The elegance of switch lists

When I work a train on my layout (or anybody else’s layout for that matter), I like to use a switch list – even if car forwarding is managed by a waybill system such as car cards.

I think car cards and waybills are very flexible – more flexible than switch lists – for managing the flow of traffic on a layout. And I do use waybills to determine what car needs to go where.

But once I know what work needs to be done, I think switch lists are an elegant way to manage it. As an amateur conductor I find that writing out a switch list allows me to organize my thoughts before I pick up the uncoupling tool and start issuing orders to my engineer. As a result, we do our switching more efficiently – and I don’t get lost in the middle of a job, trying to remember my overall plan for the work.

In addition, a switch list allows me to treat my waybills as the accounting documents that they are on the prototype – keeping them safely tucked away in a waybill box or in the caboose. That contributes to my goal of representing the real work that a crew would have performed on the branch I model.

But after hosting several operating sessions, I realize that using switch lists is not intuitive when one starts with a stack of waybills – either of the car card variety, or of the prototype style I use. So, here’s an explanation of how I organize the switching work on my layout.

Waybills are kept in three places on the layout. Cars spotted in St. Williams or Port Rowan have a corresponding waybill in the bill box located at those stations. For more on the bill boxes, click on the photo:
Waybill Box: St. Williams photo WaybillBox-StW-01.jpg

All other waybills are stored in a card box designed to hold 4″x6″ index cards:
Waybill Organizer photo Waybill-StorageBox_zps0a9b791d.jpg
(Click on the photo to read about how I use waybills for car forwarding)

This box has several labelled dividers to help organize the bills. They are:

To StW – waybills that represent cars to be delivered to St. Williams
To PtR – waybills that represent cars to be delivered to Port Rowan
From StW – waybills that represent cars spotted in St. Williams
From PtR – waybills that represent cars spotted in Port Rowan

In addition, I have a labelled divider for each locomotive on the layout. There are labelled dividers for 80, 86, 908, 1532 and 1560. This allows me to compile the waybills for each train in staging. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the train is running as an extra freight or as the Mixed Train (M233 out of staging): The waybills are organized by locomotive number.

When it’s time to run a train, I pull the waybills from the appropriate locomotive divider and put them on a small clipboard – representing the Conductor’s Desk on the caboose. I also grab a blank switch list.

To illustrate how handwritten switch lists work, let’s assume the day’s session involves CNR Mogul 86 on a freight extra. (Click on any of the following images for a larger version)
CNR 86 at St. Williams photo X86West-StWilliams-19530822_zpsb885cc86.jpg
(Yes, the crew should be flying white flags on the locomotive: Two demerit points!)

Here are the waybills for the cars in our train as we leave Simcoe (staging), headed for St. Williams:
Waybills in Train photo Waybills-CarsInTrain_zps697df30c.jpg

I’ve arranged the waybills in the order that the cars are found in the train, with the front of the train at left. From front to back in the train, we have:

– CNJ 65414: A hopper car to be spotted at the coal bin in St. Williams (Team – S3)
– CNR 481536: An empty boxcar for loading in St. Williams. It’s to be spotted at the team track (S2)
– FPLX 1009: A tank car for Port Rowan (Coal track: C1)
– NYC 399574: A gondola for Port Rowan (Team track: anywhere in the T1-T3 area)

Even before arriving at St. Williams, I can start writing my switch list. Here’s what it looks like:
List before St Williams photo Switchlist-StWilliams-01_zpsde49b9e2.jpg

I’ve written down the four cars, in the order they appear in the train.

The switch list has space for reporting marks – Initial and Number. Note I’ve only written in the last three digits of the road number. That’s usually sufficient to tell one car from another, and it saves a bit of writing.

“CL” is for “Class”, and the symbols – H for hopper, X for boxcar, T for tank car and G for gondola – help identify the type of car. A list of car classes and appropriate symbols is included at the top of the switch list for handy reference.

The last column is “Destination”. This is simply where the car should end up after the switching is completed. As the photo shows, the CNJ hopper will be spotted at S3 while the CNR boxcar will be spotted at S2. The tank car and gondola will remain in the train.

To help new operators find their way around the layout, I include a track diagram on the back of every switch list form, with the spotting locations clearly indicated:
SwitchList-TrackDiagram photo List-TrackDiagrams_zpsf5746a84.jpg

Once we arrive at St. Williams, I can unload from the van and visit the depot. Here, I would open the bill box and collect all the paperwork inside, to determine if there are any cars for our train to lift. Here’s what I find in the bill box:
Waybills at St Williams photo Waybills-CarsAtStWilliams_zpsb0e13377.jpg

These are in no particular order, but from left to right we have:

– ATSF 48447: An empty boxcar headed for Barstow, California
– CN 408756: A boxcar that’s been loaded in St. Williams and headed for Odessa, Ontario
– PRR 45319: A boxcar that was delivered to the team track on a previous day, and is not yet ready to collect.

