Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Operations - More on Yards

Just as I posted on how yards operate, there was a discussion on the Proto Layout group about yard operations. Several of the posts were from real-life railroaders and how they didn't use the same track every day, how inbound trains would use whatever track was open, and they would shove cars where they could while working.

A few of the comments in the forum were about operating on a yard where the layout owner was rather rigid in their expectations as to how the crews would operate. In some cases the "offending" operator was a real railroader. They weren't offended by the owner questioning them, but they did know that they understood how to operate the yard/switching better than the owner.

Other comments indicate that railroads don't designate tracks that are used the same way daily, but adjust according to the day and traffic flow, and we should do the same.

I also received some very informative comments on the post itself. In addition, I have also acquired a book that I only recently learned about:

This is a book published in 1957 specifically about how railroads operate. The first half of the book is about Yard Operations. Admittedly, I've only gone through the book quickly, but will be studying it in detail. I really enjoy finding articles and books that were published during the period I model.

It appears I misinterpreted the evidence, and yards don't typically have dedicated tracks for building specific blocks/trains. It is certainly an approach that can make running an ops session easier, but since I'm trying to model prototypical operations, let's see if I can revise my approach, but still make it relatively easy for model railroad operators.

The book is quite amazing. I got a good deal on it, but I'm finding it tends to be priced fairly high. so good luck if you go hunting. I should also mention that John Droege's book and SC Ghose's book are also great too, but aren't as comprehensive about how a yard is operated. 


One of the things that was pointed out by Rob Simpson is that the Boston Car Checkers' Book is directing what yards to send cars, not specific tracks. The Yardmaster/crews will handle the cars once they are received at that yard. This will make some more sense once I outline the process a train goes through in a major yard.

I guess I'll just start by saying my last post was all wrong. :)

So I'll try again...

Large Classification Yards

This seems to be what most modelers are thinking of when the talk about a yard - a full classification yard with engine servicing. There will often be some extra servicing tracks (such as to receive coal and sand), and a bulk (team) track and freight house. Fewer models have cleanout tracks, or use their RIP tracks for short (same session) repairs. Icing tracks, stockyards, etc. are typically dependent upon the nature of the layout. While we won't get into all of the specialized tracks, other than I'll say that they are simply additional tracks that can be used to spot or pull cars.

Entering the Yard

Rob Simpson rightfully pointed out that the Yardmaster does control who enters the yard. The process, however, is different than is typical on many model railroads. What I was referring to was a practice on many model railroads of the train crew asking the Yardmaster if they can enter the yard. While we generally have to condense difference jobs, and the work they do, this is an approach I don't care for.

As Rob mentioned, the Dispatcher works with the Yardmaster to manage the traffic entering the yard. In my era there aren't any radios, so such control is primarily by signal. That is, if a Train Order indicates a train runs Berlin to North Haven, as we've seen in some of the orders I have, the Agent at North Haven would have orders for their next movement, presumably into Cedar Hill Yard. Such a movement would also be controlled by signals entering the yard.

The inbound track will be lined ahead of time for the train by the yard crews.

Once the train enters the yard, the road crew has completed their run and, due to union rules, cannot move their train within the yard proper (I'm referring to a terminal/classification yard with engine servicing, etc.).

Checking the Train

At this point, there is a lot that goes on before the train is actually broken down and classified. As we saw in the article, the caboose may already have been dropped, otherwise it is moved off of the train.

Inbound clerks record each car by road and number, and also verifies the seals on house cars and must replace any that are broken, damaged, or applied improperly. At the same time, the Car Department is checking the cars for defects, and may also check to see what empties need cleaning out, and the class of empties (that is, what load they are suitable for).

In the meantime, the Conductor will have taken the waybills to the Yardmaster or clerks, and they will be verifying those against the Inbound Clerk's report. Depending on the road and era, they may have had a report ahead of the train's arrival to verify against. At this point they can start the work of classifying the train.

In other words, it can take 30 minutes or more to process the inbound train before cars are switched out at all. If it's a hump yard, the entire train (or in cuts if too long) can be shoved up the hump to be classified on the move. Otherwise, the Yardmaster and his clerks will be writing up switch lists for the switching crews which tell them which cars go to which tracks.

Designated Tracks?

