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Model railways in solihull
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Wagon Loads

Most wagons probably spend more than three quarters of their time without a load of any kind, whether sitting in a siding or travelling to collect their load. One of the holy grails of goods train operation is to run trains fully loaded in both the outward and inward directions, but in most cases this is not possible as it is unlikely that the finished product will be required to be sent to the location that the wagons brought the raw materials from and very often the wagons that carried the raw materials are not suitable for the finished product. This is the case, for example, in trains to and from steelworks, still common in the UK today, where coke and iron ore are transported to the works in simple open wagons or hoppers, but the finished steel plate, slab, billet, rail, coil or wire requires low, flat wagons, sometimes with weather protection if the product is damaged by rain. The above ratio implies that about a quarter of your model wagons should be loaded at any one time, so this is an area that needs consideration.

One type of operation where loads could run on both legs of a journey is in trains to collieries, now relatively rare in the UK. Traditionally, trains of wooden pit props, either all stacked vertically, or stacked horizontally with those at the outside vertical, inside simple wooden and steel open wagons, would run to collieries. If the destination for the coal produced from the colliery roughly coincided with the source of the pit props, potentially, the same train could return with the same wagons, this time carrying the coal.

Securing Your Load

Whatever you choose for your load, it should be contemporary with the wagon in the condition it is in and securely tied down if it is not a bulk load, perhaps with 'rope' made from painted cotton if the object is not too heavy, or with fine chain, available from model boat suppliers, for loads from fractions of a ton upwards. To tension chains for heavy wagon loads, railway companies used screw couplings joined into the chains. Wagon loads from about the 1970s onwards tended to start using nylon straps, often blue for some reason, with their own special tensioners, often built onto the wagons.

Invisible Loads

Some types of wagons, such as covered vans, do not need loading as the load is hidden, but you can use weathering techniques to imply the kinds of commodities carried that may have spilled out on loading or unloading, for example bags of cement or fertiliser, and before about the 1980s, some vans had posters added to the outside to advertise the contents.

Bulk Loads

By far the most common wagon type until about 30 years ago was the simple wooden or steel open wagon or hopper. They were usually used for coal, but could be used for lots of other things as well, such as coke, iron ore, scrap metal, engineering supplies or general rubbish, although the varying densities of the materials sometimes called for their own specially built or modified wagons, for example upwardly extended opens with coke rails for the lighter coke or wagons with stronger springs for the heavier iron ore. Bulk loads like coal and iron ore are normally at least loaded mechanically from a hopper or conveyor belt, both of which tend to leave a slight peak in the centre of the load which you can model. For a load like this I would make a former from .020" Plastikard sheet, or you could use sponge or card, to fit the inside of the wagon with further pieces of sheet on top to make the 'peak'. This would need to be lifted off the floor of the wagon with packing pieces of your chosen material. The top could be painted a suitable colour, then covered with crushed coal or iron ore as appropriate, glued on with a 50:50 mix of PVA wood glue and water with a drop of washing-up liquid to break the surface tension and stop the watered-down glue forming blobs. Be warned that watery glue makes a mess! You may want to make your loads removable so you can run your wagons empty or full.

Engineers' Loads

Engineers' wagons are used to carry anything to a work site that will be required for whatever work is being done, such as sleeper, pre-assembled track sections, rails, bridge beams, concrete cable troughing, new ballast, spent ballast, oil drums, generators, compressors and even mechanical excavators.

Sheeted Loads

Loads affected by weather would be placed in covered vans or sheeted. Until about the 1960s, wagon sheets tended to be dark grey or black, presumably canvas, with a serial number and the railways' initials painted on in white. Some model manufacturers sell these, but different modellers use various techniques to make them as well.

Some modellers cut them out of old metal toothpaste or food tubes, some make them out of flattened-out, screwed up paper and some sew them up from suitable fabric, as do Bachmann on their ready-to-run hooded china clay wagons. As one of our members has done in one of his wagons, just a folded-up wagon sheet makes a nice load in an open wagon, but weigh it down with something or it would get blown out of a real wagon. More recently, plastic tarpaulins, again often blue for some reason, have been used by railwaymen to sheet loads and these can be made in similar ways to the 'traditional' type. One advantage of a sheeted load is that you often can't tell what it is, so the modeller can use a small piece of waste plastic or wood if they want to simulate a load, but it is more interesting if a small piece of something recognisable pokes out from under the sheet. Make sure your sheet is securely 'roped' to any non-moving parts of your wagon.

