The new question is, how many variations of a Trinity 5161 are there? The answer it seems is more than a few. There are cars for grain service and ones for sugar, potash and other dry bulk materials. I’ve found variations where the train line runs under the side sill or down the middle and the same goes for the brake rod. There are two different center sill designs as well as different loading hatch configurations. In short, modeling one isn’t as straightforward as I thought.

My preferred research method is to thoroughly photograph a full size car. This isn’t always practical, so like many of you, I turn to the Internet and look for the best resources I can find. In gaining experience with scratch building, I’ve become aware of how easy it is to mix the details from different production runs or classes of car. You think you are looking at examples of the same car but often you aren’t.

The model is lettered for Borax Corp. The full size car was part of a group of 75 cars built in September and October of 1998, numbered from 500116 to 500190. This information along with a photo for one of these cars appeared in the June 2003 issue of the now defunct Model Railroading magazine. It’s part of a six part series on these cars by author David A. Casdorph running from the March to August 2003 issues that is archived on the website. This series provided a few answers but the image of the car wasn’t especially helpful, which yielded more questions.

I did confirm my choice of center sill is correct, so I won’t have to redo it though I was fully prepared to do so if needed. I still have questions about the routing of the train line. With this design I’ve seen photos where the train line enters the center sill behind the truck bolster and I believe it runs inside the sill to the opposite end, though I can’t confirm that with certainty.

Also based on photos, I strongly suspect the brake rod runs down the center of the car above the sill, as I’ve modeled it. Atlas placed the rod under the side sill, which isn’t correct for this series, so it will have to come off. The other details are more straightforward and I feel I’m on solid ground with my choices.

I’ve temporarily set the car on the bolsters and trucks to check the progress and a few key dimensions. The appearance of components with a scale thickness is very satisfying.

This extra research is worth the time and effort because there is truth in these details that helps me understand how the car is built. I enjoy the challenge of consistently and accurately reproducing a subject in miniature and that understanding helps me express the values I want the modeling to have.

So yes, I’ll take as much time as I need to find information that helps me understand a subject. I’ll model details that few will see or appreciate because doing so makes me happy. It’s not an approach for every taste, just one among the many available to all of us.


Model Railroading magazine archive


  1. steve hurt

    I’d have to agree Mike, I have really learned a lot about how equipment is built or functions from building models. To me the research for a project is without a doubt as much fun as the construction.

  2. Craig Townsend

    The other thing to think about when modeling is the prototype manufacturing. Often manufacturers won’t call out different ‘phases’ of the same car/locomotive. These changes are often organic in nature and sometimes don’t get even noted until railfans pick them out. For example EMD insists that they only made a single F3 locomotive. Modelers on the other hand have picked out different details and labeled them as F3 Phase I, Phase II, Phase III, etc.

    Compounding this difference is what you pointed out, the difference in commodity (I however think that this variable is a bit easier to research due to ORER’s and other info).

    Add the final piece of the puzzle, model manufacturers often just find one prototype model and mass produce it without regard to specific road number details or other important information.

    The more I move to specific prototype modeling, I’m learning that it’s almost easier just to completely strip factory paint and factory details and start all over with the plastic shell.

    All that said, I’m in the same boat with you and Steve. Prototype modeling can be challenging but the research provides the motivation to keep moving forward. I’ve been busy modeling a GN Snow Dozer now for almost 10 years, each version getting slightly more detailed/closer to the prototype as I discover more information to help me in my modeling.


  3. Simon

    Or you can end up with a model of a prototype which didn’t quite exist!

    Over here in the U.K back in 1973., Hornby brought out a well-detailed for its time model of a 4-6-0, of which around 850 were produced for the real railway. Aside from a small number of experimental versions trying out different valve gears, there were two immediately obvious differences. The first 225 or so had a short firebox and long boiler, and the rest a longer firebox and shorter boiler (or the other way around). The overall length was the same.
    But the model came out with a short firebox and short boiler… not quite sure how this happened, but this sort of mix-up of prototype dimensions/phases is all too common in models. The model did not look right in profile, failing to capture the slightly haunched look of the prototype. (LMS class 5, for anyone interested.) It had other errors, too, but they could be corrected.

    Despite what self-appointed voices of the silent majority say (thereby disenfranchising themselves!) getting the basics and the details right is what finescale is all about, and without finescalers raising these issues, models would not get better.

  4. mike

    Hi guys,

    Yes to all of the above in your comments.

    Steve: I’m also learning about modern railcars the more I understand their construction.

    Craig: Changes between production phases can be very subtle and with locomotives mostly internal. I didn’t realize that builders don’t distinguish between the changes like railfans do but that makes sense to me. To your point and Simon’s about model manufacturing, we’ve seen this for decades. We all know the blue box cars painted and lettered for any and every road. It’s understandable on one level since steel dies for injection molding aren’t cheap, but from a modeling perspective we’ve grown beyond generic stand-ins for the most part. Simon makes an excellent point about this with his loco example. And, as I learn more about freight cars, I’ve learned to be wary of commercial products. For example, that C&NW boxcar that often shows up in my photos has the wrong number series. The number Intermountain used is for an early series of wooden boxcars. It’s easily fixed with some decals but, again it speaks about the lack of research and how we as consumers tolerate things like this.

    It’s especially bad in O scale given how the market is split into different factions with their own agendas. I appreciate the no-win position a manufacturer must be in but, I also realize that if I want accurate models, I’m going to have to put in the work and take responsibility for doing it myself. Given the cost of models in this scale ($100+ for the Atlas Trinity hopper) scratch building looks more attractive and, cost effective, every day.

    To Simon’s last point, Amen.