Roll-by inspection

A member of CNR’s section gang pauses on the siding in St. Williams to give a roll-by inspection to a passing freight:

Roll-by

Roll by

Roll by

On Wednesday, my friend Stephen Gardiner visited for an operating session – and left me with a nice present. Stephen had drawn up a speeder for a 3D print job in HO scale, and wondered how it would turn out in S. So he revisited his drawings and the result is what you see above. While I’ve posed it on the siding in St. Williams, Stephen’s modifications for printing in 1:64 included providing pockets for extendable wooden handles so the speeder can be posed with a figure hauling it on or off the rails, if I so desire. Thanks Stephen – what a great little detail!

The ops session went well, considering that I haven’t run the layout in a while. Stephen took on the conductor’s role, while I clambered into the engineer’s seat on CNR 80. We had one derailment – possibly due to the freight car truck seizing up a little since it hasn’t been moved in many, many weeks.

Our biggest problem came from misaligned couplers – my fault, for not stopping ahead of coupling to let Stephen do a visual inspection. I don’t use the centring spring that comes with the Kadee 808s – I don’t like how it makes the draft gear bounce in and out, and I don’t really mind that the couplers sometimes need to be aligned manually. I just need to remember that all-important and most prototypical pause before attempting coupling.

Of course, I also need to run my own layout more often: I was pretty heavy-handed on the throttle and was guilty of some pretty hard couplings as a result. I’m sure that the conductor is going to give me a proper dressing down for spilling the coffee in the van!

A few days earlier, I’d updated the files in the LokSound decoders I use – from a beta file to the full production file for SOO 1003, which is my current sound file of choice. The 80 sounds better than ever, although I need to tweak a few volume settings and substitute a different air pump sound file. All in good time…

Stephen is currently planning a new, prototype-based switching layout for his home office space, and is writing about it on his blog. You can following the link to his latest post on the Liberty Village layout – and I highly recommend that you follow along.

Stephen and I have been talking about traffic density a fair bit – specifically, about finding the right balance between realistic appearance and sufficiently engaging operations on a small layout. It’s often tempting to fill a small layout with track, but there are other ways to boost the play value – which is something I’ve been demonstrating (I hope) on my model of the line to Port Rowan. It’s a medium-sized layout, at approximately 14×30 feet, but has just eight turnouts and lots of space devoted to a single track running through the landscape. It doesn’t work for everybody but it does for me.

Ops paperwork and throttle - 2017-11-08
(The work desk at St. Williams: The switch list shows there’s a lot of traffic today)

Because of these discussions, I set up the layout with a bit more switching than I normally do. In addition to several cars to drop and spot, I placed an off-spot car on the run-around in Port Rowan, which added some complexity to our switching duties. I’m pleased that even with the extra work, the session went smoothly and we had a fun time.

Afterwards, my wife joined us as we retired to Harbord House for dinner and drinks. The newest item on the menu – dill pickles breaded in cornmeal and deep fried – are out of this world delicious.

Great to see you, Stephen – and thanks so much for the speeder!

Narrative RPGs and Ops Sessions

I’m going to start this post by describing something that has nothing to do with model railways – and then try to connect it to railway modelling. Bear with me…

Last year, I returned to another hobby after a hiatus of some 30 years. That hobby is Role Playing Games (RPGs), and my return was an eye-opening experience:

The Game Master at work.
(That’s me, pouring over notes as Game Master for a session of Star Wars: Age of Rebellion at the end of March: My first time acting as GM in 30 years. It was nerve-wracking, but fun – and I can’t wait to do it again!)

If you’re familiar with RPGs, you can skip ahead. For the rest of you, well…

It’s a big subject – but here’s an overly-simplified description. A group of people gather around a table. One person (the Game Master, or GM) has acquired (or written) a set of rules, and prepared the setting plus other information needed to conduct an adventure. Think of the rules as the mechanics of making a film – the lighting, the camera, the microphones, and all the other things are determine what you can and cannot do. And think of the setting and the adventure as the script.

