Without ever uncoupling?

Over the course of my life I’ve developed a set of assumptions I bring to most situations. These define the way I respond to the world and form, in so many ways, a bedrock of sorts that my world rests on. Switching freight cars on a model railway is just place where I nurture one of these truths. These truths aren’t always correct and as I grow older, I’ve been provided with opportunities to question them. It would only be a matter of time before I realised I was wrong about how I evaluated switching cars on a model railroad. I feel a bit proud of what I discovered and wanted to share that here as I start to develop this new thought.

What I thought before…

Switching a car started when I set up the layout for the next operating session. I’d compose a “switch list” that would list each industry and siding on the railway and for each I’d note the car that was there, the car I should place there, or whatever activity needed to occur. The switching happened when my train arrived at that siding and I did that. One small industry that receives one box car or a large warehouse that gets a dozen cars. There were cars there when the session started and cars there when I left.

Work = Done.

Chris feels pretty  good having completed his work for the day.

The roadblock…

As I matured in terms of layout design and my thoughts on this subject, I studied different industries to learn about the types of railroad cars they received and how often they’d receive those cars. Each of these actions was a move and the more of these or their complexity would make the industry more or less attractive to me for a layout.

“But what about coal mines?” I asked myself. On the one hand an industry like a coal mine created a pile of those car moves. My problem, the one that was keeping me awake at night, was that leaving the car in that place felt wrong. I mean, eventually the car was loaded and should be moved. By the time that happened my train was long since gone. How’d that car get moved? It got worse when I thought about an industry like an intermodal yard. If my definition of switching was defined by placing a car at a place on a siding and then leaving it there how’d all those flat cars get their containers or truck trailers added or removed?

Since I didn’t have an answer, I decided that my focus should ignore those types of industries where the cars never really stood still between passing trains.

Warehouse = good.

Intermodal yard = well, nope.

Then it occurred to me…

When I think about designing very small model railways my definition of a suitable industry to define the layout’s theme. To make the layout “more fun” I just add car spots until I run out of benchwork…right? What if, instead, I just had one car spot but in that one place I moved a lot of cars?

On the Claremont-Concord Railroad at their Mulberry Street yard they had a single unloading point where salt hoppers were unloaded. This spot only accomodated one hopper bay at a time. To unload a single car, the bay was lined up and opened. When that part of the car was emptied it, the car was shoved a few more feet in and the next bay was opened. One bay at a time, until the car was empty.

So, at Mulberry Street to unload just one hopper car I have to move it two, maybe three times. If I treated each hopper bay as equal to one car spot as I have been traditionally defining it, this is the same as a warehouse to receive three cars. In terms of space utilization I need one car length for the CCRR example and three times that space for the traditional approach. This felt brilliant to me. I had one of those moments where this discovery felt like I had really experienced a brief moment of growth. I felt proud of myself.

Initially, this felt like a brilliant realization simply for the space utilization aspect but as I thought about it more these thoughts came to mind:

  • If my model locomotive is sound-equipped than moving my hopper cars means more enjoying the sound of spooling the engine up and down as we place the car one bay at a time. That, pun-intended, sounds like fun;
  • The traditional car spot approach also defines the length of the session. Once you’ve place those three cars the session is done. If I’m just loading grain hoppers or unloading salt hoppers one car at a time the session just keeps going until I’m tired of playing.

I sketched a few examples of how I thought I could apply this discovery. I’ll share those in the next couple of posts.

Just when I thought I was out of submissions for my “givens and druthers” posts I think this one adds a bit of perspective that deserves to be catalogued with some thoughts on benchwork, etc. I’ll group this with those for future reference.






  1. I like the idea of having tasks to do beyond simply dropping a car or picking one up. I’m not sure spotting individual bays is my idea of fun, though! Typically an industry would use a car puller / winch to do this, like grain elevators did and do. I saw a salt mine in SK use a front end loader with a chain to move rail cars rather than pay CP to do that for them.

    I’d recommend simulating performing actions that train crews do when dropping off / picking up cars, like brake tests, applying or releasing hand brakes, removing/applying derails, etc.

    William Brillinger is developing an app to simulate this on a smart phone.

  2. Thanks Steve

    I was reading about the app. that William is working on. I downloaded it and think it offers some interesting potential. On the local layouts I regularly operate on, I use the WiiThrottle app. on an old iPod. Having something like William’s app at the ready would be really useful and I like what I see already. I’m looking forward to watching it evolve.

    I initially agreed with your thoughts on placing a car, one bay at a time. When I played with the idea I started to wonder if it really was all that different from the same motions I undertake to switch out single cars to different industries. In terms of simply mapping the steps it feels like both options are about the same. The big difference is questioning the sense of what we’re doing. Leaving a car on a siding feels like having accomplished work since you can see what you’ve done. Unloading the car is more imaginary and initially feels closer to stopping a passenger train at a station to pretend people are getting off and on.

    Where I feel the idea gains merit though is when I reduce the scope of the layout down smaller and smaller. In the “micro layout” style of construction it’s hard to fit more than one industry on the layout. That one industry might only take one string of cars. Comparing that traditional option to this one might offer some additional car movements and could offer more room to play. Certainly, there’s room to incorporate some real railroading action too in starting the train to bring the next bay in line.

    For now, it’s an idea that I’m keen to explore if only as a design exercise.

    I really appreciate your thoughts. Thank you!


    1. I’m somewhere in the middle here, with my Alberta Wheat Pool terminal elevator in a corner of my Vancouver Wharves layout. It has two tracks, capable of holding five cars each. The more distant one is the off-spot track, holding cars to be moved to the closer, unloading track. The unloading track has about three car spots between the unload point and the edge of the layout. I spot three cars for unloading during my operating session. Every time I pass by afterwards, I ‘winch’ the cut of cars so the next one is spotted for unloading. This could be the same night, or three days later. Feels more like operating than my Fairbanks-Morse plant, where I spot three cars, lifting three cars next time I switch that plant.

      1. Thanks for the comment, Eric.

        In terms of serving a grain elevator I imagined a similar sequence as one that would, very accurately, represent what was actually happenign “in real life”.

        As you describe:
        -Trains drops cut of cars at elevator to load during operating session;
        – Before next operating session I’d just manually (hand of Mears descends into the miniature world to “help” again) advance the loaded cars past the elevator;
        – During next operating session the train pulls these loaded cars and could add to the remaining cut.

        What I enjoy from this is the direct sense of real work that occurs. We’re not just spotting cars to represent work but we’re interacting with the industry in a measurable way.

        I like it.

        Thanks again.


    2. I agree the idea would gain merit on a really small layout, but I question whether it is worth “bothering” to operate when you only have one industry. To me that would not be enjoyable, but the great thing about this hobby is that how I feel about it really only applies to my experience. If you enjoy doing that, go for it, and who’s to question it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s