Walthers Flexi-Van models an early, aggressive attempt at intermodal freight.
Product Review: Walthers Gold Line™
Mark III Flexi-Van Flatcar in HO
by George Riley
As with many new technologies, there is an initial period of sorting out competing ideas and systems. So it was with trailer-on-flat-car (TOFC) designs in the 1950s. One of these was the Flexi-Van system championed by the New York Central in 1957. The system allowed direct loading of the trailers from the side onto the flat car, a major improvement over the end ramp "circus train" loading then often used. The Flexi-Van system employed special trailers with a detachable set of highway wheels (or "bogie"), and a turntable mounted on the flat car to receive the trailer and rotate it into position. The bogie remained at the intermodal terminal, and the trailer body rode like a container on the flatcar body. This resulted in a low overall height for a loaded Flexi-van car, something of particular interest to the Central with its many clearance restrictions. Since the Flexi-Van cars were lower and lighter weight than conventional piggyback cars, they were well suited to high-speed operation, and many Flexi-Van cars were equipped for operation in passenger trains.
The initial experiments were conducted with a hydraulically operated turntable mounted on a conventional flat car, designed to accommodate a 36’ trailer. These tests were successful, and production of the 80’ Mark I flats began in 1958. These cars could accommodate two 36’ trailers, and used turntables mounted to carry the center of the van. As the 40’ trailer became more common, the longer Mark II Flexi-Van car was introduced which could load one 36’ and one 40’ van. These were followed in 1961 by the Mark III cars, now usually 86’ 9" long, which were designed for two 40’ vans. With the change to 40’ vans, the turntables were moved to the car ends. This required a special tractor at the terminals for loading and unloading as the tractor had to support the weight of the one other end of the van, and then rotate the van into position on the rail car. The final version of the Flexi-van was the slightly longer Mark IV car introduced in 1964.
The NYC was not the only railroad to use Flexi-Van, although it was always the major user. Other railroads that had Flexi-Vans at one time or another include Santa Fe; Burlington; Illinois Central; Milwaukee Road; Seaboard Air Line; Southern; and Western Pacific (A complete roster of Flexi-Vans can be found here). While technically successful, the Flexi-van's certain limitations led to its demise. Over time the now-familiar intermodal container displaced the Flexi-Van, as containers did not require the special bogies or tractor at a terminal. Containers could be placed in special well cars or on flatcars, eliminating the need for turntable-equipped spine cars.
The Walthers model of the Mark III Flexi-Van rail car features a metal main body beam mated with plastic combined with plastic end platforms, turntables, and kingpin receivers. This gives the Walthers model a very low center of gravity for good tracking and a weight (with two vans in place) of 6.4 oz., just slightly less that the 7.0 oz. advocated by NMRA Recommended Practice 20.1 for a 12" car. The paint is evenly and consistently applied to the plastic and metal parts so they are indistinguishable on the model. The lettering in the recessed areas of the center beam is very crisp with no blurring. The car includes a package of separately applied grab irons to be installed on the plastic end platforms. The car comes with free rolling trucks with metal wheels that conform to the NMRA standards gauge, and with Kadee-compatible operating knuckle couplers. Because of the length of these cars, Walthers recommends a 24" minimum track radius for reliable operation.
The turntables rotate as on the prototype so the car could be displayed in a loading scene. The turntables are held in running position by two very small vertical tabs on the brake cylinder side of the end platforms. Be careful to lift the corner of the turntable locked by these tabs before rotating the turntable to avoid breaking off these small tabs.
Wm. K. Walthers
5601 West Florist Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53218
Walthers Flexi-Van, #932-3920
Available in several roadnames and configuartions.
HO Scale, MSRP $44.98
Walthers offers two styles of Flexi-Van trainers, either with or without side doors. The car includes the appropriate version for each road name. Walthers does not include the highway bogies for the trailers with the rolling stock models, but these are available separately for a terminal scene.
Walthers Flexi-Van model would be right at home on any model railroad through the late 1960s, either in a fast freight or as part of the headend traffic of a passenger train.