Designing Model Railroad Operations
text, photos and graphics by Richard
presented as a clinic at the NorthStar 99 NMRA National
this is the May 1999 original version
Modelers enjoy visiting and running on model
railroads that are realistic in appearance and operated
in a realistic manner. This only happens when the model
echoes the mission of a real railroad ó cars move to
transport freight and passengers.
Youíll never start operations if you spend all your
time planning. Start now with a method that works for
your layout and add details and enhancements over time.
The best way to develop the optimum operations design
for your railroad is through the combination of practice
Realistic Operation, Phase 1
The first step to realistic operations is to slow
down. Run your trains at scale speeds. Place a yard
stick next to a straight area of mainline and practice
running at different scale speeds. The following table
relates prototype speeds to the number of seconds it
will take your train to move from one end of the yard
stick to the other. Switching moves are usually
performed around 5 mph. Movements within a yard are
typically no more than 15 mph. Most mainline running is
between 25 and 60 mph, depending upon era and type of
to travel 3 feet at scale speed
Match scale speed running with prototypical starts
and stops by accelerating and braking at scale rates.
And never reverse an engine or train while it is moving.
Layout Design Impacts Operation
A primary goal in layout design is to create a railroad.
The more it looks and works like a real railroad, the
better for realistic operations.
Small layouts typically have one main feature, a
single station or industrial complex. Medium sized
layouts may have two or three main features, but work
best if they are closely related. Large layouts may have
many, including unrelated, main features. The length of
your passing sidings determines the length of the trains
you can run. The number of passing sidings determines
the number of simultaneous trains you can run on the
The smaller the layout, the more important it is that
operators canít see the whole layout at one time. For
a simple oval layout, with a town on each side of the
benchwork, the addition of a scenic divider down the
middle results in two immediate benefits: a) each town
scene will immediately seem larger and b) operators will
suddenly have the "feel" the railroad is going
somewhere, that there is "distance" between
the two towns.
The current Gateway Central project
layout (a model railroad our Division designs,
constructs, shows, and gives away at our train show each
year) is only 5Ĺí x 6í in size, but has imposing
Walthers structures (paper mills and sawmill) and
operation capabilities. This is practical only because
there is a 4-foot wide scenic divider in the middle of
the layout. Without the divider, the layout is a fancy
loop of track, but with the divider it is a shortline
connecting an industrial area centered on a paper mill
complex with a rural area featuring a small sawmill. If
you are interested, this layout is on display at the
National Train Show.
Operations require clear and easy access to the track
along with good operator visibility of the trains. This
means that tracks need to be within reaching distance
from an aisle, usually 30" or less. Pop-up access
doesnít work for operations, walk-in or walk-around
layout designs tend to work best. Operator aisles should
be at least 28" wide, with 30" or 36"
preferable. Experience shows that the aisle needs to be
slightly wider at the end of "blobs", where
the tracks make a 180ļ turn from one aisle to the next.
Walk-around control also works best for operations.
Place the layout controls on the fascia near the portion
of the layout they control. Avoid placing the throttles
at a fixed location, even if it is "in the middle
of everything". Radio and IR throttles are now
available for operators who hate trying to find (and
figure out) a plug-in point.
Railroad height effects visibility and reaching
distance. Low benchwork offers a "birds-eye"
overall view and a deep reaching distance. It is easy to
reach in 36" on benchwork only 36" tall. High
benchwork provides a detailed look at the cars and
rolling stock, and makes you feel more part of the local
action. However, on benchwork 50" high, you may
only be able to reach in 20-24". You may also have
problems determining which way that switch on the back
track is thrown. However, high benchwork is
significantly easier to work under for maintenance. The
current trend is towards "eye-level" modeling,
with track height at 52" or more.
Good operator visibility means you need to avoid long
tunnels. It is most reassuring to operators if they can
see some part of their train at all times. A rule of
thumb is that as the caboose disappears into the portal,
the engine of that train should be emerging from the
other end of the tunnel.
Double decking is an option for medium to moderately
large layout spaces to increase the length of the main
line run or to add a significant branchline. Make sure
you have enough separation between the levels to build
respectable scenery and see the trains. Usually at least
14" open space between the levels is required (with
16-18" preferred). Also, donít stick a helix in
the operational portion of any route. Having a train
disappear for multiple minutes inside a hidden spiral
only irritates, confuses, and distracts crews from the
operations. Helixes, if needed, should only be placed at
the end of runs.
Design in a way to keep a train running continuously
without operator intervention for public displays or
train shows. The public (or relatives) usually are
interested in only two things when they visit a
railroad: a) where there trains running? and b) could I
recognize some scene or industry on the layout? Such a
continuous loop is also useful for breaking-in and
testing engines and rolling stock.
Single track is much more interesting than double
track. Unless there is an absolute need to model double
track (because you have to keep a train running
constantly, or because double track is a key feature of
the prototype railroad you are modeling), design your
railroad as single track. This is especially important
on small layouts where the space can be better used for
on-line industry spurs or station features. Even on
large layouts, use multiple track only where it adds to
Medium and large size layouts allow the construction
of a true point-to-point scheme. For many modelers, the
first design concept for applying this scheme uses a
significant yard at each end of the line. Unless your
focus is yards or terminals, care needs to be taken that
these features donít eat most of the layout room space
and budget. If your primary interest is in terminals, it
is usually best to model one large terminal, and let the
rest of the layout act as "staging" for trains
arriving and departing the terminal. Most modelers will
find it best, in terms of cost and maintenance, to feed
only one major yard or terminal on their layout. This is
also an application of one of the John Armstrong layout
design principles, "Donít do the same thing
Four design and operating concepts may be applied to
a one major terminal model railroad:
- Out and back: The train leaves the terminal
and proceeds around a line which ends up back at the
terminal. The one terminal may be operated as if it
were two different terminals, one at each end of the
line. The scheme works best of the four for small
- Division point: Trains proceed to staging in
each direction out of the terminal. The terminal is
a "division point yard" where all trains
stop and crews are changed. This requires a
reasonable mainline run on each side of the yard
before going into staging. This scheme typically
works best in large spaces, and is especially suited
for railroads where mainline running is the
- Main terminal: One end of the terminal
immediately plunges into staging, the other end
connects to the mainline run portion of the layout
before going into its own staging. This scheme works
especially well for combination mainline
run/switching oriented operators.
- Branchline: The terminal is on a mainline
"oval loop", the other part of the oval is
hidden staging for mainline trains. A branchline
connects to the main at the terminal, and meanders
off into the countryside servicing local industries.
Mainline trains drop off and pickup cars for the
branchline, left at the interchange terminal.
Obviously a switching-oriented design.
Yards are supposed to be operated, not to act as
storage. The goal of a real yardmaster is to get as many
cars as possible out of the yard. Large yards make up
trains heading for other yards. Small yards sort cars
destined for local industries. The only real yards that
store cars are passenger yards. Make the aisle a little
wider near main yards, and design in a place for the
yardmaster to sort his paperwork. And youíll never get
your yard to work right if it hasnít got a separate
lead thatís as long as the longest yard track.
Industrial switching areas may be located near yards
or somewhere "down the line." Real railroads
try to make industrial trackage as simple as possible,
so avoid the impulse to design a "switching
puzzle" into your layout. Most railroads encouraged
development of industrial sites in the immediate area
surrounding small town stations. A passing siding at a
town typically had a couple industrial spurs attached.
As the size of the layout increases, so must the
quality of the construction. Model operations require
the entire layout to be more reliable than what is
required to just run trains. The quality of the
construction must be such that the size of the layout
does not exceed the maintenance (time and cost) budget
of the owner.
Transform your model railroad into a real rail
transportation system. Your design concept establishes
where it is located, the era, which towns are served,
connecting lines, and traffic patterns. The concept
needs to match the model ó the size of the layout and
the access considerations will determine whether you can
model an entire railroad, a division, a couple of
mainline towns, or a minor station along a branchline.
Geographic area, era, and transportation needs
results in a concept of where, when and why the railroad
The geographic location (or setting), along with the
era (or timeframe), selected for the layout will effect
both the scenery and the traffic. Just as you wonít
find many high volume commuter lines in a snow-covered
mountain range, it is equally unlikely to operate a gold
mine in the middle of flat farmland. Realism of the
layout is enhanced when all of the items (industries,
rolling stock, structures, traffic patterns and volume,
signs, vehicles, etc.) in the scene are of the same era.