Like a local freight, the crews just move the cars where they are told. They aren't really concerned with what's in the car, or its final destination. That's not to say they don't know at all, but it's not necessary for the work. And this ties into the idea that there are designated tracks. 

At the end of the shift, the Yardmaster fills out a log that tells the incoming Yardmaster the state of the yard. What blocks are on what tracks, etc. Apparently the Yardmaster shift typically ends a half hour before the clerks', so the new Yardmaster can consult with any of them for additional information if they have questions.

So the answer is no, there probably aren't dedicated tracks. Although if capacity and traffic flow allows it, there's no reason why there can't be. But I think it highlights a different aspect of how a yard operates that is usually missing from model yard operations - the Yardmaster writes out switch lists.

Many model yards operate by the Yardmaster telling the crew to break down a train, and build a specific train, but leaves the process up to the crew. That is, the crew starts looking through car cards/waybills to find the cars they need for the next train, and then start to dig them out and figure out what tracks to use while doing so.

Having designated tracks can substitute for a Yardmaster writing out switch lists. Why? To provide the crews another level of information to help manage the flow in the yard. Especially if there is more than one crew working. This can be important, because the switching crews may not have all of the information that the Yardmaster (presumably) does in terms of future work and movements.


We generally have to condense our yards considerably. For a large yard on the prototype, with engine servicing, etc., there is often an eastbound and westbound yard at the very least. Very large facilities, like Cedar Hill, have multiple arrival yards, classification yards, and departure yards. Not just arrival/departure tracks and a classification yard.

Since we typically don't have that luxury, we need to be well organized to keep things flowing. Part of that is that we condense the time it takes. For example, we don't take the 30-minutes plus to process an inbound train. As soon as it arrives we tend to start breaking it down immediately. I would recommend trying to schedule things in a manner that when a train arrives your Yardmaster at least has some time to write out a switch list for the crews, rather than leaving it to them. Barring that, you can have them prepared ahead of the session, but that would also require that every car for inbound trains is in the same order as the prepared switch list.

The process of classification is to break down the inbound train into blocks that will then be assembled into new trains. That is, it's not about building trains, but building blocks. For a model yard, the best approach for this is to have one switching crew working one end of the yard breaking down and classifying trains. The road crew/hostler will move the engines to servicing, and the first job of the switching crew (since we usually can't kick cars) is move the caboose. Once the Yardmaster has prepared a switch list, it's just a matter of pulling the train (probably in chunks) and shifting cars to the appropriate tracks.

The Yard Foreman (aka conductor) will still determine the best way to work the switch list. But it provides a lot more guidance than I see from many model Yardmasters.

Building Trains

The Yardmaster also needs to prepare switch lists to build the outbound trains. If you have a second switching crew, they can work the opposite end of the yard and it's a matter of pulling blocks and assembling them in the correct order for the outbound train. Ideally each track holds individual blocks, but that may not be possible in a model yard, so the crew may have to do some switching to dig out the cars they need.

After the train is built the Clerks record the train as it stands, Car Checkers verify that the journals are oiled and packed (unless a later era), the brake line is pumped up with air, and the brakes tested, the Conductor has to record their train and verify it against their waybills, etc. Like the inbound train, once the train is built it can take 30-minutes or longer to go through all of the processing to verify that it's ready to go.

Other Yard Jobs

There are still more jobs that happen on the prototype during these processes. Empties may be pulled to a cleanout track, light repairs to a RIP track, and when completed these cars are moved back to the classification yard to be added to trains. The air is bled from all of the cars to prevent issues with switching, but they also have to set and release multiple handbrakes on the cuts while they sit in the yard. We are used to trying to move cars through the yard pretty quickly, but the reality is that it's a time consuming process. 

Small Yards

A small yard, on the other hand, can be very different. For example, Whiting St Yard had a capacity had 8 tracks, ranging from about 650 feet to a little over 1,300 feet. The New Haven measured sidings in 48-foot long cars, so using that measure the roughly 8.700 feet of yard tracks is about 180 cars.

These figures don't include the long runaround track, bulk or house tracks, nor anything designated as an arrival or departure track. Way back there was a small turntable, but no engine servicing, and it's long gone by my era. Water plugs were found at Berlin and New Britain stations. New Britain did have a small engine house with a crane to coal up the locally assigned switchers, but it wasn't connected to Whiting St Yard, and wouldn't have serviced other trains.

