Freight Yards – Service and Support Operations

2 05 2012

Last week we looked at the primary functions of a classification yard – sorting freight for different destinations. This is the main function of the yard, but since so many resources are concentrated here, most yards have space devoted for several other operations as well.

Locomotive Servicing

N Platte Service

Large yards need large service tracks - but the functions remain the same. Here in North Platte, Union Pacific services dozens of locomotives at a time. Here locomotives receive sand, fuel and inspections. A large shop complex is just out of view to the left. One of the two humps in the yard can be seen in the background.

At the very least, most yards will have a place to fuel and “turn” locomotives between runs. The yard is a convenient place to do this as most trains either terminate or stop to exchange cars. Because of this, the yard is often designated as a crew change point where train crews begin and end their run, even if the train itself continues. These “through trains” often stop on special tracks along the side of a yard briefly to exchange crews without adding to the congestion of the yard itself.

In the days of steam, most locomotives had to be removed from the train at this point for fuel and inspection anyway, and new locomotives and cabooses were assigned along with a new crew. This adds some fun operation to a model railroad even if you don’t switch cars. With diesels, the need for service reduced, but a run-through fuel pad was often installed in yards so the locomotives could be topped off before heading on.

Fuel Pad

A pair of BNSF freight trains change crews and take on fuel on the run-through pad at Argentine Yard. A small facility like this is much more manageable for the modeler, but no less important for operations.

Facilities for servicing locomotives in the yard would include a coaling tower, sand tower and water pipes for steam locomotives. In a large facility, a single large tank fed several water standpipes to water multiple locomotives. A supply track would also be provided for inbound cars of coal and sand. Ash from the ashpits would also be taken out in hoppers and gondolas and used as fill along the railroad.

Diesels require a fuel pad and sanding facilities. Electrics would also go to an inspection pit where they could be looked over and receive sand and oil and water for steam generators if necessary.

Maintenance and Repair


Inside the roundhouse, locomotives received routine care, cleaning and inspections. On the East Broad Top, the operations and the scene haven't changed much in nearly 100 years.

In addition to fuel and sand, locomotives receive an inspection. Many yards had provisions for making routine locomotive repairs if problems were found. This also included more extensive monthly inspections. In the steam era, this facility usually took the shape of the iconic roundhouse. Some roundhouses were only a few stalls, arranged in a semi-circle around the turntable – a spinning platform that could reverse the direction of a locomotive or switch it to any number of radial tracks. Some large roundhouses were complete circles and it wasn’t uncommon for the largest yards to have more than one.


Although the turntable lost a lot of its purpose after the end of steam, many still remain even in the age of diesels.

With the advent of diesels, the need to physically turn a locomotive at the end of the run diminished and maintenance was made more efficient in rectangular run-through shop buildings. Although the locomotives no longer had to be actually turned, railroaders still refer to the servicing process as “turning the locomotive.”

For heavier overhaul, locomotives were sent to a backshop for repair. These heavy repair facilities weren’t found at every yard, and many railroads centralized all of this work to only one or two yards on the whole system. Locomotives that needed heavy repair would  often be added to trains headed to those major shops behind the actual power for the train.

Car Shops

RIP Track

Workers make quick repairs on freight cars at the RIP track to get cars back in service quickly.

Freight cars need servicing too. Some cars simply need to be cleaned prior to heading to their next customer. Dirty empty cars would be pulled out of the train during switching, sent to a clean-out track, swept clean and returned to the classification yard to be sent to a waiting customer.

Bad order, or shop cars are first sent to the RIP (Repair In Place) track. Like the roundhouse, this track can handle most of the normal running repairs on a freight car – changing wheelsets or brakeshoes, replacing a broken coupler, and similar light jobs. Usually these repairs can be made without unloading the car. Larger yards may have an enclosed car shop building capable of heavier repairs.

Maintenance of Way

Although not necessarily tied to the yard functions itself, a base for track maintenance and wreck train crews was often included in major yards. Of course these crews could perform work within the yard itself, but were also often dispatched out to the mainline. Larger facilities may also store parts which can be loaded into company service cars and easily switched into outbound trains to any point on the line.

Ice houses and Stock Yards

horse corral

In addition to sorting, some freight cars required extra attention in the yard.

When perishables were kept cool by ice in transit, large ice houses could often be found in or near yards. Often, these were located off of through tracks so that an entire train of perishables could be topped off with fresh ice without being switched.  A large elevated platform was used to deliver block or crushed ice directly from the icehouse to the roof hatches on the cars.

Cattle too need to be given a chance to rest, fed and watered regularly. Stock cars would be taken to stock pens, usually located near the outskirts of the yard (probably for the benefit of all those who worked within it!) While the cattle rested in the pens, the cars themselves were cleaned.

Offices and Crew Quarters

yard office

This large and imposing structure sits between two humps in the center of the former Pennsylvania Railroad Conway Yard, near Pittsburgh. In addition to offices and crew rooms, a tower provides a commanding view over all operations in the massive facility.

Railroads don’t move without people. An essential element in any yard is the yard office. Here, crews would pick up their orders and file reports, clerks kept track of the movements of every car in the train and operators coordinated incoming and outbound trains with dispatchers who control the mainline. A crew room with lockers, wash, lunch and rec rooms was also a must.

Also often located nearby was a railroad hotel for crews needing a night’s rest before returning home on the next run. The Railroad YMCA was known for affordable, not luxurious accommodations. Crews could set their call times at check in to be woken and ready for their next run – whenever that may be.

Now that you’ve seen the many complexities of a classification yard, next week we’ll take a look at how you can add all of that excitement to your layout!



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