Way back in the last century when I was a child with a train set, I loved to run the locomotive flat out. It was a youngster’s foolish entertainment.

Today, I’m more interested in faithfully recreating the mass and motion of a machine that weighs many tons. To that end I enjoy watching videos of switching.

They remind me of watching the local work the siding as a child. I never tire of seeing a locomotive tiptoe down rough track, swaying back and forth to a symphony of metallic flange squeals and groaning wood under intense compression. All of it backed up by the low rumbling bass line of the prime mover at it eases along.

What fascinates me today is how the crew works together. Nothing moves until the engineer knows where the ground crew is in relation to the train. Everyone takes time to work safely, even as pedestrians and vehicle traffic create major headaches without concern for the consequences. All these factors taken together add up to a lot of time.

Watch this video at the end of the post. After the obligatory close-up of the old DL&W crossing tower, it’s five and a half minutes just to spot one car. Obviously it was edited in several places, so I suspect the actual time to position the car was much longer.

Take note of how deliberate the moves are. We didn’t see the train stop for the crewmember to unlock and throw the switch but notice the time spent waiting to enter the building, as the brakeman is either walking the siding to make certain it is clear, or to confirm where to spot the car. As the train enters the building, notice the speed. It’s nice and slow since the engineer is blind on that tight curve.

In the next sequence, watch the hand signal the crewman on the back porch of the GP40 gives to the engineer as they exit the building.

Notice how the locomotive stops to let the guy off to check for vehicle traffic before reentering the street. Look at the effort involved in throwing the switch and then locking it. Afterwards, notice how the engine pulls forward to wait for the crewman to reset and lock the derail and how he stopped to look for oncoming traffic on his way back. Finally, notice the engine doesn’t move an inch until he is back in the cab.

I checked out the location via Google Earth ( I searched for Schuyler Street, Utica, New York) and learned this siding curves through the first building as shown, then runs in the open for a short distance and appears to enter a second building where, I assume, the car is unloaded. It looks like quite an operation that obviously has a lot of moving pieces to consider.

All of these procedures take time and add to our visual impression of the work involved. I find simple, understandable moves like these compelling. I’ve spent years watching train movements like this and recreating an environment where I can watch it miniature while appreciating the surroundings is all I need for a satisfying one-person layout.

What’s The Hurry?
Operations. It’s one of those conceptual words we assume everyone understands. I suggest that there’s a great deal that we don’t understand. Watching videos of real switching operations, there is far more to it than what modelers are willing to consider.

While there are common procedures in the work, each location presents unique conditions that must be dealt with individually. A switch job like this brewery is highly nuanced in terms of local circumstances the crew has to work around every day.

There’s the street traffic, the sharp curve and tight clearances within the building. There are factors we don’t get to see behind the first building. There’s snow and ice that seizes up the ground throw for the switch and derail. Each of these is a challenge to safely and efficiently getting the job done. If we are going to sweat the details and accuracy of the rolling stock, track and scenery, then why do we gloss over factors that would add greater depth and flavor to our operating enjoyment?

I submit that our zeal for more in terms of “operating interest,” renders us blind to what’s right in front of our eyes all the time.

Mill Road is a lens that allows me to fully focus on the aspects of railroading I most enjoy. It isn’t for every taste and I would never suggest otherwise. However, a craft as mature as ours can present a stunning range of options for personal enjoyment. We just need a clear and compelling vision of what’s possible beyond the basement.





  1. Dave Eggleston

    Mike, Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful video. There is so much visually to play with, so many things to teach us about making a small section of layout endlessly interesting, both visually and operationally, without even having a car spot in the scene! Unlocking/locking the switch throw; same for the derail; the broom for sweeping out the track; opening the garage door for the engine and car; the door above the track–what is that for?; all the signage; dealing with looking for traffic; the engine moving just enough forward to give the brakeman that much less walking from locking the derail.

    Then the colors and composition: the gray/yellow engine contrasted by the doorway with similar colors flipped, the red of the walls against the engine’s colors; the wet pavement and puddles reflecting the engine’s wheels and trucks so interestingly (Gordon Gravett’s puddle technique immediately came to mind for this); the strobe light in the tunnel of the building; the small piles of melting snow.

