A common question that seems to crop up on several Facebook groups on a weekly basis is something along the lines of, "what brand locomotives/freight cars should I buy?"
I find the comments interesting, although the answer for me is always the same, "whoever makes the most accurate model of a given prototype."
Accuracy and Fidelity
I differentiate two different aspects of a model when deciding whether it's a model I'll purchase.
Accuracy refers to whether the car properly represents a given prototype. Usually I'm concerned with the large details - roof, ends, proper configuration of the sides, etc. Doors are included in this regard, unless they are separate parts that can be replaced. Detail parts like running boards, brake wheels, brake gear are less important since I can replace them. Underframes are also of less overall importance to me, although I want anything that's visible when it's sitting on the track to be correct. For example, I won't usually correct the number of stringers that run the length of a floor.
In other words, I want all of the visible components to be correct, but focus primarily on the ones that are hard to replace with proper ones if there are descrepancies.
Fidelity refers to the quality of the model itself. Are the detail parts molded on or separately applied? How well are the details rendered? Athearn blue box cars suffer in regards to fidelity. They have molded on grab irons, but because of their desire to make operating doors on their box cars, they have grossly oversized door hardware ("claws"), and the tooling is often chunky, with oversized rivets, thick running boards, etc. (as was typical of many models of the time).
Accurail and Bowser models, on the other hand, also include molded on details, but the tooling is much better, with the rivets appropriately sized, grab irons have a thin profile and when well painted and weathered it can be difficult to tell that they are molded.
I have very, very few models that were produced with molded on details. When I got back into the hobby, there were plenty of options with separately applied details, so it wasn't necessary. Accuracy and fidelity is important enough that I'll go with a resin kit rather than a model that doesn't meet these standards. I replace the molded parts on the few that I do have.
For RTR cars, I usually just use them without modification to start. As I go through to weather them, I'll also make modifications/corrections as needed. I don't replace things like sill steps unless they are broken.
So what styrene cars on the market for my era meet my requirements? The majority of these are all available RTR, some as kits (at least on the secondary market) or RTR, and a handful only as kits.
Many models are produced by companies who acquired the tooling of earlier companies. I make note of that, but for companies, like Branchline, where I primarily own cars that were produced by that company, I've separated them out.
To the best of my knowledge, every Accurail model is accurate for at least one prototype. However, with the molded on details I only have a few and those are primarily for kitbash projects.
- 41' AAR Gondola - easy to remove the few molded grabs
- 40' Wood Refrigerator (both the 4800 and 4900 series) for kitbashes
Rib Side Cars (now Accurail)
This was an extensive line of most of the variations of Milwaukee rib-side cars. You can access their old site here. Accurail acquired the tooling and has released several variations. The tooling is interesting, the bracket grabs are molded on but they have separate ladders. I believe a few versions had separate bracket grabs. The Intermountain, Exactrail, and Sunshine have higher fidelity. I have the Exactrail and Intermountain cars, but these are much easier to get than the Sunshine ones. The quality of the lettering isn't fantastic, but Speedwitch has great decals.
Unless otherwise noted, they have the unique Milwaukee style roof with two narrow rectangular corrugations in each panel instead of the more common single corrugation. Accurail has released the 40' Double Door car and the 40' long-rib cars.
- 40' Long-rib (1939-40)
- 40' Short-rib "Phase 1" (1944) 5/5 Dreadnaught End with lumber door
- 40' Short-rib "Phase 2" (1945-6) 4/4 Improved Dreadnaught End with lumber door
- 40' Short-rib "Phase 3" (1948) 4/4 Improved Dreadnaught End, no lumber door
- 40' Short-rib "Phase 4" (1948) 4/4 Improved Dreadnaught End, no lumber door, Diagonal Panel roof
- 40' Short-rib Double Door (1942-4)
- 50' Short-rib Single Door
- 50' Short-rib Double Door
The Exactrail car is the 40' Long-rib car, and the best mass-produced car. Unfortunately, they haven't run it in years and it's hard to find.
The Intermountain model is the "Phase 2" car, and is very good, if not quite as good as the Exactrail one.
Sunshine did most variations, but are also hard to find.
I have a "Phase 1" along with a 40' Double Door, a 50' Double Door, and a couple of the 50' Single Door cars. At some point I could get a "Phase 3" and "Phase 4" car if I wanted to.
Although probably half (or more) of my roster when I was a kid, I only have two Athearn freight cars at this time.
- 50' ATSF Rr-30 Ice Reefer (only "Super Chief" version, see article here)
- 65' AAR Mill Gondola - Speedwitch has alternate ends
While I don't have that many Atlas cars, since they acquired the tooling for the ex-Branchline cars, and now many of the ex-True Line Trains cars they produce quite a few other accurate models. All of my models are from the original companies, but are now being produced by Atlas.
