Set Up an Informal Operating System

Harvey Heyser III, clerk (2017-2020), NMRA South Mountain Division. (Tom Fedor)

by Harvey Heyser

Re-Inventing the Wheel?

Part one.

For this article, I have used the term “informal operating systems” to differentiate less structured approaches from prototype-based operating systems. Steve King has used the term “fun run,” but I feel that term, while easily understandable, does an injustice to both approaches to operations. Those interested in prototype-based operations would not participate if they were not having “fun,” and those, who prefer a more relaxed experience, still want to learn about how the prototype does things. Consequently, I find the term “informal operating systems” more useful and less pejorative. (At the recent NMRA National Convention in Salt Lake City, there was a clinic titled “Operations without the Aggravation.” I find that also an effective way to label less formal approaches.)

Over the years, we have all been harangued by articles and clinics touting the benefits of prototype-based operating systems (TT/TO, track warrants, etc.). The main reason given is that prototype railroads have developed, tested, and refined these systems for many years in the real world, addressing the many situations that come up when operating a railroad. Why would anyone want to re-invent that wheel? Clearly, developing an operating system is not a simple task. Why not use a system already developed and tested?

While this argument is very convincing, it ignores an important fact – prototype operations are very different from model railroad operations. First, prototype railroads are businesses; model railroads are part of our hobby. Second, prototype railroading can be deadly serious; model railroading is supposed to be fun. Third, prototype railroaders are trained professionals; model railroaders are, for the most part, interested, sometimes informed amateurs. Whatever system of operations we choose, whether prototype-based or other, must address these differences.

The goals for prototype-based versus informal model railroad operating systems:

Prototype-based operating systems:

  1. To experience operating the model railroad as closely as possible to the way we might experience operating the prototype,
  2. To have an enjoyable and challenging experience with people knowledgeable about railroads,
  3. To meet the session’s challenges with the tools developed by prototype railroads, and
  4. To replicate the work prototype railroads do.  (Creativity is not OK.)

Informal operating systems:

  1. To experience the model railroad in a railroad-like fashion,
  2. To have an enjoyable and relaxing experience with other people interested in railroads,
  3. To pretend we are professional railroaders (somewhat like re-enactors) and, from that effort, to learn things about prototype railroading, and
  4. To find solutions to the situations that come up without having to make efforts that are too much like work. (Creativity is fine.)

While these two sets of goals are not completely different, the emphasis certainly is different between them. Those differences greatly affect the operating system appropriate for a given model railroad. It may have been designed for prototype-based operations, and then again, it may not have been. Crew members may be interested in the challenges of prototype-based operations, or they may be more interested in a relaxing, enjoyable time spent with friends and acquaintances. The prototype being modeled may be a heavily trafficked mainline, or it could be a backwoods branch with two trains a day. Each of these sets of circumstances warrants a “custom” approach.

Prototype railroads understand that fact and address different situations with rules customized for each region and each operating district. “One size fits all” does not work for the prototype; unsurprisingly, that approach does not work for all model railroads either.

Problems with prototype based operating systems: Crews not interested in prototype-based operating systems have voiced numerous complaints. The following are some of the characteristics of prototype-based operations that superintendents might want to avoid:

  • Too much paperwork: During the often hectic flow of the session, it is often impossible to find time to read, much less deal with, a sheaf of papers, especially when the piece of information needed is buried where it cannot be found easily.
  • Hard-to read paperwork: The effort to make keep instructions and information easy to handle, often results in making them unreadable except with a magnifying glass. Also handwritten entries on forms are often illegible.
  • Rule books – too much to remember.
  • Clearances: Written clearances are an example of excess paperwork.
  • In-depth pre-session introductory material and long verbal orientations – again too much to remember.
  • Timetables, clocks and fast time: Crews want to watch their trains, not the clock (too much like work). Besides, a timetable is not easy to read while trying to run a train.
  • Reporting requirements: Having to pick up the phone or radio every few minutes can be quite distracting.
  • Complicated train instructions: Brevity and simplicity should be the main goal. Crews should be able to find what they need to do easily.
  • Train orders written in “railroad English:” Prototype railroaders would understand; model railroad crews might not.
  • Car forwarding information: Whether car cards, switch lists, or other systems are used, there is often much more information than needed. Also, carrying a large stack of cards around is always a challenge.

Undoubtedly, there are other problems crews might have with prototype-based operating systems, but the above list will suffice for now. (As will be discussed below, some of these items are essential for running a railroad.)

Problems with informal operating systems: After considering the numerous problems common to prototype operating systems, it is tempting to conclude that, by adopting an informal operating system, we can address all those issues and eliminate the things to which crews might object.

However, informal systems come with their own set of problems – a couple of them major. 1) By adopting informal procedures, we have essentially discarded the administrative organization that works so well for managing prototype traffic.

