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I have stripped the paint and lettering from a few of my cars and need to get some new decals for them. When measuring the length to buy the right size decals I find most are a little shorter than what they are suppose to be. I measured several different brands and stuff that should have been 40 feet were 38 or 39. Probably doesn't matter but I wondered if some manufactures were more precise than others. My train stuff is all old 50's and 60's vintage Revell, Varney, Athern...
 

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The length of a railroad car is a generic description, not a precise measurement. So a 40' flat car is not necessarily exactly 40 feet long, but "in the neighborhood of 40'". For example, New Haven ToFC Trailer on Flat Car) cars were characterized as 50', but were actually only 48' 9". This gives operations personnel a good idea of how long a train will be, and so siding length required, time to transit a given point, etc, can ba calculated. It's a heck of a lot easier to multiply car count x 40 in your head than to try to find the exact length of every single car in the consist.

On some older and low quality cars, the manufacturer doesn't necessarily care about exact proportions, but on newer and higher end models, they're usually pretty close to the actual car length. Using a decal designed for a 50' car in a 40' one might cause some issues, but 38 or 39 feet won't. Mostly though, the decal manufacturers are telling you "this set of decals represents what was used to label that railroads x foot cars of that type," not " the car needs to be x feet long for the decal to fit".
 

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Also keep in mind that cars are usually described by their INSIDE length, i.e. the amount of space available for loading. So when a shipper orders a "50' boxcar" they get a car with 50' of loading space.

A nominal "50' boxcar" is usually a standard 50'6" inside length, a little bit longer over the outside of the body, and even longer over couplers, especially if it has extended cushioned underframe or draft gear. 52'6" was a less common, but not unusual length as well, with cars of this size built for many railroads in the 1970s.
 

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The “right size” decals should be the ones made for the scale you are modelling.....a
though you can use smaller or larger scale decals for some custom car decorating.....
 
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