Category Archives: Operations

A Novel Approach to Fast Clocks

A “Fast Clock” is used on a model railroad to speed up the passage of time in the model world during operations. Traditionally, it is literally a clock, set to run at some multiple of actual time. The idea is to simulate, for example, a 12 hour work shift in 3 hours of model run time by running the clock at 4:1 speed.

The traditional fast clock is great for mainline train running, since it helps to “uncompress” the very short distances between our modeled towns. Switching operations, though, don’t work quite so well, because switching operations are less “compressed” than mainline runniing. It can take almost the same amount of time to complete a switch job on the model as it does on the real thing.

Continue reading A Novel Approach to Fast Clocks

A visit to the Fernwood Lumber Co.

  by BGTwinDad
, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Fernwood Lumber Company, an On30-scale (O scale narrow gauge) model logging layout owned by Pete Birdsong, the NMRA Division 10 Superintendent, and based on the real Fernwood Lumber Company which operated in Mississippi in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Pete’s layout runs from Camp 2 on the far left, around Magnolia at the end of the peninsula, and into the lumber mill at Fernwood on the far right.  All of the track is hand-laid, most of the scratch-built, and the dirt is real dirt from the South.   Even the log cars are hand-built from scratch (except the running gear).  It’s a beautifully detailed layout, and has been featured in the Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette.  Trains are controlled with Digitrax wireless throttles, and most all of the locomotives have onboard sound, which greatly enhances the realism of the model.

The real surprise is just how much operational fun is packed into such a small (track-mileage-wise) layout.  A crew of seven was kept busy for two hours (which flew by!), moving eleven trains and hauling 47 cars and about 475 tons of product around the layout.  When I left, the logging operations were still going.

NMRA Division 10 members operate Pete Birdsong's On30 FLCR layout

When I first arrived, Pete introduced me to the crew, gave me a quick tour of the layout, and explained the computer system he uses to generate (paper) train manifests and switch lists for the crew to follow.  True to the backwoods 1910 era he models, there are no signals or radios or other communications.  Access to each of the the two single-track mainline segments is controlled by a semaphore flag that must be passed from one train to the next.  If you don’t have the flag, you don’t have access to the track.

Though I had visited expecting to be only an observer, before long Pete was handing me a manifest and a throttle, and encouraging me to try my hand.  My first adventure in operating the layout was Train 62, which needed to take a gondola from Camp 2 and trade it for a boxcar waiting at Magnolia.

I had to wait for Tom to bring engine #6, the 0-4-0 seen in the opening photo, back to Camp 2 before I could start.  Bill, the Camp 2 yardmaster moved the gondola and my “bobber” caboose into place, and I slowly moved Train 62 onto the left leg of the wye and waited for Randall to clear the main and deliver the red flag that would allow me to occupy the main between Camp 2 and Magnolia.  Once the flag was acquired, I eased the “tiny” loco (37 times bigger than my own N scale models!) onto the main.

A few minutes later, I rounded the bend and pulled onto the siding at Magnolia, where Brian cleared his switcher and allowed me to back the gondola onto the freight house track and pick up the boxcar for my return journey.  Another operator then had to wait for permission to enter the Magnolia yard limits while I backed across the return loop track to begin my return journey to Camp 2.

Crew members build a train at Camp 2

Glancing at my watch, much of the time had flown by, but I thought I had time for one more run, so Pete handed me Train #63, which runs from Camp 2 past Magnolia all the way to Fernwood.  This train (conveniently) used the same #6 engine, but this time I had to haul three boxcars the full length of the layout.  Again I acquired the red flag and proceeded to Magnolia, where I traded it for the green flag that would allow me passage the rest of the way to Fernwood.  Once I negotiated the return loop at Fernwood, I backed the set-out cars onto the yard track and picked up the cars slated for the return journey.

I was all set to go, but a call from home reminded me that I was “dead on the law” and Train 63 would require a crew change to proceed further.  I had a wonderful time meeting Pete’s fellow club members and operating on his layout, and I hope to return soon.  I must say, if you have the opportunity to visit an operating session in your area, do take advantage of it.  It’s a great way to spend a few hours railroading!

Yard Improvements


I made a rather significant change to the design of the yard over the past few days.  The above video shows an example of operations before and after.

In the old version, the Engine Service track was an extension of Yard Track 3 along the front edge of the layout.  To access the track, a locomotive on the A/D (Arrival/Departure) track had to execute a “Z” shaped move, pulling up onto the yard lead, down the ladder to Track 3, and then forward onto the service track.  To hook up to a new train, engines have to do the same move in reverse.  In addition, there had to be sufficient open space on Track 3 for the engine to clear the switch.  All this takes time and ties up valuable car storage space in the yard.  The alternative is for the engine to pull up and block the main line while the switcher does its yard work.