2) Crews may not have the information and directions they need to do their jobs. Between these two problems, it is almost certain that difficulties will arise. The following are some of the potentially maddening situations that develop when using informal operating systems:

  1. Sessions degenerate into confusion: This is perhaps the most serious criticism of the Mother, may I? operating system. Crews (sometimes behaving like spoiled children) all cry out for the host’s attention at the same time. As the number of problems encountered multiplies, the volume of cries increases. The host has far too much to deal with; the session becomes a confused mess.
  2. Situations get resolved without taking into account the railroad’s overall objectives: This problem arises when crews take it upon themselves to resolve a conflict by gentlemen’s agreement – such as the problem of too many trains in one location. The resolution may be quite creative; it may be quite satisfying. But, if the through freight gets held up by the local, that resolution is not the right one.

Worst of all, the crews involved miss an opportunity to experience how the prototype might resolve a similar problem.

  1. Crews blithely unaware of anything but their own train: That might work on a backwoods branch or a one-train-a-day shortline, but when more than one train is running, crews need to be aware of other trains and to coordinate their efforts with those of other crews. (This issue also comes into play when crews have to share aisle space.)
  2. Operating systems that do not address all aspects of operating the railroad: For instance, some layout owners consider having a car card system to be the same as having an operating system. That approach does not consider traffic management, and the car cards lack much of the information crews need to do their jobs. Crews have no sense of time, no information about other trains, no understanding of the superiority of trains, and no authority to use a specific track (in fact, no instructions about which track their train should be on). Confusion reigns. Of necessity, figuring out how to do a given job becomes the primary effort for the session. Enjoyment comes in a distant second.

The result of these situations can be an atmosphere of “chaos,” an atmosphere not conducive to having a relaxing, enjoyable time. Because crews do not have the information they need to do their jobs, they feel uncomfortable. They cannot enjoy themselves – the main reason for adopting informal operations in the first place.

What have we learned? Prototype-based operating systems come with quite a few rules and procedures: things that crews looking for a relaxed operating experience might object to.  Adopting an informal operating system seems like a good way to avoid those objections. But informal systems often cast aside the organization needed to run a model railroad and often fail to give crews information needed to do their jobs. The result can be chaotic, quite the opposite of the relaxing, enjoyable experience desired.

Adopting an informal operating system does not have to degenerate into chaos if some effort is put in place to establish basic organizing principles and to give crews the information they need to do their jobs.

Part two of this article will endeavor to discover ways to correct the deficiencies of informal operating systems and will open discussion of the enjoyment possible when adopting such informal systems.

On-Layout & In-Train Staging

Harvey Heyser III, clerk (2017-2020), NMRA South Mountain Division. (Tom Fedor)

By Harvey Heyser, III

Many years ago, Model Railroader published an O scale plan version of their well known Clinchfield Railroad. (December 1978, p. 88.) That layout plan served as raw material for some thoughts about staging – thoughts that I find to have some general application. 

Sized to fill an entire basement, the O scale Clinchfield featured a continuous oval mainline (around the walls of the basement with a peninsula) and two branches that came together in a loads-out/empties-in (mine/power plant) combination. The main yard at Dante featured eight (8) double-ended tracks (two of them the mainline and siding) and the connection with the power plant branch. On the opposite side of the basement, there was another town (Fremont/Caney Jct.) where the coal mine branch line took off to Moss Mine. The proposed operation of the layout featured heavy mainline freight traffic (especially coal drags), a few passenger trains, and some locals to serve on-line towns and the branches. There was no obvious place to put any staging/fiddle tracks. The question in my mind was how to provide meaningful traffic on the Clinchfield layout without any place to stage/fiddle. I wondered if it might be possible to use the yard (visible, rather than hidden, on-layout staging for the trains) and the trains themselves (in-train staging for the cars) to fulfill those functions.

Holding tracks and the concept of on-line staging: Many years ago, model railroaders embraced the concept of holding tracks as a way to extend the run times of trains. Trains went into the holding tracks and waited a prescribed amount of time before proceeding with their runs.

These holding tracks were often (but not always) hidden; however, unlike staging, holding tracks were regarded as part of the layout not “beyond the basement” as we currently regard staging.  When the concept of staging caught on, holding tracks were sometimes repurposed as staging tracks. This conceptual connection between holding and staging leads to the concept of on-layout staging. Because the Clinchfield has no obvious place to locate conventional staging, we will be looking at “hiding” trains in plain sight on the layout – not in another room, not somewhere out-of-sight under the layout.

Types of mainline trains: I mentally reviewed the categories of mainline trains to be expected on the Clinchfield:

    1. Loaded coal trains.
    2. Empty coal trains.
    3. Eastbound through freights.
    4. Westbound through freights.
    5. Eastbound-sweepers (which set-out and pick-up cars at the main yard).
    6. Westbound sweepers.
    7. Eastbound passengers.
    8. Westbound passengers.

