[railway icon] Freight Forwarding Operations

Operating a train layout in a realistic fashion can add hours of enjoyment to the highly creative recreational activity of railway modeling. This page is an introductory study of freight forwarding operations and methods of applying prototypical methods to model railways. Freight forwarding adds purpose to why the trains are rolling through the scenery.


You can give purpose to your model railway by building industries that depend on shipments from one to another, by establishing interchanges with other railways and by creating towns that require passenger service. Freight car forwarding simulates the shipment handling component that give real railways their purpose.

At first freight forwarding may seem complex. However it has a 'game' aspect similar to a slow, easy going, one player chess match. And best of all, freight forwarding can be done on any layout with any number of participants. No additional resources are needed except the time needed to learn how real railways operate and how these operations can be applied to one's own model. The learning and implementation can be done in small increments and only to the depth desired by the layout owner.

The Prototype

Railways exist to move freight and passengers from an origin to a destination. Consignment loads on cars are moved using waybills as the authorizing document. These waybills are normally created by a freight agent on instruction from the shipper. They are modified later by the car distributor and accounting units. Several types of waybills exist: memo waybills (which exclude charges), revenue waybills (which include financial info), livestock waybills (which include feeding/watering instructions), etc. Waybills are NOT bills of lading. Bills of lading are the document given to a shipper to indicate the railway's acceptance of a consignment for delivery. Waybills contain several pieces of important information written by the freight agent such as:

  1. Date of Order
  2. Shipper's Name
  3. Point of Origin (ie. load pickup spot)
  4. Consignee's Name
  5. Destination (ie. load dropoff spot)
  6. Consignment Load Description
  7. Cartype Required: AAR cartypes [short] or AAR cartypes [long]

Later other information is added by the car distributor (traffic dept.) and finance dept.

  1. Car Registration Marks and Number
  2. Date Loaded
  3. Car Routing
  4. Car Rates and Charges

Modeling Consignments (Loads)

Before choosing one of the many methods for modelling freight forwarding operations (carcards, switchlists, car marking, etc.), you must identify the freight consignments (or loads) to be moved. This is done in incremental steps.

  1. List towns and industries along with track capacities. Label sidings and spurs in a meaningful way and count the spots from the switch outward (no renumbering if you add another spot). Don't forget to include industries that are to be serviced indirectly through the use of house (including l.c.l.) or team tracks.
  2. List the types of loads or consignments that each industry will ship and/or receive. For each load also list the type of car (eg. covered hopper) required. Make sure that this list is balanced with at least one shipper and one receiver for each type of load. Those who are modeling a specific prototype railway in a specific era will need to do much research at this point!
  3. Reorganize the above data into origin/destination pairs for each specific load. Either the origin or the destination may be off-line. If both are, then your railway may be acting as a bridge route. Each record will now contain the data for a bill of lading (waybill).
  4. Another listing or 'inventory' that you should have on hand is one of all the cars that you run on your railway. The important information needed is road name, car number, car type, car description, and perhaps home location.

Car Forwarding Methods

Once the consignments are generated and an operations plan is in place there are several ways to implement a car forwarding system. The methods vary in realism and technology requirements. But one of these schemes is probably right for you! You can use manual waybills, car card orders, switchlists or car markers. Each system has its advantages but many choose one of the first two methods to get used to freight forwarding operations.

Waybills and switchlists can be computer generated. These programs generate traffic according to the industries, cars, and trains desired by the user. Larger railways can make good use of computer freight forwarding programs but they may be overkill for the smaller (1-4) operator layouts. Each user must decide for themself whether these computer tools add to the fun of the hobby or not. I have a collection of references for available waybill/switchlist programs.

Manual Waybills

Manual waybills contain the load information for each origin/destination pair. Additional fields are provided for recording the specific car assigned and the route to be followed. Use a prototypical format as much as possible. Duplicate waybills can be used to generate more traffic for specific industries as needed or identified through running sessions.

To generate traffic for a specific session shuffle the waybills that were previously made out. Draw an appropriate number for the available industries. This simulates the requests generated by the freight agents.

Assign the waybills to available cars as appropriate. This is the job of the car distributor. For online industries needing empty cars:

  1. scan nearby stations for appropriate empties that may be captured
  2. scan storage areas for empties
  3. check interchange/foreign storage (staging areas)

Now assign sets of completed waybills to appropriate trains according to the railway's operating plan. This is the task of the yardmaster.

