Freight Car Friday – “Green Freight”

14 03 2014

With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, everybody is wearing a little green. Today “green” is more than just a color – and freight trains are an important part of an economy that is striving to be more eco-friendly.


A Norfolk Southern Roadrailer train heads east against a summer sunset in Ohio. These modern locomotives will have no trouble handling the 125 trailers.

Railroads are always working to find ways to make locomotives more fuel efficient and with ever-decreasing greenhouse emissions. General Electric just unveiled their latest version of the ES44AC – now Tier 4 compliant – earlier this year. But the fuel and emissions savings of a single locomotive pale in comparison to the overall impact of shifting freight to the rails in general.

Nowhere is the advantage of rail easier to spot than an intermodal train. A typical train will take as 150 to 200 trailers and containers off of the highway for the long-haul portion of the route. Not only do we realize a savings by replacing 150 trucks with 2 or three locomotives, but there are “hidden” savings as well. Taking that traffic off the highway eases congestion, allowing other traffic to keep moving and saving even more time, fuel and money.

CSX train

A unit train of coal is railroading at its most efficient.

A freight train can move a ton of goods 476 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Compare that to about 130 miles/gallon for a truck. This often mentioned figure of ton miles / gallon is figured based on the annual national average; dividing the total number of freight-ton miles by fuel consumption reported. Looking at figures compiled by the Association of American Railroads, that number has grown steadily since the 1980s and is at an all-time high.


Modern yards are designed to minimize extra movements and delays.

Gaining efficiencies in rail transport is about much more than improving locomotives. The most significant improvements come from reducing the time trains spend sitting idle on sidings or being switched in yards.

Unit trains have made a huge impact here. Investment in right-of-way improvements like extending passing sidings or adding a second (or third) track, or improved processing and switching in yards with computerized car tracking cost a lot up front, but can save millions in the long run.

tank cars

The tank cars might be black, but these trains are part of something “green.”

Railroads are moving green energy as well. Solid trains of ethanol tank cars are now a common sight all across North America. Tank cars have led new car construction orders for several years. Even giant wind turbines often make the majority of their move by rail.

Even the most biased of fans and industry insiders will admit that there is a need for a balanced transportation network. Highways, waterways, pipelines, air, rail – all have their role to play. What is clear however is that when the railroads are given a clear track to move the freight they do best, we all win.

Freight Car Friday – Switching in the Yards

26 07 2013

Last week we looked at how a local crew picks up and sets out cars. Rarely will a car that is picked up at one siding like this be delivered to its destination by the same crew or train. Instead, these cars are taken to a yard where they will be switched into new trains headed all across the continent. Like the work of the local crew, switching in a yard is labor intensive. But pace of work here is much faster and the operations far more intense.

Arriving Trains

arrival yard

The yard process begins at the arrival yard. The tracks to the left and rear of the approaching CSX coal train hold incoming trains that will be switched. Unit trains like this coal drag don’t require a stop in the yard.

The action begins when our freight train arrives in the yard. Most yards have a designated track, or tracks, for arriving trains. Here the locomotives and caboose are removed and go to appropriate tracks for service.

In some cases, trains are blocked for different destinations. If this is the case, then the entire train does not have to be switched. A yard engine (or sometimes even the road engines if they will remain with this train) will take the appropriate blocks off and move them to other classification tracks and add any new blocks to the train. This switching is often done with the air brakes still charged, much like the operation for setting off / picking up a single car described last week.

horse corral

In addition to sorting, some freight cars required extra attention in the yard.

Other reasons for blocking a train would include special cars like stock cars or reefers which may have to be switched to a separate area in or near the yard. Here livestock can be given their rest and reefers can be iced.

If the entire train needs to be reclassified here at the yard, the process will be a lot more involved. Since nearly every car will be placed on a different track, this switching is usually done without any air brakes on the cars. Before starting, the air will be bled out of the reservoirs on each car. This will make the work go much faster, but does add to the danger level as well.

Since cars without air will roll very easily, most yards are designed as a bowl – the tracks slope slightly downward away from the switches at each end. This way if the cars do roll, they won’t come back to the switches where they could derail or strike another car.


The incoming cars will be switched according to their destination as shown on their waybills and car cards as we’ve discussed earlier. Each classification track in the yard holds cars for a different destination. Some of these tracks may be for local customers, others will be for other yards. It is not uncommon for cars to pass through several yards along their journey.


