Saturday, December 23, 2017

Fast clocks

Most modelers are familiar with the concept of a fast clock during layout operation. The clock operates faster than normal time, at some ratio to normal time such as 2:1 (twice as fast as normal time rate). The primary reason for this time management business is to compensate for the fact that our layouts are so compressed in space. Two towns that on the prototype are 10 miles apart, and for which the timetable would schedule an interval of perhaps 18 minutes, are really only ten feet apart on the layout, and a locomotive can cover that distance, even at slow speeds, in well under a minute. To avoid model timetables with stations a minute or even seconds apart, the fast clock at least can provide multiple minutes.
     Of course, there can be considerable distortions when a fast clock is used. I once operated on a layout which had an 8:1 fast clock. This may have worked well with the timetable for that layout — I don’t recall because I was operating a local — but it was totally confusing for anyone doing any switching. Every couple of minutes in real time is 15 fast-time minutes. When the dispatcher at one point asked me how much time I would need to complete switching in a particular town, I answered that it would take about ten real minutes. I had entirely lost track of the fast-clock minute intervals.
     Most modelers are familiar with the old mantra, that switching takes as much time in the model environment as on the prototype, that is, it takes place at 1:1 time. True, we don’t have to set hand brakes or hook up air hoses, but we also have shorter yard tracks or industrial sidings. Accordingly, any job involving much switching gets rapidly more difficult to do in a timely way, as the clock ratio increases. Even 4:1 puts a real crimp in switching problems.
     There do exist layouts which don’t have this problem. The justly famous Tehachapi layout of the La Mesa Club in San Diego uses 1:1 time, because the layout is so big that no time acceleration is needed. Another way the restrictions of fast-time can be avoided is to use no clock at all, but instead operate with a line-up. That really only sets a sequence of trains, without requiring adherence to a timetable, and it is a situation which helps to avoid operators rushing to do their particular job. When my layout was in Pittsburgh, PA, I usually operated with a line-up, and it worked well.
     Any layout with a lot of switching work to do will tend to have a relatively slow time ratio for the fast clock (if any). I was intrigued when I visited Jack Ozanich’s Atlantic Great Eastern layout (see my brief account at: ), when Jack explained that he had found 2:1 to be too fast, but 1:1 a little too slow. He had experimented with intermediate rates, and told us that his current fast clock runs at about 1.7:1. To me this is an interesting example of finding out what works best, even if it isn’t a ratio of integers.
     Operation on my own layout is very much dominated by switching. That of course means that any fast clock, if used, would not run at a very high ratio. So do I need one at all? In terms of the switching work, not really, and in fact operating sessions have generally not had any time environment at all. But operation of through trains (as I described elsewhere; see it at: ). offers the opportunity to tie the layout operation to the prototype Coast Route schedule. That way, a freight such as no. 914 (shown below) can operate on time, and the crew switching at Shumala will have to clear the main line at the scheduled time of this train’s arrival. They know this from consulting the timetable.

     With all these considerations in mind, I decided that a fast clock could indeed serve a purpose on my layout. Whether it runs at 1:1 or 2:1 will be decided by experience. Now of course you can immediately question why I want a fast clock to operate at 1:1 — why not just use your wristwatch? The answer is simple. If my operating session is from, say 1 PM to 4 PM, but I want to use the time span in the prototype timetable for the morning hours, I have to ask crews to mentally subtract, say, four hours from the actual time on their watch. I think it might be better to have the “fast” clock, even though running at 1:1, so as to be able to show morning times during an afternoon session.
     There are also smart phone apps which can do fast clock ratios, but that assumes that all operators with have such a phone with them and will have the app. In addition, for a 1953 layout, I don’t particularly want people peering at their smart phones. This might be called “breaking the spell” <grin>. Lastly, throttles such as my NCE system can display whatever time you want, right on the throttle, but again, this does not seem “period appropriate” to me.
     With all these considerations, I decided to purchase a fast clock. I immediately recognized that for my 1953 layout era, only an analog clock would look right; digital clock displays were many years in the future in 1953. I gave some thought to just buying a conventional analog clock, and simply setting it to the desired starting time for each session. But I do want to experiment with faster time ratios, such as 2:1, and that does take a fast clock.
     After asking some fellow modelers for suggestions, and scouting the internet for providers of such clocks, I decided that I like the GML Enterprises offering. You can browse it yourself at their web site, at: . When I get that far, the installation and use of this clock will be described in future posts.
Tony Thompson


  1. Hi Tony
    Nice post, I have some information on Free fast clocks on my blog that I think would be of use to you.

  2. Thanks, Doug, interesting commentary on your blog. I have seen tablets and laptops used with apps that display an analog clock face on the screen, and those do get the job done. I definitely considered that option. But I continue to try and use as few "modern" accessory devices as I can in the layout room, so I will use a literal analog clock for my fast clock.
    Tony Thompson

  3. I use Stan's Fast clock ( I run it o my train-room PC (which also runs DecoderPro and WiThrottle), and display the clock on a monitor mounted high on the train-room wall. There's a photo of my fast clock on Stan;s website ( The clock can be set to fill the entire monitor screen, but I hadn't done that when the photo was taken.)

  4. There are a number of apps which can display an analog clock face in a monitor, a good solution in many cases. But as I mentioned, I wanted to avoid monitors and such if possible. And incidentally, the Stan's Trains app requires Windows 7 to 10.
    Tony Thompson

  5. I hadn't noticed that the latest version (v6.0) requires Win7 or higher. I'm still using v5.6 which runs fine under WinXP (although I'm now using Win7 on that PC), and it needs a 4:3 ratio monitor for best effect. I have customised my clock face for my railroad name. My PC is tucked away under the layout, and I use a wireless mouse to control the clock software, and to swap to DecoderPro and/or WiThrottle, during a session.

  6. Tony,
    One layout up in Vancouver BC area uses 1:1 time
    and at the start of the session the two clocks are adjusted to Layout time, and a sign on the clock that says "Real time" is flipped over to read "Layout Time".

    At the end of the session each clock is reset to local time, and the signs are flipped over to reflect this.
    there is no synchronization between the clocks -
    but due cars is taken to ensure that they both reat the same time (layout or Real/local time

    John Green Vancouver BC Canada

  7. Thanks, John. That's a good system, and I could certainly have used it, though in my case the main clock location is quite inconvenient to reach for manual resetting. Moreover, I do want to try 2:1 also.
    Tony Thompson