BNSF covered hopper variations are easy to spot if you live near or have railfanned along the BNSF Railway anytime in the past 20 years. If you have, you’ve most likely seen one of the railroad’s 100-plus car grain shuttles. These trains, dubbed “earthworms” by railfans because of how the long string of mineral red cars look when rolling down the rails, can be found at shuttle loading grain elevators, ports, and other locations throughout the BNSF system.
The casual observer might think grain shuttles don’t offer much variety. About the only noticeable difference on most of the cars is the herald. Some cars have the circle-cross, others have the post-2005 “swoosh.” When I spotted a shuttle waiting in the hole at Milbank, S.D., in June 2021, I decided to stop and take a closer look. The train was made up primarily of mineral red cars, with a few leasers and Burlington Northern cars mixed in. When I scrubbed through my photos after the train passed, I quickly learned the shuttles have more variety than I first thought. Better yet, some of the cars are offered in model form, making it easy to re-create a contemporary BNSF grain shuttle in N, HO, and O scales.
With that, let’s take a closer look at some of the cars that make up today’s BNSF covered hopper fleet.
BNSF covered hopper variations: BNSF no. 475119 is an example of a Trinity 5,161-cubic-foot capacity three-bay covered hopper. The car is part of the railroad’s 473125 through 477012 series built at Trinity’s Monclova, Mexico plant under Job 2665 between November 1998 and September 2001. The 475119 wears the BNSF’s original circle-cross herald, and the side reporting marks are in the railroad’s Santa Fe-style typeface. The car has 12 body panels. BNSF 5161s built at Trinity plants in the United States have 10 body panels.
Several railroads ordered the 5161 when it debuted in the late 1990s, making it a popular subject for model manufacturers. HO scale cars are available from Athearn (Genesis and Ready-to-Roll) and InterMountain Railway Co. You may be able to find cars from former manufacturer LBF at swap meets or online auction websites.
You can model an earthworm in 1:48 scale with the various BNSF cars Atlas O has produced since 2009.
Greenbrier 5188, version 1 — BNSF covered hopper variations
BNSF no. 485205 is from a 1,000-car order built by Greenbrier at its Gunderson Concarril plant in Sahagun, Mexico during January and February 2007. The cars, numbered 485000 through 485999, are easy to identify because they have a pair of horizontal stiffeners spanning the middle four body panels. Other features include 16 running board supports per side and recessed roping tabs (inset from the jacking pads, above the springs on the trucks).
Greenbrier 5188, version 2 — BNSF covered hopper variations
BNSF turned to Greenbrier again for a 537-car order built between April and July 2010. The cars, numbered 489000 through 489536, have a 5,188-cubic-foot capacity. The obvious difference between cars 489131 and 485205 is the lack of horizontal stiffeners on the former. Also notice that the roping tabs are more accessible on this car, as they’re attached to the sill and in front of the jacking pads.
National Steel Car 5416
BNSF went north of the border for covered hoppers numbered 498200 through 498859. The 5,416-cubic-foot capacity cars were built by National Steel Car (NSC) under Job P7600/16 in September and October 2017. These cars have 11 body panels and flatter sides. Compare the profile of the 498712 to the Trinity 5161 to the left of it.
The NSC 5416 isn’t available commercially. However, Walthers offers its Mainline-series NSC 5,150-cubic-foot capacity covered hopper decorated for BNSF.
FreightCar America 5200
BNSF no. 489831 is a product of FreightCar America and part of the railroad’s 489540 through 490619 series. The cars were built under order number 140073 and produced between August 2018 and January 2019. Features on the 5,200-cubic-foot capacity cars include nine body panels and roping staples mounted near the jacking pads.
The FreightCar America 5200 covered hopper is not available commercially.
TrinityRail 5,204-cubic-foot capacity covered hoppers 491160 through 491982 were built between September and December 2019 under Job F19009. At first glance, the car looks similar to the Trinity 5161s built in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, the newer cars have nine body panels, 17 running board supports per side, and eight-rung end ladders.
The TrinityRail 5204 has yet to be offered by model manufacturers.
The newest car in the train I spotted was Greenbrier 5,200-cubic-foot capacity covered hopper no. 492332, which was built in August 2020. The car is part of BNSF’s 491983 through 492422 series. The car, like the Greenbrier 5188, has 12 body panels. The newer covered hopper has 13 running board supports per side, larger reinforcement plates on the end panels, and a new location for the roping tabs (between the jacking pads and ladders).
The Greenbrier 5200 isn’t available in model form. The Greenbrier 5188s on the market could be used as stand-ins.