by Dan Bourque
In order to effectively model coal operations on your layout, you first have to understand how a mine run works on the prototype. In this article, I’ve drawn up a make-believe yard and branch line that our mine run (known as a “shifter” on some railroads like the N&W and Clinchfield) has to work. Like tipples, no two mine runs are exactly alike, and each has its own set of operating challenges. Our mine run will take us through several of these challenges and how a crew might handle them.
Our mine run starts in the yard with 2 engines, 14 empty hoppers, 1 covered hopper loaded with ammonium nitrate bound for Loader B, and a caboose. The empties have been assigned to specific loaders by the yardmaster per the request of the railroad’s coal agent who has received his “orders” for empties from the mine operators based on the coal shipments they plan on making today (whew! that’s a mouthful). The empties are more than likely “pre-blocked” in the yard by either the switch crew or the mine run crew so that the empties for Loader A are together, the empties and covered hopper for Loader B are together, etc.
The first thing our mine run does is assemble its train. Upon receiving directions from the dispatcher, the mine run heads out of the yard, down the mainline, and onto the branch line. On the way it passes two loaded hoppers on a siding that could not be brought back to the yard yesterday for some reason.
The first stop is Loader A where the first three empties are set off. On our branch line (as with most), the rails go upgrade from the mainline, so empties are spotted “above” the loader where they can be coasted into loading position as needed. Our train is then reassembled, and we head further up the branch line.
Although many branches are straight lines, many split and fork to serve more mines. This is the case with our branch. There is a tiny yard at our wye, so rather than take extra cars up to the already-crammed Loader B, we’ll set off our empties for Loaders C and D and take only the five empties bound for Loader B. Also, because we may not have an available track to run-around on, we’ll place our covered hopper ahead of the engines. On other branches, the entire train may have to be placed ahead of the engines.
When we arrive at Loader B, we’ll cut off our caboose, take our empties, and shove them into the empty tracks. Next, we’ll take our engines, remove the empty covered hopper waiting in the house track, and set out our loaded covered hopper in its place. Leaving the empty covered hopper on the tail track, we pull all the available loads (6), grab the empty covered hopper, couple to our caboose (now ahead of the engines because we had no place to run-around it) and head back to the wye yard.
Back at the wye yard, we’ll set off all the loads from B (plus the empty covered hopper) and assemble all the remaining empties and the caboose (now at the end of the train because we were able to run-around it at the wye). Now we head up the second branch towards loaders C and D with our six remaining empties.
Back at Loader C, we’ll uncouple the engines from the train, back into the siding to pull our two loads, couple onto our two empties, and shove them back under the loader. After reassembling our train, we’re off to the wye yard again.
Back at the wye yard, we’ll place all of the loads back onto our train and head back to Loader A. If we have too many loads (i.e. we can’t fit in a required passing siding, we don’t have enough power to pull our loads up a hill, etc.), then we may have to leave a couple of loads at the wye yard for pick up by tomorrow’s mine run.
Finally, we’ll run our train to Loader A, cut off the engines, pull the loads from the tipple, couple back onto the train, and head back to the yard. Since our train is below its limit for tonnage and cars, we can go ahead and pick up those two loads on the siding that were left by yesterday’s crew as well.
Once we arrive back in the yard, our mine run’s job is complete. The switching crew will then take our loads, sort them by direction and block them by destination, and move them out on the next coal drag. In the mean time, different trains are delivering empties to the yard for use by the local loaders. All the while, the loaders are working to fill the empties we just provided them so that the whole cycle can begin again tomorrow.