    Note the absence of detail: nothing piled up, nothing just filling space. No people. Just some puddles, some scraps of paper, not even a parked car. A featureless wall. It quiets the scene, pulls the eye so effectively to the most important thing, the train.

    And finally, the physical idea of connecting two visually separate dioramas using a building as both the view block and tunnel through which the train moves.

    Magic. Simply magic. Thanks.


    A couple details I noticed.
    1. When the engineer is spotting the car, he’s using both the throttle and the trainline so that the car doesn’t move. Likely the car needs to be spotted over a dump grate. Notice how he’s moving inches at a time. By making a set with the trainline, and keeping some of the air on the locomotive brakes (but not all) you can manipulate the throttle between idle, and notch 1 or 2 for fine adjustments in spotting. A loaded car like that (look at the springs) will roll a few inches if you don’t use air after you cut away.
    2. Notice the switchman pull the key out of his pocket. He leaves the switch unlocked, but with the lock hasped in the switch. Railroad locks are set up so that you can’t close the lock without the key.
    3. Notice how the switchman always tries to stay within sight of the engineer.
    4. Notice how little radio use. It’s only used when necessary. Hand signals are the best. If I can see you, you can see me.
    5. The engineer never takes his eyes off the switchman. He runs by feel.

    It was often the joke that the laziest switchman where the best. But it’s true. They make the locomotive move towards them. Seeing this simple move reminds me of all the moves I made over the short railroad career. Switching was definitely more interesting and challenging both as a switchman and a engineer vs. running a train over the road.

  3. mike

    Craig and Dave,

    Thanks to both of you for commenting. I appreciate the encouragement from railroad professionals about these posts. I respect what you guys do and the conditions you have to work in.

    Craig your observations about the working procedures are gold. Modelers can learn a lot that would enhance their enjoyment of operating in a small space. I’ve lost patience with the shallow thinking that a bigger layout is the answer to boredom, or that a small layout is a compromise we have to settle for instead of a valid alternative choice.

    Dave, your insights show that there isn far more to scene composition than most people understand. You picked out things I didn’t see even after watching the video multiple times. I’m going to watch it again with your comments in mind. Your idea of connecting two separate scenes via a building as both connection and view block is brilliant.


  4. Chris Mears

    Craig and Dave’s comments and your original post…this is pure gold. Thank you all.

    Dave mentions the lack of clutter. I enjoy that too. It calms the scene and I feel that calm affects us as we look at a scene. I reason that clutter in a scene, on our workbenches, or in busy traffic on the drive home challenges our senses to try and map each point – that added stress is unnecessary. Beyond the visual aesthetic a decluttered scene is a safer one to work in too. In real life, that clutter creates an unsafe workplace. Imagine having to step around all that clutter in the dark, maybe in the rain?

    I really enjoyed reading Craig’s notes to inform what we’re seeing when watching that video. As modellers we have no other way of relating to what we see beyond the generous notes like what Craig has shared. Thank you so much. It might be difficult to represent the movements of the prototype in miniature since our models don’t work the same way as real trains do but we’d do ourselves a favour to instead add those moments of contemplation during our operating sessions. Even if I can’t run my model trains using the same controls I can pause periodically to ask myself “what is really happening here?” which feels a lot more involved with the model than the usual “I’ve gotta switch all these cars in today’s super-busy-operating session race”.

    I appreciate how the hobby provides us with a chance to express our relationship with real railroading and reproduce that relationship in miniature so we can reconnect with it when we need to. As we mature, watching the real railroad switching cars is a time to be present in that moment and absorb it into our memory. As humans our senses are intended to allow us to relate to our environment and we instinctively crave this connection. So incorporating this evidence and detailing our scenes with our presence instead of visual clutter is a kind of proof of our maturing relationship with the real thing that inspires us.


  5. Craig Townsend

    Thanks for the kind words. I probably would have never noticed these details if I hadn’t ever worked in the railroad industry. About the same time I started working for BNSF I switched from being a free lanced, casual modeler to a strict prototype modeler. Not a shock seeing the daily interaction with equipment. Definitely my short 8 years as a railroader made me a much better modeler.