If you select to model a specific prototype, recreating
the location and traffic of that prototype at a specific
point in history will ensure an appropriate match. If
you freelance a railroad, itís best to pattern your
location, scenery and traffic on your favorite prototype
railroads in a specific era. If you are unsure of what
era to model, its usually best to create the scenery to
match the earlier era you prefer, as it may always be
modernized later. Club layouts are usually based on
local railroads, since the local roads and scenery are
more likely of interest to current and prospective
members, as well as visitors.
For freelance railroads, developing a
"history" can advance the railroad concept.
Explain its location, traffic patterns, and method of
If station names are based on real towns in
appropriate sequence, they not only add to the realism,
but also place the railroad geographically. Since real
cities are typically too large to model, those stations
either become hidden staging, or are modeled as a
station or yard on the edge of the city but using a
specific recognizable local name. Chuck Hitchcock did
this with his Argentine depot, since Kansas
City Union Station would have been too large to
appropriately model. The St. Louis Southern
terminates at Gateway Yard near Broadway
Station as there is no reasonable way to model
the Mill Creek Valley yards and St. Louis Union Station
(unless you really want to build two triple track
interlaced wyes feeding 32 tracks under a five-span
train shed, of course).
At one time it was popular to name towns in
alphabetical order, supposedly giving the operators a
"clue" as to the sequence of the stations. In
reality this doesnít assist novice operators (who may
not figure out they are in alphabetical order anyway) or
your experienced operators (since they will know the
actual sequence and do not need this "help").
It is much better to select station names appropriate to
what is being modeled, and then give each operator a
list showing the station sequence.
Realistic Operation, Phase 2
Name everything on the layout. Even if the oil
refinery is only a can of Pennzoil sitting next
to the siding, name the refinery and the town where it
is located. The same goes for the flour mill (empty Saltines
box) down the line. Now you are delivering low-sulphur
coal from the Whitney mine to the Banholzer
Steel mill, and not just moving cars from
"here" to "there".
This change has two immediate effects. First, your
operators are now transporting freight between actual
destinations, not just moving cars around. Secondly, it
is an initial preparation step to later add a car
Most industries are large enough to have multiple
freight docks or doors. Each of these is either numbered
or labeled on the real buildings, since deliveries not
only have to be made to the right company, but also to
the right dock door at the company. Your operators will
need to deliver lumber to the shopís dock door and
boxcars for the finished furniture to the shipping dock
Name your railroad as well. If you are modeling a
specific prototype, this is easy. If you like a
prototype, but want to create your own route, follow the
prototype but make your own division. The Ozarks
Division of the Missouri Pacific
wonít be found in any timetable, except for the ones
in Bob Amslerís basement. There you will be surrounded
by standard MoPac engines, rolling stock and lineside
structures, but in the rolling mountains of the Ozarks.
Modeling a specific prototype railroad has become
very popular in recent years. It also provides an
instant guide to scenery, rolling stock, structures and
operations. But it also limits you to the specific
engines, cars, and traffic patterns of that prototype.
Historically, freelance railroads were more popular,
perhaps because of the limited number of
prototype-specific models that were available, or
because of the difficulty in obtaining prototype
specific information. Still, there are some modelers who
rather create their own alternate version of history.
Creating a freelance railroad requires even more
attention to railroad concept. You need a concept, and
railroad name, which has a solid basis in the area you
are modeling, as well as a prototype "sound".
Allen McClellandís Virginian & Ohio
has an excellent prototype-like concept, modeled
location, and name ó but is a freelance railroad. Make
sure your name matches the concept: the El Dorado & El Reno
sounds like a small connecting line, the St. Louis
Southern sounds like a Cotton Belt
or MoPac regional competitor, and you
would expect to find the Utah Belt in the
southwest. Multiple interchange connections to real
railroads will improve the realism and operating
possibilities of your freelance railroad.
When creating a color scheme for a freelance
railroad, keep in mind Paul Malleryís four guidelines:
1) easy to apply, 2) realistic, 3) distinctive, and 4)
pleasing. And when you have custom decals made, make
sure you are using an era-appropriate type style and donít
over-size the lettering.
Most locomotives, cabooses, and passenger cars (pre
Amtrak, of course) would belong to the modeled railroad.
Repainting this rolling stock to the home road is
another significant step to increasing realism during
Oh, by the way, now that youíve named everything,
put those names on the model railroad! Towers, junctions
and towns get name signs on the fascia at their
location. Each building needs a sign with the company
name. This way, your operators will know where they are,
or be able to find their way to where they are supposed
to be. Really helpful owners will place a track diagram
of each town on the fascia by that town, with all of the
sidings labeled. Regularly spaced direction signs
(indicating which way is "east" and
"west") also work to minimize confusion.
An important traffic source for almost all railroads
is interchange (transferring freight cars between
railroads or lines of the same railroad). Even the Alaska
Railroad receives foreign-road cars via a car
float. Interchange traffic is especially useful when
designing operations, as almost any type of car, in any
quantity, may participate in interchange operations.
Local interchange occurs when cars are set out to be
picked up by another train of the same railroad. This
means each car has a destination, usually on the modeled
portion of the railroad, beyond the interchange point. A
through freight drops off cars at a station for setout
by the local drill.
Such interchange may also be simulated, where the
interchange is the actual destination on the model
railroad. Operations here usually assume that the cars
were picked up by the foreign road and then returned,
now with a new destination.
Foreign road interchange is typically modeled by one
or more tracks leading to the (non-existing) other
railroad. Larger interchanges look like small yards. A
car float makes a very interesting kind of interchange
point, significantly easier to model (in HO) with
Waltherís new waterfront kits.
If you actually have the space to model more than one
railroad, the interchange traffic between the two
railroads will be an extremely important part of the
Who Does What
Real railroads are a perfect example of teamwork.
Each operation is carried out by many individuals
performing specific tasks in cooperation. Many jobs on
prototype railroads arenít typically modeled. The jobs
modeled are usually limited to those directly involved
with moving cars and trains. In many cases multiple real
jobs are combined for modeled jobs. For instance, one
model operator will usually wear the "hats" of
fireman, brakeman and conductor simultaneously while
another operator is engineer.
The train crew runs one train. On modern
railroads, the train crew consists of an engineer
(drives the locomotive), conductor (in charge of
the train), and brakeman (assists the conductor).
During the steam era, there was also a fireman in
the cab and at least two brakemen. The head brakeman
rode in the locomotive while the flagman, or rear
brakeman, rode the caboose with the conductor.
If you are modeling a short line, the train crew may
be all there is to your modeled operations. If your
railroad runs multiple trains, they usually come from
somewhere, and that is usually a yard. If the yard is
large enough to have its own switching locomotive, that
locomotive will have a yard drill (an engineer,
conductor and brakemen). The yardmaster directs
the yard drills, and is responsible for making up and
breaking up trains. Switchmen assist the
yardmaster in larger yards. Small yards may have a freight
agent instead of a yardmaster.
Once you are running all those trains, youíll need
a hostler to operate and prepare locomotives
between the engine facility and yard. The power desk
or roundhouse foreman makes sure appropriate
motive power is assigned, available and ready.
Dispatchers control the movement of trains on
mainlines. During the steam era, dispatchers directed towermen
at interlockings and block operators at stations
without interlockings. Dispatchers communicate directly
with train crews today.
Trainmasters are locally responsible for the
operation of the railroad, including supervision of
dispatchers, yardmasters, and train crews. The rules
examiner makes sure everyone knows the operating
rules of the railroad.
The superintendent is in charge of a railroad
division. Large railroads had multiple superintendents
managed by a general superintendent.
So how to you model all this?
Model Layout Crews
Most model railroads use either one- or two-man train
crews. Two-man crews have an engineer who runs the
locomotive and a conductor/brakeman who manages the
waybills and throws switches.
Small yards may be switched by visiting train crews.
A mid-sized yard will have a yardmaster, who typically
also operates the yard drill. Model layouts with very
large yards, especially those with multiple yard drills,
will have separate operators for each drill with a
yardmaster in charge. If there are a large number of
engine facility movements required, a model railroad may
have the need for a hostler, especially if all of the
movements for steam locomotives are modeled. Otherwise,
the yardmaster will also as act as hostler.
