Athearn 53 Foot GSC Flatcar

Published: 2021-04-07 - By: CNW400
Last updated on: 2021-04-07
visibility: Public - Headline
In November 2020, Athearn Trains expanded their General Steel Castings (GSC) 53’ Bulkhead Flatcars collection. This model represents the all steel, single body flatcar frame developed by GSC in the 1950’s and still used in rail service today.

Road Names and Pricing

This latest release includes seven different paint schemes. The road names represented in this collection include:
  • British Columbia Railway (BCOL)
  • Burlington Northern (BN)
  • Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF)
  • Illinois Central Gulf (ICG)
  • Soo Line (SOO)
  • Trailer Train - (TTX - early paint scheme)
  • Union Pacific (UP)
Multiple road numbers for each rail line are available for individual purchase at $31.98. A 3-Pack is also offered in all lines except for ICG and SOO for $90.98.

My review includes observations of Athearn Trains stock number: ATH24299 - Burlington Northern (BN) #616044.

Prototype History

The first flatcar to be placed into service can be traced to Quincy, MA and the year 1826. The Granite Railway, one of the first railroads in the United States, hauled granite three miles from the mines of Quincy to the shipping docks of Milton, MA on the Neponset River. The initial tracks were wooden, iron-plated rails that used horse-drawn cars to transport the granite loads. The Granite Railway originated the use of railroad switches, turntables and double-truck rail cars. Finally in 1871, the Old Colony and Newport Railway acquired the track rights of the Granite Railway and introduced steam power and contemporary rail construction, which facilitated the transporting of quarry loads directly to Boston.

The basic flatcar is a piece of rolling stock consisting of an open, flat horizontal deck mounted on a pair of two-axle trucks. The decks were often lined with wood planks until they became more commonly lined with steel in the 1950’s. Flatcars were designed to carry cargo too heavy or bulky for enclosed boxcars or gondolas. The sides of the deck include evenly spaced pockets for iron or wood stakes or tie-down points to secure shiftable loads. The cargo - machinery to intermodal containers - must be able to survive during all weather conditions since it is exposed to the elements during the entire journey. Its flexibility in uses makes it a favorite railcar amongst the railroad carriers.

Flatcar with Load - Illinois Railway Museum (Koltz)

Borrowing the idea from the Granite Railway, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) in the late 1800’s began using a ‘container’ flatcar to secure wooden crates filled with baggage and other cargo. With the start of the 20th Century, the common flatcar grew to 40 and 50 feet in length and began to adopt specialized applications along the rails.

The Chicago Great Western Railroad in 1936 became the first major mainline to utilize the trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) concept. This forward thinking developed into the popular ‘Piggyback’ system of the 1960’s & 1970’s (named after the belief that semi-truck trailers ‘piggybacked’ during their journey on the railroads). The Pennsylvania Railroad developed the container-on-flatcar (OFC) concept in 1928 and offered the service until they abandoned the idea in 1950. This idea was the precursor of the popular modern intermodal well container cars of today.

Bulkhead flatcars were designed with sturdy end-walls to prevent heavy loads from shifting horizontally along their decking. Typical loads hauled by bulkhead cars include such items as: machinery, lumber, pipe, boilers, tanks, steel, transformers and tractors.

Flatcars are AAR Class F

FAAuto Racks
FDDepressed Center
FMGeneral Service

The Transition Era bulkheads were commonly 53’-6” in length and had a 70-ton capacity by the 1960’s. Most of the early models had riveted fishbelly sides, wooden decks and a variety of end-wall heights & designs. The bulkhead had vertical support posts behind each end-wall and these posts were either straight or angled. Furthermore the bulkhead car had side pockets evenly spaced along the sides to allow stakes or tie-down straps to be applied to prevent the load from falling-off the railcar. Lastly, the bulkhead flatcar had a brake wheel mounted on its end - the modern flatcar has instead a brake lever located near the end of its side.

During the early 1950’s, General Steel Castings Company (GSC) located at their second home of Granite City, IL, developed the first one-piece steel cast frame. These steel frames were first adopted into ‘Piggyback’ flatcar service but were quickly fitted with 8’-6” tall bulkheads and placed into hauling such commodities lumber and pipe. The easy spotting features for this production model are the lack of rivets and the characteristic double-taper fishbelly sides.

Finally, the bulkhead solved the predicament of regular flatcars with shiftable loads placed next to locomotives, tank cars or a caboose. Before the use of bulkhead cars, a flatcar with an unstable load (lumber, pipe) could not be placed next to one of the before mentioned train cars, for the fear of the load extending (shifting) beyond the flatcar’s end and causing serious damage (or injury) to its adjoining train car. The bulkhead alleviated the need of placing a buffer car between the flatcar and engine, tank car or caboose.

