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Operations on a Maintenance Centre Layout (Part 3 – Game Theory)

This is the third post of the continuing series on Operations for Maintenance Centre Layouts. In part 1, we looked at the types of passenger facilities I’m familiar with. In part 2, we looked at how we can use the prototype’s methods to develop an operations plan that suits a small layout.

In this post I wanted to address two questions about small layout operations: firstly is model railroad operations a game, and if so, how can we keep the game interesting for the longer term?


Railroad operations is a game?

From my first introduction to model railroad/railway operations (railops), I noticed a lot in common between it and the Role-Playing Games (RPGs) and board games with which I was familiar. Bear in mind that I’m addressing railops in a general sense (both freight and passenger operation), not just as it applies to Aaron’s excellent layout and Rob Chant’s design, as there is much in common to apply to both styles of operation.

I want to give a quick side by side comparison (they’re really one below the other) of the parts of your ‘average’ board game and a small layout.

The board game has A small layout has
counters or player pieces Cars and Locos
a board on which the counters move The layout board
rules that describe how the counters can move Rules
a means to add some randomness (usually dice, or a spinner) a means to add some randomness (car cards/waybills, the timetable, the ops plan, the list goes on)
a starting point and an end goal to close out the game a starting point and an end goal (switching cars into spots according to the ops plan), which when complete, ends the game

Once you see the commonalities, I’ve found there’s no going back.

Countering boredom with randomness

On Facebook, back in November of 2020 a post from Paul Boehlert got my attention. I didn’t want to reproduce the post in its entirety, so I’ve cut it down to the following.

A couple of days ago, a member asked the group how we keep interest high on a small switching layout. The following is a short description of a scheme my son and I worked out. It makes each session a bit unpredictable and adds variety, which helps maintain interest.

My adult son is a skilled and talented games designer and has been around model railroading all his life. When I asked him what he would do to make operation more interesting and varied on a small layout, his reply was immediate: I needed to generate some randomness, and I needed an adversary.

Paul went on to describe how he used one of his son’s 12 sided gaming dice to assist with introducing random events into the operations gameplay. His initial focus was on the weather, due to the setting (location) of his layout. Multiple roles of the dice allow him to determine the time of year, and the level of ferocity of the weather.

As he points out, the weather is not the only adversary. The interactive nature of the railroad right of way with cars, trucks, other railroads, shippers and receivers, trees, power lines and the poles they use (just to name a few) means that lots of events can and do on occasion happen that interfere with the railroad doing its stated job of moving stuff. Technology can be a problem, no matter the time period you model. Steam engines sometimes wouldn’t fire correctly lowering their tractive effort and slowing them down. Diesel locomotives have mechanical, electrical and electronics issues that need to be rectified either on the road or in the shed before being able to complete their shift. Cars become bad-ordered due to mechanical faults, accident or loading/unloading damage, or vandalism which all have effects on the operation out on the line.

Paul’s solution was to make “a list of random events, and roll the 12-sided die one more time when things get a bit too predictable. If you want lots of random possibilities, gaming dice come with up to 100 sides.

No two days are the same in the railroad industry. Each day presents different challenges, and there is always something that is not working the way it should. It affects what you can achieve and how you can achieve it.

At work often nature is our adversary. For example every time it rains we have problems with random detector loops. These pick up transponder signals. They are sealed, but they misbehave whenever there’s a lot of rain. But never the same one each time. Or high winds bring down trees along the rail corridor, blocking lines until maintenance crews can get out and cut the trees and clear the line.

There are general technical issues that occur, point/turnout motor failures for example are unfortunately common at the moment. Each of these requires spare parts and in the COVID world of 2021, those parts are not always available. So it’s back to the 19th century we have to go, manually throwing over the switch blades (points) until the spare parts arrive. Electronics are slow for the same reason at the moment with computer chips being in short supply due to COVID-19s effect on the supply chain in China. From design to fabrication, land and sea transport, we have slowdowns that are affecting rail suppliers worldwide.


Takeaway

Treating railops as a game, and using randomness and an adversary can make for better gameplay and longer-term interest.

