Staging is where you finf it_2.0Last week I discussed how beliefs impact our thinking about layout design. In this post I’m sharing a recent change in my own thinking.

I’ve written at some length of the evolution the I&W has taken from an overcrowded design to one that feels right for the space I have to ¬†work with in quarter-inch scale. Many of you expressed your appreciation of the journey and it’s been gratifying to know I’m not the only one.

Looking back at the process, I’m struck by how hard some of the decisions were because of the assumptions I had about their consequences. An assumption that I held close was the idea that a train had to leave the modeled scene, especially on a smaller layout like mine. I felt the illusion of going somewhere was critical.

This is why it took me forever to remove the ugly, tight radius curve that led to the staging cassette. The curve I never really liked at all, even from the first. Since it led to off-scene staging, I feared removing it (and by default, the staging cassette) would introduce consequences that would impact my enjoyment of the entire layout.

Well, as I reported earlier in the blog, one day I had my fill of the frustration it was generating, so out it came and guess what?

Nothing. Drastic. Happened.

The sky didn’t fall, the layout is still intact and so is my sanity. Hmmm. What’s really going on? Maybe my assumption about a train having to physically leave a scene was a hindrance instead of a solution?

Staging is where you find it

I came upon this scene a couple of years ago. It’s the remnant of the old Grand Rapids and Indiana that came down from Michigan and terminated in Richmond. The GR&I was absorbed by the Pennsy’s westward expansion and today this two mile or so switching branch serving an electrical cable manufacturer is all that’s left. I’m facing north and you can just barely see the end of track in the far distance beyond the grade crossing.

What’s interesting is the locomotive was shut down completely and just sitting there. I don’t know the specifics of the situation but one could speculate the crew outlawed on their time, shut everything down and called for the transport van. It seemed odd at first but in the modern era, this an every day occurrence. I often see a similar scenario in the yard across from the depot where L84 works the plastic plant. The first shift crew will outlaw and a van with a fresh crew will arrive to continue the work and take the first trick guys to get their rest. Thinking about all this led me to ask:

What is operation?

In decades past, it was all about fast clocks, CTC dispatching and car cards for keeping track of what went where. Staging was preferably out of sight with plenty of capacity in case extra trains were needed for whatever reason. Not a thing wrong with any of that.

For those who prefer a more laid back choice, off-scene staging is still important. Afterall, whether it’s a trio of modern horsepower or a leaky teakettle, if your modeling through traffic, it’s got to go somewhere.

What if your focus is confined to a single location like mine is, does the train really have to disappear? You’ll recall that after removing the curve and patching the benchwork I still struggled with a way to hide the locomotive so it could appear “onstage” at the beginning of a session. Recently I wondered, why am I worried about this?

Because the session would begin at that point and wouldn’t be over until the train left again.

(Hand raised with a question) Who made that rule? The disgusting answer is: I did. It was how I defined operation in my mind because of what I read. Operations was always outlined as a full day cycle that had a beginning and end. Each train would start somewhere, a staging track or on-scene yard, and go somewhere else. My railfanning experience was similar. I would pick a spot, a train would arrive, do something and then leave.

For all my time in this craft, I never considered alternatives to this scenario. It never dawned on me how many times I stumbled on to a train in the middle of switching, or watch as the crew would stop work and head to the nearby diner for lunch. In the first instance, the train had already arrived on scene, while the second was a legitimate way to suspend operations with the train still present.

This all may seem self-evident to many of you but it wasn’t to me because of how rigid my thinking was. I had accepted a one-size-fits-all solution that I applied to every situation. Once I realized this, a number of things lost their so-called importance. I’m no longer obsessing about the train or locomotive being out of sight at the beginning or end of a session because that is far less important to the story I’m telling with the layout.

I’m content to end a session by parking the engine and saying the crew has outlawed on their time or they ‘re hungry and heading off to a nearby fast food emporium. The next session can mark their return from lunch or a new shift on the clock. Both are perfectly legitimate for my purposes. To begin a session, I’ll stage the loco near the yard office and the conductor is getting his game plan in order before starting work.

The lesson I learned is about understanding my mental blocks and seeing them for what they are. My solutions won’t work for everyone, nor am I offering them as such. I am saying there are always alternatives and seeking them out pays off handsomely.

In closing I’ll ask, what mental blocks are keeping you from designing and enjoying a layout for the space you have now instead of dreaming about the space you want tomorrow?

Related posts
Enter Stage?
No More Troubles With The Curve.
Less Track Equals More Layout.

Volume Five of The Missing Conversation: Switching



  1. Rich Steenwyk


    Great observation. It certainly is a mental block that is ingrained in the hobby though…

    In designing operations for my brother’s Milwaukee Road Beer Line (Model Railroader, November 2011), I had originally thought that a 24-hour rolling operation that simply activated when people were there to operate and froze till the next session would work, but we soon found that crews seemed to prefer the sense of accomplishment that came from completing the switch list and returning the power to the ready track to define the end of their participation rather than reaching an arbitrary session length or point in time on either clock.

