Prototype Profile: High-Speed Grain Shuttle-Loading Facilities

Prototype Profile: High-Speed Grain Shuttle-Loading Facilities

Grain elevators along railroad tracks is a common sight in the Great Plains states and the Prairie Provinces, and some other places as well. But more and more, the old elevators stand silent guard over the surrounding town as they slowly crumble and decay. Today, many of the old elevators, scattered across the plains and prairies, have been replaced by their modern day counterpart – the high-speed grain shuttle-loading facilities.

elevatoratLothairMTIn the past, before high-speed grain shuttle-loading facilities, an elevator had sidings to accommodate anywhere from 10 or fewer cars to upwards of 50 or so cars. As farming economics have changed – larger farms generally across the plains – and as fuel costs have gone up, the industry has moved away from the older style (though many are still in use) to the newer style.

The high-speed loading facilities are usually located in a central location compared to many of the surrounding farms. The grain is trucked from the farm to the facility where it is transferred to the numerous concrete elevators. These facilities have a one- or two-track balloon track servicing the loader. An empty train pulls in on the balloon, or loop, track and multiple cars can be loaded at once.

For most such facilities, the train will move continuously but at an extremely slow rate of speed (1 mph or less). As it does, the trailing car or the rear-end distributed power unit (if one is used) will keep the brakes applied. The constant slow movement combined with braking power from the rear keeps the cars a relatively uniform distance apart. The goal is to prevent as much slack in the train at all times during loading.

All US and Canadian Class I railroads, and many Class II and Class III shortlines and regionals, now serve high speed grain elevators. The two primary are BNSF and Union Pacific. BNSF does 100-car unit trains and UP does 75- or 110-car unit trains. These unit trains are also referred to as shuttle trains, as the same train will move from the loading facility to the destination and back again on a continuous basis, only changing out cars or locomotives as necessary for maintenance or emergencies. The video below does a good great job of demonstrating exactly what is going on – and this is a small facility for a high speed loader!

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Modeling a high-speed grain shuttle-loading facility would be easy on a medium- to large-size layout. You would need the room for a loop track (and the ability to properly wire a reversing loop so as to prevent short-circuiting everything) somewhere on the layout, as well as a
destination. The destination could either be an actual unloading/trans-loading facility at another point on your layout or could simply be a hidden staging yard. As for the elevators and building, Walthers actually offers a nice modern style grain elevator kit in both HO scale and N scale. Add on kits or scratch built kits could even be added to it to create a larger facility. If you are modeling modern day railroads in the Great Plains, a high-speed grain shuttle-loading facility would look right at home on your layout.

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Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.

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