(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:
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
(The St. Williams team track has space for four cars – although typically, no more than two occupy it.)
(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.
(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!