ProtoThrottle: A game-changer

ProtoTrottle and box

Layout designs are influenced by many choices. Typical ones include favourite scale, favourite era, favourite prototype and favourite theme. Sometimes, layouts are designed and built because a manufacturer has produced a piece of favourite equipment – some examples include the many O scale railroads inspired by the Maine two-foot gauge lines, but built in On30 to take advantage of Bachmann’s 2-4-4T Forney locomotive.

I expect that we can now add to those influences, a favourite DCC throttle.

Scott Thornton, Michael Petersen and Nathan Holmes have teamed up to create the ProtoThrottle, which is manufactured and sold through Iowa Scaled Engineering, co-owned by Michael and Nathan.

This is a wireless DCC throttle that replicates common functions on a diesel control stand in a realistic manner. Instead of a speed knob, there’s a throttle handle that provides eight notches plus idle. Instead of a toggle or push button, there’s a three position reverser handle. Instead of assigning a function button to the brake, there’s a progressive brake handle with built-in resistance. Instead of a button for the horn, there’s a spring-loaded handle. And so on. The controls are mounted on an aluminum anodized faceplate with clearly engraved markings, as shown in the lead photo.

These throttles started shipping in early July and mine arrived this week. To connect to a DCC system, it requires one of two types of receiver – one for NCE and Lenz systems, and one for Digitrax, ESU and JMRI installations. (I ordered one of each since I own both an ESU system and a Lenz system.)

What does this have to do with layout design? A lot.

The ProtoThrottle team started taking pre-orders in April, for a run of 150 throttles. (I suspect those sold out quickly. If so, I suspect another run will be done, soon.) Now, people who placed pre-orders are receiving their throttles and hooking them up to their layouts. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

For such a sophisticated piece of equipment, set-up is relatively straightforward. It’s not completely plug and play: depending on your DCC system, you may have to adjust some configurations on the receiver, but the instructions walk the user through that.

And if you’re still having trouble, there’s an excellent online user group. Based on the posts to the ProtoThrottle IO group, there have been a few teething issues – some involving set-up and the tweaks one must make to the receiver to interface it with one’s DCC system, others involving tuning DCC decoders from various manufacturers to optimize how they respond to the ProtoThrottle.

But Scott, Michael and Nathan are part of the user community. They have been wonderful about sharing progress on the development of these, and are now doing an amazing job of helping customers get up and running. They are assisted by the many customers who have successfully set up their throttles – and are now doing a terrific job helping others get onboard. They’re not just answering questions: They’re shooting and sharing videos showing how to set up the throttle or configure various brands of decoders.

The best part is, those who are now running trains using their ProtoThrottle are sharing glowing reviews. As expected, it’s changing the way they run their layouts – for the better.

And this is where layout design comes in.

The combination of this control stand and today’s DCC decoders – which deliver exceptional motor control and impressive sound – kind of screams out for a shelf-style switching layout in one of the larger scales, such as O.

A four-axle road switcher – a GP-9, RS-11, or RS-3, for example – would have plenty of space for a large speaker, and in O scale it would be large enough to really convey the mass of the real thing.

A shelf-style configuration, mounted high on the wall, would ensure that viewers are always up close to the action.

And the use of hand-thrown turnouts (perhaps controlled by garden scale switch stands) and prototype-action couplers (such as these ones offered by Protocraft) would put the operator right in the scene.

What better way to run such a layout than with a miniature control stand?

Proto Throttle - Port Rowan

Even a small locomotive – such as this S scale GE 44-Tonner on my Port Rowan layout – will be more fun with this control stand. While my home layout is definitely set in the steam era, I do have a couple of pieces of motive power run by internal combustion engines – and I think they’ll be seeing a lot more track time once I set up the ProtoThrottle. I’m looking forward to it!

Riley Triggs’ Port of New York Railroad

PoNY Herald

PoNY - LV 27th Street
(The Lehigh Valley’s 27th Street pocket terminal)

I was in Austin, Texas last week to take part in the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention. Among the highlights was a chance to take part in an operating session on the HO scale Port of New York Railroad being built by Riley Triggs.

