Model Railway Operations
This page introduces model railway operations as a technique for simulating the dynamics of the railway industry. The main goal of operations is to work your railway as much as possible as the real railways do. Operations teaches a lot about the 'people' side of the industry and why things are done in specific ways. But you can move into operations in a phased manner until you find the level of operations that you are comfortable with.
Phase I offers several easy to make steps to move your railway empire from a static model into one that resembles the business of a transportation giant. These small steps can be made at your own pace.
|Realistic Speeds | Location Names & Direction | Reliability|
|Switch Lining | Car Coupling | Car Movement | References|
Phase II of operations is freight forwarding which gives purpose to the movement of trains. It is applicable to a single operator layout but many find that having friends operating trains as well makes the experience more enjoyable. Phase III is train movement control which coordinates the actions of all the trains. Hopefully you will attempt some of these steps and phases towards operating your layout/empire realistically.
Step 1 - Realistic Speeds
The first step to adding realism while operating is to slow down the engine speeds! In real life passenger trains rarely exceed 100 mph, fast freights 70 mph, and locals and switchers 40 mph. It is easy to slow down to more realistic speeds if you measure off a set length of track and use the following scale speed calculator.
After getting engine speed under control, practice stopping in a realistic manner! Real engines have both momentum and inertia. They do not start or stop on a dime. But a little practice (or using a momentum throttle) will make stopping and starting second nature.
Hints: If you or your crew have difficulties slowing down, you can enforce a speed limit by either adjusting the engine profile in DCC or by adding a limiting resistor to your DC throttles.
Step 2 - Location Names and Direction
Real railways had names for every station, every industry and every track. Your model empire should have them as well. The names can be picked to reflect the railway or geographical area that you are modeling. They could be whimsical (as was the tradition of the fifties) or just plain made up. But there should be names! Each industry should also be named as these will be used as destinations for freight traffic.
Location also implies direction. If you are modeling a prototype and using real names, this is taken care of. One standard approach (especially if you will be having visiting operators) is to stay true to mapping conventions. East is to the right and North is to the top or far side.
Step 3 - Reliability
Railways strove for reliability throughout their system. Motive power, cars, tracks and signals were checked and maintained on a regular basis. Model railway owners should take the same care of their assets. Some steps in moving from a display/runner style of layout to an operations based railway include:
- Coupler Inspection: Operations incur heavy wear and tear on couplers. Secure the coupler to the draft box with a screw. Use a height gauge for coupler alignment. Make sure that the side to side swing is correct and that the coupler centers properly.
- Wheel and Truck Inspection: Replace plastic wheels with metal ones that roll smoothly. Make sure that the wheel sets meet NMRA standards for gauge and flange profile. Also make sure that the trucks pivot smoothly on curves and that they allow a bit of 'yaw' in the car. Replace freight car trucks that use talgo couplers!
- Car Weighting: Add weight to make car dynamics similar to the prototype. For HO gauge this means 1 ounce plus 0.5 ounce per inch of car length. For example, a standard 40 foot car (6 in) should weigh about 4oz (115g). Closed cars can hide lead or penny weights easily. Flats and tanks present a bit of a challenge.
- Track Standards: Check all track with an NMRA track gauge. Watch for kinks or uneven tracks. Be very careful with switch flangeways. File blunt ends on points and frogs. Make sure points move freely but lock to the rail at end-throw. Avoid reverse curves!
- Electrical Wiring: Make sure all rail connections are correctly soldered. Do not rely on rail joiners for electrical connection. Use plenty of feeders instead. And don't forget the common return line! Use standard color coding and appropriate sizes for wiring. Beware of telephone wire as voltage drop can sometimes be excessive.
Step 4 - Switch Lining Procedure
A common mistake for modelers is lining switches before the engine arrives. In reality, the engine stops at the switch to let the switchman drop to do his work. Simulating this on the model layout adds pacing! Use scale figures, tacks or pushpins to indicate crew on the ground.
Step 5 - Car Coupling
Coupling cars together should be done at the minimum speed possible by the engine. This avoids damage to the knuckle couplers, draft boxes and car contents. Uncoupling cars is easier if you put some slack in the knuckles to increase the space where you place your uncoupling pick. Turning the pick clockwise also helps! Remember to position your ground crew correctly as in the previous step.
Step 6 - Realistic Car Movement
Car movement requires careful consideration of where freight cars are to be placed and how to place them in the minimum number of moves. You may want to play with my on-screen shunting trainer to get some practice.
- Switching: Cars are normally switched out to sidings from the front of the train into trailing sidings. Any cars to be placed on the train are normally switched into the back. Of course there are special positions for hazard materials and empties. Facing sidings are best handled by taking the car to the next station or yard and letting a return train handle it. Or you can live life in the fast lane if the era permits with either a flying switch or a Dutch drop.
- Blocking: Trains may have several cars for the same station or yard. These cars are placed together or blocked in the yard to make road switching more convenient. Cars are also arranged for safety (dangerous loads away from engine and caboose, stock car well away from conductor's nose) and convenience (express car near engine).
- Classification Without Cherry Picking: Most model rail yards are classed by looking for a car (helicopter view) and pulling it from its location to the makeup track. This is called cherry picking and is as unrealistic as super speeds and rapid stops. The real way to sort is to pull one track at a time (preferably off the arrival track) and sort the whole line of cars at one time. This simulates the action of the switchman well. As the cars are pulled out, he verifies the car's position and destination track. As that line is pushed he aligns the switches. There are occasions when tracks are not sorted on arrival but cleanup is done the same way, one entire track at a time.
- Sawby: This maneuver is used when one or both (double sawby) of the meeting trains is too long for the passing siding and must be split to allow passing to occur.
General Operations References
This is a listing of online and print references for railway operations activities. For freight specific references see Freight Operations References. For train control references see Train Operations References. General References covers other topics.