About my freight car fleet

Freight cars ready for the next operating session.

I received an email from a regular blog visitor at the end of 2015 that posed some very interesting questions. Here’s the message.

“Many of your recent posts describe prototypes built no more than fifteen years prior to your 1926 modeling period.

Do you know of – or have a feel for – the average age of the freight car fleet at that time? It seems to me that the great majority of the prototypes you have modeled so far represent relatively new cars. I know there was a lot of rolling stock construction going on around the end of the First World War and through the nineteen-twenties, but how much of this replaced older cars, rather than augmenting them and growing the overall fleet size?

I also am aware that car (and train) weights were increasing at that time so the very oldest cars may no longer have been man enough to run with the new construction, but presumably you need some cars built prior to 1910 or so to maintain a representative total fleet?”

There are some good questions here for anyone modeling the 1920s or a specific era. Let’s take a look at each question and some data and opinion.

Age of the fleet

“Do you know of – or have a feel for – the average age of the freight car fleet at that time?” I don’t have an answer as I’ve not actively thought about the age of the freight car fleet in 1926. I do have some data we can review to gain a better understanding.

The current layout has a B&O freight terminal focus, so box cars would dominate the cars in use. I’ve compiled B&O box car quantity detail from a January 1925 B&O Summary of Equipment and an October 1926 Official Railway Equipment Register (ORER). The data here is streamlined by eliminating box car sub-classes.


B&O box cars

B&O Car ClassJan 1925 totalsFleet %Oct 1926 totalsFleet %
M-24 (USRA)5001.345001.25

The M-8 through M-14 classes, plus the M-20, M-21, and M-25 class cars were 36-foot cars all built before 1910. The M-22 and M-23 cars were built in 1910. These car classes were 59.5% of the B&O box car fleet in the 1925 data, but fell to 47.5% in the late 1926 ORER. Much of the difference can be found in the reduction of 2000 cars from the M-8 class and the addition of new, 40-foot, steel-sheathed cars. The B&O added over 6000 40-foot cars in the M-26 and M-27 classes in 1925 and 1926.

After crunching numbers on the B&O hoppers and box cars, a rough average age estimate turns out to be 14.3 and 9.9 years respectively in 1926. Taken together, the average is 12.3 years. The numbers are slightly biased towards the box car age because there are more of them than hoppers.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was undergoing a similar box car fleet upgrade, but it is more difficult to determine as they had thousands of XL class box cars that were built in the 1900-1916 era. The PRR was assigned almost 9,000 USRA single-sheathed cars in 1919 for their X26 class, plus they started adding X29 box cars (similar to the B&O M-26 cars) in 1924. Here’s some data I pulled from the October 1926 ORER. The car class listing falls into age sequence with the XH class the oldest.


PRR Car ClassOctober 1926 totalsFleet %
Total XL design cars40,97244.96
Total X25 design cars11,34112.44
X26 (USRA)88709.73

Establishing an average age of the PRR box car fleet is difficult, especially when the XL fleet was growing by different amounts between 1902 and 1916. The XH cars were the last of the 34-foot cars that were built in the 1890s, while the X23 and X24 classes were built between 1912 and 1913. The quantity of these PRR cars built before 1916 comes to 49,251, which is 54% of the 1926 PRR box car fleet. Obviously, I can’t depend on USRA single sheathed X26 cars and the new steel-sheathed X29 cars to properly reflect the PRR box car appearance.

Another data point can be reviewed in the 1926 W&LE Freight Car Fleet page that is a part of this blog. A previous layout focused on the W&LE and I became familiar with their freight cars in 2009-2010. This was when I began to look at quantities of freight car designs and using that data to develop the model freight car fleet. The Wheeling fleet changed radically between 1915 and 1925 with the majority of older wood cars replaced by cars with steel components.

Other railroads chose to rebuild their fleets rather than purchase new cars. Through the 1920s, the Western Maryland rebuilt a few thousand older hopper cars into their distinctive channel side stake hoppers. They also converted 500 older wood gondolas to double sheathed box cars.

