Operating sessions, fun, work, or both?
The crew works Tate Yard, switching out cars for the Marble Hill Local.
I have talked about operating sessions in previous blogs, and want to address the topic again this month. Each model railroader has a different definition of operating. For some, operations are railfanning their trains, normally on a continuous run design type of layout. The operations are generally informal, with the modeler selecting what cars and trains they want to run. For other model railroaders, operating sessions are more formal with crews operating their trains based on movement authority, and switching cars using various car routing systems. While conducting these types of formal operating sessions are a bit of work to setup and design, they can be really fun and well worth the effort.
Recently I had the opportunity to be a guest on the Second Section Podcast and discuss operations. The podcast hosts Andy Dorsch and Mike Ostertag assembled a panel of four model railroaders, William Sampson, Luke Lemmens, Tom Jacobs, and myself, that have different size layouts and operating systems. Each member discussed the advantages and disadvantages of their operating systems and it was a great show covering a lot of aspects of operations. One of the main take away points is that there is no one system that is right everyone. You need to develop a system that works for you and your guest operators. What works on a smaller layout may not be the right choice for a much larger layout.
One of the questions that came up during the show was, how you do start setting up an ops system for your layout? In my book, Building the Right-Sized Layout, I discuss the different operating systems and what is involved in setting each one up. For those new to operations I recommend starting out with a simple ops system. Prior to deciding what car movement system to use, learn how to switch cars and the moves you need to make for facing point and trailing point industries. Once you want to move on to a more formal ops system, it can be just a hand written switch list indicating the industries and the cars that need to be picked up and set out. If you designate the industries within yard limits then trains move under that restricted movement authority and no formal authority is required. As you become more experienced then you can add more complexity to the operating session. Determine the switch jobs you need and how the crews will do the work. Conduct some time studies so you know how long it will take to do the job, and then you can start building a schedule. Invite some friends over and try out your ops system, you most likely will need to make some changes, but that is all part of the learning process.
One of the major problems that come up when setting up a schedule is that yard jobs don’t compress like over the road jobs do. It almost take the same time as the prototype to switch cars in the yard, while the distances of the local jobs are usually compressed and the work completed more quickly on a model railroad. Another key point is that yards should be at half capacity at the beginning of an ops session, which actually is “full”. Yard crews need space to work the trains and spots to place incoming cars. A yard that is jam packed with cars at the beginning of an ops session is very difficult to work, and the result is that nothing can move in or out of the yard causing frustrations for everyone.
When switching cars crews need to know primarily two things, what is the car number and where is it going. On prototype railroads many times crews know where a car is going just based on the car type. The only other important item that a train crew needs to know is if the car is a hazardous materials car, which requires special handling or placement in their train. Whether you use car cards or switch lists, this information is what the crews need to switch your layout. Track diagrams and switching instructions are helpful job aids and greatly assist those operators not familiar with your layout.
You can see and download copies of my switch lists under the Operations tab on my website. The switch lists I use are based on ones used by the prototype Georgia Northeastern Railroad. I set up the switch lists on an Excel spreadsheet and simply over type the new car numbers for each ops session. I like the ability to control the cars that are being switched and what industries are being worked. Yes, it does take some time to set everything up and type up my switch lists, but it is worth it when crews have a great time operating on my layout.
I hope I have given you some ideas to set up your own ops session, or improve the one you already have. There really is no perfect ops system, you need to find one that works for you given the size and complexity of your layout. The most important part is to have fun and operate your layout.
Be sure to check out the Second Section podcast on your favorite audio streaming platform and watch on YouTube. Andy and Mike are doing a fantastic job with their show, and it is very entertaining. They post a new live stream show every other Tuesday at 9 PM (EST). Be sure to watch and subscribe. Here is a link to the shows website;
Until next time, stay safe and keep model railroading.