That creates the potential for eight (8) types of trains. In this situation, using one train to represent all trains of its type seemed a reasonable compromise.

On-layout staging for eight types of trains:  Given the presence of six (6) available storage tracks in the yard, I wondered if they could serve as on-layout staging for all eight different types of trains. Types number 1 & 2, the coal trains (loaded and empty), would both need to be modeled.  (The Clinchfield was a coal railroad, after all, and ran lots of coal drags.) If there were only a few passenger trains (#7 and 8 – reasonable considering the era modeled – late transition period) and if operating sessions represented only part of a day (say 8 or 12 hours), only one passenger train would run during each session. Then I considered the through freights and sweepers (#3, 4, 5, & 6). I realized that the main difference between them was the fact that through freights pass through the yard with their consists unchanged while the sweepers set-out and pick-up cars. Otherwise, both types of trains consisted of a mix of different kinds of cars, unlike the coal trains (hoppers only). So, an eastbound freight could stand in for both the through freight and the sweeper – the same for a westbound freight. That thinking resulted in the realization that five (5) trains could represent all the types of trains needed for a session. The yard had capacity to hold/stage the five trains needed to represent all required train types needed for a session’s mainline traffic with one track left over. The sixth track could then serve for making-up and breaking up local trains.

In-train staging

Coal drags & mainline freights:

Staging for coal drags: Both loaded and empty coal trains could represent all the session’s coal traffic.  The cars in the two drags could be set out and picked up as needed. The east-bound drag could set out loads for the power plant on one trip.  Then it could run light or hold in the yard until the local brought in loads from the mine. The next time the drag had to run, it would then be back to capacity. The sight of coal trains sitting in the yard is not unusual for coal hauling railroads. Perhaps the two coal trains should sit on the front two staging tracks.

Staging for through freights: Since these trains did not change consists, they simply could be considered to hold in the yard for other traffic. After they left, they could come back as different through trains or as sweepers.

Staging for sweepers: During a session, there were likely to be two sweepers – one east-bound and one west-bound. Each would set out and pick up a block of cars. But what would happen when sessions occurred frequently or when there were multiple sweepers during one session?  The work for yard and local crews should not always seem to involve the same cars. Here I remembered that the yard tracks on the O scale Clinchfield were double-ended; cars could be set out and picked up from different ends of the train.  The set out and pick up blocks could be close to the same size (say 1/3 of the cars in the train). Then, the trains would remain roughly the same length. If the set-outs always came off the front of the train and the pick-ups always went onto the back, the front end would be different, and the back end would be different each time they ran. Consequently, the sweeper would look different every time it arrived for each of six times around. (Remember Allen McClelland’s observation that we tend to notice the front and rear ends of trains the most.)

1st time through:  block 1, block 2, and block 3  (Remove block 1; add block 4.)

2nd time through:  block 2, block 3, and block 4  (Remove block 2; add block 5.)

3rd time through:  block 3, block 4, and block 5  (Remove block 3; add block 6.)

4th time through:  block 4, block 5, and block 6  (Remove block 4; add block 1.)

5th time through:  block 5, block 6, and block 1*  (Remove block 5; add block 2.)

6th time through: block 6, block 1*, and block 2*  (Remove block 6; add block 3.)

(* assuming the exact same cars are brought in by the locals)

With typical (generic) motive power, there would be little chance that the repetition would be objectionable; in any case, the cars that the locals would pick-up would probably not be identical to the blocks originally set-out by the sweepers. A bit of fiddling between sessions (something you would get to do in an open yard at normal layout height, not under scenery or other tracks) could vary the sweeper consist so much that no one would notice.

Additional cars for locals:  If additional cars were needed for local operations, pausing the session for a few minutes to change out some of the sweeper cars would certainly be possible. During the break, the yard could become a fiddle yard temporarily. When crews return, the consists of the trains would have “mysteriously” changed, and those trains would be ready for the next “act” in the drama that is an operating session.

On-layout staging for the rest of the trains:

Staging for passenger trains would require some sleight-of-hand. I would suggest leaving from the station, making a full circuit of the mainline oval, and then “hiding” on the back track of the yard rather than pulling up again to the station out front. The next run would be in a later session, so that you could turn the train (if needed) and start the next session with it somewhere more convenient (probably at the station).

Traffic staged on the mainline: For an additional train type (for instance, another passenger train), the session could easily begin with a train on the mainline if you could find a place to park/hide it during the session. Provision of a passing siding at Fremont/Caney Jct. might be the easiest way to provide an additional layover/holding spot.

