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ann arbor idler flats (car ferry service)

Some of the most important pieces of equipment on the entire Ann Arbor Railroad were simple home-built cars assigned to non-revenue duty in Elberta. Commonly called "idler flats," these cars were essentially a steel frame topped with metal grating material. Their purpose was to serve as spacer cars between the locomotives and the cuts of cars that were being placed onto or removed from the car ferries.

Idler cars kept the weight of the locomotives off of the loading apron which connected the tracks of the yard on the land, to the tracks of the floating marine "yard" of the cross-lake boats. Typically used in pairs or sometimes three or four lashed together, these cars played a crucial role in safely balancing the loading and unloading of the ferries.

Depending on the weight of laden and empty cars to be transferred across the lake, ferries were to be loaded in such a manner that the balance of the ferry was never more than a half-track off center. The typical procedure was to shove or pull one-half of the center port track, then all of the center starboard track, followed by all of the port track, then all of the starboard track, then finally the last half of the center port track. 

N Scale model of idler flat car

The pictures on the starboard side of this page show an original idler car that survives to this day as a display on board the City of Milwaukee, which is moored in Manistee Lake in the City of Manistee, Michigan. I was able to snap some great prototype shots a couple of summers ago, and I used those pictures to help guide my scratch-built models.


My N scale ferry idler project started out with a basic Micro-Trains flat car. I removed the stock body shell and used just the metal frame. I then cut strips of smooth styrene for the side and end sills, to a build a new rectangular shell that fit precisely over the Micro-Trains frame. I inserted three center braces and four small triangular gussets at each corner of the new shell so that the carbody sits squarely on the frame. 

N Scale parts for idler flat
using soup can to build model railroad car

I then took a piece of metal fuel filter mesh and cut it to the proper size to fit on top of the new shell. I placed the trimmed filter on my work bench and set the new body shell upside down on the filter. I used a can of soup as a weight to hold everything in place, while I ran a bead of liquid solvent/cement around the perimeter of the new shell. As the solvent softened the styrene, the weight of the soup can pushed the new shell into the mesh. Within a few hours everything had melded together and the soup can was removed to reveal a perfect new idler car body. 

Car ferry idler flat on City of Milwaukee

Original Ann Arbor Railroad idler flat on former GTW/AA car ferry

the City of Milwaukee, moored in Manistee Lake

Car ferry idler flat on City of Milwaukee

Brake end detail of idler car, note the metal grate top

and multiple grab irons


Car ferry idler flat on City of Milwaukee

3/4 view of idler car showing long end grab iron and relatively

smooth side sills with minimal rivet detail

Ann Arbor Railroad car ferry idler flats

From that point it was easy to add rivet decals, grab irons, paint, and lettering to finish up a unique and interesting model. Ann Arbor idlers #4507 and 4514 are shown above - interestingly enough, these were two of the very last pieces of equipment to be pulled from the M&LS abandonment in 1968.

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