by Jon Cure


When we take the step from running trains in circles to deliberately placing cars on special tracks, we have taken the first step toward "operating" our layout. We'll take a look at what to do with those 'freight' cars in this section.


Most anyone who has played with even the most basic train set has noticed there are freight and passenger car types. Generally these are not combined in trains. An exception was the "mixed" train of times gone by. Passengers must go to a station at a particular time to 'board' their train. Freight is loaded at customer locations or communal gathering places like freight houses or team tracks.


Freight trains are assembled and directed in a deliberate manner to move customer's traffic to its destination. What goes into the various cars is beyond the scope of this section; but examples are used to help clarify some situations. It is quite fun however; to research out this kind of info; and will help make operations on your layout more prototypical. There seem to be as many different ways to fulfill customers needs, as there are customers. Most will fall into some general categories:



Small lots, single loads and LCL (less than car load)

Regular customers, pool traffic, and dedicated cars.

Large customers, unit trains and intermodal


Obviously some overlap exists. An example of this would be a grain elevator that one day ships out a few car loads; a small lot. A few days later it originates a full unit train. We will examine the handling based on the shipment types listed above. Another consideration would be whether the customer was the shipper (consignor) or receiver (consignee). At one end of a shipment might be a large customer. A good example would be a brewery. On the other end a small customer; the local beer distributor. The railroad; or railroads if interlined (transferred between 2 or more carriers) might switch; (take cars in and out and place in certain locations) the brewery several times a day. They would "spot" (place specifically) cars for unloading grain and hops possibly also packaging and containers. They could also spot cars for loading of outbound finished product. Don't forget that sometimes the customer may be the shipper and receiver. An example might be copper ore moving from concentrator to smelter, or kraft paper to a box plant. On the other end the beer distributor, a small customer, might only get their cars every few days or once a week. Depending on the location they might receive their cars via a local that worked the areas industries and businesses. If not in an area where a local was justified, they might receive their car off a roadswitcher or manifest train that worked through that area picking up and setting out cars at yards along a route.


This brings us to another part of moving freight; train types. Unfortunately railroads aren't consistent in what the call trains that do different types of work. In an attempt to offer organization the following terms are offered for our discussion. Research on your own favorite road may turn up some uniquely named operation.

Yard Switcher, (Switcher, Yard job) often will have colorful name. Makes and breaks trains up as needed in larger railroad owned yards. Sorts cars to make new trains.


Local (peddler, patrol, sometimes also called zone switcher or turn) takes cuts of cars and works specific geographic areas spotting cars on customer's tracks. May also work a small customer owned storage yard to get cars.

Manifest (hauler, forwarder, also sometimes called a way freight) This train is a workhorse and jack of all trades. Working along a line it would set out and pick up blocks of cars in small and large yards that the locals would final distribute. Usually they would work between two large yards; like between Kansas City and St Louis. Sometimes they might work an out of the way industry in route.


Priority (1st class, hot shot, named train, overnight) These are the glamour trains that got names like Blue Streak, Red Ball Express and


Overnight. Generally they are long haul trains with limited or no stops, moving high value, time sensitive freight.


Unit trains (coal, potash etc) Often named for the commodity they carry; these trains generally (but not always) move between two points. Often cycle back and forth as in mine to power plant and back again.


Work train, just a loco and cars with supplies needed for right of way maintenance (might be receiver of freight like ties)


Xtra (or special) could be anything but in our context might be a one time movement like a military train.


Transfer runs, (interchange or interline trains) Move large amounts of cars between carriers. These trains usually make short runs across urban areas between yards. These were often the strongholds of old or odd-ball power the railroads didn't want far from shops and help


Oftentimes the lower class trains (locals etc) cars might be the building blocks of the higher class trains. Locals would gather and distribute cars to their customers. At the end of their day or shift, or at appropriate time the cars would make it into a large yard, either via the local or some kind of distributing train like a hauler. The yard switcher would take the block of cars and using a track called the "drill" or switch lead; would sort the cars into tracks called the "bowl" or classification yard. Each track represents a destination, group of destinations, or maybe a named train or customer. One track might hold all cars for Kansas City and beyond. Another might be cars for the "southside local", another might be to store empty boxcars awaiting loading at a local plant. You get the idea. It's based on the needs there. Some common tracks that cars might be placed on would be the cleanout track where cars are cleaned, the icing track, or the RIP (repair in place) also known as the "one spot".


As departure time nears at the yard the train may receive blocking. This is simply putting groups of cars (called blocks) into specific order. As an example lets say our train is called the KCCIF; the Kansas City, (to) Cincinnati Forwarder. We might block our train with St. Louis cars, then Louisville cars and finally Cincinnati cars at the back. As the train works east it might set out cars at St. Louis and pick up cars going east. The same in Louisville, set out that block and pick up cars for Cincinnati. On the last stretch the train would only have cars for Cincinnati and beyond. Meanwhile back in St.Louis, a yard switcher has taken the cars that were dropped off and started sorting them. Some may go to various locals; others to storage and still others may be interchanged to other railroads to continue their journey. Later a local may pull it's own cars or a manifest will drop small blocks off to locals in outlying areas. Using a "switchlist" the train crew will spot the cars as the customer needs. Our brewery may receive hops on one track and rice on another. The crew carefully places the cars as the customer has specified.