Older model railroads were designed with fixed
engineer throttle locations, for large clubs these were
usually located on an elevated platform in the hope of
seeing the trains. Since it was difficult to switch and
uncouple cars from 50 feet away, the conductor/brakeman
would walk with the train, giving hand signals to the
engineer, and throwing switches. These larger layouts
also had towermen who would operate complex
interlockings and report passing trains to the
Most new model railroads are designed with
walk-around throttles, so train crews follow their
trains around the layout. The conductor/brakeman usually
throws all switches along the route, except for those
controlled by a dispatcher with CTC (Centralized Traffic
Control), which may be thought of as an interlocking
machine for a large section of railroad. Adding CTC to a
model railroad is a significant (time and cost) project,
and is only usual for Class 1 railroads.
The dispatcher is best located where he cannot see
the model railroad. The dispatcher tracks the movement
of trains on a train sheet and issues orders to
keep them rolling.
The dispatcher receives information from the towers
and station operators (which may be modeled as called in
reports from train crews when they reach towers and
stations) and issues train orders back to the crews.
This is usually modeled with phones at station locations
(steam era layouts) or radios (modern era). If you have
CTC installed, the dispatcher directly controls mainline
switches and signals with the CTC machine. The location
of trains is displayed on a CTC machine by the
indication of occupied track sections. The dispatcher
controls trains by setting signals and throwing
switches. With CTC, there is less communication between
the trains crews and dispatcher as towers and crews donít
have to report in with their locations.
Model railroads also need a superintendent to prepare
the rule book and timetables, qualify and orient
operators, oversee the operating session, and
investigate and resolve problems. Of special importance
is ensuring that operators know how to uncouple and
handle cars without damaging the coupler or car.
Realistic Operation, Phase 3
Get the railroad to work! Nothing ruins an operating
session faster that engines which wonít run and cars
that wonít stay on the track.
Locomotives need to run smoothly and reliably. The
couplers on engines must also work every time and be the
exact correct height. Power which doesnít meet these
standards needs to leave the railroad until they can be
The trackwork and rolling stock need to work
together. Ignoring derailments caused by klutzy
operators (hopefully theyíll improve with practice), 2
derailments or less for every 100 car moves is
your performance goal. Checking track gauge, tuning
turnouts, testing wheelset gauge, adjusting coupler
height, and weighting cars correctly will all add up to
better operations. Cars with problems (constantly
derail, coupler problems, weight problems) need to be
banished to the RIP track until they can be repaired.
An operating session will be much more fun with fewer
cars and locomotives that all run properly, over a
session with more rolling stock that wonít roll.
Your electrical and control system is the other side
of the coin for getting good locomotive performance. If
your control panels require a computer network
administrator to understand them, they are distracting
from the operations. Your goals here are a track power
system that works reliably and is very simple for
operators to understand. My recommendation is to go out
and purchase a DCC system now.
Which DCC system you purchase will depend on what you
like in throttles, and perhaps which DCC system your
operators have purchased for their home layouts.
Although DCC decoders (the part you put in the engines)
are compatible between brands, the throttles are not. Model
Railroader published a nice overview of the
available systems in their June 1999 issue. After you
decide on the brand, one way to reduce the throttle cost
is by purchasing their "advanced" throttles
for the yardmaster & hostler and
"intermediate" throttles for road crews.
DCC will allow you to get your railroad "up and
running" quicker than the installation of
conventional block control. It allows multiple trains to
operate without needing to consider the location of
power gaps, or the proximity of engines to each other.
This immediately makes operations that are difficult
with block control, such as helper districts, multiple
switching crews in the same yard, and consisting
multiple unit diesel lash-ups, simple and easy.
Donít overlook the fact that DCC eliminates the
need to perform the non-prototypical, and confusing to
some operators, task of throwing control panel switches
to assign power to track blocks. It can also simplify
and automate reverse-loop wiring and operation. You can
turn on and off engine headlights, ditch lights,
gyralites, and strobes from the throttle. And you may
reprogram the running speed characteristics to make
different brand engines run well together.
If you are serious about multi-train operations, the
simplicity of use and freedom of engine movements more
than outweigh any perceived additional cost of using DCC
over conventional control systems.
A personal warning: the purchase of a Soundtraxx
DCC digital sound decoder for a steam engine quickly
leads you on the road to addiction. Youíll want a
sound decoder in each of your steam engines. Youíll
start using whistle signals all the time. And youíll
wish you had purchased a North Coast or Wangrow DCC
system so you have a separate button on your throttle
for each sound the engine can make.
Timetables, Part 1
Employee timetables and rule books govern
the operation of the railroad. Rule books establish the
rights and obligations of trains and crews, especially
for unsignaled areas (like most model railroads). All
railroads operated by the Standard Code rules
until the mid-eighties. After that time, each railroad
modified the rules to fit their communications needs,
but kept their Standard Code number and basic concepts.
The schedule is the part of the employee
timetable which list the class, direction, frequency,
number, and times at specific locations (like stations
and towers) of each regular (meaning scheduled)
train. Modern railroading has eliminated class and
Regular passenger trains were usually listed as 1st
Class trains. Freight trains were typically 2nd
(or lower) Class, although a very few special freight
trains were also 1st Class. Trains not on the
schedule are extras.
Regular trains are identified by number (#17) and
sometimes by name (the "Super Chief").
Generally, on east-west railroads, westbound trains have
odd numbers while eastbound trains have the next higher
even number. For north-south roads, odd numbers are
southbound with northbound as even. Passenger trains
typically have low numbers while freights are given
Prototype schedules are in table format. Typically
eastbound trains are listed in one table (usually read
down the page for station sequence) while westbound
trains are in another table (usually read up the page).
If there are few trains on the schedule, it may be
formatted as one table with the station names in the
center, eastbound trains listed on the left side (read
down), and westbound trains listed on the right side
Special symbols, indicated on schedules as
letter codes next to each station, explain other
facilities available at that location. Common symbols
||Stop on Signal
||Telephone (or Radio)
||Operator on duty during
||Operator on duty 24 hours
The problem with the prototype schedule arrangement
for model operations is that it is hard for model
operators to quickly determine the locations of meets
and with which trains. This might be the first time an
operator is running that train. Real distance between
stations is shorter, and traffic density is much higher
than on real railroads Ė so the action happens much
faster. The best solution is to make single-train
schedules. These list the stops for that specific train,
and indicate meets with other trains.
An employee timetable will go into great detail
concerning speed, track limitations, and equipment
restrictions by train, route, service, weight, type of
movement, specific locations, and equipment class. These
vary from railroad to railroad, and division to
division. For modelers, speed restrictions by train and
route are most practical (and most likely to be followed
for the operators). Simple restrictions like 45mph for
freight, 65mph for passenger, 25mph within yard limits,
15mph on the Riceland branch, and
"donít take engines out on the car float"
will add operating interest and realism without being
Movements within yard limits may be made
without timetable or train order authorization. Yard
rules allow engineers to proceed when they see the
track is clear, but not over 25mph, and not outside the
yard limits. Movements within the yard are directed by
Right, Class and Direction
Right, Class, and Direction are the
three ways one train may be superior to another (on
single track). Right is granted with a train
order. Train order right always supersedes superiority
Class and Direction are listed on the
schedule. A train is superior to trains of a
lower class. Regular (scheduled) trains are superior to
extras. For trains of the same class, direction will
indicate which is superior. The superior direction will
be listed in the timetable.
The inferior train takes the siding at meets. If an inferior
train is running late, it is responsible for making sure
it is in the clear for superior trains. When a superior
train is late, it "owns the road" up to the
point where the schedule says it should be. In this way
meeting points are adjusted when regular (scheduled)
trains are late.
Realistic Operation, Phase 4
Develop a sequence timetable from a train
service plan. The plan begins with a vertical list
of the sequence of towns along your route. Individual
trains are added as adjoining columns, showing where
they originate, terminate, turn, set out blocks of cars,
or switch. Typically a line represents the run of a
train, with symbols (such as a filled box for switching,
or an empty box for block moves) on the train line
indicating towns it works. The ends of the line indicate
the start and end points of that trainís run.
