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Friday, February 16, 2024

Waybills, Part 113: freight train procedures

Recently on several internet groups. attention has been called to an excellent Santa Fe color film called “Assembling a Freight Train.” It’s just 11 minutes long, and if you like, you can view it at this link: . It has enjoyable close-ups of numerous freight cars (evidently dating from about 1955), but what I liked the most is the depiction of the work of the clerks and carmen, particularly the parts having to do with route cards and waybills.

I will show a few screen grabs from the film, intended to clarify what each one shows and what they can tell us about prototype operating procedures. The freight car paperwork depiction begins with what Santa Fe called an “industry clerk,” who visited shippers to collect the Bills of Lading that they had filled out, and likewise (to me, this is the interesting part) to attach appropriate route cards to the cars (shown below on a refrigerator car).

Though this at first glance seems like an urban procedure, where shippers are not distant from the yard, it could certainly be the practice in any small town too. I am not aware that other railroads did it this way, nor that Santa Fe did it this way everywhere, but notice it means that cars arriving in the yard as outbound loads would already by marked for destination.

A further interesting detail is that the same industry clerk shown above, is also shown in a very brief clip attaching a route card to a tank car, attaching it to the edge of the wood running board. I know this was common, so it’s interesting to see it shown here.

But evidently not all cars were carded by an industry clerk before leaving the shipper, because the film also shows a clerk putting route cards onto cars in the yard.

There are a couple of close-ups of Santa Fe route cards in the film, such as the one below; this format is familiar from other examples (see this post: ). Here an actual tack is being used to attach the card.

Then the film shows a yard clerk using the Bills of Lading as the information so he can type the waybills. An interesting part of this view is that this is a typical “billing typewriter,” with a very wide platen. These typewriters were usually only capable of upper-case or capital letters, which is why most waybills before the 1960s had no lower-case letters typed on them.

As the train is being made up for departure, now the yard clerk takes the fresh waybills and a wheel report form out to the train crew. He is shown below walking across the yard. The larger form on the bottom of his stack is the wheel report; on top are the waybills.

For the camera’s benefit, the clerk riffles the stack of waybills, which is quite interesting for two reasons. First, you can see that all the waybills are already folded in half the long way, typical practice throughout the country. And among those bills are some Empty Car forms, manila in color and the same width as the folded waybills.

All this conforms well to what I had already understood about the process of waybilling and use of route cards. But I quite enjoyed seeing this process illustrated in a film made by the railroad about its own work. And as I mentioned, a nice additional benefit is that there are lots of good views of mid-1950s freight cars. I’ve watched it all the way through several times (only 11 minutes, after all), and still enjoy it.

Tony Thompson


  1. Great video! Please show us more! I love to see how the paperwork is generated and used. I wonder if these tasks were more difficult in bad weather and whether the routing cards held up to the punishment.

    1. Good question about the durability of route cards. I would guess that railroads had ample experience with choice of durable materials by the time of this video -- by which I mean "durable" for long enough to do their job. As for the aspect of the yard clerk walking the train at 2 AM in a driving rain, well, that was railroading.
      Tony Thompson