Tuesday, November 29, 2022


A recent discussion with a fellow layout owner focused on yard design and operation.  I realized that discussion documented where I started with my Eugene Yard design and what it developed into.  This description begins with a look at the prototype and then works through several key elements I wrestled with during the design phase.  My yard design was enough to get me started on construction.  Once a crew of model railroad operators began working with that physical plant, the operations developed.  A significant track modification took place during the Covid-19 lock-down, albeit one suggested to me at the first full operating session.  


Prototype Eugene


Upon completion of the Natron Cutoff in 1926, Eugene developed into the major terminal and classification point on SP lines in Oregon.  This was reinforced in 1958 by construction of a hump yard at Eugene.  The historic Eugene Yard dated to Oregon & California days and the construction of the Coos Bay Branch.  The yard was perpendicular to the north-south mainline and along the line to Coos Bay.  It survived into more modern times as the Blair Street Yard which served as the local industry support yard.  That function and its location separate from the main yard location serves as the prototype inspiration for locating my classification yard alongside the Eugene Depot tracks, separate from the large staging yard formed by the reverse loop tracks in the “back room” of my basement.  


The Eugene Depot area had the WP Siding immediately in front of the depot and the mainline next over—a common SP practice.  Further removed from the depot were three tracks (I used only two) serving as the “City Yard” in support of industry in the immediate area of the depot.  A side note here—the “WP Siding” was named for the construction company that built the Coos Bay Branch: the Willamette Pacific.


Layout Design


I struggled with my base yard design.  While inspired by Eugene, there was no way I could fit in or operate the prototype facility that ran 6.5 miles north from the RR-West switch just before the depot out to Irving at the end of the hump yard and the main arrival-departure tracks.  Further, the prototype facility grew to something like sixty tracks wide across the hump yard and arrival-departure tracks—way beyond arm reach in HO scale!


A key design principle from the beginning was that the overall railroad needed to be operable by a crew of only six while still providing “satisfying” operations.  I observed through the years that even the most popular model railroad operations could go through periods where the available crew was less than the desired number for “full” operations.  This helped me keep my base yard design in check.  It was all too easy to keep adding tracks.  With that design objective of a six-man crew, only one would be assigned to the yard.  Even with that, I ended up devoting about a third of my RR space to the Eugene complex.


I went through an evolution wherein the primary yard was located in my “back room.”  That was not quite a stub-ended terminal—but close.  It had only a locomotive-set (think four-unit F7) tail at the far end of the yard.  The critical design breakthrough came during an email discussion with a good friend in California wherein I recognized I needed to be able to turn full train consists—notably the passenger trains--DURING an operating session.  I previously had figured out a connection through the spine backdrop near my current Willamette River bridges (think Siskiyou Line splitting off the main at Springfield Junction) that could reverse whole trains outside of operating sessions.  In a flash of recognition, I realized the base yard needed to employ a reverse loop, just as the top end already had in my planning.  That led very quickly to the current arrangement.


I recognized an arrival-departure yard could look a lot like a staging yard, hence the “back room” reverse loop staging became designated as the Arrival-Departure Yard.  Over time and use it truly has become that for the mainline.


Eugene Arrival Departure Yard.  The A-D Yard has twelve reverse-loop tracks.  These surround the engine facilities, with the turntable and future roundhouse site to the left of the operating pit and the diesel servicing tracks to the right of the pit.


Meanwhile, I still needed to facilitate classification work to serve the local freights serving the modeled industry.  That led to my placing an eight-track double-ended yard in front of the depot.  This yard is slightly shorter than the design standard for mainline trains (20 ft clear between siding switches), but the function supporting local freights “should” result in shorter trains.  Both ends of this yard have switch leads, although the RR-West lead is not quite as long as the classification yard body tracks.  This has not been a problem, especially with two switch crews working opposite ends of the yard.

Eugene Depot complex.  The Amtrak passenger train is on the mainline in front of the depot.  Between the depot and the mainline is the WP Siding.  The two-track City Yard is in front of (from an operator perspective) the mainline.  The eight-track Classification Yard is in front of the depot tracks.


Yard Operations on the HO scale SP Cascade Line


A normal full yard crew for my railroad currently consists of five positions:  a Yardmaster who directs action at the Classification Yard and oversees the Eugene City Switcher (when called), a West (classification) Yard Switcher, an East (classification) Yard Switcher, the “Santa Clara Tower Operator” (this is actually more like the A-D Yardmaster), and an Arrival-Departure Yard Switcher.  The Eugene City Switcher is a sixth position, run only when the Eugene traffic has built up enough to call it (usually every other or every third session) and with a large enough crew-count.  When I backdate operations into the steam era, a Hostler will be added to the A-D Yard crew.  Yes, the yard crew just keeps growing.


Yard functions break down to the Classification Yard handling cars in- or outbound to modeled industry (Eugene, Springfield, Oakridge/Westfir) while the Arrival-Departure Yard deals with the over-the-road traffic.  Yard transfers move traffic between the two yards.  The classification yard is expected to make up blocks of cars headed to the designated blocks/trains/directions.  In my current 1984 era, these are Los Angeles, Roseville, Ogden, Oakland, and Portland (plus other Oregon locations).  Note that from the 1960s on, with a major hump yard at Eugene, the SP originated full trains from Eugene to each of those destinations.  I will need to rework this operating plan when I back-date into the 1950s, as an SP blocking instruction booklet is available on-line showing the earlier operating plan.