This is similar to timetables, which are also based
on a list of stations and towers. On timetables, trains
are grouped by class across the top, and listed in order
of their departure within each class grouping. A main
difference is our initial train service plan isnít
concerned with time-based scheduling, only what
trains are running where.
Appropriate passenger and fast freight service
connects major cities. Blocks of cars are setout or
picked up at mid-sized towns by through freights. Each
town on the line needs to be served by one train that
switches the local industries ó either a way freight,
turn or local. Applying these guidelines, create a basic
train service plan for your railroad.
The following suggested train categories and train
number ranges may be used as a starting point for
designing your initial train service plan.
- First Class Passenger Service, #1-20,
combination of higher-speed "limited"
service with few stops, and slower local service
of every town.
- Second Class Fast Freight and Express,
#21-48, these run nonstop except for crew
changes. Steam era reefer express trains also
had to periodically stop at icing platforms.
- Second Class Manifest or Through
freights, #51-98, provide fast service
between major yards. They drop off blocks of
cars for locals to spot at industry sidings, and
pickup blocks of cars headed in the direction of
the through freight that locals have pulled from
sidings. Sweeper trains may run daily
each way on the line to ensure all blocks of
freight are collected and moved in a timely
manner. Customers usually want their cars
delivered early in the morning and collected in
- Third Class Way freights (aka Peddlers),
#101-148, perform local switching,
usually between two local yards. It may also
pickup and setout blocks of cars for locals,
especially at towns with major railroad
customers. A variation is the turn, which
leaves a yard, runs to a specific town on its
route, and then returns to its home yard. The
turn switches the towns along its route in both
directions. Other variations are a coal drag
(which may be a slow version of a through
train), or an interchange turn, which
moves cuts of cars between a yard and a
connection to another railroad.
- Third or Fourth Class Local freights, #151-198,
perform local switching over smaller areas,
usually concentrating on the needs of one or two
major online customers. It also works blocks of
cars left by other trains.
Trains which move from one interchange to another is
bridge traffic. The locomotive and caboose may be
exchanged for home road equipment for this movement, or
the foreign road equipment may stay on representing
running under trackage rights or as pool service. This
is a simple way to explain another railroadís
equipment running on your layout.
Now that you have a train service plan, write an instruction
card for each train. This describes the
"action", what that train does and where. This
card lists each stop, and the type of work the train
performs at each location.
Then, pick which direction is superior on your
railroad. Typically, it is selected so as to move
priority traffic into a major commerce center the
Finally, arrange the train instruction cards in the
order in which the trains will be run. This arrangement
is a sequence timetable. You are now ready to
start an operating session.
The first crew runs the first train. Each additional
crew runs the next train instruction card in order. As a
train completes its run, that crew then selects and runs
the train on the next available instruction card. Meets
are handled using the rules of class and direction.
Inferior trains need to clear the way for superior
Your first operating sessions may be limited to only
first and second class trains. As your operators gain
experience, add the third and fourth class traffic. Your
experiences will quickly show where the sequence of
running the trains will need to be changed, or trains
which simply "donít work" and have to be
eliminated or modified.
The whole idea of walk-around layout design and
control is for the crew to stay with their train. Make
sure your crews keep with their trains.
Staging provides a place for trains to originate
or terminate off the modeled layout, it represents
"the rest of the world". Staging may represent
other divisions of the modeled railroad, or connecting
railroads. You may have multiple staging yards. Staging
provides a pool of complete trains, ready to run onto or
across your layout.
Generous staging should be designed into the layout
from the start, as youíll always wish you had more or
longer staging. You need at least one more staging track
than the number of trains you plan to stage, and staging
tracks should be longer than your longest train.
Continuous staging is better than stub-end staging,
since you donít have to turn trains (or the worst
case, back them over the entire layout to their original
Since staging tracks are frequently semi-hidden, or
at least somewhat out-of-the-way, design them to operate
as reliably as possible. This means use #6 or larger
turnouts, avoid any reverse curves, and perhaps install
a rerailer at the end of each track (I first saw this
trick on the Virginian & Ohio). Make
sure you can easily see and reach staging tracks to
rerail cars. Staging may be so busy it requires its own
operator, usually called a staging dispatcher.
Realistic Operation, Phase 5
Now that we have a sequence of trains running, letís
give the local and way freights something to do. Itís
best to practice switching before trying to implement a
full waybill or switchlist based car-forwarding system.
You may even prefer one of these low-paperwork methods.
Switching cars at industries simulates the movement
of freight traffic. Train crews are kept busy if they
are switching between 20-25 cars per hour. The two basic
systems presented in this section do not have complex
paperwork, and do not cause problems when cars are
misrouted, switching isnít performed at a location, or
When operating, always ask about the railroadís
policy before touching any cars or locomotives. This is
especially true of engines and when derailments occur.
And make sure you know the correct way to uncouple cars
on that railroad.
It usually works best to make the pickups before the
And throw hand-throw switches gently. Some
mainline and passing siding switches may be remote
controlled by a tower or dispatcher. Check the route
before throwing any switch to make sure you are throwing
the correct one. And make sure all of the switches are
set back to their correct position when you leave that
Whit Towerís proposed the "thinking manís"
car-forwarding system. This approach believes "it
really doesnít matter where or how a particular car is
spotted." The train instruction card simply
adds the quantity of cars to be switched
at each town. The crew simply decides which cars they
want to switch at what industry. The one rule with this
method is to pick up one car for each one setout.
The wheel report car-forwarding method uses
one form. The first column of the form is the towns in
sequence. There is an additional column for each car
type on your railroad. You may use AAR car codes, or
common descriptions like "boxcar",
"hopper", "gondola", "tank
car", and "flatcar". A final column is
used to compute totals. The train number, and the
version number (1, 2, 3, etc.) of the wheel report form
for that train, is written at the top of the form.
Using the train instruction card you created
for sequence scheduling, determine the towns this train
switches. For each town, determine how many cars of
which types you want to switch there. For instance, you
may decide to switch two boxcars and one tank car at
Camden. On the Camden line, you would place a
"2" in the boxcar column, and a "1"
in the tank car column. The last column, the totals
column, would get a "3".
When you have completed this for each town serviced
by that train, compute the final total (add up the total
column). This is the number of cars that will be placed
in this train.
The yardmaster uses the wheel report to put together
a train. Any car in the yard may be used with the
system, as long as it is the right type
("boxcar", "hopper", etc.) as
requested on the wheel report. Real railroads block
trains to make switching easier. Blocking is simply
grouping together cars with the same destination. The
yardmaster groups together the cars for each town to be
switched. The block of cars immediately behind the
engine are for the first town, the second block is for
the second town, and so on. Through cars may be added at
the end if you want to lengthen the train.
An engine and caboose are added, and the crew starts
their run. The train instruction card describes their
run. The wheel report tells them how many cars of what
types are switched at each town. The actual switching
performed at each town is at the pleasure of the train
crew. Advanced operators will try difficult switching
moves; new operators may go with easier moves. Usually
each town only has a couple of locations that may
reasonably accept specific car types. Again, the main
rule with this method is to pick up one car for each one
setout. This way, the number of cars spread across the
layout in industrial sidings is kept constant.
When the train terminates its run in the yard, its
cars become "fair game" to use to assemble
You may further enhance operations by surveying your
industries. At each town, youíll want to collect each
industryís name, its siding capacity, what it ships
and in what kind of cars, and what it receives and in
what kind of cars. To add to the "real
railroad" feel, you may want to use AAR car
Example AAR car designations found in the Official
Railway Equipment Register. The NMRA recently
reprinted the January 1953 ORER.
|Refrigerator, ice bunker
|Hopper, triple or quad
|Flat car, general use
|Flat car, carrying
|Stock car, cattle single
|Stock car, poultry double
Use this information to enhance the track diagram of
each town. Indicate the specific car types that may be
spotted at each dock door of each industry. Since only
appropriate cars may now be delivered at that industry,
the challenge of operation, and realism of the
switching, is increased.
Usually a final switching rule is added: if you move
a car to switch another car, you need to put the first
car back where you found it.
Timetables, Part 2
Your sequence timetables may be converted to a
time-based train schedule. Until recently, the easiest
way to construct a time-based schedule was graphically.
