Freight yards don’t have to be huge sprawling complexes with miles of track. While the big yards sort and build large trains for big destinations, that is only half the operations. It takes smaller trains to serve each of the individual customers on the railroad. And to prep these trains, a smaller local or industrial yard is often used.
These smaller yards perform many of the same functions as their larger classification yard counterparts, only instead of blocking cars for different cities, they block cars for individual sidings and customers. Some industries are large enough to have their own yards which sort and store cars to keep production moving.
Operations in these yards are fairly straight forward. A train from one of the larger yards sets off a block of inbound cars, or perhaps even the entire train, in the yard and departs with outbound cars. The yard crew breaks down that train and sorts it by customer and delivery schedule. Customers may be served directly from the yard itself, or via smaller local trains. Outbound trains are arranged not only with the cars they need but in the order which makes switching along the line most efficient. In some yards, the yard and local work is done by the same crew.
These yards may also store cars for customers so they are close at hand for prompt delivery. Although not always present, a small car repair track or a caboose track may also be included. Because of larger crews and frequent back-up moves, cabooses can still be found on many local trains. An area for fueling and sanding locomotives may also be available, but these facilities will be modest. The railroad may assign one or several locomotives to this yard regularly. Generally cars and locomotives requiring anything more than the most basic repairs will be sent to the nearest large yard for work.
Because of their smaller jobs, these local yards are less complicated than larger classification yards. Since multiple trains will not likely be arriving and departing at the same time, dedicated arrival and departure tracks are normally not needed. If the yard is located along a busy mainline, it will likely have a dedicated switching lead track to keep this action out of the way. Many local and industrial yards are located on branchlines however and crews simply use the main track as their lead.
Classification tracks could be stub or double-ended. The number of tracks can vary. An individual track for each industry / siding is not necessary. Three to twelve tracks is common. At least one track should be available for running around the trains, and if the yard is located at the end of a long branchline, a wye or turntable for turning locomotives may also be available. These can also be used to turn cars which can only be opened from one side due to the way they have been packed. This would include boxcars, but also piggyback and automobile flatcars.
Obviously, a yard like this is much more realistic for most of our model railroads than a large yard. All you really need are a few sidings and you can begin switching trains for your local industries.
You can use a yard like this to build a local that will actually run around the railroad delivering and picking up cars from other sidings. Industries could be located right next to the yard, or scattered around the layout you could also use a small yard like this to represent an interchange with another railroad, or an industrial yard for a large industry you don’t actually have the space to model. Use a dummy track that extends to the backdrop or end of the platform to represent the connection. You can now deliver cars to that steel mill, automobile assembly plant, mine, refinery or paper mill by simply setting out the cars at the local yard. You don’t have to model the final delivery to model the traffic flow over the mainlines.
A yard lead is optional. If you want to switch the yard while running other trains, then it is a good idea. If you are a one-train operation, then the extra track is probably not necessary.
To finish the yard scene, add appropriate groundcover and ballast. Yard tracks are typically not as well maintained as the running tracks, so you’ll find more weeds, discarded timbers and tie down chains, trash, and other debris scattered about. Areas around the switches, where crews will be more likely to be walking around, will have less of this mess as crews remove tripping hazards.
Spilled loads can also be a good way to hint at the industry a yard serves, even if you don’t model the industry itself. A yard serving coal mines will likely have plenty of black coal strewn amongst the ballast. Look for ore pellets around steel mills or ore docks, woodchips around a paper mill, etc. These little details are easy to add, but help complete the story.