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Model Railroad Operations

While there are some clubs that only run trains at "show time", other clubs have some kind of regular "operating session" during which the members operate the trains on a schedule, or using some kind of operating scheme. After all, the purpose of a real railroad is not to run trains, but to move materials and people between different locations.

An operating session is a chance to operate more like the real railroads than is possible to do at a show. During a show, the emphasis is often on keeping trains moving, since casual observers seeing a stopped train will probably think that it has broken down, and lose interest quickly. Realistic operations, however, does involve stopping trains from time to time, to let others go ahead, or to pick up and drop off cars.

Preparing for, and operating trains during, an operating session makes modelers think about how and why things look the way they do, which helps improve the quality of their model building. Different types of cars are used for different loads, going to and from different industries. For example, coal travels in hopper cars, from the mines, to places where it is dumped out of the cars to be burned, stored, or transferred to trucks or ships for further movement. A chemical plant may not get any cars other than tank cars (and lots of them), while flatcars and gondola cars are the most common types in steel mills because the commodities they carry are often too large to fit through a door, or too heavy to move, except with an overhead crane. Boxcars are used for smaller items that require protection from the weather - but "smaller" is relative - this could mean 800 pounds of boxes on a 4-by-4-foot pallet. Knowing what cars are appropriate for each industry and each load requires learning more about the industries that surround us in the real world, and can broaden one's interests and view of the world.

On a modular model railroad layout, scheduled operations are more complicated than on a permanent layout, because there are occasions when the layout is assembled in different configurations. Stations may be in a different order, or missing all together if a particular module was left at home. Because of these concerns, some flexibility is needed in the operating scheme. What do you do with the empty coal cars from the power plant on a day when the mine module is not part of the layout? Where does are all those cars of lumber coming from, when the lumber mill module is not finished yet?

On some permanent layouts, there is a hidden "staging" yard, the purpose of which is to simulate traffic beyond the territory that is modeled. On a modular layout, an option is to take cars destined for "missing" modules to a yard (hidden or not) where presumably, they will be re-routed to their destination later. This takes some awareness on the part of the operators as to which modules are out of service. Another is to remove those cars from the operating scheme for that session, and bring them back when the appropriate modules are again used as part of the layout, but this requires more coordination on the part of module owners and car owners.

There may not be a perfect solution, but with some imagination, operations can be successfully run on a modular railroad.


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