How to plan ahead for operations

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by Mike O'Brien

Model railroad layouts are designed to be operated, just as automobiles are designed to be driven. The goal of the designer is to create a model railroad with an interesting and enjoyable operating scheme, providing an opportunity for people to get together and enjoy trains and each other, and for the layout builder to show off his or her handiwork and artistry. As the designer must plan for operating while designing the layout, he or she needs to know how the usual operating schemes work and how to incorporate them into track plans and layout designs. If a layout is fun to build, fun to look at, and fun to operate, then its designer has succeeded.


Operating schemes for model railroads are not standardized, because every layout is unique. We can place operations into four categories that describe their characteristics, as follows:

1) Non-operating. We mention static railroad models here, although they usually are considered not "layouts" but rather "displays".

2) Casual operations. Many fine modelers enjoy building models and constructing the layout which holds them, but are not interested in complicated operating procedures. They run their trains around when they feel like it, and enjoy watching them run.

3) Show operations. Showing off the layout to an audience usually means running lots of trains around and keeping them moving. Often other showy effects are used, such as going to night lighting or having animated features. Paying audiences like lots of action. Tinplate or toy trains are often run this way. Scale models are operated this way to entertain the public.

4) Operating session. The formal operating session is the most demanding type of operation on a model railroad. The railroad is usually operated to simulate prototype railroad operations, with trains going places and doing work. Often there are several people working (playing, actually) together, filling such roles as engineer, yardmaster, dispatcher and others. Some sort of paperwork is used to simulate the prototype's masses of paperwork and to direct the action. A model railroad requires sophisticated track planning to allow all the train movements necessary during a busy operating session.

The remainder of this introduction to operation will focus on designing for formal operating sessions, although many aspects, such as walkaround arrangements, also apply to casual or show running.


Layout designers must include more than just a stretch of track if a fun and interesting operating scheme is to be achieved. A tiny layout might have just a few industries to spot and pull cars, while a huge layout might represent all the features of a prototype division of dozens of miles of track. Here are some elements of the model railroad that may be required for operations, described in a simplified manner:

1) Mainline and sidings. Could also be a double-track main, or multiple track main. Best if mainline is long enough for several trains to use it at once. If single track with sidings, then sidings generally determine maximum train length. Try for two or three train lengths between sidings. Number of sidings determines how many trains can meet or pass along mainline. Try for three or more sidings. A prototype division 100 miles long with ten mile spacing of sidings would have nine sidings.

Getting a long mainline run while keeping it looking realistic is the biggest problem in track planning. If you twist and turn your mainline around so that it runs through a section of scenery two or more times, you risk making it look toylike. Here is where the designer compromises between scenic realism and operating potential, as the mainline is usually shorter than desired. A double-deck, multi-deck or "mushroom" layout gives a longer run by compromising height.

Another big issue is whether an engineer can "walkaround" with his or her train, following the mainline closely from the aisles alongside the layout. Note that with lots of operators in the aisles, people planning becomes important so that everyone can move around without too much interference and have fun without aggravation. Speaking of aggravation, so-called "duckunders", where the aisle tunnels under the layout because the track is crossing the aisle, are barely tolerable and widely hated. A 'nod-under", at shoulder level, is acceptable as it is easy to tip one's head to pass under. Best is an unobstructed aisle where operators can pay attention to their train and not worry about their personal safety. This is difficult to achieve in track planning, but current planning principles favor it.

2) Division points. In steam days, locomotives were changed about every hundred miles, turned around on a turntable and serviced. Cabooses also returned. Modern trains change crews every so often, with a maximum of twelve hours on duty, but the locomotives usually run through and there are no cabooses. However, since virtually all railroads were built in the steam era, prior to the 1950s, old division points about 100 miles apart are still in evidence, with locomotive servicing and freight car classification yards providing lots of operating potential.

3) Yards. Freight car classification yards come in all sizes, and make for lots of fun operation. Check the bibliography for complete information, since this is a big subject. Basically, large freight yards make up trains heading in different directions, while small freight yards sort out cars heading for local industries. Passenger yards hold equipment not in use. So-called "staging" yards will be discussed subsequently. Yards are often located at division points and are very busy places, a focal point for train action.

4) Engine terminals. Everyone loves locomotives, and engine terminals are a great place to show them off and provide some extra action. These are usually located at division points, though sometimes a local engine is kept at some small yard where it works. Prototype railroads keep their engines working out on the road as much as possible, so don't plan on storing lots of engines unless you are modeling a major repair facility or such. Steam engines spent more time standing in their terminals, since they needed more attention than diesels. Hostling engines around terminals is a low key operating job that is out of the way of most other goings on.