The other people (the Players) each take on the role of a hero – the actors in our script. But instead of following a rigid script, the action unfolds through a group-based story-telling session. Where they go is limited only by the imagination of the Players and the GM, plus the GM’s ability to respond to the actions of the heroes in his setting. An adventure can last a single session – typically, 3 to 4 hours – like a stand-alone movie. Or, it can stretch over multiple sessions, like a TV series. It can also be part of a larger campaign in which the same Players (playing the same heroes each time) undertake several adventures – acquiring experience, plus a combination of wealth, status, power, and other benefits. Campaign play is more like a movie franchise, or multi-season TV show.

The games can be set just about anywhere: They can be based on any popular genre (e.g.: detective stories/pulp, fantasy, realistic science fiction or space opera, horror, super heroes, and so on). They can be realistic, even historical, or built entirely around an imaginary premise.

There’s usually a challenge involved: Slay the dragon, find the stolen plans, stop the evil empire, catch the bad guy, rescue the captured scientist, prevent (or solve) a murder… the possibilities are endless. The GM has a general plan of how things are to unfold, but the players are free to take their own actions.

The rules of the game tend to focus on basic activities. They define how to shoot a gun, how to cast a spell, how to pick a lock, how to fly a star ship (as appropriate to the world in which the heroes are adventuring). These rules typically use dice to resolve successes and failures. But the mechanics of the game are balanced by improv/narrative, where the Players and the GM can make up things on the fly to move the story forward.

As I mentioned, I’ve been away from RPGs for 30 years. And since I’ve had such a long break, I’ve noticed some interesting developments between then and now.

Many of the games I used to play are still around – although they’ve gone through several rules revisions, moved to different publishers, and so on.

Over all, those games are better – the quality is better and there’s a much greater choice of accessories such as figures (many to 28mm scale, which is very close to S scale) to bring adventures to life. (By the way, these new accessories are built the same way that much of our ready-to-run equipment is: It’s designed by the game developers on computer and manufactured in China. And then gaming hobbyists expand on their collection through scratch-building, kit-bashing, and developing their own computer designs for laser-cutting or 3D printing.)

And while I don’t know whether this is universal, my own experience is that many of the newer games have mechanics that are much easier to learn. In fact, in some of my favourites, the game authors have made it clear that the mechanics should enhance the narrative – not direct it.

For me, there’s been a definite evolution – which I noticed in large part because of my hiatus. The most significant change, in my experience, is the change in emphasis from mechanics to narrative as the driving force in game systems.

The games I played as a teenager were dice-heavy, and the randomness of those roles could make or break an adventure. You rolled the dice, a number came up, you compared it to a chart that told you what happened, and there was little room for GM and/or players to interpret the results.

The games I’m playing today often have dice with no numbers on them at all. The dice are marked with symbols that mean things like “success”, “failure”, “positive benefit”, “setback” and so on. They support the character’s actions, rather that dictate them.

Arkhan's character sheet and narrative dice.
(The portfolio for Arkhan – one of the heroes in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion adventure for which I’m game master – plus dice)

In RPGs, the character sheets (or portfolios) contain a mix of data to influence dice rolls, plus background that allows the player to assume the role. In the photo above, the character is a Bothan commander in the Rebel Alliance, played by my friend Brian. How well Brian assumes the character has a direct influence on the mechanics, so he can shape his hero’s destiny.

So, what does this have to do with model railroading? Good question.

The model railway hobby has also advanced a lot in the past 30 years – and in similar ways to role playing games. Our mechanics are definitely better:

We have DCC, laser cutting, photo-etching and 3D printing.

We have amazing ready-to-run models and terrific resin kits.

We shop the world via the Internet.

We have blogs and forums to share ideas and techniques.

We have strong historical societies, photo galleries, history websites, books and other resources – online and offline – to answer questions, and help us become better modellers.

And more.

The narrative side of things is also better: As a hobby, more of us know more about the rules of railroading than ever before, thanks to groups such as (but not limited to) the Operations SIG and Layout Design SIG. Thanks to many of the improvements to “mechanics” that I’ve already listed, more people are also getting beyond the “building models” stage to the “building a layout” stage. More layouts have scenery and detailed structures than ever before. And with better running trains, sound-equipped locomotives, signalling systems, prototype paperwork, and more, operating sessions are more realistic than ever.