Running mainline trains from on-layout staging:  Treating the yard as if each end were a different place might make mainline trains more realistic. With that in mind, it seems to me there are several ways to handle mainline traffic:

    1. Run out of the yard, around the layout, and into the yard (into the same yard/staging track you left from).
    2. Run out of the yard, around the layout, and onto the passing siding at the yard (as a through or sweeper train would do). Then run around the layout again and return to the yard (into the same yard/staging track you left from).
    3. Run out of the yard, around the layout, and onto the passing siding at the yard (as a through or sweeper train would do). After your train has been switched, back it into the staging track you left from.
    4. Run out of the yard, around to the other town (siding), and hold there (long enough to be “forgotten”). Then return to the yard (siding or staging track per #1 or 2 above).

None of these options would be particularly realistic for train crews but could serve to duplicate the flow of mainline traffic for yard and local crews. One way to make the experience less unrealistic would be to prevent mainline crews from walking from one end of the yard directly to the other end, thus forcing them to walk all the way around the layout room to pick up their next train. (See the discussion of my operating experiences at the end of this article.) Crew members who love to run trains might be volunteered for these mainline jobs. They might enjoy the experience enough to overlook its unrealistic aspects.  (Modelers with an interest in automation of layout functions might be able to run mainline traffic by computer and use human crews for the other trains.) 

Local operations: With both east and westbound locals needed to serve the mine and power plant, the sixth yard track could serve as the make-up/break-up track for these trains. Using in-train staging, the required cars would come off the coal drags and sweepers (in-train staging), which would also take the pick-ups when the locals return. The locals’ work would occur on the modeled portion of the railroad and would include keeping out of the way of mainline traffic.

Storage and classification: To make this scheme work, these functions would need tracks for holding and sorting the blocks of cars coming out of and going into the sweepers. Fortunately, the Clinchfield plan had open space beside the stairs in the middle of the basement for some single-ended yard tracks connected to the layout by a drop down wye. (See diagram at end of article.) This yard could also present the opportunity for some additional industry spots and the possibility for an interchange (another way for cars to come onto or leave the layout). With the wye in place, direct passage from one end of the yard to the other would be impeded, thus furthering the idea that both ends of the yard are “different places.”

Crew requirements (for this layout and this method of staging): The following crew assignments would be possible:  Dispatcher, yardmaster, assistant yardmaster, yard crew, (2) two person local crews, (2) single person coal crews (frequent coal trains – switching to be done by yard crews), (1) single person through freight/sweeper crew (again switching to be done by yard crews), and (1) single person passenger crew.  That totals twelve possible positions – a significant number for a layout lacking hidden staging/fiddle tracks.

What has been accomplished by this exercise? Thinking about the O scale Clinchfield, we have figured out how, with five (5) yard tracks, to accommodate seven or eight types of mainline trains staged on the layout within the yard. On-layout staging, coupled with using one train to represent all trains of its type, could provide heavy mainline traffic, including coal traffic (both loads and empties) moving in the appropriate directions. (The loads-out/empties-in feature eliminated the need to remove/insert loads.)  With in-train staging, the blocks of cars needed for normal local operations would be ready to be set-out (giving the train capacity for any pick-ups). We have done this without “hidden” staging tracks or fiddle yards.  (As noted previously, the O scale Clinchfield left no room in the basement for those tracks.)

These two concepts have great potential for many space-strapped model railroads such as:

    1. Layouts that feature heavy mainline traffic and include a double-ended yard but have limited (or no) space for hidden staging and/or fiddling.
    2. Layouts whose owners do not want the hassle of constructing, maintaining, or operating hidden staging yards.
    3. Shortlines or branches that depend on a mainline connection for regular freight and passenger interchange several times daily (These layouts may need only a few mainline train types, have limited rolling stock to make up multiple trains, and have limited hidden space to stage them.  In-train staging might be especially helpful in this situation.)
    4. Small starter pikes where yard space is limited and where complicated benchwork, hidden trackwork, and mainline grades are not recommended.
    5. Layouts already constructed without hidden staging.

One additional benefit, on-layout and in-train staging can be implemented either during the design stage or later when setting up an operating system. These ideas do not necessarily require revisions to layouts already built.

When thinking about my own experiences during operating sessions, I tend to focus my attention on my train and what it is doing. I pay relatively little attention to many of the things happening around me. So a yard full of trains is just one of those background things I tend to ignore. If I am assigned to run a through train that makes a complete circuit of the mainline loop, I walk all the way around the basement with my train. When my train returns to the yard, I approach from the opposite end of the yard.  From this perspective, the yard I arrive at does not look exactly like the one I left from. That run finished, I get assigned to another train. If I have to walk all the way back around the layout room (rather than directly past the yard) to pick up that next train, I would again see the yard from a different perspective and would not notice what the yard contains. The contents of the yard are not really my business (on-layout staging), nor is the make-up of the trains in the yard (in-train staging) my business. 

The ideas of on-layout and in-train staging make sense to me. There certainly are situations where they apply. I suggest they can work for you if you need them and give them a chance.