5) Industrial switching districts. Actually, industrial switching can occur anywhere, such as at a siding or near a yard. In real life, industries are usually zoned together and so are often switched together by a particular train. Switching freight cars in and out of industries is lots of fun on a model railroad. Many systems using car cards, waybills, switch lists, computers and so on have been devised to direct this activity; see the bibliography for more information. Real railroads try to keep their industrial trackage simple, so model railroad designers should avoid the common impulse to make it as complex and difficult to operate as possible. Modern industries served by rail are big, and require lots of space on the model to appear realistic. When planning industries, the designer should allow enough space for industries to appear large enough for rail service.

6) Branchlines. Smaller railroads joining a large one, or lighter traffic divisions feeding into the main line create an interesting junction. Traffic interchanges here, and a separate railroad carries it off. A local train crew does leisurely work here. Perhaps the branchline is narrow gauge, with cute trains, or an electric interurban. Operationally, it gives a train crew a private place to work, as branchlines usually run only one train at a time. In terms of overall layout design, a branchine can often steal space from the mainline for very little return. Many designers incorporate a branchline junction, with useful operating interchange tracks, but only simulate the branch itself with a bit of trackage running off the layout. The space the branchline would take is given to the mainline. Another operationally useful way to incorporate a branchline is to run the branch off the visible layout into staging, so the branch can feed trains onto the mainline, and add to the fun.

7) Interchange. Closely related to a branchline, conceptually, an interchange is where the mainline connects with another major railroad. Few designers actually model much of the second railroad, but the interchange tracks provide lots of switching action, with local switching jobs and transfer runs from a major nearby yard moving lots of cars in and out of interchange. If you are modeling a freelance or imaginary railroad, interchange with a famous prototype railroad provides you with a big shot of realism.

8) Stations. If you are running local passenger trains, stations are invaluable for giving you places to stop. If you are simulating old-fashioned timetable and train order operations, stations give you a place to make meets and passes, and pick up train orders such as forms 19 and 31. Modern railroading has pretty much done away with stations, but traces of them should remain, including placenames.

Of course, big city train stations are still a popular prototype to model, and take up much space on the layout. The designer should consult the bibliography for more information, as this is a complex subject. Everyone loves passenger trains, and a big station is a great place to display them. Passenger train operations can be interesting, with lots of switching in and out of express cars, baggage cars, mail cars, diners and other special equipment, and so forth. For public shows, passenger trains are very exciting.

9) Staging tracks. These are tracks which represent off the layout. Trains running onto these tracks are considered as continuing into the rest of the world. Often they are hidden return loops, where trains layover before returning to the layout. To save space, they can be linear yards, stub or through type, and can be "fiddled" with by an operator who changes train consists appropriately. Various mechanical gadgets have been built or proposed to store trains; see bibliography. The fundamentally important concept is that all railroads on the continent connect to each other to create a large system, and staging tracks represent that huge system on the model railroad.

A model railroad does not need staging if it models the entire length of a small railroad. Since modern layout designs usually model part of a larger railroad, staging tracks are usually appropriate. Be warned: when you study old track plans you will not see much staging. Early model railroaders did not have enough equipment to store many whole trains in hidden staging.

The size and form of staging tracks are up to the designer, with much discussion about different ways of performing this important function. Operational considerations are all important. Fiddling with the equipment using giant hand action, also known as 0-5-0, or the big hook, is stressful on delicate fine models and mars paint finishes, as well as being impractical with the huge engines of scales such as O scale. Still, some operators like to rearrange equipment by hand, especially on small layouts. Such a staging area is called a fiddle yard, and requires good access to be designed into the layout. Some large layouts are designed so that a designated operator, or operators, is stationed at the staging tracks to properly arrange the trains for their reappearance on the layout. This job can be fun when there is lots to do, plus the operator gets an intimate look at the equipment. Often this operator is called the "dispatcher" of the unmodeled adjacent divisions of the railroad, and does this work in a separate room hidden from the rest of the layout so as not to break the illusion of reality given by the scenicked layout.

10) Interlocking plant. An interlocking plant is typically operated by a towerman in an adjacent tower. This is a complicated bit of trackwork which occurs where railroad routes cross or diverge. The track switches and signals are controlled by the tower operator, and when the route is busy the operator has a lot of fun. When there is little traffic it can be boring, and the regular dispatcher can best handle the action.

