The Golden Spike Tower is the place where you can get a panoramic view of the rail yard.
To be honest, I was not sure what a "classification yard" was, but it sounded interesting and the tower looked cool.
The Visitors Center video explaining the "classification yard" concept left me still unclear. I did get that this is where trains are put together, which cars go where, with what engine. The brochure explains it as "..simply a switch yard where trains enter, are taken apart and sorted, then sent out to new destinations". That doesn't begin to describe what happens at this yard.
First off the statistics are boggling. The yard covers over 2,800 acres with a length of 8 miles and 315 miles of track. Eighteen million gallons of fuel, each month, goes into the trains stopping at the yard. Union Pacific employs 2,600 people in North Platte, working either in the yard and shops or operating over-the-road trains. There are 10,000 rail cars through the yard every day, with 3000 of those cars being sorted onto different trains and tracks.
It was impossible to get pictures to clearly illustrate what the yard is all about. Below you can almost make out a raised track, slightly left of center, to the left of the smoke. This is called the east bound "hump" There are two separate yards, an eastbound and a westbound.
The hump is actually a mound of 34 feet high for eastbound and 20 feet for westbound. When a train is 20 miles away, a computer reads a chip on the car that identifies where they are coming from and where they are going.
This information is correlated in the command center If a car needs sorting, the command center directs it to the correct "hump", where it is pushed to the top by a switch engine. Gravity then pulls the car down, its speed is electronically controlled so that it arrives at its destination moving at exactly 4 miles per hour so it does not damage the car it is coupling with.
As it is descending the hump, one of 985 switches then divert the car to the correct train on the right track. This amazing process is all initiated by computer at a control center in the heart of the yard.
Below is an illustration of the yard layout, with the westbound yard on the top and the eastbound yard on the bottom.
Most of the trains that come through have all the cars going to the same place and do not need to have any cars sorted, or changed to different engines. They are serviced and refueled quickly and go on their way. An average day sees 300 locomotives serviced.
This is the locomotive repair shop. Employees repair 750 locomotives each month. There are eleven tracks with elevated service bays and remote controlled overhead cranes. The building is as large as three football fields.
The long line in the background shows some of the eight miles included within the yard.
There was a docent at the top of the tower pointing out what was happening with all the trains that were moving around within our view. His explanations helped put all the pieces together, somewhat. I think I would need several more visits to really understand how it worked. Well worth a stop here if you are anywhere near North Platte, Nebraska. You should skip the gallbladder removal part.
Quite a marvel of modern technology, and something to add to my motto of learning something new every day.