NJ Free-Mo at Liberty Bell Convention

By Mike Prokop

The Liberty Bell Convention will offer operations on the New Jersey Free-Mo HO scale modules throughout most of the convention weekend. While participating in operations or just viewing the modules, you’ll be able to admire the fine craftsmanship and modeling of the two module sets presented by the New Jersey Free-Mo group. Also, you’ll learn of the historic and prototypical significance of each module set.

Bill Grosse’s “Yardville” module features a look at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s presence in this small New Jersey town circa 1955. Part of the original Camden & Amboy line that successfully ran one of the first steam engines in the country in the 1830’s, Bill has represented the area very well with his modeling of local industries and customers along the line with superb details and interesting features of Yardville. If you like switching and spotting cars, Bill’s module offers plenty of operational opportunities that will challenge your skills and provide lots of fun and excitement.

Mike Prokop’s “Linden Street Freight Station” module is a late 1950’s replica of  the Reading Railroad’s facility on the Camden, NJ waterfront. Built to almost the exact prototype of the Reading property, this module operates just like the real thing. It features car float operations loading and unloading coal and freight cars. Coal is switched onto two raised trestles for truck transfer with freight spotted at the station and public delivery siding for processing. Transfer runs in and out of the facility offer additional challenges to operations. Mike’s Free-Mo module set was featured in the 2019 issue of Model Railroad Planning. If you have a copy, check it out and come operate on it in person.

One last note…when Mike and Bill connect up their modules, they generate plenty of traffic and car loadings between Camden and Yardville that keeps operations moving at a brisk pace. So, whether you’re an experienced operator or a beginner interested in learning and jumping into this fascinating part of the hobby, come operate on the New Jersey Free-Mo module setup. More details and information about operating times and format will be available in future newsletters and at the Liberty Bell Convention.

SWOOPS, 2019

Hi guys,
I was out in the Cincy Ohio area this past week – running trains on two great EBT layouts. While there I was asked if I’d help spread the word of this up-coming event.
I’ve operated on both the EBT layouts (what a surprise) and have seen at least 2 of the others. All are excellent layouts. While it’s a long drive, I’m sure anyone who goes would find it well worth the trip.
Pete Clarke

Richard Stern’s Santa Fe.

Don’t miss SWOOPS, 2019! The SouthWest Ohio OPS weekend

20 Great Railroads, many nationally known

3 days/2 nights of operating fun, camaraderie, and the chance to gather ideas for your own layout.

October 18-20, 2019, Cincinnati Area

Website at www.operatingsessions.com

Layouts listed at https://www.operatingsessions.com/L/SWOOPS

Contact rstern1@cinci.rr.com

Working a Big Industry

by Don Florwick

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. Swift Packing Plant. (Tom Fedor)

This January fourteen members of the South Mountain Division responded to an invitation from Mat Thompson, MMR to operate on Mat’s exquisite Oregon Coast Railroad. We had a wonderful time and thank Mat for sharing his wonderful railroad with us. This was my 4th visit to Mat’s railroad. This time Mary Miller, MMR and I were assigned to work at the Swift Packing Plant. We had a blast, hence this article.

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. (Don Florwick)

Mary and I begin our session at Hoyt Street Yard. The yardmaster showed us our Oregon Coast train. Behind our switcher we find a cut of 8 cars billed to the packing plant consisting of 4 empty reefers, 3 loaded stock cars, a box car of packing material, and a caboose.

The Swift Packing Plant is located along the railroad between the Hoyt Street Yard and Willbridge, 2 railroad miles away. As an extra, all scheduled trains are superior to us and we have to carefully pick our time to leave the yard for our run on the single track main to reach the plant. We receive a clearance from the yardmaster and, after checking our timetable for superior trains, we pick our way out of the West end.

Before reaching the plant siding we notice a double ended siding along the main, used for outbound traffic to be picked up by passing freights or another switcher out of Hoyt Street. This day, a yard switcher will service the siding during our 8 hour shift; taking our outbounds while delivering more empties and loads.

Just short of Willbridge, we pull our string slowly ahead until the caboose clears the siding switch and glide to a stop. With the switch lined for the plant, we back our string of cars slowly down the siding, clearing the main.

(Don Florwick)

A mailbox at the plant holds special instructions for us, from the customer, so that cars are spotted correctly and in a timely manner, ensuring plant operations proceed smoothly despite our inexperience with this job.

Reading the instruction provided by plant management, we discover that it takes 21 minutes to unload a stock car at the stock pens on track-2. It takes about an hour to load a clean chilled reefer at the plant on track-2, and about 2 hours to ice and chill a block of reefers on track-1 at the icing dock. We also note the track diagram provided so we can find our way among the maze of tracks at the plant.

