ExactRail Thrall Centerbeam Flatcar Reviewed

ExactRail's Centerbeam Flatcar

exactrail centerbeam
The ExactRail centerbeam flatcar is a beautiful example of an early, innovative prototype. ©2013 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Manufacturer's Site


A lot of time passed between ExactRail's initial announcement of their new 63' Thrall Centerbeam flatcar and its entry to the market. To the company's credit, they chose to put off the model rather than accept problems in pre-production samples. They promised the cars would be worth the wait, and they are!

ExactRail's initial run of the car comes decorated for Burlington Northern, BNSF, Milwaukee Road (as delivered and with the "billboard" lettering,) Union Pacific and Western Pacific.

The cars retail for $46.95 and come in up to 18(!)road numbers per scheme. The cars are available only through ExactRail.com

Prototype History

The centerbeam flatcar emerged in the 1970s to serve the growing needs of the building materials shippers. Plywood, wallboard and dimensional lumber are the most common loads for these cars.

The centerbeam evolved from the bulkhead flatcar which had been around for decades. The center partition makes it easier to secure stacks of bundled materials. The floor of the car has also been modified to accommodate fork lift tongs and eliminate the need for blocking under the bottom load.

Early cars were 63 feet long. The center beam consisted of a heavy steel plate with large oval "opera windows" cut in to reduce weight. Subsequent designs saw the cars grow in length to 72' and then saw reductions in the center beam to a more open and light-weight design. For HO scale modelers, Walthers has produced an older style 72' car with both centerbeam types and Atlas has produced a more modern production version.

Loads are secured to the car with banding and tie-down straps. These straps can be run from anchors on the side sill of the car to hooks on the center partition wall or along the narrow top chord. To further protect the material from the elements, individual bundles are often wrapped in plastic. In some cases, the entire load may be covered in a single wrap.

Less sensitive loads can be shipped exposed.

While the new cars make loading and unloading much easier than with fully enclosed boxcars, they do introduce two new challenges. First, loading / unloading must be done from both sides of the car. Consequently loading areas have to have access on both sides. Second, the loading / unloading process has to take place evenly on both sides to prevent the car from tipping over. The sides and bulkheads of the cars are always well placarded to this effect.

ExactRail's Model

Although they've chosen an older prototype, you can still find these 63' cars on the rails today. A similar car has been produced once before in kit form by McKeen / Front Range. No longer in production, you can still find some of these kits at swap meets, but they were never known for their high quality of assembly. ExactRail's model on the other hand is a thing of beauty.

This is not an easy car to model. There are many subtle construction details in the car which make accurate reproduction a challenge. Printing on the car is also a challenge with lots of "fine print" on virtually every surface.

ExactRail has captured all of the small details with perfection. From the subtle droop in the side sill to the tie-down anchors on the center wall, this car captures the look of the prototype.

The car is very fragile. Aside from all of the small details, the construction of the carbody itself does not tolerate rough handling. A warning card is enclosed in the packaging which warns against grabbing the car anywhere other than the base.

Small Details

ExactRail has made a name for themselves by paying close attention to the smallest of details. This car is no exception.

With very little flat space on these cars, important data was often added on extra panels welded to the carbody. This Burlington Northern model replicates this with both the ACI car identification tag and consolidated lube stencils put on added panels.

The trucks of this car have the nicest finish I have seen to date on any model. Not only are the sideframes finished in a nice gray-black, but the reporting marks and road number are printed on the side frames as well.

This is a great detail I've always looked at on prototype cars but have yet to find decals small enough to recreate. To the best of my knowledge, ExactRail is the first manufacturer to catch this.

The trucks also feature ExactRail's metal wheelsets and the cars are equipped with metal scale knuckle couplers.

On Your Layout

This car will be right at home on railroads from the 1970s to today.

The car is well detailed, but there is one obvious thing left for the modeler to add - a load. There are some kits for loads available from Jaeger, or you could make your own. Note that the pre-molded loads for the Walthers' cars won't work here because they are too long.

Of course this car also looks great empty. Even the empty car could be enhanced by a few extra detail like discarded banding from the last load. Or go the extra mile and model the tiedowns as they are sometimes seen strapped in the locks.

While I normally enjoy making loads removable so that cars can be modeled for operations in loaded and empty trips, given the fragile nature of this car, you may be better off choosing one or the other.

Add a little weathering to suit and you've got a contest-quality model.


Manufacturer's Site