These are all good things. So what’s next? I suspect that as a hobby, we could do better to define and communicate the narrative that drives our layouts.

Often during operating sessions, we become fixated on the mechanical: Moving this car from here to there… moving that train from there to here… letting the dispatcher know where we are… following the time table… deciphering the DCC throttles, track diagrams and switch controls… and so on. But if we step back and look at what we’re doing, operations sessions are essentially a Role Playing Game.

The owner/builder of the layout is the game master, who has created the world, defined the adventure, and established the rules.

The rest of us assume the roles of various “heroes” in the game: we’re the dispatcher, the engineer, the conductor, the yardmaster, and so on.

With rare exceptions (and I’ll provide an example, below), the narrative takes a back seat to the mechanics of the operations game. We follow the rules, but otherwise we basically play ourselves. I know I do. Are we missing an opportunity?

Those who like Role Playing Games would think so.

I suspect that gamers would enjoy a layout like the Kansas City Terminal, built by Jim Senese of Oklahoma. I’ve read about Jim’s layout in Great Model Railroads and Model Railroad Planning. It’s also been featured online. You can find a good description of it on this page, where I will direct your attention to the last line of the first paragraph:

It’s 3:00 pm on Saturday, November 15, 1980 – the last weekend before the Frisco was absorbed into the Burlington Northern. The eight model railroaders who come to operate the KCT are divided into four two-person crews. One crew will be hired by the M-K-T, one by the Frisco, one by the Kansas City Southern, and one by the Missouri Pacific. During the 3.5 hour operating session each crew will switch industries along their railroad, provide customer service moves at grain elevators, and interchange interline freight cars with the other three trunk lines. As an additional dimension, each crew will be provided with a description of the corporate culture of the railroad they work for and will be asked to adopt that persona during the session.

What a terrific idea!

Now, this works well for Jim because he has built a terminal switching layout focussed on the interplay between four railroads in the Kansas City area, and each railroad has its own culture. But I’m sure this idea could be adapted to individual jobs on any layout. It could be as simple as assigning each operator a persona – a character sheet – that describes their personality.

Are they new to the job, and worried about making errors? Or are they old hands, counting the days to retirement? One could add detail as one sees fit. An old hand might live to hold court with the other railroaders – or might be somewhat dour and unapproachable.

In the Star Wars RPG universe (and, I’m sure, others), each player selects an “obligation” or a “duty” for their character. This is their motivation for being in the Rebel Alliance in the first place, and it combines with the character’s background story to help the player in several ways, including:

It helps the player assume the persona of their hero. In fact, it encourages this, because the Game Master will assess how well the player is fulfilling their character’s obligation (or duty) when awarding experience and other goodies at the end of an adventure.

It helps direct the story, by giving players an understanding of how they would react to situations and what sorts of opportunities they act upon. It also gives the Game Master tools to use to engage the characters in the adventure he or she has designed.

I wonder: If a long-time gamer suddenly embraced railway modelling and built a layout… what would it look like? What would operating sessions be like? Would they include props – perhaps, come to sessions dressed for the part?

Something to think about, as you ponder three Stormtroopers on speeder bikes patrolling through Port Rowan…

No 'droids here: Move on!

“The Daily Effort” with Andrew and Chris

Yesterday, I hosted Andrew Batchelor and Chris Abbott for an operating session. Andrew took on the conductor’s role while Chris held down the engineer’s seat – and the session was different than most I host in several respects.

Ops - 2016-11-20
(The star of the show: M238 after collecting its lifts in St. Williams. It ended up being too long for my sector plate…)

This was the first session I’ve hosted in a long time in which we’ve run Mixed Train M233 / M238. Usually when guests arrive – especially first-time guests like Andrew – we run a freight extra because they’re more familiar to most hobbyists. But Andrew was really interested in the paperwork that I use on the layout, and since there’s a fair bit of paper involved with running The Daily Effort it was the better choice for an ops session.

