A Look Inside the World’s Biggest Freight Rail Yard

A Look Inside the World’s Biggest Freight Rail Yard

For railroad industry professionals and train enthusiasts, North Platte, Nebraska, is synonymous with “big.” That’s because North Platte is home to Bailey Yard, a working Union Pacific rail yard which, since 1995, has held the Guinness Book of Records title as the world’s largest railroad classification yard. Read on for a closer look at the inner workings of this massive operation.

A short history of Bailey Yard

North Platte has been a railroad town since the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. The town received its first train in 1866. In the following year, Union Pacific began conducting mainline operations. In its early days, the yard at North Platte was a flat-switch yard containing 20 tracks.

The town became better known to ordinary Americans during World War II due to the North Platte Canteen. At this time, millions of service members were being conveyed across the country by train. The North Platte Canteen was set up to serve refreshments to the soldiers during their trains’ 10-minute stop in North Platte. From 1941 to 1946, more than 6 million service people ate at the canteen.

The foundations (and tracks) for the current form of Bailey Yard were laid in 1948, when the existing yard was updated as a “hump” yard, a type of classification yard. Making use of gravity, a mound (or a “hump”) allows railroad cars to be sorted. The updated yard contained 42 tracks. In 1968, another hump yard with 64 tracks was added, and in 1980 the first hump yard from 1948 was replaced with a new 50-track yard. Due to its growing importance as a hub for freight rail, passenger service was discontinued through Bailey Yard in 1971.

Bailey Yard is named in honor of Edd H. Bailey, a former president of Union Pacific.

Bailey Yard by the numbers

Size: Bailey Yard covers an area of 2,850 acres, the equivalent of nearly 2,150 football fields. It stretches a length of 8 miles and a width of 2 miles.

Tracks: For incoming and outbound trains, Bailey Yard has 17 receiving tracks and 16 departure tracks. In “the bowl”, the area of the yard where cars that have come in on one train are sent to connect to a new train, there are 114 tracks. In total, Bailey Yard features 315 miles of track.

Trains and cars: Bailey Yard handles about 14,000 freight rail cars every 24 hours, which breaks down to an average of 139 trains a day, each comprised of about 100 cars. Around 3,000 of these cars are sorted daily in the eastward and westward “sub-yards” of Bailey Yard.

Workers: More than 2,600 people – including engineers, inspectors, welders, and mechanics – work at Bailey Yard, comprising about 10% of the total population of North Platte.

All in a day’s work

Bailey Yard is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be the yard’s busiest days of the week due to the large number of East Coast and West Coast-bound trains that start their journeys across the country on Fridays, arriving in North Platte a few days later.

One of the most important operations to happen at Bailey Yard is rail car sorting. A train arriving in Bailey Yard may be pulling cars headed for a variety of different destinations. Sorting is the process of breaking up the inbound train, and sorting and connecting all those cars heading to a common end point. At Bailey Yard, each of the bowl tracks has a different designated destination; cars are pushed by locomotive up to the top of the “hump” (Bailey Yard has two humps: an East hump 34 feet high and a West hump 20 feet high), and then rolled individually onto the appropriate bowl track.

However, not all trains that come through Bailey Yard need to be sorted. Known as “unit trains”, trains that are going to a single destination are not routed through one of the humps, but are instead put on the yard’s service track. In general, they spend about an hour in Bailey Yard for refueling, a quick maintenance service, and to pick up sand which is used for extra traction on slippery tracks.

On-site servicing and repairs also play a major role in Bailey Yard’s operations. In the style of a NASCAR pit crew, teams comprised of an electrician, fireman, oiler, machinist, and car inspector work together to service run-through trains. Wheelsets can now be replaced onsite thanks to the use of new equipment including a special type of forklift; more than 10,000 pairs of wheels are replaced annually at Bailey Yard. As for locomotive servicing, the diesel shop at Bailey Yard handles about 750 units every month.

Image courtesy Ron Kroetz on Flickr

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