Modeling Hopper Cars

Hopper cars are most commonly associated with coal. Coal was among the first and remains the most common commodity carried by rail, so it is no surprise that hoppers remain an important part of the railroad scene. Most model railroads need at least a few of these cars.

Hoppers aren't limited to just coal, however. Gravel, ballast, coke, ore - any number of aggregates can be hauled in hoppers.

The Evolution of the Hopper

The hopper evolved from the gondola in the 1880s and 1890s The addition of doors and angled slope sheets to facilitate gravity unloading made these cars much more efficient. 

The next major evolution wouldn't come until the 1930s when a roof was added and the covered hopper emerged for bulk loading of aggregates which needed to be kept dry. It would take another thirty years before these cars would take the lead on boxcars for hauling common commodities like grain, flour, and cement.

Today, hoppers remain a common freight car, especially in coal service. Gondolas haven't completely gone away, however. Large capacity gondolas which can be unloaded upside down in giant rotary dumpers offer the capacity of a hopper without the maintenance of moving doors.

Many Shapes and Sizes

Hoppers still come in many shapes and sizes, each customized for the load it must carry. Smaller cars tend to carry heavier materials. Coke or woodchip hoppers, for example, can be quite large since these loads are less dense. Ore jennies, a variation on the common hopper, are by comparison quite small but their tonnage capacity may be the same as the coke hopper more than three times its size.

One reason many modelers need a lot of hoppers is that they are commonly found in large blocks on a train. Today a unit train, an entire train for a single customer, is the most common way to move coal. On these trains, all of the cars may be exactly the same except for the road number. Even in early times, solid trains of coal from the mines were common on most railroads. These trains had to be sorted at the yards along the way, however, adding to the cost and time of shipping.

Whether by the carload or by the train, most modelers will find a reason to add some hoppers to their roster. Operations involving hoppers, especially coal mines, are one of the most popular choices in modeling.

The tips below will help you put your hoppers to good use on your model railroad. Of course, a little imagination is all that is required to change many of these themes to work with a quarry, steel mill, power plant, ore dock, etc. All you'll really need to do to your hopper fleet is change the colors of the loads!

  • 01 of 05

    Modeling Hopper Loads

    Once complete, these loads add a new dimension to your models and are easy to add and remove. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     With open cars like hoppers, modeling the load is as important as detailing the car itself. These simple techniques can be used to model any sort of hopper load and in such a way that the loads can be removed and replaced to better replicate operations on your layout.

  • 02 of 05

    Model a Hopper Unloading Shed

    coal shed
    The model coal shed captures all of the character and railroad operations of the prototype power plant in a manageable size. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     Model trains need model industries to serve. This simple hopper unloading building is an easy scratch building project that can help represent a larger industry in a small space.

  • 03 of 05

    Model a Modern Coal Hauling Railroad

    track plan
    The Cumberland Mines Railroad proves that a layout doesn't have to be complicated to follow a prototype closely. ©2015 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

     The Cumberland Mines Railroad is a prototype which looks like it was designed by a model railroader. This short railroad hauls coal a few miles from mine to river transfer and has no connections with other lines. If you like hoppers and heavy operations in a small railroad with a simple track plan, this could be for you.

  • 04 of 05

    Mine Run Railroad

    In a scene very much like one which could be found on this railroad, a Russian Decapod steam locomotive (Bachmann) drills hoppers at the mine (Walthers New River Mine with added details.). ©2013 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Looking for something a little more traditional for your hoppers? Check out this track plan for a coal-heavy branch line with multiple mines and mountain scenery. A layout like this could be set in any era and would use lots of hopper models. 

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Loads In - Empties Out

    track plan
    A pair of industries with a hidden connection provide endless sources of traffic to keep this railroad busy. ©2014 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    This old operating trick is a simple way to replicate operations without having to actually load and unload your hoppers. Placing the producing and consuming operations on opposite sides of a scenic divider allows hidden connecting tracks to serve both industries. As loaded and empty trains are shuttled back and forth over the scenic portion of the railroad, they always arrive at their destination to find a fresh train waiting to return the other way. This N scale plan shows the concept at work on a small layout, but the concept can be applied to any scale.