“Instant on”

Car Storage Drawers under the Staging Yard

While I now have a lot of storage capacity under my sector plate staging yard, I also like to keep a full complement of trains ready to run on the four-track sector plate itself. In addition to the locomotives and rolling stock, I try to have all the paperwork for these trains ready to go.

In discussing an unrelated issue with a friend offline, I realized one of the things I like about this arrangement is that the layout is ready to go with the press of a power button. The electronics world calls this “instant on” and it has several advantages – particularly for simple, one or two person layouts such as mine.

The biggest is the ability to run short, frequent sessions as time allows. Lance Mindheim has written about breaking down operations into small chunks, and then operating several times per week, whenever one has a bit of time. Here’s how this concept applies to Port Rowan:

On my layout there are two towns and a total of 12 “spots” for freight cars – but as I’ve noted recently, typically less than half the spots are used at any one time.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume six freight cars are scattered throughout the layout, and only three of those are ready to be lifted: One in St. Williams and two in Port Rowan. To run a train from staging to Port Rowan and back, with all work performed, would typically take 75-90 minutes – and I do that fairly regularly with friends.

But what if I don’t have an hour and a half? What if I have 15 minutes this morning, and 10 minutes this afternoon, and another 15 minutes tomorrow, and so on?

Breaking the operation down into smaller chunks is the answer:

Let’s assume I have 15 minutes available to me this morning, I could grab my paperwork and throttle, and run a train from staging to St. Williams. I could also complete the paperwork at the station – figuring out what cars to drop and which ones to lift, writing up my switch list, and so on. Then I could go do the “real world” things that need to be done.

Van at St Williams station
(A freight extra stops with the van in front of the St. Williams station, so the conductor can confer with the station agent on the work to be done in town)

Again, assuming I find myself with another 10 minutes this afternoon, I could return to the layout space and pick up where I left off. With the paperwork ready to go, I could switch the cars in St. Williams. I might get all of the switching done, or I might only get the lifts taken care of, with the set-outs still to do. When I run out of time, I can put down the throttle and paperwork, and go back to the real world.

St Williams team track
(There’s switching to be done in St. Williams – not much, but some…)

Tomorrow, I can use my 15 minutes to run from St. Williams to Port Rowan, stopping for water along the way and arriving at the station. I can prep my paperwork for switching Port Rowan. And then I can walk away, knowing the next time I have time I can start on the switching.

Extra 80 West arrives in Port Rowan
(A freight extra arrives in Port Rowan. Before switching, it will continue ahead to the station so the crew can receive their orders)

It might take a week of short segments to run a “full operating session” in this manner, but it means the layout continues to entertain, and continues to be run – which seems to be the best way to keep any model railway in good shape.

However, there are several things to consider about running a layout in this fashion. These include:

The layout needs to be “instant on”. If one has to set up trains in staging, or even set in place a removable section of layout to allow for operating sessions, that can eat up a good chunk of the 10 minutes one has to run trains.

It works best for simple layouts – for example, this one, with one train on the line at a time. That said, on a more complex layout one could set up a branch line train to be used for these quick sessions, without disrupting the relationship of trains elsewhere on the layout.

One needs space to store paperwork and throttles, near the places where the train will pause between operating sessions. In my case, I have pull-out work desks at both St. Williams and Port Rowan that are perfect for storing ops aids between sessions.

St Williams Work Desk
(The work desk at St. Williams. Click on the image to read more about these)

I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for everyone to consider how their layouts can be “instant on” and how they can support these segmented operating sessions with activities that require no set-up, are quick to run, and can easily be walked away from when real life calls…

4 thoughts on ““Instant on”

  1. Great post and testament to this approach.

    I think it works on a larger layout and could be approached in much the same way. The key here might be understanding the inter-relationship between the many trains operating over that line; what they need from each other and where they are expected to be. Certainly, there’s a level of complexity that increases with the size of the layout but it could be mapped out.

    We read of large layouts where owners have grown distant from the layout since, over time, it starts to feel almost intimidating. Perhaps these shorter operating sessions are an investment in maintaining the relationship with even the large layout?

    Maybe it starts small by taking that fifteen minutes and just running a train across the layout during session 1. In session 2 we reverse the same train and run it back. Only a half hour or so invested but we’ve run the layout twice and not had to think too hard about how that’s done. From there it could build.

    Thank you for again providing more detail on how Port Rowan works. It’s easy to talk about why a particular approach to a layout in terms of the model’s scale, or the size of the layout, works so well for the modeler but in illustrating that in notes like this one and your excellent previous one on car movements we can really start to see how it does – as you already do.



  2. agree with Chris for the most part, larger layouts, and especially those with staging yards tend to have the need to get ‘re-set’ periodically, so they can’t be ‘instant-on’ all the time. My layout, while not large by usual definitions, still has six stations and upwards of 50 car capacity across the 6 stations. The key for me to be ‘instant on’ is that I have a central yard (with capacity for about 60 cars) from which all the stations are served. I use the 4-way waybill system but without a formal schedule (other than to ensure I have trains rotating East versus West across the three mainlines). Because all trains either originate, pass through or terminate in the yard, the layout can be operated ‘ad infinitum’. And, I do exactly as you describe, I do what ever work I can within whatever time I have, be certain I know exactly where I left off and circulate between my layout life and real life as I desire.

    Thanks for the description of you operations. It sounds like your layout is most enjoyable.


  3. Very timely post in that I’m in the middle of exploring alternatives to how I set up my ops sessions. Right now, they take *way* too long to set up and that makes having operating sessions more of a pain than it should be (though that hasn’t stopped me – I’m on track to do 4 sessions in a 6 week period(!)). While my layout is on the larger side, it’s really about 4 local freights that interact with each other. I could run one at a time and not be too far off a “normal” session. In fact, the next session I may be only running three of those trains since not as many operators are available. So, along with “instant on” for a larger layout I’d add “scalability” – i.e. the ability to run just a fraction of your trains (even if just one) without messing up things for future sessions. Sounds similar to what Chris and Dave were talking about as well.

  4. Thanks Trevor!

    Seeing as 99% of my operations will only be myself…great ideas on running my Sn42 Newfie and keeping the flow going over a period of time.

    I also really like your storage idea. I was thinking of using one of the computer programs and I can use the storage area as the freight cars leaving the island or waiting to be reloaded.


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