Mixing Covered Hoppers
by Patrick Harris
Much like a recipe, recreating a realistic train depends on the right mix. I have shot thousands of photos of rolling stock, and after a while one gets a feel for when a train looks “right”—that rightness being dependent on the time, place and road being observed, of course. If one is modeling the Wyoming coal basin, coal hoppers and coal gondolas will almost entirely dominate. On the CSX in New Orleans, open hoppers are relatively rare compared to the flood of covered hoppers and tank cars here on the Chemical Coast.
One of the challenges of prototype or protolance modeling is deciding what to leave in, and on what to compromise. Obviously all modeling is compromise since we are not creating actual miniature cars of steel, aluminum, and so forth. Some compromises, though, are greater than others and modelers must each decide how much compromise is acceptable in their “world”.
I personally have a “thing” for covered hoppers, and that works out well for the southeastern area I choose to model. The ACL, SAL, SCL, Southern, L&N, Central of Georgia, Chessie, Virginian, and N&W all had a variety of sizes and arrangements of 2-, 3-, and 4-bay covered hoppers. In the eastern end of those roads it was also common to find NYC, Pennsy, PC, EL and other northeastern covered hoppers bringing loads to southern businesses. Add in ACFX, SHPX, CRDX and other “generic” lease fleet centerflows and center-discharge hoppers, and one has quite a variety of colors, schemes, sizes and shapes to mix into a train. This variety takes effort to pull off properly, however. In my kit purchasing, I am striving to provide a diverse group of covered hoppers for my 1983 setting. One of the blessings of this date is that many small-capacity two-bay hoppers from the 1950s and 1960s were still in service alongside some of the modern large capacity cars. Even among the larger cars are variations in height, length, number of bays, round hatches or trough hatches, body shape.
Over the last few years HO modelers have been blessed by the manufacturers expanding the kits available to us for just this sort of variation. The Athearn 4-bay centerflow could be run alongside the Accurail 3-bay, and though the McKean 3-bay centerflow has no actual prototype (the closest be the ACF 4600cf cars), it offers yet another change-of-pace in a string of covered hoppers. McKean/Front Range also produced an approximation of a 4-bay 5200cf centerflow (again with no genuine prototype to match it) that allows the height/length/bay variation that makes a train seem real.
Mix in some of the medium-sized Con-Cor 3-bay PS2-SDs (side discharge–on either side of a center sill), throw in some Proto 4427cf PS2-CDs (center discharge), add some Walthers low-side 4427cf PS2-CDs, place the odd Athearn 4740cf PS2-CD and you can make quite a tasty gumbo of covered hoppers moving grain, plastic pellets, chemical fertilizers and other goodies. Add in Intermountain and McKean 2-bay ACF centerflows, Walthers 2-bay Trinity/PS covered hoppers, some Bowser or E&B Valley 1950s/1960s old style cement hoppers, and top off with 2-bay and 4-bay airslides, garnish it with a couple of MDC/Roundhouse FMC 3-bays and you have variety that will make even a seven- or eight-car train feel like it’s 1:1 scale.
The CSX “Bay Turn” that services industries east from New Orleans to Bay St. Louis, Ms. typically has about 10 covered hoppers in its 20-car consist, including 2-bay centerflows (usually MP, UP or HPJX leasers of MP/UP heritage), several pre-Trinity PS 2-bay PS2-CDs, a couple of 3-bay 4750 PS2-CDs and a couple of PS2-SDs. Really interesting variations in configuration of the cars always make it worth watching, and that sort of mix will make one’s model consists more genuine in “feel” as well. Even “unit trains’ of grain are made up of wildly different styles and manufacturers. If you ever get the chance to catch a Lincoln Grain or Kyle unit train of grainers, you will see a host of varying covered hoppers, all hauling the same commodity.
I’ll compromise and run some non-prototype McKean centerflows as stand-ins for the 4600cf cars to get that feeling of a real grain train. I can’t compromise and run 20 identical Accurail cars for where I model, even for unit trains. How much compromise works for you? How much variety in car configuration is right? How much variation in representative roads/schemes looks correct? Spend a little time by the tracks and learn how much variety feels right for you. you’ll be glad you did.