Indisputable Visual Evidence

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, April 1, 2018

I’m aware that a number of railfans are also railroad modelers, whether “scale”, or “tinplate/toy trains”.  While the scale field for many years has had a plethora of models available to suit a wide variety of prototype interests, both in terms of equipment types and road names, the tinplate/toy field has been more constrained in its offerings.

There is, of course, a lengthy history of art imitating life, in terms of toy trains modeled on famous prototypes.  A noticeable example from the 1930's had Bob Butterfield, an engineer on the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited appearing in a Lionel advertisement holding one of their model steam locomotives, with the headline “Just like mine”, with the inference that what he was clutching was a virtual duplicate of the J-1 Hudson locomotives pulling the Century.

Inasmuch as the model depicted had a 4-4-4 wheel arrangement, as opposed to the Hudson’s 4-6-4, and a Vanderbilt tender, a type not typically used by the NYC, there was at least a modest level of hyperbole here, but I suspect that the otherwise-discerning young customers viewing this ad probably did want one “just like Bob’s”, and managed to overlook the lack of a precise match with the prototype.  In fairness, Lionel later did produce a “scale” Hudson that was quite well received.

In the early post-World War II era, Lionel introduced diesel locomotives into its product line, reflecting what was going on in the prototype world. A notable example was the EMD/General Motors F-3.  The Santa Fe, New York Central and General Motors each paid for one-quarter of the tooling to produce the new models (Lionel provided the balance of the funding); the colorful “Warbonnet” paint scheme of the Santa Fe on the F-3 became an iconic item in the toy train field.

As the steam era was winding down in the 1950's, Lionel also produced a well-received model  of the Norfolk & Western’s J-class 4-8-4, although it utilized the number 746, instead of the prototype’s 600-class numbering scheme. 

While the original Lionel Corporation eventually ceased producing toy trains in the 1960's, by the 1970's production resumed under new ownership, and has continued since, both reprising classic items, and developing new products, of both historic and contemporary prototypes.

While the “classic/postwar” Lionel product line was relatively constrained, a far greater variety of equipment has been available in more recent times, including rolling stock representing what can be seen operating today.  In the process, while most of the product line was not truly to scale, greater fidelity to the prototype is now generally achieved.

In addition, as the composition of railroad freight traffic evolved with the times, newer types of freight cars were introduced, an example being the upgrade from Lionel’s previous “piggyback” cars, which featured very short trailers on a standard flat car, to the now more-realistic intermodal containers mounted on over-the-road chassis, along with longer flat and articulated “spine” cars to transport them.

Modern diesel locomotives were matched to the intermodal equipment in various road names, making it possible for enthusiasts to model their favorite roads, which, by the 1990s, didn’t involve a huge number of choices, due to the many mergers in the prototype industry.

In 1992, Lionel produced a limited-edition Norfolk Southern “Triple Crown” set, number 6-11718.  Nitpickers had a field day, however.  The use of a Dash 8-40C GE locomotive was appropriate, but wags couldn’t resist pointing out that “Triple Crown” was the name associated with the NS use of RoadRailer equipment, where highway trailers utilized rail wheels to run directly on the railroad, rather than being carried atop railroad cars.

The Lionel model utilized their standard intermodal container (with appropriate Triple Crown markings) on highway chassis, which was not, of course, correct.  Or was it?  There are rules that are proven by exception, and this is an applicable incidence.

As seen in the photo above, with NS train 268 cresting the Blue Ridge at Linden, Virginia on the Manassas-Front Royal “B-line”, on March 7. 1993, as well as the one below of the same train at Marshall, Virginia on February 28, 1993, there were standard intermodal containers both with and sans highway chassis moving on this train run specifically for Triple Crown traffic.  Be careful about what you tell your modeler friends “isn’t prototypical”.

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