In the new version (second half of the video), I moved the Service track so that it extends off the Yard Lead beyond the Ladder.  Now, engines on the A/D track can simply pull straight forward and take the switch to the Service Track.  One simple move, and the Engine is clear of the yard and the main.  One reverse move and the train is ready to go.  In addition, the entire Track 3 is available for yard work.

On a larger yard, extending Engine Service off the “top” of the yard instead of the yard lead can make sense.  With space this tight, it did not.  I think this was a good move, operationally, and I think the video proves it.  What do you think?


CH&FR Expands Equipment Roster

Originally uploaded by BGTwinDad

Dateline Glover’s Bend, November 10, 2010

When the CH&FR Railroad’s recent uptick in traffic left them short of rolling stock to serve their customers, they looked North. Far North. All the way to Canada.

The Rail Operations Department reported today that they acquired three “new” 40 foot standard boxcars from Canadian Pacific Railway (formerly CP Rail), and five new 90-ton coal hoppers from Canadian National Railway.

The hoppers will help with the increased demand for the ultra-low sulfur coal mined at the nearby Glover’s Bend Mine, and the 40-foot boxcars will allow the railroad to more efficiently package and carry the specialty electronics products being produced by TEC, Inc. for the automotive industry.

Along with the deal came a classic 8-window steel side cupola caboose from the CP. The caboose will be part of the CHHiPS Museum collection. Plans are in the works to repaint it in CH&FR colors, as a similar car was used years ago on the railroad.

Operations: Thinking Out Loud

It occurred to me this morning that one of the reasons I don’t post very often is that I have this mental hangup that I need to have some thing “finished” to “present” in order to have a blog entry.  That’s not really so.  I just have to have something to say that may be of interest to my reader.  In fact, having some “unfinished” things as blog entries may actually be better because it gives something for my reader to give input on, rather than being passive.

Today’s topic, and I expect it to be an ongoing series, is about an operations plan.  I’ve posted a little bit in the past on this, but not much.  Basically, I would like to have what amounts to a daily timetable showing which trains run where, when, around which I can create an operating session plan to follow.  In the words of Admiral Painter in The Hunt for Red October, “The Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.”  Neither do the railroads.

First we need to define where “here” and “there” are.  For now, we have four trips to make:

  • The Town Branch, to pick up products and set off supplies.
  • The Mine Branch, to drop off empties and pick up coal loads.
  • Russell, KY, to drop off Westbound traffic (or anything CSX-bound)
  • Williamson, WV, to drop off Eastbound traffic (or anything NS-bound)

For the time being we will ignore bridge traffic between Russell and Williamson, and we will ignore traffic to/from Chestnut Hill and Frost River as well.

Now, let’s assume that the big railroads aren’t going to bother sending trains down to Glover’s Bend to make deliveries, and so we will have to go to their yards to interchange.  So that’s (at least) one trip per day to each town, not counting coal runs (we’ll just set them aside, too, for the moment).  We want to take outbound stuff out and bring inbound stuff back so that we’re running full trains both ways (minimizing MTs).

Oh, for the non-railroad-geek, a few abbreviations and “lingo” terms:

  • “Turn” – a regular trip out and back to a given location.
  • “MT” – short for “empty car”.  Also “MTY”.
  • “SO” – “Set out”.  To remove a car from a train and leave it, usually at an interchange, for someone else to PK or for some other purpose.
  • “PK” – “Pick up”.  To pick up a car that has been SO.
  • “Spot” (n) – a designated location to place a car for loading, unloading, or some other purpose. (v) – to place a car for loading/unloading/etc. at a spot.
  • “Interchange” (n) a common siding or yard where two railroads trade cars. (v) The act of passing a car or cars from one railroad to another, usually at an interchange location.
  • “A/D Track” – the yard track to and from which trains (usually) Arrive and Depart.

There will be plenty more of those as we go along.  Back to the subject at hand.

Let’s pretend for a moment we only have two things to do… Interchange at Russell, and switching the Town Branch.  It’s a little hard to talk about an ongoing process, so let’s assume this is a once daily cycle, and it’s Tuesday.  A few rules:

  • Our local customers want their supplies in the morning, and want to load their shipments at the end of the day.
  • CSX can have our deliveries whenever, but they only want to fool with us daily.
  • By convention, “deliveries” are things coming into Glover’s Bend from elsewhere, and “shipments” are leaving Glover’s Bend for the world at large.