Final thoughts

On small layouts, especially those with a small visible footprint, even with all the permutations mentioned above, can it, like Monopoly, Cluedo, or Trouble get too predictable?

Can boredom set in too early in the life of the layout? Is that why so many small layouts are sold on, torn down, rebuilt and replaced with yet another?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.


Resources

The series so far:

Staying in Contact

Interested in keeping in touch or discussing posts, pages and ideas?  You can do that in several ways by:

  • Commenting on this post (I read and answer each one)
  • Sending me a note using our About page (email)
  • Connecting with us on Facebook at the Andrew’s Trains page

Site seeing – March 5

It’s O scale day! And today there are resources everywhere.

One of the best modellers out there today, in O scale, is Mike Cougill. Mike’s been a railroad modeller for over 40 years and been actively involved in the hobby press for a long time. Mike’s written magazine articles, a regular column and been the editor of O Scale Trains Magazine before starting a new company, OST Publications. Mike’s partner in the new business  passed away in 2013 and he’s run the company since.

Site 1: OST Publications

The aspect of OST Publications (link here) approach that I like most is a focus on doing great work, and thinking things through to yourself as a modeller. I have no interest in any of the sites that I bring up while ‘Site seeing’ except as a participant, or satisfied customer.

Among the best areas of the site are the free downloads. I’ve since bought a couple of his ‘Missing conversation’ series e-books and I just saw another one on scratchbuilding that I’m going to buy tonight once I’ve finished writing this post.

Site 2: Proto48 Modeller

More of a resource centre for those modelling in Proto48 (finescale 1/48th O Scale) I like the site’s approach to sharing information on manufacturers and, suppliers and publishers that are specific to Proto48. I am simply too lazy to model to this level, however, I do like to see the skills of others and to gain ideas from them about how to make my modelling more acceptable to me.

There are a lot of resources here, along with articles and lots of links. Enjoy

Resources:

OST Publications

  • Detailing Track – Techniques For Modeling Prototypical Looking Track (Link)
  • The free guides – special editions of ‘The Missing Conversation’ eBooks (Link)

Proto48 Modeler

  • Articles and Tips (Link)
  • A condensed eBook by Mike Cougill (PDF for download) (link)

Site seeing – February 28

Introduction

Hi my name is Andrew, and I’m a YouTube-a-holic.

It’s true; I love YouTube. In the same way the Internet has changed the way we read about the hobby due to the explosion in E-Zines, how we consume our train videos has changed too.

YouTube has become my go-to place for rail fanning vision. Today’s ‘Site seeing’ reflects the best of railfan video.

YouTube site 1: Delayed in Block productions

There’s a great choice of documentary length videos here. Some switching related, others location related. Some are only 6-8 minutes in length, others like this one (Offsite Link) run to just under an hour and show a lot of freight action.

YouTube site 2: Distant Signal

Danny Harmon’s a rail fanning machine. He’s been producing railfan videos for a long time (view his website here to buy his DVD’s) with some of his earliest videos from 1995.

His recent series on the CSX signalling display and head indication (speed signalling) has been great to watch. Based in Florida he manages to have a great volume of vision and all of it interesting. As he says, he’s a rail fan, not a modeller, and his videos reflect this. With great production values and a melodic voice, the Distant signal ought to be on your favourites list.

Look in the resources section for a bunch of links to Danny’s videos.

Other thoughts

We are 1/6th of the way through the year, and tomorrow we’ll be at the beginning of March. In Ballarat (and the rest of the southern hemisphere) it’s the beginning of Autumn. We’ve just had a big cool front blow through with rain and thunder storms. 2015 is rocketing forward and before we know it winter will be on top of us. Thanks for reading along with me during February. I’ll talk to you next month.

Resources

Delayed in Block

· Fall Freights: NS, CSX, and the World’s Worst Railroad Tracks

Danny Harmon (Distant Signal)

· How to Read Signals On the CSX – Part 1

· How to Read Signals On the CSX – Part 2

· How to Read Signals On the CSX – Part 3

· How to Read Signals On the CSX – Part 4