    Closer to home, I found myself thinking along the original lines…As I build out my model of a dead-end industrial spur, I’d always assumed that an off-scene (even if just one unfinished track) would always be provided to get and send the train from and to somewhere else. It is interesting to consider that maybe that’s not necessary.

    –Rich Steenwyk
    Milwaukee, WI

  2. mike

    Hi Rich,

    Thanks for the comment. I too have understand the preference many have for the sense of completion that running a train from yard to yard and parking the engine on the service track provides. In that scenario I might tend to agree. I use the word might because I have had little personal experience with mainline layout operations.

    Like you, I also assumed an off-scene track was required. From my actual experience with the layout and having formed a clearer understanding of what I want from it, I’m now less rigid in my thinking. Part of this is driven by my desire to fully use the existing layout footprint rather than add on to it. Another part is my desire for the layout to have a certain visual quality. If I found a way to have a staging area that was visually discreet but readily accessible within the current footprint of the layout I would (and have) consider that option carefully. I intensely dislike hidden trackage, so hiding a section of track behind a building or other scenic feature isn’t a solution I’d consider. I would rather study the prototype for answers rather than rely on the sleight of hand tricks that everyone knows.


  3. Ctown

    As a former railroader and an active modeler, I can understand both sides of the coin. When you are track side watching a train, it appears and then disappears from view (thus modeling the idea of moving a train in and out of staging to ‘complete’ a session). The opposite prospective from a train crew is that you do switching work in specific areas, sometimes never moving the engine on the mainline.

    I think you are quite plausible in your approach that you can leave a train unattended without it having to move it to off stage staging. Here’s a brief list of reasons why a crew might leave a train; hours of service/dogcatch/dead on law, assignment is finished (only use that engine for that specific spot location), lunch (beans), job safety briefing, coffee break, MOW work, conducting a rollby for another train (if near a mainline). The other idea with having a locomotive sitting on the layout is that you can quickly run and ops session, and then get back to ‘life’. If you have to run a train from staging to the layout, and then back to staging that might detract one from momentarily grabbing the throttle and run the layout.

    You spoke of a mental block. My mental block for years has been that “I can’t accurately model track and still have reliable operation”. It seems to me that in the years I was reading the hobby press accurately modeling track wasn’t the norm. Instead the focus was on operations and more operations (specifically TT/TO and car cards). What I learned from working on the railroad is that details abound, and beg to be modeled. And that railroading can be quite dull and boring. I always joked with modelers that to replicate a true day of operations you would only run for 1-2 hours in a 10 hour real period. The rest of the time would be spent staring out the window, trying not to be bored.


  4. mike

    Hi Craig,
    That’s an interesting contrast between the railfan and operating crew’s viewpoints. I hadn’t considered the crew’s perspective in that way but I absolutely see it now. Sometimes I think we approach model operations as if the full-sized railroad gave us the keys to the locomotive and said go have fun, just don’t break anything.

    Yes, I’m talking about two very different things but that’s how it seems when we purposely eliminate the boring routine of the work to maximize the “fun” parts. I’ve watched the local NS crew take hours to switch Primex, just shuffling cars back and forth into the order they needed, waiting on a through movement, or several, to clear so they could use the main again. As you say, waiting, waiting, and more waiting, day in and day out.


  5. iandrewmartin

    As a small layout designer for a long time it seems the issue of how to start and stop a session took up quite a lot of my time at first. However, I came up with a set of basic rules that defined model operations for me (and I stress the ME element here).
    These are as follows:
    * The layout should allow a train to do work (add, subtract from or otherwise alter its consist).
    * The layout should allow the train to be directional (arrive from somewhere before going somewhere else).
    * The layout should give the train a purpose (serve a need in our modelled community).
    * Most importantly a layout must contain all three design elements in order to be considered a layout designed and built for operations.

    With on average a massive 12 feet of model layout space available (including some form of staging) and modelling in both HO and O 1:48 and UK/Australian 7mm scale it was important to me that I could have model space that allowed me to operate realistically and enjoyably. Thus I hit on the idea of on-board active staging – that is using the main layout to stage a train that has already arrived from somewhere, needs to do work, and then go somewhere else.

    Thanks for a great post, and for sharing your ideas – I love the blog, and when I get a little more money will be ordering some more of your publications. In the planning stages now for my first 1:48 scale layout. Handlaid track and all.
    All the best.

  6. mike

    Hi Andrew,

    Those are great criteria. When space is at a premium, it’s essential to use it intelligently. Thanks for the kind words.