NP Wheel Reports

by Chris Frissell

Conductor’s wheel reports provide invaluable data on freight train consists that tell us what kinds of freight cars were in use at given times and places, in which trains they ran, what kinds of lading each car carried, which customers they served, and which other railroads’ freight cars were interchanged and operated on the NP. This information can be useful for shaping your model roster, freight operations and your selection of industries and interchanges on your layout. These records show which NP trains did what work, which kinds of cars were moved and which industries were served in the process.

Wheel Report Purpose and Information

Wheel reports were generated to account for freight car movements and as a basis for billing car hire and mileage charges. The train’s conductor prepared the wheel report to document pickups and setouts of cars in his train. Wheel reports were usually handwritten en route, based on waybills obtained from the yard office and information gleaned during intervening car inspections.

Wheel reports turned in by conductors at a given station document every freight car originating from, delivered to, or passing through that station. A wheel report documents a single train on a single day, and collections of wheel reports can show a slice or sample of rolling stock passing through a given point of the railroad at a given time.

Although typically handwritten, wheel reports were entered on official forms, and because of their importance to operations and accounting, had to be accurate. Northern Pacific’s wheel reports included a header that included a train identifier corresponding to the direction of travel, and timetable or scheduled number and section of the train; date, time and location the report was filed; the lead engine number (used to dispatch the train); and the conductor’s last name. These were followed by several columns of data, a row for each car including reporting marks or other shorthand identification of the car’s owner; car number; whether the car was empty (E) or loaded (L), alphanumeric classification of the car type and capacity, tonnage estimate for loaded cars, a shorthand note on contents of loaded cars (including notes about hazardous or rush loads), numeric identifier for the station destination of every car, and miscellaneous remarks, which often included additional shorthand notes on customer or consignee or station agent destination. At the bottom of the form were summary data including total train tonnage.

Jamestown Wheel Reports

Dick Eisfeller, a gentleman with an abiding interest in railroad history and operations, obtained a large collection of NP wheel reports from Jamestown, North Dakota in 1969. Dick analyzed a few of these for his fascinating article, Twenty-Four Hours at Jamestown, published in Mainstreeter Vol. 23, No. 1. A lot of car consist information in these and other reports in his collection, however, remain untouched. Dick graciously allowed NPRHA member Allen Rueter to borrow his collection, and Allen has painstakingly transcribed a large number of these reports and shared them online. Allen originally posted many of the reports and related information at the NPTelltaleYahoo group, Some are presently available for download at Allen’s personal Web site, with some others at Some reports are simple text files, but more recent transcriptions can be downloaded as text or spreadsheets. I’m not aware of other NP wheel report collections, but I am quite sure there are some around. Hopefully their owners will follow Dick’s and Allen’s lead in recognizing their extraordinary historical value, and make them available to other NP enthusiasts, modelers and researchers.

Deciphering the Data

Two official NP documents have proven useful in interpreting wheel reports. I found a 1969 Form 9276 entitled Kind Of Car Codes for a few dollars at a swap meet. This pocket-sized cardstock document lists NP alphanumeric car designations by type—boxcars, flat cars, hoppers, trailers, company service and others—and for many classes further defined by capacity, length or equipment. For example, flat cars are subdivided into thirteen classes. F5 signifies a flat car in the 50-59 foot length range; F6 a car of 60-feet or greater length. F2 is bi-level autorack, F3 a tri-level autorack and F7 and F8 are short and long flats with trailer hitches. B codes cover boxcars, G gondolas, T tank cars, H hopper cars, C covered hoppers, R reefers, S stock cars and V trailers. Almost 100 car codes are listed, and half appeared regularly in wheel reports.

The reverse side of Form 9276, called Commodity Coding: Capacity and Variable Characteristics, contains the key to describing loads and aspects of car condition and capacity which affect maintenance and car loading. Some wheel report entries appear to represent car inspection results coded this way. For example, on April 4, 1969 on westbound train WEXSO-1-13, single-sheathed 40-foot War Emergency boxcar NP 28420 bound for Laurel, was entered at Jamestown with code 811419 in the contents column. Assuming this code followed Form 9276, the conductor noted on this date the car had previously carried “contaminating or undesirable materials, chemicals, etc.” (8), had a smooth and tight floor (1), smooth and unbroken lining (1), “adequate” but not tight doors (4), was rated at capacity less than 55-tons (1), and required “cleanout or wash” (9).