Hump yards use hills like this and gravity to help speed the switching process.

Cars can now be switched in one of two ways. “Hump yards” are designed with the throat, or switches, of the classification tracks on a large hill. The switcher simply pushes slowly and steadily forward from the back of the train. The first car is uncoupled at the top of the hill. Switches are lined for the appropriate track based on the car’s destination. Gravity carries the car to the proper track and the process repeats for the next in line.

Most modern humps use remotely controlled switches and pneumatic “retarders” to slow the car to the proper speed so it will roll to a gentle stop or couple with other cars in the track. Scales weigh each car at the hump and computers calculate the proper resistance at the retarder so the speed is just right based on weight, the number of cars in the track, even weather conditions. Prior to retarders, brakemen would ride each car down the hump and use the hand brake to control its speed.


A pair of yard switchers pull long cuts of cars from the classification tracks on parallel switching leads in Argentine Yard. 

Where a hump isn’t available, the cars are “flat switched.” Again, even a “flat” yard will have some grade for safety.

Instead of simply pushing ahead, when flat switching the locomotive must push the first car to its designated track then reverse through the switches. Tracks are lined for the next car and the switcher pushes ahead again. Back and forth, track to track, the process is repeated until each car is sorted. Flat switching is much more labor intensive. It can also be more time-consuming.

With a well-designed yard, a good switch crew can often keep the cars moving almost as fast as a hump however. Crews will often use the slight grade of the yard to their advantage as they “kick” cars into the appropriate tracks. Once the switches are lined, the train pushes ahead. As the car nears the switch, the brakeman pulls the coupler pin before the train has stopped. Now the engine slows and the car keeps rolling. As the car rolls into the track, the engine has already reversed and is making its way to the next switch.

Assembling Outbound Trains

In addition to breaking down incoming trains, the yard must also put together trains for departure. Most yards are designed so that these operations can take place at the same time.


At the end of a long day of switching, cars are pulled for a departing train – of course the yard’s work doesn’t end at sundown.

Once a classification track has been filled, or when the train for that destination is scheduled to depart, its cars are pulled and placed in a departure track. An outbound train may have several blocks of cars from different classification tracks. This process is much like the arrival yard in reverse. Once assembled, the cars’ air hoses are connected. Some yards have a stationary air supply that can be used to build air pressure before the locomotives arrive.

When departure time comes, locomotives and a caboose are added to the train. An air test is performed to make sure all of the brakes are working properly. The conductor confirms that the cars in the train match his paperwork and they are ready to roll.

On Your Railroad

waybill office

A simple “yard office” can make running your trains infinitely more enjoyable. Bins help sort and hold your “waybills” as you arrange cars in the yard.

All of this action can be a lot of fun on a layout. Even very basic waybill cards for your cars can turn a few switches and sidings into a great switching game. Designate specific tracks for specific destinations. When the train arrives, grab your switcher and your paperwork and get moving. For more on building a working classification yard, refer to this previous blog article.

Once you’ve filled a track, make up a new train and send it on its way. No two trains will ever be the same and even if they just make a few laps around your railroad before coming back to the yard to be reclassified, you’ll never run out of work to do in the yard. By incorporating a separate yard switching lead track from your mainline, you can switch cars in the yard while your other trains continue to run.

By the way, kids love helping you switch a train. It’s a great way to share the hobby and exercise the brain. This simple level of interaction will hold their attention much longer than simply watching the train run in circles. Plus, when all the cars are switched there is a new train run.

Next week will add one more level of interest to your model railroad operations – cars that require special handling.

Freight Car Friday – Freight Car Repair

8 03 2013

Many model railroads feature facilities to service their locomotives. Freight (and passenger) cars occasionally need work too. This maintenance can take many forms and can make an interesting addition to your model railroad.

The RIP Track

RIP Track

Workers make quick repairs on freight cars at the RIP track to get cars back in service quickly.

Most yards have a track where basic repairs can be made. The RIP, or Repair In Place, track can handle most of the common repairs necessary on freight cars with a minimum of tools and equipment.

Jobs like replacing a broken coupler or air hoses, welding broken ladders or hand-holds, replacing wheels or other components of the trucks, air brake repairs and more can be accomplished here. Most of these jobs require only basic tools like welding equipment, car jacks, and a variety of hand tools. A spare parts supply is also kept close by.


