Freight Car Friday – Moving Freight, Part 1

5 07 2013

We spend a lot of time thinking about how trains look, but what about how they work? How does a freight car get from Point A to Point B? (Sure, a locomotive helps – but why that car, in that train, for that customer?) While the mechanics and aesthetics of trains are amazing in their own right, there is far more to the story than just wheels and rivets.

Throughout July, we’ll be featuring articles on railroad operations here on Freight Car Friday. Perhaps this information will inspire you to try some prototype-based operations with your own freight cars. After all, there is more to a model railroad than model trains.

Paper with a Purpose

Busy Yard

The action at a busy yard can seem like chaos, but every action has a reason. How do they know which car goes where?

Freight cars aren’t just moved at random. Each car in a train is traveling for a reason. If the car is loaded, it is headed to a specific customer. Empty cars are on their way for another load. Getting these cars to their destinations as efficiently as possible requires planning, hard work, and a lot of paperwork.


The caboose was an office on rails. From here the conductor could manage the train’s paperwork while it rolled from town to town.

One of these essential files is the waybill. A waybill is created for every loaded car on the railroad. It lets the crew know what the car is carrying, who it belongs to, where it is going, when it needs to arrive and how it will get there. It may also include other important handling information like notices about hazardous materials, speed or clearance restrictions or other caveats.

Waybills are created once a shipper’s bill of lading has been assigned to a specific car and is ready for shipment. The paperwork is then conveyed to the train crew so that they will know which cars to pick up, set out, etc.

Today, this information can be shared electronically. But that was not always the case. For more than a century, the conductor carefully managed waybills and other paperwork from his office in the caboose. Copies of waybills were manually transferred from train to train, yard to yard by the conductors and clerks.

Waybills for Model Railroads

Generating a form every time you move a freight car may not sound like a lot of fun for a model railroad. But we can take some inspiration from the process to help guide our operations and put you behind the conductor’s desk as your train takes a trip around your track.


These original waybill forms from the Reading show all of the typical information required including car identification, shipper, origin, destination and details about the load. These fields can be easily simplified for model train use.

By simplifying the paperwork, preparing cards in advance, and allowing for some repetition (how much is up to you,) running trains becomes a mission. Now, just like the prototype, your train has a job to do. When you pick up your paperwork, it’s time to go to work setting out and picking up cars.

There are several car forwarding systems available for model railroaders. Some are paper-based, others use computer programs and some are as simple as multi-colored tags. (For an example of one I’ve used, see these cards.) How strictly you adhere to prototype practices is up to you. Whether it’s a computer-generated switch list or the roll of a dice, when it comes to moving the cars on your layout, the results will be the same.

Over the next few weeks we’ll examine some of those actions along with more of the back stories behind them.



4 responses

12 07 2013

Where is that picture of the caboose taken?

12 07 2013

Roanoke, Virginia. Several locals in the area still use cabooses here and there are lots of great places to watch safely from public property. This shot was actually taken from the yard at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

13 07 2013

cool, thanks.

2 08 2013
Bernie Rowe

When people think of train conductors , they think of the road conductor, who works on the train, traveling with the engineer and the passengers or cargo. Road conductors have no set schedule, only one dictated by the train schedule of the train on which they are working. Another type of conductor is the yard conductor, who works in the train yard.

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