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Sketching with Steve: Working facing-point and trailing-point turnouts

By Steven Otte associate editor | October 15, 2021

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Several sketches of a short train on a track with different turnout configurations.
Several sketches of a short train on a track with different turnout configurations.
Which way a turnout faces affects how easy or difficult it is to switch that spur. Steven Otte photo

A turnout is where one track becomes two. The single track, where the movable point rails let a train choose between routes, is called the point end of the turnout. The two-track end, where the closure rails cross at the frog, is the frog end. And which end is which can make or break a railroader’s day when he has cars to switch at that spur.

If the train approaches from the frog end of the turnout, so the points point away from him, that’s called a trailing-point turnout. It’s easy to switch a trailing point turnout. First, the brakeman cuts off the train so the cars that need to be switched are at the end of the string of cars coupled to the locomotive. The engineer then runs the train past the turnout, and the brakeman lines the switch for the siding. The engineer backs the cars into the spur, the brakeman cuts them off, and the engineer pulls forward onto the main again. After the brakeman lines the switch for the main and boards the train, the engineer couples back onto the rest of the train and proceeds on his way. Easy peasy.

But notice the problem in the second part of my sketch. The train is approaching from the point end, making this a facing-point turnout. There’s no way for the engine to get around the car so it can shove the car ahead of it into the turnout. If the train is there to retrieve the car from the spur, it can do so easily enough, but then it’s stuck with a car in front of the locomotive.

There are a few ways to service a facing-point turnout. If the train in question is a “turn” – that is, a local that works its way from a yard to a turnaround point, moves the locomotive to the other end of the consist, then works its way back – the crew might work all trailing-point spurs on the first leg of the trip, then work the others on the return leg, when they will be trailing.

Another way is to use a runaround track – a double-ended siding, as shown in the third sketch – to drop off the car to be switched, run around on the other track, come in behind it, and shove it into the spur. The spur doesn’t have to branch off from the runaround, as in my sketch; the runaround could be miles down the road. It may not be ideal to run long distances shoving a car ahead of the locomotive, but it beats some of the alternatives.

In the steam era, locomotives would often carry chains that could be used to pull cars on adjacent parallel tracks. To move cars in the opposite direction, long, thick wooden poles could be socketed into pockets in the corners of freight cars and locomotive pilots to shove the cars. This practice could be quite dangerous, as a pole could splinter and snap, becoming a deadly projectile. Though it doesn’t seem as though the Federal Railroad Administration ever banned the practice, most railroads forbade it by the 1960s.

Another dangerous practice is the “flying drop” or “Dutch drop.” (I don’t know why it’s called the “Dutch drop,” since Holland isn’t exactly famous for railroading history. Maybe it has to do with the legend of the “Flying Dutchman?” Or some railroader nicknamed “Dutch?” But I digress.) The maneuver is illustrated in the fourth sketch. The locomotive, trailing the car to be spotted, starts out a good distance before the facing-point turnout (a lot farther than I had space to illustrate) and builds up some speed. It then backs off the throttle to create coupler slack so the car can be uncoupled on the fly. The locomotive accelerates ahead of the coasting car and a switchman lines the turnout for the siding after the engine passes. The car (hopefully) coasts into the siding, where a brakeman riding the car brings it to a stop. The many ways this maneuver can go wrong – the turnout is lined too early or too late, the locomotive can’t get into the clear in time, the car doesn’t make it far enough into the spur and fouls the main – are why railroads have strongly discouraged, if not outright forbidden, the practice.

Those aren’t dangers on a model railroad, so you might be tempted to try it. Our models have neither the momentum nor the ability to uncouple on the fly to perform this maneuver the way the full-sized railroads did. But if the main line has a grade that slopes toward the spur, you might be able to do it if you start with the knuckle couplers in the delayed position. If you can pull it off, you’ll certainly impress the “old heads” on your operating crew.

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