Planning your Model Hopper Fleet

Realism means more than just nice models, it also means a nice model mix
by Dan Bourque

N&W H11-1 100T hopper in HO by Dan Bourque

N&W 100T H11-1 hopper kitbashed from Bowser model by Dan Bourque

Most people realize that realism on a model railroad is not achieved by one or two nice models alone. Rather, realism is created as the sum of many factors. Good-looking scenery, a good trackplan and realistic-looking models are often the primary things our eyes notice right away. However, there are many more subtle characteristics which add to realism like a consistent era for all the models, the right amount of cars and locomotives on the layout and realistic operations when things are running.  Another subtle way to add realism which many folks don’t think about is the MIX of your freight car fleet. This is especially important on a coal-hauling layout where the hopper fleet dominates the scene. If you want to go that extra mile to convey realism, your hopper fleet needs to reflect the prototype.

Creating this mix is not always easy. Often, our tendency as model railroaders is to model that one-of-a-kind hopper or make things easy on ourselves by fudging toward commercially available models. This tendency is certainly natural, but it won’t lead you to a realistic hopper fleet. The key to a realistic mix is PLANNING! This article will illustrate how to simply plan a realistic hopper fleet which closely mirrors your prototype. Additionally, this same concept can easily be used for other applications such as planning a locomotive roster or planning what mix of locomotive paint schemes you need to make your layout more realistic.

Getting Started

You’ll need a couple of things to get started. First, you need a good idea of the year you’re going to model. Secondly, you need to have completed some research to know what your prototype’s hopper fleet looked like the year you’re modeling. Finally, you need to have a good estimate of how many hoppers your layout will need.

For the purposes of this article, I’ve elected to model the Norfolk & Western circa 1975.  My research has already been completed in the form of Andrew Dow’s excellent book, Norfolk and Western Coal Cars from 1881 to 1998. And I’ve done a little figuring to determine how many hoppers I’ll need:  I need about 8 20-car trains for a total of 160 hoppers. Don’t worry if you don’t have exact figures because the process is actually quite easy to repeat once you have good numbers.

The Prototype Fleet

The N&W prototype information was easy to procure.  If there isn’t a book covering the hopper fleet of your particular prototype, you’ll have to do some additional research and find a Railway Equipment Registry for your year.  Here’s how the N&W fleet looked in 1975.

Table 1. N&W (and merger road) Hoppers circa 1975

Railroad Class Number   Railroad Class Number

NW

H2A

6870

VGN

H26

46

H7

1

H32

282

H8

2

H33

148

H9

3128

H34

3700

H10

7798

H35

1261

H11

4295

NKP

H36

1

H11 Extend

2122

H37

3

H11A-E

22046

H42

628

H12 (early)

1

H43

1205

H12

78

H44

488

H13

1

H45

394

H16 / 16A

1334

PWV

H49

23

NKP

H18

1

VGN

HC11

6

Total

55862

N&W H11E 100T hopper in HO by Dan Bourque

N&W 100T H11E in 1971 lettering from Bowser kit by Dan Bourque

It’s obvious from the 55,862-strong prototype fleet that some classes of hoppers (like the H11 classes) will be dominant and other one-of-a-kinds probably won’t make the cut. Before proceeding, I strongly recommend you capture your data in a computer spreadsheet like Microsoft Excel to make the next set of calculations much easier.

The “Compression Factor”

The next step is to determine the compression factor for your model fleet. To get this number, simply divide the number of models needed by the number of prototype hoppers. For our N&W example, the compression factor is 160 / 55862 or .002864. To see this in action, take a hopper class (ex. H2A) and multiply the number of prototype hoppers in that class by the compresson factor to get the number of models needed (ex. 6870 x .002864 = 19.677). Of course, you’ll have to round the decimals to the nearest whole number because there’s no value in having 2/3 of a hopper! This step is then repeated for every hopper class until the final model roster is complete.

Table 2. N&W Model Hopper Fleet – 1975

Railroad Class Prototype Number

NW

H2A

6870

20

H9

3128

9

H10

7798

22

H11

4295

12

H11-1

2122

6

H11A-E

22046

63

H16 / 16A

1334

4

VGN

H32

282

1

H34

3700

11

H35

1261

4

NKP

H42

628

2

H43

1205

4

H44

488

1

H45

394

1

55862

160

That’s all there is to it. Now comes the challenge of finding, kitbashing or scratchbuilding all those models! Enjoy!

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