Union Pacific Freight Car Paint and Lettering

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This page was last updated on January 8, 2023.

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(under construction; much more to add later)

Mineral Red

The following comes from Model Railroader magazine, February 2017:

The mineral in mineral red is lead tetroxide, also known as "red lead" or "cinnabar," a heavy, brilliant red pigment formed by heating white lead in air. But the name "mineral red" derives not from the word mineral, but from the similar-sounding Latin word for red lead, minium. Red lead has been used to tint paint and ink since Roman times. Railroads used Mineral Red to paint wooden boxcars, hoppers, stockcars, and more not because they liked the color, but because it was cheap, hid rust and dirt, and inhibited rot.

But because railroads purchased their paint from different manufacturers in different parts of the country at different times, what one railroad called Mineral Red paint might have been very different from what another railroad called Mineral Red. If you compare a bottle of Mineral Red hobby paint with bottles of Oxide Red, Light Freight Car Red, and Boxcar Red, you'll find the differences very slight - slight enough that in the real world, the differences could be plausibly chalked up to sun fading, weathering, or variations between batches from the paint factory. So these different colors might all have been simply "Freight Car Red" to the railroads. In fact, it's conceivable that some of these names were assigned not by the railroads, car makers, or their paint suppliers, but by the makers of hobby paint.

Modern paint no longer includes lead. So while the name "Mineral Red" may have come from the pigment that once tinted paint, today it's simply the name of a color - one of many similar shades that could plausibly adorn a model freight car.

During the Harriman Era and through to about 1937, both SP and UP used Common Standard (C.S.) 22 - No.11 Metallic for most freight cars. The same color is also good for the freight car red used by Pacific Fruit Express. UP's Freight Car Red color changed in about 1937 with the change to Gothic lettering. SP's color did not change. For modelers the Star Brand color is good for UP (and SP) in the 1920s and 1930s.

UP changed its freight car red color with the 1936 lease of its subsidiary roads, with the change to what UP called Synthetic Freight Car Red coming in about 1937. This is also when UP changed to Gothic lettering, meaning that any UP car with Gothic lettering would also use the new Synthetic Freight Car Red.

Also, one should keep in mind that all railroads used different paint suppliers, even on cars when they were delivered from the builders.  Union Pacific used Dupont paint on some of its passenger equipment and Sherwin-Williams on others. And to add to the variations, the paints were mixes locally in the locally by local vendors -- they didn't come in premixed cans. Although each railroad had its own standardized colors, the premixed paints weren't always 100 percent the same.

Red Dot Box Cars

There was some speculation among a few UP historians that a series of newly delivered boxcars with a red dot of their doors was in correlation with UP's use of its COIN (Complete Operating INformation) system. The timelines appear to match, for "Red Dot" boxcars delivered in 1966 and 1968, versus COIN testing trials beginning in mid 1966, and the COIN system going online in the major terminals in January 1968, with coverage in 38 locations taking place by late October 1969.

(Read more about UP's COIN computer system)

The Red Dot Cars were computer tracked as a testing trial for UP's use of an IBM automated car tracking system. It was only done for a few years. After the test, and with the full implementaion of the railroad's COIN computer system, but the "Red Dot" cars remained with their distinctive markings, since the Red Dot was no longer needed to identify the cars that were being tracked by the computer automation system, as all cars were being tracked after a certain date.

The use of the red dots was a way to create a manageable sample of cars that could be traced and studied to compare the new computer system, and the traditional yard office procedures.

A discussion on Facebook in June 2022 included the following comments.

It was something that was talked about in computer class back in high school in the early 80s explaining why computers in the future would be very important to commerce and should be a good career choice in the future. We talked about how railroads used hand ledgers and then IBM cards to track shipments. The red circle cars were talked about as an experiment used in implementing a tracking system. The red circles made it easy to identify cars that were part of the experiment. This was talked about in 1983. The high school teacher had knowledge of UP's COIN system implementation and used that as an example in class.

Photo research by Dick Harley shows that at least a dozen UP boxcar classes had the Red Dot applied. All are new cars built between 1965 and 1968.

(View Dick Harley's collection of photos and painting diagrams of Red Dot cars)

A recently discovered photo in the October 1966 issue of Trains magazine shows UP 490148, a class BI-70-9 car, newly delivered from Pullman-Standard in June 1966. The photo shows that as early as mid 1966, UP was using the large red dot on the doors of some cars.

(View the photo of UP 490148 from Trains magazine)

(View a color version of the same photo of UP 490148 that appeared in Trains magazine)

Trademark Protection Cars

(Research incomplete; more to be added later)

From its earliest years Union Pacific used trademarks and logos as part of its company identity. For reasons not yet known, during the late 1990s Union Pacific apparently picked cars at random and re-painted them and applied trademark protection logos.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was at least one UP box car in freight car red that had the Overland shield in white stenciled outline.

At least three WP boxcars have been painted in UP's freight car red scheme, with WP reporting marks, and a Union Pacific Overland Route shield. The numbers include WP 38508, 38316, 38517.

UP painted a few D&RGW covered hopper cars in their freight car gray scheme, with both the orange Rio Grande Action Road logo, and the Rio Grande Mainline of the Rockies logo. These numbers include D&RGW 15564.

At least three open-top hoppers have both the Rio Grande Action Road logo, and the Rio Grande Mainline of the Rockies logo. These are painted black, and inlcude D&RGW 12272, D&RGW 12821, D&RGW 16031

D&RGW 56573 is a 52' gondola that also has both the orange Rio Grande Action Road logo, and the Rio Grande Mainline of the Rockies logo.

SSW 70129 is a covered hopper in UP freight car gray, with the blue Cotton Belt logo.

More Information

UP Freight Car Painting and Lettering -- A link to Dick Harley's presentation, "2019 UP Freight PL&N Clinic." "A general overview of UP freight car painting and lettering for use by any modeler. It does not have some of the small details that a UP modeler might like, but tries to cover the basics that any modeler should know. It should be noted that when changes were issued, any car needing to be repainted would receive the new scheme, but there was normally no program to repaint cars just to have the new scheme on them. So older schemes often lasted a long time."