How do you run your Model Railroad?

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Well-Known Member
My layout has fairly limited industries to serve. However, for the most part, when I operate trains, I use car cards and service the industries that I have. I am still in the process of developing an operations scheme for my layout. Since I am a Lone Wolf operator, I can find my layout to be too simple to operate, so that it doesn't hold my interest. This certainly might be due to MY lack of knowledge on how real railroads operated.

I find I am much more interested in building my layout than operating it: "Modeling" (Building models from kits; or, scratch) holds my interest much better than running my layout. "Layout Building" (track planing, track laying, wiring, bench work, building and finishing scenery) also holds my attention better! Heck, I find that running a track cleaning train around the layout while doing some work at my bench is more fun than "Operations"!
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Well-Known Member
To outline what operations I have developed, here is what I do. You need to keep in mind that my layout is supposed to be what the Northern Pacific called the "Butte Shortline". This was a mostly passenger line which broke from the N.P. main at Logan Montana, ran through Butte, Montana and rejoined the N.P. main, at Garrison Montana. There are two Passenger Trains, one from the east and one from the west. Then, there is four local freight trains, two from the east and two from the west. These trains service all the industries along the line. There are two log trains, an empty and a loaded log train and an empty and loaded copper ore train. The empty and loaded ore trains pick up and deliver at two locations on the layout.

In a "Nut Shell" the above defines operations on my layout.

To make this thread a dialog, please describe how you operate your layout!
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I've had 2 other layouts, the one I have just started working on again (after being away form it for 2.5 years) is my third and hopefully 'final'one. The second layout is the one that I really started getting into my own with scenery, buildings, lighting, etc. Mostly, I would have one train just running the track, and the second train would either run its track or I would do some nominal switching operations, just to mix it up. I also like to just let them run while I am doing other things on the layout to bring it to life. Additionally, I have NO problem just sitting and watching them go round. I anticipate the current layout to be the same, meaning run the trains while I bring the layout to life.


Active Member
I too am in the group of setting up a long train, and letting it run while other things are done. I also just sit there, and watch them go. I built my current layout to have a double mainline to let 2 unit trains, or mixed run in opposite directions. I'm not that far along yet to even consider industries, as I don't know what this layout will become. Right now I'm just having fun with it. I was an N scaler at first, and am marveling at what's available since switching to HO, so now its just have fun, and attempt new things. It doesn't help that I still am working full time, and have limited time. I anticipate once retirement hits, and I have more free time that all the rest will com, whatever that may be.
While I have a single mainline in the form of a folded dogbone, with a number of sidings and two yards, and have both DCC and DC capability (not simultaneously), I prefer to run one train at a time, usually passenger trains from the late 1940's up to 1960. Trying to run two trains at once (even with DCC) gets too confusing, as I have difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time! ;)


Lazy Daydreamer
Excellent topic, glad you asked!

My layout is supposed to represent the last few miles of a B&O branch into Cleveland, OH.

During an op session, 3 incoming "intercity" freight trains run over 30ft of main line right-o-way into the main yard. Two of them are merchandisers - one from the East (New Castle, PA) and the other from the West (Willard, OH). The third is a unit coal drag. Once in the yard, the merchandisers are dissected and the cars put on tracks for one of three local destinations: (1) a steel mill; (2) a Ford auto assembly plant; or (3) any one of 8 small single-spur lineside industries along the main. The coal cars get handed off from the B&O to the private terminal RR which hauls them to the rotary dumper for the coke ovens at the steel mill.

Trains for these primary destinations are sent out, the operators do ~30-45 minutes worth of switching to swap inbound cars for outbounds, then return the trains to the main yard. The incoming cars are then classified for the outgoing westbound or eastbound merchandiser; empty coal cars are brought by the private road from the steel mill to the main yard, from which a B&O crew will haul a unit train of empty hoppers back east.

The above scenario will keep 5 or 6 operators busy for ~3 hours, using JMRI-generated manifests and switchlists.


