IntelliTrans Rail 101: Chapter 4

IntelliTrans Rail 101: Chapter 4


Rail Equipment

In this section we look at the freight railcar types in use today and identify some of the types of material each carries.  We also look at how to identify cars by their markings.

Railcar Classifications

There are eight primary different railcar classifications; each is used for different types of material loading.  We manage shipments in almost all the classifications shown below, and our team understands what each of them is designed to haul.

Box Cars

Box cars can be used to haul many different things, from food, to paper, to auto parts. They come in many different sizes, from 40 to 86 feet and were once the most common freight car.

Flat Cars

Flat cars can be used for many different things from hauling truck trailers, to army tanks, to logs and poles. There are many different types of flat cars. Bulkhead flats have a bulkhead at each end. Some flat cars are specially designed to carry very heavy loads and may have recessed or dropped-deck centers, or as many as 16 axles.

Refrigerated Cars

Refrigerated cars are used to haul foods that must be kept cold. Currently most ‘refers’ are equipped with diesel-powered cooling units, in the past, trains had to make ice stops to load cars with ice. Refrigerated cars are rare these days as most refrigerated cargo now moves by truck.

Gondola Cars

Gondola cars can also be used for a variety of things. In railroad Maintenance of Way service, they are used to transport discarded tie plates, cross ties, and even sections of pre-built track. In revenue service, they are used to haul scrap metal and large, thick sheets of steel.

Covered Hopper Cars

Covered Hopper cars are used to carry grain, sand, plastic pellets, and other things that cannot get wet. They have round hatches at the top for loading and large hopper doors underneath for unloading.  Most covered hopper cars are custom built and equipped to carry specific commodities.

Open Hopper Cars

Open Hoppers (open tops) are used to haul wood chips, coal, ballast, or other types of rock. In Maintenance of Way service, hoppers carry ballast. In revenue service, they usually haul coal. Hoppers can differ in the number of bays they have. Small ones have 2 bays; large hoppers have 4 to 6 bays. Modern hopper cars don’t have hopper doors for unloading; they are simply rotated upside-down to dump.

Tank Cars

Tank cars can come in many different sizes and carry many different things from corrosives to lighter than air gasses. Small tank cars have capacities of a few thousand gallons. Large tank cars can carry very heavy loads and can have 8 or more axles. Tank cars for lighter than air gasses, such as helium, can have a loaded weight less than their tare weight.  Tank cars are specialized equipment for the shipment of bulk liquids.  Cars are supplied with various linings, loading and unloading fittings, safety appliances, and other characteristics as dictated by regulations.

Well Cars

A well car, also known as a double-stack car or stack car (also well wagon), is a type of railroad car specially designed to carry intermodal containers (shipping containers) used in intermodal freight transport. The “well” is a depressed section which sits close to the rails between the wheel trucks of the car, allowing a container to be carried lower than on a traditional flatcar.

Other types of cars


AUTORACK is a large excess height car used to haul road vehicles by rail. They are very tall and very long. There are basically three types, double level, triple level, and Automax. The double level models are most common. The Automax car is an articulated double level autorack. Amtrak uses a version of an autorack on its Auto Train.


CENTERBEAM cars are usually used to ship sheets of wood or drywall on either side of a center beam.  Centerbeam cars are specialized flat cars.


COILED STEEL cars are specially outfitted to haul coiled steel. Most of the time they are moved with covers on to keep water off the steel and protect from unwinding of the steel coils.  Coiled steel cars fall into the gondola car category.

IntelliTrans Rail 101: Chapter 3

IntelliTrans Rail 101: Chapter 3


Terminal/Yard Basic Purpose of Yard

A rail yard is a complex series of railroad tracks for storing, sorting, or loading/unloading, railroad cars and/or locomotives. Railroad yards have many tracks in parallel for keeping rolling stock stored off the mainline, so that they do not obstruct the flow of traffic. Railroad cars are moved around by specially designed yard switchers, a type of locomotive. Cars in a railroad yard may be sorted by numerous categories, including railroad company, loaded or unloaded, destination, car type, or whether they need repairs. Many large yards may have a tower to control operations.