On train graphs, time is plotted against distance.
Stations are fixed locations on the distance axis.
Trains are represented as lines, and meets occur where
lines intersect. The slope of the lines on the graph
corresponded to the speed of that run segment.
The easiest way to create a schedule today is to use
scheduling software. Even if you donít own a computer,
it is still easier to find one to use to create your
schedules. DPS Train Scheduler http://home.earthlink.net/~dpssys/Software/software.html
has a significant advantage for this application because
it is available free from their web site. Albion sells
their ShipIt! Scheduler http://www.penn.com/albion/html/scheduler.html,
which has some additional capabilities over the DPS
product, for $49.95.
Fundamentally, scheduling software takes the
sequential list of your towns, and their distance from
one end of your railroad, and adds trains moving at
selected speeds, making stops of specific duration. The
software generates a train graph and schedule from this
The NorthStar 99 clinic presentation, and the
expanded version of this article, will include a
step-by-step description of how to create a train graph
using both the software and manual methods, and convert
it into a model railroad timetable and scheduled
train instruction cards.
When designing a model timetable, keep the following
additional guidelines in mind:
- Times shown on timetables are usually
departures, except for the time at the last
- Meets and passes are indicated by times in bold
type, with the number of the other train usually
noted next to the time.
- The timetable is a great place to list special
instructions for the operators, explanations on
how to use confusing control panels, and
standard hand signals or other communications
Realistic Operation, Phase 6
Since the model passengers and freight consignees are
not going to complain about poor service, the use of a
model clock is a great way to improve the realism of
operation, but only after crews are comfortable
running the railroad. Operators need to be used to
running trains, obeying signals, and following the
schedule sequence and rule book, otherwise a clock will
only frustrate operators.
Fast clocks, running faster than normal time, are
used for model railroad operations. You may purchase a
commercial fast clock, or run a fast clock program on
your home computer (making it into a $1,500 clock). I
have even seen a "fast clock" videotape, which
displays on a TV (hit "pause" to stop the
clock). Some DCC throttles have a fast clock built into
the system. The amount of switching your crews will
perform is one of many factors which will determine your
setting for the ratio of the fast clock (fast vs. real
One starting point you could use is a 3:1 clock. This
reflects the fact it takes about one-third the time to
switch a siding on a model than it does on the
prototype. Other modelers prefer to model a 6am to
midnight "operating day" in a 3 or 4 hour
operating session. To do this requires either a 4:1 or
6:1 clock ratio. Faster ratios make the stations appear
further apart on the schedule, and while nice for
mainline running it may drive switching and yard crews
Adding a fast clock adds a new operational objective:
keeping trains on time. Crews of regular trains
are no longer just running trains between stops, they
now need to work out their meets and passes against the
schedule. Freights must now work towns efficiently to
make sure they clear other traffic. And a clock allows
you to introduce a dispatcher and extra trains
into your operation.
Frank Ellisonís concept of a "smile" is a
result of using fast clocks. The length of a smile
depends on the ratio of the clock. A model train running
at a scale 60 mph covers a scale mile in one real
minute. It travels a smile in one "fast
clock minute". Divide a scale mile by the clock
ratio to get the length of a smile. For a 6:1 clock
ratio, an HO smile would be 10 feet (an HO scale mile is
about 60 feet), for a 4:1 clock it would be 15 feet.
Timetable and Train Order Dispatching
The dispatcher oversees operations on his portion of
the railroad, and controls train movements not listed in
the timetable through the use of train orders.
For the prototype, train orders are numbered
consecutively starting at midnight (Rule 203) and
transmitted, read back, and made "complete"
through a series of rules and forms with safety in mind.
A 31 order required the train to be
stopped and the engineer sign for the order. This was
eliminated in favor of a 19 order which is
delivered by radio or phone. The conductor and engineer
("C&E") donít communicate directly with
the dispatcher ("DS"). The C&E receive
train orders and other communications, such as
clearances and messages, from a train order operator,
usually based out of a station. The operator also
reports passing trains to the dispatcher, known as an
On real railroads an approaching train tripped a bell
at the operatorís desk. The operator connected to the
DS and reported the direction of the approaching train
and the operatorís location: "Coming south,
Glenwood". The DS replied back with the identity of
the approaching train and if there were orders for that
train: "Extra 127 South, nothing for him" for
no orders, or "Clear Extra 127 South"
indicating the clearance the operator had prepared for
this train is to have orders added to the clearance. The
operator would also trigger the train-order signal for
that direction, so the C&E would know there were
orders to pickup.
After any orders were added to the clearance, the
operator confirms them to the DS: "Glenwood clears
Extra 127 South with orders 27-29-31". The
clearance is declared valid by the DS after he verified
all orders were included: "OK at 8:22 am RWS".
Copies of the clearance and orders were placed in two
delivery forks on a trackside post, one fork for the
engine crew and the other for the conductor. The crew,
alerted by the train-order signal, would grab the orders
on the fly from the fork. If they missed the orders, or
the train-order signal was set but orders were not in
the forks, the train would need to stop to pickup the
orders. The operator performed a visual inspection of
the train as it rolled by, looking for hotboxes or
After the train had passed, the operator cleared the
train-order signal, logged the train on his sheet, and
contacted the DS: "OS Glenwood". The DS
acknowledged back ("Go ahead Glenwood") when
he was ready for the detailed report from the operator:
"Extra 127 South by Glenwood at 8:46 am with
forty-two cars" which the DS logged on his train
sheet. The DS confirmed the receipt of the OS report:
"Okay Glenwood, OS Extra 127 South at 8:46
Most model railroad train orders are given verbally
one at a time, and usually are repeated back by the
train conductor (hopefully close to the original train
order), since model railroad train order operators are
fairly rare. Modelers usually donít number or write
down train orders, or follow the communications protocol
The most common uses for train orders are to run
extra trains and override superiority rules for regular
(scheduled) trains. A dispatcher may decide to hold a
train, give rights over another train, or arrange a
Extra trains are identified by the word
"extra", the engine number of the lead unit,
and the direction ("Extra 1374 West"). Extras
with foreign power typically include the road
("Extra MP 352 South"). Modern railroading
designates regularly-run extras with symbols, the
letters and numbers indicating origin, destination, type
of train, and direction. Most modelers find it useful to
distinguish Passenger Extras from (Freight) Extras.
A turn is a way freight that runs down the
line and then returns to its starting point. Frequently
run turns usually are named by the location where it
reverses direction for the return trip. Many railroads
have turns that run daily to ensure consistent service
to all of the industries along that route. Other common
turns include a mine run or a branch line
train. The out-and-back route allows for easier
switching, by only switching trailing point spurs in
Locals operate like turns, except over a shorter
range and usually for specific major customers. This
allows them to switch industries multiple times per day.
Locals receive cuts of cars from through and way
freights to be spotted at the local industries.
Orders for extras and turns do not give them any
superiority; they are completely responsible for
clearing all regular trains and must take the siding at
their destination. When two extras meet, the one of
inferior direction takes the siding. Unless your model
railroad has functioning Rule 261 block signals, the
dispatcher will need to issue orders for meets of extras
since their crews wonít know the locations of the
other trains (and no, you canít take a walk down the
aisle and check out the situation!).
Rights, along with permission to meet or pass,
may be given to inferior trains by train order. Usually
youíll want to give rights, since it allows the rules
of superiority to work out any other issues. The crew
operating the extra will need a complete timetable of
regular trains however to figure out the potential
Wait and hold orders give the dispatcher
time to work out problems.
You annul hold orders, and can annul portions
of a regular (scheduled) train: "Lone Star Chief
is annulled Texarkana to Dallas". Modern
railroading uses "cancel" instead of
An advantage of extras over regular trains is that
they can move at the speed of the crewís skill. On the
other hand, they donít have the incentive (of regular
trains working against the clock) to complete work
quickly. Since orders need to be issued for all meets
and passes, extras may have difficulty moving when
regular traffic is heavy.
But how is the dispatcher able to make these
decisions? Itís because he knows where the trains are
located. His primary tool is the train sheet,
where the time specific trains were at specific
locations is recorded. The time and location is a trainís
OS, because it was recorded by the dispatcher
The NorthStar 99 clinic, and the expanded
version of this article, will include a sample train
sheet and a simple demonstration on how the dispatcher
Realistic Operation, Phase 7
You need a communications system to add a dispatcher.
