Last week we talked about how railroads use waybills to move loaded freight cars. Moving loads is relatively simple – they go from producer to consumer. But how does the railroad know what to do with the cars once they are empty? That process can be a lot more complicated.
There are several factors which contribute to the movement of empty cars. Car ownership, routing, size, and suitability for loading all play a role among other things. The rules for movement of empties have also changed over the years as railroads learned, or were forced, to cooperate and adapt to changing economic needs.
The easiest empty car movements to understand and replicate on a layout are those that are in a dedicated service. These cars make repeat trips between a single origin and destination. It could be a single car or an entire unit train.
Modeling these operations is easy, but railroads tend to avoid such moves whenever possible. Freight cars only make money when they are carrying a load and this arrangement offers only 50% utility. Some of this loss can be offset if the cycle is hastened by little idle time in yards, as with a unit train.
For cars not assigned to a specific shipper, the railroad generally has three options for a car once it has been emptied. The car can be loaded, returned to its owner (if it belongs to a different railroad) or stored until another load can be found.
Obviously the third option is least desirable but it is often a reality particularly for cars that carry seasonal products or during economic downturns. Of the other two, changes in rates and interchange rules nationally and between individual carriers have created a variety of arrangements over the years.
While the rules and rates can be quite complex, much of it comes down to striking a balance between car utilization and ownership. In addition to being paid when a car delivers a load, railroads also charge each other for the use of their cars – loaded or empty. This is to prevent railroads from hijacking equipment (using another line’s cars to carry loads on their own routes.)
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re the yardmaster on the Santa Fe in Tucson. You have an empty B&O boxcar and two local industries which could use a car of that type. One has a load for Eugene, Oregon, another for Cincinnati, Ohio. Under most operating agreements, you could probably send the car to pick up the Ohio-bound load as that will get the car closer to, if not back onto, its “home road.”
If there were no potential eastbound loads, your best bet would be to route it back to the B&O empty. Another yard along the way may grab it for a load.
Of course in a real yard with hundreds of cars and destinations, it is much more complicated than this. The operators must weigh the costs of holding the foreign car for a few extra days vs. the added revenue of the load vs. possible home-road cars which could be loaded instead at a better profit margin, etc.
All of these considerations can make switching cars on your layout a lot more challenging if you enjoy a good puzzle. Of course, we have the luxury of writing some of our own rules!
Next Load Any Road
Anybody who’s seen one of the familiar yellow Railbox cars recognizes this slogan. These, and other cars like them, operate as an equipment pool. These arrangements greatly simplify empty movements since the “home road” often has no desire to see the cars return and instead earns its money from the cars’ use on other lines – loaded or empty.
Starting in the early 1970s, as regulations and rates covering those “per diem” or daily charges were changed, these operating pools became much more common. The so-called “per diem boxcars” owned by many shortlines brought a lot of color to the rails in an era that saw many favorite lines become fallen flags. We’ll loo k into more of these equipment pools in an upcoming blog.
As you can tell by now, the movement of freight cars on the railroad is a lot more complicated than it first appears. While a complete look at these would fill a book, hopefully this blog has opened your eyes for some new ways to have fun on your own empire. Next week we’ll put the paperwork and operating rules aside and look at a basic set out and pick up from the train crews’ perspective.