Ops - 2016-11-20
(That’s a whole lotta paperwork…)

While I’m quite comfortable with using the waybills and switch lists, I’m a bit rusty with the paperwork for the mail, express, LCL and passenger portion of the Mixed Train, and it showed. My method for calculating the time taken to transfer packages etc between train and baggage wagon is clunky and distracts from the feeling of operating the train. This was not apparent when I was doing it myself, but is definitely an issue when I try to explain the process to guests. So I need to rethink this.

One possibility I’m now seriously considering is to use a set of triggered sounds to represent the time required. My layout’s ambient audio system easily supports this type of application. I may build several sound files that include the following:

– The railway car door unlocking and opening
– The rumble of a baggage wagon being positioned.
– The sounds of hand trucks and workers moving cargo.
– The railway door closing and locking.

If I were to build a half-dozen of these sound files, each of different lengths, and then have the audio system select and play one at random when triggered via a button on the fascia, that might add enough randomness to the time required for a station stop. The fact that each stop could require three such sequences (for combine, baggage/mail, and LCL boxcar) would further randomize the length of a station stop.

I would still retain the paperwork – the conductor would exchange these with the station agent, as he does now by using the pigeon holes at each station desk – but there would be less math during a session. And that would be a good thing.

I note that Kalmbach recently published a book by Jeff Wilson called Express, Mail & Merchandise Service. As the name suggests, it covers this head-end traffic and how to model it. I have not yet perused a copy, so I don’t know if it addresses how to represent the traffic at the kind of micro level that interests me, or whether it’s confined to (for example) moving carloads of LCL between freight houses. But I have other books by this author and he does a good job of covering a topic, so I’ll investigate next time I’m at my local hobby shop.

This session marked the first time we’ve run trains (beyond some five-minute tests) using my new DCC system – the ECoS 50220 command station and Mobile Control II wireless throttles from ESU.

Overall, things went well – although there were some minor issues. I put these down to the novelty of the new controllers. Chris, who was engineer for our session, is fairly used to my Lenz keypad throttles so it took a bit of time to adjust to the ESU approach.

For example, the ESU throttle knob also acts as the reverser: turn it all the way to the left until it stops then let go and it’ll click and switch direction. But we discovered that the movement has to be deliberate – if it’s done too fast the controller doesn’t necessarily register it. That’s not a problem with the controller – just something that operators have to learn. Now that I know this, I can explain it better to others.

Ops - 2016-11-20

On the positive side, I figured out ahead of the session how to program the physical buttons on the throttle. I mapped frequently used commands to them so that the operator does not have to look at the touch screen to use the horn, bell or progressive engine brake (which is a feature on the TCS WOWSound decoders I’m currently using).

On the slightly annoying and somewhat humorous side, we found that the throttle will save power by going to sleep – but the factory setting (one minute of inactivity) is too quick for a typical operating session. This is slightly annoying because Chris was spending a lot of time tapping the power button on the top of the unit to bring it back to life, and there’s a very slight delay while powering up. I’ve adjusted the sleep setting to a five-minute delay. We’ll see if that works. I can set it as long as 15 minutes, but of course the longer the screen stays active the more power it consumes. I’ve also tried to balance the extra power I’ll be using with the longer delay by dimming the screen.

The sleep issue was humorous because every time Chris woke up the throttle, the WOWSound decoder – which has something like 40 whistles built into it – would randomly change its whistle setting. The next time he blew the whistle, it would be different.

I have to admit that I’m underwhelmed by the WOWSound decoders. They have some neat features that my previous Tsunami decoders did not, including the progressive brake (which I really like) and an audio function to represent clearing the cylinders of condensed steam (which I know is vital when operating a steam engine). But the audio circuit occasionally blasts a “Matrix”-like digital distortion. And I’ve had other issues.

So I’m not too concerned about interoperability issues with the ESU throttles because I plan to replace the TCS decoders at some point. I’m waiting to see what Matt Herman from ESU in North America does with steam sound. He’s already done a great job introducing new diesel audio files under the “Full Throttle” banner and I know he’s been travelling over the past few months to record steam sounds across North America. So it’s only a matter of time. That Engine Brake button can always be remapped to the LokSound “Drive Hold” feature…

Naturally, food and drink was involved. Before our operating session, the three of us enjoyed brunch at Harbord House. While there are other places worth eating at, this has become the tradition of sorts for new guests. I’m currently quite keen on a Toronto brew, Henderson’s Best ESB from the Henderson Brewing Company.