This either takes the form of a telephone or radio
system. Direct radio communication on the prototype
between train crews and dispatchers has existed since
the mid-1950ís (although the early systems didnít
work all that well), and modern railroading makes
extensive use of radio communications. Before the radio
era, crews could only communicate with the dispatcher by
stopping at a location with a phone box or an operator.
Crews also received a one-way communication from the
dispatcher by picking up or hooping train orders.
Many model operators have standardized on 5-channel
Maxon or Radio Shack FM headset radios (21-407). This is
a simple system to install since you just purchase the
radios and use them. The radio option is useful even if
you are modeling a pre-radio era and you want to avoid
the hassles of wiring a phone system. Either tell crews
they can only call in when at a phone or location with
an operator, or take the radios off the operators and
hang them next to the stations óthe radio there can
only be used when a crew is at that station.
Establish a communications protocol. The dispatcher
has top priority on the communications channel, followed
by towermen and yardmasters, with train crews at the
lowest priority. Apply the rule "listen
before talking". Higher-level
communications have priority over lower ones.
Communications need to begin with the name of the called
operator followed by the callerís identification:
"Dispatch, this is Glenwood tower" or
"Extra 142 South, this is dispatcher".
Timetable and Train Order Dispatching (T&TO)
is very paper-intensive on real railroads. Most model
railroads dispense with the paperwork and treat verbal
train orders as if they were on paper. Usually the only
paper document left is the train sheet, which the
dispatcher still needs to keep track of, and plan, the
Towermen and station operators call in trains passing
their location to the dispatcher, who records that
information on the train sheet. On most model railroads,
the train crew call in their position when passing
towers and stations, simulating the report of a tower or
station operator: "Dispatch, OS Extra 89 South at
Using the communications system, and receiving and
recording the train locations, the dispatcher may now
issue train orders for movements not on the timetable to
enhance and streamline operations.
With real T&TO operation, train crews only got
orders at towers and stations. Since it is unlikely your
model railroad will have towermen and station operators,
train crews will likely get their orders directly from
the dispatcher. The train crews need to operate as if
they received those orders at a tower or station, and
may have to align switches for meets and passes as
ordered by the dispatcher, tasks performed on real
railroads by the towermen.
An order for an extra train gives the engine
number and the points between which it runs. Extra 142
South was created by the dispatcher with "Eng 142
run Extra Ouchita Junction to Alexandra".
A order for a turn may use its name instead of
the engine number, and includes the phrases "turn"
and "and return" as in "Glenwood
Turn run Extra El Dorado to Glenwood and return".
Orders setting up meets between trains moving
in opposite directions are straightforward:
"Passenger Extra 137 North meet Extra 142 South at
Pine Bluff". The inferior train would take the
siding at Pine Bluff.
An inferior train may pass a superior train
moving in the same direction by order: "Passenger
Extra 137 North pass No. 36 at Walnut Ridge".
Number 36 would take the siding and allow Extra 137
North to pass on the main track.
A variation is the pass when overtaken order:
"Extra 142 South pass No. 27 when overtaken"
has No. 27 taking the next siding after Extra 142 South
catches up with it.
When traffic gets tough, a wait order may help
to sort things out: "Glenwood Turn wait at Camden
until 10:42am". And when things get really bad,
roll out the hold orders: "Hold Extra 142
South" or "Hold all northbound trains" or
(when disaster strikes) "Hold all trains".
Resume operations by annulling the hold order, or
releasing specific trains: "Extra 142 South may
Additional clarifications may help some crews:
"Extra 87 West take siding and meet
No. 14 at Magnolia" or "Extra 163 South hold
main and meet Camden Turn at Smackover".
The simplifications to T&TO mentioned in the
previous section to make the system easier to use on
model railroads actually results in dispatching close to
current standard procedures for real railroads (for
those locations that donít have CTC installed). Track
warrants, transmitted by radio from the dispatcher
directly to the train crew, give permission to proceed
to a specific station or location. If modeling modern
railroading (after the mid-1970s), simplified track
warrant radio procedures would be used instead of
The dispatcher and train conductors have pads of
identical track warrant forms. Using radio, the
dispatcher transmits the warrant to the conductor,
spelling out station names and numbers. The conductor
fills in the form and repeats it back at the end.
Model warrant number one is issued at the start of a
new operating session. Communications are similar to
model railroad train orders, except the process is
streamlined by using check boxes. After contacting the
trainís conductor by radio "Train 161 North,
advise when you are clear to copy a track warrant",
the dispatcher issues the warrant: "Track warrant
number fourteen to Conductor RE Lake on Train Hundred
and Sixty-One North, April Nineteen, Nineteen
Fifty-Eight at El Dorado Yard." "Check box
number two. Proceed from El Dorado to Smackover."
"Check box number four. Hold main track at
Smackover." After the crew correctly reads back the
warrant, the dispatcher puts it into effect with
"Track warrant number fourteen to Train Hundred and
Sixty-One North is OK at 8:30 am, RWS."
"RWS" is the dispatcherís initials. When the
train arrives, the conductor will report
"clear" and the time, which is recorded by the
dispatcher. The train canít move until it receives a
Waybills and Car Movement
Most railroads depend on the movement of freight for
their revenue. Railroads use waybills to track
each car and its shipment along with the shipper, the
consignee (or destination customer), any special
handling, and information important to determine the
freight charges. The original waybill travels with the
car in the custody of the conductor. As the car moves
between roads, a junction stamp is applied to the
waybill documenting the actual route of the car. The
destination road collects the freight charges and uses
the waybill to determine the share each of the handling
Online shippers receive an empty car from the home
road. Loads move from the shipper to the consignee. If
the destination is somewhere else on the home road, the
car may picked up by a local freight, taken to the local
yard near the shipper, placed in a through freight
headed for a local yard near the destination, and placed
in another local freight there which delivers the car at
the destination. If the final destination is on another
railroad, the car is moved to, and delivered at, an
interchange with a connecting railroad that can take it
to the consigneeís location, or at least move it in
Home road empty cars go to an empty-car storage track
in a home road yard. Foreign road empty cars return to
their home road empty, unless a load moving in that
direction can be found. Interchange tracks with
connecting railroads are required to model this critical
aspect of real railroading.
Unit trains are examples of captive
equipment, which travel between two locations in
dedicated service. LCL (less than carload)
traffic was once handled by way cars, which were
run down the line stopping at freight houses to load and
Model railroad waybills order the movement of cars,
at a minimum indicating the destination of the car.
Advanced model waybill systems indicate the location of
the car, if it is ready to roll, its destination, and if
it is a load or empty. This information then drives how
trains are blocked in the yards, the setouts of blocks
along the line, and the switching work performed by the
way freights and locals.
Real railroad waybills are shipper oriented. A
shipper orders a car, specifies when it is to be
delivered, when it is to be picked up, and the
destination. Some model waybill systems, such as most
computer generated switch lists, are train oriented. If
the train doesnít run, the car doesnít move, and
subsequent operations usually are impacted.
Car Forwarding Systems
Each model car forwarding system has advantages and
trade-offs. The amount of detail and information
available to, and managed by, the crews increases with
the complexity of the system.
The simplest system is Jim Hedigerís wheel
report, described in the May 1984 Model
Railroader, which we used to structure one form
of substitution switching in Phase 5 of our Operations
Development Plan. Crews setout a specific number of cars
by type at each town. Each train crew selects cars and
car spots with the same number of pickups occurring for
Basic switch lists build on the wheel report by
providing specific spotting locations for designated car
types. The next step up adds reporting marks and special
Computer generated switch lists use tables of the
cars on layout, their type, and potential delivery
locations. The system generates moves of appropriate
cars to appropriate destinations, attempting to avoid
repetitious activity. Issues with some of the software
in this category includes a) order on the switch list
isnít the order the cars are sitting in the yard, b)
cars can only move when the computer list says they can,
and c) misrouted or lost cars usually become a serious
problem. The most well known computer generated car
movement program is Albion Softwareís ShipIt!