The second document for understanding wheel reports is the Numerical List of Operating Station Numbers. My copy consists of pages 91-104 of a larger NP document unknown to me. These pages list hundreds of five-digit numeric location codes for stations spanning every mainline and branchline on the NP. The codes relate to station mileposts, but the starting points are different for different segments of the system, so the codes cannot be interpreted reliably without reference to this official list. Many, if not all, of these codes can also be found on NP Employee Timetables published for each division.

Cheat sheets and useful additions and corrections have been posted on the NPTellTale Yahoo group to help decipher station locations, destination codes and the car type codes, as well as other cryptic notations used by conductors to signify loads and customers. Allen may repost them at, and if all goes well, this information may eventually be posted on the Web site, along with more wheel reports.

Making Sense of Wheel Reports

Matt Herson had the fortitude a few years ago to initiate what I then considered to be a daunting task—compile the Jamestown wheel reports that Allen Rueter transcribed into a single spreadsheet, where they could be annotated with additional information about prototype cars and modeling prospects for them. The spreadsheet format also allows easy sorting and categorizing of individual entries by variables such as car type, reporting marks, date or train number, so that you can get a comparative look at just about any slice of the wheel report you wish to see.

Matt shared his draft spreadsheet with me and I’ve since added several thousand new entries, notations on car series, further interpretations of destination and customer information, modeling notes, as well as a few dozen additional wheel reports that Allen has since transcribed. My spreadsheet has about 6,560 rows, each representing a single car record in a freight train. My spreadsheet includes consists for about 60 trains reported on eleven dates ranging from April to November 1969.

Matt’s spreadsheet has proved very workable. Each row of data captures the information for a single car, arrayed in order by its reporting marks and number. Columns capture all of the original data in the wheel reports, and Matt added columns for additional information gleaned from 1969 Official Railroad Equipment Registers and other sources: car type, length, door width and tonnage capacity; a notes column for information on mechanical equipment and likely paint scheme of the prototype; modeling possibilities; American Association of Railroads (AAR) car-type identifier; destination decoded from the NP station mile codes; and notes about customer and lading inferred from the conductor’s shorthand.

I am most fortunate that the Jamestown reports cover my modeling year of 1969. I’ve formatted my spreadsheet to make it easier to scan and interpret information with respect to the geography I model, the Rocky Mountain Division from Missoula to Paradise. Ideally I’d prefer wheel reports for Missoula, but in their absence I have to use my head to glean what I can out of the Jamestown data. First, I highlight in blue entries for cars that had destinations within my modeled subdivisions. Then I examine all cars showing as westbound at Jamestown, and screen them for those with a destination west of Paradise—these cars certainly would have passed through my modeling region in through freights, and I code these entries in green. For eastbound traffic, I am forced to guess from lading which cars likely originated at points west of Paradise, and I code these in beige. Eastbound loads such as fish, aluminum ingots and hops most likely originated at various West Coast or eastern Washington locations. Wood products were the dominant eastbound loads on the NP, and through some judicious figuring, I estimate that perhaps ninety percent of the plywood, lumber, poles, veneer (and all cedar shakes) that didn’t originate within the Montana region I model probably originated west of it, thus they would likely have shown in eastbound through freights routed either across the NP or the Spokane, Portland and Seattle through Spokane. There is no way to discern where eastbound empties passing through Jamestown originated. Eastbound loads such as grain, meat, frozen foods, sugar, scrap metal, paper, and others could have originated either east or west of my piece of Montana, so there’s no way to be sure which of them showed in through freights in Missoula.

Finally I shade in gray entries for freight cars that I know are available as good quality, accurate models in HO scale, or are fairly straightforward kitbashes from existing models. I’ve even added Web links to modeling articles and prototype photos of the car series. These give me a handy guide for my model purchases and projects. In recent years I have confined 90 percent of my freight car purchases to cars whose number series appears to have passed through or been destined for the Missoula-Paradise subdivisions, based on research from these Jamestown wheel reports. The rest of my purchases are based on photographic evidence of them appearing in NP trains in western Montana.