Beach in 2014.

As railroads built their empires, particularly through the arid southwestern parts of the United States, the lack of suitable water quickly became a concern for thirsty workers and steam locomotives. In the earliest days, water cars were nothing more than large tanks mounted on flatcars. Once tank car designs became more common near the start of the 20th Century, new steel water tank cars came into service.

The lack of water wasn’t only a concern for the railroads during their construction phase. If the line hoped to encourage settlement and businesses to open along the new route, a fresh water supply was a critical necessity. When springs or natural sources couldn’t be found, the railroad was the most expeditious and reliable pipeline. Even as railroad’s improved the capacity of steam locomotive tenders and reduced the need for water stops, and even long after diesels replaced the need altogether, many of these towns still depended on tank cars for their own survival.


Lionel reproduced an earlier version of one of the Santa Fe’s water cars in 2009.

The Santa Fe had one of the largest and most visible fleets of water cars for public service. Filled at reservoirs and public water supplies, the tank cars were taken to remote towns in the eastern California and Arizona deserts where they were spotted by the local freight train at each town’s siding. Several cars would be kept on hand for quick delivery to ensure towns didn’t run dry.

Many of these tank cars survive and remain in service to this day. In addition to supplying the public, the cars can still be used for company service as well. The cars could also be pressed into service for any number of emergency operations. Adding one of these cars to your model railroad’s roster could provide some interesting operations.

Freight Car Friday – Beer Cars

23 05 2014

As the days are getting longer and warmer, the thought of finishing this “Freight Car Friday night” with a cold beer is probably starting to sound pretty good! And chances are good that your beer had a ride on the rails on its way to the tap.


The brightly decorated “Billboard Reefers” advertised their wares as they traveled.

Compared to the history of brewing, railroads are just a young upstart. But the expansion of railroad networks in the Nineteenth Century had a tremendous impact on the making of beer. Like most other products, the ability to move large quantities of raw materials and finished goods over greater distances at reduced costs allowed brewers to grow from local blends to national brands.

Brewers could now buy barley by the boxcar – and ship their beer in new refrigerated cars to thirsty markets all over North America. It did not take long for the economies of scale to work in favor of those enterprising brew houses that could position themselves on a rail head.

beer car

Pacific Car and Foundry’s insulated boxcars like Southern Pacific 691752 are often referred to as “Beer Cars” and are commonly seen in this service.

Rightfully proud of their name and heritage, brewing companies were among the first to treat the cars which carried their products as traveling billboards. The era of the “Billboard Reefer” saw elaborate graphics applied to the sides of the wooden cars. Beer advertising ended with prohibition and the ICC outlawed the advertising arrangements for a completely different reason in 1934.

Following the repeal of prohibition however, the beer was once again rolling on the rails, albeit in more demur rolling stock. Temperature control is of critical importance to the brewing companies. Improvements in freight car designs in the 1960s, specifically insulated boxcars, helped railroads retain at least some of the long-haul shipments. Just as the rails had once opened new transportation avenues, the growing interstate highway system was now making trucks an increasingly attractive option, especially on short – medium distance runs.

tank car

A string of tank cars carried beer concentrate from Colorado to a bottling plant in Virginia. The tank cars caught the attention of rival companies and even found their way into national television commercials.

Although mechanical reefers could be used, the insulated boxcar is usually the vehicle of choice for beer today. The insulation works both ways sometimes. Not only does it keep the contents chilled when traveling through hot climates, it can also prevent it from freezing in the winter. In particularly hot or cold times, railroads have to take extra care to keep the cars moving to prevent spoilage.

The raw materials for brewing also still regularly arrive by rail. One of the more interesting moves was Coors’ shipment of wort (concentrated beer) from Colorado to a bottling plant in Virginia. A new facility has made this shipment unnecessary. Coors also operates its own interplant railroad in Colorado, complete with special covered hoppers equipped with pneumatic doors and timers that automatically release the proper amount of material in time with the brewing process.


The Manufacturers Railway’s cars were finished in an attractive color scheme, but one that blended well into the rest of the railyard. Given the highly-desirable contents carried within, this may have been a wise disguise!

Coors isn’t alone in its railroad operations. The Manufacturers Railway in St. Louis was owned by Anheuser Busch, although its attractive paint schemes had no mention of its brewery ties. The railroad served the famous brewery from 1887 to 2011 and has since been taken over by FTRL.

Whether your preference is bright billboard reefers or today’s discreet covered hoppers and insulated boxcars, a brewery can be an interesting addition to a train layout. Over the years, there have even been train-themed brews which could inspire some interesting and appropriate models for your “micro brewery.” And as always, please enjoy your beer and trains responsibly!



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 – Asphalt Cars

2 05 2014

Spring is finally here and road crews across the country are busy patching potholes and repaving roads. The asphalt that paves our roads often takes its first trip on the rails.

asphalt tank car

GATX 89282 carries a load of asphalt. Judging from the paint burned from the top of the car, those “HOT” warning placards are well heeded.

The car of choice of course for asphalt service is the tank car. Despite similar exterior appearances, tank cars are among the most specialized rail cars due to the unique qualities of the different loads they carry. Asphalt service tank cars are typically in the 23,000 to 26,0000 gallon capacity size and are insulated and heated. Both for heat retention and to minimize the weathering effects of the load, black is the paint color of choice. When loaded, asphalt cars carry “HOT” placards.

utlx tank

This UTLX tank is in asphalt service for only a few months. An outer “skin” hides the heating coils and insulation which are wrapped around the actual tank itself.

Asphalt is produced at refineries all around the country. From there it typically moves in bulk aboard rail cars to regional distribution centers or manufacturing facilities. In addition to paving, asphalt is also used for roofing materials, and as a coating or component on many other building materials and products as diverse as battery cases and tires. If the final use site isn’t directly served by the railroad, as in most road projects, the asphalt can be transloaded into tank trucks for delivery. These unloading operations may be modeled with very minimal space and can work well for an easy industry on a model railroad.

While the insulation in the tank cars keeps the asphalt from completely hardening in transit, additional heat is often necessary to get the sticky liquid to unload efficiently. Typically the car is warmed by filling the heating coils along the exterior of the tank with steam. Other heated liquids or gasses can also be used. Once heated, the asphalt can be pumped out of the bottom of the tank and into stationary storage tanks on site or waiting trailers.

CGTX 18492

The equipment boxes around the end sills on this CGTX car contain equipment for the heating coils.

As you can probably imagine, after emptying the tank there will still be some stubborn residue left inside. Typically about an inch of material will be left at the bottom. Cleaning the interior of an asphalt tank car must surely not rank high on anyone’s list of desirable jobs, but it must be done.

Before anyone can enter the tank to clean it, the car must be allowed to vent for several hours. The vapors inside the car are not only toxic, they can also ignite. Steam, hot diesel oil, caustic soda, detergents and cold water can all be used. Between the venting and cleaning, it can take several hours to prepare an asphalt tank car for its next load.


Burned off paint and thick tar stains are common tell tales of asphalt service.

The latest method is to cool the car by pumping cold water into the coils and into the tank itself to a temperature of around 40°F. This hardens the asphalt so that it can be chipped and swept out as a solid. This is much faster and safer than the other techniques.

Aside from the “HOT” placards and other loading markings, asphalt tank cars can usually be picked out easily in a train. It doesn’t take too many trips before the cars develop thick black streaks down the sides near the loading hatch from spilled asphalt. It is also common to see the paint on the car burned off from the heat of the load. For those who like to weather their models, this is all part of the fun!

So the next time you have to dodge a pothole on the way to work, just think of all the business it means for the railroads!