Riley is building his layout in an upstairs room in his home. The prototype is very urban, with several railroads negotiating complex track work in tight quarters that are shared with buildings, streets, wharves and piers. In addition to the main layout, Riley has used an adjacent room to build two of New York’s famous “pocket terminals” – switching districts isolated from the nation’s rail network, and reachable only via car float. At this stage, Riley has installed most (if not all) of the track work and has trains running. He is just getting started on the dozens of structures he will need for his layout.

I was fortunate to team up with Lance Mindheim for the operating session. Together, we worked the Lehigh Valley’s 27th Street pocket terminal:

Riley and Lance
(Riley (l) and Lance discuss the 27th Street operation. In the background, two more operators work the Erie RR’s Harlem Station. The main layout is through the doorway in the distance.)

The 27th Street terminal is essentially a self-contained layout in a book case, connected to the rest of Riley’s empire via a car float. While tiny, there’s a lot of track packed into the space. You can read more about the terminal on Riley’s blog, but here’s a photo of the track arrangement from his post about building the terminal in a day:

Riley Triggs 27th Street track arrangement

I took the role of conductor, while Lance was the engineer. We were handed a switch list and spent a solid two hours moving cars about this terminal- unloading the car float, sorting cars between a couple of storage tracks, the freight shed and other customers, and prepping the car float for its return trip to the mainland.

Switching 27th Street

PoNY Switch List

The first thing I learned was that traditional methods of switching just don’t work in a pocket terminal. I approached the task as if I was working a traditional yard, which goes something like this:

Classifying Cars

Well, that quickly got me into trouble. In many cases, the switch lead wasn’t long enough to hold an entire track of cars. In some spots, we were limited to a single car in addition to our locomotive. (While this would be frustrating on a traditional model railway and represent bad layout design, this was actually pretty close to reality in many of New York’s pocket terminals.) After trying this a couple of times, and failing miserably, I abandoned what I knew about switching cars and resorted to cherry picking what we needed. The key became, “What can I move that gets something out of our way?” Once I got comfortable with that, things went much more smoothly. And it was a most enjoyable operating session!

At first glance, Riley’s Port of New York may not strike one as an achievable layout. For example, there are approximately 120 turnouts on the layout, including many complex pieces of track work such as slip switches and double crossovers. The number of structures he needs to build is also intimidating.

However, it is an achievable layout because of some of the choices Riley has made.

The structures would intimidate me, but Riley is an architect by profession, which means he will have some terrific ideas for tackling all of the structures he needs to build. I suspect he will approach this challenge differently than someone who does not work with structure designs all the time. I look forward to seeing how he does this.

To address the complexities of the track work on his chosen prototypes, Riley has taken advantage of commercial track components and all turnouts in our pocket terminal were hand-thrown.

Furthermore, he has eliminated all track wiring (which would be problematic with the many double slips and crossings) by adopting a “Dead Rail” system for his layout – in this case, the AirWire system from CVP. Each locomotive is permanently coupled to a car which contains the DCC Sound Decoder, a radio receiver, and batteries. The engineer uses wireless throttles to send DCC commands over the air to the battery car, which then supplies power to its locomotive. The system worked really well: We had no issues with power or signal during our two-hour switching assignment.

The only drawback from an operations perspective was that the permanently coupled car ate up a lot of space in the pocket terminal. It often doubled the number of moves required to spot cars on a track, for example. However, that’s a minor quibble and is certainly more than offset by the wiring nightmare that such a layout would otherwise have required. The battery car would not be an issue on a more tradition layout, where one could permanently couple a set of locomotives and put the Dead Rail gear into an unpowered model. It would also not be a factor in larger scales such as O, where there would be plenty of space inside a single diesel for batteries and a receiver.

There’s a lot to learn from Riley’s layout, from a design perspective. My takeaways included:

– What’s achievable for one person is not for another. Professional skills may make the difference.

– Exploring new ways of doing things (for example, Dead Rail instead of traditional wiring, 3D printing and Cricut cutting machines, and so on) may make a previously daunting plan more achievable.

– While Riley’s layout is large, the two pocket terminals he’s incorporated are definitely achievable by anybody, yet would still offer many pleasant construction and operating challenges.

I had a lot of fun during this operating session, and learned about Dead Rail in the process. Thanks for the great day, Riley!

