Classification yard

From Academic Kids

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A classification yard or marshalling yard (including hump yards) is a railroad yard found at some freight train stations, used to separate railroad cars on to one of several tracks. First the cars are taken to a track, sometimes called a lead or a drill. From there the cars are sent through a series of switches called a ladder onto the classification tracks. Larger yards tend to put the lead on an artificially built hill called a hump to use the force of gravity to propel the cars through the ladder.

Freight trains which consist of isolated cars must be made into trains and divided according to their destinations. Thus the cars must be shunted several times along their route in contrast to a unit train, which carries, for example, automobiles from the plant to a port, or coal from a mine to the power plant. This shunting is done partly at the starting and final destinations and partly (for long-distance-hauling) in classification yards.


Types of classification yards

There are three types of classification yards: flat-shunted yards, hump yards and gravity yards.

Flat-shunted yards

Here, the tracks lead into a flat shunting neck 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 (Houston-) Settegast, Decatur, East Joliet etc.

In Europe several major classification yards in Italy have never had a hump, such as Verona Porta Nuova, Foggia or Villa San Giovanni (Fascio Bolano); other large European flat yards are for example Olten (Switzerland) or Valea lui Traian (Constanţa, Romania - this is an incompleted yard with 32 tracks which was planned to be a hump yard but has no hump). In Argentina all classification yards with the exception of Villa Maria are flat yards, though some of them have approx. 30 or more tracks.

Hump yards

These are the largest and most effective classification yards with the largest shunting capacity of several thousand cars a day. The heart of these yards is the hump: a track on a hill (hump) over which the cars are pushed by the engine after being uncoupled just before or at the top (hump crest) and then they roll, either as single cars or some coupled cars together, by gravity into their destination tracks in the classification bowl (the tracks where the cars are sorted).

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CNW towerman R. W. Mayberry operates the retarders at Proviso Yard in Chicago, Illinois, May 1943.

The speed of the cars rolling down from the hump into the classification bowl must be regulated because of the different natural speed of the wagons (full or empty, heavy or light freight, number of axles) and the different filling of the tracks (whether there are presently few or already many cars on it). As concerns speed regulation there are two types of hump yards: without or with mechanisation by retarders. In the old non-retarder yards braking was usually done in Europe by railroaders who lay skates onto the tracks or in the USA by riders on the cars. In the modern retarder yards this work is done by mechanized "rail brakes" called retarders. They are operated either pneumatically (e.g. in the USA, France, Belgium, Russia or China) or hydraulically (e.g. in Germany, Italy or the Netherlands).

Classification bowls in Europe consist of several balloon loops, usually with eight classification tracks following a retarder in each one, often 32 tracks altogether. In the USA there are often nine tracks in each balloon loop, compared with eight in Europe.

The world's largest classification yard is a hump yard: Bailey Yard in North Platte, USA. Other very large US hump yards are Elkhart Young Yard, (Chicago-) Clearing, (Kansas City-) Argentine, (Houston-) Englewood, Waycross Rice Yard etc. Specially in Europe (for exceptions - closures - see below), Russia and China, all important classification yards are hump yards. Europe's largest hump yard is that of Maschen near Hamburg, Germany; it is only slightly smaller than Bailey Yard. Most hump yards are single yards with one classification bowl but some, mostly very large, hump yards have two of them, one for each direction, thus are double yards, such as Maschen or Bailey yards.

However, due to the transfer of freight transport from rail to road and the containerization of railfreight transport for economical reasons, hump yards are generally in decline. In Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Japan and Australia, for example, all hump yards have already been closed.

Gravity yards

These are operated similarly to hump yards but in contrast to the latter, the whole yard is set up on a continuous falling gradient and there is less use of shunting engines. Typical locations of gravity yards are places where it was difficult to build a hump yard due to the topography. Most gravity yards were built in Germany and Great Britain, sometimes also in some other European countries. In the USA there were only very few old gravity yards; none seem to be in operation today. The largest active gravity yard is Nürnberg (Nuremberg) Rbf (Rbf: Rangierbahnhof, "classification yard"), Germany. Gravity yards also have a very large capacity but they need more staff than hump yards and thus they are the most uneconomical classification yards.


  • International Railway Journal (IRJ), New York. Special editions about hump yards in various countries: issues II/66, II/70, VI/75, II/80.
  • RHODES Dr. Michael: The Illustrated History of British Marshalling Yards. Sparkford: Haynes Oxford Publishing & Co, 1988. ISBN 0-86093-367-9. Out of print.
  • KRAFT Dr. Edwin: The Yard: railroading's hidden half. In: Trains (vol. 62) 2002. Part I: VI/02, pp. 46...67; part II: VII/02, pp. 36...47.
  • WEGNER Robert: Classification yards. Map of the Month. In: Trains IV/2003, pp. 42/43.
  • RHODES (Dr.) Michael: North American RAILYARDS. St. Paul (USA): Motorbooks International (MBI Publishing Company) 2003. ISBN 0-7603-1578-7.

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