Private owner wagons

Private owner wagons add a much-needed touch of visual variety

British railways moved coal – a lot of coal – and much of it was transported in private owner wagons. As the name suggests, these freight cars were owned by the coal companies, not the railway. Compared to the austere paint schemes railways used on their own goods wagons, private owner wagons were often treated as rolling billboards. The name of the merchant and their location would be prominently displayed, as on the above examples.

These private owner wagons can serve several purposes on a model railway: they’re a source of significant traffic, they add a much-needed touch of visual variety to a train, and since they can help set the location of the layout for visitors.

A UK company, POWSides (short for “Private Owner Wagon Sides”), offers an incredible range of lettering for private owner wagons. What’s more, the modeller often has a choice of buying the lettering sets or buying a kit with sides prepainted and lettered to order. I opted for the latter – and with an atlas close to hand, I picked up five kits pre-decorated for coal merchants in and around Tetbury.

These are Slaters plastic kits of their usual quality. That said, I noticed right away that these kits do not include any sort of compensating suspension. With a rigid frame, they would act like a four-legged table on an uneven floor: three wheels would touch railhead, but a wagon could rock back and forth diagonally if there was any unevenness. This is a great way to encourage derailments.

Fortunately, I’ve built enough kits from Walsall Model Industries to have mastered that company’s compensation components – and I recalled that Walsall offers these as a separate fret at a reasonable price. I ordered up a batch of Wagon Compensation Units (part CM100). I had to modify the Slaters kits to accommodate these, but it was a straightforward process and I only had to install the Walsall units for the rocking end of the suspension. I built the fixed end as Slaters intended.

The only other modification I made to these was to add weight after finishing construction by pouring fishing sinkers into the frames and securing them with Gorilla Glue.

Fishing sinkers and Gorilla Glue: Ugly, but effective – and hopefully never to be seen when on the layout. The rocking portion of the Walsall compensation unit can be seen at left. I simply cut away the black frame to provide space. Trial and error with a bit of styrene between the floor and the compensation unit brought the wheels to the right height.

POWSides only paints the outer faces of the sides and ends of these kits so they can be lettered. The insides and all the gubbins below the floor are bare plastic, often in different colours. In addition, building the kits requires a bit of sprue-clipping and filing, which also damages the paint.

For touch-ups, POWSides offers paint matching info for paints available in the UK. As I’m in Canada, I had to improvise. That said, these coal-hauling wagons would get pretty dirty pretty quickly, so I simply picked colours that were close enough and touched up the paint with a brush. I airbrushed the interiors with a mix of colours out of my weathering palette, to simulate coal dust. Finally, I airbrushed the exteriors to represent road dust, grime, and coal smoke. I’m happy with how these turned out.

I have not yet decided on how to make loads for these – or even if I’ll fill the wagons with bagged or loose coal. Whatever I decide, the locals will have plenty of coal to heat their homes!

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and retired amateur shepherd who trained a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

3 thoughts on “Private owner wagons

  1. I make coal loads for the wagons using a bit of foam cut to size for the wagon and real coal. Naturally, I paint the foam either black or grimy gray and add the coal to the top. I also add a small iron nail in the top of the foam so I can lift these out using a magnet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice modelling, Trevor.

    FYI, those PO kits are quite “old” in terms of when they were designed: no one though of compensation, whether that be by gravity or springing, back then. Models were (supposedly) assembled by checking on a flat surface that all wheels were on the ground, and apparently track was assembled to be dead level. (No, I don’t believe it either!)

    I stand to be corrected, but in the UK coal was generally shipped loose in wagons, and bagged by the merchant. Some might do this directly from the wagons, some might offload in hill and do it as required.

    To add to the fun, some merchants would rent land for storage purposes at the station site, others would whisk it away to their own depot. Some railway company maps differentiate between coal wharves for unloading and coal stacking grounds, others just have a single term for both uses – although which term they might use did seem to vary!

    Wagons delivering coal might be owned by a local merchant (who might even serve several stations from a single depot, even moving coal outwards from one depot to another!), by coal factors who would act as haulage intermediaries between merchant and colliery, by collieries themselves (especially for specialised coals, e.g. anthracite) or even by railway companies, hiring out wagons to local merchants, or in the case of the North Eastern Railway, very much in their own wagons, with station masters acting as local coal agents.

    The reasons are many and varied. Private owner wagons meant capital expenditure was passed on to someone else, but it also meant that a radical improvement in design, such as the use of coal hoppers delivering via gravity, was hard to enforce, and therefore – except outside of the NER – wagon utilisation was low, as collieries in particular would simply use wagons as mobile warehouses, and local merchants would only use their wagons when needed, despite attempts to use demurrage charges to improve this. Indeed, the only way the Midland Railway could get many old and dangerous PO wagons off their system was to buy them up. As it happened, they could afford it at the time, and the various merchants bought new wagons from the proceeds.

    Hope that helps,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is terrific info, Simon. Thank you.
      And yes – I assumed the Slaters kits were an older design. I’ve built some of their newer kits (newer being 1980s vintage!) and they’re much improved. But with retrofitted suspension and some weight they should be fine.


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