Lynn and I usually stop at North Platte twice a year. It’s an overnight stop on our drive between Buckeye and Fargo each spring and fall. A couple of years ago, I learned that the world’s largest rail switching yard is located just outside of the city, and there is a viewing tower that lets you observe the yard from a higher vantage point.
The Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center is usually closed by the time we arrive in North Platte at the end of a long travel day, and with another long travel day ahead to Albuquerque, we leave North Platte well before the tower opens. On our southbound trip in November, however, we weren’t going all the way to Albuquerque, only to Littleton, Colorado to meet friends and stay there. That’s an easy afternoon’s drive from North Platte, giving us plenty of time in the morning to visit the rail yard.
The main objective of this yard is to disassemble and rebuild trains. As freight needs to be shipped across the country, it arrives at North Platte and much like an airline hub where passengers make connections to different parts of the country, so do the freight cars. The yard has two “humps”, an artificial hill where cars are pushed to the top one at a time. As each car rolls down the hill, track switching redirects the car to connect to the newly assigned train. The hump is built so that gravity “pulls” the car down the hill and arrives at the end of the train being built at just the right speed to connect. In the image above, three cars are descending on the hump to be connected to their respective train(s). The yard processes about 10,000 cars a day. The humps can sort about four cars per minute. One hump serves eastbound destinations, the other westbound.
Union Pacific Railroad is the owner and operator of the yard which is named after former Union Pacific president Edd H. Bailey. In addition to car “sorting”, locomotives and cars are serviced and repaired at the facility. To give you an idea of the size of the yard, it is over 8 miles (13 km) long and 2 miles (3.2 km) wide. Visitors to the yard can pay a modest fee ($7 USD adults, $5 USD students, military and senior discounts offered), to tour the small museum exhibits and proceed to the 7th and 8th floor observation decks on the tower. Deck 7 is outside and makes for the best photography, but bring your best telephoto lens. The 8th floor interpretive guide, a retired Union Pacific employee, was very helpful in explaining the operation at the yard. The glass windows presented a problem for good photography as the deck is well lit and reflections from the interior lighting are sure to distract from your best compositions.
A closeup of the locomotive maintenance facility is the subject of the image above. If you are near North Platte between September 15 and 17, 2017, consider visiting the yard during their second annual North Platte Rail Days. A collection of civic groups and community leaders come together to sponsor a celebration of the yard and of railroad impacts on the community. In 2016, the first annual Rail Days focused on the 150th anniversary of Union Pacific at North Platte. Union Pacific is a major employer in North Platte with over 2600 people directly employed at Bailey Yard. The gallery of images below feature shots captured from the observation decks of the Golden Spike Tower. Click on an image to enlarge it and to scroll through the gallery.