updated 10/28/05

Railway cars stored outside can be protected!

Whether it’s the battle against rust brought on by the high moisture of coastal Maine or the destruction of wood and canvas from the blazing sun of Southern California, outdoor storage of railway equipment and other large artifacts remains one of the biggest “collection killers”. We’ve heard it called “negative preservation”, the car is saved from rapid certain death only to be placed on death row with a longer calendar. Providing stable indoor storage for our artifacts is the solution we need to work towards, but buildings are expensive, collections are large, and time is short.  


The key is stabilization- targeted intervention that will stop an artifact from deteriorating until it can be placed in a more stable environment. The basic idea is to protect the vehicle from the weather- this can take many forms, everything from keeping the roof sealed and the sides painted, to cocooning the entire vehicle inside a tarp.


Part One - Tarps

One of the most practical interim methods for stabilizing a car or locomotive is to cover it with a tarp. High-quality plastic tarps are available from a variety of sources, but usually not from your local home-improvement warehouse. The common blue plastic tarp is not the right tool for the job, but there are tarps which will survive for five years or more in even the harshest environments.  


What kind of a tarp is best?

Two popular choices include a heavy vinyl-coated nylon material and a lighter-weight Armorlon tarp. Vinyl-coated nylon tarps can be seen every day covering loads on highway tractor/trailer rigs.  They come in a variety of materials and are made by a number of different vendors throughout the country. They’re known for their durability and long life but are also quite heavy and reasonably expensive. The Armorlon tarp is a lower-cost alternative. It’s lightweight two-layer design has a woven fiber reinforcement mesh sandwiched inside. It’s made by Reef Industries of Houston, and is available for about one-half the cost of a similar-sized 18 oz. vinyl-coated nylon tarp. In areas where high UV exposure (eg: Southern California, Arizona) exists, our experience has been that the both types of tarp have about the same outdoor longevity (5-6 years). In environments without the high UV exposure, the vinyl-coated nylon tarp should last longer, although the tradeoff is heavier weight and higher first cost.   


If you are planning to tarp something for less than five years, I would consider using the Armorlon material. If you want long-term storage in areas without high-UV levels, have a fairly strong roof structure, and you have the facilities to support the installation (a fork-lift comes in really handy), I would investigate the vinyl-coated nylon tarp.   


After choosing a material, you must decide on the best design- flat sheet or a fitted  “toaster cover”. You will also need to think about things like reinforced seams, grommets, laced corners and other features. For the Armorlon tarps, the flat sheet method is simple and straight-forward. While you can lower the cost of the tarp by going without grommets, we've found that having grommets applied to reinforced edges at about 3 foot centers along all four sides works best. For the vinyl-coated nylon tarps the fitted or “toaster cover” style seems to work best. This can be accomplished with either sewn-in seams or open seams which you lace together after installation. The lace-together seam is a lot easier to apply, although it does leave a little open area at the corners.   


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A “Toaster Cover”

This Los Angeles Railway carbody at the Orange Empire Railway Museum is covered with a fitted vinyl tarp.


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