Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Thoughts on operation

Because I have been interested in realistically operating a model railroad since I was a teenager (with my newly built Pine Tree Central, a Model Railroader seasonal project layout of 1952), I sometimes am surprised to hear modelers express lack of knowledge or even lack of interest in operation. And particularly today, when the avalanche of ready-to-run locomotives, freight and passenger cars, vehicles, and even structures, along with much improved and easy-to-use scenic materials has made possible far more operating layouts than ever before, it seems especially surprising.
     Operating events, on weekends or multi-day, have sprung up across the country, many of them open to anyone who wishes to sign up. It’s true that some remain invitational, and some have a mix of invitations and open spots, but there are plenty of them wide open to anyone who wants a chance. There is one of these events almost every non-holiday weekend, somewhere in the country. Regular visitors to or readers of this blog know that I periodically write up my own visits to such events (the most recent such description was about “Big Sky Ops,” as it was informally called, which can be viewed at: ), along with reporting on the operating sessions I hold on my own layout.
     So what is meant by all this talk about operation (for those asking)? It’s a natural question if you or your friends call it operation when you fire up the layout and Jim runs the passenger train around the layout, Bob runs the reefer train, Harry operates the coal train, and Joe runs the local out and back. Then it’s time to adjourn for coffee.
     In a session like that, it’s true that locomotives pulled cars, and that trains ran over the rails of the layout. But there is very little similarity to how prototype railroads work. I find it interesting that even in the very earliest days of our hobby, when pioneers like Al Kalmbach and Watty (Watson) House had primitive looking layouts, they nevertheless made considerable effort to create realistic operation on them, despite lack of scenery and few if any structures. Al Kalmbach even wrote a book (under his pen name, Boomer Pete), entitled How to Run a Model Railroad, about the subject. Shown below is the third printing of the 1944 book, which had 6 x 9-inch pages; the first printing was a conventional hard-bound book.

This was the days when modelers were often portrayed wearing a tie and smoking a pipe, clearly proving that they were serious people. One of the author’s comments in the book still resonates today: that a model railroad should “. . . provide the various jobs of real railroading, each with as nearly as possible the same duties.”
     The first visible (by which I mean published) modeler who really put it all together was Frank Ellison. If you go back and read the issues of Model Railroader from the 1930s, his Delta Lines layout of the early 1940s was an astonishing leap, both in completeness and in operating ideas. An equally complete layout visually was Minton Cronkhite’s Santa Fe. In the late 1950s, John Allen appeared on the scene, again with a remarkably detailed and complete layout. Some aspects of his scenic approach can be called “caricature,” but if you read accounts of his layout carefully, you will discover that he was quite serious about realistic operation.
     I have enjoyed prototypical operation more and more, as I’ve learned more about it. The operating scheme of my layout has evolved in that direction, and I enjoy watching visiting operators bring my layout to life in the prototypical direction I envisioned. In the photo below, Seth Neumann (left) and Steve Van Meter are in the middle of a switching move on my layout at Shumala.

     In addition to enjoying prototypical operation by others on my own layout, it’s something I enjoy doing at the layouts of others (I mentioning above the visitation of weekend operating events). But admittedly going to such an event may seem like jumping into the deep end. I often urge those who aren’t very interested in operation to begin by learning more about it and see if it catches their attention. There are two good introductory books on the subject, first Tony Koester’s Kalmbach book, and a more complete and extensive book, Bruce Chubb’s volume (I reviewed both in a prior blog post, which can be found at: ).
     If you feel that those books cover things you already know, there are also two excellent though more advanced books on the subject, both of them published by OpSIG (the Operations Special Interest Group of NMRA), and both likewise reviewed already by me in blog posts (see those posts at: ).
     Why am I providing all these links to resources? Because if you’re not interested in operations, maybe you would find that learning about how it is done in the current practice of the hobby would pique that interest, and possibly you would find it as interesting and satisfying as I do. Why not give it a try?
Tony Thompson


  1. I got the OpSIG "Operations Compendium" book, in part due to your favorable review, and have found it tremendously valuable. Similarly, your detailed posts on your implementation of your operations system have been very educational for me. Once my switching layout is operational, I intend to implement an operations system, likely starting with a switchlist and waybill system.

  2. Glad you found it all interesting, and I wish you full enjoyment of operation as you experience more of it.
    Tony Thompson