NORTH PLATTE, Neb. -- If you want to know how the American economy is doing before everyone else does, a visit to this small town in western Nebraska might well give you some very valuable hints.
Why would such an otherwise nondescript town be a place to see how the country is doing? The answer lies in Union Pacific's 2,850-acre, eight-mile-wide Bailey Yard, the world's largest rail yard, where around 139 separate trains carrying 14,000 rail cars roll through every day. In a strong economy, the number of trains coming through rises. As the economy flattens out, so does the rail traffic. In all likelihood, the subtle ebbs and flows of traffic here happen well in advance of corresponding changes in formal economic indicators.
Bailey Yard is a key component in Union Pacific's national rail network due to North Platte's location central to the company's major north-south and east-west routes. Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Bailey Yard sees huge quantities of everything from coal, grain, sugar, corn, chemicals, consumer goods, steel, and much more roll through every day. In short, it is a train lover's dream.
As part of Road Trip 2013, I drove west to North Platte for a first-hand look at train nirvana. From inside the yard, trains stretch off into the distance as far as the eye can see. In both directions. Coal cars by the hundreds sit idle on tracks, waiting for maintenance, service, locomotives, or simply the green-light to move forward, while hundreds of cars at a time get separated onto different tracks where they are united with other cars headed where they're going.
Union Pacific has had rail operations in North Platte since 1867, and over the decades since, those operations have gotten bigger and bigger. Bailey Yard was named after former UP President Edd Bailey and was officially designated the world's largest rail yard by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1995.
Monday and Tuesday busiest
Although Bailey Yard never closes, it is busiest on Mondays and Tuesdays. That's because the largest number of East Coast-bound and West Coast-bound trains start their cross-country journeys on Fridays. In general, trains will stop through Bailey Yard for about an hour to be refueled, to pick up sand that is used to gain traction on slippery steel tracks, and to get quick maintenance service.
One of the most important operations at Bailey Yard is separating rail cars coming from a wide variety of destinations into others heading for a large number of other destinations. If, for example, a train pulls into North Platte from Salt Lake City, each of its cars may have a different destination, with cities like Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, and others on the manifest. That's where the East hump comes into play.
On one side of Bailey Yard, a 34-foot-mound rises to a small plateau. There, locomotives push trains full of rail cars to the top, where workers manually separate the cars and send them slowly, and individually, downhill onto one of 64 different "bowl" tracks. Each track has a designated destination, and the cars roll gently, at 4 miles an hour or less onto those tracks where they connect with other cars heading to the same cities.
There's a similar hump for west-bound traffic, but because the bulk of the cargo Union Pacific hauls is heading east, the West hump is a smaller operation. Its mound, for example, is just 20 feet high.
Some trains, of course, don't need to be sorted. Known as "unit cars," these are trains carrying a single kind of cargo going to a single destination. Instead of being routed through the hump, they are put through Bailey Yard's giant service track, where they are re-fueled, filled with sand, and sent on their way.
Regardless of whether they're going to be separated, the average train that rolls through Bailey Yard is about 100 cars long. And what kind of special cargo comes through the yard? It can be anything from 125-foot-long telephone polls to dirt from nuclear site cleanups to Christmas trees for the White House, and almost any kind of military equipment. If it travels by rail, the people who work at Bailey Yard have seen it. Even the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes through six times a year.
By the numbers
Bailey Yard is so large that it has 315 total miles of track and 766 turnouts. Each month, it services 8,500 and repairs 1,200 locomotives, and uses 18 million gallons of diesel fuel. It has 18 tracks for nothing but coal trains that have to sit idle for a while.
In the end, Bailey Yard is hard to fathom. The sheer volume of trains inside the yard at any one time is almost impossible to imagine, yet every day, Union Pacific manages the facility, and its hundreds of trains, with little trouble. These days, lumber traffic heading east from the Pacific Northwest is picking up. That's a good sign that housing construction is picking up. The economy, then, is likely improving. The train tracks in North Platte said so.