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©FEBRUARY 9, 2007   

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Building Dakota 4

Written by Stephen Wassell

Four and half years ago I joined a growing live steam club in the mountains one hour north of Chattanooga called the Chattanooga Society of Model Engineers (CSME). Over the years the railroad has grown to include 6,500 feet of mainline track and during that time I have built for myself two diesel locomotives and three riding cars including a gondola, flat car and most recently an 8 foot riding car (see photo above).

As CSME has grown so has the need for having safe riding cars for the members and visiting guests. As the railroad has expanded, we noticed that the line to ride the trains has steadily grown. My first drafts for riding car plans were developed in fall 2004, but in the spring of 2005 I found an article from a popular hobby magazine that had plans that had been used by another live steam club for giving rides to the public. It was in the January/February 2005 issue of Live Steam & Outdoor Railroading.  The article is titled “The NOELS Riding Cars”. After reviewing and thinking about the article for a few weeks, I started building one car for myself.

The reason that we were looking into riding cars for the club instead of using gondolas and boxcars is that on a riding car people typically sit closer to the ground thus lowering the center of gravity which helps eliminate derailments. The general public needs the benefit of a lower center of gravity as they do not have the experience of riding equipment or knowing what actions can result in a derailment. This riding car that I was building is so low that it also allows the riders to straddle the car while sitting down. In addition, the occupants can easily put their feet on the ground should the car derail.

The riding car was completed in June 2005 and was tested the same month. The car worked well and as the locomotive engineer the best feature seemed to be ability to place your feet on the ground when the train was stopped. I say this because I was using a gondola car as the engineer’s car and raising my feet in and out of the gondola becomes tiresome.

After the car was left in the car barn, I had numerous requests over the next few weeks for people to borrow it. Everyone seemed to give great feedback. CSME placed funding aside for building three cars for the club. Knowing that other members had expressed interest, I asked if anyone else would like cars for personal use. Two members took me up on this. I wanted to make sure I had all the orders before starting construction (click images to enlarge).

The next weekend I was off to the local home center for plywood and lumber. I chose ¾” birch plywood because I wanted a nice finish that could not have been provided by using builder grade BC plywood. All of the plywood parts for a single riding car are made from a single 4’ x 8’ sheet. One piece of each part was cut and sanded down to size as accurately as possible. These pieces would be used as patterns for cutting the remainder of the parts. Once rough cut a router with a ½” pattern bit would be used to trim the pieces to their final shape. This assured me that all of the parts were exactly the same size which would make assembly easier.

For the steel framework, I chose to construct the parts differently from the article so they could be added after the body was painted. They were bolted to the car with ¼” lag bolts and carriage bolts. The framework was designed to work on Mountain Car Company  trucks and couplers. Unlike on my riding car, these five would use MCC heavy duty trucks. This was primarily due to the regular trucks bottoming out when three large men sat on my prototype riding car.

After a few weeks, I was ready to assemble the parts. All of the items were sanded smooth and checked to make sure that the parts would fit well. I used water resistant wood glue with brads to hold the parts in place while they dried. Screws were used for attaching the bottom of the car as they would bare the weight of the passengers if they stood up on the car. Careful attention was given to make sure that the surfaces that the trucks would sit on were true and flat. Since the framework was added after the wooden car was built, washers can be used as shims to assure that the bearing surfaces are flat should the car change shape over time.

After painting my prototype riding car, I realized that the club cars would need to be painted with a better paint. I had originally used a latex primer and paint. The paint originally chosen was porch floor paint due to the fact the paint is designed to be walked on and contains a high percentage of solids. The problem that I had was that it took a few weeks to fully cure. Never having any time to let the paint cure, I chose a better system by using Alkyd primer and paint. The primer was applied with a furniture paint sprayer, allowed to dry and then sanded. The next day, the paint was applied and a second coat was applied the following weekend. The Alkyd finish was much nicer than the latex porch paint. The color of the paint was chosen from the blue in our logo and color matched by eye to paint samples. As a final touch, nonskid tape was added to the floor boards to prevent it from being slick when wet.

The steel framework was then added to the cars and the cars were then loaded for transport to the railroad. Once at the railroad, the trucks, couplers and safety chains were added to the cars. They were immediately placed in use as there were quite a few guests that day.

I have learned more about the riding cars since I build them. The cars are relatively lightweight due to the plywood construction. This combined with stiff heavy duty trucks pose a problem on uneven track when without passengers. The eight foot riding cars are long cars and these cars will find the uneven track on your railroad when five foot cars will not. If placed in a long train without anyone riding them, they do have a tendency to derail more often than shorter cars.



The original purpose for the riding car was to transport my family while visiting the railroad. It serves this purpose well but with a gondola and flat car also being pulled, my locomotive was starting to have traction issues on the steeper grades. This caused me to design and build another locomotive, but that is another article for another day.

Written by Stephen Wassell


For plans to build this car, please refer to Live Steam & Outdoor Railroading Magazine.


Visitor Notes

John Beck writes: "Stephen may be able to solve his derailment problems by putting a 1/16 in. thick fender washer under one truck on one end of each car. Also, pins to limit truck rotation so when they derail the trucks stay within 15 or 20 degrees of parallel to the track are important, this keeps a derailed car from making a sharp 'left' or 'right' turn off the right of way before the train gets stopped. Also, it reduces the chance of a sideways truck snagging something before stopped, and tearing up the truck, track or car."


the end

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