Andrew: Thanks for getting in touch. It was great to see you and I hope the day answered some questions about paperwork. It did for me.

Chris: Thanks as always. Cheers!

A cold car for St. Williams

It’s been a while since I shot a video on my layout, but after last weekend’s trip to Caledonia and Lowbanks I felt inspired so I grabbed video camera, lights, and tripods and headed to the basement.

In this video, a CNR freight extra pauses at the St. Williams train station, then spots a pre-iced CNR eight-hatch refrigerator car on the team track so the local co-op can load it with produce. With the work accomplished, the train continues on its journey to Port Rowan:


(You may also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

I wanted to play around with cut-aways and other editing tricks, rather than shoot a static “set up the camera here and watch the train roll by” presentation. It’s been a quarter century since I’ve had to do any of this, so the edits are sloppy – rusty skills have made my timing atrocious

The exercise made me appreciate even more the skills of professional videographers and editors like my friend Barry Silverthorn at TrainMasters TV.

The thing about what Barry does is that people will watch his videos and think they’re great – but not necessarily know why they think they’re great. The devil is in the details: the timing of the switches from shot to shot, the care in framing the scene in the lens, the fine adjustments to lighting and sound. Compared to his work, this is pretty crude – but still more visually interesting than the single-camera POV.

This approach to video does take more time – I shot 49 segments, and used almost all of them to edit together into this eight-minute story – but I think the result is worth the extra effort.

And the “story” is the real challenge: I’m re-learning how to use visuals to tell a richer story – not just about the trains, but the environment in which they operate, too. I’ve tried to do that here. You can be the judge…

“Instant on”

Car Storage Drawers under the Staging Yard

While I now have a lot of storage capacity under my sector plate staging yard, I also like to keep a full complement of trains ready to run on the four-track sector plate itself. In addition to the locomotives and rolling stock, I try to have all the paperwork for these trains ready to go.

In discussing an unrelated issue with a friend offline, I realized one of the things I like about this arrangement is that the layout is ready to go with the press of a power button. The electronics world calls this “instant on” and it has several advantages – particularly for simple, one or two person layouts such as mine.

The biggest is the ability to run short, frequent sessions as time allows. Lance Mindheim has written about breaking down operations into small chunks, and then operating several times per week, whenever one has a bit of time. Here’s how this concept applies to Port Rowan:

On my layout there are two towns and a total of 12 “spots” for freight cars – but as I’ve noted recently, typically less than half the spots are used at any one time.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume six freight cars are scattered throughout the layout, and only three of those are ready to be lifted: One in St. Williams and two in Port Rowan. To run a train from staging to Port Rowan and back, with all work performed, would typically take 75-90 minutes – and I do that fairly regularly with friends.

But what if I don’t have an hour and a half? What if I have 15 minutes this morning, and 10 minutes this afternoon, and another 15 minutes tomorrow, and so on?

Breaking the operation down into smaller chunks is the answer:

Let’s assume I have 15 minutes available to me this morning, I could grab my paperwork and throttle, and run a train from staging to St. Williams. I could also complete the paperwork at the station – figuring out what cars to drop and which ones to lift, writing up my switch list, and so on. Then I could go do the “real world” things that need to be done.

Van at St Williams station
(A freight extra stops with the van in front of the St. Williams station, so the conductor can confer with the station agent on the work to be done in town)

Again, assuming I find myself with another 10 minutes this afternoon, I could return to the layout space and pick up where I left off. With the paperwork ready to go, I could switch the cars in St. Williams. I might get all of the switching done, or I might only get the lifts taken care of, with the set-outs still to do. When I run out of time, I can put down the throttle and paperwork, and go back to the real world.

St Williams team track
(There’s switching to be done in St. Williams – not much, but some…)

Tomorrow, I can use my 15 minutes to run from St. Williams to Port Rowan, stopping for water along the way and arriving at the station. I can prep my paperwork for switching Port Rowan. And then I can walk away, knowing the next time I have time I can start on the switching.

