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A Little Love for the Yard

Procedures and practices to help the often-overworked layout yard crews

One of the challenges in establishing balance in operating sessions is finding the right trade-off between mainline running and yard work. All too often, yards become the bottleneck for many op sessions because yard work does not scale down in time to match the confines of the layout room: it takes about as long in real time to switch cars in the yard on the model as it does on the prototype. Meanwhile, the mainline is so short in nearly every case that the trains complete their runs quickly. If most of the road trains must be handled in the yard, congestion is the likely result.


There are a number of ways to design yards to make them more free-flowing and efficient in the model. Friend Craig Bisgeier has described these as the "Ten Commandments of Yard Design". It's worth considering these if you are planning a new yard or layout.

Help for the existing yard


But what if your yard is already built? Is there any hope of easing congestion and achieving a better balance between the road and the yard short of tearing up the dang thing and starting over? Stow that Sawzall, Bunky; here are a few ideas …


I've tried to list these ideas from those requiring the least disruption of existing trackwork and operating procedures to those that mean more work and effort. While they don't rise to the level of commandments, I hope you'll consider them as "serving suggestions".


Thin the herd


Take a look at your yard. Are all those cars moving through on their way to or from modeled industries or staging? Or is there a track or two occupied by Maintenance-of-Way equipment or cars that don't operate because they don't run well or don't fit your era or concept any longer? Keeping yards free-flowing means having as much space as possible -- both track length and number of tracks. Maybe there is a little-used spur elsewhere on the layout where you could spot the work cars and derrick, at least for op sessions. And maybe some of those unwanted cars would be happier on a farm out in the country where they could play with other rolling stock.


Kill the (fast) clock


As mentioned earlier, yard work does not scale down in the same way as running time over our always-too-short layouts. This can result in yard crews feeling harried, hurried, and harassed by a barrage of arriving and departing trains. Consider easing the fast clock rate (say, from 6:1 to 3:1 or 2:1). We've had good luck with 1:1 "railroad time" on Rick Fortin's ATSF layout -- easing the clock stress on yard and local crews.


Change the channel


Many layouts use multi-channel radios for communication during op sessions. Popular versions include the older 5-channel Maxon-style and the newer FRS radios. Simply selecting a different channel for road crews and yard crews can help make the work environment more pleasant for each by cutting down on extraneous chatter.


Give the yard a head start


Road crews have it relatively easy. One train, a switchlist or stack of waybills, one track to find it all. By this measure, the yard crew is starting off at a real disadvantage: five or eight or a dozen tracks; dozens of cars; and the rest of the session dependent on the yard crew's performance. Why not let yard operators start fifteen real-time minutes before the other jobs get rolling? This will give them a chance to get the "lay of the land" and thus help the performance of the entire railroad. Of the many op session enhancements we've made over time on Rick Fortin's ATSF layout, allowing the yard crews to have fifteen uninterrupted minutes before the road trains start has been the most effective.


Stage when you can, yard when you must


Are there trains that you ask crews to build in the yard that could instead be built before the operating session and stored in staging without compromising reality too severely? Remember, staging can take place out on the road as well, so maybe that first local of the day could start in a siding in the next town over. Real railroads are 24-hour-per-day concerns and our typical op session covers only part of that time. When the session starts, some trains can be "in progress" along the way. If you are careful in selecting the trains to be pre-staged, it will reduce the load on the yard without changing a single track.


Cut-offs encouraged


Real railroads set a cut-off time for particular trains and connections. Whatever they have ready at 10:00am goes out as the eastbound hauler, for example. The yard crew doesn't scour the yard "cherry picking" (see below) for eastbounds at 9:45 to be sure they all get on that train. There will be another hauler later on today – or tomorrow – or whenever. Yet many model railroad yard crews get bogged down trying to gather up every available car for a particular train.


Sometimes this occurs because the car routing system is not flexible enough to handle the uncertainties of a yard. Some computer switchlist programs are notorious for this: "ATSF 13721 has to be on #28 today or it won't be in the right place next session". Except for rare expedited traffic (such as auto parts for a stalled production line), real railroads don't put this much effort into routing a single car.


Setting reasonable cut-off times helps ease the work in the yard, because switch crews can work each track fewer times rather than digging out individual cars from many tracks. If the eastbound hauler is supposed to be ready at 10:00 am, perhaps setting a cut-off of 9:00 or 9:30 makes sense. After that time, any eastbounds the crew finds or that are delivered from other trains can be ignored "for now" and will be handled on the next eastbound.


Don't let 'em pick the cherries


"Cherry picking" refers to the common model railroad practice of looking over the yard and picking one or two cars from each of a half-dozen or so tracks to make up a train by switching all the tracks for just those cars. This is very inefficient and wastes time. Working one track at a time while building cuts of cars for one or a few blocks or trains is much more typical of the prototype -- because it is more efficient.


Working a yard as the prototype crews would is more fun and it results in the yard getting "smarter" all the time. Click here for a short tutorial on this method of switching and classifying yards.


A place for every paper – and every paper in its place


We are often focused on the configuration, length, and arrangement of the tracks in the yard. And rightly so, for this will have the most impact on yard efficiencies. But a little time spent on thinking about how crews will use and store the paperwork needed for the yard is also important. There should be a place for ops aids such as car-cards and waybills, switchlists, blocking charts, procedure manuals, timetables, etc. If the crews keep spreading the paperwork out on the layout itself, you may not need a new crew … perhaps just a narrow shelf will do.


Another excellent idea is dry-erase whiteboards (or old-school chalkboards) on the wall or on the fascia where crews can make notes and track their work. If you use the popular car-card and waybill system, consider dividers for the car-card pockets in the yard labeled with common destinations and "for now". Crews use these to segregate cards within the pockets as they work on the various trains.


Spread the joy


You can also consider ways to move the classification of cars away from the main yard. If there are places out on the road where the local could duck into a siding and have a track or two available to shuffle its cars into station order, this can save yard time. This is common on the prototype for locals, though often it depended on the union agreements whether a particular crew would be permitted to do specific kinds and amounts of switching. Another alternative is to let the local block its pick-ups into station order (e.g., eastbounds, westbounds, shorts) out on the road before returning to the yard. That will make it much easier for the yard to deal with the inbound train.


It may be easier to find space to add a spur or two to a distant town to create a "yardlet" that facilitates this kind of work than it would be to add another track or two in an already-cramped yard. As well, this "job enrichment" can be fun for the crew of the local.


Launch a satellite …


… satellite yard, that is. If you are planning an addition to your layout, consider adding a small specialized yard to serve nearby industries. These smaller yards can ease the load on the major yard elsewhere by eliminating some classification chores or even originating local jobs. The local yard might receive blocks of cars from passing through freights, which the local crew classifies and delivers. GEMCO Yard on the former Southern Pacific in Van Nuys, CA operates in this fashion. In some eras, crews actually went on duty at these remote yards, did their work, and went off-duty again without ever setting foot in the main classification yards.


I hope these "serving suggestions" stimulate your own thoughts on finding a better balance between road and yard.


"Mill Street Yard" by Jon Carter

model railroad, dispatchign, dispatcher, track warrant

For the first years of Rick Fortin’s ATSF layout, the dispatcher had three different communications paths: one radio channel each for road and yard crews, and a wired intercom link to the Tower Operator responsible for managing traffic in- and out of the main visible yard. Mark Pierce photo.

Model railroad, yard, waybill
model railroad, yard, HO

Yard operating aids on Rick Fortin's ATSF

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