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Trains for miles! Inside the world's largest rail yard (pictures)

Covering 2,850 acres and reaching a total length of eight miles, Union Pacific's Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb. handles 14,000 rail cars a day. CNET Road Trip 2013 checked out the train fan's dream.

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Daniel Terdiman
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1 of 27 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Coal trains

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. -- The Union Pacific's Bailey Yard is the world's largest rail yard. That means that every day, as many as 139 different trains roll through carrying about 14,000 rail cars.

Bailey Yard covers 2,850 acres and eight total miles, and has long been key to UP's massive rail network, given its location central to the company's major east-west and north-south corridors.

Although just about any cargo imaginable comes through Bailey Yard, coal is one of the most common, as hundreds of coal-laden cars make their way east from mines in Wyoming every day.

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East hump

A major component of Bailey Yard is the East Hump, where every day, more than 1,500 rail cars are sorted, taken off one train, and re-routed to another. Locomotives push the cars up a 34-feet-tall mound, where they are then separated and sent downhill, one at a time, onto one of dozens of "bowl" tracks -- each of which represents a specific eastern destination.

A corresponding West Hump is also used to used to sort cars heading west, but because most traffic heads east, the bulk goes through the East hump. In addition, the West hump mound is only 20 feet high.

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Aerial view

A look at the aerial view of Bailey Yard, from Google Maps. The yard covers 2,850 acres, and has 114 tracks designated for specific destinations.

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Cars for the West hump

Rail cars headed to the West hump to be separated are pushed uphill.

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Y823 pushing cars

Locomotive number Y823 slowly pushes rail cars uphill towards the West hump. Because many westbound cars are empty, or at least carrying lighter loads than their eastbound counterparts, less locomotives are needed to push the cars towards the West hump than for the East hump.

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Disconnecting at the East hump

A Bailey Yard worker manually pulls a handle to separate a car from a train at the top of the East hump.

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Car at retarder

After the cars are separated, they roll gently downhill using only gravity toward their designated bowl track. When they pass a so-called "retarder," their wheels are squeezed hard enough to slow them down so that they roll easily and safely onto the proper track for their eventual destination. A computer routes the cars onto the proper track.

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Retarder

A closer look at a retarder, which is used to slow the railcars down as they roll unimpeded downhill towards their designated bowl track where they will connect with their intended train at 4 miles an hour or less.

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East hump incline

A look down the East hump incline toward the 64 bowl tracks below.

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Cars going down the East hump incline

One by one, cars roll gently down the East hump incline.

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Working the East hump

A Bailey Yard technician monitors traffic passing through the East hump. He and other technicians use sophisticated remote controls to operate the locomotives that push the rail cars up to the humps.

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Remote control

The technicians use remote controls like this one to operate the locomotives as they pass through the humps. The remotes give them all the control they would have if they were aboard the locomotives.

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Coal trains and a multi-modal

Long coal trains sit idle on the tracks at Bailey Yard while a multi-modal train heads in the opposite direction.

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Diesel service

Often, when trains come into Bailey Yard, their rail cars are separated from the locomotives and are sent off to one of the humps to be re-directed to trains heading to their eventual destination. While that happens, the locomotives are brought to the diesel yard to be serviced.

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Rail cars as far as you can see

Though Bailey Yard is off limits to the general public, visitors can climb the Golden Spike observation tower, where they can get a panoramic view of the world's largest rail yard. From the top of the tower, they can see rail cars all the way to the horizon.

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Bailey Yard from a plane

Flying to Chicago to begin Road Trip 2013, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman flew directly over North Platte and got a view of Bailey Yard from more than 30,000 feet.

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Axles in the maintenance yard

Many rail cars that roll through Bailey Yard have damaged wheels that must be replaced and repaired. Here, near the maintenance area, dozens of train wheel axles are lined up in preparation for being used as replacements.

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Bad order tag

Rail cars that need maintenance are identified at a location a few miles outside North Platte and tagged so that workers at Bailey Yard know that they need attention.

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East service

Many locomotives heading east are sent through the East service track, where they are loaded up with, among other things, sand that they will use to gain traction when their steel wheels slip on the steel tracks. The sand is shot onto the tracks using nozzles mounted at the wheels.

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East service sand tower

This large tower along side the East service track is filled with sand, which is loaded into special tanks on the locomotives using cranes.

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East service locomotive

A locomotive getting serviced at the East service track.

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West service track

The West service track is much smaller than its eastbound counterpart given the lighter trains that go from east to west.

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Golden Spike tower

Many people visit North Platte every year just to climb the Golden Spike observation tower and get a panoramic view of Bailey Yard.

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Ultrasonic wheel repair facility

This special facility -- the only one of its kind in the world -- is designed to inspect railcar wheels for small defects that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye. Special ultrasonic sensors inspect each wheel to determine if there are problems that need maintenance.

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Axles on a car

Dozens of train wheel axles roll through Bailey Yard on top of a rail car.

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Shrink-wrapped locomotive

A locomotive, most likely for a passenger train, sits idle and shrink-wrapped in plastic at Bailey Yard.

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East hump locomotive

A pair of locomotives that have just pushed dozens of rail cars to the top of the East hump reach the top of the 34-foot-tall incline themselves.

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