Saturday, June 13, 2009

I need *how many* boxcars?

They might say model railroad operations is like a really fun game, but they don't say what it takes to get enough pieces to play. [Photo from the Sparks railroad yard, January 2006]

Different people have different ways to get the "pieces" for operating a model railroad - the freight cars. Some folks buy a bunch of Athearn plastic cars, and find things are "good enough" for operation. Jack Burgess, on the other hand, starts by looking at photos of the Yosemite Valley in the late 1930's, and tries to recreate exact cars that had actually been seen on the real railroad.

When I started building the Vasona Branch layout, deciding on freight cars wasn't hard. I went to the box, and grabbed my collection of HO freight cars. Some were plastic "shake the box" kits from my teenage years. I had a couple scratchbuilt kits from grad school days. I even had whatever western-prototype kits I'd managed to build when we lived in New York, from some Red Caboose refrigerator cars to a pair of Denver and Rio Grande Western iron ore cars I'd gotten one weekend from the hobby shop in Ridgefield, Connecticutt. (Iron ore? In Colorado? It was all they had.) All fifteen or twenty of the cars went on the layout that first weekend as I got basic benchwork, a reverse loop, staging tracks, and the beginnings of the West San Jose scene built. I put the cars in a train, ran them here, ran them there, and switched a couple at the sites of industries. Cool! I've got a big layout!

It didn't take long til I realized just how many industry tracks I had on the new layout, and how I didn't have anywhere near enough freight cars to keep even some of the industries busy. I did some quick figures, guessing at the number of cars that the layout could hold and the number of trains, and figured out I was going to need to build a lot more cars.

Worse, I realized that I really wanted to capture that 1930's look of short freight cars, dominated by a sea of plain brown boxcars. Few of the shake-the-box kits really captured that 1930's look I wanted (though Accurail's outside braced 40' boxcar is really decent.) My other big sources of traffic also needed freight cars-tank cars for oil products, gondolas for gravel, flat cars for lumber.

So one of my big hobby projects over the last five years has been building more freight cars. Each time I think I've got enough, I start trying to run additional trains during an operating session, or get annoyed at seeing the same box car run on the layout twice in an operating session, and decide that I could use a few more.

To capture that look of the 1930's, I turned to resin cast kits. These kits are made in small runs by garage manufacturers, and have a scary reputation for being lots of work to build. They come just as flat castings straight out of the mold, and need to be built up into a box, then need details like grab irons and brake systems to be added, and finally need to be painted. I've probably got 15 or so on the current layout.

My best way for building the resin kits turned out to involve burning out at work. After a couple crazy projects, I desperately needed to get away, so my wife and I rented a vacation house up at Sea Ranch on the Sonoma Coast. Sea Ranch is an isolated collection of vacation houses in the middle of nowhere; apart from walking along the ocean, visiting little Gualala, or sleeping, there's not a huge amount to do. We both brought several craft projects, and I managed to finish four resin freight cars over five or six days, generally finishing one a day. That worked so well that I made sure to wear myself down the next year so we'd have to take another break, and managed to get another four resin kits done that trip.

The attached photo shows some of the projects done on the second trip. These are a mix of Westerfield, Funaro and Camerlengo, and Sunshine kits. I use superglue to assemble these, following the trick of a needle in a pin vise to apply the glue and an upside-down shot glass to hold the glue so I don't stick my elbow in it.

I also built a bunch of the Red Caboose refrigerator cars for the layout at other times. When we moved out to New York, one of my favorite parts of our new neighborhood was Valley Model Trains, located out in the old mill complex in Wappinger's Falls. I built six of the kits while in New York, and when I needed more refrigerator cars for the new layout, I decided to stick with these kit. I mail-ordered another six from Red Caboose (because I could never find them in the local hobby stores).

When I mass-produced the additional six kits, I tried to fix some of the problems I'd had with the older models. I found the plastic grab irons and steps were too fragile, so this time I made my own wire grab irons and used flexible plastic steps. I also bought undecorated kits so I could match the black roofs of the late 1920's and get unique numbers for each of the kits. To make decalling all the kits easier, I marked up a clear plastic template that was the size of one side of a car, and showed center lines and heights for each of the decals. With the template, it was easy to make sure all the various text appeared in the same place on each car.

Last year, I started running a gravel train during my operating session. The train's story was that it would run from Santa Cruz to the new mainline construction in San Jose, drop off full cars, and pick up empty cars already dumped. This train was intended to be a combination of a troublemaker (getting in the way of other trains) as well as being a low-pressure job for late in the session. It had been running with an odd mix of gondolas. There were a couple Details Associates steel gondolas that had a problem staying on the track because of their light weight, some of Red Caboose's steel SP gondolas, and a mix of scratchbuilt and borrowed gondolas of different flavors. The Red Caboose and Details Associates gons are based on 1950's prototypes; they were reasonable things to get when I wasn't sure what era I was modeling.

However, none of these were prototypical; a normal work train in the 1930's would have been filled with very distinctive drop-bottom gondolas. The only problem was that the only sources for the cars were imported brass cars (pricey!) or some 1960's Ulrich kits no longer in production.

I thought about different options for a while, but all the old photos I saw from my era showed those hard-to-find cars. I thought about trying to kitbash something appropriate out of new kits, or maybe casting my own kits. Luckily, I checked Ebay and found that the Ulrich kits, though collectible, were very common. I started bidding on kits as they appeared on Ebay; my price limit was $15-20, I went after assembled and original kits, and I got non-SP cars usually in garish colors (because the SP cars commanded a big premium.) I finally had seven cars sitting in the closet, and so I started assembling or repairing them. I painted them all boxcar red, and bought a fistful of decals from Champ to give them appropriate lettering. These cars are nice and heavy, so they roll up and down the layout quite nicely with none of the derailing of the plastic kits. I remember being so worried that I'd spend too much on Ebay, but in the end I spent less than if they'd been available as new kits.

The layout's pretty much stuffed with cars now; I've gone from an average of 7-8 car trains to 12, and the staging tracks don't always fit a full train during operating sessions. (The photo shows all the cars from the layout moved out of the way for cleaning before an operating session.) But that sea of brown freight cars - almost all 40 foot cars, with the occasional 36 foot shorty boxcar or longer 50 foot automobile or furniture car - definitely captures the feeling of the 1930's I'm trying to maintain. Mass-production of car kits isn't always my favorite way of spending my hobby time, but I've been happy with the progress.

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