What is a Rail Yard?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Most freight rail yards have been reconfigured to handle intermodal containers.
Most freight rail yards have been reconfigured to handle intermodal containers.

A rail yard is an area which is used to organize and store rolling stock such as locomotives and train cars. Rail yards are commonly found at the end of a line, and they are also positioned in strategic locations along a railway line, such as transfer points. Activity in a rail yard can often be frenzied, especially during periods of peak use and in rail yards where several different lines and train services meet up.

Locomotives may be serviced at a rail yard, while older road units and switchers may move cars around within the yard itself.
Locomotives may be serviced at a rail yard, while older road units and switchers may move cars around within the yard itself.

Most rail yards have an up yard and a down yard, with each yard corresponding to a particular track direction. When trains are brought into the yard, they can be unloaded, transferred to other tracks, or shunted into storage for temporary or long-term purposes. Many rail yards also have facilities for basic repairs, along with a roundhouse for locomotive storage and maintenance.

Spurs that lead to locations where natural gas is utilized may end in small rail yards that are used to store or empty the contents of tank cars that carry liquefied natural gas.
Spurs that lead to locations where natural gas is utilized may end in small rail yards that are used to store or empty the contents of tank cars that carry liquefied natural gas.

Rail yards have a complex network of yard switches which are used to connect and disconnect various pieces of track so that trains can be moved around, along with maintenance equipment which can be used to tow or push trains and individual cars into place. Fuel depots for the locomotives are common, and some rail yards are attached to warehouse facilities for various products so that trains can be loaded in the rail yard.

Some rail yards focus on freight only, handing tankers, box cars, flat cars, and other types of rolling stock used in freight shipment. Others handle passenger cars or light rail vehicles, and sometimes a mixture of both is present, since some railway companies use the same tracks for shipping and passengers. When cars arrive in a rail yard, they are often inspected for safety, as well as being cleaned and secured so that they will be ready for use on the next stage of the journey.

Working in a rail yard can be very dangerous. Trains are constantly on the move, sometimes without warning, and the network of tracks in the yard can be difficult to navigate. Chemicals like solvents and fuels are also very abundant, and sometimes toxic substances are shipped in tanker cars, posing a potential threat of contamination if the tankers are breached. Rail yard workers must also be physically strong, as they are often required to engage in heavy labor.

Entry to a rail yard is usually restricted for security reasons. People who are interested in seeing the workings of a yard can sometimes arrange to visit as guests of train officials and yard workers, and some rail yards have open fencing so that people can watch the trains come and go.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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    • Most freight rail yards have been reconfigured to handle intermodal containers.
      Most freight rail yards have been reconfigured to handle intermodal containers.
    • Locomotives may be serviced at a rail yard, while older road units and switchers may move cars around within the yard itself.
      Locomotives may be serviced at a rail yard, while older road units and switchers may move cars around within the yard itself.
    • Spurs that lead to locations where natural gas is utilized may end in small rail yards that are used to store or empty the contents of tank cars that carry liquefied natural gas.
      Spurs that lead to locations where natural gas is utilized may end in small rail yards that are used to store or empty the contents of tank cars that carry liquefied natural gas.