If you want to know more about my trip to the NMRA Lone Star Region convention, visit my Port Rowan blog.

Switching Putnam

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(Putnam: A layout-within-a-layout)

On Saturday night, some friends and I ran trains on the excellent CP Rail layout built by Bob Fallowfield. I’ve written previously about the layout on this blog, but I want to focus on one town in particular – Putnam, Ontario.

As part of the session, Ryan Mendell and I worked a turn out of Woodstock to St. Thomas. Putnam was part of our assignment, and Bob warned us it would take about 90 minutes.

Really? That’s hard to believe, given how simple the town’s track arrangement is. Here’s a schematic, drawn from memory, of what’s there on Bob’s layout:

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(Click on the image to view a larger version)

What the schematic does not show, however, is how much time is required to block and move cars per prototype practice. Putnam offered several challenges. First, that long track for the mill complex has three distinct spots, so it’s not what Bob refers to as a “blow and go” industry: You can’t just shove a cut of cars in and be done with it.

In our train, we had cars for certain spots, and other cars to be held at Putnam until the mill needed them.

When we arrived at Putnam, we also had a number of cars sitting on the run-around. Some of these needed to be spotted, while others were to be held.

Furthermore, we had lifts to make – but while we would lift these on the outbound trip, since Putnam’s spurs are trailing points when headed to St. Thomas, we would leave the lifts at the east end of the run-around (at right in the photo below) to collect on the return trip to Woodstock.

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(Cars to spot, cars to lift – and cars to leave alone)

Further complicating matters – but in a realistic fashion – is the other customer in Putnam: A propane dealer.

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(The west end of Putnam. The spur at right leads to the propane dealer)

Propane cars are dangerous – whether empty or full – and needed to be handled in specific spots in the train. Rules include not spotting the cars next to either locomotives or the van (whenever possible), and not marshalling next to open-topped loads that might puncture the tank car should a derailment occur.

Ryan and I spent at least 90 minutes switching Putnam – and it never felt like “playing trains”. The work was realistic, and therefore real to us. It was satisfying to accomplish this safety, and efficiently.

As we worked Putnam, it occurred to me that this simple place – just four turnouts – could be the basis for an entire layout. A train staged on a single track at right on my diagram (above) would enter the scene from Woodstock. The crew would spend 60-90 minutes sorting out the mill and switching the propane dealer, then prep its outbound cars to be collected on the return trip.

The train could then head west (left) to St. Thomas – in reality, another single track staging area. There, it would be switched with the 0-5-0. Cars for St. Thomas would be removed, while cars returning to Woodstock would be re-ordered behind the locomotive.

The train could then reappear in Putnam from the west (left) and do its eastbound lift – just to complete the sequence. As Ryan and I found on our return trip, we had to do some re-ordering of our lift in order to protect an empty propane tank car from some open loads we’d collected in St. Thomas.

Such a single-industry layout would be particularly impressive in a larger scale, like O, where one could experience the presence of a cut of grain hoppers rolling into place next to a truly massive structure. Bob’s HO scale rendition of the elevator was already imposing, as the photos show.

Thanks for the ops session, Bob! I had a great time, and it gave me an interesting insight into the potential of single-industry layouts. With all cars looking essentially the same on the outside, it just hadn’t occurred to me how much switching could be involved at such a mill. But of course, it’s what’s inside the cars that counts…

Ops with Ryan, David (and Doug)

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On Friday, my friend David Woodhead and I hopped the 506 Carleton streetcar across town to visit Ryan Mendell, for an operating session on his lovely (and achievable) Algonquin Railway. It was David’s first visit, and my second. Accordingly, David perched on the engineer’s seat while I took on the conductor’s duties:

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(Ryan (r) points out a detail on the paperwork for me as I prepare for my shift)

Ryan returned to the hobby a few years ago after a long hiatus, but his layout achieves a realism that even much more experienced modellers can’t match. I think this is because – either by design or by accident – Ryan has trained his eye to really see what’s in the real world, and then learn the skills to successfully interpret it in HO. The good news is, when one pursues the hobby in this way it doesn’t take a lot of layout to deliver challenges and satisfaction.

