What drives the operation of a railroad?

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What drives the operation of a railroad?
(Written and submitted by David A. Petersen. Forum Id: Dap)

The way a railroad is operated depends on the customers it serves. A private carrier railroad would be a logging road where its only purpose is to haul logs out of the forest. It carries one commodity for one customer (usually the owner) and as such is not regulated by any government agency and can be run anyway you want to as long as safety standards are observed.

On the other hand, if you want to run a railroad that provides transportation to multiple industries, your railroad will be classified as a common carrier.

Common Carrier - an individual or corporation undertaking to transport for compensation persons, goods or messages under license or authority provided by a regulatory body which may create, interpret, and enforce its regulations upon the common carrier (subject to judicial review) with independence and finality, as long as it acts within the bounds of the enabling legislation. A common carrier must further demonstrate to the regulator that it is "fit, willing, and able" to provide those services for which it is granted authority.

Common carriers are legally bound to carry all passengers or freight as long as there is enough space, the fee is paid, and no reasonable grounds to refuse to do so exist. A common carrier may establish reasonable regulations for the efficient operation and maintenance of its business. Common carriers typically transport persons or goods according to defined and published routes, time schedules, and rate tables upon the approval of regulators. These rates are based on the type of commodity the goods represent. Rates are in part, based on the commodities vulnerability to shipping damage. Pig iron ingots are almost impossible to damage in shipment whereas glassware is easily damaged of not properly packaged and handled. In the United States, rates have been set by the Interstate Commerce Commission since the passage of the Esch-Cummins Act of 1920. Prior to that, they were set by the railroads and at times, were quite unfair to various shippers.

The term common carrier is a common law term, which is seldom used in continental Europe because it has no exact equivalent in civil-law systems. In continental Europe, the functional equivalent of a common carrier is referred to as a public carrier (or simply as a carrier). (However, public carrier in continental Europe is defined differently than "public carrier" in British English, in which it is a synonym for contract carrier.) In some countries, the railroads are state owned and in others, they are privately owned and regulated by the government. Knowing the regulations and how they affect operations can be important.

Common carriers were very common in rural areas prior to motorized transport. Regular services by horse drawn vehicles would ply to local towns, taking goods to market or bringing back purchases for the village. If space permitted, passengers could also travel.

So, you ask, what does this have to do with creating a Trainz route. The answer is - it depends. If you are modeling an imaginary route where you are making up everything as you go, including the operations, then all this is meaningless. However, if you are modeling a prototype railroad and you want to develop prototype operations, then it can be important.

Let’s look at that definition of common carrier again and see how it affects operations.

- Common carriers typically transport persons or goods according to defined and published routes, time schedules . . .

First some basics. It would be impossible to handle each freight car independently. For efficient operations, most freight cars are gathered together at various points along the railroad. These are called Yards. In the yard, they are sorted according to direction of destination and possibly other criteria. Some may go east, some west, some south and some may go to another local industry. Some may be empty and are low priority. Some may be perishable commodities. They are sorted in the yard and when there are enough of one type or “class”, those cars are then assigned motive power and a road crew. When that happens that string of cars then becomes a train. The train will then be directed over the railroad by the Dispatcher. If there are no signals, it is said to be a “dark territory” where all train movements are controlled by time table and train orders issued by the Dispatcher. (I will discuss this in a later column)

As this train traverses the railroad on its assigned route, it may drop off and pick up cars at various industries and yards. Or, the train may run non-stop from one yard to the next, or from one major terminal to the next. With trains running like this on a regular basis, the freight will make its way to its destination in an orderly manner.

This general structure of operations is modified in various ways to meet the specific needs of each railroad. If 90% of a railroad’s freight is coal, their operations would be different from a railroad that serves a variety of industries where no one commodity makes up more than 10% of their traffic.

For operational purposes, most railroads are divided up into Divisions where each Division represents a specific portion of the trackage of the railroad. A division may represent a geological separation of terrain. A mountain division would be operated differently than an area where there are no major grades and no need of heavy motive power or pusher engines.

Management of railroads were organized either by department, the New York Central for example, or by Division like the Pennsylvania RR. Either way, each Division would have it own various managers in charge of the various aspects of running a railroad. Let’s look at divisional management. Here the Superintendent is the top dog. All department managers within his division would report to him.

The various departments are:

Transportation Department
- operations of stations, yards and movements of trains

Maintenance of Way - maintains track, bridges, signals
Equipment Maintenance - repair and maintains rolling stock and motive power
Plant maintenance - maintain and repair buildings and other infrastructure

The transportation department was always the biggest as it supported the primary function of the railroad. It may be organized under the Superintendent as follows:

Chief Dispatcher
- Assistant Dispatchers
- Clerks, crew caller

Train Crews
- Conductor
- Engineer
- Brakeman

Yard Master
- Car Inspectors
- Car Clerks, office clerks
- Yard Crews

The point of all this is that, as a common carrier, a railroad must have a set way of processing the transportation needs of its customers that is cost effective for the railroad. That is why railroads are operated the way they are - keeping a steady flow of traffic moving on a regular basis.

About a year ago, the question was asked on one of the forums, “What role am I playing when I am running a train?” This is a good question because there is no one role - there are many. The easy one to identify is the engineer, the person who controls the movement of the locomotive.

You become the conductor when, by examining your way bills, you determine that you have to spot a car at an industry, which car and where it is to be set. Then you become the brakeman, setting the track switch to get the car where it needs to go and pulling the pin to uncouple the cars.

If your AI trains are hung-up (as they do from time to time), you become the dispatcher, solving the problem and issuing new commands to the AI train crews.

I hope this has shed some light on why railroads operate the way they do. In future columns we will take a look at yards, signal systems, waybills and other prototype practices and discuss how they can be implemented in Trainz.


  1. steamboateng's Avatar
    Informative read. Looking forward to the next.