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:

 photo Putnam-BF-01-Map_zps6xnwuiul.jpg
(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.

 photo Putnam-BF-03_zpsrfnmfkpg.jpg
(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.

 photo Putnam-BF-04_zpsgdqg01he.jpg
(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…

21 thoughts on “Switching Putnam

  1. Looks like Frankford, Delaware. Huge grain elevator that also prepares feed for commercial chicken operations that are mainstay of the local ag economy.
    Big propane distribution operation is one town south but mill gets propane tankers to dry grain. There are 3 tracks – main with sidings on either side. At times all three tracks are tied up – this is a single purpose shortline.
    City street is immediately south of the mill so grain trucks line up to deliver to elevator. It is main access to US 113.
    Next town north has farm supply that receives propane and fertilizer. There is an unused unloading ramp that probably received flat cars in days of old.
    Coal fired power plant is one town further north that gets its own train of hoppers.

    Each time I cut through to the highway I envision a P:48 shelf layout centered around the elevator – but the 20′ wall it would go on is very limiting.

  2. Would it ever make a terrific layout on its own?! Thanks for the article and the detail. As a standalone layout, I think I see potential in two eras:

    Exactly as you describe in the era Bob is modeling. CP in the 80’s is just about perfect so no need to change anything. I like the idea of having to set cars out for the next train in the opposite direction to lift. It’s an extra step with real purpose within the same space. It’s 90 minutes of work, as you describe, but I would suppose the pace would be engaging yet still comfortable. Enough to really immerse you in the moment and that’s what good layout design is all about. This is perfect.

    Bringing the scene forward to a more modern time I thought this scene would be a great end of the line on a truncated branch – now forming a shortline. I could easily see a patched GP creeping along the track to work the elevator (“the last customer on the line”) and not totally unlike Trillium’s St. Thomas and Eastern. In this guise, there’s potential to vary the length of the session based on season. Sometimes you only arrive to work the propane dealer. Even the elevator traffic would fluctuate during the year.

    Speaking of that propane dealer, even though the dealer could only receive one or two cars at a time they might arrive in blocks. The complete block (say six cars) is taken to Putnam and the first are set into the dealer. As required, cars are fed through the dealer.

    Lots of potential here.


  3. Really interesting and useful. Prototype question, though (I know almost nothing about agriculture) . . . why would the mill have three different spots? Is it shipping or receiving? Why would some cars be held? I’d love an in-depth piece about how a place like this operates.

  4. I have a similar “spot” on my U-shaped shelf layout, a combination of grain collection elevator and feed and seed facility. The operations described for Putnam gave me great operations input for my spot, thanks!

  5. Hi Clark. Cold Springs Farms is a busy place to say the least, especially in October which is harvest season. Each facility of this nature is unique and each will be nuanced differently according to what they do. As for CSF, they both ship and receive edible grains. They buy low and sell at a later date for a profit. The different spots along their spur allows for different functions. Spot 1 for example has an under track pit for Gravity unloading whereas spot 2 is under a surge bin for gravity loading. The mill fills orders in sequence and requires specific cars to be spotted to meet those orders. This shuffling of cars with limited track requires the conductor on train #73 to have his wits about him or things can get jammed up in a hurry. The added time and attention adds length of run and good “play value.” Model railroad myth 74 says that more track equals more fun. Not true. Thanks for your question Clark. Happy modelling.

  6. Hi Clark. Spot 3 is actually a separate industry. It’s a small mom and pop fertilizer dealer. They get a carload of fertilizer once or twice a month.

  7. Front end loader during my time there….they always left us some sort of surprise…as in some safety appliance damaged so it added another switch as we had to leave the car behind and call the road truck to come and repair.

  8. Hey Bob! Your layout is absolutely awesome, very realistic! Do you happen to have a layout plan of any sorts?


    Colin Graham
    Ingersoll, ON

    • Hi Colin:
      Bob does not have a layout plan. He drew a rough one on a napkin then got building. One of the advantages of modelling a prototype faithfully is you just need to do what the prototype did, so it’s possible to figure out a general arrangement and then start laying track.
      As noted in this upcoming attractions video, Bob’s layout will feature on TrainMasters TV in the new year.

      • Hi Trevor!

        Thanks for the reply and looking forward to the video. Is there a photo album somewhere of Bob’s layout? Does he have a helix to get to the lower deck for staging?



        • Hi Colin:
          No – no photo album, although Bob does share a lot of photos on the Canadian Railway Modellers group on Facebook.
          No helix – it’s a long grade into and out of staging.
          This is getting a little beyond the focus of this post, which is about how a single small town can make for a satisfying operating session if one is thoughtful about selecting the industry to model and if prototype switching practices are observed…

  9. Hi!
    Interesting industry. As you say Trevor, a lot of operation out of a small layout. I do have one question. Do you spot just one car at each spot (mill 1 and mill 2), or can you spot more than one at each spot? Like two cars to be unloaded, while you also spot one car to be loaded?


    • Hi Mattias:
      Bob can correct me on this if need be, but I believe there’s only room for one car at a time at each location. For example, there’s only one delivery pipe for loading, and only one between the tracks hopper for unloading.
      The good news is, this means that the crew has to do more shuffling of cars – or work the industry every day.

      • Ok. So you can only put three cars on that track in total?
        The talk about a front end loader led me to think that, for exemple, you might put two car on that track for unloading, one over the unloading bin and the other next to it, and then imagin that between op-secions the elevators employes moved the two cars so the next could be unloaded. I was thinking that the front end loader wouldn’t bring in cars from the run around track, or would it?


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