Time to Model: The Story of the G52X – ScaleTrains.com Inc.
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Time to Model: The Story of the G52X

Developed in the late 1980s by Bethlehem Steel Company’s (BSC, later Johnstown America, and finally FreightCar America), the Bethgon has become one of the most common cars for hauling coal. Originally called the “Coal Porter”, the name was changed to Bethgon when the family of singer Cole Porter asked BSC to change the name.

The Bethgon’s basic shape is that of a hopper with sloped end sheets. Two tubs run between the trucks adding capacity for 18 additional tons of coal while lowering the center of gravity making the car more stable. Most Bethgons have been built of aluminum which reduces the weight of the car by some 12 tons compared to a traditional steel hopper of the same capacity. Since the first Bethgon was built, many thousands more with varying capacities have been built along with thousands of similar cars from other builders.

In 1997, Conrail built 600 Bethgons at the Hollidaysburg Car Shop from engineering drawings supplied by Johnstown America. These were 4100 cubic-foot cars with a capacity of 116 tons of coal. They were Conrail class G52X.

CR 507610 at Cove, PA on 1-5-2013. Photo by Donnie Lee.

We spoke with Conrail modeling expert, Ian Smith, to learn a little more about the history of these particular cars. In a recent email, Smith further outlined how the G52Xs came to be:

“Conrail’s 600 G52X coal gondolas, 507401-508001, were constructed throughout 1997 at their Hollidaysburg Car Shop from drawings supplied by Johnstown America. Cars using Cromweld Steel UK’s “3CR12″ 12% chromium content stainless steel had been proven to be successful in South Africa, Europe, and Australia during the 1980s, so Conrail field-tested a pair of cars in 1995, painted gray – which also proved to be a success. The G52X cars would soon be found on unit coal trains systemwide – often in solid sets,” Smith said.

After being in service for a few months, a dangerous problem arose with the rivets keeping the handbrake and handrails secure: they would slowly loosen. Smith commented that “As a result, all 600 were eventually sent back to Hollidaysburg for modifications, each wearing a white dot centered above the reporting marks after the work was completed.”
Toward the end of Conrail, merger talks began with Norfolk Southern and CSX around 1996. Smith stated, “It was originally a deal between CR’s David LeVan and CSX’s John Snow. They were going to create a new railroad. LeVan wanted to keep Conrail independent and grow it. The split wasn’t his intention at all. That’s why they looked at part of the SP, and IC also. They knew they had to do something, since NS, CSX, and the new BNSF were so much larger than Conrail. CSX did end up buying all of CR’s stock – at least for a time. NS objected, took it to court, and the result was 58/42.”
CR 507598 G52X at Horseshoe Curve, PA. Taken on 6-13-2014 by Donnie Lee.

When it came to the G52X series, the split wasn’t exactly 58/42. Smith said: “While most of Conrail’s pre-1997 assets were strictly divided by 58% NS and 42% CSX, but that rule didn’t apply with assets acquired later. In early 1999,” he continued, “right before the split, 571 of the G52X cars were given to NS, and only 26 to CSX. The CSX-assigned cars appear to have only briefly worn NYC reporting marks and were returned to NS. Their time on Conrail was brief, less than two years, so I didn’t pay much attention to what happened to them after the split.”

These cars can be practically photographed on almost any Norfolk Southern coal train today, often mixed in with other coal cars like the NS Top Gon series.
The Rivet Counter HO Scale G52X Coal Gondolas are now available through ScaleTrains.com and Select Retailers™.

Ian Smith is an avid Conrail modeler who has been involved in the hobby since the early 80s. In his 20s, Smith fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a conductor and later an engineer with Conrail where he worked for a time in the early 1990s. Switching over to passenger rail in the mid-90s, Ian now works for Amtrak as a Station Agent where he has since been employed for nearly 25 years.