There is a mountain of data for each railroad. I’ve been able to focus on a few, but I am sorely lacking on Teens and Twenties Midwest railroad fleets. I’ll get there eventually, but each railroad seemed to have a different focus on expanding their fleets between 1900 and 1926 to serve the marketplace.

What’s available?

Here’s the second question; “It seems to me that the great majority of the prototypes you have modeled so far represent relatively new cars.” I readily admit I have done this, although it has been an unconscious decision. In some cases, I built kits that were readily available. Just this past year, I added several Accurail USRA double-sheathed box cars and a handful of Tichy USRA single-sheathed box cars. As I was wrapping these up, I realized the number of USRA cars on the layout are way out of proportion with the percentage of the National car fleet. These kits were started five years ago, before I knew better. I’m glad they are in service, as they have a proper mid-1920s appearance. At some point, other freight cars representing older car designs that had large quantities in service will bump some of the USRA cars into a holding box.

As you can see from the data on the two tables above, I really need to model M-8 and M-15 class B&O box cars as those cars were over half the 1926 B&O fleet, as well as PRR XL and X23 class cars. I have a few Westerfield B&O M-15 kits on hand, but I know see the details represent prototype upgrades after my 1926 focus. So those need to be traded for the proper car kits. The M-8 cars are not available at all. This has bothered me for awhile and I hope to move ideas forward in 2016 so a few M-8 box cars roll into service.

There are a host of early prototype cars missing from my fleet. PRR XL box cars and Canadian box cars of the Fowler/Dominion design are sorely missing, but appropriate kits are lined up on my workbench. Thank goodness Accurail is releasing models to represent the NYC 36-foot double-sheathed box cars. Those will fill a large size hole. These models may also make solid stand-ins for earlier Erie, DL&W, C&O, and L&N cars that were roaming the rails in large quantities.

Two box cars await the lettering crew. On the left, a B&O M-13 class box car reflecting prototypes built in 1906. On the right, a Union Pacific B-50-4 reflecting nearly 19,000 prototypes built for several railroads starting in 1904. These two additions should move the average age of the model fleet back slightly.
Two box cars await the lettering crew. On the left, a B&O M-13 class box car reflecting prototypes built in 1906. On the right, a Union Pacific B-50-4 reflecting nearly 19,000 prototypes built for several railroads starting in 1904. These two additions should move the average age of the model fleet back slightly.

It has taken time to understand the needs of the Wheeling Freight Terminal fleet. I’ve built a few resin freight car kits only to find very few prototypes in service during my era. I’m trying to minimize those mistakes so my time and energy produces freight cars that add depth to the period appearance of the layout. I’ve also built a few kits that do not have decals to represent the proper mid-1920s lettering practices. The models are good for the era but the decals are not so the models remain unpainted until decals are found. Proper decals are now on the checklist before any new freight car kit is considered. Sadly, this rules out some interesting models but it also inspires me to create the artwork for a small production run. I don’t want to run a few undecorated cars forever.

I’ve enjoyed thinking about these questions and about how to present the answers here on the blog. As prototype modelers, we need to think through many details of our project. It helps when someone asks a few questions so we can refocus and provide some answers so others can move forward, too.

Special thanks to the gentleman who sent the original questions and helped crunch some numbers for this presentation. We both learned about some freight car fleets and found it was difficult to determine an overall age of the fleet. Compiling and reviewing the data can illuminate missing pieces of the scene. Each railroad will have a one or two car classes or designs that were built in quantity, yet these lurk in the shadows of history.

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One thought on “About my freight car fleet”

  1. Good thoughts on fleet age. I recently lettered a car for my freelanced Ocali Creek Railway, and had to choose a build date. It is a Silver Streak (Walthers) generic double-sheathed, truss rod, 40′ box car with an early Murphy roof, so I picked a date of 1912. That makes it 17 years old on my layout, so it will be weathered accordingly to represent a hard life with moderate maintenance. Freelancing allows me some leeway – I don’t have to match a specific car to any ORER, etc. But, I do have to consider car type, appliances, ‘upgrades’ it may have received over its service life, etc. in order to support the overall appearance of the late 1920’s.

    As always, I enjoy following your blog, Eric. Thanks for another great post.

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