Athearn Trains F89 Open-Side Autorack

Published: 2021-07-09 - By: CNW400
Last updated on: 2021-07-10
visibility: Public - Headline
In December 2020, Athearn Trains expanded their F89 Open-Side Autorack collection. This model represents the Bethlehem Steel Company flatcar and Whitehead & Kales autorack frame developed in the 1960’s.

Road Names and Pricing

This latest release includes seven different paint schemes. The road names represented in this collection include:
  • Baltimore & Ohio (BTTX) - Bi-Level
  • Cotton Belt (SSW) - Tri-Level
  • Gulf Mobile & Ohio (BTTX) - Bi-Level
  • Rio Grande (RTTX) - Tri-Level
  • Union Pacific (RTTX) - Tri-Level
  • Wabash (RTTX) - Tri-Level
  • Western Pacific (TTBX) - Bi-Level
Three different road numbers are available for each railroad with a suggested retail price of $43.98 for bi-level and $44.98 for tri-level models.

My review includes observations of Athearn Trains stock number: ATH14472 - Baltimore & Ohio (BTTX) #911880.

Prototype History

The automobile industry and railroads have a long, storied history: the hauling of raw materials to production plants - delivery of auto parts in specialized boxcars -the transport of assembled vehicles to dealers and distribution hubs. But their relationship wasn’t always easy; the railroads have worked hard to meet the ever-changing demands of the manufacturing industry and to stifle the competition from trucking lines.

First, the railroads improved their access to the vehicle production hub of Detroit, MI and the surrounding areas. Thus in the early days, the railroads were able to dominate the service offered to the ‘Big 3’ (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) and the smaller manufactures - hauling 70% of finished vehicles throughout the 1920’s and 60% during the 1930’s. Initially, 40 or 50-foot boxcars with wide double-doors were able to carry 2 or 3 automobiles (depending on size of vehicle). In the mid-1930’s internal racks were developed to transport 4 vehicles - two hoisted at an angle and two secured to the boxcar floor. This process proved very time consuming to load/unload and was prone to cause vehicle damage.

After World War II, the railroads saw their finished automobile shipping numbers slip to 40% and further decrease to 19% in 1950 and to a devastating low of 8% in 1958. Stiff competition from the truck industry with the development of semi-trailers and improved highway systems was a deadly combination to the railroads during the ‘auto boom’ of the 1950’s.

But it wasn’t for the lack of trying...

The railroads did try to develop more efficient means to transport automobiles. A few early examples include Grand Trunk Western (GTW) trials in 1923 with a 60-foot flatcar that could hold up to nine cars. The flatcar was deemed too difficult to load/unload vehicles onto the second level and GTW didn’t like the idea of dedicating a flatcar to a ‘single use’ product. If the automobile flatcars weren’t hauling automobiles, they would be sitting idle not producing revenue. The idea was scrapped until twenty years later.

In 1954 Evans Products Company experimented with a double-deck, open-side car for the New York Central and Union Pacific railroads. Dubbed the ‘6-Car Auto Loader’, the flatcar was equipped with a built-in ramp to load automobiles on the second level. This idea did not reach its full potential and was also abandoned. The railroads also played with the idea of using 75 or 85-foot piggyback flatcars but again determined the use of a long, single layer flatcar was not efficient use of a railcar. The 85-foot flatcar was delegated to haul small trucks, buses and military equipment.

The first modern autoracks to be pressed into mass service were introduced in January 1960 by the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco) and Santa Fe (ATSF). The Frisco revealed a Pullman-Standard built 83-foot tri-level that held 12 to 15 automobiles. The Santa Fe developed a Topeka shop built 53-foot tri-level that could transport nine cars.

In 1963 Trailer Train adopted the 89-foot flatcar as the standard size for their piggyback and autorack fleets. The length was increased to 89’-4” by request of the auto manufactures. The same design was used for piggyback and auto service to help simplify production and to ease the process should the flatcars needed to be redesigned or converted between rail services.

