NEB&W Guide to Freight Cars - Choosing Your Next Car

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Freight Car Guide Table of Contents


There are many factors that go into choosing the next freight car. I will attempt to identify them all below, and in the following chapters, touch on those that pertain as to why you might want to select a particular kit. To a large degree, the next choice is based on what you already have chosen.

The reasons are probable, plausible and possible. You might choose a model because it is very probable, such as several PRR H21's on a northeastern pike. The statistical probability varies from almost a certainty, such as at least one H21, down to absolute zero. A car that is outside your time-frame has a zero chance of belonging, but you may choose for some reason to include it. It is your decision, but even so, when someone complains, at least you can demonstrate that you did it out of "artistic license" rather than ignorance.

As a modeler, I want to be told why I would want to use a freight car kit, and not to hear the reasons why not. On the other hand, I don't want to hear that every kit "is typical" of every other freight without giving real reasons as to why the kit shouldn't be used.


When the Rensselaer club first started looking into a steam-era session, we were concerned about achieving an overall balance based on objective rationale rather than subjective feelings. This is particularly important in a club setting, with many members and hence many and differing subjective feelings as to what is an important balance. We began by number crunching data from the Equipment Registers, and came up with some surprises, such as the enormous difference in magnitudes between the largest fleets and the smallest.

We have still not found enough data for determining specific cars. I know that Terry Metcalfe has found and used conductors' notebooks for his time and locale, but I don't feel that is likely for most of you, and I know it isn't likely for us.

For one thing, as you know, we model a composite of two railroads, so finding actual switchlists for the NEB&W is impossible. There is more to it than just that.

The hobby has begun to talk about historical accuracy, but in the quest for this, some treat it like a religion, of value out of context. I think that historical accuracy is like the quantum mechanics dilemma of trying to pinpoint the exact location of a particle, only to discover that the more you can specify where it is, the less likely you know where it is going.

Historical accuracy only has relevance in the sense of conveying information. The information conveyed in turn is only relevant in what the information is already conveyed and accepted. A simpleminded case is that performing Shakespeare is only meaningful to an audience that knows English. Translating it to the language of the audience both makes it more accessible and yet removes it from Shakespeare's writing. Even with an English-speaking audience, pronouncing it in true medieval English dialect would be truer in historical accuracy, yet less accessible Narrowing down the information to highlight a specific feature is counterproductive past a certain point. Let me give you a model railroad example:

If you modeled a specific scene with utmost historical precision to a given date, and you had the actual consist of what equipment passed through there on that date, than you could reproduce those exact trains, car for car. If your modeling was done for a static museum diorama, then you could pose each train exactly was it was at 2:04 PM that Tuesday afternoon, and thus give a snapshot of great historical accuracy. Most would agree that railroads provided transportation by moving, and an operating diorama is more historically accurate in conveying what is was like on that date in time. (Of course, modelers' layouts are made to operate because most of us would lose interest in a static model.)

Here's the rub: Once you introduce motion, i.e., change in distance versus time, you introduce time. Now the display is no longer truly accurate for that moment in time, because the moment has been stretched in a succession of moments. I'm still nitpicking here, but consider this. When you walk into this museum and there is sign that says "Here is West Podunk, at 2:00 to 2:30 in the afternoon of April 14, 1947, and you push a button that starts the trains running in the correct sequence for that time, all is well and good. However, we accept a model railroad as a model of a railroad, with an intrinsic longer time frame.

Even if you could stand the boredom of running the exact same operating session down to the same cars being in the same consists and being switched to the same industries each time, this is not historically accurate in a different sense. This would convey the message to the viewers, including yourself, that the operation is fixed and predictable. When we talk about our layouts as being a game, where we try to create the parameters that are faced by real operators, predictable consists is not one of the real parameters. In fact, when operators get too confident, a situation card might be turned up that says there is a derailment on the long siding.

The only way to add randomness and still stay as historically accurate as possible is to take from a wider time-frame. With this in mind, West Podunk is not modeled operationally as it was on one afternoon, but over the course of a long enough period so you can't predict which day you are using. So the consist becomes an averaging, a distillation of a larger set of realities, and therefore less accurate as to any particular date.

