Orbital View: A Massive Rail Yard

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This view of the Argentine Rail Yard in Kansas City, Kansas, caught my attention because my dad used to teach middle school just a few miles from it and I would often catch glimpses of it from an overpass:

The rail yard contains 60 classification tracks, 10 receiving tracks, and 10 departure tracks:

As a 780-acre facility, Argentine Yard is the largest freight-car classification facility on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe system and is one of the largest yards of its type in the United States. The BNSF rail line converges at Kansas City, serving as a major hub where freights are transferred between several major railroads making Kansas City the second busiest U.S. rail center. It has a theoretical capacity of 5760 cars per day, but based on 1996 statistics, the yard handled about 2000 cars per day.

Trains arriving at Argentine Yard containing cars that need to be sorted enter the receiving yard. With the use of yard locomotives, the freight cars are pushed up a small hill known as the crest, and then are manually separated for their descent into the track “bowl.” As the cars roll down the crest, computers route them to the correct track based on the car’s destination. Then the groups of cars are removed from the bowl and made into trains on the 10 departure tracks of the yard.

The Argentine got some bad press this summer:

For generations, the rail yard has been the economic lifeblood of the economically challenged Argentine and Turner communities, employing more than 2,000 people. But lately, residents have worried that air pollution from the yard could be damaging their health. For more than a year, they’ve been monitoring the air quality just outside the rail yard, stationing a portable air sampling device on porches and in front yards to collect microscopic particles of diesel exhaust increasingly linked to lung diseases, cancer, heart attacks and premature births. Those residents now say they have strong evidence that the rail yard’s locomotives produce unhealthy levels of pollution — high enough to create risks of death or hospitalization.

(See all Orbital Views here)