Passenger Train Operations -- A Neglected Opportunity

by Craig Bisgeier

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As model railroaders, when we discuss 'operations', most modelers are thinking about moving freight cars around the layout in a prototypical fashion. Few, if any, give a bit of thought to the passenger trains that interrupt the flow of freight traffic over the road, beyond their need to get their freight train off the main line before the 'varnish' arrives. Indeed, any passenger trains running on the layout are usually there as an afterthought, or a prototypical obstacle for freight trains to deal with.

And that's too bad. Because passenger trains are really interesting in their own right, and a knowledgeable modeler can greatly enhance the play value of his or her railroad by including correct operating procedures for them. these trains weren't static -- they changed in consist many times as they moved from city to city. Sleepers and coaches to different destinations were cut in and out at junctions with other railroads and branches, as were diners and cafe's to be restocked and sent back on the return trip.

And they carried more than just passengers. In fact, the 'varnish' often relied on many revenue sources beyond ticket sales to pay the bills. Passenger service was expensive, and has almost always been a money-losing proposition for the railroad industry. Modeling some of the many ways in which passenger trains were used to bolster their own bottom line -- including carrying time-sensitive freight -- offers a lot of fun and challenge for those interested in more complete, balanced operation of their model railroad.

Coach Yards

For those with ample room, the best, and largest, place to start is with a coach yard. Coach yards generally existed nearby to large stations or terminals, as a place for passenger equipment to lay over between trips. They tended to be fairly simple in design, with few of the special tracks or complexities of the freight classification yard. Usually, there would be several 'ready' tracks, which held cars while being serviced or for short layovers, and a few longer-term storage tracks where extra coaches or head-end cars are stored until needed. The coach yard was oriented so as to accept and feed passenger trains easily into the terminal or station.

Often you'd find trackage to turn certain types of cars for the return trip, like sleepers or observation cars, located nearby. These most often took the form of a wye or balloon loop track, but occasionally a turntable was used. (Sometimes the facilities used to turn locomotives were used, if it wasn't too disruptive to engine servicing.) Some roads did not place as much emphasis on turning equipment. The New York Central, for instance, never turned sleepers between New York City and Buffalo so the bedroom windows always faced the water.

If the nearby station was a division point on a busy passenger route, you would often find extensive services to support passenger operations. In the period before the early 1960's, a Pullman car service building would almost certainly be nearby or inside coach yard limits. Pullman would service their incoming sleepers and diners, cleaning the cars and outfitting them with fresh linens and supplies.

Diners and cafes would be spotted at commissary buildings, where their food lockers and water supplies would be restocked as well as their linens and tableware. And coaches, parlor cars and sleepers would have to be cleaned regularly as well.

Of course, these 'special handling' passenger cars would require special switching movements, first on arrival to the Pullman, commissary or other service track, and later back into the coach yard to await their next assignment. A layout consisting of nothing but switching cars in and out of passenger trains and to service tracks could easily keep a crew of two or three operators busy, if sufficient traffic was modeled.

Passenger Operations out on the Mainline

Besides the intensive cleaning, stocking and switching done at large stations or terminals, a lot of changes were made en-route to many trains. As an example, the New York Centrals' 20th Century Limited was a New York City to Chicago train. However, there was a Boston section that was included in the train from Chicago to Albany. At Albany, the Boston section was cut out of the train and assigned separate power. The primary 20th Century went south to NYC, and the Boston section continued east to Beantown. In the opposite direction, the Boston section met the Chicago-bound primary train at Albany and was cut in to complete the trip. Many trains included sections to destinations off the main route -- not just the big name trains. We can gain a lot of operating potential by emulating the practice.

Other setouts and pickups occurred regularly along the line. If a train arrived at a major stop during the night, often a dedicated sleeper assigned to that stop would be set out at the station house track, allowing passengers to continue sleeping. In the morning they would wake and depart the car. The sleeper would be serviced during the layover, and the same train would pick up the car on it's way back, hopefully filled with passengers bound for the origin point. These types of setouts and pickups were very common.

Diners and cafes were also set out and picked up at regularly scheduled stops. Rarely did a diner make an entire trip from origin to destination. It was a much more efficient use of assets to share these part-time cars between alternating trains. Sometimes they never saw a division point for months, shuttling back and forth along a stretch of track between two points. While restocking at major stations would have been accomplished at dedicated facilities, at remote points it might be as simple as a catering truck scheduled to meet the diner regularly, or an arrangement with a nearby local restaurant or grocer.

