Operations: Putting it all together

I’ve introduced several concepts to my layout to help make operating sessions more realistic and rewarding, and I’ve written about them several times on this blog. I’ve also photographed trains at work on the layout to present an operating session as a photo essay.

But I haven’t actually put it all together to give readers a sense of an operating session on my layout. It’s past time to tackle that.

I won’t bore you with a huge photo essay documenting a whole run. Instead, here’s a look at some of the work that must be done to switch a spur on the layout.

As X1650 West arrives in St. Williams, the engineer stops the train with the van in front of the small depot so that the conductor can hop in and determine whether there’s any work to be done. Here, I’ve unlocked the bill box on the fascia and I’m collecting all of the waybills inside. Note the paperwork and pen in my other hand. When X1560 West left Simcoe (staging), my paperwork included a blank switchlist and the waybills for the cars in my train:
Collecting waybills photo CollectingWaybills_zps5fdad20b.jpg
(For more on the bill boxes)
(For more on the waybills)

I have five cars in my train and there are three cars spotted in St. Williams, so I know have eight waybills to check.

The cars in my train include a Milwaukee Road boxcar and three CNR hoppers for St. Williams, plus a Maine Central boxcar for Port Rowan.

The waybills in the box include two lifts at St. Williams – a Frontenac tank car and a New York Central gondola – plus a waybill for a Pennsylvania hopper car that’s staying put.

Since the waybills represent accounting documents – in other words, since they enable my S scale crews to get paid for their work – they need to be treated with respect. Therefore, instead of using them as car-cards, I write up a switch list to use during switching.

Here’s today’s list for St. Williams:
Writing a switch list photo WritingSwitchList_zps4c965270.jpg

The first four entries are the four cars in the train that I’m setting off in St. Williams. The MILW boxcar is headed to spot S2 on the team track and three CNR hopper cars to be placed on the double ended siding. (They’re full of ballast – the section gang likes to lose a couple of cars of the stuff occasionally, so they’ll have it on hand to deal with washouts or other emergencies and this little-used siding is an ideal location to do that.)

The two cars listed below the line are the cars I’m lifting at St. Williams – the FPLX tank and NYC gon. They’re both in spot S2 on the team track spur. I’ve made a note next to them that these are lifts. When the work is done, I’ll have three cars in my train – the MEC boxcar for Port Rowan, and the two lifts from St. Williams that I’ll be taking back to Hamilton for points beyond.

I’ve only written the last three digits of each car in the “number” column. That’s usually enough to positively identify each car.

With the switch list written up I then put the waybills back in the bill box:
Depositing waybills photo DepositingWaybills_zps666b49a1.jpg

Obviously, I’m only depositing the waybills for any cars that remain in St. Williams. The waybills for cars that will be in the train when we leave town go on my clipboard, which represents “the caboose”.

With the paperwork done at the depot, the engineer pulls the train forward to the west end of St. Williams, where the switching will take place. At its simplest, switching involves:
– Uncoupling
– Coupling
– Throwing switches
– Moving forward
– Moving backward

Here, I’ve put on my brakeman’s hat and I’m breaking the train between a CNR hopper car and the MEC boxcar. I’m using an uncoupling tool for this – I don’t like automatic uncoupling features for various reasons, so I cut the trip pin off the Kadee couplers.
Uncoupling and setting a hand brake photo Uncoupling-Brakes_zps48af2c9b.jpg

You’ll note that my other hand is on the brake wheel on the fascia. In reality, uncoupling and setting the brakes are two separate steps – I’ve just combined them in this photo. After uncoupling, I give the brake wheel a few spins to represent setting a hand brake on the MEC boxcar, so that part of the train won’t roll away. (It doesn’t actually prevent the models from rolling away – I’m just representing the work of the prototype here.)

On a real railroad, the crew would likely not set a hand brake – they would close the valve on hopper car to keep air in the train line, and the boxcar and van would go into emergency braking when the air hoses parted. But since I can’t actually close the valve, spinning the brake wheel represents “applying brakes” – regardless of whether they’re hand brakes or air brakes – so I’ll do that each time I’m leaving cars unattended.

Switching begins by pulling ahead so the engineer can back the train into the spur and lift the cars spotted there. Here, I’m throwing a switch:
Bending the iron photo BendingIron_zpsf54556cc.jpg
(For more on the switch stands)

The engineer stopped the train where a brakeman could dismount from the last hopper car to bend the iron. Note that I’ve had to unlock and set aside the chain that prevents one from lifting the switch lever. The chains are quite effective in encouraging operators think about where their S scale brakemen would be on the layout, so they don’t throw a whole series of switches in sequence. This adds time to an operating session and keeps the work thoughtful and deliberate. I have to admit that throwing switches with these miniature switch stands is one of my favourite activities during an operating session.

As I wrote off the top, I’m not going to bore you with a blow-by-blow of an operating session, so I’ll stop now. But this should give readers a better idea of the work involved when we run trains on the line to Port Rowan.

