Yardmaster makes it happen!

This week, MTS casts the spotlight on the YARDMASTER, the highest level within our rewards program. We take the title of Yardmaster seriously and thought you might be interested in the fuller dimensions of that title. That position in mainline railroading is critical to the business of keeping a railroad fluid and profitable and goes far beyond the textbook definition of that critical role: The yardmaster is a railroad employee in charge of a rail yard. Duties involve managing and coordinating all activities in combining rolling stock into trains, breaking down trains into individual railroad cars, and switching trains from track to track in the rail yard.

This highly sanitized and selective description conceals the drama that plays out each day in railroad yards throughout our great nation. Historically, railroads have purposefully shifted much of the responsibility and potential penalty for failure of service to a select few in the rail yards, the brunt of that being placed under the yardmaster. Just ask any contemporary yardmasters (serving BNSF, CSX, CP-KSC, NS, and UP); most will eagerly testify that this trend continues today at an accelerated pace. The referenced description above should also include directing incoming and outgoing trains, sorting cars in the correct order within specific consists (to facilitate set-offs and pickups en route), being cognizant of special load and clearance restrictions, and attempting to incorporate last-minute routing changes for specific cars. Dwell time, prompt dispatch, and maintaining service level agreements figure hugely in the equation as well. Add-ons like adherence to AAR rules, internal and external compliance, budget constraints, EPA regulations, and prevailing labor laws do not lessen the burden of responsibility nor enhance the pressure-cooker environment.

Managing a flat switching yard was challenging enough, but larger yards that featured a “HUMP” for sorting cars were far less forgiving since correcting mistakes was difficult and time-consuming. In the early part of the 20th century, large wooden poles were placed on the front pilot beams of locomotives, and extended to cars on the next track, enabling crews to move selective cars without shifting the entire train. The highly unsafe practice of “POLING” cars (discontinued decades ago) also became a yardmaster’s nightmare and the bane of switching crews. Early yardmasters used various methods for communication including megaphones to bark out instructions, aided by kerosene hand lanterns and small packets of dynamite known as “TORPEDOES” arranged in various patterns strapped on the railhead, that detonated when run over by a locomotive or freight car, with the number of explosions signaling specific moves. The move to radio technology helped materially but was not without pain. When the former New York Central System equipped the massive Collinwood Ohio shop and yard complex with radios and yard speakers in the early 1960s, nearby neighbors loudly protested the constant barrage of profanity from railroaders that blasted through the day and night!

Most of us will never have that sort of pressure, but the staff at MTS pays tribute to the men and women now charged with that responsibility each day. For all of those reasons, we feel that the title of YARDMASTER should be respected and valued, and is a fitting special distinction for the highest level within our valued rewards program. To make that experience meaningful to model railroaders, we are constantly adding noteworthy line-items, seeking new product lines, improving our customer service platform, and most of all, listening to your comments along the way. Please take time to review our website since that expands each week with our goal of becoming your supplier of choice!

Frank Wrabel