Two daily freights would drop off cars overnight and in the morning, and then two more picked up later in the day. The "yard crew" consists of the two switchers assigned to New Britain as a whole.

From talking with former New Haven crews, I know that the cars were dropped on the long sidings (Track #5 in New Britain on the Highland, Track #6 on the Berlin Line for Whiting St.).

I don't think there was a Yardmaster, or Foreman in New Britain. I believe the Agent would have managed the work flow based on the needs of the local industries, almost all of which were within Yard Limits. I lack any concrete evidence one way or the other.

The crews would know which cars needed to go where, and often when, and they would have instructions for the outbound cars. But how they choose to work that is entirely up to them. With maybe 30 cars left overnight, and another 10-30 car inbound cut in the early morning, and with 8 tracks to classify them, plus an additional seven yard tracks in New Britain Yard, the crew could utilize the tracks however it worked best for them.

There were no radios on the New Haven, so the two switching crews needed to coordinate in person, or via the Agent, and road crews would take their paperwork to the Agent as well. Since New Britain had an active freight house, there would be a Freight Agent there, and I'm assuming the Station Agent would be in communication with them regarding cars in New Britain Yard. I, of course, will only have a single Agent to perform all of those duties. Road Crews dropping off or picking up work at Whiting St will use the phone to speak to the Agent at New Britain Station.

It's (Still) All About the Workflow

Since the inbound cars would have been in a New Britain block, the order of the cars could be anything. The yard would rarely be anything above maybe 20% of capacity, but you could sort the cars into many different blocks, depending on how you intended to work the industries and the particular mix of cars that day. 

Once again, the flow of traffic has an impact here. For example, in the morning, the traffic is all inbound. So any of the yard tracks can be used to sort cars to be spotted.

In late morning, there will need to be a place to shove cars pulled from industries while spotting the inbound cars. 

By the afternoon, the majority (if not all) of the inbound cars have been spotted, and the yard can be used to assemble the outbound blocks.

On the CNZR

Having gone along for a few days, I can say that the actual work is performed differently almost every day. This has a lot to do with the capacity of the railroad. If it's possible to make a single trip, then they will almost always pull everything first, then go to Hartford. But sometimes that's a problem due to the number of cars waiting for them in Hartford. So they may pull the cars after returning from Hartford, and take down any empties left from the day before in the first trip. 

The Best Way?

I'm always trying to uncover how things worked in my little portion of the prototype world so I can try to replicate (model) the operations as they actually occurred in New Britain. But I'm also interested in how the railroad operated on a bigger level. While it seems complex (and it was), it was about as simple a process as could be designed considering the limitations. The trick for model operations is to condense and/or eliminate what was done by a small army of clerks and crew, while still simulating what the railroad actually did.

Obviously the best way is whatever works for you. But I think the key here is good design, keeping in mind that our operators aren't doing this every day like the prototype crew does.

So an updated list:

1. Arrival Tracks are the most important tracks. I still thinks this holds true, because without an open Arrival Track, the rest of the layout gets backed up.

2. Provide clear instructions to the switching crews that have to break down the trains. Classifying trains is the most complex part of the job, and even when a crew knows exactly which cars need to go where it can still be the most time consuming. Designated Tracks is one option, although I think a Yardmaster that can write up switch lists to account for the flow is better, and more prototypical.

3. Simplify. We often run using fast clocks, and while we could build in the standing time of a recently arrived or newly built train, this will probably happen automatically. Especially if the Yardmaster is writing out switch lists. In the late '40s the New Haven started using an IBM computer system and teletype to send the information for inbound trains to the next yard (Maybrook, Cedar Hill, and Hartford). Providing the inbound info early where possible will let your Yardmaster prepare switch lists more quickly.

4. Block your trains. While there will still be classification to do within blocks, I still think having inbound trains blocked will help the Yardmaster prepare work faster, and will help the crews switch the trains faster. 

I think more than anything else, this book really clarifies the job of the Yardmaster. They coordinate all of the work, but like all of the work on the railroad, it's done with paper (usually multiple copies). The most important process oriented paperwork would be switch lists.

Now I really wish I could go run one of the yards at RPI again. Lots of new things to try...

1 comment:

  1. Great read as always, Randy......I think we need to find you some time to come back down to Dave Ramos', and put your ideas into action!