Monday, April 10, 2017

Creating Freelance Realism (Branding & Schemes)

Thought I would take a break from my normal progress updates and switch gears to show the different ways you can create freelance realism in model railroading using branding and schemes. 

Brand Identity - consistent, plausible, and purpose

It all started with a logo...
As you know at the Walt Disney Company they say it all started with a Mouse.... Well the Michigan Interstate all started with a logo. I think all of us model railroaders can relate to that restaurant napkin chalked with ideas such as route map, track plan, diesel roster, and the logo. Oddly enough the Michigan Interstate's logo started on a scratch sheet of paper in my college advertising class. We had been discussing brands and how it should reflect what the company stands for / does... At the time I knew of the MR&T and V&O railroads and realized that if I was modeling a freelance railroad in Michigan it might be important to have an outline of the state. Taking inspiration from notably the Algoma Central logo I wanted to have a focal point symbol.... Case in point the pine tree in the middle of the state outline. Other inspiration came from the BRC Railroad logo being a belt. I knew the railroad being created would not be belt line but more or less be interstate. The two lines across the hearld represent those connections. Looking at Wisconsin Central as an example its core was Wisconsin, but had connecting lines in Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois. With that the name Michigan Interstate was born, truly the purpose of the railroad is right in the name connecting Michigan within the state and neighboring connections in Ohio and Indiana. Leaning back to the Algoma Central logo, I decided to wrap the words in similar fashion. The font is based on Milwaukee Road's final font before being absorbed into the Soo. Honestly when I was working with Rail Graphics to create the logo I chose the font based on the flyer available, haven't looked back ever since.

Just like that the Michigan Interstate logo was born creating the base for the brand. Over the past 13+ years the logo and lettering have been applied to no less than 30 locomotives and 100 plus railcars. As more equipment became lettered the brand began to spread. No longer was the Michigan Interstate a scrappy railroad with patched equipment we now had a paint scheme creating a consistent image that was plausible in the railroad world and had a purpose. 

The best part about setting up ones logo is the business or individual can provide a copy of the logo in different formats once computerized for use on paperwork or even embroidering.

Crew members can work in style during home or away ops sessions carrying the brand anywhere they are.

The MCIS logo is now found on every official piece of railroad paperwork... corporate folks.....

In a nutshell that is how the Michigan Interstate logo and name came to be. Where we operated and what we do are another topic that we will discuss later this year. 

Defining the Dip...
Getting back to branding, the railroad now had a logo and just as important was the creation of a plausible scheme to apply it on. Going back to my childhood I grew up loving the Grand Trunk Westerns blue and orange scheme. I even loved the different variations such as former DT&I and UP locomotives using the GT basic scheme. Early on I really wanted to use the Central Vermonts Yellow and Green scheme that was on diesels prior to NECR takeover, but decided on taking two of the best and putting them together. Blue from the GTW engines and Yellow from the CV engines. 


Phase I
Early on in the railroads history first generation diesels and alcos received a Grand Trunk Blue color with white chevron nose and rear. Not sure where the yellow was but maybe they had to watch the budget... Not exactly the scheme I had intended and throughout the years as engines were either struck from the roster or repainted the Phase I scheme all but vanished. The last four engines on the MCIS roster in Phase I scheme are EMD GP30s currently stored at Mt. Pleasant MAC Shop. As these engines go through a rebuilt to roadmate slugs they will be repainted into the current Phase III paint scheme.

MCIS 3080 (EMD GP30) posing at Saginaw River Bridge in Phase I scheme - the color has held up well...

Phase II and III
Adopting the Grand Trunk / Central Vermont inspired schemes, all second generation and new deliveries come in the Phase III scheme. You ask, but wait you forgot about Phase II? The only difference in Phase II and III is the choice in color for the Blue. Originally the blue was a Floquil Enamel GT Blue, as this phased out we migrated to Conrail Blue. When Floquil went away the mechanical team turned to Scalecoat for paint sourcing which is where we established Phase III. Additionally Phase III engines had their rear number boards covered over as another unique spotting feature. The elements make distinguishing between the two colors almost impossible, but this adds a neat layer of story telling since each engine unless painted in the same patch is not identical in color.

MCIS 3827 (EMD GP38-2) posing at Saginaw River Bridge in Phase III scheme. 

Phase IV
There have been rumors of a Phase IV which would adopt a more simplified paint scheme similar to the repainted dark blue FEC geeps. However at the time of this writing, there is no official plans to change schemes. 


Using multiple sources of freight cars plying the North American system I had plenty of inspiration to follow. 

Boxcars fell into one of two basic schemes which used a very generic freight car brown as the color. Scheme "BA" was large or small logo on either end of railcar, while scheme "BB" was large or small logo on right hand side of door witch "Michigan Interstate" spelled out in large or small font to the left of the door. 

 Examples of both scheme "A" and "B" at Bay City, Michigan

Shoving platforms used the Grand Trunk Orange with MCIS logo centered on car.

MCIS 31 leading point on switching duties at Bay City, Michigan. 

Company material cars are like most railroads being cascaded down from revenue fleets. However some of the more purpose built ballast and dump equipment are painted in the Amtrak orange scheme with full lettering on sides, no logo. 

MCIS 7059 captured at Grays Lake, Michigan during a recent track work project. 

The largest fleet on the roster is covered hoppers of different capacities. The hopper fleets also had three different gray paint schemes based on the vendor / batch, additionally there were two basic schemes for lettering. Scheme "CA" was logo large or small on right hand side or centered on railcar. Scheme "CB" was logo on left side of car with lettering in large or small font on right side.

Top two hoppers in scheme "CA" and bottom car in scheme "CB"

Rounding out the freight car fleet is our open top fleet which falls under one of two schemes. Scheme "HA" which is Michigan Interstate in small font with a logo to the right or scheme "HB" which is large or small logo only on left, right, or center of car. 

Two greenville hoppers in scheme "HA" on Virginia Midland Railroad

Within all of these fleets are plenty of variation like patch jobs or different colors, but the point is with the logo and brand there is consistency between the T-shirts, paperwork, and equipment. The consistency helps better establish your railroads purpose and plausibility in the era you are trying to model. Sure I could model the 90s but every piece of equipment in these photos has FRA 224 reflective striping making it very clear this is post 2012. 

So there you have it branding and schemes of the Michigan Interstate. The consistency, plausibility, and purpose have helped define three important questions:
  • Where does my railroad operate 
    • (Michigan)
  • What / When is my railroad 
    • (Modern era - Regional)
  • What does it do 
    • (Hauls Agricultural, aggregate, and paper products to North American network) 
Have a great Easter Week!



  1. Great post! It's really neat to get some of the background info on a freelance railroad like yours.

    I'm working on developing logos and paint schemes for my Great Lakes Northern project right now and have used some of what you've done as inspiration.

  2. Tracked (pun intended) over from Tom P's CWE site i model 1976-80 eastern/southeastern with lines into the mid/upper/lower central region like NS freelanced version.

    Really like the article above working on some cars as i type.

    Have a good one.