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. (Don Florwick)

Looking at the diagram, we note that track-3 runs along the back where supplies are offloaded for the packing plant. Track-4 is a service track and track-5 is the cleanout track for reefers. There also is a short runaround track on the ladder between tracks-3 & 5. Note the presence of another stock yard on the property. We were pleased to see there was plenty of head room on the lead to switch the plant without fouling the mainline.

Let’s get started spotting the 8 cars we brought to the plant this morning. You recall we boldly backed into the plant without thought, to clear the main while we looked over our instructions and developed a plan for our first service switch. At the plant we found 1 reefer loaded on track-2, at door-5 and 3 reefers iced, chilled and waiting at the ice dock on track-1. We noted there was one empty box car at door-5 on track-3 and a loaded tank car of tallow spotted near the oil tank, billed outbound.

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. (Tom Fedor)

Once oriented, we devise our plan. Here is what we did. First, we pulled our string forward to clear the track-4 switch, then we backed onto track-4 to drop our caboose. Pulling forward to again clear the switch we lined it for the ladder and backed our 4 reefers onto track-5, the cleanout track, and cut away. We then left the remaining 3 loaded stock cars short of track-2 and moved to track-1 where we pulled the 3 iced reefers over to track-2 and shoved them down to doors-1, 2, & 3 for loading.

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. (Don Florwick)

There were three timers provided for our convenience so we set one for 20 minutes.  That would use exactly 1 hour of the 3:1 fast clock time for loading. We then came back to the lead and grabbed the 3 loaded stock cars and swung them over to track-2 at the pens. We had 40 foot stock cars so each had to be individually positioned at the unloading shoots that were spaced for 50 foot cars. Once in position we set the second timer to 7 minutes, giving us 21 minutes of fast time for unloading.

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. (Tom Fedor)

Moving to track-5 we pulled our cleaned reefer string to move them to the icing dock on track-1. We set our third timer for 40 minutes giving us 2 fast clock hours for icing and chilling. Pulling off the icing track, it’s back up the ladder to track-4 to pick up the loaded box car for door-6. Coupled up we move West down the ladder to track-3.

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. (Tom Fedor)

We pick up the loaded tank car and empty box from door-5, then out to the ladder again, backing East to drop the box and tanker against the caboose on track-4 and cut away. We then spot the loaded box we had keep near the engine at door-6, on track-3.

Stepping back to asses our progress we find we have spotted the entire cut of cars we brought from Hoyt Street Yard. It’s now time to build a cut for the interchange. Checking our timers we see that our stock cars have been unloaded and the other timer for the loading dock has expired so the 4 reefers on track-2 at the plant are also ready to be pulled.  The interchange track will hold 8 cars, so we back down to track-4 and pick up the tank car of tallow. Next it’s over to  track-2 for all three empty stock cars. We also grab the 4 loaded reefers.

Once we had everything on track-2, we had our cut of 8 cars. Pulling up the spur to the company phone and after checking our timetable for scheduled traffic we called the dispatcher to ask if we could have time and track to pull out onto the main and drop our string onto the double ended siding for pickup.

The dispatcher gave us track time after passage of a scheduled freight. We waited 15 minutes for the freight to pass, notified the dispatcher, then pulled onto the main and made our backing move to the siding. Surprised, we find a new cut of cars awaiting us. You can imagine our movements, making the car exchanges along with the time it took plus returning to the plant siding with a new string of cars.

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. (Tom Fedor)

We have now completed one servicing of the plant. The new string of cars picked up from the interchange brought 4 empty reefers and 4 loaded stock cars for us to position as our shift continued. And so it goes, we start another cycle of cleaning, chilling, loading, unloading cattle at the pens, as well as spotting supplies for the plant, and removal of byproducts. The process varies each cycle, dependent on the flow of cars to and from the plant. For instance we received 4 loaded stock cars this time and we have only 3 unloading shoots, so we will have to watch our timing since reefer loading and stock unloading happen on the same track. This variety of movement, timing of processes, masterful placement of service tracks at the plant make this a rich, challenging, and most sought out assignment on Mat’s railroad.

A big industry can be the main theme for a railroad when you are cramped for space. Mary and I were busy for over 3 real time hours servicing the plant. The randomness of cars received required a different operating plan to keep the product flowing from the plant on schedule. So a Swift Packing, cement, automobile, glass plant, or other big industry, with a realistic operating strategy and a few staging tracks can keep a small crew busy in an enjoyable and challenging way for hours.  Big industries can be fun and that might be all that you need!

Ops at Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. (Tom Fedor)

TT/TO Ops

Oregon Coast RR map

I’d like to relay a message from SMD member Don Florwick, letting you know he’s taking reservations for a January operating session on Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad. The session is scheduled for Thursday, January 17th, with Tuesday, January 22nd as an alternate date in case of bad weather. It will be a daytime session, beginning at 10:30AM until around 2:30PM. 