In the early days of model railroading, when layout designers were modeling busy multitrack lines such as the Pennsy between New York and Philadelphia, tower operators were often stationed all along the line and ran the trains through their sections, passing control to each other. Thus, in addition to controlling the track switches and signals, the tower operators also ran the locomotive throttles. Lots of coordination was required between operators, which was very sociable and enjoyable for all.

11) Dispatcher's office. Busy operating sessions on large model railroads put a lot of stress on dispatchers, who occasionally have to think clearly without interruption. Where possible, it has been found best to give them a private office which is separated from the railroad and kibitzers. Designers should give consideration to the location of the dispatcher when allocating space for the model railroad. If necessary, the dispatcher can be remotely located in the adjoining house, for example at the dining table. Modern prototype practice places dispatchers in windowless rooms hundreds or thousands of miles from the railroad tracks they control.

12) Crew lounge. Large home layouts can have operating sessions with ten or twenty operators. People not busy doing a job need a place to wait out of the way, and should be provided for. Often the crew lounge is the family room of the home. A railroady atmosphere (the word "decor" seems inappropriate here) helps set the scene for working on the railroad, and makes a good place for displaying railroadiana, model contest awards, equipment not on the railroad, and such. An thoughtful layout designer will incorporate a crew lounge if space permits, or arrange the layout for ready access to a crew lounge if the space is nearby.

It must also be mentioned that toilet facilities must be accessible to the operating crew. Many families prefer that model railroad operators not utilize the private family quarters in the home, so use of a guest bathroom is best, and will help keep good relations with the non-model railroaders of the family.

Speaking of accessibility, it should be pointed out that wheelchair access is a positive benefit. Simply make all aisles at least 32 inches clear width, with five foot wide turnarounds here and there. This is good for your regular operators, too. If you have a step or two, keep some plywood around for portable ramps.


As the designer develops the model railroad layout shape, he or she must allow room for the human operators. Basically, this space consists of an aisle alongside the mainline for the train engineers. Where several persons work at once, such as at busy yards, the aisle is widened. If two busy areas are opposite one another, a bad practice, then the aisle should be widened further. Aisle space subtracts from precious layout space so we usually want to keep them narrow. Since the layout designer must consider people space, here is a rundown on the various operating positions on model railroads:

1) Train crews. The train crew is usually simply an engineer. Often a conductor is added to handle the paperwork of car cards, waybills, switchlists, track warrants, train orders, and so forth, because as you can imagine the engineer can be easily overwhelmed with paperwork when he or she is trying to run the train without missing signals or hitting misthrown turnouts. Prototype trains used to run with five person crews: the engineer, fireman and head-end brakeman in the locomotive, and the conductor and brakeman in the caboose. Five person crews have been found to be impractical on model railroads, but two is just right as they can keep each other company while out on the road and each has plenty to do.

2) Yard crews. The yard crew is usually just the yardmaster. It is often a good idea to have a yard engineer to help him or her. While the engineer moves the cars, the yardmaster figures out what to do next. Train crews are frequently entering or leaving the yard, adding to the congestion in the aisle. Here is where the designer should allow the most aisle space. Often the yardmaster likes to be seated, with a tiny desk for sorting out the car cards, waybills or switchlists.

3) Hostler. The hostler runs engines around the engine terminal and yard. This is usually a low-key position and not very busy, so is often handled by the yard engineer or dispatcher. Still, it is a good position to break in a new operator, and it is fun moving various locomotives around. If space is readily available, make room for this operating position.

4) Helper engineer. Model railroads often feature steep grades on the mainline which require helper engines to get trains up the hill. Where there is lots of traffic, a helper engineer will be positioned at this location in the layout, enlarging the train crews and aisle requirements alongside this helper district.

5) Towerman. Where a tower is manned, space must be provided for a tower operator. This person should be able to be seated, since they are stationed at one place, with a control panel. The tower operator should be out of the way of passing train crews, usually requiring a scoop out of the layout space. This person can be placed on a raised platform to good effect.

6) Dispatcher. As previously mentioned, the dispatcher is a very special case as he or she should be located in a separate room. If the dispatcher's desk is incorporated into the layout, then great consideration should be given to giving the dispatcher privacy when his or her work demands it. Be sure to allow for a desk large enough for a big trainsheet, CTC-type panel, telephone, computer, or whatever equipment and supplies you are planning to use. This is a full scale model, as your dispatcher will take just as much space as the prototype does.

7) Staging dispatcher. Often the staging tracks are so busy as to require a special operator or two. Space must be allocated for this function, which is non-traditional in this hobby and is still being developed in concept. In reality the job is similar to a yardmaster's, involving sorting out and setting up trains.