Modeling Passenger Operations

Big-time railroading modelers with junctions between two or more major mainlines should definitely include sections in their main passenger trains to be split off and run in diverging routes. The rest of us can certainly include the setout of an occasional sleeper or diner at the local station. These practices greatly enhance the believability and prototyopical appearance of our model pikes, and give the varnish a good reason to be there besides being a fast-moving obstacle..

Freight for Passenger Operations

Beyond the passenger cars themselves, the railroads operated lots of other equipment on its passenger trains. Generally called 'head-end' equipment, these 'freight' cars were at one time plentiful and highly profitable for the railroads. In the heyday of passenger service, these industries were a big part of the railroad landscape, and got serious attention.

United States Mail

From the first days of rail service in the US, the postal service made extensive use of the speed and capacity of the railroads to move mail and parcels around the country. It was a lucrative partnership for the railroads, and made it possible to serve thousands of lightly-traveled passenger route-miles, even profitably some of the time. In fact, the loss of the federal mail contracts in the 1960's to airplanes and trucks, and more importantly the loss of the revenue it provided, was a major factor in the downfall of modern passenger service. But for those who model the times before that, it's a diverse and rich source of traffic and operating fun.

Railroads carried all types of mail traffic, from time-sensitive first class mail all the way to parcel post packages and bulk mail. Sears, Roebuck & Co., as an example, shipped probably hundreds of baggage cars filled with their catalogs around the country every year. Not to mention the thousands of tons of freight generated through catalog sales that was shipped by Sears all over the country -- parcel post -- over the rails. In the passenger era, almost all long-distance mail got to its destination on a train.

First-Class Service

Smaller towns were often served by RPOs (Railway Post Office) on the fly, as the train went past at speed. bags filled with mail to be delivered locally would be tossed from the RPO near the local depot, where the station agent or a postal employee would collect it. Outbound mailbags were hoisted up onto a Mail Crane, which was a post with a swing arm near the tracks. The crane was used to hang the bag very close to the train and at mid-door height on the RPO. As the RPO sped past, a crewman on the RPO would extend a large hook mounted across the door, which would catch the mailbag securely as the train passed the crane. Mail was sorted in these RPO's nearly continuously during the trip, and bags were constantly being picked up and thrown out as the train passed each small town along the line.

Larger stations that merited a stop from the train were often served trackside from the station platform. Depending on how much sorting needed to be done enroute, mailbags and parcels were either loaded to the RPO (mail to be delivered up the line, but before the train's destination) or to a baggage car being used for mail storage (for letters bound beyond the train's destination). If the train did not merit a separate mail storage car, the long-distance mail would be stored in the back of the RPO. Local mail was similarly discharged to baggage carts or mail wagons / trucks that would back up to the RPO door. At times, larger cities along the line might have a dedicated mail storage car or RPO on the train that would be switched out to a station house track or team track, and as often as not another loaded car would be switched in. Often this would be done quickly while the road locomotive was swapped out or being serviced (water & coal) so as not to overtly interfere with the train's schedule.

Very large cities usually had large Main Post Offices located nearby or even inside the passenger terminal, and had their own sidings where mail / baggage and RPO cars were spotted. These post offices might also be located near the coach yards to facilitate faster car movements for the railroad. In addition to the substantial 'local' mail traffic these facilities generated for distribution, these main post offices moved huge quantities of mail between themselves regularly. They would fill and seal many baggage / mail cars each day, which moved over the railroads to their far-flung destinations. These cars traveled directly between destinations and were kept sealed until they arrived.

Lower Priority Mail and Parcel Post

Not all US Mail needed to travel at top speed. Bulk mail and parcel post packages often ended up on the slower passenger trains, or sometimes in dedicated mail trains that didn't carry passengers at all. These mail trains tended to operate during off-peak hours, usually through the early morning hours when traffic was otherwise light. They would make frequent stops along the line to deliver local mail and fragile or heavy packages which couldn't be tossed from a passing RPO. Often they would set out or pick up baggage cars of mail and packages along the route, partly filled or emptied. Often trains like these were combined with Milk Runs (see below), and carried a single 'deadhead' coach at the end. The deadhead coach carried off-duty railroad and postal employees back to their home towns after shifts that took them far away. Lights, if any, were kept low in the coach to allow these men to sleep.

Modeling Mail Services

If you model a major or secondary city, don't overlook a Main Post Office (even modeled off-line as a set of staging tracks) as a potential source of traffic for your passenger operations. A good sized post office in a good sized city should generate several carloads of mail and even a few RPO's in and out a day.