As an example, Ryan decided on this layout that he wanted to learn how to use photo backdrops. This went beyond buying a pre-made offering: he found a suitable location and season for his prototype, took the photos, cleaned them up and stitched them together on a computer, then printed them out. Then, after mounting them on his layout, he took a lot of care to blend the background into the foreground – even painting a road onto the backdrop in one place where it continues off the back edge of the layout. It’s very effective, and in the process Ryan challenged himself to go beyond his comfort zone.

David was particularly impressed by the small office at the wood lot, and took quite a few photos of it.

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It’s a small, simple structure, but I enjoy all the detail that Ryan has added to it – including stacks, vents and a power meter. (Poles and wires will come later.)

The ops session went smoothly. After a visit to my layout, Ryan built his own version of my waybill boxes and generated some half-size prototype-style paperwork to use in sessions.

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We had a half-dozen cars to move about, and it took about an hour to perform the work. The session went smoothly. Once the work was done, we spent a bit of time in Ryan’s workshop, looking at some future projects. I won’t reveal them here – Ryan has a blog for that – but his layout can only get better and better.

(Thanks to David for sharing his photos from our ops session.)

Afterwards, we retired to The Feathers where I had an excellent roast beef dinner with all the trimmings followed by Guinness Cake – all washed down with a few excellent pints of Ontario craft beer. Realizing that we had a fourth seat at the table, we called up Doug Currie – another friend who lives close-by – and he joined us almost before I could put my phone back in my pocket.

We had a splendid evening out, and it was a great way to end the week. David and I staggered home via streetcar in the wee hours of the morning, and we’re looking forward to another visit.

Thanks, Ryan, for hosting us on your wonderful layout!

Fillmore Engine Terminal

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(Mark delivers a load to the coaling plant at Fillmore. Rick’s modelling is beautiful and the layout concept is engaging – and definitely achievable)

Earlier this month my friend Mark Zagrodney and I visited Buffalo, New York – in the 1940s, thanks to Rick De Candido and his wonderful HO scale interpretation of a New York Central engine terminal that almost was.

Rick’s layout shares the living space in a condominium. As the lead photo shows, the layout is fairly deep so access is needed to both sides of the terminal during an operating session. Rick has built the entire layout on casters so it can be rolled against the wall when not in use. The benchwork itself is executed to a fine finish, making it a pleasant display in the living room. (That said, Rick has fabricated frames and a dust cover to keep the layout clean between sessions. These are removable and store underneath the layout during operating sessions.)

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(Mark works in the operator’s aisle, created by rolling the layout away from the wall for operating sessions. The finish on Rick’s benchwork makes the layout look like it belongs in the living room. He built the benchwork in the condo’s hobby room)

Our operating session required three people. Rick worked as the road crews: He delivered locomotives from the rest of the world (staging area) to the first inspection stop, and collected outgoing locomotives from the ready track. Mark and I were hostlers. Mark handled locomotives up to the turntable, while I managed the turntable and roundhouse work.

The staging area features a two-deck elevator moved with an automative-style screw jack:

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(The two-deck staging elevator)

The lower staging includes a manual turntable for spinning locomotives. The upper deck is used for supply trains – for example, a switcher with a cut of loaded hopper cars for the coaling tower. (Rick plans to swap the order of the decks at some point, since the engine level is used more often and he feels it would be nicer to leave the elevator in the “down” position as much as possible.) Each deck is a traverser table mounted on drawer slides to conserve space.

Rick also worked as engine terminal foreman, writing up assignments on his computer and displaying them on a flat-screen TV which featured a representation of a chalkboard. This can be seen in the upper right corner in this photo:

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(A cut of loaded hoppers at the coaling tower. A NYC Hudson receives sand and coal on arrival track 1)

Also shown in the photo above are two pairs of digital timers. These have pre-set times loaded into them, and represent the time required to perform various functions as a locomotive travels through the terminal. They’re paired because there are two inbound tracks, so each track has its own timer at each work position. When Mark or I spotted a locomotive at a work position, we’d hit start on the appropriate timer and that locomotive would be considered under “blue flag” protection until the timer dinged. We could then advance the locomotive to the next stage of its servicing.

