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!

13 thoughts on “How much switching is involved?

  1. Fantastic review of how much traffic makes things enjoyable! I’ve been pondering “target” numbers of cars (and wrote about it recently on my own blog) to figure out the number of different types and within the types, the numbers of cars owned by given railroads that I need to (or want to) build for operating. The sort of formula that I came up with for my own uses matches almost exactly to what you’ve put down here. Really great post.

    -Jeremy Dummler
    Yosemite Valley Railroad

    • Thanks Jeremy. Glad you found it useful. And I see on your blog that you’ve explored fleet composition in great depth – much greater than I have in this single post (which was never its intent). I’ll have to spend some time reading through it.
      I think the “never more than half full” rule is a good one for switching locations. It frees up space to let operators sort cars without falling into that “15 tiles in 16 squares” type of puzzle trap.

  2. What a useful review of your operating procedures. I am going to archive this on my machine as I know that WHEN I get my layout up and running, I’ll be looking to refresh my memory to duplicate much of what your disclosed.


  3. Very interesting topic, Trevor. Your thoughts can be echoed here on my small HO scale switching layout. With three industries and a two off spot tracks, there is plenty of activity to keep me and probably another operator busy for about an hour session. Recently, I hosted our local model train organization, Associated Railroaders of Kingston (ARK), and one of the members, switched the brewery spur for about 45 minutes – the other spots were left untouched as no work was require there. Sometimes simple is better.

  4. Thanks for the post Trevor. It shows how even a small number of spots on a layout still make for interesting switching. The use of team tracks are such a boon to modellers, I will make sure I include them.
    Cheers, Gord

    • Good call, Gord:

      Team tracks (and interchanges with other roads) are the most flexible and useful of industry locations. They can handle almost any type of rolling stock, and they take up almost no space – just a track and an adjacent parking spot. Also, there are few if any structures to build, so they’re quick to add to a layout.

      Those modelling more modern eras should look at trans-loading terminals, which perform the same function. Off the top of my head, I recall the Green Mountain Railroad had one in Bellows Falls (actually, just to the west of it at Riverside, on the site of the first Steamtown) and the Modesto and Empire Traction Company had one in the industrial park it served.


  5. I like how you made the “one train a day” schedule workable by representing more than one day in an op session. With all my planning on small layouts, this idea never occurred to me, so thanks for the tip.

  6. Trevor,
    I have a similar problem in the layout that I’m planning. The feed mill that I’m starting with got 1-3 covered hoppers about every other day by a local. That’s not a lot of traffic for a modeling session. I thought that I might represent the feed mills work of moving the cars with a cable winch, if I could design something to work with servo’s as that would give more ‘play value’ to the operator.

  7. I think this has been one of your best posts since I began looking in on your blog. You made me think a lot about this topic, something that I really needed to do. I’m very happy that you pulled my chain and got me thinking very much about this topic. I’ll be saving this entry and reading your thoughts many times over. Thank you.

    • My pleasure, Walt.
      It’s funny – I posted about this on the MRH Forums and the topic has morphed into a discussion of operating session length. I probably set it up wrong. It’s really about how few switching moves are required to create a satisfying ops session. I’m glad you’re thinking about it now…

  8. Trevor, MRH is not alone in having a topic go in eighty different directions and become meaningless in just a short amount of time. Sometimes I just laugh it off, other times I try to figure out how the responders get to where they are, so far from the original start point that it’s totally bunk.

  9. I meant to compliment you on this post earlier and apologize for just getting to it now. I really enjoyed reading through this review.

    Not just how many of any one component, but explaining the relationships and rationale is superb detail.

    Thank you.


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