The Arrival-Departure Yard begins each session with a mix of trains already built (perhaps awaiting loco and caboose assignment) and other trains yet to be built to the standard tonnage (car count/length) requirement.  A number of the tracks in the A-D Yard have semi-permanent destination designations.  Cars for those trains get added to the “rear” (arrival end of the loop) of those destination tracks until meeting the tonnage requirement, whereupon a caboose is added and the process for yet another train starts over behind that caboose.  


The Classification Yard builds and breaks down the local freights.  The Yardmaster has tag labels that fit between the rails to help him designate and communicate that designation to the switch crews.  The class yard has eight tracks.  Often the YM will assign multiple destinations to those tracks until the car count builds to a point needing separate designation.  Although I intended the City Yard tracks to serve only the Eugene industries, my crews and I quickly found those tracks very handy serving as the A-D tracks for locals.  Since the Eugene City switcher is one of those locals, it still works out.


Action at Eugene.  A RR-West freight is on the WP Siding directly in front of the depot.  Coming into Eugene on the mainline in front of the depot is a RR-East train.  This “left-hand running” arrangement fits with the track arrangements into and out of the A-D Yard.  The City Yard tracks are unoccupied.  The Classification Yard crew is hard at work with Yardmaster Rick A. in the foreground checking car cards in the slot boxes for each yard track.


Low Crew Count Operations 


I now have considerable experience operating with a low crew count thanks to the pandemic and affiliated lockdowns and subsequent tentativeness on crew response to the crew calls.  I never imagined that such would be the cause of needing to deal with lower than desired crew counts.  A key for this is to maintain a balance of traffic.  Think of it as an economic downturn or other low business cycle.  Fewer trains are run.  Yard operations expectations are reduced.  More of that work is pre-staged.  I have already indicated that the Eugene City Switcher is called conditionally—when a big enough crew is present to staff that position. 


I have yet to formally plan for the reduced road crews, handling it ad hoc.  My standard full crew provides for five road crews and two helpers.  I intend creating an alternate plan for three road crews and one helper.  An additional option on the helper return to Oakridge is to leave them on the Beattie Spur at the Summit for pickup by the next RR-East freight to be placed on the point and have that crewmember/engineer operate two throttles (easier than adding more locos to the consist).  We have experience with this during the last two and a half years.


With low crew, annul trains and combine functions of the remaining trains.  


Blocking Instructions


Note that Eugene was an originating terminal in my current 1984 time-frame.  As such, only a few trains run through to or from Portland (RR-East of Eugene).  Those are all First Class or equivalent and are not modified at Eugene.  They get assigned to the outer loop tracks in the A-D Yard.  Earlier era operations will take some thinking and development as to how to add or delete blocks, but what I see in the SP blocking instructions points me toward blocks added or removed from the rear of their trains.  This is very similar to my current practice of RR-Eastbound arrivals at Eugene having the Eugene empties at the rear and any Eugene (and up to Oakridge) propers (cars headed to customers served by that yard) as the next block ahead.  


A BRLAT (Brooklyn <SP Portland Yard> to Los Angeles Trailer) train leaves Eugene A-D Yard Track 1.  The outer (lowest numbered) yard tracks represent tracks to and from Portland.  Other trains with locomotives already assigned can be seen on a couple of the higher-numbered tracks to the left.  These are trains that originate in Eugene and are set to depart.


Very Low Crew Count Operations 


With very low crew count (below ten) I end up with just the Eugene Yardmaster and maybe the Santa Clara Tower Operator.  Both then take on the role of footboard Yardmasters and handle a throttle.  The Eugene Classification YM usually takes one switch engine and uses it exclusively, working back and forth between ends of the yard as necessary.  Habitual track use has the front track (Class-1) as the run-through track or otherwise as the slough track.  An alternative is to run through using a City Yard track.  All such Yardmasters have had no problem working this out. There is no need for a helicopter or other crew van to work opposite ends of the yard.




I had a fair bit of model railroad yard operating experience when I began the design of my layout.  Even with that experience, I struggled with the design for my base yard complex.  Identifying the functions helped the process.  Establishing a requirement for “satisfying” operations even with low crew counts helped keep the size of my yard in check.  The issue was one of balance between the yard operations and the rest of the layout—both over-the-road traffic and local industry switching.  That balancing act established the physical arrangements for my Eugene complex.  


With the physical plant established, the operating plan developed as I brought in experienced model railroad operators. While I provided an outline of my expectations for their work, I let them decide how they would accomplish it.  Along the way, suggestions were made to improve the physical plant—notably the addition of a second main track between the depot and the Arrival-Departure Yard (departure end).  Other suggestions and comments led to the development of the current operating scheme.  That scheme balances the physical plant with the work being done.  This remains a work in process as fresh ideas emerge, are tried, and, if successful, incorporated.