Experiment With Various Operations Methods
To Find The One You Like Best.

Although I was using the  Ship It! model railroad software to generate operating sessions, there are other operations methods that many use.

One of the most common techniques is to use Car Cards or some variation thereon. After working with ShipIt for two years, we changed to the Car Cards method in order to balance the operations. This is still an ongoing process on my Utopia Northern HO scale layout.

Car Cards are just what they sound like: cards with information about what shippers are sending and what industry consignees have ordered that are put in a pocket or envelope with the car and its reporting marks on it. 

Every industry has a box attached to the layout's fascia to hold the cards and envelopes. Often a modeler adds a shelf where the cards can be sorted and trains blocked.There is a terrific article in the February, 2009 issue of Model Railroader magazine by Bill Neale. The article presented an updated version of the car card and waybill system.

The big difference between the Ship It! computer-generated waybill program and the Car Card system is that the former is automated  and the latter is a more labor-intensive manual  system. Both have their strengths. You can export your database from Ship It! to Car Cards if you prefer to go that way. 

Micro Mark also sells a kit of boxes and 4-cycle waybills. That's what we were using (2011). The cards had places for four destinations. You turned them over and upside down to complete the cycles. The last move is usually an empty returning to a yard or interchange. At the end of the cycle you can replace the cards with a different ones to send the car somewhere else.

You have to fill out the information by hand on the car cards and waybills. With a normal complement of 3 or 4 operators every Wednesday, it took about 2 months to complete four cycles on my then Utopia Northern HO layout. 

At the conclusion of each cycle we stopped to check where sidings are overloaded or where shippers didn't have enough cars. The ShipIt program, especially with Jean Piquette's add-on Balancer did this automatically. 

However, we still had trouble balancing the switchlists. Part of the problem is that we had too many cars on the layout. We removed about one-third of them. We drew from this "extra" pool to run through freights. We also replaced some cars of similar types from time to time for variety.  Throw in a few passenger trains and special rules or random problems (van/caboose can't enter the doors at 5-Star Manufacturing) and operations can get complicated enough really quickly.

A variation on this system is TIBS, or the Train and Industry Blocking System. This method was used on the Midwest Railroad Modelers' HO layout. There was an article in Model Railroader  magazine by Dan Holbrook, July 1987.  The idea here is that the car cards are blocked into a train in the order that the conductor will deliver them to the destinations down the line.  As explained, the system is a scaled down version of real prototype paperwork.

This procedure, in turn, was based on the card-order system explained by Doug Smith in the December 1961 issue of MR that was later revamped by Steve King and Allen McClelland and explained in Model Railroad Craftsman  in February 1978. You see, model train operations is not new. It's just finally getting a lot more attention because it reduces boredom and introduces purpose into your model railroad.

Al Crisp's HO layout set in Northern Ontario uses handwritten switchlists based on real Canadian prototype lists as used in 1958. Al fills them out between his operating sessions. I have posted a video of Al's layout that you can reach from the video page. I also did a video of his operations methods so you can see his paperwork. We use fixed car cards switchlist operations on our  NMR club layout. We find this works better at train shows when we invite attendees and their young children to be engineers.  The youngsters really get involved.

My early exposure was to the DiGiT system of operation developed by Dr. Roy Dohn for his Montreal model train layout called the Victoria Northern. I was lucky enough to be a guest engineer on that layout. The system was designed as a practical way to eliminate written work and card handling. The method used celluloid strips with small clips that were attached to the cars or dropped into coal bunkers and such. His method is detailed in the May 1964 issue of Model Railroader

Roy had an earlier article in the December 1960 issue explaining how several operators could act as managers for a group of trackside industries. See? It pays to keep all those old magazines even if you wife keeps threatening to throw them out!

Roy was also a musician and, to the disappointment of his crew, tore down the Victoria Northern and replaced it with a band shell in his basement. Tough decision. Glenn Miller or Casey Jones. We were all sad to see it go.

model train operation tabsCar markers with staples

I recently saw a technique for keeping track of freight cars being moved during an operating session on the HO scale Terminal Model Railway of the Scarborough Model Railroaders in Toronto.

They use the ShipIt method as I used to do. However, they use small bits of folded light cardstock with a staple in it to mark the tops of cars to be picked up. The trick is to use a magnet such as a Rix uncoupling magnet to lift the paper off the top of the car.

model railroad freight yardFreight cars marked for pick up

You can see a few of them on top of cars in this photo of their freight yard. Note the uncoupling ramps in the tracks. These can reduce car handling.


hoosac waybillsWaybills on the Hoosac RR.

At an NMRA NER convention (2007) I had the pleasure of operating on one of the finest model railroads in the Northeast, Dick Elwell's Hoosac Valley. 

Dick opened his railroad to a number of attendees at the convention who had signed up for an operating session. If you ever have the chance to do so, don't hesitate.

These are the forms that Dick developed for local and through trains. The cards used on Dick Elwell's Hoosac Valley made operations a snap. The waybill cards were filled in earlier by hand showing train numbers and the work to be done at each station or yard. Panels above the railroad detailed all industries by code and numbers and the electrical control panels worked flawlessly. Within minutes we novices were switching cars and passing trains through our territories.

Dick has an excellent website about the Hoosac Valley. You can also buy his books about the railroad. This site is worth bookmarking. (http://hoosacvalley.com)

Bill Hambly at the Hoosac RRThat's me at the Hoosac RR

That's me, Bill Hambly, grinning at the opportunity to operate the Hoosac Valley Lines.

I consider Bruce Chubb's book How to operate your model railroad  (Kalmbach Books) the definitive guide. Start there. It's worth a read.