Yard Types

Classification Yard

Freight trains consist of individual railcars that must be built into trains sorted/arranged by each railcar’s destination. This is typically done in a Classification Yard.  A classification yard is a railroad yard used to organize railcars by destination. The cars are sent through a series of switches called a “ladder” on to classification tracks.  Larger yards tend to put the track on an artificially built hill called a hump to use the force of gravity to propel the cars through the ladder. The world’s largest classification yard is a hump yard. The Bailey Yard in North Platte, NE on the UP is the largest classification yard in the world.  Other large US classification yards include: the Argentine Yard in Kansas City on the BNSF, the Robert Young Yard in Elkhart, IN on the NS, the Clearing Yard in Chicago operated by the BRC, the Englewood Yard in Houston on the UP, and the Waycross Yard in Waycross, GA on the CSXT.

Flat Yard

A Flat Yard is a type of Classification Yard where the tracks lead into one main track with many switches at one or both ends of the yard where the cars are pushed to sort them into the right track. There are many medium-sized flat yards in the USA and also some which are quite large such as Settegast Yard in Houston on the UP, the Decatur Yard in Decatur, IL on the BNSF, and the East Joliet Yard in Joliet, IL on the CN.

Hump Yard

These are the largest and most effective classification yards with the largest switching capacity – often several thousand cars a day. The heart of these yards is the hump: a lead track on a hill (hump) over which the cars are pushed by the engine. Single cars, or some coupled cars in a block, are uncoupled just before or at the crest of the hump and roll by gravity into their destination tracks.  

Receiving Yard

Also called an arrival yard.  A Receiving Yard is part of a larger rail yard where locomotives are detached from freight cars, cars are inspected for mechanical problems, and cars are blocked before being sent into a classification yard.

Transload Yard

A Transload Yard is usually part of a larger rail yard where cars can be transloaded.  It has road access and a special gate so that trucks can get to the rail car to offload the railcar’s contents.  

Yard/Train Personnel


A Conductor is the actual operator of a train engine that drives/directs a train from one point to another.  Generally, there are two types of Conductors.  A Local Conductor is responsible for servicing local industry customers close to their assigned rail yard. A Road Conductor is responsible for the movement of trains from one yard to another yard, generally located in another city or state.

Yard Foreman

A conductor that has been assigned to jobs within a rail yard.  Typically operate inside of large rail yards.


A railroad employee in charge of conductors.  They manage local train operations and make decisions on local train movements.


A railroad employee who is in charge of a rail yard and yard operations.  They are responsible to ensure that rail yards remain fluid and that all jobs within, out of, and into the yard are completed on time every day.

Yard Tower

Like an Air Tower at an airport, a Yard Tower is a centralized height advantaged point in a rail yard where the yard master and their team members can overlook the yard.  Many Yard Towers are no longer in service as rail operations have changed with modern technology and methods to track railcar movements.


Switchmen work in the rail yard under the direction of a yardmaster. They build trains by switching cars out of storage tracks in the yard into a yard departure track. They also pick up and switch out inbound cars into the yard that are going to be moved locally or placed on a different outbound train.


Originally a brakeman was a member of a railroad train’s crew responsible for assisting with train braking. A brakeman’s duties also included ensuring that the couplings between cars were properly set, lining switches, and signaling to the train operators while performing switching operations.  The brakemen typically rode in the caboose, the last car in the train. Today trains operate without brakemen.  Brakemen are now responsible for making sure that cars are properly coupled/connected.


A railroad employee who controls the departures of trains according to weather conditions and in the interest of efficient service. Often located in centralized operations centers.

Track/Yard Names


The Main line is track that is used for through trains and is the principal artery of the system from which branch lines, yards, sidings and spurs are connected. It generally refers to a route between towns or rail yards. For capacity reasons, many Main Lines are double tracked, and some have 4+ multiple parallel tracks. Main line tracks are typically operated at higher speeds than branch lines, and are generally built and maintained to a higher standard than yards and branch lines.


Area/Tracks in the yard where cars are taken for repairs. Specifically one of the shop tracks will be designated as the RIP (repair in transit) Track where the repairs are actually done.