Well-Known Member
Mark - Like you, I like to build structures and freight cars, but I like operations equally as well. I do not run any passenger trains since they weren't a part of ATSF operations in my era of 1978-1992. I do not run two trains at the same time, even though it is possible, simply because I cannot keep track of two. I have DC with two throttles, one fixed and one walk-around. I really like switching, I have 70+ industries over the 365' of main line. Staging, sidings and spurs add another 900' of trackage. Additional turnouts are already in place to add more industries when I get to the point of developing those sections of bare plywood. My operations follow two patterns. The first is through freights or drags as some call them. These can be unit trains such as container/trailer, grain, autoracks, plastic pellets, ethanol, vegetable oil, or they can be mixed freights. These I run from one end of the layout to the other. I mostly run them in the middle of running a switching run where I park the local on a siding while I run the through trains over the main. Secondly I run locals. Most of my local or peddler runs are known as "out and back", where I switch one town (10 towns with between 3 and 10 industries each) and return to the staging yard. These can be empties or loads in either direction and always terminate in the yards. Industry to industry on my layout always goes through the yard. I currently use a handwritten switch list that varies every time. I hope to eventually use a switching program that I have that uses either car cards or switchlists (or both) depending on preference. I have two industries that are large enough to have a dedicated switching run, a large grain elevator and an ethanol processing plant. Each have a total of 16 empties going in and 16 loads going out. All ten of my passing sidings have a capacity of 22+ cars and with the exception of five industries, all other industries switch off the passing sidings or additional industry sidings. The main is used in switching operations for temporary parking or for run-arounds as needed. It must be cleared occasionally per the above scenario. I also have an interchange with SLSF to allow for some car rotation.
ATSF did not schedule many freight trains, most were run as extras even though they followed a pattern. They also sent out occasional "sweeper" trains that did nothing but pick up empties along the line. I did not design any "switching puzzles" on my layout, although some thought must be given when blocking cars in the yard. There are both facing sidings and trailing sidings, hence the run-around option in most places. Normally I switch all trailing sidings when I enter a town and then run around and do the facing ones that are now trailing ones. Cabooses are just stashed out of the way, or are occasionally used as a "handle". Two of my industries require switching into a building, no engines allowed.
A a lone operator, I rely on sequencing operations instead of scheduled operations. If I stop and park overnight, I just resume the next day. I will continue to do this when I start using the switching program. I do not utilize a switching yard at the present time. I use the 0-5-0 method of assembling trains in staging. Two of my three staging yards (one double-ended, two stub-ended) are set up with a yard lead and could be used as switching yards, I just haven't taken the time yet to complete the configuration.
That defines my operations in a very large nutshell!


Section Hand
Right now I do a lot of switching while a train runs on the mainline. It becomes interesting when the switcher needs to run on the main and share it with the local friegth traffic.

I use no real planned moves right now. Once in awhile I'll move rolling stock with a switcher to clear trackage for track cleaning or remove cars for maintenance tasks. This can take several hours of fun if I take one or two cars at a time.

I plan on using switch lists in the future and want to keep it simple and fun for operators.

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Whiskey Merchant
I am also a lone operator. My layout is a freelance, connecting to the Northern Pacific at one end and the Milwaukee Road at the other. Didn't have enough room to do justice to even part of a subdivision of either railroad. The layout was built mainly as a switching layout. I still operate DC as I have no need to run more than one train at a time.

The railroad runs from Logan, MT where it connects to the Northern Pacific south to Gallatin Gateway, MT where it connects to the Milwaukee Road and then runs south to West Yellowstone MT where there is a connection to the Union Pacific.

The layout is point to point with a yard and engine facilities at each end. There are only four town, named after actual places with industries that either did exist or could have existed had there been a railroad to serve them. The time period is set in the late summer of 1957, so both steam and diesel can be run.

With the use of hidden staging tracks, I can run trains continuously.

I'll bring a train out of either end of the hidden staging tracks into one of the two yards. The train is broken down in the yard and a local freight train is assembled and it will then deliver and pick up cars from the various rail custpomers. When it returns to either of the yards, an outbound train willl be assembled and will run "off stage" back into the hidden staging tracks. It will later become an inbound train.

A switching problem has been build into each of the four towns on the layout just to make things difficult. I have stationed a switcher in one town that can take sometimes over two hours to switch out. It would gather up any outbound cars and set them out on a passing siding. The local freight would pick up these cars and drop any inbound cars to let the local freight move on.

