“Dash-Dash-Dash Dot-Dot-Dot”

Yes, that’s a telegraph key on the operator’s desk at St. Williams…
Telegraph at St. Williams photo TelegraphNetwork-01_zps6b9fe836.jpg

Anybody who has run into Morse Code probably knows the signal for SOS, and therefore would deduce that the dashes and dots in the title of this post are the signal for “OS” – which is the railway dispatching term for logging a train as it passes a station. This information – communicated by an operator to the dispatcher – is essential for confirming the location of all trains on a line, so that trains may meet and pass each other in a timely yet safe manner.

The 17-mile Port Rowan branch was entirely within Yard Limits and therefore governed by those rules. To over-simplify the rules, this means that trains could move on the branch without special authority from the dispatcher.

Still, both stations that I’m modelling had working telegraphs and my copy of Time Table No. 3 from 1953 notes that the St. Williams call signal was “S T”, while Port Rowan was “P R”. (The dispatcher who controlled the Simcoe Sub was in Hamilton, with the call sign “N I”.)

In the comments section of my recent post on adding the telegraph wire to my pole line, a couple of interesting points were made:

First, regular contributor Steve Lucas noted that trains were required to register at Port Rowan, and that information would’ve been passed to the dispatcher.

Second, regular contributor Monte Reeves recalled that Dickie Thompson would OS the eastbound train at St. Williams – presumably to give the dispatcher a head start on figuring out where to slot CNR Mixed Train M238 into the parade of Wabash Red Ball fast freight traffic on the Cayuga Sub between Simcoe and Jarvis. (The Cayuga Sub was under the authority of the dispatcher in St. Thomas – call sign “D I”.)

Hmm. The wheels start to turn…

Back in 2007 I had the opportunity to operate on a now-dismantled On3 layout built by Andrew Dodge, which used a working telegraph system for train control. Andrew wrote about this in the June, 2001 issue of Model Railroader magazine, which is still available from the publisher. (I have a copy of the article as part of the complete MR archives on DVD.)

Andrew used a simplified system to OS trains, with shorter, two-digit codes for most communications. Cheat sheets provided guidance to operators. And he used International Morse and tones, not American (Railroad) Morse and clicks, because the International Morse alphabet is considered easier to learn and with tones, the timing of one’s keying is less of an issue than with clicks.

I exchanged emails with Andrew about his experience with his system. He offered some good advice about keeping it simple, and says many of his operators became comfortable enough with the system that after three or four sessions they no longer needed the cheat sheets. He’s also going to use telegraph again, to dispatch on his currently under-construction Proto:48 layout. (Thanks for your time, Andrew!)

Fond memories of that 2007 ops session convinced me: I’d add a working telegraph system to my layout.

Last week, I took delivery of a parcel from Marshall Emm at Morse Express. The box included three Speed X keys from NyeViking plus a Code Practice Oscillator kit (OCM-2) from AMECO. (Great, great service and after sales support – thanks Marshall!)

I built the Oscillator over the weekend, making some modifications to the kit to add external connections for power, multiple keys, and multiple speakers. It now sits on a very temporary shelf at the end of the aisle that runs behind the Port Rowan backdrop to provide access to our furnace:
Telegraph at Temporary Dispatcher's Desk photo TelegraphNetwork-03_zps7f7284d0.jpg

I made the modifications to the OCM-2 so I can quickly unplug the dispatcher’s key and the oscillator, for times when I want to practice keying elsewhere in the house. Each connection is unique, so they can’t be interchanged. And I made sure to use a plug-socket set for the power that could only be connected one way, since polarity is important for keeping the factory smoke inside the OCM-2!

Now that I know the system works, I can build a proper shelf and install the speaker permanently.

I checked with Marshall, and he did not anticipate any problems with driving multiple speakers with the OCM-2, so I did some tests with three 8 Ohm speakers, wired in series and then in parallel. I liked the sound of the speakers in series better, so that’s how I wired them on the layout. The keys are wired in parallel, so any key can activate the OCM-2, which then transmits tones to all three speakers installed on the layout.

At St. Williams and Port Rowan, I added a speaker to the bottom of the fascia, pointing down and positioned directly in line with the telegraph key. The key is screwed to the desk next to the fast clock, and I’ll add a label with the station call sign at some point in the future. I left space for this on each desk when installing the keys.

Instead of using the binding posts I wired the station keys under their bases, so the wires are completely hidden. These pass through a hole in the desk and are fastened to the underside of the shelf in a manner similar to that used to wire the fast clocks. The image below – the underside of the layout and slide-out desk at St. Williams – shows the relationship between various bits:
Under the St. Williams Desk photo TelegraphNetwork-02_zpscc87ad79.jpg

Note that I’ve bundled the fast clock wires and telegraph key wires into a cable, with enough slack that the desk can slide in and out freely.

Next up: I need to make up some cheat sheets for operators and the dispatcher so we can put the system through some tests during operating sessions. Andrew’s article in MR has some good ideas about how to do this. My implementation should be fairly straightforward, since there will be rarely be a call for issuing train orders: For the most part, operators will simply OS their trains as appropriate.

But that’s for a future post. For now, as Morse Code enthusiasts would say, “73”!

20 thoughts on ““Dash-Dash-Dash Dot-Dot-Dot”

  1. Busy day up there, isn’t it.
    Trevor, you’re on you way to setting new standards for all model layouts. Thanks for moving the community forward.
    Happiness is my layout is all with the yard limits and since my main operations are all transfer runs from the CM to the UPD&G or from the ATSF to UPD&G I have not yet found a requirement to OS my runs.
    Thanks for all these experiments. Keep on pushing us all.

