Industrial Grade Operation

A few weeks ago, I had a some friends over to talk about modeling and run some trains. The guest of honor was Jeff Kraker, an On3 modeler from Minnesota whom I have gotten to know through our participation in the Railroad-Line Forums. Jeff had just spent several days investigating industrial archaeological sites in West Virginia with Brian Bond, and had tons of interesting photos and stories of their adventures to share.

Cass was one of the places Brian and Jeff visited

I was particularly interested in discussing layout operation with Jeff, because he and I are both modeling relatively simple industrial railroads, and he is interested in operation. It is obvious from looking at the trackplan of his Slater Creek layout that Jeff intends to spend time running trains on his layout in a logical and prototypical manner.

Jeff’s On3 Slater Creek Railroad

The first resource I found that explored managing operation on a simple industrial railroad layout was Barry Cott’s
Primer for Narrow Gauge and Short-Line Operations. Barry’s Primer emphasizes the need for clear communication between Dispatcher (host) and Crews (guests) regarding what is entailed in the train crews doing their jobs. The nature of a small narrow gauge railroad reduces the need for a lot of “prototypical” information that may apply to a common carrier with connections to areas far beyond the scope of the layout itself. The paperwork that crews get on the P&EBR is based very directly on the examples Barry provides in his Primer.

Paperwork based on Barry Cott’s examples

Rail operations as simple as mine can be managed quite adequately by using the conventional car card/waybill system that has been around for years. Barry explains the way he used car cards/waybills in his Primer. The essential role they play is to introduce some randomness into the generation of demand for cars. In reality, a small industrial railroad’s operation could be very repetitious, with train lengths, siding and storage track capacity all set at an optimum level. Cars might often be handled in blocks, with the individual cars in the blocks rarely uncoupled from one another. In the interest of making the layout more fun to run, as much randomness can be introduced to the demand for cars as siding and storage track capacity will allow. This will require trains to run at some length other than optimal, consequently with “more touches” from the crew as they do their setouts and pickups. Something the prototype might try to avoid, but requires the crew on a model railroad to solve a wider variety of switching problems. “Bread and butter” carloads that define the look and purpose of the railroad can predominate operations, while odd movements of heavy equipment, supplies, and maintenance of way turn up less often.

Car cards and waybills used for traffic management

In my experience of using car cards and waybills to manage operations on my layout, I noticed two recurring situations that bothered me:

1. It would not be unusual for a crew to be instructed to pick up an empty car on a siding, and deliver a similar empty car to the same siding at the same time. The first car had “cycled out” of the instructions on its waybill, and the second car would be at the beginning of the cycle of instructions on its waybill. Such a situation would be plausible on a common carrier, but it hardly makes sense on an industrial railroad where all cars belong to the home road.

2. Oftentimes a crew’s switchlist would specify a particular empty car that was to be delivered to a siding, when other comparable empty cars were actually more accessible and convenient. Again, specifying a car to be set out regardless of convenience is plausible on a common carrier, but there would be no reason for it on an industrial line.

Both of these situations are best addressed on an industrial railroad by giving train crews the authority to handle the situation the best way they see fit. They then let the Dispatcher/Agent know what they did so he has the information he needs to manage the flow of freight on the railroad. I have been trying to develop an operating system that allows the train crews to make decisions about consigning cars, but still uses car cards and waybills to manage the forwarding of freight. Jeff was a particularly good person for testing because he has given a lot of thought to operation, and he could follow a quick explanation of the rather esoteric problems I was trying to iron out.

The Dispatcher/Agent’s desk during an op session

Crews found it easy to understand their instructions, and Jeff was able to follow the logic of what I was trying to accomplish.

Jeff working Dust Mill Yard

The goal has been to find the simplest system that provides acceptable results, and I think I have arrived at that point. Thanks to Jeff for bearing with me, and also for some great modeling tips and product information he shared while he was here.