Extra 80 West arrives in Port Rowan
(A freight extra arrives in Port Rowan. Before switching, it will continue ahead to the station so the crew can receive their orders)

It might take a week of short segments to run a “full operating session” in this manner, but it means the layout continues to entertain, and continues to be run – which seems to be the best way to keep any model railway in good shape.

However, there are several things to consider about running a layout in this fashion. These include:

The layout needs to be “instant on”. If one has to set up trains in staging, or even set in place a removable section of layout to allow for operating sessions, that can eat up a good chunk of the 10 minutes one has to run trains.

It works best for simple layouts – for example, this one, with one train on the line at a time. That said, on a more complex layout one could set up a branch line train to be used for these quick sessions, without disrupting the relationship of trains elsewhere on the layout.

One needs space to store paperwork and throttles, near the places where the train will pause between operating sessions. In my case, I have pull-out work desks at both St. Williams and Port Rowan that are perfect for storing ops aids between sessions.

St Williams Work Desk
(The work desk at St. Williams. Click on the image to read more about these)

I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for everyone to consider how their layouts can be “instant on” and how they can support these segmented operating sessions with activities that require no set-up, are quick to run, and can easily be walked away from when real life calls…

How much switching is involved?

Extra 1532 East - St Williams
(Short trains and modest amounts of switching still make for engaging operating sessions.)

A while ago, my friend Terry Smith (who is the most active keeper of the Maine On2 FAQ site) emailed me to ask about typical train lengths and switching activity on my Port Rowan layout. Specifically, he wanted to know how many cars I typically stage on the layout (at various industries) at the beginning of a session – and then how many come onto the layout and how many leave during a session.

Terry’s questions stemmed from a general inquiry about how few freight cars one needs on a layout for a realistic/satisfying operating session.

Those are terrific questions – and the short answer is, “For me, not many”.

The longer answer depends on several things, including:

– the amount of time I want to spend operating during a session
– the capacity of my staging tracks
– the capacity of the team tracks and other locations which cars are spotted on the layout
– the need to keep operations fluid in order to be realistic, which means not overstuffing the layout, and
– the realities of modelling a very lightly-trafficked branch line in its twilight years

Let’s look at each of these:

Session length:

Obviously, the more cars to switch, the more work to be done and therefore the longer a session will take. A short session will run 45 minutes. A longer session might run two hours.

I often tailor sessions to the experience of the operators. Freight extras are good trains for those who are new to the layout, because there are fewer things to juggle. Mixed Trains have less switching to perform, but there are tickets to collect, LCL, express and mail to account for, a fast clock to obey, the traffic study to complete, and so on.

Track capacity:

I have four tracks and I stage one train per track. But only one train is run for each “day” that I operate. The multiple trains are staged so that I can run a variety of locomotives and other equipment, as I represent several days in a single session. For example, if I have two friends over, I might run two days on the layout during our session – with my guests switching engineer/conductor roles between the two days. We might even break for lunch between running those two days worth of trains.

Each staging track is 6′-4″ long – which is roughly equal to nine 40-foot S scale cars. I count a locomotive as two cars, and a van as one – so I could have up to six revenue cars on a freight extra. However, I tend to leave space for stopping, and will vary train lengths to provide a variety of operating sessions. Typically, a staged freight extra will have 0-5 freight cars (plus caboose and locomotive), while a staged mixed train (M233) will have 1-2 freight cars, plus locomotive, baggage/mail car, combine, and one boxcar in LCL service.

Train lengths - sector plate
(The sector plate stages four trains – and all are fairly long in this image. The two mixed trains each have to carload cars, plus an LCL car and two passenger cars. One freight extra has three freight cars, while the other has four.)

Fluid operations:

Making sure things run smoothly means not stuffing all available track with rolling stock. But if I did:

– I would be able to spot four cars on the team track spur in St. Williams.
– I would have space for eight cars, total, on the tracks in Port Rowan: the team track has spots for four cars, the mill has space for two and the elevated coal track has space for two.

My rule of thumb is, on average, to have each town half full – or less. So, typically, I will have 0-2 cars spotted in St. Williams and 0-4 cars spotted in Port Rowan.

Train lengths - St Williams
(The St. Williams team track has space for four cars – although typically, no more than two occupy it.)