6 thoughts on “Operations: Putting it all together

  1. Trevor,

    Time elapsed to do all the work, plus the “extra” brake wheel spins and the like?

    How many “brake wheels” do you have – one for each siding, one for each location???


    • Hi Marty:

      Thanks for writing… good to hear from you!

      First up – congrats, in advance, on the upcoming Sea Trial for your Central Vermont Railway. I hope it goes well.

      The time elapsed: A typical run to Port Rowan and back takes about 75 minutes for the Mixed Train – or about 90 minutes for a freight extra, which tends to have more switching to do. This includes all the operations aids (switch lists and waybill boxes, locked switch stands, using the fascia-mounted brake wheels, proper use of bell, whistle and other DCC sound effects – all manually activated – and so on).

      Without the aids, it would take about half that time. In part, this is because the aids actually slow down operators – it takes time to unlock a switch or write up a switch list. But also, I’ve found that the aids – coupled with the recognition that we’re not playing a game of “Beat The Clock” – encourage operators to actually stop moving the locomotive and discuss their moves.

      I think the presence of the aids remind my guests that they’re emulating real work on this layout. As a result, we tend to discuss where the S Scale crew members would need to be to throw switches or couple/uncouple cars, and we tend to discuss the order of moves at a high level before working a town, then at a granular level as the work is undertaken. As a result, we have few – or no – false moves during a session.

      I’ve also set the speed tables on all of my locomotives to limit their top speed. They can go fast enough to feel like they’re doing the branch’s 15 mph speed limit… but not much faster.

      As for the brake wheel ops aids: I have four sets. Essentially, there’s a set at each end of the double-ended siding in St. Williams, a set near the yard throat in Port Rowan, and a set near the Port Rowan depot. During an operating session, one set is always within easy reach of the conductor.

      I did not mention the fascia-mounted air hoses in this posting, but they work similar to the brake wheels. As a conductor, I would disconnect then reconnect the nearest pair of air hoses to represent the time to hook up the train line on the prototype. I’d do this for each car in the train.

      I am still working on an appropriate sequence of actions to represent the charging of the train line followed by a brake test. I should actually do a post about that: I’ll add it to my list.

      Stay tuned!

  2. Trevor,
    For brake pump up why not use a simple sound module of a steam air pump activated by a push button?

    • Hi Maynard:
      Great to hear from you! As we discussed a couple of years ago at Springfield, I have one of your On2 Forneys. I’m glad you’re reading my blog…
      I’ve thought of exactly what you suggest and am considering adding push buttons at four points around the layout to run the air compressor sound. My ideal solution would be for Soundtraxx to replace the “coupler clank” sound on their Tsunami decoders with an air pump sound that users can control, like the injector or bell.
      It woukd be a more useful sound for operating sessions.
      If the decoders are ever updated, I’ll upgrade my fleet. In the meantime, I’ll figure out something.
      I’m going to do a post about this as well at some point.

  3. Trevor,

    While you may think it boring, I find your “blow-by-blow” accounts of operating sessions to be riveting reading. It really helps me to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I’m especially intrigued by the car loading information and the use of multiple car spots per siding in St. Williams (and the movements to get there). Where did you find this information about the prototype?

    Rhett Graves
    Madison, AL

    • Hi Rhett:

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad the descriptions are helping you.

      I have various sources for information – including this blog. I’ve had lots of great comments from people who remember the train to Port Rowan, or who have done their own research on this line, or who have work experience on the real railroads, and so on. I’ve had people provide information about shippers, local businesses, and more. All of this helps.

      There are also a few books that have been useful – most of them already mentioned on this blog, I think. Ian Wilson and Charles Cooper have written railroad books related to this line. There are also books about Port Rowan, Long Point, and other communities that have helped.

      Local historical societies and museums, the CNR historical association, and others have been useful too.

      Finally, books that have nothing to do with my specific branch can have interesting ideas that I can adopt. I’ve read a few railroad memoirs and found interesting ideas in those that I can apply to my layout. For example, a book by a retired Milwaukee Road dispatcher noted that the section gangs liked to “lose” a couple of cars of ballast every so often – tucking them into a back track at a yard or onto a little-used track on a branch. In this way, if they found a problem that required a car of ballast they could get right at it instead of having to request a carload from someone at head office. The local train crews were happy to help “lose” the car(s), because it meant they’d have fewer cases of bad track to cope with down the road. That’s an idea I can use on my layout, by spotting a couple of CNR hopper cars full of ballast on the double-ended track at St. Williams. Doing so really changes the feel of working that town.

      It should be said that there’s more traffic on my version of the branch than there was on the real line to Port Rowan. I haven’t added any additional track – no extra spurs – but the customers using my railroad are a whole lot busier in S scale than they were in real life.

      The team tracks at St. Williams and Port Rowan are more interesting to switch if one assigns specific spots for each car, as I have. This isn’t unreasonable: A railroad customer may need to use a ramp to unload their delivery, or have a coal bin next to the track, or otherwise require a specific spotting location. And it’s a whole lot more challenging to place cars in spot order than it is to simply shove them into the track at random.


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