Railroad yards are dynamic and sometimes mysterious places. Yards are more than places to store cars. In fact, a railroad's goal is to get cars in and out of the yard as quickly as possible. Yards are used to take apart and make up trains for common destinations - like a post office on a larger scale. It is no wonder then that rail yards are an important part of any model railroad focused on prototypical operations.
Once you understand how yards work, you can plan and build a yard of your own. But building a yard is only one part of making it work to its fullest. Like the prototype, we want to maximize the utilization of what we have - which often never feels big enough. And yard work should be enjoyable for operators and not feel like, well, yard work.
Sorting the Cars
Real railroads use paper forms called waybills to route cars to their destinations. In yards, railroads employ an army of clerks, computers and technicians to make sure every car gets to the right track and train as quickly as possible. Most of us have a little less than that. But we can still recreate realistic operating patterns with our own waybills and other paperwork derived from the prototype.
The easiest way to switch cars in a yard is to provide a hook or bin for each track and place the waybill for each car in the proper box as the car is switched onto that track. It is simple enough, but there is another tool we can use to make our yards even more efficient and our switching even faster. Best of all, this tool is just as cheap and simple as the waybills themselves - the pushpin.
A pack of multi-colored push pins makes a handy and easy reference tool for marking yard tracks and destinations. If you have more tracks than pins, paint the top of the pin different colors for more options. You could also consider a small dry-erase board for really large yards. Either way, these simple tools will allow you to improve your track utilization and speed your switching.