There are two basic categories of autoracks: bi-level and tri-level.

Bi-level autoracks have two decks that are usually fixed in height. Pickup trucks, vans and taller automobiles (with a load capacity of 8-10 vehicles) were primarily assigned to this railcar. Tri-level autoracks have three decks and can transport 12-15 standard size automobiles. Tri-level autoracks were one of the tallest railcars of the 1960’s - reaching upwards of 18’4” fully loaded. This caused a predicament with the old tunnels and bridges of the eastern states. This resulted in the construction of two different tri-level varieties: the ‘Western’ variety with fixed decks that could freely travel the Midwest, Southwest and Western states. The ‘Eastern’ variety B and C (top two decks) levels could be raised and lowered to navigate a greater number of tunnels. The autorack decks were identified by letter (A-B-C) and the vehicles numbered in forward facing position. Thus the middle car on the third rack is labeled C2. These ‘elevating decks’ (assigned ETTX road marks) were high maintenance and prone to failure and fazed out of service by 1970.

Trailer Train managed an equipment ownership pool of both piggyback and autorack flatcars to eliminate empties and improve efficiency. Trailer Train would own the flatcars while the railroads owned the autoracks. Trailer Train assumed the risk of railcar ownership because the flatcars could be converted into different rail use services while sharing the financial burden and maintenance with the railroad ownership of the autoracks.

The Rise and Fall of TTX Open-Racks in Auto Service

Whitehead & Kales was the dominant open-side autorack builder and were fitted on the majority on Trailer Train flatcars. The Whitehead & Kales racks have a distinctive ‘I’-shaped steel post pattern with gussets and ‘X’ design diagonal bracing. The racks had handrail safety cables strung along the tops of each side and tie-down hooks on the decks to secure the vehicles to the autorack. Each auto manufacture had their own style of attaching the hooks to their vehicles thus the notation on some racks such as:
  • “When Empty Return to Southern Pacific, Milpitas, Calif.”
  • “When Empty Return to N&W RR, Detroit, MI.”
  • “When Empty Return to ATSF RWY CO Arlington Texas”
The autorack flatcar was the answer the railroads needed to win back their share of the vehicle hauling market: improvement of loading/unloading times, reduction in damage, a greater variety of hauling options than trucks and competitive rates. The railroads saw their share of auto traffic increase to 25% in 1962 and climbed to over 50% by 1969. Vehicle manufactures preferred to use semi-trailer trucks for short hauls up to 300 miles and the railroads for the longer distances.

Anti-vandal side panels were installed to open racks starting in 1970 and the use of enclosed autoracks began in 1974. The enclosed autorack car further helped to protect vehicles from the elements, vandalism and theft. With the development of the enclosed car, many of the automobile flatcars were ‘de-racked’ and reassigned to other rail services such as Trailer-On-Flatcar (TOFC) or oversize load transport.

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. Also included was a small plastic bag with six bridge plate detail parts. Bridge plates are used to cross (‘bridge’) the gaps between adjacent autorack cars or autorack to dock during loading and unloading. Each plate is designed to hold a 10,400-pound static load. The paint job is clean and even along the entire metal and plastic model. The Athearn Trains model with a 1964 built date has the correct pre-1969 prototypical red paint color with white letters - for a period of time Trailer Train did offer the option to paint the flatcars and racks a custom color. Trailer Trains began to change their fleet color from red to the modern day yellow starting in 1970.

Unboxing the Model with Bridge Plate Detail Parts

The Athearn F89 autorack represents the 89’-8” car design of 1963 thru 1968. The Baltimore & Ohio autorack was assigned the road marker BTTX, which designates a bi-level auto rack with or without side shields and no roof or end doors. The railcar was fitted with friction draft gears.

