Big Four Yards at Avon

Easily one of the biggest railroad yard facilities in Indiana was built by the New York Central in Avon, a town right across the western county line from Indianapolis. It would be built in the 1950’s as the most advanced such facility in the United States. The yard itself would stretch across almost four miles, including connecting tracks, while the facility itself covered 490 acres.

15 September 1960. That is the day that the new Big Four Yards were dedicated. President of the New York Central, Alfred E. Perlman, and Governor of Indiana, Harold W. Handley, found themselves in a former farm field cutting through a photo-electric beam with a railroad lantern as an electronic ribbon cutting officially opening the facility. The name of the yard would come from the nickname of the company that became part of the New York Central in 1930: the Big Four Railway.

Everything about the new yard was huge…and modern. The purpose of the location in rural Hendricks County was to allow a facility that would allow the New York Central to consolidate several other yards in the Indianapolis area that were being hemmed in by neighborhoods in the city itself. At the time, NYC facilities in Indianapolis included a freight house yard east of Union Station, a coach yard at Shelby and Bates Street, a yard facility at Brightwood, and a large yard and maintenance shops at (and creating) Beech Grove.

Overview of the Avon Yards from the Munster Times
of 15 September 1960.

The new location would allow, if needed, expansion. It already covered over 490 acres. The investment into the facility cost the New York Central, the second largest railroad in Indiana, $11 million. It would be the fourth such yard built by the Central, with others at Elkhart (Indiana), Buffalo (New York) and Youngstown (Ohio). It had a capacity of 4,480 rail cars and an ability to process 3,000 of them a day.

According to Perlman, “the Big Four Yard will save 24 hours in rail shipments from the Mississippi to the Atlantic seaboard.” (Munster Times, 15 September 1960) “Just as the Big Four Railroad was a forerunner in carrying freight by rail, helping develop midwest farms and factories, the Central’s new finger-tip-controlled yard will spearhead faster rail service to all parts of the nation.”

The entire yard would be electronically controlled. This was a big upgrade from the pneumatic handles that had controlled such facilities to that point. The same photo-electric beam that was “cut” in the ribbon cutting would alert controllers that a train was entering the yard. A television camera would scan the numbers on each of the freight cars, passing that information through a closed circuit to receivers in the main yard building.

From there, the cars would be classified by the destination. As classification was being done, a yard engine would start moving cars toward a 19-foot (man made) elevation called a “hump.” The cars were then uncoupled, one at a time, and allowed to roll down the hump to one of 55 classification tracks. Each of these tracks were controlled by a push button panel in the main yard building.

From there, computers and electronics take over. Switches were opened automatically. Computers would measure the car weight, rollability, distance, track conditions and even the wind speed. From there, the computer regulated braking devices, called retarders, slowing the free rolling cars to a safe coupling speed as the car rolled onto the required classification track. As the train is completed, another yard engine moved the new train to departure tracks. Road engines then take that train on its way to its destination, whether that be a customer or another yard closer to where the customer is located.

The whole system could “hump” 160 cars an hour, or 3,000 a day. The yard itself contained 66 miles of tracks across the 3.75 mile length of the facility. A total of 2,030 cars could fit into the classification tracks. This was a little less than half of the total capacity of the Big Four Yard. While this was all going on, a microwave link, using 24-channels, connected all this information about the cars to the New York Central’s Southern District offices in downtown Indianapolis, 12 miles away.

The major reason for building the Avon facility, and its brethren, was to help modernize a flailing New York Central. The railroad was suffering in many ways by the economics of the time. Talks had already started into the possibility of a merger of the New York Central with other companies. The one chosen by management was the Chesapeake & Ohio. But the Interstate Commerce Commission felt that a merger between the two would be bad for the market, and hence shot it down. (At the same time, the Central’s biggest, and bigger, rival, the Pennsylvania, was trying to get a merger with the Norfolk & Western approved by the same agency. It went down in flames, as well.)

With the opening of those four yards, the New York Central did stop of financial bleeding for a while. For the first time in over a decade, the NYC would border on profitable. It wouldn’t last long due to the collapse of the economy of the northeastern United States, the Central’s main bread and butter area. In less than eight years after Avon opened, the New York Central would disappear along with its Philadelphia based rival. It would become a junior partner in the new Pennsylvania New York Central Transportation Company, known as Penn Central. Three years after that, the Penn Central would file the largest bankruptcy in American history to that time.

The Avon Yard would survive, and still does today. It outlived its builder company, the ill fated merger company, and the government takeover of bankrupt northeastern railroad companies into the Consolidated Rail Company (Conrail). Today, it serves CSX, the consolidation of the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Seaboard System. While the original C&O/NYC merger was shot down, the yard now is part of the same system that would have been created by that merger.

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