British Steam Locomotive Switcher Ex-GW Hawksworth '9400' 0-6-0PT at Southall Locomotive Depot Ben Brooksbank [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Yard Goats — Railyard Workhorses

Think for a minute about the lowly yard goat. They’re not sexy, they’re not attractive, and all they do is toil away in a switch yard for their entire careers. That’s actually saying quite a lot, though, when you think about it. A switch engine has to move a lot of weight, and getting that weight moving is a lot harder than keeping it moving down a straightaway. Just like a taxi sees hard miles in stop-and-start city traffic, switch engines tend to wear out rather quickly. They are relatively low-powered, but are geared for high torque and low top speeds. Switchers are more or less like the tugboats of the railroading world.

Of the 20,000 locomotives in use in the U.S., around 5,000 are switch engines.

Union Pacific Union Pacific locomotive Y2315--one of UP's new RailPower GG20B "Green Goat" locomotives operating out of Mira Loma, CA Bryan Flint at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

History of the Yard Goat

At one time, many railroads would relegate worn-out steam equipment to yard duty, but that all began to change by the 1920s, when General Electric, Alco and Ingersoll-Rand marketed the first boxcab diesel switch engines. GE and Electro-Motive Corporation followed suit about a decade later. These boxy designs were all function, with a cab that was placed far above the hood for visibility and catwalks on each side for crewmen.

AlCO boxcab switcher locomotive Union Carbide #3/11 Alco/GE/Ingersoll boxcab at the North Alabama Railroad Museum By William Hunter [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to that period, steam switch engines were still in use, often with 0-6-0 or even 0-4-0 wheel s. These tiny switchers were sometimes designed with saddle tanks for water and coal bunkers rather than a separate tender. While steam locomotives were purpose-built for switch purposes, with lighter weights, smaller chassis and no pilot wheels, often engines that were pulled from freight service would finish out their days on switching duty.

As with mainline service, steam switchers were phased out by the 1950s and 60s in favor of diesel units.