BSC was established as Bethlehem Steel Company in 1899 and renamed itself as Bethlehem Steel Corporation in 1904. From 1923 to 1991, Bethlehem Steel was one of the world's leading producers of railroad freight cars at their Johnstown, Pennsylvania plant. While BSC manufactured several types of railcars and supplied parts for railroad shops, they are best known for their coal cars.

Bethlehem Steel produced over 9,000 of these 89’-8” flatcars. With the decline of American steel manufacturing during the 1970’s, BSC fell into financial difficulties, which lead to the discontinuation of freight car production in 1991, a bankruptcy in 2001 and final dissolution in 2003. Now the curve ball - this Baltimore & Ohio autorack is NOT a Bethlehem Steel product - but instead an American Car and Foundry railcar.

Note the F89GH Designation Under Front Tire

With all the Athearn marketing material labeling this new release as BSC autoracks - the flatcar is labeled F89GH (which is an ACF product code) and the road number (911880) falls within the series (911864 - 911994) manufactured by ACF during the later months of 1964. Although the Bethlehem Steel F89F is very close in appearance and structure to the American Car and Foundry F89G line of flatcars - there is a possible error of identification. I believe all three B&O cars in this collection to be incorrectly identified as Bethlehem Steel autoracks.

Mislabeled B&O Autorack

All lettering is “razor” sharp and clear, even when some magnification is needed for the smaller printing. All characters are neat and legible. The placement, size and font of lettering is very similar to prototype images - with the thousands manufactured in the 1960’s with production variations and service for different lines many lettering discrepancies were discovered amongst prototype photographs. According to American Car and Foundry production records - the correct build date of 12/64 for this series of 911000 flatcars is noted on the Athearn model.

The open-sides of the model are accurately depicted when compared to an unpublished Baltimore & Ohio bi-level photograph (#912624 - F89GH built in 1965) I was able to view. The prototype was equipped with Whitehead & Kales autoracks, which were painted white and proudly displayed the large blue and yellow B&O shield on the diagonal bracing of the third post section. The irregular post spacing in the middle of the rack matches prototype photos. True-to-life full ladder and gears are represented on each side of the autorack with a separately applied handbrake.

Open-Side Rack with B&O Shield

The second blue and yellow side panel gives the instruction: “When Empty Return to B&O RR, Baltimore, MD.”

Brake and Ladder End Detail

The decks are nicely adorned with tread detail and undulating (having a smooth rising and falling form) safety railings on the upper level. These railings are an extra fine detail and are very delicate - care is needed when handling to avoid snapping these cables.

Deck Detail with Treads and Handrails

The underside features a die-cast metal frame for balance and weight. Athearn Trains added this weight for optimal performance - including a heavy metal center brace with cross members. Elaborate underside details are represented with reservoir tanks and rods. The flatcar rides along newly tooled screw-mounted 70-ton ASF Ride-Control trucks with metal wheels. Finally the model is equipped with body-mounted McHenry operating scale knuckle couplers.

Highly Detailed Metal Underframe

The car is 6 5/8 inches in length and weighs about 1.4 ounces, which is marginally light according to the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) recommendations (which are 1.5 - 1.6 ounces for this size car). Attention is needed however maneuvering around curves with a recommended radius of at least 12”.


This is another stunning release from Athearn Trains that will demand attention while riding along your layout (even if it has an identity crisis!). It’s a highly detailed model that is true to prototype images. Furthermore, the fantastic print job and use of metal parts to achieve perfect balance makes this model first rate. I also appreciate the inclusion of metal wheels and accurate ‘free-flowing’ safety cable representation. I just need to get myself a new fleet of pickup trucks and hit those rails.

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

About the Author

CNW400 became enamored with trains while watching the ‘Green & Yellow’ double-decker cars clad with shiny green windows (C&NW) rumble by his childhood house in Chicago. His first train set was the Tyco Bicentennial model in 1976. Always a fan of the railroad, CNW400 is newer to the hobby, active for the last four years (now that all the kids are grown-up!). Furthermore, he is also a collector of railroadiana focusing on lanterns, locks & keys and insulators.