Before we start switching St. Williams, I would add these cars to my switch list:
List to switch St Williams photo Switchlist-StWilliams-02_zpsf25a9e4e.jpg

From the top, we have:

– Two cars to spot in St. Williams
– Two cars staying in the train (headed to Port Rowan)
– Two cars we are lifting, which we will place on the double-ended siding at St. Williams so we can pick them up on the way home
– One car that’s staying put on the Team Track (S1)

Note that I don’t care where the cars are now – only where they should be when the switching is done.

Under the first list I have drawn a line then written in two more moves – for the ATSF and CNR boxcars that we will lift from St. Williams. Their destination is “Train” – a reminder that we have to pick these up on the return trip. I’ve drawn another line below these two cars, and now I’m ready to switch St. Williams.

(On more complex layouts, one may have to move a car several times during the course of switching. For example, one may need to pull all the cars at an industry, sort them into lifts and re-spots, set aside the lifts, then sort the set-offs and re-spots into correct spotting order. In this case, one may write two (or more) sets of switching orders. It all comes down to what helps you get the job done.)

Before we start the work, I would return to the depot and deposit the waybills for any cars that are staying in St. Williams – even those that we will pick up on the return trip (in case something happens en route and we don’t get to collect the cars. The waybills always stay with the cars). I will have just two waybills in my caboose (my clipboard) at this point: for the two cars headed to Port Rowan.

Once we have switched St. Williams, I can do a quick review of my list to make sure every car is in the proper spot. I put a check next to each car on the list. This tells me the work is done and we can head to Port Rowan:
List after switching St Williams photo Switchlist-PortRowan_zps970f6efc.jpg

Also note that I’ve drawn a double line under the St. Williams work and have written up the two cars to be set off in Port Rowan. I did this while my engineer conducted the brake test, giving us a head start on the work to do at Port Rowan. Upon arrival there, we would stop at the depot, I would collect the waybills for all cars in Port Rowan, and add them to the switch list – just as I did at St. Williams.

In addition to being more prototypical, I find using a switch list is more practical. Compare the lists – all done on a single piece of paper – to the pile of waybills I would’ve had to juggle to perform this work:
Waybill Juggling Act photo Waybill-Juggling_zpsf5964d17.jpg

In addition to being quite a stack, there are also several different types of waybills:

– There are white waybills for loads to be set off
– There are white waybills for loads to be lifted.
– There are yellow empty car bills by themselves, for empty cars being delivered for loading.
– There are yellow empty car bills, stapled to a waybill for empty cars headed for home.

As a conductor, the switch list puts all of the information I need in one place, where I can see it at a glance. It also allows me to filter out the information I don’t need to know in order to do the work, such as whether a car is loaded or empty.

If you use waybills for car forwarding – either the popular car card variety or something more prototypical, such as I use – and you don’t currently write up your own switch lists, I encourage you to give it a try. It really does make a difference – in so many ways!

22 thoughts on “The elegance of switch lists

  1. I found this very informative. I’ve been dissatisfied with shuffling stacks of waybill but not completely clear on what switchlists do for operators, but your worked example has really clarified it for me. Thank you!


    • Hi Karl:

      I’m glad you found it useful. Thanks for letting me know. Try the switch lists and let me know via the comments section if they work for you.


  2. Great blog Trevor. Good summary of the process making it easy to understand and combined with your waybills a nice succinct description of a user-friendly operating method.

    One question, where did you get that neat file box you are using?

    • Hi Bruce:

      Thanks for the kind words. The box came from Staples. They had a variety of styles/price points. I picked this one because it has real hinges (not molded as part of the plastic) and a nice hasp to keep the lid shut.

      It was not that expensive – under $20, for sure.


  3. Trevor,
    Finally the actual use of the switchlist make sense. Having tried all of the previous systems in various club and private layouts over the past 30 years I was a CC/WB guy, because it was the easiest to implement and make sense. While the color tab was easy to use, it just failed to make much sense. It reminded more of the psych test than railroading.
    I had planned on using the Waybill system with my 1895 Sahwatch Street Yard layout but may take a leaf from your book and set up a similar arrangement.

    • Hi Tom:

      Glad you found the post useful – thanks for letting me know.

      Of course, you’ll still need a car forwarding system – car-card and waybill works just fine for that. But try writing up a switch list using the information on the CC/WBs, then working from that.

      The best part is, you don’t need to invest in anything – not even the ink to print a form, as I have done. Testing can be as simple as writing up a switch list on a piece of scrap paper. Then, once you’ve decided it works for you, you can design and print blank switch lists to make the whole process look prettier.


      • Trevor,
        You have been able to complete the “use cycle” for keeping the accountants, Operators and finally the traincrew balance the paperwork. Thanks for fitting the pieces together, I have only been modeling now for 60 years and it finally comes together as a reasonable tool.

  4. Trevor, after running the layout yesterday, I can see your point and will definitely use a switch list next time. I became confused shuffling waybills yesterday and the switch list would have eliminated my problems.
    Thanks for a most interesting blog.


  5. Trevor,
    I have been using switch lists when classifying in yards and I have had the occasion to make one up and use it for a local a few times, but your method of listing work on the switch list in no way resembled the switch list I had made up and used. Your method of keeping track of the cars is far superior and very logical. I’m not sure what I did on my local switch list when I made it up but I will do it your way next time for sure! Thanks for a great explanation.


