Model Railroad Operating Sessions

Dennis Weber (center) is the yardmaster at Wausau Yard while Dave Waraxa (back) works the industry switcher.
Dennis Weber (center) is the yardmaster at Wausau Yard while Dave Waraxa (back) works the industry switcher. | Source

Introduction to Model Railroad Operations

When most people think of model railroading, they envision pictures of toy trains running around on a 4x8 sheet of plywood in a spare room or basement. Some may think of the circle of track that ran around their Christmas tree when they were a child. For many though, visions of holding a throttle in one hand, orders in another, and waiting for the signal to go green fill our heads.

Model Railroad Operations Defined

First I should explain a little more about what an operating model railroad is. For the purposes of this article, an operating model railroad is designed to allow multiple persons to operate trains with the purpose of simulating prototype railroad traffic. Operating model railroads often have a dispatcher directing traffic on the railroad, several crews working in yards or in an area known as staging, and road crews who move trains across the system. Larger operating model railroads may employ two dispatchers or a team consisting of a dispatcher and and operator.

Operating railroads can be as small as only a two or three operators, but some require 25 or more for a successful session. Regardless of the number of operators on a railroad, if the sole purpose is to simulate prototype operations by moving loaded and empty cars from point A to point B, the railroad is an example of an operating model railroad.

Dennis Weber checks the car numbers on the train he is building in Wausau Yard.
Dennis Weber checks the car numbers on the train he is building in Wausau Yard. | Source

The First Session

As an operator, your first session is going to be something you will remember for a long time. However, be prepared to be bombarded with information and expected to jump in and take a train. It is important to arrive 15 to 20 minutes before the session starts so that you can familiarize yourself with the layout and how it works.

Often, the railroad owner will spend some time at the beginning of the session to give a brief overview of what he or she has attempted to represent, and describe some of the jobs on the railroad. It is important listen to this introduction whether this is your first, or your tenth session as things may change.

Many railroad owners will offer to team you with another another, more experienced operator. Sometimes this is a great way to get to know the railroad, and what you will be doing when you take your first solo trip. If you are paired up with another operator, take this time to learn from him or her and ask questions as you go. Taking this time to learn will allow you to enjoy operations that much more.

And remember, Model Railroading is fun. There will certainly be times when the job you have at a session is boring or seems useless. However, remember that every job is on the railroad for a reason, and your job might be necessary so that everyone can enjoy the session. Keep note of jobs you like and jobs you don't - this information will help you choose jobs at future sessions.

Basic Etiquette

Remember that no matter how many times you have operated a model railroad, you are a guest in the owners home. By now we should all know how to act around other adults, but not everyone realizes the financial investment an own has put into his or her operating railroad. Please act accordingly, and be gentle with all of the equipment.

Of course, accidents will happen, and most owners understand this. If you see damage to the railroad, whether it was your fault or not, it is good practice to report it to the layout owner. An operating model railroad can be very difficult to manage, but knowing what is broken allows the owner to keep up with the maintenance. I have never been blamed for any damage and usually hear a "Thank you" from the owner for pointing out the problem. You may also be able to fix the problem yourself, but you should ask the owner for permission to do so before blindly making changes on his or her railroad.

Wrapping up the Session

The layout owner will more than likely have scheduled both a start and an end time for the session. Often, this is adjusted on a session by session basis depending on how quickly the session started, problems during the session, and at the whim of the owner and crews. When the owner finally does call the end of the session, often by stating that the "clocks are off", you may or may not have completed your current job. You should check your instructions first, then ask the owner what he or she would like you to do with your train. Often, the train will be left as it sits for the next session, or the owner may ask you to complete the job.

This is a good time to also discuss anything of concern that you came across while operating. Pointing out trouble spots on a railroad in a positive way is important - it allows the owner to focus on the areas that need the most work. Complaining about issues after you leave the session means that those problems will be there the next time you operate.

Finally, before you leave, you should take the time to thank the owner for the opportunity to enjoy his or her railroad. Get in the habit of both thanking the owner before you leave, and dropping a note via email later as well. These are important considerations both for new and experienced operators.

The very last thing you should do before leaving any operating session is to check your pockets. Often during a session we need an extra hand, and something gets placed in a pocket "for now." This is most common with car cards and timetables. Car cards and other train specific paperwork should be left with the train or in a designated area. Ask the owner if you may take one of the timetables, or where they should be left.

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