I like shifting railcars. Whether we are talking the real thing or simply models on a layout, I get a rush out of drilling cars into their proper order and spotting-up industries. Given a choice, I will take a switch-heavy job over a road job any day.

Of course, some industries are more interesting to shift than others. In my opinion, switching interest = tracks available for shifting + number of specific car spots + variety. Let’s explore each parameter.

Tracks Available for Shifting: Simply, the trackplan at the industry. Form-follows-function is the key phrase here. Track and switches cost money to install and maintain, so railroads and customers do not overindulge. All you need is a place to spot cars; a place to store extra cars waiting to be spotted; and an area in which to drill cars into order. Sounds like a lot of space required, but consider this example of a corrugated box plant:

Here we have everything needed using just three tracks and two switches! The passing siding (the track at left with boxcars) is used to store cars off-spot until needed. Crews dig cars out of the siding and drill them into spot-order using the main. Finally, loads/empties are swapped out on the customer’s spur.  (Cars are spotted at the warehouse dock at the upper right of the photo) Simple huh?

Number of Specific Car Spots: Multiple car spots add switching interest as you are now digging more cars out of the storage track (or your train). Locating a single boxcar amongst a string of cars on a siding is straightforward; digging three specific boxcars out of that same siding makes things interesting; finding three specific CSX boxcars amongst eight CSX cars on that siding makes things very interesting!

Multiple spots also allows (1) the respotting of certain cars that have not been fully unloaded the previous shift and (2) introducing different commodities (hence freight car types) to the scene. Let’s take another look at our box plant:

The plant typically unloads four boxcars of pulpboard per day. Often, one or more boxcars are only partially unloaded and need to stay. The plant also receives a hopper car of starch every few days. Due to the location of the unloading hoses, starch cars must be the next-to-last car on the spur. Finally, the plant reloads previously emptied boxcars with scrap cardboard. These reloads get spotted on the spur in front of the dock. The plant will specify which empty car(s) at the dock are to be respotted for scrap loading.

So, our single spur track now provides spots for loaded boxcars of paper; loaded covered hoppers of starch; and MTY boxcars to be reloaded with scrap cardboard.

Variety: We have already discussed variety in the form of multiple carspots and commodities. However, variety can also mean the number of cars to be spotted on a particular day; the number of respots; and the amount of cars on the storage track etc. All add up to give the industry a distinctive “ebb and flow.”

So that’s how a simple yet functional track plan, which serves a multiple car/commodity industry that calls for a variety of switching scenarios makes for a very interesting place to shift!

Next up: Translating my modeling philosophy into a layout design…stay tuned!


  1. WOW! Never looked at it liked that before.

  2. As a former railroader and current model railroader I'm very impressed with your modeling philosophy. Far too many model railroaders don't look at how realistic operation can make a small layout big. I'm a firm believer that less is more. Keep up the good work!

  3. Great work Jack! I also enjoy your modeling philosophy and hope we see many updates on your progress.
    You should write a book on realistic operation!
    Let us hear from you!

  4. Great stuff! A couple of questions. Do the reloads of scrap happen outside the building. On your layout, how are you going to dictate what cars are to be reloaded with scrap.

  5. Hi MR,

    Sorry it took me awhile to get back to you. Yes, the scrap paper is loaded at the outside dock. At the mill we shift, the paper company notifies the rr as to which cars they want spotted for reloading...most of the time they prefer pool cars for reloading e.g. RBOX, FBOX etc. and "home road" boxcars from our rr.

    On my layout, I'll just choose which cars are to be reloaded as I fill out the day's switchlist.


  6. Thanks for your reply JH,

    I will model the box plant on my layout also because of your great information. Just a few more question so i can really understand a couple of things;

    Are you using modeler's license in locating the scrap paper dock on the same track as the warehouse? I've been using Bing to get a look at the plant and see the dock on another track. How many scrap cars are sent out per week?

    How many starch cars are unloaded per week and do they get spotted as soon as they show up at the plant?

  7. Actually, that's how they do it at Temple-Inland. Inbound linerboard is unloaded inside the warehouse and scrap paper is loaded outside. The scrap is leftover material from when they cut boxes to size. This process takes place in another part of the plant and it is easier to deliver the scrap paper outside to the boxcars rather than running fork trucks back through the plant and into the warehouse. Also, keeping the scrap loading outside keeps carspots open in the warehouse for unloading.

    On the other hand, there is a printing company whom we serve that receives inbound loads of newsprint. This company reloads boxcars inside the warehouse with outbound recycled newspaper.

    So you could handle the process both ways:-)

    At Inland Container, there is a second track with a dock (creatively named the "lower dock"). Often this track is used to store home road cars, but at times Inland requests boxcars be spotted there for unloading.

    Usually they unload one starch car per week. The unloading process takes about a day and a half. So we'll spot the car one day, respot it the second day, and pull it on day three. Being a private-owner car; per-diem isn't an issue like it is for railroad-owned cars. If the plant's supply of starch is low, these hoppers get spotted right away. Other times they'll wait on the storage track until called for. Sometimes two or (rarely) three loaded hoppers will accumulate. They'll get spotted when needed and in date order (oldest one first).

    Hope that helps. Feel free to ask any other questions you might have.


  8. How many scrap cars per day are shipped?

  9. Usually 1 or 2 cars of scrap paper per day. Sometimes none :-)