I used to have several of the 11,000 gallon LP tank car, but the Kadee one is more accurate.
- AAR Standard Twin Hopper - The Intermountain and Kadee cars are much better for most prototypes, but this is the correct variation for LNE and Chris, Pete and I have been modifying several for that purpose.
- 1932 ARA Standard Box Car - I covered these in detail here.
- Rebuilt USRA Box Car - These weren't done nearly as well as the 1932 ARA car. They had a special run for the Club they used to have (there was an annual charge, and you got a car that was only available with that membership). The car that year was the SL-SF car, which is reasonably accurate.
- Wood side reefer
A number of years ago Atlas acquired the tooling for all of the freight (and passenger) cars to the best of my knowledge. Since these were Bill's projects they are all very accurate and very detailed. Kits are still pretty easy to find. Just be aware that the styrene used seems to have turned quite brittle over the years (at least for some of the runs) so you have to be patient and careful trimming parts from the sprues. The Atlas produced versions seem to be a much softer plastic, and easily worked.
The Yardmaster series had molded on details. I don't have any of them, these are all from the Blueprint Series (now Atlas Master).
- 40' Postwar AAR Box Car
- 50' Postwar AAR Box Car
- UTLX Reefer
True Line Trains (now Atlas)
Atlas recently acquired a bunch of the tooling from TLT as well. To the best of my knowledge, only the models Atlas mentioned in their announcement was acquired, as I wasn't involved in the sale. I've listed other TLT models separately below.
- Canadian 1937/1944 AAR Standard Box Cars - Despite our marketing some of these as 1944 cars, they are actually 1937 AAR Standard Box Cars. There was the Modified 1937 AAR Standard in 1941, which added an optional 10'6" IH variation. Otherwise, the standard wasn't updated again until 1948 when the 10'0" IH version was eliminated.
The Canadian cars differ in that they don't have "tabs" (including poling pockets), and have integrated stirrup steps at the bottom of the ladder. Normally these steps at the corners of the cars are properly termed sill steps. But these weren't attached to the sill, so...
They also used different ends than most US-built cars, including two unique ones (NSC #1 and #2) used on the CN cars, and 5/5 Dreadnaught ends on the CP cars. Many of the Canadian cars also had flat roofs, with no rectangular raised panels, much like the Murphy Solidsteel roof, although I don't know if they were that specific roof.
- Slab-Side Hopper - We did all six of the major variations of these cars. the CN cars with 12 square hatches and the CP ones with 10 square hatches or 6 rectangular hatches are all appropriate for my era.
Years ago Bowser acquired Stewart. Both lines are quite accurate (although the paint schemes and road numbers aren't always). However, the majority of the line have molded on parts, and more accurate versions are available in resin (or starting to be released in updated versions, such as the Rapido X31 and F30 and the Intermountain 1958 cu ft covered hopper).
However, for inexpensive, easy-to-build, and finely detailed and accurate kits these, along with Accurail and Tichy, are fantastic and, if you aren't as picky as me, an affordable way to built a fleet. They acquired Stewart years ago so you may find some models under that brand.
I haven't decided whether I prefer the Accurail or Bowser AAR Standard Triple Hopper, nor have I researched whether they are the exact same prototype, or similar, since both have molded on details they are further down my list of potential projects.
- H30 covered hopper - their first model with separately applied details
- Fishbelly Hopper - this is based on a WM prototype which is convenient since it had ladders which are separate parts. There's still modifications to be made, but CNJ and RDG had welded variations of these so it's not too difficult to modify them.
They have a surprising number of freight cars for some interesting prototypes. While not quite the best execution (for example the sliding doors on the USRA Steel Design Box Cars), they are quite good.
- AAR Standard 70-ton Quad Hopper
- H2a Triple Hopper
- ACF Type 27 Chlorine Tank Car
- H32 Covered Hopper
- K7 Stock Car
- USRA Steel Design Box Car
Eastern Car Works
These are available only as kits. They are relatively simple kits, often with a mix of molded details and separate parts. The tooling isn't of today's standards and they tend to be a bit chunky, but otherwise accurate.
- Depressed Center Flat Car - based on a NH and NYC prototype, so it's a must for me.
Exactrail has excellent models, although they do have a several lines that vary a little in their fidelity. Unfortunately, they only produce 3 cars that are useful in my era. All are of their highest level of detail, though.
- B&O Wagontop Box Car - the Fox Valley model is a close second and easier to find.
