Operations can be somewhat intimidating. No matter how much you know about trying to emulate prototype practice on a layout, it will still make you nervous the first time you operate on a layout that is not yours. But this experience can be both fun and educational.
Recently I went to Kansas City and took part in KC OpSat ’98. This event was hosted by a number of the Operations SIG members in Kansas City. It was a great event. I got to operate as a dispatcher on Rick McClellan’s layout, which is based on the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad’s operation in southwest Missouri with Springfield as the focal point.
When I first went, I was nervous. I had seen this railroad in one of the national magazines a few months prior to the National Convention in Kansas City. It looked like a great layout. When I heard Rick McClellan liked to operate, I knew I wanted to go to his layout. This was my chance.
I was very nervous when I learned that the only people at his layout who were not real railroaders were myself, Rick, and Bret Overholdt. I was in an operating group with four Union Pacific dispatchers from Omaha and a retired track foreman. This made me think that I definitely was in the wrong group. I knew that I was going to make mistakes and that these guys would think my mistakes were so simple considering they all worked for Union Pacific. I began to regret that I ever asked to be the dispatcher on his layout.
Rick’s layout is somewhat difficult to learn. He operates the Springfield Terminal of the Frisco and it looks like an “X” with Springfield at the center. The four arms of the “X” reach to Kansas City and Tulsa to the west and St. Louis and Memphis to the east. Rick is planning on installing CTC control on the layout. At this time he dispatches the layout using a “poor man’s CTC.” He has a schematic drawing of the layout on a panel on the dispatcher’s desk. In addition he uses an “Order Sheet” with the stations in the center of the sheet from top to bottom. At the very top there is room to write down a train’s number, engine consist, loads, empties, and caboose. (This is prior to the death of the caboose.) Even-numbered trains are on one side of the sheet and they all go in one direction and the odd-numbered trains are on the other side of the station names and are for the trains bound in the other direction.
This was difficult to work because while all of the stations were on the sheet, they were not in an order to show which leg of the “X” the stations were on. Springfield was in the center of all the stations just as it is the crossing point of the “X.” However trains bound for St. Louis and for Memphis were on the same side of Springfield on the sheet. Trains bound from Springfield to Tulsa and Kansas City were on the same side as each other. Therefore, it was possible to have station names listed in sequence on the sheet but they would not be on the same leg of the “X.”
More than once this caused me to be very slow in trying to figure out where trains were and whether there was going to be a cornfield meet thanks to me. The engineers would call for authority and I would give it to the best of my ability. Whenever the engineers would pass a town or junction, they would “OS” me so I knew they were clear on the main up to that point.
Everything worked out fine. The dispatchers taught me prototypical communication patterns and I would use this as I learned it when I talked with them on the radios. In addition, I would keep them on their toes when they would forget to “OS” me. We even nearly had a cornfield meet when two different engineers overran their authority in the yard.
We all had fun that day. We ribbed each other when we made mistakes. It was very enjoyable and I am glad I went. I made some new friends (even got an invitation to come to the Harriman Dispatching Center and see how the pros do it) and learned more about operations. One thing I also realized was that I did not have to feel nervous. Everyone was there to have a good time.
This is the point of operations—people getting together to have fun operating trains in a prototypical manner and having fun doing it. I would encourage everyone to give it a try. Do not feel nervous or, if you do, do not let nervousness keep you from giving it a try. You just might like it.
Until the next time, I hope all the signals you see are green over red.