ShipIt! generates the switch lists before
an operating session and assumes the cars will be moved
as indicated on the switch list. Remember, real
railroads use computer generated switch lists for
blocking and switching, so this type of system can
"look and feel" the closest to real modern
Tab on car systems use colored and coded roof
tabs, tacks or stickers. Typically the color indicates
the originating yard/area blocking and the code
letters/numbers indicate the spotting destination. Setup
can take more time than card or software based systems,
due to the need to make the custom tabs. Many modelers
also have cosmetic issues with this approach Ė they
donít like the brightly color tabs on top of
equipment. On the other hand, it eliminates the need to
carry around waybill or switchlist paperwork.
Early car card systems were developed by Doug
Smith and first described in the December 1961 Model
Railroader. Steve King and Allen McClelland made
some improvements to the system which was described in
the February 1978 Railroad Model Craftsman.
The Midwest Railroad Modelers streamlined blocking
trains with a TIBS code in the July 1987 Model
Railroader. Car card methods simulate prototype
car movements well, but have difficulty simulating flow
frequency for high volume industries.
In a preset car card system, like that of
Gerald Dyrar, each car has a corresponding
3"x5" index card with a list of logical
destinations. A paper clip is moved down the list,
indicating the next movement for that car.
Car card and waybill systems use a
3"x5" index card with the card information,
and a transparent pocket for a two-sided waybill. With
no waybill, a "return when empty" destination
appears through the clear pocket. A "freight
agent" in the yard adds a waybill to the car card.
Additional cards may be added to the pocket with special
handling instructions. The crew may turn the waybill
once it is delivered to its destination, preparing it
for its next move.
Substantial enhancements were made by the Don
McFall car card and waybill system (described in the
next section). These included reduction in the size of
the paperwork to be carried by the crew, more
versatility in routing, and options for special
One big advantage of car card systems is that routing
errors are self-correcting. If a car is left at the
wrong place, the next local switching that location will
read the card or waybill and forward the car to its
When creating waybill or switchlist destinations, you
know the industries that are on your model railroad, but
how do you figure out reasonable destinations "off
the layout" for interchange traffic? One solution
is Chris Buttís industry database which is available
online at http://members.aol.com/Opsigmem/industry.html,
courtesy of the NMRA Operations SIG. It lists over 6,200
real-world online shippers.
A related issue is that you will want to make sure
that the commodity being shipped matches the car type.
This will require research on which commodities are
shipped in what kind of cars in your area. This is an
era-specific issue as well. For instance, Kaolin clay is
now shipped as slurry in special tank cars. Forty years
ago it was shipped as a powder in boxcars with roof
The various alternate waybill and switch list car
forwarding systems will be discussed in greater detail
at the NorthStar 99 clinic, and in the expanded
version of this article.
Realistic Operation, Phase 8
The most popular model railroad waybill system is Don
McFallís Car Cards.
The car cards are 2"x4" and have the
car information on the top and a pocket on the bottom.
The car information includes the road name, number, and
AAR car type. A waybill slides into the pocket. The
waybill covers a "When empty, return car to:"
area on the card car but does not cover the car
information at the top of the card. The "when
empty" area provides a routing for a car without a
waybill in the pocket.
Each 2"x3" waybill has four car movements
or cycles. Waybills have a box for the AAR
car type. Each of the four movements has a
"To:", "From:", and
"Contents" area. The "To:" and
"From:" portions each list the destination
(town) and receiver (industry). The size of the
waybill and pocket is designed so that only one movement
shows at a time.
Each town and yard has a waybill box on the
front of the layoutís fascia, with a compartment
labeled for each track. When a car is setout on a track,
the corresponding car card is placed in the compartment
for that track. A narrow sorting shelf near the waybill
box is useful at yards and heavily industrialized towns.
Operators donít turn or modify the waybills, they
just follow the instructions on the waybill and leave it
in the car card. Only the Superintendent, usually
between operating sessions, turns waybills.
Special order forms may also be placed in a waybill
pocket. The Empty Car Order simulates a shipper
requesting an empty car. In addition to the location
needing the car, the order includes the required car
type and any special instructions. A yardmaster receives
the empty car order, locates an appropriate empty
(usually abbreviated "MTY") car in his yard,
places the empty car order form in the car card pocket,
and places the car in a train headed in that direction
for setout. The Superintendent, between sessions,
replaces the empty car order form with a waybill to
route that car in the next session. The Old Line
Graphics version of this form has a Special
Waybill form printed on the back side, which may be
used to write those next moves.
Blocks of cars are moved with Mine Block and Multi-Car
Block cards. Individual car cards (the part with
pockets) arenít used since the block cards have
the road and number of the first and last card in the
block, and how many cars are part of that block. The
cars stay together and move as a block. The cards list
the destination for delivery. Mine block cards add the
type of coal and where it is to be washed and weighed.
Multi-car block cars add the type of load.
A Train Order card may be used to create an
extra or turn. The train order car would include the
train number, engine assignment, origin and destination,
and special instructions. Extra 142 South could be
created by the dispatcher with this printed version of
the "Eng 142 run Extra Ouchita Junction to
Alexandra" order. The yardmaster tacks on a
caboose, drops the power on the train, and hands the train
order card, with the car cards of the cars in
the train, to the crew.
A train instruction card may still used to list the
station stops, and any special information the crew may
require, for regular (scheduled) trains.
The train crew should always check their cards before
leaving the yard, and during a run, to ensure they have
the right cars and to plan their switching moves. Turns
typically switch trailing point sidings on the way out,
and handle the remaining sidings on the return.
A rubber band, spring clip, clear pocket protector,
or convention name badge holder may be used to keep the
train instructions and car cards together. The
pocket-style bundling tends to be less damaging to the
cards than spring clips.
When creating the waybills, keep in mind that
prototype car service rules state you should load a
foreign-road car if doing so will send it back in the
direction of its home road. If you donít have a load,
the car is returned empty by the same route it came.
Two companies are able to help you set up McFall car
cards and waybills. Old Line Graphics,
1604 Woodwell Road, Silver Spring, MD 20906 offers all
of the forms as preprinted pads. They have a starter kit
available for $16 (Jan 98 price). Car cards, waybills,
and empty card orders are $1.75 per pad of 50. Train
orders, mine block, multi-card block, and bad orders are
$1.25 per pad of 50. Shipping on all orders is $4 per
MiTrains and Waybills for Operations
computer software, available from Shenandoah Software,
Post Office Box 130, Alachua, Florida 32616, (904)
prints the card cards and waybills. Shenwareís program
integrates Chris Buttís industry database of over
6,200 online industries in the US and Canada. The $49.95
software prints waybills on inkjet and laser printer
business card sheets available at office supply stores
or on plain paper. A demo version of the software is
available on their website. It was recently brought to
my attention that Albion software also makes a car card
version of their software, ShipIt! Car Cards
Passenger Train Switching
Donít forget that passenger trains switch too. Cars
were regularly added and removed from trains to meet the
passenger traffic needs, or to adjust the mix of
accommodations for various segments of a trainís run.
Passenger trains commonly carried mail and express
packages using specialized head-end and express
equipment. Adding mail, REA, express, and passenger
equipment preparation facilities to your layout can open
up all sorts of new operation possibilities. Car card
and waybill, or switchlist, systems may be applied to
passenger car-forwarding operations as well.
Centralized Traffic Control
The dispatcher operates the CTC machine. It
directly controls signals and switches along its portion
of the line. The dispatcher plans moves based on
indicator lights showing the positions of trains.
Lineside signals are normally red unless set to green by
the dispatcher. The CTC machine will prevent the
dispatcher from setting a signal to green, or throwing a
switch, if it is inappropriate to do so. Signals usually
operate as APB (absolute permissive block), so yellow
indications appear automatically and opposing moves see
solid red. Trains operate following signal indications.
Authority by timetable disappears along with most train
orders. Only those very few movements that cannot be
handled by CTC receive train orders.
Adding CTC is a very serious (time and money)
investment. At a minimum it requires track detection,
powered switches, and operating signals managed by a
computer running a program custom to the railroad
connected to a custom CTC board or display system. Real
Class 1 railroads introduced CTC in the 1930ís, and
have steadily evolved the concept into the computer
dispatch control centers of todayís railroads. Since
crews need to see the indication of every signal,
visibility of the signals becomes an important layout
design consideration. CTC is used by the prototype to
increase their traffic volume on a route, the same will
happen on a model railroad using CTC. Wider aisles, and
additional staging, will be required as a result. CTC is
for modelers interested in realistically running heavy
volumes of mainline traffic.