Car jacks often take the place of large overhead cranes.

The facility itself can very basic. A concrete pad is usually present to make work more comfortable and to provide a firm base for jacking cars. Often the work is performed in the open air. An open-walled or simple structure may be built to make the work site slightly more comfortable in less temperate climates.

In the interest of keeping the trains and their loads moving, railroads will usually perform routine jobs like this on whatever cars need them on their rails. So it is not uncommon to see cars from multiple railroads and owners in a single RIP track.

The Car Shop

car shop

Most car shops are relatively simple yet efficient structures.

More intensive work is handled in the car shop. In addition to repairing damaged cars, these facilities also often perform scheduled rebuilding and rehab programs for older equipment. These jobs can take many forms and can often result in new cars which look nothing like the equipment which rolled in. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, many railroads began converting boxcars into flatcars for piggy-back service in their own shops.

These shops are also usually responsible for repainting the company’s equipment. This might simply be due to old age, or as a result of a merger or purchase. Paint jobs might be as simple as applying a new number or completely repainting the entire car.


Parts can be stored outside, or in old boxcars. Inbound parts and outbound scrap can provide even more rail traffic for the facility.

Although wrecked freight cars are now often scrapped on site if their scrap value is more than their repair costs, when a wrecked car needs rebuilding it often goes to one of these shops. Such cars might arrive on their own wheels or on board a flatcar.

A few large railroads had car shops large enough to actually build new equipment. Often these cars arrived as kits from other builders. These large shops might even sell their services to other companies and even competing railroads during slower times to help keep the employees on the clock and recoup some of the railroad’s own operating costs.

On Your Railroad


Accessories like our repainting scene add an extra touch to a car shop scene.

You don’t have to model one of these sprawling complexes to include the action of car repair on your layout. A simple RIP track can be modeled as part of any yard scene. A paved work area, yard light towers, workers and stockpiles of supplies like trucks, couplers, boxcar doors, etc. will make a very effective scene.

wheel load

Carloads of wheels, or even carrying wrecked cars could also be found around the shop.

For a larger facility, a simple shop building could be made from one of the engine houses on the market, or even built from scratch from scribed styrene or other materials. Most of these facilities are very simple structures with few complicated architectural details to complicate your modeling.

rust streaks

A re-purposed freight car can provide easy storage space.

You’ll find much of what you need in the Lionel catalog. Over the years we’ve even created paint shop accessories and “patched” cars. A few inexpensive used freight cars might provide all the parts you’ll need to create your stores, plus perhaps a wrecked car arriving on a flatcar for more extensive work. You can get lots of ideas from the weathering and “bone yard” modeling pages here on our blog.

Since just about any sort of car can show up here, you can spot any of your freight cars on the siding. Passenger cars might also even show up occasionally. And while it’s there, maybe it will remind you to clean the wheels and oil the journals!

The Railroad Bone Yard – A Project You Can Model

15 08 2012

Our next modeling project on the blog is designed to show several modeling techniques, especially weathering your trains. If you’re looking for inspiration for some heavy weathering, or just a good project to learn on, the scrap yard is the place to go.

scrap yard

The future for this little centercab diesel looms large in the foreground in this Youngstown scrap yard.

Weathering models, whether it’s a boxcar, a building, a locomotive or an accessory takes away that “fresh from the box” look and gives it the appearance of age and use. Weathering can also help tell a story and make your models unique.

Most of the techniques you’ll see here in the coming weeks are much easier to master than they look. However attacking a perfectly good model with a brush for the first time can be intimidating. That’s why this project is the perfect place to start – you can’t overdo it on a model that’s bound for the scrap yard! After you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’ll be ready to tackle even more projects.

In addition to learning weathering and other modeling skills, the bone yard will create an interesting industry to add to your railroad and your operations. To get started on the right track, let’s take a look inside a real locomotive salvage and rebuilding facility for some inspiration.

Learning From the Prototype


The bone yard offers an amazing variety of locomotive types, roads and of course weathering ideas.

The railroad bone yard elicits a wide range of emotions. Here you’ll discover an amazing variety of locomotives and cars you’d thought you’d never see – only to realize that you’ll never see them again.

Most railroad scrap yards are more than just factories of destruction for old trains. Often, the yards also rebuild older equipment which can then be leased back to railroads and industrial customers. To build and maintain those fleets, used locomotives are bought from wherever and whenever the price is right. Consequently, their yard is a colorful bouquet of old locomotives from many railroads along with freshly painted refurbished engines awaiting assignment.

