Part 1: Design, Decisions, Ops Method and Track Plan

Design – Decisions and purpose

First off let’s take a look at the decisions affecting the design.

There are several layouts that keep popping up on various feeds including Cleveland Flats (in 1:48 scale O gauge) and the Fort Smith RR layout (also in O gauge) both by Kurt. Along with these layouts and many more like them came a recent post by Lance Mindheim regarding the The “Thirty Minute/Three Hour” operating session guideline.

Lance writes: “When it comes to model railroad operations, I’ve noticed what I call the “thirty minute/three hour rule”. It has to do with how long the average person can run before burnout, boredom, or both sets in and they’ve had enough.

Lance’s 30 minute Op session applies to the single operator, while the longer time period applies to the group operator on a larger layout. Long term visitors to this site will know that I focus pretty much exclusively on small layouts (under 16 square feet). From my operating experience I agree with Lance’s statement and assume that most people will tire of operating within the 30-45 minute range. So most of the layouts here can be operated in part in as little as 15 minutes or as a whole over a longer 45 minute session by a one person or two person crew (working as engineer and conductor).

An Op session includes arriving at, switching in before clearing up and leaving the modelled scene. If you’ve not read through my Ops Primer I suggest it as additional reading to understand my take on operations as a game..

Design – Operation flexibility

I wanted a layout design which allowed varying lengths of work. That work length would depend on how much time you or I had available. I’ve come up with three scenarios that fit within three session lengths of 15, 30 and 45 minutes as follows:

  1. A single customer with one or more cars  to switch for those times when you just want to switch something – let’s call it the 15 minute session,
  2. One or more customers with one or more car(s) at each location, for those times when you want to spend a little more time switching, but not have a full operating session – let’s call it the 30 minute session, and
  3. Two or more customers with one or more cars at each location for those times when you have between 45 minutes and an hour and two operators. There is added complexity where cars being held at the customer’s site may require re-spotting during the switching activity- let’s call it the 45 minute session.

I wanted operational flexibility since the time I have available may change in the middle of a session. So what may start out as a 45 minute session may end after only 15 minutes (because we need to attend to family matters, or chores like the washing or ironing for example).

Design – Operating Method

To allow for operations flexibility I’ll be using switchlists as the operating method on the layout. Switchlists allow for a series of moves that can be ticked complete by crews as they achieve each step of the work.

This ensures flexibility such that, should you need to pick up an interrupted Op session, completed moves are marked as such and you ready to pick up and continue the Op Session.

Image 1: A sample switchlist for the Evans Hollow Industrial

My switchlist will not entirely mirror prototype switchlists; I’m designing for play value and ease of use. I want to ensure that novices can pick up the switchlist, and with minimal instruction, get started and feel confident in completing the work. The switchlist also has to meet the needs, and to look right, for the more experienced operator. There are many spreadsheet based systems available on the web. Most of the available spreadsheets mirror the car card operation methods.

I have settled on using the car order system, where a car type is ordered instead of a specific car number. I’ve built the spreadsheet to mirror that style of operation. I’ll make the spreadsheet available when I finish it and have fully tested and debugged it. Look for that in the page on Operations.

The three activity columns (On Spot, Pick Up, and Set Out) should assist each operator’s understanding of what work to perform at each industry spot. To ensure that operational flexibility is maintained the Comp. (work completed) column should be ticked off, or signed off by the crew as each of the moves is completed. Finally to help me understand what works over time the ‘Work Date’ field will allow me to understand how much switching is possible in a given time period. Since I intend to use blue flag protection at each customer industry I’ll be using A5 clipboards with the customer’s spotting requirements. We’ll delve more deeply into the operating method in a later build post.

Suffice to say that switchlists, at least as I envisage them, allow simple and easy to understand instructions for crews who may be operating for the first time. In addition they’ll allow start/stop operating sessions by one or many operators over one or several days (as long as crews mark spots served as they go). My goal will always be to allow for maximum play value and minimum paperwork. My focus totally on switching action and not paperwork. That paperwork can take place in the background during Ops setup.

Design – Track Plan

Right now I’ve completed up to version 4 of the track plan – the first one that I’m really happy with. The next step is to play with the thing for real on the layout surface to check for fit and to see how things will look.

I’m trying something new in the design as there is no runaround on the scenic area of the layout which I would usually prefer. In this design I’ve moved the runaround off the scenic area; using a fiddle-stick to represent the runaround and rest of the world. By doing so there’ll be more switching on the scenic area while allowing trains to be turned (the loco running around the train). Also by varying the length of the fiddle stick you add flexibility to train lengths and therefore the length and scope of the operating session – such as how many cars you can switch in a full session. Version four’s plan is below:

Image 2: Version 4 of the trackplan

I’ve recently begun using SCARM and find it to be refreshingly simple and easy to get used to. I had my first layout up and running in 10 minutes from installing the software. For a free piece of software (for small and simple layouts – if you want to build larger more complex layouts you can purchase a license to unlock more features) it works very well. It get’s the Andrew’s Trains tick of approval.

The state of play

I’ve completed the layout board, glued down the foam and built the supports. Most of the wood was what I had on hand. There were a couple of purchases, along with wood, screws, and other bits and pieces I had on-hand. There’ll be a post next week on that process. I’m about $110 Aussie in so far on the build process. I have all the track I’ll need (including turnouts) but have to complete the work to get them ready for DCC. We’ll discuss that in later posts on track laying.


If this is the first time you’ve come across operating methods as mentioned above there’s a great primer available at Freight Train Operation and Model Car Forwarding Methods by Dave Clemens.

Available as a PDF download it covers many operating schemes with short explanations of each. (If you head to the Pacific Coast Region NMRA’s clinic page you’ll find a bunch of other useful clinics and handouts for your reading pleasure too).

Designing & Building Small Layouts since 2003

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