    • Hi Don:
      I’m glad it helped. Good luck with your next session – I hope the switch lists work better for you now.

  6. Hi Trevor,
    Thanks for sharing a very useful and usable article.
    This will be very useful, particularly as I bring a new branch line into service on my layout
    Thanks again John Green

  7. Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to look for more of your iinsights and blogs.

    As a (old) newbie, I am building a layout now and operations is a big part of my design and concept. One problem that I have is (in bench/ on paper testing of my operations) the order of the cars in the train. For my local (dropping off loads or empties at local industries and picking up from some), do I put the the dropoffs immediately behind the engine in the order of drop? I assume so because then I can leave the rest of the train on the tracks and move the minimum number of cars. But if I have a pull, does it just end up on the rear of the train (no caboose for MY layout), or just behind the engine (again minimizing the number of cars I have to move and keeping the crew together)? Thanks for any insight!

    • Hi Phil:

      Glad my explanation of switch lists helped.

      Trains tend to be blocked by towns – and sometimes by industries. So a train running from Alpha to Charlie might look like this:

      Cars to Alpha
      Cars to Baker
      Cars to Charlie
      Caboose (or not)

      If you lift cars at Alpha and put them on the front of the train, it would look like this:

      Cars from Alpha
      Cars to Baker
      Cars to Charlie
      Caboose (or not)

      Now, when you get to Baker, you’ll be switching with those lifts from Alpha in the way. So, I would be tempted to put them at the rear of the train, like this:

      Cars to Baker
      Cars to Charlie
      Cars from Alpha
      Caboose (or not)

      I think this would be easier when it comes time to switch Baker – especially if there’s no caboose, and therefore no crew at the back of the train. But I know a number of professional railroaders read my blog so perhaps one of them will set us both straight.

      This would also be a good question for you to ask over at the Operations SIG Yahoo Group.


  8. So see if I understand this.
    Prior to an Op session, you wort ouk what you want spotted and picked up at all stations which may include staging and on what train. You then put those card cards with waybills for stock to be picked up in the bill boxes then you write up the switch list ( or use a computer to do the neater writing) for each train that will run in the Op session. At what stage do you decide that stock picked up at station B is to be set down at stations C or D ? Or even if a train from A to D may not stop at B but just C then D.
    If you leave it the Conductor to write up the switch list as they come to each station, how does he/she know which stock is to go onto his/her train?

    • Hi Ron:
      Good questions – and you’ve basically got the sequence down.
      Every car at a station will have a waybill in the bill box for that station. So, if CNR 123456 and NYC 789123 arrived in St. Williams on a previous train, there would be a waybill for each car in the box. Both bills would say “To St. Williams” somewhere on them.
      Before a session I work out what’s to be lifted from each station, and exchange the old waybill with a new one. So, if I wanted to lift only the CNR 123456 from St. Williams, I would pull the waybill that got it to St. Williams and replace it with a waybill that sends it to (for example) Hamilton. If the NYC 789123 is not being moved during this session (maybe it’s still being unloaded), the bill that got it to St. Williams stays in the bill box.
      Next, I assemble the waybills for the cars in my train that are being delivered to either St. Williams or Port Rowan. They go in the caboose (on my layout, this is represented by a clipboard for the conductor).
      I do not write up the switch list at this point: the conductor of the train will do that, by arriving at the station, opening the bill box, and collecting the waybills. He’ll add this to the stack he has that represents the cars in his train. Then, he’ll figure out the following:
      1 – What’s in his train that’s being set off at this station.
      2 – What’s already at this station that’s staying.
      He’ll write these up on his switch list, with notes about where in town they are spotted. Then he’ll put the waybills for these cars in the station bill box.
      Next, he’ll look at the waybills to determine the following:
      3 – What’s at the station that’s being lifted.
      4 – What’s in his train that’s staying in his train (because it’s going somewhere else).
      He’ll write these up on the switch list – I usually list them and write “TRAIN” next to the block. Then he’ll put the waybills for these cars in his caboose (on his clipboard).
      He then uses the switch list he’s just written up to direct the switching moves.
      As for your other questions, keep in mind that my layout represents a one-train-per-day operation. The train stops at both stations that I’ve modelled on the layout. The conductor would check the bill boxes at both stations as his first step upon arrival – and then write up a switch list accordingly. I have no cars that move from one modelled station to the other – they all move either to or from staging.
      I hope this helps but let me know if you need more clarification.

    • Hi Ron:
      Well, keep in mind that there are two different things going on with freight car forwarding. First, there’s the method of generating traffic. For me, that’s hand-picked waybills. For others, it may be something that automatically resets itself, like car-cards and waybills.
      But regardless of the method, having your conductors write out a switch list so they’re using that to switch instead of the car-cards/waybills/whathaveyou will slow down operations, force them to think more about the work that needs to be done (before they start switching) and so on.
      Obviously, if you’re happy with the method you and your operators use, there’s no need to change…

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