Train lengths - Port Rowan
(Using the “half-full” guideline, Port Rowan has four cars in it today – three on the team track and one in front of the mill.)

While all cars in a staged train will be destined for spotting on the layout, not all cars spotted on the layout at the start of a session will be lifted. On average, about half the cars in each town will be lifted, while the other half will stay put. If they must be moved during switching, they must return to their original location when switching is finished.

Fluid operations also limit the train length in another way: In Port Rowan, the runaround track has less than four feet of clear space between fouling points. That limits as follows:

– Freight extra: five 40-foot cars, plus a van.
– Mixed train: One 40-foot car, plus a boxcar in LCL service and two passenger cars.

Note that this does not include the locomotive – because of course it’s doing the run-around move. This is one reason why cars lifted from the team track in St. Williams are left on the siding to be collected on the return trip.

Train lengths - Port Rowan run around
(This train doesn’t fit in Port Rowan: With the combine in the clear at the far end of the runaround track, the fouling point is at the front edge of the tank car. When the crew picked up the first boxcar behind the locomotive from the team track in St. Williams, they should’ve left it on the siding there – to be collected on the return trip.)

Representing the prototype:

My prototype is a lightly trafficked branchline in its twilight years. Within a decade of my modelling period, the line is abandoned for good. So I try to not make the trains too busy. Still, they’re busier than the prototype, which may have seen one car load of freight a week in a busy period. More likely, by the end of its life, the traffic on the branch was down to a few cars per month.

I balance traffic so that if there are a lot of cars on the inbound train at the start of the session, there will be fewer cars on the layout to be lifted. Trains that arrive from Simcoe (staging) heavy tend to return light, and vice versa. Also, if there’s more switching to do in St. Williams, there will be less to do in Port Rowan, and vice versa.

So, the answer is:

From this, I’d say the average session sees 6-8 cars moved – including both set outs and lifts – plus of course any temporary switching of cars that must be returned to their starting positions.

Thanks for asking, Terry – it was a good exercise for me to think through your questions so I could answer them!

Ops with Bernard and Greg

My friend Greg Stubbings was in town this week from the Ottawa area and we got together last night for dinner and an operations session. I thought it would be great to add a third person to the evening, so I invited my friend Bernard Hellen to join us. We had a great time.

I’ve known Greg since the mid-1990s, but it has been well over two years since his last visit. He and I always have a lot to talk about – from the CNR in the steam era (he models Lindsay, Ontario in the late 1950s) to working border collies on sheep (Greg is a fellow border collie owner – with two, who until recently worked a couple hundred Rideau Arcott on his farm) to our mutual friends in the Ottawa area.

By contrast, I met Bernard at this year’s Copetown Train Show and it was his first visit to the layout. (I’ve yet to see Bernard’s layout, based on the Quebec Gatineau Railway – but he and I are planning a reciprocal visit.) Naturally, this called for an ops session. I threw Bernard into the deep end, making him conductor on a freight extra behind CNR 1532, while Greg commanded the engineer’s seat.

Ops 2016-08-17

Ops 2016-08-17

Ops 2016-08-17

It was a fairly busy day for the Simcoe Sub, with a four-car train (plus the van) in each direction. Our session ran a solid two hours, with pauses to discuss various aspects of the layout and the operations, plus interruptions from at least two of our three dogs.

(Fortunately, all three of us are dog fans. As I mentioned, Greg has two border collies, while Bernard has had many dogs in his lifetime and currently shares his walks and snacks with a high-energy field spaniel.)

The ops session went smoothly, and the layout performed well. I always like when that happens, because it allows everybody to simply enjoy running the trains.

Just as on a real railway, when things are going well the conversation flows freely and we covered a wide range of subjects. These included updates on layout projects, philosophy towards layout design and construction, the challenges of prototype modelling and porto-freelanced modelling, and ways in which a layout operating experience can be enhanced beyond the trains.

One of my favourites is the ability of environmental audio to set the scene for operators. Everybody who has experienced this has remarked on how effective it is. The ambient audio system I use provides a very simple background soundtrack of bird songs, with the occasional insect buzz thrown in for good measure. It’s the sound one would hear while standing in a southern Ontario meadow in the summertime.

