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
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.
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.
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.