My Experience In Setting Up
Car Cards Operations

If you have looked at the page about my Utopia Northern model railroad you know that was a fictional, freelanced HO model railroad. It was loosely based on the Rock Point and Coast RR that appeared in print in 1981 in Track Planning Ideas from Model Railroader (Model Railroad Handbook No. 15). My new version of the UNRR is also fictional.

model train yardCity of South Point's industrial area

The original layout was designed by a Robert J. Lutz. It was a point-to-point layout with a common turntable serving both ends of the system. The two major towns are separated by a central divider. I had kept his convention by calling my two cities South Point and North Point. 

When that magazine was published, the idea of true operations based on prototype railroading was in its infancy. Even walkaround layouts were still a novel idea. It was more common to work from within a pit or have some kind of a rectangular railroad.

My UNRR railroad has undergone major changes due to moves. In the process I learned that it was important to add interchanges but I never really paid much attention to why. My original idea was to have a harbour and an interchange with my narrow gauge railroad. Later I added a hidden staging yard under the central peninsula. Back in 2006 I began using the Ship-It computer software program for our Wednesday night operating sessions. That's when I really got the operating bug. However, it was obvious that I had major problems.

Firstly, I had been blissfully buying whatever rolling stock I fancied at the time over a span of 50 years. I still run some of those early Varney and Bowser cars and have built a number of "one of a kind" Ambroid kits and other models. I had not paid any attention to era or where these railroads operated, and when they were bought, merged or abandoned. My railroad was populated with all kinds of cars.

In the last decade I have been gradually collecting more Canadian engines and rolling stock to mix with my extensive Utopia Northern cars. All together we were trying to operate with roughly 250 freight cars, not an insignificant number. Even after balancing my roster for Ship-It with the help of Jean Piquette's Balancer software, I was still having a number of challenges that I was having trouble solving.

  • Through freights weren't working properly
  • Many cars weren't moving at all or infrequently
  • Scheduled trains were doing too many switching moves between industries in the same town

What to do to improve operations?

The first decision was "the willing suspension of disbelief". By that I mean, my railroad would be placed somewhere fictional in the real world without actually pinning down where.  How?  By considering my new freemo module of East Utopia as an interchange to Canadian roads, mainly CN, CP and THB and Ontario Northland, via Toronto. (There actually is an interchange at Utopia south of Barrie, Ontario, where CP can exchange cars with the Barrie-Collingwood shortline).

Then I made the hidden staging yard that is about half way around the layout as the interchange to US railroads heading west. At another branch point past Utopia where the mainline climbs to South Point I introduced a town called Endaline (because it goes nowhere) and made it an interchange to US railroads in the East and South. That sort of put the Utopia Northern somewhere around Lake Ontario or Lake Champlain. I also had three other on-line interchanges at Valleyview harbor, Port Feron and Blueshores harbor.

Now we could get semi-serious. But should I try to rework this all on the computer or try something else?

Enter card cards

Car card boxes on the freemo interchange tracks for Canadian railways
car cards and waybills

Ship-It has a car cards operations version that allows you to download and print car card information and waybills based on your own set-up. However,  at the Barrie train show (February, 2009), I found that Hobbyworx had all the Micro-Mark car cards operations boxes and paperwork. 

On an impulse I bought the starter set and some extra cards. I decided the slow and tedious job of working out everything manually would help me sort through my problems.

My next step was to revisit John Armstrong's book on operations and then read Tony Koester's "Realistic Model Railroad Operation"  (Model Railroader books) from cover to cover. What struck me was Tony's comment that trains don't start from yards

Yards are used for sorting cars into blocks for destinations down the line while model railroaders (me included) tend to use yards to store cars. If they're stored, they're not making money and the idea is for prototype railroads to bring in revenue or they'll go bankrupt.

The second point that Tony impressed on me is that the object is to move people and goods from A to B and that A and B are seldom in the same operating division and may not be on the same railway!

How could I use the interchanges to advantage?

Car card boxes at Underhill North for the
yard classification tracks at Bordercross.
car card operations yard boxes

It was now clear that one of my stumbling blocks was trying to move goods from shipper to receiver mainly on-line. There were not enough industries even if I faked some of them and "fiddled" cars on and off via shelves and drawers. Using the interchanges efficiently opened up new realms of possibilities.

Here's how I went about it. 

I figured I needed a couple of dozen boxes around the layout. Micro-Mark boxes have three compartments. The basic idea is that cars moving to the left (north on the UNRR) have waybills in the left box, SETOUTS for the town in the center compartment, and waybills for cars moving right (south on the UNRR) go into the right-hand compartment. Tony suggested that yard tracks each have their own compartment numbered from (either side of) the mainline. This allows sorting cars or "classifying" them for each train.