When the load has reached its destination, the waybill is destroyed. The Scot in me says use pencil for car assignment and reuse ;-] ;-]

Car Card Orders

Car card order systems allow reuse of the waybills. Separate file cards are made up for each available car using your car inventory list. Each card contains the cartype as well as registration marks and car number. The back of the card is often used for acquisition or servicing information.

The simplest format does not bother about consignment (load) carried. Station abbreviations are listed on one edge and track numbers on another. Paper clips are set to station/track for car delivery. Cards are stacked together to make up each train. A variant contains a list of stops with a paperclip moved sequentially through each destination. This format has fallen into disuse but is a good way to ease into operating 'with a purpose'

A second format uses waybills pulled from the pile of waybills printed as above and assigned to the appropriate car and physically coupled to the car's order card either with a paperclip or via a pocket (eg baseball card wallet) on the card. They are then set into stacks for each appropriate train. When the load has been delivered to the consignee (ie spotted), the waybill is separated from the carcard and returned to its pile, the car card is stored at the station location in card boxes. Often these card boxes have four compartments for spotted, hold, pull and off-spot cars. At the next cycle (or two) the empty car is returned either to the closest storage area (if home road) or to the appropriate interchange if an off-road car.

The following are examples of my carcard and waybill formats. The carcards are 3x5 inch file cards with the data on the left half. Each car card has the wording WHEN EMPTY RETURN TO XYZ on the right half. XYZ can be one of the interchange points with a foreign line or a storage yard for the home line. The backs of individual carcards can be used for notes on dates/reasons for servicing! The waybills are 3x5's cut in half and paperclipped to the assigned carcards. I have found that color coding the destination station helps the yard workers considerably. Proper layout signage reinforces the color coding scheme. The suggested modified waybill reduces the amount of data to be absorbed and allows larger printing for us oldtimers! It can be printed on business size cards (Avery #3612) using 110 lb stock paper and a inkjet printer (or talk to your print shop). The bill number field allows station agents to reference loads and shippers if required.


Car Type: _____________

Report Mark: __________

Car No.: ______________

A.A.R. Class: ________

Special Features:




Commodity: _____________

Car Type Reqd: _________

Shipper: _______________

Origin: ________________

Consignee: _____________

Destination: ___________

Remarks: _______________


Waybill #: ____________

Car Type: _____________

Consignee: ____________

Station: ______________

A third format that has become very popular is to have the car card contain a pocket (no paperclips!) which contains a card marked with destinations (4 edges X 2 sides) to give up to eight stops for the car before returning to its home yard. This four cycle car card system disregards the load or consist but provides lots of action.

An alternate format is to reverse the setup by making the card represent a specific load with origin and destination as well as car type requested (ie its a waybill). Then the pocket will contain the car assigned for this load (ie. one variable zone of the waybill. This is more prototypical but unusual in the modeler's world.

Commercially printed waybills are available from Old Time Graphics and Micromart but the convenience is outweighed by cost. For those who are not computer types, ask a friend who is.

Switchlist Systems

Prototype railways run on paperwork. In addition to waybills and bills of lading there are:

In railway modeling switchlists are ordered lists of cars within a single train with delivery instructions (ie. a combination of wheel reports plus work orders). The important information are reporting marks and car number, car type, load, tonnage, origin, destination, date of arrival, and mileage. The destination column signals setouts required. Model railway systems can be simplified by omitting tonnage, origin, date and mileage and including pickup locations as well.

Switchlists can either be generated by computer or manually from the waybills or car card system. Making up the switchlist manually simulates a conductor or yard clerk's task.

The choice of waybills vs switchlists and manual vs computer generated should be made based on era modeled if one really is interested in simulating the prototype.

Car Marker Systems

Car marker or 'card on car' order systems were developed to overcome the problem of keeping the waybill paperwork with the car as it moved. The system uses indicators or tabs of differing mechanical formats with a visual indication of car destination. No indication of consignment (load) carried is given. Some of the advantages are:

Once very popular, the use of the car marker system has diminished because of:

Physical Forms of the Tab

Tab Indications

Most tab systems use color codes. Some systems also use alphanumeric codes. The primary code is for the destination town. This is almost always a color indication. Yard blocking is simplified. Secondary indications (if used) are usually for industry or track spot. These can be either color coded or alphanumeric. Some implement four cycle systems by having a big and little mark on each side of the marker. Destination is then Big - Little - Flip - Big Little.

Freight Operations References

This is a listing for freight operations material. For general operation references see Operations References. For train control references see Train Operations References. General References covers other topics.

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