There are several stages to servicing a locomotive. On Rick’s layout, every steam locomotive goes through the following steps as it arrives:

– Water and initial inspection (a deck of cards produces the occasional fault, which requires additional time in the roundhouse)
– Coal and Sand
– Ash dump and wash rack
– Lubrication (performed in one of two designated stalls)

 photo FillmoreTerm-09_zpso0seuvkq.jpg
(Switcher 7815 is on a service track to work the coaling tower. A cut of cars is spotted, then pulled forward as each is emptied. The streamlined Hudson is on inbound track 2, at the inspection pit. The label on the fascia indicates it will be spotted here for 20 minutes)

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(The ash dump and wash area. A switcher will soon arrive to haul away that full ash car and replace it with an empty gondola. Note the subtle detailing, such as the weeds in the expansion joints of the concrete pad)

Locomotives that are staying for an extended period of time (either because of a fault or because they’re not needed in the short term for an outbound train) will then be moved to another stall:

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(The roundhouse is cut away at the back, allowing operators to see their locomotives and appreciate Rick’s fine modelling)

Departing locomotives are turned on the turntable then staged on two outbound tracks. Here, they receive a top-up of water and are turned over to the road crew.

The layout operates on 1:1 time, and even with several locomotives in various stages of servicing there is some breathing room in the operating session. As it was our first visit, Mark and I used that time to admire Rick’s work, talk about the thinking behind the layout, and so on. As more sessions take place, there’s an opportunity to fill the time between locomotive servicing activities with some head-end switching: As the photo below shows, Rick has also modelled a portion of the passenger servicing facilities at Fillmore:

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(A NYC Alco High Hood diesel spots head-end equipment next to the express platforms. Diners, sleepers and observation cars may be spotted at the brick building to be resupplied)

This segment of the layout is also fed by a traverser table-style staging area. Work here is not as tightly scripted as the engine terminal assignments, so it’s an opportunity to spot a car or two before getting back to the main work of the session.

Rick’s layout is a terrific example of thinking creatively to design an achievable layout. Many of us, faced with the challenge of a modest space in a living room, would gravitate to a modest branch line terminal (like Port Rowan on my layout), an industrial switching area (like the East 38th Street project by Lance Mindheim) or even a single large industry, like the Pine Street Mill.

Rick took a different approach, eliminating almost all (but not all) rolling stock to focus on the locomotives. This would make a lot of sense for most of us, considering that everybody I know (myself included) has way more locomotives than they need for their layouts. (I once joked that the correct ratio for a model railway is one locomotive per freight car.)

We’re attracted to the power – and Rick’s answer is a brilliant way to show it off. This is especially true if one enjoys detailing and painting locomotives. (And if that’s you, then you should really be watching “Notch 8” – a new series on TrainMasters TV.)

To read more about Rick’s layout – and so see a layout plan – pick up the 2015 edition of Model Railroad Planning from Kalmbach. Click on the cover, below, to learn more:

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Thanks, Rick, for a great day in Buffalo. I look forward to the next operating session!

First visit to the Algonquin Railway

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On Sunday, I hopped the 506 Carlton streetcar and headed east for an operating session on the Algonquin Railway – a terrific HO scale shelf layout in a spare room that’s being built by Ryan Mendell. (Ryan recently visited my layout for the first time and was keen to return the favour.)

Ryan is doing a terrific job. He has a great eye for detail, and is obviously an accomplished modeller. What’s particularly impressive is that he’s only been back in the hobby for a few years after a long time away from it for all the usual reasons. From his layout design, to the equipment, to the structures and scenery, everything looks like the product of a modeller with decades of experience under his belt. Well done!

I’ve recently been working on trees for the St. Williams area of my layout, so I was particularly interested in Ryan’s tree-building efforts. Click on the image, below, to visit his blog and learn how he makes those terrific Eastern White Pines:

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The afternoon gave me some great ideas for filling in the space under my taller trees with saplings and other plantings to give my forested areas more bulk. I predict another visit to the craft store in the near future to pick up some craft brooms and other materials. And I’m going to build a few of those pines, just because they look great.

The Algonquin Railway runs very nicely and we spent a most satisfying hour or so switching out typical railway customers in northern Ontario, aided for part of the session by Ryan’s young son – who will one day make a fine railway modelling enthusiast, I expect.

After our session, we retired to The Feathers for lamb and ale stews, pints, and more conversation, and I had much to think about on the streetcar ride home.