Operations Development Plan Summary
As we covered the various topics and considerations
when designing model railroad operations, we also
created a corresponding operations development plan.
This eight-step plan will help you to start operating
now, and provides easy transitions into other areas of
model railroad operation.
- Scale speed running
- Name everything
- Get the railroad to work mechanically and
- Create a Train Service Plan and Sequence
- Start Substitution Switching
- Timetable Operations by fast clock
- Train Orders by dispatcher
- Freight car waybill system
An expanded version of this article is available as a
handout at my NorthStar 99 clinic presentation.
The expanded version is also available in the online
library at the Gateway Division NMRA web site, http://www.gatewaynmra.org,
along with numerous sample forms and documents you may
use for model railroad operations. The author reserves
all commercial publication rights to this clinic.
Armstrong, John "The Railroad: What It
Is, What It Does", Simmons-Boardman Books, ISBN
0-911382-04-6. Read how the real railroads work from
a book used to train real railroaders.
Armstrong, John "Track Planning for Realistic
Operation", Kalmbach Books. Prototype and model
track design considerations and fundamentals of real
railroad operations in the steam era. A "must
Chubb, Bruce "How to Operate Your Model
Railroad", Kalmbach Books, ISBN 0-89024-528-2. Out
of print, but an excellent reference if you can find a
Mallery, Paul "Operation Handbook for Model
Railroads", Carstens Publications, ISBN
911868-74-7. Youíll want this book.
Villaret, Eugene "Realistic Revenue
Operations", Greenberg Publishing, ISBN
0-89778-000-0. Describes how to use an early car card
Alcock, Bruce & Raskob, Michael "Passenger
Train Operations on the Chesapeake System", Model
Railroader, August 1996, p58-63. How to
design interesting passenger train operations.
Barrow, David "How to Operate Your Layout",
Model Railroader, October 1995, p104-109. Designing
operations for an MR project layout.
Barrow, David "Operating the South Plains
District", Model Railroader, December
1996, p100-105. Applying basic operation concepts and
McFall car cards to another MR project layout.
Barrow, David "Yard Throats for Operation",
Model Railroad Planning 1997, p84-85. Good
ideas for yard design.
Birsa, Joe "Telephones on the Huntingdon
Northern", Railroad Model Craftsman,
April 1999, p78-82. How to construct a steam-era
Boelter, Bob "Organize Your Card Cards", Model
Railroader, December 1996, p139. Using
brochure holders to make waybill boxes, and convention
name badge holders for car card carriers.
Darnaby, Bill "Card-Order Operation for
Passenger Trains", Model Railroader,
October 1993, p74-77. Applying freight-car waybill
concepts to passenger traffic.
Darnaby, Bill "Designing a Timetable for the
Maumee Route", Model Railroader,
January 1993, p80-87. Excellent description of
designing T&TO operations on a freelance railroad.
Darnaby, Bill "The Maumee Turns a Mike", Model
Railroader, July 1996, p94-97. How to model
and operate a steam servicing facility.
Dolkos, Paul "The Joys of Junctions", Model
Railroad Planning 1995, p10-15. Describes and
illustrates the various kinds of junctions and their
Geletzke, Charles "Name that Track, Principles
of Prototype Track Identification", Model
Railroader, June 1994, p94-97. How the
prototype names and numbers tracks.
Gruber, Bill "Enhancing Operations with
Procedures Manuals", Railroad Model Craftsman,
January 1992, p72-75. Overview on what should be
included for a good model railroad procedures manual.
Gurin, Doug "A Primer on Helix Design", Model
Railroad Planning 1997, p72-77. If you are
going to build a helix, read this article first on how
to do it right.
Hediger, Jim "Railroading Without
Derailments", Model Railroader, May
1996, p80-81. Basic checks for track, turnouts,
trucks, and couplers for dependable operation.
Hediger, Jim "Wheel Reports for Easy
Operation", Model Railroader, May
1984, p102-103. A minimal-paperwork operating method.
Hitchcock, Chuck "Santa Fe Passenger Trains on
the Argentine Division", Great Model
Railroads 1991, p20-27. Creating intensive
passenger train operations based on a prototype.
Passenger trains switch too!
Hitchcock, Chuck "Twelve Hours at
Argentine", Model Railroad Planning 1997,
p10-17. Forget freight trains! Running and switching
passenger trains is where this railroadís action is at.
Holbrook, Dan "TIBS, the Train and Industry
Blocking System", Model Railroader,
July 1987, p91-95. Excellent description of how to
use the Smith-King car card and waybill system.
Houghton, Allan "Care and Feeding of the Steam
Locomotive", Model Railroader, July
1995, p68-73. Modeling critical details and
structures surrounding a turntable.
King, Steve "Car Cards and Waybills", Railroad
Model Craftsman, February 1978, p68-73. Detailed,
step by step explanation on how to use the Doug
Smith-Steve King car card and waybill system.
Koester, Tony "Enhanced Car Forwarding on the
Midland Road", Model Railroader,
March 1993, p75-81. Very good explanation of how to
use the Don McFall car card waybill system.
Koester, Tony "Improved Handling for Empty
Freight Cars", Model Railroader,
March 1994, p76-79. Follow-on to the March 93
article, describing empty car handling and explaining
car service rules.
Koester, Tony "Operation Brings a Coal Branch to
Life", Model Railroader, November 1998, p82-87. Covers
operations on the newest extension to his layout, with
samples of the train register, timetable, clearance
form, and form 19 used.
Koester, Tony "Midland Road Moves Coal", Model
Railroader, February 1997, p70-79. Discusses
design of coal operations, using staging and McFall Mine
Koester, Tony "Yard Operations on the Allegheny
Midland", Model Railroad Planning 1996,
p10-15. Design considerations and operations in a
Middleton, William "Steam Locomotive Servicing
Facilities", Railroad Model Craftsman,
p76-83. How prototype steam servicing works.
Prehoda, Bob "Operating with Train Orders",
Railroad Model Craftsman, June 1999,
p69-74. Designing T&TO operations using real
train orders, with examples of the paperwork and a
description of how it is applied.
Providenza, Jim "Operating Night on the Santa
Cruz Northern", Model Railroader, May
1996, p72-79. Track warrant operations on a freelance
Schuchmann, Walt "Computer Waybill
Operation", Model Railroader,
November 1989, p114-119. Microsoft BASIC program to
randomly select waybills from a previously entered table.
Sebastian-Coleman, George "DCC Buyers
Guide", Model Railroader, June 1999,
Senese, Jim "Five Railroads, Four Yards, One
City", Model Railroad Planning 1999,
p18-25. Modeling the major Kansas City yards and
Sperandeo, Andy "Tab-on-car Operation", Model
Railroader, December 1981, p84-88. Describes
how to design and use the tab-on-car car forwarding
Strang, Lionel "Evolving Paint Schemes on the
Allegheny & Lackawana Southern", Model
Railroader, November 1996, p78-83. Discusses
how to develop a believable paint scheme for a
free-lance model railroad.
Williams, Ron "Track Warrant Control on the
CATS", Model Railroader, August 1992,
p68-71. How to use track warrant style dispatching on
a model railroad with step-by-step example.
Wilson, Jeff "Modeling from a Timesheet", Model
Railroad Planning 1999, p10-17. A model
railroad of a junction, modeling the prototype traffic
at that spot.
Lake, Richard "Series on Freight Yard
OíBrien, Mike "Layout
Schumacher, Richard "Computers and Model
Gateway Division on-line library, Operations articles
and forms, http://www.gatewaynmra.org/operate.htm
Layout Design SIG, http://www.ldsig.org/
Operations SIG, http://members.aol.com/Opsigmem/index.html
Operations SIG Industry Database, http://members.aol.com/Opsigmem/industry.html
Join the NMRA Operations SIG. For only $15/year you
get their excellent Quarterly Publication, the Dispatcherís
Office, and information on operations events.
Operations SIG, Box 872, Arlington Heights, IL 60006.