This session is Time Table & Train Order, and folks interested in learning about TT&TO are encouraged to join the group. The session can accommodate up to 15 people, and Don will be keeping a standby list in case of cancellations. If you’d like to go, please contact Don Florwick directly at DJFlorwick@comcast.net to reserve a spot for this exciting event. If you’d like to know more about the railroad, please visit oregoncoastrr.potomac-nmra.org/

Informal Operating Systems

I want to put in a good word about operating systems that have brought me many happy and informative moments.  Before we condemn these informal operating systems, we should be aware of their advantages and of those situations where their use might be appropriate.

Harvey Heyser III, clerk, NMRA South Mountain Division. (Tom Fedor)

by Harvey Heyser

Gentlemen’s Agreement and Mother, May I?

Introductory note – To my good friends Pete, Jane, Don, Bob, Steve, Ron, and Bill:  I realize that some of the following ideas disagree with thoughts you have expressed to me about prototype-based operation.  I thank you for graciously sharing your knowledge and for inviting me to your operating sessions.  However, I feel that the current focus on prototype-based systems may not work for all layouts, their owners, and train crews.  Less demanding operating systems may be the right approach for those intimidated by or stressed out by prototype-based systems.  Consequently, I feel that informal systems, though not well regarded in our hobby at this time, deserve to be acknowledged, talked about, and evaluated on their own merits.  The following is an attempt to do so.

Most model railroaders respect the more formal, prototype-based operating systems:  timetable/train order (TT/TO), track warrants, and centralized traffic control (CTC) for instance.  After all, those systems are modeled after the prototype procedures we attempt to replicate.  But what do you do if those systems result in stressful operating sessions for you and your crews?  There are less formal alternatives.  Many sessions I have participated in have used the informal systems described here.  I have enjoyed those sessions even though, among serious model railroaders, the procedures used do not enjoy the same level of respect as prototype-based systems. 

Recently, the SMD had a clinic presentation that categorized operations as either prototype-based or “fun run.”  While the latter term was certainly easy to understand, it was not particularly fair to anyone.  Prototype-based systems are also “fun.”  (If they were not, no one would want to participate in them.)  On the other hand, “fun run” sessions are not totally frivolous.  Categorizing informal systems negatively ignores their potential as stepping stones into the joys of operating and as opportunities to learn about the prototype.  Before we consign informal operating procedures to the trash bin of toy trains, it seems to me more useful to think of operating systems as falling on a continuum between prototype-based and “fun run” instead of fitting into one category or the other.  A system that starts out “fun run” can easily slide along the continuum towards more prototype-based when those involved feel better informed and more comfortable. 

This essay will examine two of the better known informal systems for managing the flow of traffic across a model railroad: gentlemen’s agreement and mother, may I?

Gentlemen’s agreement occurs when two or more train crews agree about how to resolve a conflict, such as three trains arriving in a town with only the main track and one siding not counting spurs. (The layout owner or dispatcher is not usually involved with the negotiations.)  If the crews are novices, they might decide to let the local finish switching before allowing the other two trains to come into town.  However, more experienced crews would consider the fact that the other two trains are likely more important (passenger trains or through freights, for instance) and would figure out a way to get the local in the clear so the other two trains could execute a pass (before the local gets back to work).  While the prototype would probably endeavor not to let this situation happen, it is a good example of how learning what the prototype does can result in a smoother operating session.  (By the way, trying to resolve a three-way meet by gentlemen’s agreement can get stressful when you have only two tracks.  Ballast conferences and brake clubs anyone?) 

Using gentlemen’s agreement places responsibility for resolving conflicts in many hands and encourages creativity from all participants. Bob Proctor handled mainline operations on his Western Antietam and Layabout using gentlemen’s agreement.  (His operators often accused him of sadism, but I think what he truly enjoyed was seeing the creative ways crews cooperated with each other.)  Resolving conflicts creatively can be very satisfying.  However, as seen by the three train example above, the solution dreamed up by the novices failed to take into account the priority of the trains involved. So, that solution, creative though it might have been, was the wrong solution.  Consequently, that situation became a learning opportunity reminding us of the railroad’s primary mission of moving passengers and freight in an efficient and timely basis by prioritizing trains.

Another opportunity to learn about the prototype arises when instructions are given to the train crews.  (Of course, you must first get the crews to read the instructions.)  I was party to a similar (four train) situation where the gentlemen’s agreement resulted in one local backing up to the previous town, one train holding on the main, one train moving forward, and the other local completing its work.  We were so proud of ourselves, but we had completely overlooked the fact that the local, which completed its work (the afternoon local), was supposed to pick up a cut of cars from the other (morning) local.  If we had read our train instructions, we could have avoided that unfortunate result.  Even informal operating systems require following instructions to run the trains effectively.