One safety issue the bulkhead flatcar created was the need of speed restrictions when a hauling an empty car. Bulkheads are lightweight when empty and an unloaded flatcar may experience ‘hunting’ oscillation or swaying when travelling over 50 mph. In order to avoid this wobbling and the risk of derailments an empty bulkhead puts a locomotive at a speed restriction of below 50 mph.

The Model

The ready-to-run boxcar comes packaged in a clear plastic jewel case with a slip-off cover and a clear two-piece plastic cradle to support the model. The model information is clearly labeled on the end of the case for ease to locate when in storage. A thin plastic sleeve was wrapped around the car to protect the print job from scuffmarks.

The paint job is clean and even along the entire metal and plastic model. The Burlington Northern (BN) bulkhead flatcar is painted Cascade Green with crisp white lettering and dull metallic decking. The BN green paint color was named after the pine trees and natural settings the railroad past through on its various routes. I read that the BN received some criticism for their choice of color since the green scheme blended too well with the surroundings and gave vehicles less time to react - thus the experiment of the zebra color (black & white) locomotive noses.

All lettering is “razor” sharp and clear, even when some magnification is needed for the smaller printing. All characters are neat and legible. Athearn has really mastered the process of supplying high-quality N-scale characters. The placement, size and font of type is very similar to the closest prototype photograph discovered - BN # 621057 - placed into service in 10-82.

Two main prototype variations exist for Burlington Northern bulkhead flatcars - the majority of examples have a solid steel bulkhead with an angled support brace and straight sides. The bulkhead has an elongated triangle appearance when viewed from the side of the car - these are not the GSC flatcars featured by Athearn Trains.

Small samples of prototype images found have straight steel lattice bulkhead supports and the unique double-tapered fishbelly sides. The flatcars also have 14 evenly spaced side stake supports. This is style GSC bulkhead represented in this release with a service date of 05-81 and Athearn Trains offers a true representation of this railcar.

Straight Lattice-Style Support Posts & Ladder

The Athearn models features the prototypical correct solid body fishbelly shape, the correct number of 14 side pockets and nice-sized stirrup steps at each corner of the flatcar. The bulkheads have the proper four lattice style support post configuration with one full-length ladder one each car end. The railcar’s road marker and number are accurately placed in the upper corner of the most right positioned end post.

One of the complaints I have read concerning this model is that the bulkheads on the Athearn cars are not mounted perfectly straight - a somewhat surprising and petty comment since the common trend in the hobby today is to weather and distress rolling stock. True, one of the ends is slightly uneven- it appears to be able to be bent or glued back into a straight position - but these cars are not supposed to be perfect specimens. The real life cars are used and abused on the rails and the plastic bulkhead model has no support on three sides. This is a very minor issue in my opinion for an otherwise strong model by Athearn Trains.

High-Mount Wheel

There are two features on the Athearn release, for those that prefer prototypical a model, which I cannot confirm to found images. First, the Athearn flatcar features a silver, flat finish metal decking. All photographs I have seen of Burlington Northern GSC bulkhead flatcars have a solid green metal bulkhead (with a vertical white stripe running down the middle of the bulkhead) and green wooden planks on the actual flatcar deck. I assume Athearn used metal decking to add some needed weight to the model but I am uncertain of the silver color choice. Secondly, the brake wheels on the prototype pictures always appear to be mounted low - the Athearn separately applied brake wheel and platform are mounted high on the model.

Metal Decking

The underside features metal a frame for balance and weight. Athearn Trains added this weight for optimal performance - including a heavy metal center brace and four cross members. The model refuses to lay on its side - the perfect balance Athearn achieved “springs” the flatcar back to the upright position (similar to bottom weighted baby toys that roll back to the correct position - remember ‘Weebles Wobble But the Don’t Fall Down’?). Otherwise very basic underside details with a few reservoir tanks. The flatcar rides along screw body-mounted roller bearing trucks with 33” machined metal wheels - which are a little too shiny for my taste. Finally the model is equipped with McHenry operating scale knuckle couplers that are attached to the proper heights on each body end.

Underside Detail with Metal Center Beam & Cross Members

The car is 4 inches in length and weighs about 0.7 ounces, which is not surprisingly light according to the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) recommendations (which are 1.1 - 1.2 ounces for this size car). I found it a good runner while testing the car on Kato Unitrack - a free roller with minor issues around curves or through turnouts at slow and medium speeds. It was a bit ‘shaky’ at times through turnouts...but adding some weight should help with this issue. A homemade load made from a block of wood that’s covered with computer printed lumber wrappers or even thin sheets of metal to simulate steel slabs. The minimum recommended radius is 9 3/4”.

Overall another excellent release from Athearn Trains - a nicely detailed model that is true to its prototype. The fantastic print job and use of metal parts to achieve perfect balance makes this model first rate. It’s a very good runner that could use some additional load weight to maneuver better through turnouts and curves. I would highly suggest adding a few of these flatcars to your rail operations - hauling lumber, construction material, machinery, etc. or working in your Maintenance of Way (MOW) division.

To see a list of all cars in this series, Click Here.