All About Modeling Flatcars

Flatcars are, at their core, one of the most basic and simple types of freight cars. But they are also one of the most specialized vehicles on the rails today.

General purpose flatcars come in a variety of lengths. Additional equipment like bulkheads, center support beams and multi-level racks for carrying automobiles can really change the look of the basic flatcar. Then there are specialized cars for oversized loads and intermodal traffic.

For modelers, flatcars offer great modeling potential not only for their own variety but also the loads they carry.

Every model railroad could use an assortment of flatcars. Here are some product reviews, modeling tips and prototype photos to help you choose the right cars for your layout, make them accurate and put them in the right roles for your operating sessions.

  • 01 of 12

    Prototype Photos

    RSD-1 Locomotive on Flatcar
    A historic ALCo locomotive belonging to the Smithsonian rides to a new home on two TTX flatcars.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    The best way to learn about or model any freight car is to start by studying the prototype. These photos present a good overview of some distinctive flatcar variations.

  • 02 of 12

    Narrow Gauge Flatcars

    DRGW flat 6057
    Despite a simple construction, Blackstone Models has reproduced a remarkable model of the Rio Grande's narrow gauge flat cars.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    These Blackstone HOn3 flatcars represent a flat in its most basic form. These beautiful models also prove that even a "simple" prototype can be recreated in amazing detail and become a show-stopping model.

  • 03 of 12

    89' TOFC Flatcars

    This new Athearn model is big on little details.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    The growth of intermodal transport beginning in the 1950s saw a dramatic rise in the number of flatcars in service on the railroads. By the late 1960s, the 89' flatcar had become the standard design. Despite commonalities, there were many variations between builders and even trailer and container hitch arrangements which makes modeling these cars and these trains much more interesting.

  • 04 of 12

    178' Long Runner Flatcars

    RTTX completed
    The completed RTTX drawbar flatcar can carry quite a load.

    Ryan C Kunkle

     As trailers grew, even the 89' flatcar wasn't a big enough platform. While the intermodal carrier evolved into well and spine cars, older flatcars were recycled into paired cars joined with a drawbar. This allows two cars to carry three modern trailers instead of only two. This is a very easy conversion to do for modelers as well.

    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12

    89' After Intermodal

    PTTX flatcar
    BLMA's PTTX version of the F89J will be a great addition to contemporary freight car rosters. 89' flatcars aren't just for trailers anymore.

    Ryan C Kunkle

     As the spine and well cars took over hauling trailers and containers, many 89' cars found other roles hauling pipe, rail, steel and machinery.

  • 06 of 12

    Center Beam Flatcars

    exactrail centerbeam
    The ExactRail centerbeam flatcar is a beautiful example of an early, innovative prototype.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    The addition of taller ends and a raised center beam have made transporting lumber much safer. Loads are stacked on either side of the car. The only challenge is that cars must be loaded and unloaded from both sides simultaneously to maintain balance — something to consider when you lay out your modern industries.

  • 07 of 12

    Detail an Empty Center Beam

    This empty car is made even more interesting by the left-over foam pads (protecting a particularly sensitive load from the steel) and the tie down straps returned to their upper anchors.

    Ryan C Kunkle

     Center beam cars are just as interesting loaded or empty. An empty model can be greatly enhanced with the addition of tie down straps and a little weathering. These simple techniques will work with any model in any scale.

  • 08 of 12

    Depressed-center Flatcars

    ExactRail Flatcar
    Of all the roadnames offered, the ExactRail flatcar is closest in accuracy for this Conrail car.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    Flatcars are most useful for large loads that won't fit in a boxcar. For extremely large loads, even the flatcar sometimes needs modification. Depressed center cars provide a few extra inches of critical height for clearing tunnels and bridges. 

    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Detailing a Depressed-center Flat

    flatcar details
    The addition of wire grab irons and brake lines helps complete the look of Walthers' HO scale Depressed Center Flatcar.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    Empty or loaded, these unique cars are going to grab some attention on your layout. Take some time to go the extra mile on their details to really make them shine. Here are some simple additions to improve a Walthers HO model — techniques that will work on many models. 

  • 10 of 12


    The new Intermountain autoracks are large and impressive.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    With their enclosed sides, end doors and roofs, a modern autorack hardly looks like a flatcar. But all of that superstructure is build upon a flatcar. 

  • 11 of 12

    An Inexpensive Flatcar Upgrade

    Compare the before and after photos to see just how much a little paint and weathering can do to a simple car.

    Ryan C Kunkle

     The best part about modeling flatcars is their potential to become very interesting freight cars. To prove the point, follow this conversion of a simple flatcar kit with some weathering, extra details and a load recycled from an old printer. The total cost of this project — less than $10!

  • 12 of 12

    Open Loads

    This John Deere combine is so large, it must be shipped partially assembled. Tires and other parts are stored in crates and on neighboring cars.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    The loads we put on flatcars are often more interesting and challenging projects than the cars themselves. Check out these pages for ideas on loads to model and ways to mount them to your flats.