Thanks for the great afternoon, Ryan! I’m looking forward to our next get-together…

Noch Segment Table

Here’s an interesting idea for layout designers who find space is a little tight in their staging areas. Noch has introduced what it calls a Segmentrehscheibe, and what UK modeller and blogger George Dent calls a Segment Table. Here’s his write-up.

I could see this being very useful as a locomotive escape track for the end of a sector plate. The device is HO scale, but I’m guessing one could replace, or build over top of, the HO scale track to accommodate wider or narrower gauges.

Go run your trains – often!

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(Full staging on my Port Rowan layout: Click on the photo to visit my layout blog)

I really like Lance Mindheim‘s thoughts about layout design, layout operations and the hobby in general. I encourage as many people as I can to check out Lance’s blog. (Unfortunately, the blog does not appear to have an RSS function, so one can’t have new postings delivered automatically. One has to remember to check in regularly to see what’s new.)

One posting that I’m thinking about a lot lately is his September 30, 2012 entry, called How to “Play” with Trains. Lance notes that somewhere in the evolution of layout operation, modellers started embracing the idea that operating sessions had to run several hours, involve many trains, and require many operators. Operating the layout solo is almost (or entirely) impossible because moving any equipment outside of the formal, multi-hour operating session would disrupt the traffic flow on the layout. In essence, everything would need to be reset before the next big session.

At the same time, when he’s hosting these big sessions the layout onwer/builder (the brass hat) is so busy looking after the layout and his guests that he doesn’t have time to pick up a throttle. The end result is that the the brass hat never gets to run his own layout.

How messed up is that?

What’s more, fear of messing up the layout can inadvertently lead layout owners to leave a negative impression of the hobby on others. I’m reminded of a friend’s story about the time he was invited to visit a Famous Model Railroader (it doesn’t matter who, so I will not name names). My friend took along some beer as a thank you for imposing on the FMR’s time and after a tour of the layout room tour in which he ooohed and aaahed appropriately, my friend asked, “So, FMR, why don’t we run a train or two?”

The answer was, “No, I don’t think there are any trains scheduled to run on the railroad today.”

As you can imagine, my friend was ready to take back his beer – perhaps to help wash out the sour taste the experience left in his mouth. Now imagine how this attitude would go over with someone who is not already in the hobby. After an experience like that, chances are they never will be.

So, what’s the solution?

Lance’s answer is to design a layout that can be operated frequently, in brief sessions. Without consciously setting out to do that, it’s what I’ve done with my Port Rowan layout. Now, having read Lance’s thoughts on this, I’m making a point of ensuring that I run the layout four or five times per week.

Now, The Daily Effort takes about 75 minutes to complete a run from Simcoe (staging) to Port Rowan and back, with work in Port Rowan and St. Williams. And I don’t have 75 minutes, four or five times per week. But the thing is, the entire run does not need to be completed in a single session. Instead, I am splitting the run over several sessions. Five 15-minute sessions will get it done. (So will one half-hour session plus three 15-minute sessions, or three 20-minute sessions, a 10 and a five, or…)

(Note that even larger, more complex layouts would benefit from having a section that could be operated in this way with minimal disruption the overall traffic flow – perhaps a branch, connecting shortline, waterfront area, or industrial park would serve the purpose.)

When I run out of time to run trains, I simply make a note of where I am in the operating cycle, shut off the power and walk away. The next time I can run, I can quickly pick up where I left off. Having done this for a couple of weeks now, my goal is to never again run a train back and forth at random – even when non-hobbyists visit. Instead, by replicating the real work on the Port Rowan branch – even just a little bit of it – I can help explain to casual visitors why so many of us find this hobby so compelling.

In addition to keeping my interest high, these short but frequent operating sessions help the layout too: They keep the rails clean, they keep the switch mechanisms and switch points limber, and they help me identify any maintenance issues that need to be addressed. That’s good news for when I am hosting formal operating sessions with a friend or two, because it means the layout is always in the best shape it can be. And if I want to give friends the full experience of running a train from staging to staging, that’s easy enough to set up at a moment’s notice.

That’s why I encourage everyone to read Lance’s blog entry on how to play with trains. And then, I encourage you to head to the layout room and do just that. Have fun – I am!

