Sunday, September 22, 2013

Setting up an operating session

After my post about an operating session on my rewired layout (see: ), I received some queries about how one sets up something like this. The subject is a large one, and in this post I will only touch on some main points, but hopefully these will provide some insight into what is involved.
     Obviously the setting up depends entirely on what kind of layout is involved. For layouts oriented to train operation, one would need to decide which trains to run, and when (more on that in a moment). For a layout oriented toward switching, some system of directing car movement is the primary thing that is needed. And for layouts which “do it all,” there can be a lot of choices to make in both areas. But before I get into those choices, let me make a few general comments.
     A familiar complaint of modelers who haven’t ever participated in an operating session is that they expect to be subjected to a high-pressure event, with split-second train movements and lots of complex rules and regulations that they aren’t familiar with. That can happen, of course, and I’ve run into it myself. But there is certainly no necessity for operation to be like that, nor is it at all common.
     Another comment one sometimes hears is that the operating assignments all seem to involve large amounts of work to be done, such that a person can hardly take a deep breath to fit everything in. Sometimes that busy feeling comes simply from doing a job for the first time, but sometimes the job really is excessively busy for one person. I’ll say again, I have seen this kind of thing occasionally, but would say it is by no means typical, and certainly is not at all necessary.
     So what are the goals? I would identify two: first, train movements which are realistic, which in most cases means that the trains have a prototypical purpose, and second, realistic itineraries for cars, that is, cars moving loaded or empty in some fashion which makes sense. This provides a purpose to all the car movements. These goals can be carried out in a simple way, or may be quite complex, depending on the choices of the layout owner.
     I will start with trains. One simple way to conduct operations is to have a line-up or sequence of events, rather than a timetable. In this approach, you simply write a list of things that will happen, in sequence. Maybe it would say something like, “run mail train eastward; run through freight westward; run local as far as Delta, do needed switching, return.” Now there is no time pressure, and each train movement can happen simply and independently. As this gets more complex, especially on a large layout, the obvious solution would be the prototype one: a timetable.
     If a timetable is to be used, and I recommend it even if informality is your goal, it is not difficult to start with the prototype for your area (or a similar prototype, if you are freelancing). This is what I have done with the Guadalupe Subdivision of the SP, my layout locale, as I described earlier (see: ). That timetable construction forms the middle or center pages of my layout’s timetable document.
     I said that I recommend a timetable even if it won’t be used for controlling train movements, because it is a familiar prototype document and so provides what Al Kalmbach called “typographic scenery” for your layout. I will discuss a variety of content for timetables in a separate post.
     Should you wish to go beyond the framework of a timetable and issue train orders, either the Chubb or Koester books can give you an introduction. Here are the full names of these books: first, Bruce Chubb’s outstanding How to Operate Your Model Railroad, Kalmbach (out of print, but available used), and secondly Tony Koester’s Realistic Model Railroad Operation, Kalmbach. For more specifics and very clear descriptions, you might like to try 19 East, Copy Three, by David Sprau and Steve King, published by the Operations Special Interest Group (OPSIG) of NMRA. You can purchase it on their web site, . It is appropriately subtitled, “The Art and Practice of Timetable & Train Order Operations.” It‘s a terrific book, but does represent a more complicated and advanced kind of operation.
     My second goal was stated as realistic car movements, thus creating a purpose to the movement of trains as well as for the switching. There are many ways to achieve this, which have been amply described in books such as the Chubb and Koester books just cited. I personally like a variation of the car card-waybill method, which uses more realistic waybills. In this blog I have written numerous posts about waybill usage, and you can search for them using the search box in the upper right corner of the blog page, with a search term like “waybills” or something more specific.
     My waybills are small, as you can see in another photo from the operating session cited at the top of this post. Some of the waybills have been set upright against the cars they correspond to, as a preliminary to starting switching.

     I don’t think I can overemphasize the point that all of this does not need to be particularly complicated. Running a few trains and switching a few industries can be plenty of fun, and as I said, you can always add more activity as you go along.
     When all the preliminaries are completed, and you have a few sessions under your belt, the time may come when a crew of visitors actually runs the entire layout.  There may be a lot happening, and as owner, you may just be overseeing the action. Here is an illustration, in the form of a photo at Ed Merrin’s layout, showing me at right, former SP dispatcher Rick Kang at center, and layout owner Ed Merrin at left, during an operating session on Ed’s fine Northwestern Pacific layout. Rick is asking Ed for clarification on switching procedures at Petaluma, which he is working. As this photo shows, several people may be pretty busy with different tasks, and space may be tight. But with a solid operating system, everyone can do their work.

     These are only some of the considerations in setting up an operating session. It may seem obvious, but the important thing is to start with just a few parts of the ultimate operating system you want, see what works and what doesn’t, and add more complexity as you go. Operation is a lot of fun, and puts all that layout work into motion. I enthusiastically recommend it.
Tony Thompson

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