Not everything they take in will be completely rebuilt. Many locomotives are used only for parts. Their shells can linger around for decades as they are gradually scavenged until nothing useful remains and they are cut up for scrap.

Yards like this are incredibly tempting places for train lovers with the variety of equipment they contain. But remember these are also working industries and private property. All of the photographs seen here were taken with permission or taken from public property outside the fences. No picture of a locomotive is worth arrest or injury.

Storage Tracks

LTEX tracks

This view from the entrance to Larry’s Truck and Electric near Youngstown, Ohio shows just small sample of the color and variety you’ll find at these facilities.

By far the most interesting part of the operations from a railfan or modelers perspective will be the storage tracks of locomotives awaiting or having completed work. Here is where you’ll find an incredible array of locomotive models and paint schemes, in all stages of repair.

The salvage yard has no concerns over “prototypical authenticity.” If they can use it and the price is right, they buy it. So equipment from different railroads, manufacturers and eras often mix together in these rows. This is where the “prototype for everything” rule originates! Your models too can have endless variety.

As the photo to the left shows, not all of the locomotives need to be rusty hulks. Rebuilt engines with glossy paint mix freely with engines in line to be overhauled. You don’t have to weather everything.



A stack of radiator sections from a variety of builders makes a colorful parts pile.

In addition to the storage of more-or-less complete locomotives, these yards often have several areas devoted to parts storage. Often these are grouped by type or at least by materials. One area may be filled with diesel engines while another houses trucks and traction motors.

Although the mechanical parts of the locomotive are often the most valuable to the rebuilder, cabs, doors, headlights and other exterior details will often be kept as long as there is a potential buyer for them.


Sometimes the effects of donating parts leave larger scars than others – such as with this E9.

Locomotives not meant for rebuilding may be stored in a different area where they can be reached to retrieve parts as needed without being in the way of daily operations.

These tracks may sit for years without being touched. The equipment stored here will often have missing parts and heavier weathering. The tracks (if there are any) and equipment may also surrounded by tall weeds as they slowly wait their fate.


scrap field

Eventually, there is nothing left to do but scrap the locomotive.

When a locomotive has finally given up its last treasure, its final value to the salvage company comes in its scrap metal potential. These engines will be cut up into small enough chunks to be loaded into gondolas and sent off to become new steel again.

There is more to just scrapping a locomotive than cutting it up. Separate metals must be grouped. Copper from wiring will bring a higher price per ton than the steel from the frame for example. It is also important that any potential hazardous materials in the engine be disposed of properly. This includes everything from left-over engine oil and diesel fuel to lead paint, asbestos or other materials depending on the type and age of the equipment.

Overall Details

With all these great railroading treasures about, it can sometime be hard to step back and see the total picture. But if we’re going to model a yard and not just weather a locomotive we need to complete the scene. What else do we need?

  • door

    Work areas around these yards will be kept very organized. Still, you never know where you’ll find a random detail from an old locomotive.

    Security. These facilities have a lot of valuable and dangerous materials. Security is very important. From high fencing and signs, to guarded entrances, lighting and of course the “junkyard dog,” salvage yards will do what it takes to keep their property safe and secure.

  • Work Space. This isn’t just a storage facility. Workers need room to repair, sort and scrap. Make sure you give them plenty of open space to work safely.
  • Offices and Storage. A small office building, crew locker room and storage buildings for supplies and weather-sensitive parts are also a must. It is not uncommon to find old cabooses, boxcars and the like converted for these functions.
  • Clutter. While it looks like there is clutter everywhere, a clean workplace is a safer workplace. There is generally some order to where pieces are placed and work areas are kept especially clean. That being said, the random door, air hose or other detail can often be found in the oddest of places. All the more reason to keep the general public away from these yards.

Modeling the Yard


Lionel’s animated scrap yard accessory is the perfect centerpiece for this industry! We’ll get started on construction next week.

Beginning next week, we’ll start presenting this project in more detail. Each week we’ll give you a new step or technique that you can use to create a bone yard for your railroad, or just weather your other rolling stock.

For those who would like a sneak peek, come on out to the Customer Service Open House this Saturday and see the finished model for yourself! While you’re there, you may even want to pick up an old shell or two to practice on for your own project.