It keeps me occupied and hours can pass by before you realize it.
My future home layout is still in the dream/plan stage, but I've operating lots on my club layout and on a few friends' layouts.

My (eventual) layout looks like a point-to-point starting from staging at both ends representing the south and north ends of the layout, with a branch line off the division point at the middle. All freights terminate/originate at the division point yard.

There's only a few major industries, and a couple of small ones. The railway is in northern Ontario running through mostly wilderness. (Note: this is a prototype based layout with little or no freelancing. Everything described exists (or once existed - I'm modelling the 1980s and much has changed since then) in real life. Specific track arrangements may be modified or compressed, and plain passing sidings where nothing else is located may be eliminated to just include those locations where there's some sort of action.

The branch line features the main large heavy industry - a large iron ore processing plant. There's also a harbour at the end of the branch where certain materials for the processing plant are brought in, and where in the past some processed ore was sent out via ship. By my time period the ore is all-rail transport. There's also a couple of pulpwood spurs and one or two small (like 1 car spurs receiving infrequent service) fuel dealers. One turn job services the branch.

North of the division point there is one wayfreight in each direction. Points of activity on the line include a large pulpwood logging operation, two significant interchanges with other railways that account for a lot of freight traffic on the line, and a major sawmill.

South of the division point is basically just tonnage freight (2 each way) carrying traffic from the north and branch lines to the south, where the iron ore feeds a steel mill (off the modeled part of the layout) which provides a lot of traffic to the interchanges on the northern part. A lot of other bridge traffic from the interchanges flows to other connections to the south. Some of the pulpwood logs flow to the sawmill on the northern part of the layout, and some to a paper mill off the modeled part of the layout to the south so log loads are basically heading in all directions. Lumber loads also flow in all directions from both the modeled mill and several other nearby mills off the modeled part of the railway.

All the car movements are managed with car car & waybills.
I'm a little like you, in that, I spend more time building things than operating. I'm OK with that imbalance. I like scratchbuilding, and spent the first 30-years with no layout until about 10 years ago.

My layout could keep 5 people busy. I can run a pair of trains without mishap -- but all it takes is one mistake (turnout in wrong position) and the DCC system shut it all down. I put re-start buttons strung around the fascia.
I model the Wilmington & Northern Branch of the Philadelphia & Reading railroad (the Reading) circa 1900-1905. I have about half the layout built so far. I try to hold operating sessions about every couple months or so and have hosted for several large, city wide operating weekends. I use about 5 operators: a Wilmington yard engine/yardmaster, a Wilmington industry switcher, a Coatesville yard engine/yardmaster and 2 road crews. They handle a local, two or three passenger trains, and 3 or 4 freight trains, plus a B&O interchange. I use CC&WB and nominally TT&TO. Each session is an 8 hour shift on a 3:1 fast clock for a 2 hr 40 min session.

The traffic based and the schedules were based on what information I could find on the real W&N and modified for the model railroad setting.
When I finish the other half of the railroad in the next 4 or 5 years, it will add an additional switcher/yardmaster, an additional road crew, a dedicated local crew, plus a dedicated dispatcher.
Thanks, Sherrel...I might have forgotten to post it after I completed the text and pictures, so here it is again!

I run my model railroad just like a child would run his little train around the 5-foot circle around the Christmas Tree.

Just round and round on my O-Scale 2-Rail 127-foot Folded Dogbone, with no stopping and no switching to a siding, and no crossing Bridges or Trestles, or going through Tunnels, because my layout doesn't have any of those.

My single short-consist Freight Train doesn't run by Buildings, Houses, Industries, Freight Yards, Cars, People, Animals, and doesn't run by Grassy Meadows or Rivers or Lakes. The only man-made structure on my layout is the Railroad Track!

My layout represents the Desolate Wilderness of the Rocky, Mountainous High Mojave Desert where I live.

After 36 years of working up to my ears in Technology as an Aerospace Lab Test Engineer for Boeing, I decided to live a much simpler life after I retired 20 years ago. Bye-bye Wind Tunnels, Altitude Chambers, and Antenna Ranges!

Here are pictures of my Layout, here in my game Room:

Brakeman Hal, age 82


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