Saturday, February 19, 2022

Waybills, Part 94: handling confiscation of empties

 As most readers will know, the term “confiscation” in railroading does not refer to anything like forfeiture or seizure. But it does mean the appropriation of an empty car to be loaded, though the car may have been headed elsewhere. Today, most freight cars have specific uses, but in the transition era, which I model, there were large numbers of “free-running” cars, meaning cars usable for many cargoes, and those cars could and did go everywhere in North America.

Under the AAR’s Car Service Rules, a foreign empty car not needed on the railroad where it had been made empty should be returned to the railroad from which it was originally received, at the original junction point. That railroad in turn could return the car to the railroad from which it had received the load, and so on. If at any point in this return journey, a railroad receiving the empty had a direct connection to the car’s owner, it would then move the car directly to that owner at the nearest junction.

The idea behind this procedure is that each of the railroads that had received revenue in moving the loaded car, should share in the expense of returning the empty. (Revenue from freight movements was usually shared in proportion to the miles moved on each of the railroads, unless some other agreement was in force.) I’ve provided more on the background of all this here: .

In the photo below, of course, we have no way of knowing which cars are loaded and which empty, beyond the obvious exception of the open-top cars. (detail of SP photo, Fred Hill collection) This is of course equally true for model freight cars.

This photo was taken in the early 1950s at Los Angeles Yard (usually called Taylor Yard). The distant hills are Griffith Park. The large building in the middle distance at right is the PFE ice plant. The switcher in the right foreground is a Mikado. That this locomotive type was being used for yard work shows that  we are viewing the long shadows of the twilight of steam.

But any of the railroads handling one of these empty cars could interrupt that journey and “confiscate” it for loading, provided of course it was suitable for the intended load. As a number of modelers have discovered, modeling this process is not as simple as it might appear. That’s the subject of the present post.

When a layout has a system of model waybills, however modeled, it is customary to have, in addition to waybills for loads, a provision for the empty car to be moved also. I have discussed the Empty Car Bill, for example, numerous times, and past comments can be found easily by using that name as the search term in the search box at the top right of this post.

But if, as is convenient, we pair an Empty Car Bill with a waybill for a load, as shown in the photo below (with a side-entry sleeve format), we are constraining car movement. How do you confiscate a car with this paperwork? If we leave these bills alone, the car cycles off the layout when empty.

Obviously, the key is to override this pair of bills in the sleeve. The most obvious way is to remove the yellow Empty bill from the sleeve, and substitute some other paperwork. It could, for example, be a different Empty bill, directing the car to another town on the layout. This would be realistic, since an agent could well fill out such a substitute Empty bill. It might look like this, if handwritten:

Alternatively, one can use an agent message to direct movement, just as is done with any re-spot. (To find any of my blog posts about agent messages, you may use that term in the search box at the top right of this post; or you may like to read this one: .) An example is below.

In this message, the agent is directing the crew to move an available empty box car, C&S 17235, now somewhere at Ballard, to the team track for loading. In this case, of course, it is essential for the crew to understand that the agent message supersedes the waybill sleeve, which may contain an Empty Car Bill.

So the bottom line is, managing empties via confiscation requires a little thought beyond the routine movement of such cars in a reverse-of-loaded direction, as normally happens. I am still experimenting with ways to do this, and will report further on future developments.

Tony Thompson


  1. One method used on Tom Weissgerber's model railroad is to have a stack of empty car orders at each yard (such as the hand-written one in your post). When a train arrives and it has a "For Home" card, the YM/clerk may choose to put the "Empty for loading" card in front of the "For Home" card before switching the train.

    1. Yes, Jeff, that's a good way to do it if you have a yard crew. My layout, as you know, doesn't have that in the usual sense. The essential point is to recognize that the "normal cycle" of paperwork has to be overridden in some way to create confiscation. I am still thinking about the best way to do that.
      Tony Thompson