Many Classification yards also have a Scale Track. It is a track with a scale built into it so that rail cars can be weighed.


Some rail yards and most private customer rail yards have Cleaning tracks/facilities.  This is an area of the yard or certain tracks where the interior of railcars can be cleaned.


There are two common definitions of a Rail Spur. First, a branch line is a secondary railway line which branches off a Main Line. A very short branch line may be called a spur line. Little used branch lines are often spun off from larger railroads to become new common carrier short-line railroads of their own. Throughout the United States and Canada, branch lines serve to link smaller towns or cities located too distant from the main line to be served efficiently. Second, a Spur is also known as a smaller track within a rail yard usually holding 20 or fewer cars that can only be switched from one end of the track. It is usually used for temporary railcar storage.


A Rail Siding is track off the Main Line to marshal or hold cars on temporary basis. Sidings are usually not as well maintained as Main Line track. 


A track or tracks used for storage within the yard.

Intellitrans Rail 101: Chapter 2

Intellitrans Rail 101: Chapter 2


Rail Freight Equipment

Within the North American (United States, Canada and Mexico) rail system as of 2018, there were an estimated 1,670,000 freight cars in service. Of these, 19% were owned by the rail carriers, 53% were owned by lessors, 18% were owned by shippers, and 10% were owned by TTX (a jointly owned subsidiary of all the Class 1 RR’s). *Source GATX

Rail Industy Revenue and Capacity

Rail freight revenue in 2017 was nearly $74 billion for the US railroads, who had 13 million carloads originating on their lines, plus another 14 million intermodal units. A modern railcar has a gross capacity of 286,000 lbs. (or 125.5 tons) moving in trains consisting of 100 cars or more, yielding a total carrying capacity of 12,500 tons per train. For 2017, the average Class 1 RR length of haul was 1033 miles at an average of $.0402 revenue per ton mile.

In 2018, railroads moved a ton of freight an average of 473 miles per gallon of fuel. On average, trains are three to four times more fuel efficient than trucks.

Rail Carrier Network

Passenger Rail

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, known as Amtrak, is the intercity passenger rail operator in the U.S. With 21,000 route miles in 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces, Amtrak operates more than 300 trains each day to more than 500 destinations. Amtrak is also the operator of choice for state-supported corridor services in 15 states and for four commuter rail agencies. Although the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which established Amtrak, specifically states that “The Corporation will not be an agency or establishment of the United States Government,” the federal government (through the United States Department of Transportation) does own all issued and outstanding preferred stock in the company. Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971.

For more passenger train information go Amtrak’s Facts page here.

Intellitrans Rail 101: Chapter 1

Intellitrans Rail 101: Chapter 1


Rail Companies and Infrastructure

Currently, there are 540 freight railroads operating 140,000 miles of track in the United States.  Of these, seven are Class 1 railroads because of their 2019 annual operating revenue in excess of $447 million.  These are BNSF Railway (BNSF), Canadian National Railway (CN), Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), CSX Transportation (CSXT), Kansas City Southern Railway Company (KCS), Norfolk Southern Railway (NS), and Union Pacific Railroad (UP).  Class II, Class III and terminal and switching railroads make up the balance of the 540 freight railroads.  The seven Class I railroads operate 95,000 miles of trackage and employ over 194,000 personnel.  Class II, III and the terminal and switching carriers operate an additional 43,000 miles of track and employee another 27,000 personnel.

A Class I railroad in the United States and Mexico, or a Class I rail carrier in Canada, is a large freight railroad company, as classified based on operating revenue.  Smaller railroads are classified as Class II and Class III. The exact revenues required to be in each class have varied over time, and they are now continuously adjusted for inflation.

Rail Commodities and Business Mix

Coal remains the single largest commodity that moves by rail as measured by tons.  33% of rail carload traffic is coal, followed by chemicals at 12%, and grain at 8%.  However, in 2017, intermodal accounted for approximately 24 percent of revenue for major U.S. railroads, more than any other single commodity group and well ahead of coal.  Other commodities with substantial rail volume are forest products (including pulp and paper), motor vehicles, metals, metallic ores and scrap metals, crushed stone, sand and gravel, and petroleum products.

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