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North American Freight Cars ~ A report on the prototype

January 11th, 2008 · No Comments

In an article written in the September 2007 issue of RAILWAY AGE by Contributing Editor Roy H. Blanchard, he reports that the North American freight car fleet is getting long in the tooth. The average age of the the typical car is around 26 years, with boxcars tending to be the oldest and tank cars the youngest.
In the Railway Age article entitled SPECIAL REPORT ON FREIGHT CARS: A great time to be a carbuilder? Setbacks are cyclical. The future is solid. The Association of American Railroads also says that of the 1.5 million cars in circulation as of January 2007, only 40% carried railroad marks, and half of those cars were between the ages of 21 and 40 years, while in the private fleet nearly 70% are under the age of 21. The caveat, however, is that the AAR calls everything without railroad marks "private," and that includes TTX's various "X" marks - TTX and RBOX. e.g. Take flat cars for a complicated example. Only 35% have railroad marks, with three out of four cars in service built in the last 20 years. However, 'car" in this context covers single-or multiple-platform units, spine cars, well cars singly or in sets, or anything with a knuckle on each end. And the growth in intermodal traffic in the last 20 years explains why there are relatively few flat cars over the age of 21 and why most of them are "privates" in this context. At the other end of the scale, the boxcar fleet is aging because much of what used to move in boxcars is now in trailers or containers riding either on intermodal flat cars or on the Interstates. The railroads own 85% of all boxcars in service and two-thirds of them are between 21 and 40 years old. However, there remains a market for higher-cube boxcars with 286,000 pound capacity. BNSF, for example, owns nearly 9,000 boxcars and is adding up to 60 Plate F "286" boxcars as they phase out the smaller Plate C 263's. According to its 10-K statement for 2006, BNSF had shed more than 700 boxcars during the last two years. Union Pacific, with more than 24,000 boxcars on the books, cut some 2,400 units in 2006 alone. Norfolk Southern, for example, has introduced a new "Eastern" hybrid coal hopper car incorporating innovative features from FreightCar America and Trinity and using a mix of metals to stop corrosion and weighing less. Moreover, NS is building 400 new coal hoppers equipped for electro-pneumatic braking and will incorporate ECP conduits in other new-builds going forward. NS is taking a new tack on managing most of its utility coal fleet to improve cycle times and revenue moves per car per year. As noted above, the Appalachian coal model is one of many origins and fewer destinations. By controlling the fleet, NS can shorten the time between loads by sending cars to the closest mine best suited for the next destination for the car. In other words, NS is creating a coordinated coal network moving more coal without adding significantly to the coal hopper fleet, and at the same time adding to the locomotive fleet to handle more train starts, minimizing the time unit trains have to wait for power once loaded or made empty.
What's all this mean for the model railroader? Simply, it means that you can model a modern prototype railroad and have a good reason to accept a 20 to 40 year range in era time frame for freight cars. For example, let's say you want to model the merger era of the Southern Railway and Norfolk and Western that formed the modern day Norfolk Southern. The complete merger from paper signing to complete conversion took about 8 years; Norfolk Southern Corp. was created as a new holding company to acquire Norfolk & Western Railway and Southern Railway, effected June 1, 1982. Full merger effected was on Dec. 31, 1990, as N&W became a subsidiary of Southern, and Southern changed its name to Norfolk Southern Railway. Let's say you are modeling the merger era of those railroads and assuming that similar statistics on freight car ages are applied to 20 years ago, sort of like a sliding window. And let's say your modeling 1988 in the fall, around October - November months for scenic fall colors. Given this scenario, you could effectively model the prototype and have freight cars that range in age from 1988 being new to 40 years old, or as far back as 1948. That might be a stretch, times were different then, but you get my point. The bell curve here most likely fluctuates as you slide it up and down the calendar annually and the majority of freight cars is more likely around 21 years old or would have an average build date of 1967, and that would be a better representation of a freight car mix.

Tags: Prototype

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