Operations - The Basics

Generally, when model railroad folks talk about operations, it means that trains move across a layout with some sort of purpose beyond "watch the trains go". Now, this doesn't mean that running your layout and just having the trains go around and around is invalid or strange. There are plenty of layouts built, and more will be in the future, I am sure, for the express reason "just to watch the trains go". There is a fair amount, and some would argue it is a majority, of hobby participants that like to simulate what actually happens on the prototype (aka 'real') railroads. At the base level, this means that freight is picked up, transported, and then delivered to where it is going. The freight could be (and will be) almost anything you can think of; as the railroads are common carriers and are obligated to accept for delivery a wide variety of 'stuff'. This stuff could be coal or iron ore or fertilizer or grain or plastic pellets or sand or appliances or cars or trucks or orange juice or any of hundreds of other things. This fact, that the railroads carry everything, is what makes model railroading such an engaging hobby.

Mostly, the operation framework or scheme that is used is dependant on a bunch of factors, but the biggest one are what the layout owner/host feels comfortable with. This can sometimes work against you as some schemes are only suited to certain situations. Other factors that should be used are what suits the railroad (traffic levels, number of crew, what the physical plant can do), what did the prototype do, and how formal or informal sessions are desired to be. No matter what, you have to define two facets of the scheme:

  • How cars (freight and passenger) are tracked
  • How trains are allowed to move across the railroad

You can answer these questions with answers as simple as "I say put all green cars here" or as complex as using computer generated (and updated in real time) lists with full signalling and track warrant systems.

The subject of operations is deep and for those who wish for the absolute prototype fidelity, it can be almost a full time job to understand. If you want to learn more about operations, the commercial press has books, articles and discussions galore. The NMRA also has a SIG (special interest group) dedicated to the furthering of operations, the Operations SIG (aka OpSIG). There is a link to this wonderful organization on the sidebar.

On the RRTR:

Operations in Acca

When I designed the railroad, I tried to keep in mind how I saw operations in my mind's eye. I gamed out how trains would move over the rails and how a crew would be able to switch a certain industry or reach a siding. Since I wanted a signaled railroad, this also drove where I would place signals so the crews could see them.

When it was time to start operations, I had a couple of choices of schemes, as I touched on before. I decided that I would use the old standby to control where my cars went: Car Cards and Waybills. This scheme is based upon generating a small card (2" by 4" is common) with the reporting marks of the car that is then folded to create a small pocket for a slip of paper called the waybill. Now, waybills are something the prototype railroads used, in fact, in earlier times they were sometimes nailed to the car. What we as modelers normally do with them in the least is to list the commodity (aka what is in the car) and where it is going. Now, you can put additional information on the slip if you want, and in my case, I put the train number, routing and town for this particular movement.

Trains are allowed to move based on the control of a dispatcher, who works the CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) system.

JMRI and the CTC Panel

One of the first things that I identified as a big want was a CTC panel. Research indicated that the prototype railroads in the area I am modeling adopted some form of CTC, so it was prototypical as well, which is a nice bonus. A couple of pictures of the RF&P CTC machine were found in the RF&P Historical Society's magazine. The machine was installed in the Transportation Center building at Acca.

Unfortunately, real live CTC machines are hard to find since during the mid to late 1980's, bunches of them went to scrap as their roles were taken over by computer run dispatching desks instead. This also makes their component parts - the lights, levers, switches, relays, etc - expensive. A famous story relayed to me is a signalman on I believe CN calling a model railroader who specialized in CTC to try to find parts to fix a spot on the real railroad! If the real railroads are having problems finding the gear, then you know putting in an actual physical machine on your railroad will be a tough road.

Enter the JMRI (Java Model Railroad Interface) program. With JMRI you can design and run a virtual CTC panel with all the same functionality that the physical panels had, but with the ability to make easy changes that don't involve having to break out your lineman's pliers.

For an indepth discussion of how JMRI is used to operate the railroad, please see the JMRI page.