Saturday, October 14, 2023

Routing & Grading Cards with OwlMtModels 1220 Decals

Over the years, I've used blank snippings of paper glued to the car sides to simulate the routing cards on my models for over 20 years.  In recent years, modern modeling takes advantage of digital depth of field stacking and focusing which makes it possible to even read the smallest lettering on models.  In recent months, I've started to notice my older models with blank routing cards are starting to draw unwanted attention.

NC&StL 15337 Accurail kitbash with OMM 1220 routing and grading cards matching photo below.

However, for the prototype modeler and the operating modeler there's one detailing aspect which I've that can be improved with modern technology.  Why not also be able to read what is on the routing and grading cards on the model?

For more info on this NC&StL car see links below:
NC&StL 15337 (Part 3) - Wrapping Up & Weathering - Other articles on this Accurail 36ft Fowler kitbash are linked at the end of Part 3 article.
A New Chalk Mark Method - Using Gel-Pens for chalk marks!

NC&StL 15337 - Fowler -TRRA photo, East St Louis, July 1948, Illinois, Joe Collias coll, Bobs Photo - Ted Culotta collection

The prototype photo of NC15337 shows two or three cards.  The ones on the left are probably routing cards, and the one on the right is probably a grading card.  It's another level of modeling enjoyment to be able to match prototype photos even closer now.  Let's look closer at how this came to be.

OwlMtModels' Decal Cards

The OwlMtModels #1220 decal set includes 144 prototypically based cards, two groups are in white, a third group in light green/blue, and the fourth in a manila/beige color.  Thanks to Anthony Thompson and his prototype paperwork collecting contributors for making posts on his blogs over the years documenting the vast historical cards used by various railroads.  I'm also linking directly to Tony's blogs in this post for the prototype examples.

OwlMtModels' new #1220 Routing & Grading Cards decal sheet.

Earlier this summer I asked Todd Osterburg to see what we could do with PDC's fine line decals.  He was nice enough to draw the artwork.  The decals are produced by PDC in Canada and sold through OwlMtModels website for $2.00/sheet.

Railroad print shops would use various basic pastel colors which they had on hand.  Special colors such as yellow or red were reserved for home-routing/shop cards or bad-orders.  If there's interest, OwlMtModels may offer other versions, but this is a starting point for modelers.

Prototype Cards

A clerk cards a SSW boxcar with his hammer-stapler - Linked photo from Anthony Thompson's Routing Cards #11 blog.

Cards would be hammer-stapled anywhere along the lower wooden parts of wooden cars.  Steel cars had 'tack boards' and 'card boards' mounted to the car sides.  Flatcars and tank cars with wooden running boards could have the cards stapled directly into the deck or running boards.

Routing Card typical from Anthony Thompson's blog

The SP used a number system to send the cars around the system.  There were also basics for WB/EB and intcherchange cars seem to have cards for which railroad the car was going to go to.  For example D&RGW or UP at Ogden.

Routing Card Number index for SP - Anthony Thompson's blog Part 10 where other examples are shown.

There were many systems of cards used around the country.  It seems that different divisions would also have their own numbering series.

Another excerpt from Anthony Thompson's Routing Cards #11 blog

Much of the smaller lettering is not possible to print even with modern technology, so the decals are limited to the larger lettering.

Grading Cards

The grading cards: A, B, C, D (or X, depending on the railroad doing the grading) were easy ways to sort out which cars would be available for loading.  The traffic departments would actually keep a large sheet of paper, similar to the operating department's Train Sheet, to keep track of all the cars on the division going to customers and expecting to be becoming available in the coming days.  They would also keep track of how many available boxcars (XM) would be available in each grading category.  Shippers would then be putting their orders in for their loads which would require at least a certain grade of car.

Grading Card examples linked over from Tony Thompson's blog.

Anthony Thompson's blog, Route cards, Part 19: grading freight cars, covers more details of car grading.  Operationally, I'll probably be doing more on car grading for my Jawbone Branch at some point, but for now back to the car carding.  Tony has some additional grading card variations in Route cards, Part 23: varieties of grading cards post, including the octagon-shaped cards.

The railroads would grade cars according to several subjective standards by the carmen looking them over between loadings.  Cars could be improved to some extent by sending the cars over to the RIP track and spending some time cleaning up the interiors by fixing exposed nail heads, damaged boards, etc.  Some cars would be carded to be "CLEAN OUT" which would involve removing old materials and debris from the car's interior.  Normally, the customer that unloaded the car was supposed to clean out the car but that didn't always happen.  The railroads often had a whole track in the typical yard for cars needing "Clean out".  Cars could easily spend 8+ hours in these tracks as you wouldn't want to be inside cars sweeping them out if more cars were being shoved into the track.

Accurail PFE R-40-27 with a routing, Time, and CLEANED card, typical for perishable assignments.

Reefers obviously would need more specialized care and cleaning, thus it was concentrated in a few repair shops.  PFE had three locations, Portabello in Idaho, Colton and Roseville in California.  SFRD concentrated their efforts at San Bernardino and Bakersfield's facilities.  These repairs and cleanings could include removing spoiled perishables, cleaning the bunker drains, repairing or replacing the linings of the car if damaged or contaminated, etc.

Tank cars often needed to be cleaned if they were being reassigned to another loading.  Some loads required regular steam cleanings, other linings required NOT to be steam cleaned.

Flatcars were pretty simple, their wooden deck edges were easy targets for the clerks' hammers.

In Closing

At a little over one cent per card, these decals are quite affordable, and one sheet can do dozens of cars.

Right (not photographed) side of Accurail kitbash, which is finished in 'typical' fashion with chalk marks and routing cards.

I've started applying the cards to cars in my fleet, so you might start noticing them in future blog posts.

Jason Hill

Related Articles:

Some specific blog posts worth a look.

Route cards, Part 11 — examples

Route cards, Part 19: grading freight cars

Route cards, Part 20: more grading cards

Route cards, Part 23: varieties of grading cards

NC&StL 15337 (Part 3) - Wrapping Up & Weathering - Other articles on this Accurail 36ft Fowler kitbash are linked at the end of Part 3 article.

A New Chalk Mark Method - Using Gel-Pens for chalk marks!


  1. Jason, as one of Tony’s card contributors, I am super stoked that these are available, thank you. I’ll be ordering some soon!
    Ralph Heiss

    1. Thanks to you and all the railroad paperwork collectors out there who are contributing to preserving the living and working railroads of history! I just updated the store-front to charge only $2.00 shipping on decal-only orders!

  2. I just received my order for a sheet of route cars. Very nice!

  3. Just got my decals. Would it be possible to get a pdf so it’s easier to determine what to cut out

    1. Yes, I'll do more on that after the sphts convention this week.


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