Intermodal Yards

6 06 2012

Last but not least in our look at railroad yards you can model is the intermodal yard. Intermodal refers simply to any shipment of goods which takes at least two forms of transportation to reach its destination without being unloaded from its original shipping container. Primarily this means truck trailers and containers that can be transferred from road service to rail cars or even ships. Like classification yards, intermodal facilities come in all sizes. From single ramps to massive coastal port facilities, the function of these yards remains the same, only the volume changes.

Loading / Unloading

Piggyback Set

The forthcoming CN Piggyback Set is the perfect way to start intermodal operations on your layout. All you need is a stub siding and a ramp to start your terminal.

Unlike conventional freight yards where freight cars are primarily classified and switched from one train to another, relatively little switching occurs in an intermodal yard. Most loads will either begin or end their rail journey in the intermodal yard. The remainder of the trip is handled by another mode of transportation. Consequently most of the work in an intermodal yard happens around the trains, not with them.

When it arrives in the yard, an inbound train is spotted on a loading / unloading track. Locomotives (and cabooses at one time) leave the train and go to a small storage / service area. Most intermodal yards were built near existing freight yards and locomotive facilities here are normally kept to a minimum. Anything requiring more work is sent out to another shop. Quick turnaround on equipment and trains is essential in this highly competitive market.


The 6-22202 unloading ramp is perfect for small, early piggyback terminals. Ramps like this could be found even in smaller towns where only a car or two were set out. Local intermodal services didn’t last long however.

The train may need to be split into smaller cuts for unloading. This was particularly true when flatcars were loaded “circus style.” Unloading long cuts of cars one trailer at a time over narrow decks and bridge plates was not only difficult but incredibly slow. A larger yard may have several “ramps” to handle multiple cars or even trains at a time. Also important for circus-style unloading was having the trailers pointed in the right direction. If they were backwards, the train would have to be turned, so yards were built near wyes whenever possible.


Modern stack and well cars must be loaded by crane.

Today, most facilities use either overhead cranes or large stradle-lift tractors to remove the trailers and containers. With these, longer tracks are possible to save time. These tracks are normally embedded in pavement with wide accessways along one or both sides for the lift equipment to maneuver and for tractor drivers to position or retrieve loads. In just a few minutes per load, trailers and containers are plucked from the railcar and placed on the ground. Small yard tractors then retrieve the loads and take them to a holding spot briefly until the driver and trucks that will take them over the road arrive.

Once emptied, the railcars are ready to receive new loads for the next outbound train and the process continues in reverse. If a train has more or less cars than needed for that day’s shipments, extra cars may be taken to or retrieved from storage tracks nearby. Extra railcars are also frequently attached to the end of loaded trains to balance equipment if there are more loads moving in one direction than the other.


Although the focus of the activity concerns loading and unloading the cars, switch crews in an intermodal yard do have some work to do.


A yard switcher like our new LEGACY equipped NW2 would be perfect for the light switching duties required around a typical intermodal yard.

In addition to adding or removing empty cars, some loaded cars may make connections to or be combined with other through trains. These operations normally happen at yards built near busy junctions – both with other rail routes and highway access. These switching moves are handled much like those in a conventional yard except that humps can not be used.

The same locomotives used to move these trains over the railroad may also be used for this switching. A dedicated yard switcher might also be present in busier yards.


small ramp

A small ramp like this one is an easy addition to any platform. All you need is a spur, a ramp and a road!

Modeling an intermodal yard is not that difficult. For earlier terminals, a track or tracks leading to a small ramp at the end will comprise the heart of the facility.  To unload the trailers, these tracks had to be straight. For more modern facilities, an operating crane like those made by Lionel in the past is not only a great visual piece but also a fun operating accessory.


By far the biggest need in any intermodal yard is a fleet of trailers and containers and plenty of space for them to move about and to park.

A few extra tracks for rail car storage and plenty of real estate for trailer storage are also needed. Since most of the land in the yards is devoted to this short-term trailer and container storage, a single row of parked trucks along a backdrop or the edge of the layout can be used to suggest just the brim of a larger area on our layouts. Modern facilities are generally completely paved, at least in and around the loading area. We’ll present an article on paving over model track in the near future. Other storage areas may be just gravel or even dirt lots.


Surround your yard with lots of yard lights – like 6-14071 or our other light towers – to protect the valuable cargo and keep the yard working around the clock.

Few structures are found around the intermodal yard. A yard office for handling the billing and check-in/out of the trailers and containers is normally found near the road entrance. At international ports, customs and security buildings could also be found. Speaking of security, with lots of valuable merchandise moving through on tight schedules, these yards tend to be more “fortified” than conventional yards. Security fencing and large light towers are a trademark of these yards which often keep working around the clock. A railroad police car, officers and perhaps a K-9 unit would make excellent and appropriate details to complete the scene.

Last but not least, don’t forget the signage. Directional signs on posts and on the pavement and safety signs abound in these hectic but organized centers.

With the exception of the modern loading cranes and lifts, most of an intermodal terminal can be modeled very easily and at low-cost. Easy to resize, these yards can be adapted to almost any layout to add a new level of operation and interest.



One response

6 06 2012

Great article. Will you be updating the Intermodal Crane to work with the new Scale TTX cars and containers soon? Will you ever produce scale spine cars and Trailers?

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