103 – The Plan

Operations  – The operating plan is everything

Every business works from a plan. “We are doing X to serve market Y, and we’ll do it in Z way…“. For a railroad the operating plan is everything. The operating plan sets out many things but importantly to us it sets out the times that the major train movements will take place. A major train movement is for example a hotshot manifest freight running from Alphaville to Zetaville across the whole network. This train will have set times when it:

  1. Leaves it’s home yard,
  2. Enters and leaves intermediate yards along the way, and
  3. When it reaches its destination.

Each intermediate yard can now determine the cut-off time for shippers at each location along its many local lines to ship out goods to be placed on the manifest trains. By doing so it provides the yard personnel time to switch the incoming local cars into blocks ready to be placed onto the hotshot freight. As well inbound cars coming off the manifest freight are scheduled for delivery according to this timetable. Everyone (railroad staff – shipper – consignee) knows when major events happen and can plan accordingly. Even if you do not model the mainline on your railroad keep this basic idea in mind. It will help you to understand the interplay between your out in the weeds local service and the yard’s timing. In railroading like every other business – time is money.

Prototype versus Freelance railroading

If you model a real railroad then your operating plan is already set for you. The prototype serves it’s customers with set pickup and drop off times for each day of service. If you model freelanced lines as I like to do then you’ll need to develop your own operating plan. This process is still driven by the mainline freights but it also needs to be viewed from the customer’s need to access raw materials and how they ship out  their completed product.

Your customers will fall into two types of raw material users:

  1. The just in time inventory user, and
  2. The bulk or stored inventory user.

Either type of customer serves our modelling purposes. The just in time inventory user keeps little storage for their operation and rely on railcars for storage. So you will probably have an industry yard close by their site and provide regular switching (more than the one switch job per day usually provided by the bigger railroads). This type of customer may even have their own railroad switcher or Trackmobile providing the in-plant switching. In that case all you’ll do is provide the yard to yard transfer of loaded cars in and empties out. In other cases you may decide to do all the work and base a job strictly around serving that client. Pulling empties and spotting loads at the appropriate times as determined by the site management. Some types of customers that come to mind for this type are plastics factories who need different quantities of different feed stock depending on the production run for that shift. Another may be a large foodservice plant such as a bakery or a breakfast cereal plant each of which may need different grains, oils and sugar types spotted for different shifts or different days.

For the bulk or stored inventory customer you are more likely to drop multiple cars at their site once or maybe twice per week. The inbound loads will be unloaded and the empties pulled and taken back to the yard. You may be required to hang around and unload their train of cars or they may have an in-plant switcher or track mobile to do the switching themselves. This is very similar to the just in time facility but there will be more cars to work with at any one time. My advice is to try and have a mix of these two types of industries to help your crews stay busy enough during their shifts. Remember this is supposed to be fun.

A good location to model is a rail-served business park. Service to and from the business park is going to be at least once a day with an internal switching company (usually owned and operated by the business park itself) doing the on site switching. This can provide the best of both worlds for the space starved modeller who loves lots of switching and some mainline action. But we’ll delve into this later on.

In summary – Your model railroad taken from the prototype or freelanced should operate no differently from a real railroad excepting the onerous reporting tasks that common carriers do.


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