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Home / Beginners / Ask Trains / Ask MR: Why do these CN boxcars have built-in flashers on the ends?

Ask MR: Why do these CN boxcars have built-in flashers on the ends?

By Steven Otte associate editor | August 20, 2021

They’re Canadian National Distributed Braking Cars, used to keep up air pressure

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Four red CN high-cube distributed braking cars in the middle of an intermodal train.
Four red CN high-cube distributed braking cars in the middle of an intermodal train.
Canadian National distributed braking cars 0089, 0056, 0059, and 0069 are in the middle of a southbound intermodal train at Ackerville, Wis., on March 21, 2021. The cars were being moved to summer storage. Cody Grivno photo

Q: I recently saw these bright orange boxcars parked near the Canadian National Woodcrest Shops. They have CN reporting marks, though I haven’t gotten close enough to get specific numbers. Many of them have red lights on both ends that look to be like the ones used at crossing gates. They must move these cars often, because I notice the number and position of the high-cubes and standard-height cars are different almost every time I pass there. What are these cars carrying that warrants the extra visibility? – Ed Schmidt, Des Plaines, Ill.

A: Those aren’t general-service boxcars, but rather, what Canadian National calls Distributed Braking Cars. They’re designed to help keep up brake line pressure during long trips through the Canadian winter, when cold temperatures can cause the fittings in air brake lines to contract and leak. Though they started life as American Car & Foundry 7,596-cubic-foot boxcars, they were outfitted at CN’s Transcona Shops with a diesel fuel tank, air compressor, and other equipment. Some external spotting features include a personnel door on the side and, on the roof, a pair of antennas and a GPS dome. The light you observed on the car end is a built-in Flashing Rear End Device, or FRED, that would be turned on if the car were put on the end of a train, though the cars can also serve their purpose in the middle of a consist.

For more information about the history of these cars and hints on how to model them, check out the May installment of “Cody’s Trackside Finds”.

A bright red-orange Canadian National boxcar is seen in the middle of a freight train.
Canadian National distributed braking car 0069 is seen in close-up. The built-in FRED is visible on the car end, next to the brake wheel. Cody Grivno photo

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Do you have a question about model railroading you’d like to see answered in Ask MR? Send it to associate editor Steven Otte at AskMR@MRmag.com.

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