Including a house track at a larger station allows you to regularly switch a baggage car in and out of your passenger trains, perhaps even as often as twice in a session. Stations with or without house tracks will require several baggage carts around the platform, and a period mail truck standing by is a nice touch. Mailbags stacked up against a wall or on a baggage cart near the platform edge look nice too.

Depots served by RPO need a mail crane trackside to the main, located where a mailbag missed by the hook and knocked off, or tossed from a speeding train, won't clobber anyone standing around. Sometimes a small platform was erected next to the crane to facilitate loading. Again, a mail truck with a postman waiting for the next drop makes a nice scenic touch.

Express Freight

Before there was Federal Express and UPS, citizens of the United States relied on a company called Railway Express Agency (REA) and others to send packages across the country and across the world. Unfortunately, REA's destiny was closely tied to the railroad passenger system, and when passenger service died, REA died with it. But in its time, REA was as widespread and well known as UPS is today, with hi-speed boxcars and reefers zipping all around the country on the rails, and green delivery trucks driving the roads of our cities and towns.

Express companies, like their modern counterparts, made money by taking many parcels or freight too small to fill a whole railcar, filling a whole railcar with them and transporting them to their destinations at lower carload rates. This kind of traffic was called Less-Than-Carload, or LCL. (As common carriers, railroads were also required to handle traffic from all comers, and had to provide LCL service themselves. Unfortunately, most of the time they lost money on LCL, though.) Most towns and cities had a freight house located nearby the yard or local passenger station to temporarily store LCL freight until it could be shipped or picked up. Very often, REA shared the facility with the railroad (and the costs) to conduct their package delivery business from. LCL and express cars, usually arriving on passenger trains or fast freights, would be switched out and spotted at the freight house for loading / unloading.

Modeling Express Freight

At small stations, express traffic might be handled out of the baggage room by the station agent. Freight would be transferred trackside to and from waiting trains, or a waiting car spotted on a house track. Most towns and cities had appropriately sized freight houses, from simple sheds to multi-story warehouses. One side of the freight house usually sits trackside along a siding, the other faces a dirt, gravel or paved apron. Because the freight house sees lots of visitors, it must be located nearby to a public street and have adequate room for trucks and other vehicles to maneuver and park on the apron while collecting their goods. Of course, these space-eating areas can easily be pushed 'off the edge' of the layout, or the freight house can be modeled as a flat along the backdrop with only the railroad-side loading docks visible (and modeled).

Many types of cars, including baggage cars, boxcars and reefers are candidates to be carrying express or LCL loads. Many railroads had their own fleets of special LCL cars, like the New York Central (Pacemaker) or Southern Pacific (Overnight) cars. These cars generally wore special paint schemes and never left their home rails at all. They just shuttled back and forth (quickly) from one freight house to the next. (Express cars were usually specially equipped with passenger car brakes and steam lines, for obvious reasons). Modeling several setouts and pickups of these special cars during a session should provide a lot of interest and switching opportunities for your crews.


For many years, dairy farmers relied on the railroads to transport their milk to creameries, where the milk was processed and bottled. The farmers set out their milk cans all along the railroad right of way very early in the morning. Small platforms built to be floor-height to the milk reefers dotted the landscape throughout dairy country. Covered with a shed roof and closed on all sides except that facing the tracks, the milk cans waited here for the milk train to come. These slow trains would crawl along the line in the wee hours of the night as they did their work, eventually winding up at the local creamery or to meet up with a perishable time freight that would carry the fresh milk to a dairy farther away.

If you model the period before the 1950's, this is a great industry to include.. All that's needed to represent it are a few small covered platforms along the line, maybe a siding near a large farm (some larger dairies actually filled entire milk cars with glass-lined tanks daily), and perhaps a creamery near your local population center. As little as a singe hidden siding suggesting a close-by but offline dairy can provide a car or two for a milk run pickup, to be switched into another faster train at the next station. And of course the dairy will need a new empty car for the next day.

Even in later periods, remnants of this industry along the line make nice scenic elements. A old creamery being used for another industry, or abandoned, looks good. The local milk sheds probably lasted for many years in various states of repair along the line.

Note that the milk and mail trains were often combined on many routes, since both were slow trains that operated through the night. An old coach usually brought up the rear, used by railroad crews and postal employees deadheading back to their home cities.

I hope you find the above information useful in your efforts to model the total operations of your prototype or freelance railroad more completely. If you have any comments about this article, Please feel free to EMail me using the link below and share your thoughts. Good ideas or corrections will be included the next time this site is updated.

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