Ops 2016-08-17 - Birds in the Meadow

The audio tends to fade out of consciousness once one is running a train. It’s there the way that bird song is there when one is outside. We filter it out of our perceptions automatically and only hear it if we’re listening for it. And yet, if we went outside on a summer’s day and the birds were not singing, we’d definitely notice that.

We gathered at my place around 6:00 pm so before our ops session, the three of us (plus my wife) made the short walk up the street to Harbord House for dinner and pints.

I have to say I love having a gastropub just five minutes away – and I love combining ops sessions with the more relaxed atmosphere of sharing a meal with friends. Unlike many hobbies that are either solo pursuits or involve competing against other enthusiasts, our hobby is at its best when friends get together. Model railroading is a very social way to spend a few hours with friends, and pausing for a meal and a drink together just makes it that much better.

Greg: Thanks for getting in touch. It was great to see you! Any time you’re in town…

Bernard: I know the invite came at the last minute and I’m so glad you were able to join us. I’m looking forward to more ops sessions and meals together!

LCL: AAR Form 99

Over on the LCL modeling group on Yahoo, a member asked whether anybody had a copy of the AAR standard form 99 – the waybill used for less than carload (LCL) freight.

As it happens, I do – in my copy of the AAR’s Railway Accounting Rules, published in 1951. So I shared it on the group – and I’m sharing it here:

AAR Form 99 for LCL operations

It reminds me that I need to continue to work on my ops plan for LCL and express, which is an important part of life on the Simcoe Sub to Port Rowan. I have come up with a scheme, but I haven’t held enough operations sessions to determine whether I like it…

Donnie at the Throttle!

Years ago, before I started my own business, I worked for a large telecom company. And another guy on the team with me – Don (“Donnie”) Blair – was one of the best colleagues anybody could have at work. Hardworking yet easy going… creative… and funny as hell. (And he still is.)

Don is not, however, a model railway enthusiast. He likes trains – just not in the same way as those of us in the hobby do.

But Don recently got in touch and wanted to see the layout, so we arranged a time. He came over last night after work. I gave him a tour of the layout with help from Ian Wilson’s book on the line. Then we ran a freight extra to Port Rowan – and we had a blast:

 photo DonnieVisits-2016-06-22_zpshig1nuet.jpg

Don has never run a train on a “serious” model railway, much less taken part in an operating session. I can’t imagine the learning curve involved with that.

I gave him a quick lesson on using DCC – not much more than “This makes it go faster, this makes it go slower, this changes direction, this is the brake, this is the bell, this is the whistle” – and then set him loose in the engineer’s seat. I worked as conductor. We switched St. Williams and then headed to Port Rowan – then decided to break for dinner.

It was tremendous fun. Don did a great job at the throttle, and I think the look on his face in the photo collage above says it all.

After our session, my wife joined us for a trip to (need I say it?) Harbord House, for pints and dinner. Harbord House is as much a part of my ops sessions as a throttle and a switch list. It’s a great chance to sit down, away from the trains, and talk about life (which may or may not include the hobby). And last night was a perfect example.

Thanks for coming over, Donnie! Come again soon…

Telegraph article in June 2016 RMC

 photo StW-Trackside_zps8c19ec9d.jpg
(The station at St. Williams includes a sign for the CNR’s telegraph service)

The June 2016 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine includes “Dots and Dashes”, a feature I wrote about the working telegraph network I’ve installed on my layout. Railway telegraph systems are rarely modelled, but were in use throughout the steam era. They were long-lived on lightly-trafficked lines such as my one-train-per-day operation to Port Rowan.

This article details how I set up the network, where I found the telegraphy equipment, and how I have created “cheat sheets” for operators to use when OS-ing their trains. It should provide any reader with enough information to set up such a system on their own layout.

I’ve seen a proof of this four-page article, and I’m really pleased with how the team at RMC has presented the work. (Thanks, guys!) If you get a chance to read the feature, I hope you’ll agree…

Click on the cover, below, to visit the RMC website:

 photo RMC-2016-06_zpszzdjm2tb.jpg