Awkward Loads

Some loads are fragile, such as a boat hull, or an awkward shape, such as a large marine buoy or a large piece of steel sheet, and in these cases special wooden cradles were often knocked together as required or permanently fitted to some wagons. If the load was larger than the railway loading gauge when loaded vertically or horizontally, it would be rotated in any direction possible until it either fitted the loading gauge or nearly fitted it. Out-of-gauge-load trains would run under a full line occupation with no other trains running, with the out-of-gauge load next to the locomotive, or the brake van in the case of the GWR. They would stop at intervals to check or adjust the load. If a load is fragile, it might be cushioned with sand bags, and these were sometimes also fitted between longitudinally stacked loads of pipes, presumably to stop them rolling around and to make it easier to get a rope or chain underneath them for loading and unloading. Boats can be made from kits if you can find one the right size and date. Pipes can be 'made' from the varying sizes of plastic pipes made by Plastruct and available in most model shops. Loading cradles can be made from balsa or spruce for model aircraft and steel plate can be made from Plastikard.

Long Loads

Long loads such as bridge beams, girders, long planks or tree trunks were usually carried on bolster wagons. There were two main types of these, the simplest being the single bolster wagon, run in pairs, each of which had a heavy cross-beam of timber at the centre to carry the load and a stop of some sort, usually a vertical iron or steel rod, at each outer end of the bolsters to stop the load falling off to the side. Longer wheelbase versions were also built with four or six wheels and more bolsters for use singly. The second main type is the bogie bolster, having a bogie each end and sometimes one in the middle as well, and various bolsters which could often be moved about on the wagon or removed altogether to suit the load. If a load overhangs the end of any wagon, another wagon is attached unloaded to that end to protect the next vehicle from the overhanging load. These wagons were called 'match trucks' and were usually specially built, very short four wheel flat wagons with little or no bodywork, but were sometimes designed to take a load themselves, although with no easy way of attaching it if there was no bodywork, loads would sometimes be nailed down on the wagons. Sometimes any other suitable wagon was used as a match truck.

Road Vehicles

Road vehicles make very interesting subjects and used to be very common as loads in mixed goods trains and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in passenger trains. Since about the start of the 1970s they have tended to be restricted to whole goods trains of new cars, vans or trucks on specially built or converted wagons. As the railways were 'common carriers', any vehicle they were asked to transport would be moved. Before the internal combustion engine started to take over around World War II, road vehicles carried included steam traction engines, road rollers and tractors and horse-drawn carriages and wagons. Farm machinery was routinely moved from the start of the railways to the 1970s and common loads were tractors, rakes, ploughs and muck-spreading trailers. Once the internal combustion engine started to establish itself from the end of the nineteenth century, almost any motor vehicle could be seen in a goods train. During World War I and World War II, whole trains were run, sometimes with specially built or modified wagons to supply the war effort. These carried horses, guns and tanks, which make interesting loads on a model railway layout. When not at war, the railway would carry any military vehicles it was asked to, sometimes in special trains and sometimes singly in ordinary goods trains. Typical of these loads were Austin Champ jeeps, Land Rovers, box trucks, buses, tankers, road rollers, excavators, armoured cars and armoured personnel carriers. They would be carried on any suitable flat wagon, usually one designed for road vehicles, or on a low-platformed machinery wagon, usually called a 'Lowmac' on BR, or on a well wagon if they were out-of-gauge otherwise. The military has their own wagons for carrying vehicles, such as 'Warflats', 'Warwells' and 'Rectanks', which tend to carry the armoured vehicles, but often normal railway wagons such as 'Lowmacs' or 'Lowfits' are used also.

Road vehicles were securely attached to wagons by any solid part, such as the chassis, wheels, axles or tow hooks, and due to their wheels making them likely to roll off the wagons, they were usually secured additionally by nailing wooden chocks onto the wagon floors next to the wheels. Loads like a Land Rover could be roped on, up to around a ton or two, but would require chaining beyond that. New cars or vans could be moved on individual wagons such as four wheel flat 'Lowfits', or longer four wheel 'Plates' which could carry two small cars, mixed into goods trains or, usually on special motor vehicle wagons, in block motor vehicle trains. These block trains tended to carry only one make of vehicle or just cars or just vans or even only one model, depending on what the factory they started from was building at the time, or what was loaded at a forwarding depot. Early block trains from about the 1960s often had single deck bogie flat wagons converted from old passenger coach underframes. From about the 1970s, these started to be replaced by newly-built articulated, two-wagon, six wheel, single-deck well wagon sets for tall vehicles like vans and trucks, although these are often still carried on the flat wagons, and articulated, bogie, twin-deck, four-wagon well wagons called 'Cartics' for smaller cars and vans.

