Rail Yard Operations Best Practices

The key to rail yard best practices requires an integrated operating approach that includes tracking and inspecting empty and loaded railcars, communicating proactively with the railroad, evaluating current and desired operational and physical yard characteristics, and employing electronic billing.

Darell Luther

Your six open top gondola railcars roll into the yard and once again they aren’t spotted where you want them and the two container railcars you’d been expecting haven’t shown up. You’re frustrated because it never seems like the number and type of railcars you expect and what you get match up. Rail yard operations start with an expectation of when your railcars will show up and where they get placed after they show up. The best way to affect the outcome on whether or not this will occur as you plan is to include the railroad in your plans.

Looking Outside Your Rail Yard

To ease the railroad into your planning efforts, begin by filing an OT-5—the process by which shippers or Lessee’s register private railcars with a railroad—for each private railcar you plan to run on their line. Once cars are accepted within OT-5, start tracking the railcars assigned to your service. If your cars are private cars, you already know what railcars you should be receiving and the key is now to figure out when you’re going to receive them. If the cars you are receiving are railroad pool assigned or one time movement assigned railcars, obtain the information from the railroad when you place your railcar order and trace the railcars from where they are currently at to your site.

Tracking railcars in today’s electronic commerce environment is a fairly easy task. Each Class I Railroad (BNSF, Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern, CSX and Norfolk Southern) offers access to their Web sites and the tools to track your railcars at whatever interval you deem necessary. You can use this information as it is presented on the railroad’s Web site or download it to a spreadsheet or other integrated programs that can retain the movement data for more complete cycle time information.

Now that you’ve got a handle on the bigger picture of where your railcars are coming from and when and where they’re going to, the next logical step is at the local level. Each railroad customer has a railroad serving yard. Out of that serving yard come the railcars required to meet your demand. In railroad terms this is not only the gathering and distribution network, but also the most challenging part of it. Planning at this level becomes critical. Many customers that we’ve talked with in our organization say, “I drove by my railcars for the past three days; it’s only a mile away and the railcars still aren’t here.”

To remedy this challenge find out who your local trainmaster or yardmaster (person in charge of getting the right railcars on the right trains) is and communicate your requirements to him or her. Also find out the challenges they face and how those challenges can be overcome by cooperative efforts. An example would be to coordinate daily service to best match train capacity on that particular day of the week, provided it meets your minimum requirements. Perhaps you can obtain the exact amount of railcars today to meet your loading requirements with guarantees for additional railcars the next day in lieu of having to order in more railcars than you need on a daily basis to compensate for railroad service delays. Matching up local train capacity to deliveries and pulls of loaded or empty railcars facilitates better yard operations within the overall railroad network.

The Interchange Inspection Process

Railroads have an obligation to provide you as a shipper (or receiver) with a railcar that meets the Association of American Railroads (AAR) Rules and Regulations. In particular, as stated in Rule 1 – Care of Freight Cars in the Field Manual of the AAR Interchanges Rules, each handling line is responsible for the condition of all cars on its line. There is also an obligation on your part as a receiver of an empty railcar to inspect it for AAR and Federal Railway Administration (FRA) defects and any “above the deck” damage that impedes the safe transport of your product.

AAR requirements are generally those items that concern the mechanical statues of a railcar between couplers (couplers, draft, trucks, wheels, brakes, center sill, etc.) and below the deck. FRA requirements are generally those items that are focused on the safe operation of the railcar in interchange service. Such items as crossover platforms, handholds, and reflective decals are examples of FRA areas of enforcement.

Above the deck are where most customers focus and where they should focus, just don’t forget to below the deck for running repair and safety appliance items. When focusing above the deck you’re generally looking for holes in side and end sheets, doors that are open or not fully closed, hitches that are missing or container locks that are inoperable or missing.

Timing of these inspections is important. It doesn’t mean that if you get a midnight switch from the railroad that you should have operations personnel on duty at midnight to perform the inspection right at that moment. What’s important is establishing the process in advance of when you need the railcars for the next shift so you can either fix what’s necessary or reject railcars right away without clogging up your yard. We find that without this process in place railcars that are not suitable for loading get placed in the way of other railcars required for loading, thus creating more handling and consuming time than if the process were done in the first place.