  2. Trevor,
    This should add another layer of atmosphere to a layout that is wrapped in atmosphere. Could the next frontier in the hobby be the creation of experiences so complete, that one is drawn in totally?


    • Hi Mike:
      Thanks. Creating an experience is, I think, what operating sessions are all about – whether that experience is playing a board game or modelling a job.
      I’m shooting for the latter. Many years ago I had a long conversation with Doug Gurin in which he spoke about “modelling jobs” on a layout. It went far beyond “playing trains” into role playing – not only the role (eg: engineer) but also the context (eg: engineer working for a railroad during a period of good labour relations, versus in a strike position). We also talked about the physical and operational aspects of depicting time and place. The conversation made me rethink the role our layouts can okay in telling stories and preserving history.
      An immersive experience is what all attractions aim to deliver. Disney is a master at this. To cite one example, a friend who is a dancer once worked for Disney as a character performer – you know, in a costume. He was told under NO circumstances was he to remove the costume’s head until the handler/spotter had guided him into a secure area and told him it was safe. The rule was there to ensure the performers were away from the public eye before doing something that would spoil the experience (and possibly traumatise a kid).
      The point: even the little things count. Seeing Mickey on stage is awesome for a kid, but if they looked into the wings and saw Mickey’s head pulled off his body, that would ruin everything.
      So, I’m trying to create the same sort of immersive experience in my layout room. And I’m enjoying devising new ways to do that.
      Interesting thought, Mike – thanks for raising it here…

  3. While the use of telegraph to dispatch a model railway may seem extreme and overly complex, I should stress two things:
    1 – my layout and my operating scheme are so simple that I’m talking about a couple of pretty standard messages per operating session. And these messages are OS reports to the dispatcher. I’m not planning to issue train orders via telegraph.
    2 – knowing that this will work isn’t just a theory I have pulled from the ether. As I noted in the posting, I’ve actually run trains on a model railway that used this system. I had to OS my train at each station and receive a clearance to proceed when I was ready to depart – all by telegraph from a dispatcher in another room. It worked. I was able to do it in my first session in a layout where I was also learning the throttles, switch controls, track arrangements, time table and do on. What’s more, that layout was much more complex than my own.
    I’m looking forward to using this system in a future operating session!

    • Trevor, While I would rather see the use of sounders and the right code, I applaud your effort, and as the saying goes, it’s your railroad and you can do as you wish.

      Your script is just a little off what would actually transpire, however:
      Remember, the poor stressed dispatcher (or despatcher in Canada) is busy trying to run his mainlines as well as, likely, several more branch lines. Time is of the essence! Also, the poor DS is chained to that desk with only a fast bathroom break a couple times a trick, so he is almost always there.

      Your Operator would open his key and send “OS ST” As DS I would reply with “ST” or just “I” …… ST would then send “Extra 80 W D 1155” (Extra 80 West departed 1155) or whatever time it was …. am or pm not needed, as it is obvious. DS would just say “OK” Short and sweet. ST would probably have already OS’d the eastbound in in similar fashion, but with “A” for arrival.

      That being said, again, if it works better for you to continue your example, go for it. I simply felt for history’s sake I ought to provide an example of how it was done, not to embarrass you or anything of that sort.

      Cheers, Skip

      That being said,

      • Hi Skip:
        Thanks for this. It’s great to know what would actually have been said and I’m certainly open to modifying my scripts. That said, I must be cognizant that my operators are not telegraph enthusiasts (maybe I can change their mind!) and it therefore needs to be short and sweet – especially as I introduce this system to the layout. The dots and dashes required for the operator to properly OS a train – to transmit “Extra 80 W D 1155”, to use your example – would be daunting. Just the time would involve 20 taps of the key.
        That’s not to say we won’t get there. But I’ll only push my operators (and myself) until it’s no longer fun – then I’ll back off.
        I’m very, very glad you posted this though. It gives me a better understanding if how it should be done and I will have a look at the scripts to see if I can adjust them to make them more realistic. I’m sure I can…

    • Hi Brian:
      A good question! I don’t expect any issues with noise because there’s only one train on the line at a time, which means if someone is in St. Williams and pounding the brass, there will be nobody in Port Rowan to hear it.
      On the very rare occasions when I might run two trains at a time – something I have not yet done, but have thought about on occasion – the telegraph would still only be used a couple of times during a session. And since each station’s key transmits to all the telegraph speakers in the room – including the one right in front of the key doing the transmitting – I don’t expect the sound of the key tapping will be much of an issue.

  4. Trevor:

    somewhat related and along the lines of Morse: My friend Dave Parks has a large WM/B&O model of Cumberland, MD set in 1953. I built him a fairly complex phone system which used low voltage buzzers to alert the towermen that the DS or another tower was calling. This rapidly degenerated into cacophony on operating days. So I replaced the continuous buzzers with a system which pulses out the tower telegraph codes in railroad Morse and queues the requests so only one tower is sounding at once. The results were: less noise in the room, the towermen quickly (one or two calls) learned “their” code even though no one knew RR Morse and the whole session felt more rail-roady.

    I used an Arduino and a little transistor circuit to drive the buzzers. My friend Steve Williams kindly recoded my lame Arduino sketch into a robust chunk of software.

    • Hi Seth:
      It’s an important observation – too many users could create a very noisy experience in the train room – just like too many operators on wireless headsets results in non-stop chatter in one’s ears.
      Good to know that the tower operators picked up their code quickly.

  5. A reader emailed privately to correct a couple of errors in my original posting, and suggest some clarifications. I’ve now made those changes to the post. (Thanks – you know who you are!)

    • Hi Hunter:
      Sure looks like it… but no. I used two different styles of mono plugs (a mini and a 0.25″) to connect the speakers and the keys, so that I could not accidentally reverse the connections.

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