5 Essential Features for a Modern Rail Yard

Found across the country from small towns to major cities, yards are the beating heart of the railroad. A typical freight yard will often lie at a strategic point in a railroad’s system, usually where multiple routes come together. Here the railroad can switch cars between trains, store equipment while not being used, and service their locomotive fleet. Some yards will also feature transloading facilities to offload freight cars for onward journeys by road.

1. Plenty of Track Space

With a constant flow of cars streaming through on various trains each day, plenty of track space is needed to store and maneuver equipment. Trains will typically need to exit the mainline to switch cars out, so as not to block the route from other traffic, and most yards will fan out from just one or two lengthier segments known as yard leads. To allow for operational flexibility, a yard normally includes a switch to the mainline at each end, with a few stub end tracks in addition to through-running sidings. Some yards can also feature a hump facility to sort cars, or a wye track for turning locomotives.

2. Locomotive and Equipment Servicing Facilities

In the age of steam, most locomotives had a fairly limited range before they’d need to be stopped for servicing. Consequently, almost all freight yards would include some type of maintenance facility. These would allow the crews to dump ash, and take on coal and water to prepare for the next leg of their trip.

Today, although not quite as frequently found, servicing facilities do remain equally as important. If something goes wrong and a locomotive is unable to complete its scheduled journey, it is crucial to have replacements on hand at fairly regular intervals. And if any train originates or terminates at the yard, there must be facilities to store the power after use. For smaller yards, this might just be a couple of reserved storage tracks, while for others, it can include a full-service maintenance shop. Some yards even continue to feature roundhouses and turntables from the steam era, although many of these have been decommissioned. Regardless of size, most mainline yards will feature some degree of basic facilities such as fueling pads and sanding towers. Similarly, certain yards are also outfitted with rolling stock repair facilities, although these are typically limited to key regional yards.

3. Offices and Security

Yards are dangerous places for the untrained individual. They are also integral to the smooth operation of the railroad. For these reasons, they are generally much more heavily guarded than a typical stretch of track. Railroads won’t let just anyone onto the property, and more high profile yards even feature manned gatehouses in addition to plenty of fencing and security cameras. With all of the action taking place on-site, most yards also require a building for crew to rest at, prepare meals in, and fill out orders. These can range from prefabricated structures to substantial, historic buildings. Crews and equipment for the maintenance of way department will usually also be based here.

4. Transload Facilities

With a large percentage of freight now moving via truck to their final destination, many yards have been adapted to include a transload facility, where freight can be moved from train to truck or vice-versa with ease. These typically take the form of intermodal facilities for container traffic, but can also be used to offload boxcars, flatcars, and tank cars. Generally separated from the rest of the yard, these facilities tend to utilize previously decommissioned track space, and feature plenty of paved storage pads for containers and trailers, while also featuring a range of impressive cranes and equipment.

5. Interlocking Towers

While more prevalent in the steam era, some yards also continue to utilize interlocking towers. Originally constructed to manage switch-throwing from a central location, they can still be found in operation in a few major yards, albeit with plenty of retrofitting for computerization. Many others continue to linger on as storage space, while others have been vacated completely, remaining only as a silent reminder of a different age. In some cases, they will be renovated as a museum or railfan platform to allow the public to watch the action from a safe distance.

Does your railroad feature a substantial yard? If so, we’d love to see it! Send us your photos on social media, and we’ll publish them in an upcoming #TrainLayoutTuesday post!