ExactRail "Big John" Covered Hopper Reviewed

A Big Car with a Bigger Story

Big John
ExactRail's Big John does the historic Goliath justice. ©2014 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Manufacturer's Site

There are few freight cars in the history of American railroads with a more significant story than the Southern's "Big John" covered hoppers. Distinctive and innovative in design, these enormous covered hoppers would be worthy of attention even without the larger history surrounding their introduction.

It is surprising then that it has taken so long for these historic cars to come to HO scale in something other than a craftsman kit.

Thankfully ExactRail has answered the call and filled an important gap in the hobby.

For the first run, ExactRail has produced the distinctive car in nine early Southern paint scheme variations with three numbers per scheme along with six numbers for Seaboard. Cars are available directly from ExactRail for a current sale price of $49.95.

Prototype History

Into the 1960s, the 40' boxcar remained the primary vehicle for moving grain by rail. While the use of boxcars allowed other commodities to be moved on the backhaul and for car utility even out of harvest season, the limited capacity and long unloading times made these cars very inefficient.

The Southern was on the forefront of innovation in new technologies and operating ideas. One of many pioneering moves, the railroad worked with the Magor Car Company to build a new aluminum (lighter weight) high capacity covered hopper in 1962. The 100 ton cars doubled the per car capacity of a boxcar and allowed the railroad to slash rates on grain and feed shipments by 60%!

The new rates caught the eyes of the completion - not other railroads but the Tennessee Valley Authority which ran the regional inland waterways. Moving the grain in bulk, the Southern was now competitive with barge transport.

The dispute ran all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately the "Big John Case" was decided in favor of the Southern.

The new cars, and the way in which the railroad used them, would pave the way for similar changes on railroads nationwide.

To further control rates, the Southern only ran the cars in larger blocks, not as single car shipments as had been the norm with boxcars. Similar to the emerging "unit train" concept, this reduced switching and transit times and permitted further bulk rate discounts.

The Southern was also careful to only use the cars on their own rails. They were not to be interchanged with other roads. This meant loads originating offline in the Midwest were often transferred from train to barge and from there to the Southern's Big John. Keeping the cars on home rails avoided interchange fees. There were also some practical interchange restrictions on some lines as the new cars were larger and heavier than some railroads could handle.

The railroad backed up the car with education and training for farmers on efficient harvesting and growing methods as the agricultural industry adapted to the new changes in transportation.

It did not take long after the legal dust settled for other railroads to follow the Southern's lead however. Soon large covered hoppers were replacing boxcars on railroads all across the country.

Other commodities were also shifted to these new cars including chemicals and the emerging plastics industry.

While the designs, shapes and sizes of covered hoppers have changed a lot in the past fifty years, there is no mistaking their roots. The Big John has had a lasting impact on the railroad industry - and the industries it serves.

ExactRail's Model

Even at 1/87th it's actual size, the Big John is an imposing model.

The model is mostly plastic construction. Etched metal roof walks and wire grab irons and other details add fidelity and durability.

On the ends of the car, Kadee No. 158 couplers are used which are close to scale. The coupler pockets have a narrow profile avoiding the "big slot" look found on most models. Air hoses are also included.

The trucks include metal wheels. All wheels on my sample were in gauge.

The car weighs in at 5 oz. This is just a little light for a car of this size. Although there is certainly room to add more weight inside, there is no easy way to open the model. With the good tracking trucks, this car should not have any problems operating even at the front of trains on most layouts.

The details and assembly of the car overall are very clean. There are two noticeable dips in the roof walk. These could probably be pulled back up, but since I'll be weathering the car for it's appearance 30 years after its introduction, these little bumps will add to the character.

Paint and Lettering

As usual, where ExactRail shines on this model is the paint and lettering.

The aluminum cars were not given an overall paint covering. Graphics were applied directly to the metal. The silver finish of the car does a good job of representing the shine of these cars shortly after entering service without all the reflection of some of today's metal finish models which really only work for a car fresh out of the factory. This paint will make it much easier to weather the car for later appearances as well.

All of the small lettering on the car is readable down to the small print on the bottom hatches and the road number printed on the center sill.

I picked up one of the samples in the green lettering scheme introduced in 1974. Prior to this the lettering was an orange color, with the "Big John" script being added after the cars were delivered and following the Supreme Court ruling. ExactRail has offered the car in all of these schemes with subletters for multiple Southern subsidiaries in this first round. (Despite later paint scheme changes, cars in the original orange and green repaints survived to retirement age.)

There are still plenty of additional later schemes for these cars, including Norfolk Southern paint following the merger, to support future runs. And, in addition to the Seaboard as-delivered scheme now offered, there are later schemes for those cars and similar cars delivered to other roads and private companies which could also be easily modeled.

I would be very surprised if there aren't additional runs of this car to come. Of course if you can't wait, an undecorated kit is also available now.

On Your Layout

If you're modeling the Southern in the 1960s then you'll want to get several of these cars and run them in large blocks on your railroad. Despite the early interchange restrictions, these cars did find eventually find their way offline.

As the cars began to wander, smaller blocks and even the occasional single car movement also became more common. So even if you don't model the Southern, you can still easily justify one of these historic hoppers on your layout. It was common for cars in various paint schemes to be found in the same cut and many of the orange-lettered cars survived well into the 1980s and even 1990s.

While the original cars have now passed their 40 year interchange life, some similar later production versions are still earning their keep today. Even under 40 years of weathering, thanks to their distinctive size and construction features you can still pick them out even if you can't read the "Big John" lettering.

The most effective way to age these cars on your layout will be to start with darkening the "aluminum" finish. This can be best done with thin weathering washes. In later years, heavy white streaking became common on many of the cars' sides. This could be done with a number of techniques including an airbrush or powders.

Whether you put them to work on your railroad or not, a model of these historic cars is a worthy addition to the collection of anyone who simply has a good appreciation for the history of railroads and the truly big changes brought about by "Big John."

Manufacturer's Site