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Review by John Sipple

H21a 4-Bay Hopper Car MSRP:  $59.95 (3-rail), $64.95 (2-rail)

The Middle Division (For Pennsy versions)
P.O. Box 332
New Cumberland, PA  17070-0332

Atlas O, LLC (for Penn Central and other versions)
378 Florence Ave.
Hillside, NJ  07205
Fax 908-687-6282

In an interesting joining of effort, The Middle Division of New Cumberland, PA and Atlas O from New Jersey have teamed up to produce the Pennsylvania Railroad’s ubiquitous H21a coal hoppers in both a 3-rail and 2-rail O scale. The first run consisted of 12 roadnumbers in the “Circle Keystone” paint. The second run offers 4 new roadnumbers of “Circle Keystone” and 4 more of the “Shadow” paint scheme. These are all offered by Middle Division. Atlas O will also market the non-Pennsy roadname versions, including Penn Central, Virginian and Norfolk & Western (these latter two roads leased H21s during WWII.) Atlas states the minimum curve for this product is O-45 track for 3-rail, 24-inch radius for 2-rail.

The Pennsy H21a Hopper

Pennsy was, for all of its other railroading activities, a coal road. From steel mills to home furnaces, from locomotives to giant steam ships, all burned coal. I know you understand this, but it must be said in order to appreciate how a railroad could have 39,000 of the same kind of car.

Wait. Did I inadvertently add a zero? Let me spell it out:  thirty-nine thousand! Starting around 1903, the Pennsylvania Railroad began to construct what they called the H21a Hopper car. This quad-hopper coal hauler had ten full panels on each side (or 11 ribs) and could handle 70 tons of coal. Mines which fed into the PRR filled these cars everyday. Sometimes the cars were sped off to market and sometimes they sat loaded for varying periods of time like merchandise on a shelf. For the approximately 16 years of their general production, some vast number was built, mostly by Pennsy’s own car shops.

They were constructed in two general groups:  clamshell and saw-tooth hoppers. Our sample is the saw-tooth variety, so we’ll concentrate there. The cars were 42 feet over the end sills and stood 11 feet 3-3/4 inches from the railhead to the top of the brake wheel staff. At 10 feet 2-1/4 inches wide, they had a box capacity of 2,547 cubic feet, a planned heap of 286 cubic feet, giving them a total 2,833 cubic feet of volume capacity.

Though production stopped in 1918, the numbers on the PRR continued to swell, particularly after the onset of the Depression when several smaller roads with fleets of H21a cars collapsed and Pennsy acquired their rosters. At various times, numbers of the similar H22 class had their coke extension racks removed, making them into H21a versions. Sometime during World War II, the number of H21a hoppers on Pennsy’s roster grew to 39,000. In fact, later in the war they leased a couple of herds to Virginian and Norfolk & Western to help those roads until they could build more hoppers of their own.

A considerable number of the H21a fleet survived to wear the “twisted worms” of the Penn Central. That any freight car could survive a half century is fairly remarkable; that a coal hopper could last that long is truly incredible. While coal is only a fraction of the weight of gravel and doesn’t gouge the sides as badly, wet coal gives off acids which eat away any paint and the underlying steel. Obviously, these cars were oft rebuilt during their long lives.

The Middle Division H21A Hopper

Atlas is well known for its manufacturing potential, both in America and abroad. The Middle Division, a separate company which has long specialized in Pennsy-related products, brought a remarkable body of research, model railroading expertise, and their checkbook to the table. The result is just as remarkable as the prototype on which it is based. It has been faithfully reproduced in pure 1:48 scale proportions.

Until this release, the only other way to get an H21a hopper in O scale was to buy brass. It would be tempting to draw comparisons between the brass version and this injection-molded product, but that would be counterproductive. The brass version costs about five times as much per car, so unless a buyer has very deep pockets, he isn’t going to build a string of them. And you will want at least a string, if not more.

Coal hoppers rarely go anywhere alone. We have all seen the photos of trains a hundred hopper cars long and railyards with a dozen tracks filled with coal haulers. Coal is the kind of volume product that keeps railroads alive and justifies their existence, so it is only reasonable to wish to model this. Middle Division has produced more than the 12 original and 8 new roadnumbers; each car has different build dates and repacking information, courtesy of prodigious research into the original car cards. I have car number 189133, which says it was built in June 1913 and repacked June 11 1947. 

I took the magnifier to the model and found that old Atlas magic on both paint and lettering. The paint is smoothly, evenly, and perfectly applied, despite the challenges of irregular surfaces. Right down to the smallest of words, the lettering is razor-sharp, even under magnification. I lingered to marvel at the rivet detail and even paused to count a few. As you examine the car inside and out, you can see how the odd-numbered ribs are riveted all the way through while the even numbered ribs are part of the crossbrace assemblies. The sheet metal and rivet detail extended to the inside of the car when the coal load is removed so you can see it.

The coal load is easily one of the nicest I’ve seen. Viewed from the side, it looks very much like a heap of coal which will show shiny highlights in real life, just as it does here. Look down from above, and you’ll see that this isn’t screened coal; it is mine run with chunks of varying sizes. The load snaps in and out quite easily so you can model full and empty cars, as you see fit.

Grabs and handrails are separately- applied metal and are very close to scale size. Even the foot rungs are squared metal. In side the “B” end is all the airbrake plumbing, while the handbrake gear is faithfully modeled, as well. The bottom frame of the car is die-cast metal, adding rolling weight while lowering the center of gravity. Handbrake rigging continues under the car, and the plastic hopper doors actually open.

I was unable to place the exact truck sideframe, though it looks somewhat similar to a 2D-F2 Crown Cast Steel model. While real springs are used in the truck frames, they aren’t part of the suspension of the car. Black brake shoes add a nice touch, and the train-line pipes and hoses extend out to the sides of the couplers. Our car is a 3-rail version , so it has the truck-mounted magnetic couplers of that genre.


I don’t normally get to play with O scale stuff, but now that I have, I  repeat what I’ve always said:  I’ve never met a scale I didn’t like. I’m a big Atlas fan, of course, but The Middle Division is winning me over with their devotion to research and quality. Together, they have produced a 4-bay hopper car that begs to be bought as a string. Start thinking coal tipple and all the rest, because it’s a very good time to be in O scale.



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