8) Trainmaster. The trainmaster is the operations boss of the railroad, second only to the superintendent or layout owner. This is usually a roving position, with no fixed spot, so no special provision need be made in design. The trainmaster assigns engines to trains, assigns crews and operating positions, and helps with problems as they occur.

9) Superintendent. This is the brass hat, the layout owner, the bankruptcy trustee. This person does whatever he or she feels like, since he or she owns the place. The superintendent usually ends up attending to myriad problems that occur, such as massive short circuits, dead locomotives, and no ice in the soda pop cooler. Obviously no notice need be taken by the layout designer of this operating position.

10) Non-operating guests. Most operating sessions discourage non-operating guests, because they distract from the action and get in the way. If they are to be tolerated, or even encouraged, then adequate space for them should be made at interesting places around the layout. Note that operating sessions are deemed to be boring to spectators, since, as on the prototype, there are long periods of inactivity. Show running is more entertaining for guests than are operating sessions.


Many operating systems are in use on model railroads. Some of them require the attention of layout designers, to make sure appropriate facilities are incorporated into the layout plan. Operating systems are paperwork or computer techniques used to control the movement of trains and the spotting of cars. Electrical control systems are not included here. Basically, operating systems require no physical space, except for car card boxes along the layout. These are commonly placed in a fascia panel which forms the side of the model railroad along the aisle, or facing the room.

Many model railroads are currently using preprinted car cards which require several boxes to be placed at each yard, interchange, siding, and industrial area. These only take up a few inches, but, for example, if the scenery goes to the floor, the designer should find a place to put these boxes.

Here is a brief description of some common operating systems, with their repercussions on design:

1) Timetable and train order. The standard operating system on most prototype railroads, superceded by CTC on some lines and by track warrants since the advent of modern radio communications. Clearance forms were issued to start a train, and train orders (forms 19 or 31) were issued at intervening stations to change a trains's orders. Otherwise the train ran at or after its timetable times, unless it was an extra. On a model railroad this system creates too much paperwork for most people. Trains would stop at stations frequently to receive train orders from the local agent who received them, via telephone or telegraph, from the dispatcher. A model railroad using this system would have lots of local agents, perhaps one at each passing siding.

2) Track warrants. The current standard operating procedure on most prototype railroads. Trains are given permission to move to a certain place by the dispatcher via radio. On model railroads, the crews use two-way radios and follow simplified prototype procedures in talking to the dispatcher. No affect on the model railroad plant. The radio chatter of this system is lots of fun.

3) CTC -- Centralized Traffic Control. Used on heavily trafficked single track railroads. The dispatcher remotely controls track switches and signals to direct trains along the mainline and in and out of sidings. On a model railroad, the dispatcher is very busy at a large control panel running the railroad. The train engineers must be able to watch each signal as they approach it, so if the signals are aligned normally along the track, the engineers must be generally behind their locomotives looking forward down the track to see them. The trackplan design must allow for engineers to see each signal indication or light. Semaphores are no problem. Heavy and frequent train movements common to CTC territory could create lots of crew traffic in the aisles when walkaround control is used, so aisles may need to be enlarged.

4) Other signaling systems. Where other signal systems are used, such as automatic block signals or interlocking signals, the engineer of each train must be able to read the indications. Semaphores are omnidirectional, but searchlight signals and so forth require that the engineer not be ahead of his or her train, but generally behind it. Trackplans should be designed for this requirement.

5) Car cards, waybills and switchlists. These paperwork or computer-based methods of distributing freight cars often require a small work desk or some such provision at each yard, industrial or switching area. If paperwork is imposed upon operators -- and many enjoy it -- the layout designer should make it palatable by providing convenient facilities for handling it. We often see carcards laid out on the scenery while the hapless conductor is trying to figure out what he or she is doing...very unsightly, not to say unseemly.


A model railroad layout should be able to be operated enjoyably and repeatedly. A large layout, which is often considered by the builder to be his or her "lifetime" layout, and which often takes ten or twenty years to build, must offer enjoyable operations for the lifetime of the builder if it is to be truly successful. To achieve this requirement for operating enjoyment requires some thought and consideration by the layout designer. We all love the hobby of model railroading, and seek to improve it and increase its benefits to the model railroaders who devote so much of their leisure time pursuing their dream. While a finished model railroad is a wonderful thing to look at, and photograph, it really comes alive and gives us sublime enjoyment when it operates just as the prototype. A decent layout design makes it all possible; an inadequate design frustrates the operator and keeps the dream in the future.

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