So here’s the base scheme:

  • Tuesday AM: Town Branch Turn makes Tuesday deliveries and picks up Monday shipments.
  • Tuesday PM: Russell Turn takes Monday shipments to Russell, and returns with Wednesday deliveries.
  • Wednesday AM: Town Branch Turn makes Wednesday deliveries and picks up Tuesday shipments.

And so the pattern repeats.

Let’s make up some names (or acronyms) for the trains, as a shorthand:

  • “TBT” – Town Branch Turn
  • “RT” – Russell Turn
  • “WT” – Williamson Turn
  • “MBT” – Mine Branch Turn
  • “RCT” – Russell Coal Train
  • “WCT” – Williamson Coal Train

To make it even more interesting, let’s put a schedule around this.  For simplicity, let’s allot 2 hours round trip for each local run, and an hour to do the associated switching to build a train.  Russell, KY is about 85 miles from Glover’s Bend, which is a six hour round trip at 30mph average, plus another hour to switch the interchange.  We end up with something like this, just for the TBT and RT:

  • 8:00AM : TBT departs for town.
  • 10:00AM : TBT returns from town
  • 10:00-11:00 AM : Switcher builds RT.
  • 11:00AM : RT departs for Russell, KY
  • 11:30AM-12:30PM: Lunch Break
  • 6:00PM: RT returns from Russell, KY

We have a 5.5 hour window in the afternoon, but we need to handle traffic to Williamson as well.  So let’s introduce another train in the afternoon.  Williamson is much closer than Russell, so let’s assume the trip to Williamson takes 1 hour round trip, plus our customary hour for switching the interchange.

  • 8:00AM : TBT departs for town.
  • 10:00AM : TBT returns from town
  • 10:00-11:00 AM : Switcher builds RT.
  • 11:00AM : RT departs for Russell, KY
  • 11:30AM-12:30PM: Lunch Break
  • 12:30-1:30PM: Switcher builds WT
  • 1:30PM: WT departs for Williamson
  • 3:30PM: WT returns from Williamson
  • 3:30PM-4:30PM: Switcher clears the A/D track for the expected RT and pre-switches Williamson cars for tomorrow’s TBT.
  • 4:30-5:30PM: Afternoon break.
  • 6:00PM: RT returns from Russell, KY
  • 6:00PM-7:00PM: Switcher finishes building tomorrow’s TBT.

Whew!  An eleven hour day for the yard crew, but they get an hour for lunch and an hour long afternoon break.

But wait!  We can do better, I think!  Our local customers aren’t getting their morning deliveries until around 9:00, give or take, when they’ve been sitting in the yard all night long!  What if we run the TBT at the end of the day, and shift the schedule accordingly?

  • 8:00-9:00 AM : Switcher builds RT.
  • 9:00AM : RT departs for Russell, KY
  • 9:30-10:30AM Switcher builds WT
  • 10:30AM: WT departs from Williamson
  • 11:30-12:30PM: Lunch Break
  • 1:30PM: WT returns from Williamson (extra hour for crew lunch)
  • 1:30PM-2:30PM: Switcher clears the A/D track for the expected RT and pre-switches Williamson cars for tomorrow’s TBT.
  • 2:30-3:30PM: Afternoon break.
  • 4:00PM: RT returns from Russell, KY
  • 4:00PM-5:00PM: Switcher finishes building TBT.
  • 5:00PM : TBT departs for town.
  • 7:00PM : TBT returns from town

Now, our customers still have a full day to load their shipments, but they get Wednesday’s deliveries on Tuesday afternoon, not Wednesday.  And here’s another benefit.  The (day) yard crew can knock off at 5:00 when the TBT departs.  The TBT crew, on return, can drop the cars on the A/D track and park their engine without help, ready for the yard crew to start again the next morning.

If the night shift needs the A/D track, they can stow the TBT train or go ahead and switch it.

What about the coal trains?  Well, the vast bulk of the coal hauled will go directly from the mine to either Russell or Williamson.  We have two choices.  Either the trains can literally run directly to the two destinations, being switched at the mine, or we can handle the coal switching on the night shift.

The catch is that we only have 3 yard tracks unless we tie up the outer main.  At night maybe we can use the outer main for an hour or two to sort cars.

Preliminary System Map

This is the high level “System Map” for the CH&FR Railroad.  It is still a work in progress, but I found it necessary in order to work out some of the operations plan for the railroad.