- GSC 42' Flat Car
- MILW Rib Side Box Car
I have a lot of Intermountain cars, in part because they have a lot of prototypes, but also because the prototypes were owned by many, many roads. I don't have any of their PS-1 Box Cars, as the Kadee is a superior model.
- 12-Panel Box Car
- 1937 AAR Standard Box Car
- 1937 AAR Modified Standard Box Car
- 1937 AAR Modified Standard Box Car with 4/4 Improved Dreadnaught End
- 1958 Cu Ft 2-Bay Hopper
- 1958 Cu Ft 2-Bay Hopper with closed sides
- AAR "Alternate" Standard Twin Hopper
- ACF Type 27 8,000-gallon Tank Car
- ACF Type 27 10,000-gallon Tank Car
- ART Refrigerator Car (Amarillo Railroad Museum/MP Historical Society has a custom run)
- ATSF SK-R, -S, -T, -U Stock Car
- Caswell Gondola
- FGE Wood Refrigerator Car
- Milwaukee Rib Side Box Car
- Plywood Panel Box Car
- R-30-18 Refrigerator Car
- R-30-21 Refrigerator Car
- R-40-19 Refrigerator Car
- R-40-10 Refrigerator Car
- R-40-23 Refrigerator Car
- R-40-25 Refrigerator Car
- Santa Fe Refrigerator Car
- SP Stock Car
- USRA Composite Drop Bottom Gondola
- War Emergency Box Car
Intermountain purchased the majority of Red Caboose's tooling (for a while Intermountain was producing RTR models for Red Caboose). Red Caboose had acquired the tooling from IMWX years ago. It doesn't matter if it's in an IMWX, Red Caboose or Intermountain box, they are the same models and all excellent. Des Plaines Hobbies also tooled some parts (the Viking Roof being the most important) for the AAR Standard Box Cars, and special runs were produced with that roof. So you'll often find IMWX or Red Caboose models with a Des Plaines Hobbies label.
- 1923 AAR Recommended Practice Box Car (X29 with AAR Body and Steel Plate Ends)
- 1937 AAR Standard Box Car with Square Corner Ends
- 1937 AAR Standard Box Car with W-corner Ends
- 42' Fishbelly Side Sill Flat Car
- F-70-6/7 (Owned by Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society now)
- Mather Refrigerator Car
- Wood Side Refrigerator Car (R-30-9)
- X29 Box Car - 1924 Body with Steel Plate Ends
- X29 Box Car - 1924 Body with Steel Plate Ends and side panel patches
- X29 Box Car - 1928 Body with Steel Plate Ends
- X29 Box Car - 1928 Body with Dreadnaught Ends
Kadee doesn't release a lot of freight cars, but their injection molded details are second to none. The NH PS-2 covered hopper is just past my era...
- PS-1 Box Car
- PS-1 Box Car, early version
- AAR Standard 55-ton Twin Hopper
- 11,000-gallon Insulated Tank Car
Scale Trains recently acquired the HO scale tooling from MTH. I only use one of their models, but it's an important one and I'm hopeful that Scale Trains will finally release them in useful (and accurate) paint schemes - the USRA 55-ton twin hopper. This is the best detailed and most accurate model available of this prototype in my opinion.
- USRA 55-ton Twin Hopper
Owl Mountain Models
- SP F-50-5, -8, -9 Flat Car
- SP F-50-10, -12 Flat Car
With Bill (formerly of Branchline) and other train buddies responsible for the research and design of freight cars (and New Haven prototypes), they are always accurate and very well detailed. However, they appear to be willing to produce more "close-enough" freight car models compared to their passenger cars and locomotives, such as their Armour and Swift lettered GARX reefers. I have them anyway and will make modifications later. Some of these models are forthcoming.
- GARX Refrigerator Car
- GLA Hopper
- PRR F30A Flat Car
- PRR X31A Box Car
- PRR X31A Automobile Car
- NP 10,000-series Double Sheathed Box Car
- USRA Double Sheathed Box Car
- USRA Single Sheathed Box Car
Spring Mills Models
A small company with some beautifully tooled and detailed models. Only one is necessary for me, and it appears all of the cars that they have released are hard to find.
- B&O Wagontop Hopper (the F&C resin kit is still available).
Tangent Scale Models
One of my favorite manufacturers right now, although I wish they would release more products for my era. They've filled some big holes in tank car fleets.
