Building a Modern Freight Train

Freight trains are by far the most common type of train that you’ll come across in North America. We have one of the most vast and efficient networks in the world, and freight railroading literally drives our economy in many ways. But what makes a realistic modern freight train, and what types of cars should you be using to replicate one on your model railroad?

The majority of freight is transported by six major “Class One” railroads; CSX, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF, Canadian Pacific, and Canadian National. These are the railroads which handle long distance freight on cross country mainline routes. On a regional and local level, there are countless smaller operators which typically handle the first and last few miles of a freight car’s journey, but we’re going to focus on the types of train’s you’ll typically see on a mainline railroad.

Manifest Freights


Manifests are what many would consider to be a typical freight train. Unlike many modern trains which carry a specific bulk item or load type, manifests can feature almost any load, and typically rely on cars for customers with a direct rail connection. A manifest will usually be made up of boxcars, gondola cars, hopper cars, tank cars, and lumber cars, and generally they will drop and add cars at various yards along their route. While almost any type of car can appear in a manifest, they typically won’t feature Autoracks or Intermodal cars, as these require special terminals to unload at.

Unit Trains

Unit trains are trains which carry one particular load type in bulk, generally with the same cars throughout the consist. Most unit trains require a certain type of terminal to load or unload at, making it more practical to run them as separate trains, rather than adding them to a manifest.

Types of Unit Trains



Intermodal trains can carry truck trailers on specially built flatcars, or they can carry shipping containers (either single or stacked two high) in specially designed cars known as well cars. They start and end their journeys at Intermodal terminals, where their loads can be transferred directly to trucks or container ships. Intermodal trains are quickly becoming one of the most

common types of trains to see on the railroad today, due to the ability to transfer loads from one vehicle to another quickly and with ease.

Tank Trains


Tank trains are any train with a consist exclusively made up of tank cars carrying a single load type. These are typically liquid based loads such as oil or corn syrup. Tank trains are in many cases used as an alternative to long distance pipelines for carrying oil from producing areas to refineries. As required by the FRA, any tank train carrying flammable or hazardous loads will also feature a hopper car as a buffer at each end of the consist.



Autoracks are cars built specifically for transporting automobiles from factories to ports to be shipped overseas, or for transporting imported vehicles from ports to distribution facilities. They typically require special yards to load and unload. In these yards, the trains will be backed up to a ramp where the cars can be driven directly onto or off the train.

Coal or Stone Trains


Coal and stone trains are made up of open hopper cars with the ability to load from the top and unload from underneath. These will typically run from quarries or mines where the materials are sourced, to either power plants or ports for overseas shipping in the case of coal, or to distribution facilities in the case of stone.

There are other examples of unit trains, such as grain trains or refrigerated produce trains, but these cars don’t require special terminals in the same sense as the types mentioned above, and can often be seen on manifest trains unless carrying a high priority shipment.

All of these car types and more can be found at our online store in scales from Z to O. Follow the links below to start building your own modern freight consist!


Hopper Cars


Tank Cars