Modelling jobs – not industries

I recently received a comment on a posting on my Port Rowan layout blog that suggested that I should add more industries and switching opportunities to the layout. I believe the reader is concerned that there will not be enough for visiting operators to do during sessions.

It’s a fair observation so I thought I would address it in a posting.

The truth is, I have thought a lot about the operating potential of this layout. In fact, I started thinking about it even before I started building the layout, just over a year ago. I chose the prototype I did – after much consideration – because Port Rowan offered engaging opportunities for realistic, satisfying operation while fitting in my layout room.

My experience with my previous layout – a Maine two-foot gauge line in O scale – confirmed for me that a lot of satisfying operation can be had on a layout with relatively few sidings and spurs. It’s my experience – having built a number of layouts for myself over the years, and having helped design, build and operate dozens more – that a complex design often adds construction and maintenance headaches without adding much by way of operating fun. In extreme cases, additional trackage may actually reduce the amount of operating fun by reducing the need for careful planning before starting to switch a customer.

“Careful planning” is a phrase that needs defining. This is not the type of planning required to master a switching puzzle, such as the Time Saver. I am not at all in favour of switching puzzles on layouts – and neither are prototype railroads, which do everything they can to avoid them.

But prototype railroads make do with as few tracks as possible, because every additional switch is an additional cost to maintain, and another opportunity for a derailment. For example, instead of adding a second track to serve an industry, an existing spur may be extended. Spotting order – the arrangement of the cars, in order, before shoving them into the spur – then becomes important.

There’s a lot more operation on my Port Rowan layout than at first appears. Almost every siding and spur on the layout does double-duty – from the three- and four-spot team tracks in St. Williams and Port Rowan to the end of track at Port Rowan, which also doubles as the spur for the JC Backhouse feed mill.
Port Rowan layout photo PortRowan.jpg
(Click on the plan to open a larger version in a separate window.)

Assessing the operating potential of any layout based solely on the number of spurs and sidings drawn on the plan also ignores the reality that switching even a single spur is a lot more involved than throwing the switch and banging the car into place. It’s only through studying the prototype and how it worked that the full potential of any layout is revealed.

For starters, there’s proper operation of a steam locomotive. I have been fortunate enough to experience this first-hand, having volunteered as a fireman during Santa Fest and Polar Express events at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Portland.

Maine Two-Foot Water Crane photo WaterCrane-MNGRR.jpg
(That’s me, in warmer weather. This wet job is a lot less fun when it’s freezing!)

Understanding how a locomotive works has absolutely changed how I approach the hobby. It has affected how I set up the various functions, variables and performance characteristics of sound decoder-equipped models. And it has affected how I operate those models. This has extended the amount of time it takes to perform even simple switching moves in St. Williams and Port Rowan.

Working those events in Maine also gave me a real appreciation for the roles that various crew members play to build a train and get it over the line. Safety trumps speed, every time. Crews consult to plan their moves before the throttle is cracked. Those on the ground confirm that they have the attention of those in the cab before they step between freight or passenger cars to do their work. And so on. Again, on the layout this attention to modelling the jobs of railroading – a phrase I first heard from Layout Design SIG founder Doug Gurin – adds time to any operating session.

Those who want to build their knowledge of how to translate prototype operations to a layout do not have to join a steam crew at a museum – especially if they’re interested in replicating more contemporary operations on their layouts. It’s as easy as standing trackside – on public property and at a safe distance, of course – and watching a real train crew do their work. If you’re looking for a primer on what to expect before you head trackside, I highly recommend the book How to Operate a Modern Era Switching Layout by Lance Mindheim. (Visit Lance’s online bookstore for information on ordering.) Lance presents a compelling case for an alternative to the more is better philosophy of layout design and operation.

The point Lance makes – and I agree – is that “more track, more industries” does not necessarily translate into more operating satisfaction. But an understanding of how real train crews perform their duties does – every time.

Back in the 1950s world of Port Rowan that I am recreating in my layout room, I have already run a number of operating sessions on the layout – with friends and by myself – and I’m more than satisfied with how the layout comes to life during these sessions. I continue to explore ways to enhance these sessions – not by adding track and industries, but by focussing on modelling the jobs of railroading in 1:64.