Accucraft hopper

Product review of a 1:20.3-scale hopper car
Kevin Strong
1:20.3 scale, gauge-1 hopper
Accucraft Trains
33268 Central Ave.
Union City CA 94587
Price: $149.00

1:20.3 scale, gauge-1 model of a 3' gauge, East Broad Top, three-bay steel hopper; plastic body; die-cast frame; die-cast trucks. Dimensions: height, 5¾" over brakewheel; width, 4¾"; length, 19" over knuckles. In 1:20.3 scale, this works out to 28'2" x 7'7" x 8'9", respectively

Pros: Overall size and most details match prototype well; weight of car compresses truck springs sufficiently to equalize them for uneven track; working hopper doors
Cons: Air brake, hopper-door mechanisms, and cross braces do not match prototype; car data and number are the wrong font

Kevin Strong
In 1912, the East Broad Top Railroad needed to replace its aging fleet of wooden hopper cars. They turned to the Pressed Steel Car Co. to design and build them a modern steel hopper, similar to those running on standard-gauge railroads at the time. After PSC Co. built 40 cars for the railroad, working out all the design kinks in the process, the East Broad Top thanked them, then proceeded to copy PSC’s design, building over 250 hoppers on their own. (The EBT had a long history of “adapting” commercial carbuilders’ designs.)

The car the EBT shops turned out was a three-bay steel hopper, around 28' long and a bit under 8' wide. It had a capacity, as built, of 35 tons of coal. In the 1940s, the railroad added 12" extensions onto the sides of a number of these hoppers (not modeled on the Accucraft cars) to increase their capacity to 40 tons. These cars were arguably almost single-handedly responsible for the success of the EBT into the 1950s, when the railroad finally shut down freight operations. Many of these cars still exist on the EBT today. Most are rusting away in the yards at Mt. Union and Rockhill Furnace but a few have been restored and see service on photo specials every year.

A few dozen of the hoppers were sold to other railroads over the years. The White Pass & Yukon bought a small fleet of them, as did the Durango & Silverton and, most recently, the Cumbres & Toltec. Many of these have been restored and are in maintenance-of-way service. (Accucraft offers these road names, in addition to the EBT and an undecorated version.) Some have also made their way to California, Indiana, West Virginia, and even Hawaii.

I’ve been around these hoppers since I was a kid. I’ve climbed up them, in them, under them, and, in some cases, through them. Naturally, I’m excited about a model of them but, at the same time, it makes me more acutely aware of discrepancies between the model and the prototype.

Generally speaking, Accucraft’s model of the EBT three-bay hopper is very good. Its overall dimensions are mostly spot on, or within one or two inches of the prototype. Lettering is crisp and fairly accurate for all of the road names offered. The working hopper-door mechanisms are a nice touch. Trucks are accurate, smooth rolling, and the springs are soft enough that the weight of the car compresses them so that the trucks roll smoothly over uneven track. The wheels—which scale to 24.5", as opposed to 24" on the prototype—have a back-to-back spacing of 1.575", which matches NMRA and G1MRA standards. The car has a stated minimum radius of 4'.

Couplers are Accucraft’s standard 1:20.3 knuckles, which are compatible with all their other equipment. The EBT used a three-quarter-size coupler, which is smaller than Accucraft’s 1:20.3 coupler. If you want to change to a prototypically sized coupler, Accucraft’s 1:32-scale coupler is a dead ringer for the three-quarter-size unit in 1:20.3, and it attaches easily. Accucraft also conveniently provided mounting holes for a “standard” Kadee #830 draft-gear box. Note that, while the EBT used a three-quarter-size coupler, the cars that were sold to other railroads were refitted with standard-sized couplers.

On the surface, Accucraft’s three-bay hopper does a great job of capturing the look, feel, and size of the prototype. If all you’ve ever seen of these cars are photographs, they’re pretty much spot on. There’s nothing on this car that raises any kind of flag in terms of being glaringly “wrong,” either from a prototypical or operational standpoint. If your railroad is in need of a modern steel hopper for hauling whatever you’d like to haul in a hopper car, this car is sure to please.

Therein lies my conundrum. Because I am so intimately familiar with the prototype, I know where almost every rivet, latch, pipe, and lever is supposed to be. Accucraft’s hopper car, while of high-enough quality that anyone would be perfectly happy to run it on their railroad, gets some stuff curiously wrong when compared to the prototype. Do I, as a reviewer, stop with “good enough for the general public” because I may not be as familiar with other prototypes of models I’ve reviewed over the years as I am this one? Or do I go ahead and mention the discrepancies in the context of Accucraft’s reputation as builders of “museum quality” models, and let the reader decide if the departures from the prototype are that big a deal?

A few things on this car have me scratching my head. First, there’s the brake detail and hopper-door mechanisms. They don’t match the prototype. Brake plumbing and placement of the cylinders are completely wrong. The hopper-door mechanisms on the model are actually more complex than those on the prototype. What really caught my attention, however, is how much they resemble the brake detail and hopper-door mechanisms on Bachmann’s two-bay EBT hopper. Did Accucraft use the Bachmann car as a blueprint for those details instead of the looking at the EBT prototype? That’s just speculation on my part but, given the ample photos, drawings, existing prototypes, and other reference material that exists for these cars, I’m at a loss to explain the coincidence any other way.

The model differs from the prototype in some other small ways. The braces running across the middle of the hopper should be lengths of rail, not “C” channels. There’s no rivet or bracing detail on the undersides of the slope sheets—they’re just flat. I would like to have seen some rivet detail there. There is some rivet detail on the slope sheets on the inside of the hopper but none on the hopper bays or side walls.

The lettering is not quite accurate; it’s the wrong font. It’s a minor thing, and only calibrated eyeballs would know the difference. (Full disclosure—I provided Accucraft with the artwork they used for the famous “Acorn” herald. In that same file was the artwork for the car data, so I don’t know why they didn’t use that to get all the lettering correct.)

These differences don’t really detract from the overall effect of the model. When I put the hoppers in a train, I have enough trouble telling which end the brake cylinders are on, let alone how the plumbing is run (much as on the prototype, really). I’m going to enjoy every minute of watching a train of these cars run around the railroad. A string of 15 of these cars would look absolutely splendid behind an East Broad Top Mikado. Still, the purist in me can’t help but wish that Accucraft had spent a little more time hitting the books on this one, to do the little things as well as they did the overall picture.


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