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Largest Train Yard in the World

July 11, 2013

Nebraska – Monday, July 1

(I haven’t been able to post anything for a few days since I camped for 4 nights in a row, and have been out of range of any services!)

Since I ended up in North Platte last night, Tula and I started our walking in some nice neighborhoods and covered a little over 2 1/2 miles. The residential area that I was in had long streets and tidy homes and pretty flower gardens. I don’t recognize everything I saw, but it was pretty and it smelled good.

And then I headed for the largest railroad yard in the world – the Union Pacific hub of train traffic in the U.S. Back in 2005 when Nebraska was my “state-of-the-year”, I knew this was a large railroad yard, and had read there was some observation tower, but all we could find at the time was a rickety wooden thing that was on UP property, and it didn’t seem like we should really be there. But, 3 years after we were there, they built the Golden Spike Tower – a tall tower literally in the shape of a railroad spike, and there are both indoor and outdoor viewing platforms up high, and volunteers who were willing to answer any and all questions. I spent a good bit of time there, then left for a little while to get a couple more miles of walking in, then I came back when some “action” had started. For someone who likes trains, this is the place to be! This railroad yard handles both east-bound and west-bound trains of course, and they stay on separate sides of the yard. There are 64 tracks in the east-bound “bowl”, and 50+ tracks in the west-bound “bowl”. The bowls are used for sorting train cars and assembling trains according to destinations. And there are other tracks for the trains just going through, that don’t need any services or crew changes or anything – for example, all the coal trains. There are actually 36 coal trains every day – and my count yesterday was correct. There are 138 cars per coal train, and all that coal is coming from Wyoming (who knew?) but I forgot to ask where it’s all going. Each train needs 2 engines to haul all that coal, and the engine in the back is kind of like a stabilizer so cars don’t go flying off the tracks, particularly when those 36 daily trains return empty. Speaking of coal trains, on one of my walks I went over a viaduct, and watched an empty coal train pass directly below me. The insides of the coal cars are remarkably clean and shiny, and there was still coal in the corners of some of the cars. Coal is unloaded either through hatches in the bottom of the cars, or with some trains, the individual cars can be totally flipped over one by one and emptied that way. There’s only 2 people running the coal trains – the engineer and a conductor.

Back to the other trains. Union Pacific people do not call train engines an engine, or a locomotive, or a diesel. They are referred to as “power units.” But I’m still going to call them engines. I have never in my life seen so many train engines in one place. There had to be over 100 of them. There’s a huge maintenance shop and they repair 750 engines monthly, and they have huge fuel tanks nearby because the engines go through 14 million gallons of diesel fuel a month. The maintenance shop also replaces 10,000 pairs of train wheels a year.

The yard handles 10,000 train cars every day – full of oil, wood, autos, grain, produce etc. etc. (Produce trains are called “salad shooters.”) There are trains bringing in goods from the direct source, and those cars all have to be sorted and lined up according to destination, and to do that, there is an east-bound “hump” and a west-bound “hump” and one of the worker engines will pull a string of cars up the hump, and then the cars are released manually, one by one, or sometimes 2 or 3 at a time, to roll down the hump onto a specified track, which is controlled by computers and switches (985 switches to be exact!) to be part of a train that is being assembled. The cars headed for the closest destination are put right behind the engine, and the cars at the tail end of the train are headed for the farthest-away destination. So if you see a long freight train, and wonder why all similar cars are not grouped together, it’s because different destinations have different orders. I was curious why the cars headed to the closest destination were the first cars of a train, and it’s because once they get to their destination, they can simply uncouple the train at the end of that town’s “order”, and the engine already in use can pull them to a siding and then go back up and re-hook to its train; otherwise if the cars were at the back of the train would be released, some other engine would have to come to pull them into a siding, so it’s more efficient to put the cars in the reverse order than what one would expect. Many of the working engines in the bowls and the rest of the yard are remote-controlled – they’re the real workhorses and never leave the yard. They have a flashing strobe light on top, so employees know it’s remote controlled and that no one is actually in it. There were lots of working engines – pulling cars up the hump to be sorted (classified is the official term) – and the cars’ downward descent, which is by gravity only, is controlled enough that 80% of them couple automatically to their assigned train, although a human checks every train car for brakes and air lines and all that before the train leaves the yard. The working engines were also pulling cars with a red tag – ones that had been inspected and needed some sort of maintenance.

And then there were the intermodal trains – the ones where the cars looked like they had 2 semi trailers stacked on top of each other. Those are actually shipping containers, and have nothing to do with trucks, and most of that freight is not even intended for the U.S. The freight arrived by ship from countries to our west, and is being shipped to countries to our east, but because the volume of freight is too much for the Panama Canal to handle, the companies simply unload their ships onto flat rail cars, where they ride across the country, and then they are reloaded onto ships out east for the final leg of their journey.

The viewing platforms gave us a good birdseye view of the yard, which is actually 8 miles long, with 315 miles of track, and it’s an incredibly busy place. There were quite a few visitors, and a lot of information, and they had a box for donations, so it was pretty obvious this had to be my donation=of-the-day. Lots of people are interested in trains, and this was a great place to learn a lot about them.

Between my morning walking, and time at the train yard, and afternoon walking, and more time at the train yard (lots of sorting was going on during this visit), it was actually early evening by the time I left North Platte. It was time to continue heading west, and I still had a little walking to do. I passed the small town of Hershey, and there was a big city park with a trail all around it, so we walked about a mile and a quarter there, and then moved on to the town of Ogllala, where we walked nearly 2 more miles, and finished up for the day. Ogllala was kind of a touristy old-west type town, with mock gunfights in front of a western restaurant – kind of a throwback to the ’60s. I was then heading back into the Sandhills, on another scenic route, and I passed a campground as it was getting dark, so we camped again. The little office was closed, so I just chose a spot and paid up in the morning. 282

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