What is the average lifespan of a railroad car?


Can anyone tell me what the average lifespan of the different types of railroad cars are?

E.g. Boxcars, Tankers, Hoppers etc..

My latyout is set in the year 2000 and although I'm no rivet counter, I would like to keep the cars pretty prototypical for the era.
I'm thinking that cars from the 70's would be fine and also ideal for some of the more extreme weathering, but everything I've read on tinternet seems to be giving conflicting results of exactly how long the different types of cars are in service for before having to be mandatorily retired..



jogden's picture

How Cheap is the Prototype?

Short answer: anything since the 1970s goes basically.


Age of freight cars is dependent on a few things really. First of all, there are restrictions on age (and many other things) for cars used in interchange service. If a railroad wants to use a freight car in interchange service, then its life is over at age 50. However, if the car will not be interchanged, and will stay on home rails, there is no limit. It then just depends on whether the railroad would rather spend the money fixing an old car or buy a new one to serve the same purpose. Since on most prototypes, it seems that they would spend a dollar to save a dime, it is actually not uncommon to see older cars, at least in MOW service.


However, cars used in general freight are newer, partially because of the restrictions placed by the government. If you are modeling 2000, almost anything since the 1907s would be safe, with occasional older cars appearing from time to time. Obviously older cars like that would be a bit more weathered, as you mentioned.


On the BNSF, I did spot a Santa Fe flat car with a build date of 1934. Of course, BNSF is huge so staying on home rails is pretty easy and still allows a lot of travel for such a car. Every now and again, an old freight car comes through with very faded markings of a predecessor railroad. There is a Milwaukee Road covered hopper that has passed through eastern Montana several times lately.

-James Ogden
Anchorage, AK


Older cars

I'm not sure how long; IIRC it might be 40 years, with a major rebuild then for a few more years of use.

But mandatory retirement is just for interchange service.  Cars can run on home rails far longer--for example as MOW equipment.  So if you have an older car, just use it as MOW, or park it on a siding.  I've seen plenty of spurs in New England that are now unused--but with that last box car or two still parked there for storage, sold off cheap by the railroad.  They might still be in the railroad's colors, or they might be painted gray or some other cheap color when the rust gets too bad--or the locals complain about it being an eyesore.  I saw that in Rochester, NH where the feed store was rail served in times past, but no more; they had two box cars.   It was also in a commercial/residential areLatera, not an industrial one, so looks matter. When the line was rebuilt, the switch and spur were removed, except the track under the cars.

wp8thsub's picture

It Depends

The typical car in interchange service is subject to a 40-year underframe rule, unless remanufactured for 50-year compliance.  There's now a 65-year rule for certain cars. 

Any car built from 1960 on would be acceptable for your 2000-era layout.  House cars built up to 1966 would have to exhibit revised safety appliances (no running boards, A-end ladders shortened to four rungs, an L-shaped grab iron on the roof at the B end if it retained high mounted brake wheel and ladders, and a yellow placard stating "keep off roof - no running board"). 

Weathering on these older cars may not always be as extreme as you'd expect.  It was still possible to see examples of paint schemes pre-dating the 70s and 80s mergers which remained more or less intact.

Rob Spangler  MRH Blog

Cheers guys, that's pretty

Cheers guys, that's pretty much along the lines that I was thinking, however I just wanted to make sure.. It pays just to clarify in your own head sometimes.. All interchange cars for the layout will belong to other current (2000) rairoads or lease companies.. 

I did read somewhere though that tankers only have a 15 year life, but I'm not 100% sure on the source, is that correct or not??


@James - The answer is very! lol..

I'm moddeling/resurecting a shortline on the premis of 'what might have been' if they hadn't actually gone out of business in the 70's, and as such, everything they own now in 2000 has been purchased from other railroads, predominently BN & SF with most of the rolling stock just being patched.
The only thing's they will actually have in their own colours will be a couple of GP9's a GP20 and a couple of GP35's, all other motive power just like the cars, will be patched..



cv_acr's picture

Tank Cars

I did read somewhere though that tankers only have a 15 year life, but I'm not 100% sure on the source, is that correct or not?

I still see tank cars with late 1970s/early 1980s built dates with some regularity. They're not as common, but I'd say I see at least one or two every time I go out where I can clearly identify its build date. And that's for tanks that haven't been repainted/rebuilt/reweighed and still have the original "NEW 5-79" etc. marking visible. So I see plenty more which I'm pretty sure are 1970s cars, but don't have the original date marking (and the data in the COTS panel is too small to read in the photographs, or when the train is rolling by at 40 mph).

Here's one I shot just this past weekend with a clearly marked 12-79 new date:


cv_acr's picture

Paint Schemes, Reporting Marks and Numbers

The only other caveat is that cars get repainted, renumbered, sold, etc., so that 1970s car design might be totally appropriate for your layout, but the paint scheme or car number might not. (Or at least not in its original state - a lot of secondhand cars exist out there in original paint but all original logos painted over and renumbered (sometimes several times) for new owners.

This can be much harder to track down, but some sites like railcarphotos and Canadian Freight Car Gallery (don't let the name turn you off; also includes lots of US equipment) with detailed search features allow some searching on car lineages, so some secondhand cars can be traced. Other sites like fallen flags and rrpicturearchives also have lots of good material but aren't searchable by car history.

>> Posts index

MRH search (Google)

User login