I’m surprised at how many ways modelers have invented to provide some sense of purpose in moving cars and trains around their layouts. From cards of every sort to thumb tacks, sticky notes, color coded tabs and spinning an arrow on a wheel, we’ve tried it all and more.

A lot of these have entered the realm of convention such as the four cycle waybills and car cards. This system is time tested and functional and is more than adequate for many folks. I can’t help but wonder, as I often do, whether we’ve made life harder for ourselves than it has to be with our modeled operations.

I’m no expert on any of this. I’m curious though, and I’ve been studying how full-size train crews go about the work of getting cars where they need to be. What I’ve discovered is that they are more relaxed about it than most of us. Of course they do the work every day for years, so it gets ingrained quickly. We “operate” only a handful of times in the course of a year and practically start from zero every time we pick up a throttle. (Think about it in these terms; a real train crew will work a job 200+ days a year, minus days off, holidays, weekends, etc. versus 12-24 days of layout operation, figured on the typical once or twice a month session schedule. 200+ days vs.12.)

Folks like Lance Mindheim and Trevor Marshall are advocates of shorter, less formal but still realistic operating sessions. They propose operating in short sessions for perhaps just thirty minutes or so multiple times a week. What this does is maintain a higher level of enthusiasm, provides motivation to make progress on the layout, along with a way to find bugs that need fixing and perhaps most importantly,  it’s also an enjoyable way to relax.

Such short sessions can also provide a classroom for learning about switching moves and procedures. In my studies, I’ve observed that nothing is as simple in the full-size world as it is on a layout situation. We gloss over quite a number of steps in our haste to finish the checklist as Lance puts it, and as a result, miss out on the simple joys of the experience at hand. Conversely, we’ve overly complicated many aspects of full-size operation in order to artificially impose more “fun.” There is no need for this at all. It’s a contrived mentality that has gone unchallenged for decades and is therefore ripe for dissecting.

All of this leads to the question familiar to readers of this blog: What do you want from the hobby? Would you like to move cars about in a relaxed but purposeful manner and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end, or do you prefer the harried stress of an artificially imposed fast pace and the frustration of a half finished checklist? I know my choice but it’s your call on your layout and, you do get to choose.

Perhaps one of the many reason we default to conventional solutions is that most of us simply don’t know any better. No one wants to feel dumb by asking what we fear are stupid questions. I got over that a long time ago and don’t care if I look dumb in front of any so called experts. (I get lots of practice looking dumb on this blog. I’m being facetious Simon!)

Another roadblock is the notion that a smaller, simpler, slower paced layout is boring. This fear is deeply rooted in the hobby culture and is a hard one to get past. It really hinges on what you want from the hobby and why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s true, such layouts won’t suit every taste but, as Lance and Trevor have discovered, a simpler layout can be just as challenging as the huge empire that will take years to finish.

The real secret is a better understanding of how full-size railroaders work a job, yet this  information has been extremely hard to find until recently. Much of what’s out there is focused on mainline operations, timetable and train order and the like. Switching local industry cars is so varied that it’s hard to generalize. Yet general principles can be found and are not that hard to understand. All you have to do is watch a full-size crew at work. Take notes on the track arrangement, the sequence of moves and the like. Over time you’ll start to figure it out. If possible you could also talk to the crew but, remember, they’re at work and focused on the job. So use common sense in approaching them.

For a closer look at how a real world switch crew handles cars check out the new edition of The Missing Conversation available now.

Please note: Because the new store is a different program running on new servers, you will have to create a new account whether it is your first time or you have purchased from us before via the old shopping cart. When you’re on the homepage of the new store, Just go to the My Account button in the upper right corner, click on it  and use the New Customer option to create your account and password, even if you’ve purchased from us in the past. For returning customers I know that’s a pain and I apologize for any hassles involved. This is new software and the information from the old store won’t carry over. The process is simple and straightforward though.



  1. Simon

    Taking things carefully doesn’t apply just to building models, but also to playing with them.

    One extra side-effect of this is that as well as taking the time to authentically replicate operations, the opportunity arises to derive a sense of satisfaction from attending to the quality of movement: getting a few pounds of model to move in a manner suggesting several (hundred) tons of the real thing is a real achievement.

    With the high quality of modern mechanisms and quality DCC decodes, this is not impossible to achieve, but it still takes skill and practice.


  2. mike

    Yes it does. After a cab ride on the real thing, one never looks at jerky, jack rabbit model performance in the same way.