- ACF Welded 70-ton Gondolas
- Bethlehem 70-ton Riveted Gondola
- GATC 1917-Design 8,000-gallon Insulated Tank Car
- GATC 1917-Design 8,000-gallon Radial Course Tank Car
- GATC 1917-Design 10,000-gallon Radial Course Tank Car
- GATC 1929-Design 6,000-gallon 3-compartment Tank Car
- GATC 1948-Design 8,000-gallon Welded Tank Car
- GATC 1949-Design 8,000-gallon Acid Welded Tank Car
- GATC 1952-Design 8,000-gallon Welded Tank Car
- PS-1 9' Door Box Car
Tichy Train Group
Primarily available as undecorated kits, Intermountain does produce some RTR versions as well. These are very detailed and very well engineered models, but I use them mostly for kitbashing material as I've detailed in my series on their flat car model. Unfortuantely, some of them have some issues. The tank car is notorious for being a model based on a car that was never built, the USRA hopper has the center panels too wide, and the USRA Single Sheathed Box Car is now being supplanted by the forthcoming Rapido release. But the USRA hopper with panel sides is beautifully done, with full interior detail. Much of the tooling is formerly from Gould.
- 40' Flat Car (Central of Georgia Railway Historical Society has a custom run with decals)
- USRA 55-ton Twin Hopper with panel sides
- War Emergency Gondola
True Line Trains
I'm listing these separately because these are models that Darren and I produced and were not (to the best of my knowledge) purchased by Atlas. You'll have to find these on eBay or at shows. I know Atlas wouldn't have the Minibox, and I'm about 80% sure they didn't get these other two.
TLT was formerly known as Life-Like of Canada (the name was changed in 2005 when Walthers acquired Life-Like's tooling), and a number of the projects were joint projects between L-L and L-LoC. Although Life-Like didn't release any freight cars that I'm aware of as Proto 1000 models, the Fowler box and Stock cars, along with the Newsprint cars, were. These didn't have as much detail as the Proto 2000 cars (typically underbody detail), but they did have separate grab irons. We referred to them as Proto 1500 models. The P2k gondola were released that weren't perfect matches for the Canadian paint schemes that were used and carried a sticker with a disclaimer.
- CP Minibox
- Fowler Box Car
- 8-Hatch Reefer
While I have some passenger cars, I don't have any freight cars that were originally produced under the Walthers name. Most have molded on parts, and even those that don't have issues with accuracy (at least the ones for my era). I do have a few that were sold under the Walthers name that were produced by Life-Like in their Proto 2000 line. After Walthers acquired the tooling, these cars have been released under several Walthers monikers. I believe the current one is Walthers Proto.
Life-Like Proto 2000 (now Walthers)
At the time these were a revolution in styrene models. Initially available as kits, then as "Time-Saver" kits where some of the assembly was completed, making it possible for most to complete the model in about an hour. Also available as RTR. What made them unique at the time is that not only were they vary accurate in their detail, but they made a point of only releasing them for roads and in paint schemes that were documented. This was unheard of. Gondolas and hoppers had interior detail. This didn't mean that they were all 100% correct, for example not all of the owners of the Greenville mill gondolas had interior folding stake pockets as were molded into the models. To the best of my knowledge, Walthers hasn't added any bogus roads/schemes to the former P2k models. I'm not sure they've added any new roads/schemes at all (although I don't follow them that closely, I already have what I need).
- 50' Single Door Box Car
- 50' Automobile Car
- 50' Automobile Car with End Door
- AAR Standard 50-ton Flat Car
- ACF Type 21 8,000-gallon Tank Car
- ACF Type 21 10,000-gallon Tank Car
- ACF Type 21 10,000-gallon Insulated Tank Car
- Greenville 70-ton 53'6" Mill Gondola
- Mather Box Car
- Mather Stock Car
Resin Freight Car Models
I have many resin cars from Funaro & Camerlengo (and the many small companies that they produced models for, such as NEBW, NHRHTA, Steam Shack, Yankee Clipper, etc.), JJL, National Scale Car, Resin Car Works, Smoky Mountain Model Works, Speedwitch Media, Sunshine, Westefield, Yarmouth Model Works.
Plastic kits mostly cover the major prototypes (although that is changing). That leaves lots of holes that are needed to fill for a proper mix of cars. Plus, I just like freight cars. Resin kits are the primary source for these prototypes, followed by kitbashing and scratchbuilding.
I won't likely do a similar list for resin kits, simply because they are, on the whole, very accurate models. As I build specific kits I'll highlight any issues I have come across.
Brass Freight Cars
Brass cars are also an option, but they offer (usually?) suffer from inaccuracies, and also tend to lack details, such as brake rigging, etc. There are certainly some beautifully produced models as well. But I don't have any of them, primarily since there are generally much less expensive options in plastic (sometimes) or resin (more frequently). I don't have enough knowledge of the models that have been produced to comment on them further.