Detailing a Modern Boxcar

Since the earliest days of railroading, boxcars have been used to transport goods and materials across North America. Today, boxcars continue to play a vital role in the shipment of bulk materials, with thousands operating in regular service. While basic designs have stayed close to their roots, there are several key details to take into consideration when modeling a 21st century boxcar.

Type of Boxcar

A boxcar isn’t just a boxcar. Over the years they’ve come in different shapes, sizes, and have been produced with different materials. In the past, the standard length for a boxcar was 40 feet. As the demand for larger, bulk shipments grew, longer cars were produced, and by the 1970s, the 40 foot boxcar was all but obsolete. Today, the standard boxcar ranges between 50 and 60 feet in length, with some stretching as long as 86 feet. These modern cars are generally constructed from pressed steel, and are all built to roughly the same height. Hi-Cube boxcars can also be seen. These taller cars were developed to further increase the load capabilities of railroads, and made their first appearance in the late 1960s.

Details and Features

Reflective Strips

One of the most common features on freight cars today, reflective strips have been mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration for the past few years. These orange or yellow patches allow for greater visibility at night, and are designed to prevent vehicles from colliding with moving trains on unprotected or dimly lit crossings.

Reporting Marks

Most railroads and leasing companies prioritize adding their FRA Reporting Mark over their name and logo. These marks come in the form of three or four letters combinations, usually ending with ‘X’. All freight equipment is required to display these marks, so this feature is a must when modeling a modern boxcar, even on equipment which features the name and logo of the operator.

Patched Numbers, Lettering, or Paint

Most boxcars currently in use are actually decades old. Many bare the scars of multiple owners and paint schemes, and even more recent cars will often appear to have been renumbered at some point. Some wear the faded liveries of fallen flags, with only patched reporting marks signifying their current ownership, while others have been entirely repainted. It’s rare to see a boxcar in a spotless scheme without one or more of these features.

No Roof Walks

Roof Walks were a common feature on boxcars from the early days of US railroading through to the postwar era. Used by train crews to go from car to car, these walkways were extremely hazardous. In 1968, the FRA ruled to outlaw their use, and mandated that all Roof Walks be removed by 1978. For a boxcar to have an accurate modern appearance, these should not be featured, or should be removed from the model.

End of Train Devices

Replacing the traditional and much loved caboose, End of Train devices became a fixture of all mainline freight trains in late 80s. Also known as FREDs (flashing rear end devices), these can be seen attached to the air hose of the last car on most freights. Short lines and industrial railroads typically don’t use EOTs, but include a red flag mounted to the coupler in their place.


Graffiti is an unfortunate but important detail to consider for modern boxcars. While not seen on all equipment, most cars have fallen victim to taggers at some point in their career. A high percentage of cars in any consist today will usually feature some form of graffiti, from simple tagging, to elaborate artwork covering much of the body. Larger pieces typically avoid blocking the reporting mark and car number, as they’re more likely to be removed if these are obstructed.

There are more details such as as bodyside markings, and devices such as AEI electronic recognition systems, however the features in this article are the key details needed to accurately portray a modern boxcar. Many models are now being produced with some or all of these features included, however you won’t need to retire your older fleet just yet! There are a wide selection of third party detail kits, decals, and more, which can bring your legacy rolling stock up to standard for a prototypical 21st century layout.

Below are a sample of modern boxcar details and products that can be found on our online store.

Microscale N 60-4390 4" x 18" White Reflector Striping (2005+)
Microscale HO MC-4389 4" x 18" Yellow Reflector Striping (2005+)
Microscale HO MC-4390 4" x 18" White Reflector Striping (2005+)
Ring Engineering HO EOT-36-LW-Y End of Train Device with Bright Red Flashing Light, 36" Wheels with Long Wires (Yellow)
Ring Engineering HO EOT36LWG End of Train Device with Bright Red Flashing Light, 36" Wheels with Long Wires (Safety Green)
Bachmann Silver Series HO 14905 50' 6" Outside Braced Box Car with Flashing Rear End Device, Greenville and Northern #8035
Bachmann Silver Series HO 14903 50' 6" Outside Braced Box Car with Flashing Rear End Device, Canadian National #419066