THE Railroad Town


North Platte Nebraska is THE railroad town. It was created by Missouri Pacific, and the railroad still dominates the city. When Grenville Dodge was laying out the route for the first transcontinental railroad, he identified this location in central Nebraska as the ideal location for a routing, service and maintenance facility – the midpoint between Salt Lake and Omaha with plenty of land and water. When the track-layers reached the location, they built multiple tracks, sidings, work buildings and housing for the yard. The railroad brought over 100 workers to man it all. The place did not have a name, but soon acquired the moniker “Hell on Wheels”. It was established as North Platte in 1866 and became the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad in 1867 until the railroad was extended to Laramie.

During WWII North Platte was a short stop for soldiers heading to Europe or the Pacific. The North Platte Canteen was operated by North Platte residents with funding and food donated by businesses and individuals. It served 7 million soldiers during the 5 years it was open. Wikipedia has more detail on the North Platte Canteen.

Golden Spike Tower

Today the Bailey yard is the largest classification and maintenance yard in the world at 8 miles long and 2 miles wide. It services 140+ trains, and sorts 14,000 – 16,000 rail cars each day. The maintenance facility pumps 18 million gallons of diesel each month. “Run-through” trains, those with a single cargo like coal or grain get NASCAR style pit service to refuel and change crew. They can even change wheel sets in just a few minutes without ever taking the car off the track.

Missouri Pacific has created a visitor center in the Bailey Yard. It is an 8-storey tower midway in the yard where you can observe all the activity. I spent several hours in the tower watching the goings-on. The activity seems to happen in slow motion as cars are humped onto the classification tracks, then assembled by switch engines into complete east- and west-bound trains. As the cars roll down the hump the car barcodes and RFID readers allow the computer to set the rail switches to route them to the correct outbound track. After an hour or two the dance becomes obvious. I should not have been surprised to learn that the switch engines are remote controlled.

If you have any interest in trains, the Bailey Yard is a fascinating place. You can see it all by visiting the Golden Spike Tower and the live webcams.