What Does Your Model Railroad Haul?

What does your model railroad haul? What work does it do? What is the reason for its existence?

This is probably the first question about your model railroad that you need to answer. Now, if you are planning to build a model of a prototype railroad, that question has already been answered. Your model railroad hauls whatever the prototype hauls.

 A large percentage of us though, are building either completely freelanced or protolanced model railroads. With a protolanced model railroad, we can definitely look to the prototype our model is based on, for the answer to this question, but many times we are working on the premise of "What if?".

As I pointed out on the main Model Railroad Planning page, the answer to this question is going to be very tightly connected to both  your model railroad Era and the model railroad location of your model railroad. After all, if you are planning a Transition Era model railroad in the Appalachian mountains, even if it's freelanced, chances are, the main cargo it's hauling will be coal.

Mixed FreightA big part of building a model railroad, is to make it as realistic as possible. After all, who doesn't want visitors to comment on how realistic their layout looks? A large part of that realism will be trains hauling cargo, which we model railroaders call loads, that are consistent with the location that the railroad is supposed to be in.

That's not to say you can't also haul some cargo that isn't strictly correct for the era and location. At some point I plan to build an industry up in the mountains of my layout, that produces Giant Japanese Robots, so every now and then there will be a train comprised completely of white cars and locomotives with plain black lettering, that take sub assemblies and parts to the hidden factory.

Remember, model railroading is fun! That means putting part of yourself into your model. Having the occasional fantastic load, even on a strictly prototypical model railroad, can add interest and fun, but unless you're planning a layout based on complete fantasy, you need to give a lot of thought to what your railroad should haul.

Railroad Form Fits Function

Everyone is familiar with long trains containing miles of boxcars, tank cars, and various types of flatcars. Each of these, as well as every other type of rail car, are built for a specific function. That function will also depend on the timeframe of the railroad.

For example, if your layout represents the steam era, and you want it to haul lumber from the mills to lumber yards, the 2x4s, plywood, and  other building materials would most likely have been hauled in standard boxcars. On the other hand, if you're running a modern railroad, that same load would be hauled on center beam flatcars.

Borden's Milk Car - Illinois Rail MuseumKnowing what to haul, and how to haul it, is a matter of research. This is one of the few hobbies that actually requires some work on your part, to create a realistic end product.

Even though most of the people who may see your model railroad won't know or care that fruit belongs in refers, they'll know something is wrong if you just use a standard boxcar, or a flatcar. They probably won't be able to put their finger on what's wrong. but they'll instinctively know something is off.

You may be cringing at the idea of doing research. If you're like me, research was something you last did back in High School, and it was always the worst part of a project. Fortunately, times have changed, and things are a lot simpler. You no longer need to have a full set of encyclopedias around the house, which likely as not, are out of date anyway.

Google is your friend. You can search for not only web pages, but images of various types of cars, as well as maps of where railroad tracks are. By the time you are done with planning your model railroad, you'll be teaching your kids or grandkids the tricks to using Google. With Google Earth, you can view locations in 3D, and you might actually catch a train on the rails, and be able to see what it's hauling.

Castle Rock & Pacific Marble QuaryThe trick to figuring out what a train would be hauling, is knowing where it runs, and when. Knowing what, where and when works sort of like Ohm's Law (which you'll learn about when you start wiring your layout). Knowing any two of the three, will allow you to find the third.

If you know when and where a train ran, you can find out what it hauled. If you know what and where, you can figure out when that sort of train would have run regularly. If you know when and what, you can narrow down to just a few locations where such a train would have likely been.

To determine what your model railroad trains should consist of, lets now look at your model railroad location, and your model railroad era.

Planning Your Railroad

Online Resources

Trinity Rail Car Rail car manufacturer
Carrtracks Library  Information on  railroads and what they haul

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