101 – Ops Intro

Operations 101 -Operations as a Layout design Goal

Operations should be designed into your layout before a board is cut or a screw turned. That does not mean that you cannot retrofit your current layout to make it operate more effectively. You certainly can, but there is the work to pull down what you already have, fix it, then put it back the way it was. That’s a lot of work for something that you can design in from the get go.

In the introduction to this topic I stated that for a layout to be considered an operational layout it should meet three basic design goals:

  • The layout should allow a train to do work (add, subtract from or alter its consist).
  • The layout should allow the train to be directional (arrive from somewhere before going somewhere else).
  • The layout should give the train a purpose (serve a need in our modelled community).

Most importantly a layout must contain all three design elements in order to be considered a layout designed and built for operations. Lets begin by looking a little deeper into each of these points to see where the benefits of good small layout design lie.

Allowing a train to do work

So you’re reading this and saying to yourself, I am pretty sure I know what he means by “a train doing work” right? But I hope he’ll explain what he means.

The single most important part of the operating scheme in a small layout is the run around or loop. It’s inclusion allows a train to do the work on the layout for which it was intended: bring a train to a location, switch the cars of the train for cars at industries,  reform the train with cars from the iundustries and leave the location. You’ll notice that all three design goals are included in that short description. Primarily though it is the loop or run-around that makes all of these goals possible.


Figure 1: The run-around or loop

The loop allows the train’s locomotive to move around the train.

Allowing the train to be directional

A train on a small layout needs to come from somewhere (visually) and after completing it’s work got to somewhere.

This means that you must have somewhere for the train to:

  • Come from before it begins working the businesses on the layout, and
  • Go to when that work is finished.

This can be the same place – such as single ended staging, or it can be two different locations – such as double ended staging.

Giving the train a purpose

Trains serve communities. These communities may be the wider community as in the city or town and it’s people, or it can a few businesses that are served by the railroad itself, or it can be the staff that the railroad serves. No matter what scope you choose to model you must have a purpose for the railroad. A yard, a junction or something else it doesn’t matter you simply have to find yourself a focus for the game.

What’s needed to begin realistic operations

In order to begin our trip into operating your model railroad we need to have:

  • The playing board (layout or module(s) upon which our pieces (locomotives, freight and passenger cars) move,
  • Rules that define how the pieces may move,
  • Cards that are used to modify or determine the behaviour of the pieces,
  • Markers, cards or other identifying means and methods to track our playing pieces when out of site, and
  • A beginning point and end point to the game.

Foundations of the game

What this means is that we are looking into the reason the railway exists, whether we model from the prototype or freelance, to determine:

  • The period during which our model will be set
  • The location in which our model will be set
  • The industries on the modelled area of the layout, and
  • The industries off the modelled area of the layout.

The last may sound counter intuitive since we are talking about modelling but these off line industries just as important in creating the fiction of a working railroad. For example they give us:

  • Destinations to which products are shipped off the layout,
  • Sources of our business’ raw materials, and
  • A means to determine car routing.

With a set of:

  • sources (shippers) of goods on and off the modelled portion of the railroad,
  • consignees (receivers) of goods on and off the modelled portion of the railroad, and
  • our location and those of the nearest railroad interchanges we have the beginnings of a transport plan for our model railroad.

Whether you model a freelanced railroad or not you now have the means to run trains in a prototypical manner including the routing information. You do not have to model everything of course, we are trying to have fun with this hobby, not make it like work for ourselves. Keep in mind though that at its heart model railroad operations is nothing more than a board game with some really cool pieces. While there are no winners or losers there are many means for us to determine what worked well and what did not.

This is more true now that Digital Command Control (DCC) has come into wide spread use. But we’ll go into the whole DCC thing later on this site. Many of us started in the hobby with an oval or circle of track that while fun at first soon looses its gloss. After all going around in circles is not much fun. Here though is where operations comes in handy. Because with only a few modifications and a little imagination that circle or oval of track becomes so much more. By using directions such as East and West, North and South and naming every location on the track, adding a siding or two that serves an industry your little piece of the railway now has some greater context. Thus going clockwise means running East from B town to A town, via Gunning Gap, where you have to stop and switch out the Gunning Gap Co-Op’s grain elevator. Even with just these simple modifications you can see the difference. You have begun to create your own little world not unlike creating a location for a novel. Or you can copy it from a real-life location and industry. The level of challenge is left for you to decide.

  • Go from A to B under the direction of a driver or engineer,
  • Do work as needed at B,
  • Return to A from B when you are finished,  and
  • Park your train, detach the loco from the train and then park the loco where directed.

The Operations section will look at how I use operations as the main design component for my railroad. Is it a definitive treatise on operations? Of course not. There are many other people on the net (details in the bibliography section) that are far more capable than I to help you through learning about the myriad ins and outs of operations. My aim is to get you interested – hooked if you like – and get you on the first rung of the ladder of operations and keep your interest and participation in the hobby going for many years to come.

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