Je Levy operatingFriend Joseph set to operate

And that's my friend, Joseph Levy, who joined me for the operations session. Our tutor, a regular operator, had just walked us through the procedures.

dispatcher's office on hoosac model railroadDispatcher's office

The dispatcher sits under the stairs to control movement as operators call for permission to pass trains through their district. That's a complete model of a CTC board. Impressive.


roundhouse on model of the hoosacSwitching the yard

Switching the terminal and roundhouse kept Joe and me busy while waiting for the next train to arrive. 

lounge at dick elwell'sCrew lounge

This is the impressive entrance to the Hoosac Valley lines. The crew are fortunate to have a crew lounge like this. Most of us don't have room or don't set aside room for a lounge. Dick Elwell was a very gracious host.

To see more of the remodeled Hoosac Valley, look for a copy of Kalmbach Book's Great Model Railroads 2008. It's the cover story. The layout plan is on pages 12 and 13. Joseph and I were operating the Berkshire Junction yard in the center peninsula.

Closer look at an ops session

The following video was taken on Al Crisp's HO layout based on CP operations in Northern Ontario, Canada. 

Al makes up hand written switchlists for each session and uses erasable whiteboards to convey train information such as engine and van (caboose) assignments.

The layout is operated with color-coded radio throttles under DC block control. More than a dozen operators keep the trains rolling.

This is typical of what you can expect when operating on a large layout.

Another typical operations session

A group of us at Trainfest 2011 in Milwaukee had the opportunity to attend an ops session on Mark Preussler's terrific Soo Line layout in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. 

This will give you a good idea of what operations on an HO layout can be like. There were 15 of us so it was organized mayhem while we got things underway. Don't pass up the chance to participate in an ops session if you have the opportunity.

It's lots of fun. 

Towards more prototypical operations

The February 2012 issue of Model Railroader magazine has several articles on operating model railroads. Ted Pamperin describes his car routing system that is based on prototype waybills. I still like the Micromark 4-cycle car cards as we had been using them on my Utopia Northern. However, I was intrigued by what Ted has done using the car card sizes with which I am familiar. 

If you're a subscriber to the magazine you can download his Excel spread sheet. I downloaded it, copied his C & O sample to a new page and began reworking it for my model railroad.

Several months ago I had bought a bunch of self-laminating business card sheets at a "dollar" store. These came in handy to make the paper printouts more indestructible. I made one major change to Ted's work by using one of the cells to record the cycle number instead of the train number. 

On my Utopia Northern we ran 8 freight trains to cover all towns and interchanges a minimum of once per cycle and we completed a cycle before moving onto the next one. 

Additionally we ran specials, a coal drag, a through freight, a work train and some passenger trains. Switching was confined to the 8 freight trains.

Ted's method involves using one sheet for each cycle instead of the four on the traditional car cards. This means you can run as many or as few cycles as you want. After completing a move, you move the card to the back of the deck for that car. He uses fold-back binder clips to hold the waybills to the car cards.

I scaled the waybills to slip into the standard car-card pockets so they can be rotated front to back. I hold the whole train's switch list with the binder clip.

Some of my operators prefer to use rubber bands. The train's schedule is kept at the front. The new laminated cards now showed the cycle and the train number, direction of travel of the train and more complete routing information.

All freights on the Utopia Northern had to pass through Utopia so that was the primary classification yard. The new cards showed which track to set out a car for pickup by another train.

The new cards could be slowly integrated into the current pockets. We were going to try this out on the narrow gauge portion of the layout first. (Until this moment the narrow gauge had not been part of operations mainly because I hadn't got the locomotives working properly. Only two engines have been converted to DCC and several don't like some of my trackwork, especially the transition tracks!) 

Ted has also developed "home route cards" for empties. This can also be downloaded. Thanks to Ted and MR for the inspiration.

If you're interested in how we set up my current freight train schedule, here's a pdf of an Excel spreadsheet of the  UNRR train list. (You need Adobe Reader to download it. It's a free download.) The February issue also has some comments by Tony Koester on the search for the perfect waybill. The MR website also lets you download an earlier article called TIBS, the Train and Industry Blocking System.  See Andy Sperandeo's column "The Operators" on page 98 where he reviews shortcuts for blocking and routing cars. Meanwhile, the January issue of the free online magazine Model Railroad Hobbyist also has two articles on operations-methods.

 Of particular interest to N-gaugers is Tom Driscoll's simple 1-page switchlists that avoid trying to read car numbers. His simple car card system uses both sides of a 4 X 6 card to show a train's schedule and switching. 

The other article by Mike Rose details his adventures in prototype modelling and operations based on the Pro Track forms. All these articles are loaded with great ideas.

 While we're at it, Al Crisp uses handwritten waybills on his northern Ontario model railroad following prototype practice. See the video I did of Train 431/432 shown above.

New operations methods

A major change is the development of operations on the jmri platform. This is another program that resides alongside Decoder Pro (for programming decoders) and Panel Pro (for laying out panels on a computer). Since 2015 we have been experimenting with the Operations program on John Houghton's N scale layout and it is a joy to work with.  We run the railroad with our iPads and other tablets. Some of John's suggestions based on our experience have been added to the jmri program. You can see more about John's layout on other pages. See the links below about jmri and using iPads with WiThrottle. I plan to use the jmri operations methods on the new Utopia Northern now in development at our new home.

Go to Ship-It Review.

Go to Fast Clock Description.

Go to Trainfest 2011 for more videos and photos.

Go to Ops Sessions at Ottawa Train Expo, 2014

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

Go from "operations-methods" to JMRI Operations Software.

Return to Operations Overview.

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