Keep in mind that if a customer receives a private railcar with AAR/ FRA defects, the customer is still responsible for making needed repairs or billing the railcar to a repair shop regardless of whether the railroad delivered it that way or not. If the customer receives a railroad owned/ operated railcar with defects, the customer should reject the railcar and contact the railroad for a replacement railcar.

Yard Design and Operations

We have yet to find an ideal rail yard operating configuration. There’s always something that you’d change to get better use out of your rail yard. Most rail yards are originally designed to accommodate shipment requirements that were in effect years and sometimes decades ago. That usually means that there is less track in the yard than ideal or the configuration is not ideal for the current situation. In either case the answer is an operational study of requirements to best determine current requirements that have bolt-on capabilities for future development.

In our experience ladder track configurations are ideal for single railcar to small multiple unit railcar shipments and loop tracks are more conducive to high thru-put situations. In the waste business the business levels or loading and unloading configurations rarely justify the expense and land footprint requirements to support a loop track.

Regardless of your physical yard configuration, there are some important characteristics of a yards operation that make it conducive to operational efficiency. The first is a yard operations plan where daily, day of week or volume related alternatives are designed into the operational plan for your yard. Which empty railcars go where and when and which loaded railcars are pulled and placed and when is a simple summary of an operational yard plan.

To help facilitate smooth yard operations communication and visibility are key elements to efficient and safe operations. Radios with dedicated frequency to rail operations and no obstructions to visibility or operations are important.

Loading and unloading locations and configurations should also be analyzed for safety, efficiency and design. Paramount to well run loading and unloading operations is the ability for the operator to have a clear visible field of the railcar they are unloading. This often requires more advanced equipment that elevates the operator above the railcar. Reaching over a railcar with blind spots or simply “feeling” your way around to unload the product often creates expensive railcar damage, leaves excess product in the railcar and is a safety hazard. You are trying to effectively unload a railcar here not pin the tail on the donkey!

Railcars should be loaded as effectively to full visible capacity. Oftentimes, this requires a scale mechanism of some kind, weighing inbound truck capacity, bucket or grapple scales or ideally a railcar scale in the yard. In many cases, railcars will cube out with commodity before they weigh out. Tamping product into railcars to obtain a final desired weight isn’t a good operating practice. This ends up destroying railcar structural integrity and creates safety hazards not only in the yard but on the route the railcar is shipped. Remember your responsibility to safety doesn’t stop within your rail yard. If you find that your railcars cube out before weighing out, communicate this to whoever is responsible for your rail fleet management. It’s often an economic decision within a company weighing costs against transport rate benefits.

Electronic Billing

The railroads are big proponents of conducting commerce via electronic data exchange. Releasing railcars to the railroad which tells them when they’re ready to be picked up, billing the railcars and settling freight bills electronically are all best practices standards. Railroads originated approximately 1.4 million carloads of commodity in February 2012. If you’re not interacting electronically with the railroads on your railcars you’re probably not going to get very good service.


The key to rail yard best practices goes beyond the rail yard itself requiring an integrated operating approach by tracking empty and loaded railcars, inspecting those railcars (both empty and loaded) prior to moving them within your yard, communicating proactively with the railroad personnel responsible for providing service to your yard, evaluating current and desired operational and physical yard characteristics and employing electronic billing in all aspects of your operation. By doing all of the above in a safe efficient manner, you will be taking the first steps to a successful rail yard operation.

Darell Luther is president of Forsyth, MT-based Tealinc Ltd., a rail transportation solutions and railcar leasing company. Darell’s career includes positions as president of DTE Rail and DTE Transportation Services Inc., Fieldston Transportation Services LLC, managing director of coal and unit trains for Southern Pacific Railroad and directors positions in marketing, fleet management and integrated network management at Burlington Northern Railroad. Darell has more than 24 years of rail, truck, barge and vessel transportation experience concentrated in bulk commodity and containerized shipments. He can be reached at (406) 347-5237, via e-mail at [email protected] or visit www.tealinc.com.