Car card boxes at North Point
car card operations boxes

Fellow Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club member, Bill Payne, came up with the idea of using "mahogany door skin" to fabricate the boxes using the Micro-Mark ones as a template. A sheet of door skin cost me about $10 at a local lumberyard. Bill cut out the pieces on his son's table saw and we got enough for about three dozen boxes from a sheet of door skin. The bottoms and ends were planed down from 1X2-inch pine until they were approximately the size of the ones from Micro-Mark. After gluing together with carpenter's glue they were given a coat of shellac.

Bill Neale describes his method of using baseball card holders instead of the Micro-Mark supplies and boxes in the February 2009 Model Railroader. The sizes are a little different.

The next steps were to:

  • Fill out all the car cards and place them where the cars are on the layout
  • Use the NMRA data sheets (D9b-1951) for car-type classification.

(Mine were from 1951 when I bought the data sheets.)

  • Google the railroads represented for system maps and historical information
  • Google rolling stock to see what commodities they usually carried (for example, a covered hopper might carry fertilizer, lime or salt among other things)
  • Google towns and cities on the system maps for companies that might ship or receive products
  • Fill out waybills to route traffic to and from the layout and across it as a bridge. Some cars come to Utopia Northern receivers and some use the UNRR as a bridge line.

I quickly learned to use a pencil and an eraser! Although this is a time-consuming task, it's really fascinating what you learn about railroads, cities, towns and commodity traffic.

At this stage I didn't get overly serious. If I couldn't find an appropriate company I made up a name and thought of some common product. The waybills give a sense of time and place and real commodities and real place names define the layout. 

Even though the UNRR is fictional, trains moving cars to Buffalo, New York, Chicago and Toronto make everything seem more plausible.

I disregard the era factor but do try to work in that a road like the Delaware and Hudson was acquired by Canadian Pacific. I sort of work in the steam to diesel transitional period. I'm not about to throw out rolling stock from a "fallen flag". I just assume they haven't got around to painting it yet! The Utopian Northern is pretty lenient. It still allows archbar and Andrews trucks on freight cars passing through.

I followed Tony's advice and put some cars into through trains that I could stage and run during operating sessions. 

There was a loaded Utopia Northern coal train that began in Underhill North staging at Bordercross and went to Underhill South in staging. This way I didn't have to run empty. It looped back to its hidden starting place.  I won't be able to duplicate this on the new UNRR.

There was also a freight train going in the opposite direction. This concept can still be used.

I could vary the consist between operating sessions to provide variety in the consist. 

Those two trains removed about 30 cars from interchange service and freed up track. 

My shelves and plastic drawers still handle overflow. This seems easier to do manually by pulling the cards than going into the computer database as I used to do. Time will tell which is better.  My model railroads have always been a blend of "good enough" with "willing suspension of disbelief". 

I'm not about to tear everything down and start again (famous last words! I had to do so due to a move in 2015). 

Consider car cards operations as an inexpensive way to increase enjoyment of your model railroad. It's more an investment in time than in materials. Internet access and poking around will unearch all kinds of interesting stuff. I will continue this practice on the new UNRR where i can learn from my mistakes, although this time I am setting up operations using jmri software and returning to the computer.

You can also join the NMRA's Opsig to gain access to their vast database. You don't need a big model railroad to introduce car cards operations,jmri ops, rail ops or Ship-It. Tony shows a Quick-Start guide on a 4' X 8' sheet of plywood.  It's the use of interchanges that makes all the difference. If you haven't read Tony Koester's book you should put it on your shopping list.

Another member of our train club and a regular member of my Wednesday night sessions is John Houghton. He has gone beyond car cards operations to setting up everything through jmri on his computer. The jmri system is very sophisticated and is similar in may ways to Ship-It. John works in N scale. You can find some photos of his work and his layout through my Train Photos or Sitemap pages. Sitemap is a quick way to find anything on my website.

hidden stagingUnderhill North hidden staging


Go from "car-cards-operations" to Operations Overview overview.

Go from "car-cards-operations" to Operating with WiThrottle on an iPad.

Go from "car-cards-operations" to JMRI Operations Software.

Go from "car-cards-operations" to Passenger Operations on my UNRR.

Return from "car-cards-operations" to my Home Page.


Return to Top


Like to become a "solopreneur"
with your own online business?

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.
Copyright© 2008-2017 model-railroad-infoguy.com