As you can see (in red), the CH&FR runs a basic route between Chestnut Hill, WV and Frost River, KY, through the town of Glover’s Bend (my actual current layout under construction) along the (fictional) Watash Creek near the (very real) Tug Fork River. There is an interchange with Norfolk Southern at Williamson, WV, enabled via trackage rights over the NS mainline there.  The actual connection to the NS line happens somewhat north of Williamson, but CH&FR trains run all the way to the yard to spot cars.  This keeps NS from having to build a new siding just for CH&FR traffic.

Likewise, CH&FR runs north to Russell, KY over the CSX line to drop cars for interchange there.  This enables two things:  first, CH&FR has access to two of the 5 major Class I railroads, and so can trans-ship anywhere in the country.  Second, the CH&FR does a brisk business shuttling through freight between Williamson and Russell, avoiding some (probably fictional) legal, regulatory and practical hassles with the two railroads transferring freight themselves.

An extension is planned from Glover’s bend to the (also very real) NS rail yard at Danville, KY.  I may change this to come in to Lexington instead.  There is a branch line in town that used to extend at least as far as Winchester to the East.  If I can establish that this line went somewhere near, then I may propose that the CH&FR is revitalizing the old right of way, rather than building a new one into Danville.

Costs for the proposed Danville /Lexington connection are being partially supported by NS as it provides a short circuit route from Roanoke, VA (and thus points east) and St. Louis, MO.  Currently, traffic from Roanoke must go either North to Columbus, OH or south to Chattanooga, TN.  The relatively small amount of high priority freight that can benefit from the shorter route isn’t enough for NS to build the line itself, but is plenty to justify the CH&FR considering it.

In our Virtual Interchange operations game, the connections to Russell and Williamson become the gateway from the CH&FR to the other layouts in the game.  For instance, NS owns the former Pennsylvania RR lines near Pittsburgh, and so traffic bound for the TCIRR in that area will go to Williamson.  Traffic bound for the railroads in Michigan, can go either to Williamson or to the CSX yard at Russell, depending on preference.  Westbound traffic would head to Russell, and thence to Cincinnati, and so on.

I will be posting more about this as we go along, including possibly some additional detail on just how and where the CH&FR ties into the NS and CSX mainlines along the Tug Fork river.

Virtual Operations

I and a few others over at started a new experiment the other day.  Virtual Operations.  Also known as Virtual Interchange or Virtual Car Forwarding.  This isn’t some new invention.  There are some extant examples of this on other forums and groups, but it is new to us.  So far, it has been a fun way to add some operating interest to our modeling.

The basic idea is that we are pretending that our varied layouts are actually connected in a rail network, and so we can send shipments of various goods and materials  back and forth to and from our various industries.  We don’t actually physically exchange cars, but only the “paperwork” associated with them.

For example, I have a coal mine and Bob has a parts factory.  I may send a half dozen carloads of coal to Bob, while he ships me two boxcars of parts.  I will send my loco out to the mine, pick up the coal, bring it back to the yard and switch it into another train headed out to the interchange (my off-layout staging).  Once the cars are spotted on the interchange, I’ll send Bob a telegram to that effect.

Bob will then place a half dozen of his own coal hoppers (standing in for the ones I’m shipping him) on his staging track, and send a train out to pick them up, most likely dropping off the boxcars with my parts in the process.  He then telegrams me that the hoppers have been picked up and the boxcars dropped off.  To complete the transaction, I place a couple of my box cars on my staging, and send a train out to pick them up and deliver them to the end customer on my layout.

We’re using a thread on the website to post all of the “telegrams” and a separate thread for discussion.  So far we’ve handled several direct transactions, including a mis-ship and a through-transfer from an imaginary third railroad to the South.

The net effect is that all of a sudden that train I’m making up in the yard has a purpose beyond just something I made up in my own mind.  I have a customer I’m serving who needs that coal today, by golly.  I have a supplier for the customers on my layout and a source for all that traffic I’m putting together.

Like anything, this could get out of hand and become more work than it’s worth, but so far we’ve kept it light and entertaining.  One interesting aspect is that the settings and eras of our layouts don’t match.  I recently shipped some coal and chemicals in modern 100-ton hoppers and a 22,000 gallon tank behind a GP40.  They arrived at the customer in old wood-sided hoppers and a 13,000 gallon tank behind a steamer.

If you’re tiring of dreaming up reasons for the traffic you have, this can be an interesting way to generate traffic and activity on your layout, and so far it has definitely been a plus for mine!