On the NEB&W, we strive toward accurate models of specific cars, a background level balanced as best we can, and a range of interesting cars. If you model a silver and black Georgia car, it shows up best against a sea of box car red box cars. Then you add an orange Western Pacific with a large silver feather, and a green and school-bus yellow Maine Central car, and so on, and while each car is acceptable, too many is not plausible. Where the cutoff is, is subjective.

Trying to achieve a balance is tricky. If there were 17 times as many PRR H21's as H22's on the prototype, then that ratio might be expected to hold on a layout. Burlington or Santa Fe hoppers might be as common as H22's, yet I would be surprised to see a western hopper show up in the east, so considering traffic routings become important. What industries are located on your line, or just up or down the line, will play a very important part.

Cutoff Dates

We choose the cutoff dates for the NEB&W as 1950-1953. Specifically it means that any car still in service at one minute after midnight on January 1, 1950 up to any car built before midnight on December 31, 1953 is okay. This window came about for several reasons.

At first it was just to be 1950, to stay in tune with the 1950 date of the layout. However, Geoff Hubbs felt that since dieselization came about over a three-year period, we should extend the window. He explained the real reason was that some really neat freight cars were first built in the intervening years. Although such dates can be arbitrary to a certain degree, we stick to them to keep the period from wandering or becoming too fuzzy.

Again, let me point out some paradoxes that arise. Actually, following either the Rutland's or the D&H's practice, all steam would have been out of service before the end of 1953. Yet our scheme allows a car built in December of 1953 to run behind a steam engine. Since the layout is set in late September, such a car is out of season unless you suppose it is September 1954, which makes the steam engine more anachronistic. Yes, we could cut back the date to September of 1953, but part of the fun is to find cars that just sneak under the wire. Changing the date would wipe out some of our few hard-fought victories.

I personally favor the older cars, to bring more of the flavor of steam-era railroading to life. The juxtaposition of these with the newest of the new is part of the charm of the post-war period, and may be justified if a little out of proportion to reality as a form of selective compression. Old wood 36 foot box cars might still listed in revenue service, but as Terry Metcalfe has pointed out, not much used, especially in interchange, so their numbers in overall proportion are misleading. However, one is hard pressed to say never, unless you have switchlists and other hard data for the specific region and time-frame.

The Pickle Car Syndrome

Many modelers choose to include a particular model because it is so unique. In this case, you might want to justify such a car as backup for your craving. Modelers call this the "pickle-car syndrome," in that pickle cars have traditionally been far more favored by modelers than by the prototype. There are many cars in that category, such as the helium cars, Van Dyke tank cars, or even some of the colorful new schemes that first arrived on the scene at the end of the steam-era.

Yet these cars do add interest. It becomes subjective as to when too much spice gives heartburn.

Era-Specific Only When Someone Is Watching

You can choose to simply run whatever equipment you want, to keep rules and regulations to the work place and not in your hobby. Yet what you could do is not mix the equipment when you show it off.

Many clubs run era-specific consists during their open houses, even though the trains would not run side by side. They might have a 4-4-0 pulling a few open-ended yellow coaches next to a an Amtrak train and the Central's Commodore Vanderbilt pulling the streamline Twentieth Century Limited. What I am suggesting is that when you set up trains for a photographic session, keep all the equipment that is seen in each scene era-consistent, even if it is just a matter of a few years. A couple of arch bar-trucked truss-rodded box cars and billboard reefers seem less out of place if the only motive power in that shot are steam-engines. In the next shot, a jade green NYC car or Chinese red Burlington car is okay if the only locos are first-generation diesels. You can do this even if technically the cars you are separating out could have been seen together, just to help the plausibility of the photographs.

You would also want to keep in mind the autos that show up. In the first, you might have cars with running boards, while in the second, a tail-finned Edsel and Corvette.

Bob Schleicher had discussed this idea, in using the layout as a time-machine. He even showed how you could switch structures. But I'm not talking about the 1910 period versus 1970, I'm talking just about 1936 vs. 1957, or maybe even just 1948 vs. 1954.

When all is said and done, I feel it is more important to model than not. Use prototype information to educate yourself, to guide you in new directions and steer you away from others, to inspire and motivate you. Never, ever, let prototype information scare you away from fear of doing it wrong, or stop you from modeling. That is not my intention in writing this book.