Freight Car Friday – Unit Trains

31 08 2012

So called “unit trains” have been a growing part of the railroading scene for more than fifty years. Most commonly associated with coal, the unit train concept has been applied to many commodities and taken many forms.

What is a “Unit Train?”

coal train

A solid train of coal gondolas on the Union Pacific is the face of unit train railroading today.

Officially, a unit train is a train devoted to a single customer with one point of origin and one destination. So for example, a unit coal train would be loaded at a mine and travel to a power plant without being switched in process. It may change crews or locomotives depending on the length of the trip, but cars won’t be added or removed at yards along the way for classification to other points. Think of it as a conveyor belt with flanged wheels.

Often these trains will also have a very uniform appearance, using train sets of identical cars. These cars may be owned by the railroad or the shipper. Standardization reduces costs and keeping sets together increases availability. The equipment itself does not make it a unit train however. A unit train may have cars from several companies all traveling together. On the other hand, a train of identical cars could be broken up en route and sent to multiple destinations.

Unit Train Savings

The unit train concept has many advantages for both the railroad and the shipper. Not surprisingly, this cost-cutting concept originated in the 1960s when shippers looked for new ways to improve service and railroads were forced to innovate to stay financially viable.

busy yard

Congestion at yards like this comes with a cost.

For the railroad, these trains greatly reduce operating costs by keeping trains out of busy yards. In an inefficient yard or schedule, it would not be uncommon for a freight car to lose a day or more of shipping time as it gets processed through the yard. Then there are the labor and material expenses associated with these terminals. On the Pennsylvania Railroad for example, it was estimated that new unit coal trains could make between 10 and 15 round trips per month. The typical load and return cycle for a standard hopper was only about 4.

CSX train

A CSX unit train bypasses the yard at Cumberland on its way to export.

The unit train also greatly simplifies an even less noticeable aspect of the industry – the billing cycle. An entire train can be billed in much the same way that an individual carload shipment would be. Also, since these cars regularly operate in set patterns, scheduling the return of empty cars and finding cars to fill customer demands is greatly simplified.

For the shipper, all of this increased efficiency can be passed along as lower rates. These rates in turn can be passed along to the final consumer. Unit trains saved utility customers tens of thousands of dollars in the 1960s, not to mention additional savings from avoiding massive coal slurry pipeline and similar projects that would have been required had the railroads not been able to handle the traffic.

Unit Train Operations

ethanol train

This ethanol train has kept its DM&E locomotives over CSX. The first car is a spacer due to hazmat restrictions.

Unit trains are most often associated with coal, but many products can be moved in bulk this way. Today ethanol, trash, grain, stone, ore, even finished goods like windmills and farm machinery can be found moving in unit trains. Some of these shipments are seasonal while others are nearly daily movements. Of course these same products can still be found moving in conventional trains as well.

On your layout, a unit train is a great operation when you want to just sit back and watch it roll. Unless you’ve modeled the point of origin or destination, the train should require little work on your railroad. Although locomotives may be exchanged, often the power remains with the train even for multiple runs or across different railroads.

Your can model your train with a long consist of similar cars (we’ll be posting an article on changing road numbers next week!) Or you can combine similar cars from several railroads or companies to create a longer and more diverse train. Either way, you’ll be ready to let the unit trains roll while you toil away in the yard switching freight for your smaller customers.

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4 responses

31 08 2012
Frank Swafford

I sure would like to see Lionel offer the Bathtub Coal Gondolas in 5 or 6 car sets!

31 08 2012
Phil deVaney

I enjoy these posts and the information.

31 08 2012
Dennis Breda

These posts are a good edumication for me. Thanx

31 08 2012
Andrew Falconer

One type of unit train that you forgot was the Ore Car unit train. Lionel has made ore cars, but rarely offered multiple numbers in the same paint scheme. 4 car sets of matching Ore Cars every year in a new road name and color scheme woule be a way to make belivable unit train. I have several Ore Cars from Lionel made over the past 30 years.

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