Another type of small load would be at a freighthouse or the warehouse of a Forwarder like UPS. In this example a forwarder does the same thing as at a freight house. Goods received at a loading dock are categorized by destination and loaded into appropriate boxcars. When the cars are full of various customers' shipments, they are closed up and pulled to be placed in an outbound train. This is LCL and is not done by railroads themselves any more. Some forwarders still do it this way; but most load trailers or containers, and put them on intermodel flat cars or double-stack cars. This is the case of the small unit customer (the package shipper) getting big customer service (the forwarder).


Another small or occasional customer would be one using a team track. These tracks could run behind a freight station or just be in a convenient field or open area. A customer like a builder might just get one car load of shingles there and back a truck up to unload it. A more regular customer might load cotton there in season. Another possibility would be a large piece of construction equipment. This variety makes these great 'industries'.


Moving to larger customers. A lot of them have pools of cars assigned. This is usually dictated by special needs. An appliance shipper might only want Box cars equipped with DF (damage free) load restraints. Another, opposite example is an animal hide shipper would only use old worn out cars, and not receive clean new cars to contaminate. Most covered hoppers and almost all tank cars are assigned to a particular commodity. As hoppers get old they are often downgraded from food service to Mineral loading only. Tanks or hoppers can be cleaned and rehabbed to allow a change in commodity but this is usually done at special shops. When cars are assigned to specific customers they are said to be in 'pools'. A common example is Auto Parts box cars assigned to a certain plant. These often have special devices to restrain parts. Though they may go to several plants they are stenciled "return to" with an exact location or agent. An example would be:


When Empty return

To agent

Michigan Central

Flint, Michigan


These cars are not to be reloaded for the return trip and generally travel empty that way. Some companies have found customers for the backhaul, but it's not real common. Since several railroads often share this kind of traffic; they are obliged to provide some of the cars to the "pool". This is why you will see cars from several roads waiting to be loaded or stored at these customers. Also you would see those stencils sending pool cars "home" to off line destinations.


Depending on commodity, a lot of really large customers may provide their own cars. Examples are unit coal operations like Detroit Edison, or corn syrup producer Staley, with its own fleet of tank cars. Some places mix it up with cars provided by the railroad and some company owned. The lumber industry does this frequently. These kind of industries may have what are called 'Industry support yards' these are where cars are held awaiting spot. In some cases they're like warehouses on rails with cars sitting for weeks at a time. Cars traveling long distances often travel over more than one railroad. The point where this traffic is handed off is called an interchange. Some interchange takes place as whole trains of cars moving from railroad "A"s yard to railroad "B"s yard. Sometimes the yards adjoin and there is an interchange track or tracks. In more remote areas one railroad's line may have a couple of connector tracks to another where they effect transfer. Sometimes these are near the "diamonds" where one railroad crosses another. A short line (small local carrier) or branch line may end at this "interchange" yard. These may be treated on a model railroad like an industry that can receive most any kind of car. Pretty handy!


Let's Follow a beer car from end to end and see how this all fits together. We'll use SP 248001, a boxcar. During the night the empty boxcar from the industry support yard is spotted at loading dock of the brewery's warehouse. Over the next few hours forklift trucks will fill the car to its weight limit with beer. A midmorning switch crew pulls the car along with others from the loading tracks. When they're done working in the area they make their way back to the main yard with a short train of cars. The cars; having been left on an arrival track, are coupled to by a switch engine and sorted into different trains, depending on destination. Our car is moving between Portland and Denver so will travel over more than one railroad.


The first leg, over Southern Pacific on a through train symbolized (named) PTOGF, the Portland to Ogden Forwarder, brings us into Ogden. The train is switched out in the SP's yard there and our car winds up in a transfer run to the Rio Grande. Upon arrival at their yard our transfer run is sorted again; this time by using a hump yard. In this case cars are pushed over a small mound and roll by gravity down into the appropriate track. This saves time as the switcher simply needs shove cuts of cars over the crest. Our short block of mixed cars is put on the rear of train 100 a hotshot to Denver and at the evening departure time off we go. Early next morning we'll be in Denver. Again the cars are sorted; our car winding up in a 'turn' working to Colorado Springs and back. On the south side of town the two Rio Grande engines shove our car inside a long brick building and the beer has arrived.


A few days later the empty car will be pulled and returned to the yard. This pretty much covers what the real railroads do. Similar things go on all over North America every day. So what about modeling?




When we first start modeling operation most often the switching decisions come from our imagination. We decide to set out a car here, pick up two there. As we progress we get scenery and it becomes more important that we send hoppers to the grain Elevator and tank cars to the refinery. We may go the next step and apply colored tacks to route our cars. This might match with colors for our yard leads so all the say blue tacked cars go on the same train. Numbers could be printed or decaled on the tac. to locate an exact spot. On a small layout an operator could write a switch list describing the work. A line on it might look like this:

SP 481332 Box L to Ace lumber/ Turlock from SP yard


(The L is for load) As you can see this is limiting in distance because of the instructions to move the car from yard to yard etc. Enter the waybill. Old line Graphics (and others) offer a system of car cards that allow forwarding of cars 4 times. The rail car itself is identified by a cardboard pocket. A waybill can be inserted into the pocket. By rotating the waybill top to bottom a new destination is shown and two others show on the back. With some tinkering these can show routing specifics, interchanges and other layout specific items. You must however fill out all these blank forms. There is a computer program to print these too. Which brings us to computer generated lists. The idea behind these is to let the computer keep track of the cars. Unfortunately at this time none of the programs seem to offer real time info. In other words the tracking of cars depends on information put in that updates the computer. This is an area with a number of developments and even as you read this it may be changing. The programs are definitely worth a look. Some of the developers are on Line with the Layout Design SIG chat list.


Author Jon Cure