Springside make a huge range of cast white metal road vehicles of all types, Airfix make a very basic short wheelbase Land Rover plastic kit, a common 'Lowfit' load, and JB Models make plastic kits of various suitable armoured personnel carriers, armoured cars and a Bedford MK truck, but while they make a nice model of a 1960s long wheelbase Land Rover and trailer, I have not seen a photograph of this kind of Land Rover on a railway wagon, although the trailers are sometimes carried.


Containers started to appear in large numbers from about the 1930s. There were originally various shapes and sizes, but most gradually became more standardised to around sixteen or seventeen feet long and all the 'Big Four' railways had wagons to carry them. They had the advantage of reducing handling in days when many trunk hauls would be made by rail, but many loads would then need to be transferred to a lorry or cart for final delivery. This was particularly useful for operators such as furniture removal companies, but many other traffics also went by container, such as chilled or frozen foods and bicycles. Containers were occasionally roped onto wagons, but more usually chained on. Any wagon suitable for them could be used, normally four wheel flat wagons with low curb rails called 'Conflats' by BR, but also low and high-sided open wagons, and all tended to be mixed into normal goods trains. Some wagons, such as 'Lowfits', were marked 'not to be used for containers', but this instruction was not always heeded.

In the late 1950s, British Railways London Midland Region started an 'express', non-stop containerised goods service from Hendon to Glasgow called the 'Condor'. This used vacuum-braked long wheelbase four wheel flats with roller bearings and modern hydraulic buffers which were converted from 'Plate' wagons, each able to carry two containers, and was normally powered by two type 2 Metro Vickers Co-Bo locomotives. At around this time an 'automatic' method of locking the containers to modified wagons was introduced to speed trans-shipment. The concept of long, close-coupled, continuously-braked wagons, fast trains and automatic locks was used in the next generation of container trains.

In the late 1960s, one of the various attempts to reduce the subsidies to BR was the introduction of the Freightliner network, where standard 20 feet or 40 feet maritime containers would be carried between ports and inland container terminals on 'high speed' bogie flat wagons running in block trains. Freightliner 1995, the privatised descendant of the original operation, still exists today, but runs various types of goods trains in addition to container trains and the other main goods operators, English, Welsh and Scottish Railways, Direct Rail Services and G. B. Railfreight, also include containers in their portfolios.


Any animals small enough to be easily crated up would presumably be put into covered vans to protect them from the weather, but I have no evidence to describe how smaller animals travelled with one or two exceptions. The GWR and presumably other railways had a small number of 'hound vans' which were used to carry hunting hounds in passenger trains and had a small box to carry fox terriers. Horses and pedigree cattle were normally carried in passenger trains in special passenger train rated horseboxes or special passenger rated vans respectively, both with attendants. Other cattle were carried crossways in goods cattle vans and would have been tightly-packed to avoid injury. Cattle vans were often originally open-topped, but this changed at about the end of the nineteenth century to closed vans. They were often vacuum-braked, so could run in passenger trains if required. In World War I, some standard open wagons were modified with extra top planks and lashing rings to carry military horses. For the sake of keeping the cattle calm and reducing injuries, rules were passed in the twentieth century that cattle vans should be marshalled at the front of goods trains. This avoided the jerk felt towards the end of the train when all the slack in the couplings between the wagons was taken up. Larger cattle wagons tended to be partitioned into 'large', 'medium' and 'small' spaces, so the farmer could pay for only what he needed. Railwaymen could lock the partitions in place to avoid the farmer using space he had not paid for. Until about the 1930s when it was outlawed due to potential damage to cattle hooves, cattle vans tended to be stained white around their lower bodysides due to the lime used to wash them out and neutralise the manure and urine from the cattle.

Final Thoughts

All the above is a guide based on my own experience. There is no real substitute for reading books and examining photographs. An excellent book on the subject is 'Freight Wagons and Loads in Service on the Great Western Railway and British Railways Western Region' by J. H. Russell and published by OPC, but there are many more useful books on the subject. Make sure your load is suitable for the carrying capacity and date of the wagon. Make sure it is properly fastened to the wagon and that it is 'in gauge'. Also make sure your load does not make the wagon 'overweight' or it will not run properly, especially if the load is cast in metal. The total loaded weight of each wagon should not be more than a few grammes for a four wheeler or up to twice as much if it is a bogie vehicle.


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© Solihull Model Railway Circle 2000-2022. Whilst every care has been taken in the preparation of this website the publisher, Solihull Model Railway Circle, cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in the website, nor for any consequence arising from such information. The articles included and the views expressed on this website are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Solihull Model Railway Circle or its members or advisors. This website is intended to be a resource, but initially it is for promoting the Solihull Model Railway Circle.