Trailer Talk

Piggyback Equipment at Pennsylvania’s Toy Train Museum

Trucks, on the road or on flatcars, are often part of model railroads, as Senior Editor Tom Berg found at the Toy Train Museum.

May 7, 2015

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Photos: Tom Berg
Photos: Tom Berg

Visit the National Toy Train Museum near Strasburg, Pa., and there’s no question that you’ll see lots of toy trains. But on several of the half-dozen layouts in various model scales you’ll also find trucks, some of them on streets and roads and others aboard railroad flatcars. Yes, “piggyback” equipment rides the miniature rails because they were part of the scene in the mid 20th Century, the era depicted in most of the layouts.

That was the time when railroads themselves were in the motor transport business, as their parent companies recognized that freight was being grabbed by fast, flexible long-haul trucks and they might as well grab some of the revenue. Often the motor-truck subsidiaries cooperated with their namesake railroads, sending loaded and empty semitrailers via special flatcars for the line-haul portion of trips. New York Central's Pacemaker service (as in the opening photo), was an example.   

Over at the nearby Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, I found a pair of books on such equipment, Piggyback Color Guide, Volumes 1 and 2. I was amazed at the details shown in the many photos and captions. The author, James Kinkaid, obviously got deeply into the subject. I was tempted to buy them, but didn’t for two reasons: My luggage was already bulging, and I had unopened books on trucks and trains back home, waiting to be read.

Little boy enjoys the street scene on an S-guage layout. But, how'd those trucks get over the rail crossing? 
Little boy enjoys the street scene on an S-guage layout. But, how'd those trucks get over the rail crossing?

Piggyback — more properly known as trailer on flat car, or TOFC — is still used today by large transport companies like UPS, J.B. Hunt and Schneider National, though much of their freight now goes in containers stacked two high on “well” cars. Containers are more efficient partly because they have no underframes and other running gear that represents dead weight in such moves. Reducing tare weight was an early concern among railroaders as well as truckers because it takes fuel to move tonnage. Intermodal traffic constituted railroads’ fastest-growing segment in recent years, at least until movement of crude oil in tank cars began.

Who was first to use piggyback? New York's Long Island Railroad, which in the 19th Century hauled wagons full of fruits and vegetables to markets in Manhattan, saving farmers a long, horse-drawn trek. That’s still the essence of piggyback and intermodal container service, and the concept is one way to cope with the growing shortage of long-haul truck drivers today and in the future.

American circus crews quickly loaded and unloaded their equipment from railcars, impressing the Wehrmacht's then-Capt. Erwin Rommel before World War II. 
American circus crews quickly loaded and unloaded their equipment from railcars, impressing the Wehrmacht's then-Capt. Erwin Rommel before World War II.

Another early adopter of piggyback was the circus industry. The National Toy Train Museum has a delightful display of circus wagons being pulled by multi-horse teams and loaded aboard flatcars, ready for movement to the next city. Loading and unloading was done quickly and efficiently.

While a Wehrmacht captain between the two world wars, Germany’s Field Marshall Erwin Rommel visited America and observed such activities. He considered them greatly useful in planning for the movement of military equipment, and they indeed proved to be in World War II.

So for me, there was much more to the National Toy Train Museum than toys. Check it out at and stop there if you can.

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Author Bio

Tom Berg

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Senior Contributing Editor

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.


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