Zero derailments!

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(This should never, ever happen. That’s the goal)

In response to my report on this week’s visit from Simon Parent and Hunter Hughson, it was noted that minor derailments are a fact of railroading. For evidence, one only needs to look at the re-railers hung on the tenders of my model steam locomotives:

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Yes, it’s a fair point: Derailments do happen in the real world, and sometimes with spectacular results.

But to be honest, derailments happen so infrequently on the prototype when one considers the number of trouble-free miles that locomotives and rolling stock rack up every day in North America. I have no data to support this thought but for my little branch from Simcoe to Port Rowan, it’s likely there were only a half-dozen such incidents over its entire lifespan.

Regardless of frequency, we aim for different things on a model railway.

When a minor derailment happens on the prototype, the crew gets to work re-railing the equipment – but it’s still work. The derailment is the thing they remember about the day at work, and they probably went home at the end of the day to complain about it over dinner. Then they went back to work the next day, because that’s how they made their living.

As on the prototype, when there’s a derailment on a model railway, the crews re-rail then get on with their job. And, as on the prototype, the derailment is probably one of the things they remember about their run. They might discuss it over dinner – and who wants that to be the thing that guests take away from an operating session? There’s also the question of whether they back for another operating session. They don’t have to – this isn’t a job. Maybe there’s another layout they’d rather run on, or another way they’d prefer to spend their free time. I know I’ve made that decision in the past…

However – build a layout that operates derailment-free, and guest operators definitely will remember that!

I remember the first layout I ever operated on that ran with no electrical or mechanical issues. It was the D&RGW Sonjora Branch, built in On3 by my friend Dave Burroughs:

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Chris Abbott and I spent a terrific afternoon running trains on the layout, and all we could talk about on the way home was how flawlessly it operated. We spent several hours running trains, and there was no table-thumping… no finger-poking… no re-railing. We were able to focus – entirely – upon the experience of operating a narrow gauge branch line.

(It should be said that Dave’s layout is also quite modest – one of those “Achievable Layouts” I keep yammering on about – which makes pursuing “zero derailments” a real possibility.)

Operating a trouble-free layout like Dave’s was (and is) such an unusual experience in the hobby – and it informed my thinking about establishing a “zero-derailment” goal for my own layout. But here’s the key to making it work:

Knowing it can be done – through first-hand experience of a layout where it has been done – allowed me to clear that first big hurdle of “whether” it can be achieved and focus instead on “how” to achieve it.

This is just my opinion of course, but the problem with establishing a goal of anything less than zero derailments is that it’s a slippery slope. How many derailments is okay? Is one per session fine? How about two? If two is fine, how about three?

Aiming for zero – and really meaning “I want no derailments during a session to be caused by equipment, track or other things I can control” – means that when a problem does occur, I make note of the issue and try to resolve it.

The same goes for poor electrical performance: I want no stalling or table-thumping or finger-prodding, or people asking “Was that a short?” – because it detracts from the pleasant (and, frankly, rare) experience of running a well-built and well-maintained layout.

This is why I always mention the derailments or other troubles in operating session reports. They remind me of the problem so I know where to look when trying to fix it the next day, or the day after that.

Everybody will set their own standard for reliability, but this is mine and I’m happy that I’m pursuing it. I’m also happy that I’m most of the way there. I’m confident that I’ve achieved 99% reliability and I’m shooting for 100%.

Would my layout be 99% derailment-free if I didn’t set a zero-derailments goal for myself in the first place? Definitely not.

14 thoughts on “Zero derailments!

  1. How many derailments does the prototype deem acceptable? I think it’s close to zero. Look at what happened to the roads which deferred maintenance and experienced high derailment rates (eg Milwaukee Road): they went broke.

  2. I think zero derailments is an achievable goal if worked on from the outset of building your layout. If care is taken with rail, turnouts and equipment, the few problems that may crop up can be readily fixed. Thanks for this great blog; it has been an enjoyable journey so far.
    Cheers, Gord

  3. I agree with Colin. Derailments may happen but they aren’t welcome and represent an expensive liability. For us they’re an unwelcome nuisance that we can do without.


    • Glad I’ve inspired you! Making the commitment is the hardest part, I think. Once committed to zero derailments, it’s relatively easy to make sure each new part of the layout works reliably before moving onto the next part. And it influences design choices in a positive way as one asks, “Can I comfortably maintain this section of track – or is it too inaccessible?”
      I look forward to following your progress on your blog, which I have enjoyed since discovering it…

  4. It seems like a declaration we should all be making. Not just for pride’s sake but as testimony to our investment in the layout itself: that we’re going to make it more enjoyable to own. I know I’ve owned my fair share of trackwork that I just loathed because it could be relied upon to derail a train and the operating session just seemed to go downhill from there. Probably a great time to stop and remind myself to slow down, take a minute and figure out just why things are derailing or stalling at this point and what I need to do to stop that from ever happening again. After all, if I could make this more fun, why not?

    Thanks for another great post.


  5. Aha. You have discovered the difference between risk appetite and risk tolerance!

    You have an appetite for no derailments, but tolerate the very occasional mishap providing you can identify the cause and eliminate it. If derailments happen too often, then a more thorough investigation is required.

    This is how real railways operate (well, hopefully it is).


  6. 99.9997%. That’s the goal you should be shooting for. From standard 6 sigma literature:
    ●3.4 million defects per opportunity
    ●What’s the difference between 99% and 99.9997%
    ●7 lost mail per hour instead 20000 per hour.
    ●Unsafe drinking water for 2 minutes per year instead of 15 minutes per day.
    ●1 plane crash every 5 years instead 2 plane crashes annually.

  7. I think constant derailments are one of the biggest discouragements to kids or even adults who begin to take an interest in the model railroading hobby. Usually with children, the parents buy a fairly cheap train set to start them off and the more cheaply made cars and track components turn out to be anything but reliable when it comes to smooth operation. When a train can’t even make one loop around the typical beginner’s oval of track without jumping the track one or more times it doesn’t take long before he/she becomes frustrated with running model trains and move onto some other hobby. Model railroading should be fun – derailments are fun spoilers. Zero derailments is an achieveable goal but requires at least some investment in decent rolling stock and trackwork. It was a lesson I fortunately learned before giving up on the hobby entirely back when I was new to model trains.


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