Thursday, October 26, 2017

The role of mainline trains on a branch-line layout

My layout portrays a mythical branch line of the Southern Pacific, and is set in the Central Coast area of California. (This locale has been described in several previous posts; the most informative of those posts is probably the one found at: .) The main line on my layout serves primarily as a conduit to the rest of the world, for cars coming from or going to points on the branch. In the transition era, when I model, SP operated through or mainline trains from division point to division point, and those trains did no en-route switching; all switching was handled by local trains. So in this situation, through trains on my layout are really just passing scenery. Or are they?
     One important point is that mainline locomotives would necessarily be different (in particular, bigger and more powerful) than branchline ones. In 1953, the year I model, many Coast Route freight trains were pulled by 2-10-2 steam engines, and for mainline trains on my layout, such power obviously is quite appropriate. Here is an example of a westward train so powered, just passing the Shumala depot.

Diesel power for freight trains was becoming common in 1953, and on the Coast Route, most diesel-powered trains were either A-B or A-B-B sets of EMD F units. I have followed the same pattern, as seen on this eastward train on the main at Shumala.

     I have begun to incorporate through trains like these in my operating sessions, partly to increase the “beyond the basement” impression that is desired as part of the layout experience (see for example this post: ). I expect this to continue and likely to increase.
     Another factor in my use of through trains is that they can incorporate two kinds of freight cars that might otherwise not see operation on my branch. One kind is the group I call “mainline” cars, meaning cars not as well detailed or otherwise falling a little short of the cars that can withstand examination during switching (on the branch). I have discussed this distinction, which only applies to some cars, in prior posts, such as the one at this link: . Obviously viewing a car in a moving train is a different situation than scrutinizing it during switching moves.
     The other class of freight cars I can include in through trains are those which have no natural destination on my branch. An example might be a box car of auto parts. These were significant traffic on the Coast Route, but would only be found on the main line. Another example might be a flat car with a large transformer load. I can include such cars very naturally in a mainline train, though they would not be realistic on the branch.
     And one final point about these trains: few if any model railroaders don’t jump at the chance to “railfan” a passing train. Operating these through trains is fun in that way for both me and for visiting operators.
     What about waybills for these trains? If the train simply runs from staging back to staging, there would be no need for waybills; but if cars need to switched out of the mainline locals, the Guadalupe Local or the Surf Turn, some of the cars should have waybills for destinations other than my branch. Accordingly, I have been making up waybills for a limited number of “through loads,” both eastward and westward. Here is an example of each kind (you can click on the image to enlarge):

There are some handwritten marks on both bills, something that was commonplace on prototype waybills.
     Incidentally, the perishable bill here is for a Santa Fe refrigerator car. Sometimes modelers will ask how it would happen that SP would be moving a reefer of PFE’s rival, Santa Fe, but the answer is simple: shippers determined routing of cars, not the railroads. Photographs document that SFRD reefers were often seen in SP trains, just as PFE reefers were often seen in Santa Fe trains.
     I can’t speak for other kinds of layouts, but for my layout, emphasizing a branch line, the mainline trains are a useful and significant complement to the branch operations, and allow use of both locomotives and some cars that otherwise would be unemployed. That’s plenty of reason for me.
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony, another great post. I agree with the idea of the main feeding a branch/short line as a great plan and adds nice variety without much more work.
    Question: I have never seen a trackplan of your railroad with the exception of an earlier one in RMC years ago. But I am guessing the main line is a continious type (oval/dogbone/etc.) and the branch is a stub end operation with turning facilites for steam engines?
    Thanks, for the good photos they always go along way of clearly, explaining things.

  2. Tony, as we discussed at lunch, the Accounting code and Header are incorrect on the Santa Fe perishable waybill. The Santa Fe system had four operating companies that had separate accounts and therefore different accounting codes. Part of the reason was the Texas HQ requirement for lines in that state, which led to the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, code 315. GCSF operated most of the lines in Texas. The Panhandle and Santa Fe, PSF, code 617, operated the lines in the TX panhandle between OK and NM. The ATSF Coast Lines, ATCL,Code 30, the lines West of Albuquerque. Any traffic originating in CA or AZ would have had a Coast Lines waybill. Like you, I sure would like to have examples.

  3. John Barry's comment, above, is entirely correct that Santa Fe operated four separate companies, each with its own AAR code number and (presumably) waybills. John and I both would love to see one of the three subsidiary company waybills John mentions.

    But I believe his statement, that my perishable header is "wrong" is too strong. First, one Santa Fe modeler states he has seen an ATSF Coast Lines waybill with the code 22 (the overall ATSF code), not the Coast Lines code, 30. And another Santa Fe modeler told me that he believes SFRD waybills were always with the 22 code. Until we see evidence, both of these statements are unproven; but clearly there is more to learn. Like John, I very much look forward to seeing prototype waybills that will clarify this once and for all.
    Tony Thompson