Experiencing challenging situations similar to those described above is one of the ways informal operating systems give us opportunities to learn about the prototype.  Experience is a powerful teacher.  (Why did the prototype have this rule?  Well, you have just experienced the chaos that can happen if they did not; that’s why.)

Use of gentlemen’s agreement with a common sense understanding of how a railroad operates and with knowledge of our train’s operating instructions can be an effective way to run a model railroad.  (A good set of nine basic, common sense rules for operating can be found in Mat Thompson’s “Mark Me Up” column in the summer 2016 issue of the Potomac Flyer, the Potomac Division’s newsletter.)

Mother, may I? is a system of obtaining permission to move your train from one person, usually the layout owner or a designated “dispatcher.”  Mother, may I? is not really a fair name for this system, since mothers (of crew members) are rarely the designated permission givers.  The name might derive from a problem frequently encountered.  With every crew wanting permission from a single person, mother, may I? can get quite hectic.  Sessions can easily get out of hand and resemble a bunch of children squabbling for their mother’s attention – not what we want in a relaxed operating experience.  Regardless, where train crews request permission to move from a single person, responsibility for resolving conflicts between trains rests in that person’s hands.

Mother, may I? is frequently spoken of with disdain.  Before we condemn it, we should consider its similarities with both track warrant and CTC systems – prototype-based systems which also place sole responsibility for permission to move in the hands of a single person – the dispatcher.  Clearly because of their wide use, these systems demonstrate that the prototype has had a great deal of experience making single person responsibility work.  (Perhaps, a better, more railroady name for mother, may I? might be dispatcher, may I?)

Model railroaders have also used systems similar to mother, may I?  For instance, in the past, DC block control often required calling the dispatcher for block assignments allowing a train to proceed.  More recently, roving dispatcher systems using verbal authorization have been used successfully on simpler, more compact layouts.  With this system, the roving dispatcher makes decisions based on his observations of the current situation from within the layout room.  Dave Moltrup’s Beaver Falls and Shenango (aka Moltrup Steel) operates using a roving dispatcher system.

A mother, may I? system can serve as a stepping stone to more prototype-based systems like track warrants or fill-in the blank train order systems (such as the one Tony Koester used for a while on his Allegheny Midland).  In fact, the problems encountered with it may encourage adopting one of the prototype-based systems.

Disadvantages of these informal operating systems:

  1. Not prototypical – a common complaint.
  2. Not suited for complex, high traffic layouts. (Consider TT/TO)
  3. Requires creative thought and consideration from the layout owner to set up the operating system.  Crews will need good, clear instructions.The challenge of coordinating crew efforts is still present whether the system is formal or informal.
  4. Can get quite chaotic.

Advantages to these informal operating systems:

  1. Low intimidation factor because there is much less to learn and put into practice.
  2. Simplicity: less paperwork,fewer reporting requirements (minimal O.S.-ing), and less dependence on time.
  3. Stepping stone to more prototypically based systems.
  4. Relaxing. 
  5. Less administrative oversight during the session. (Everyone, including the layout owner, gets to run a train.)
  6. Operations come naturally to crews.  (I’ve noted that when stressed, crews often fall into using informal procedures regardless of the operating system.   Crews working at the same station agree to who gets to work first; calling for help from the owner or dispatcher when the rules in place don’t give enough direction to address a problem.)
  7. Gives crew members (especially beginners) firsthand experience of the challenges encountered in coordinating the work of countless people needed to keep trains moving.

Conditions under which these informal operating systems might be appropriate:

  1. Smaller and simpler layouts where it is easy to get an overall idea of the status of operations at any given time.
  2. Layouts where only one or two trains run at a given time.
  3. Layouts with crews who are well acquainted with the layout.
  4. Layouts with good sets of instructions and crews willing to read those instructions (a script for their train, for instance).
  5. Layouts where the owner wants to run trains also.
  6. Layouts that feature switching (not much mainline traffic and few potential conflicts between trains).

Potentially these informal operating systems offer not only an easy introduction to operating but also for the system to become more prototypical while continuing to offer relaxing, enjoyable operating experiences.  Three things are necessary for that to happen. First, a commitment to learn more about how the prototype runs trains. Second, a willingness to set up a trial and error process. And third, a continuing effort to implement what is learned both from the prototype and by trial and error.

In conclusion, I want to put in a good word about operating systems that have brought me many happy and informative moments.  Before we condemn these informal operating systems, we should be aware of their advantages and of those situations where their use might be appropriate.  We also should be aware that informal systems do have some similarities to prototype practices.

While informal systems are not currently regarded highly in our hobby, I hope to foster tolerance for those modelers who prefer to operate that way.  While they might not be doing what we prefer, they may be having just as much fun as we are.  Furthermore, exposure to the joys of operations may lead them to learn more about prototype practices and to adopt more of those practices for their own operations (no encouragement from the model railroad police necessary).