East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad

P&EBR Operation: Legitimacy

How can I operate trains on my layout in a way that reflects the prototype?

A train of finished products arrives at Winwood to be transferred to the C&O Railroad

On my Piedmont & East Blue Ridge, I have adopted an operation scheme that I don’t believe is particularly “legitimate.” I have not seriously researched the traffic patterns of the prototype soapstone railroads, and am not making the accurate representation of those traffic patterns a priority. This might be considered a major shortcoming by some historically minded modelers. I consider it a shortcoming myself, but not a particularly serious one.

Delivering dump cars of soapstone to the Dust Mill

I fell upon the remains of the old soapstone railroads while out railfanning about 30 years ago. I immediately considered them as a prototype to model, but felt that operation of a quarry and stone hauling railroad would be too restrictive and could prevent me from being able to have an acceptable range of possibilities for traffic generation. I assumed a soapstone railroad would be too finite and tightly defined in its operation to be interesting.

After the demise of my HO scale DF&G layout, I tried to design a new trackplan for my space that incorporated lessons learned and addressed some of that layout’s shortcomings. Experience taught me that a simple layout could both be practical to build and operationally interesting. The main design question changed from “how much can I include” to “how little can I include and still have an interesting layout.”

The overall impression of a simple layout reflects the rural shortline “look and feel” that I was after. Modeling friends who saw my evolving trackplan ideas replied that they looked “narrow gauge” ... and that got me thinking about switching to On30. I could see narrow gauge modeling as a way to further simplify the trackplan by doing away with the need for staging yards. The entire narrow gauge railroad would be modeled from end to end, with only the standard gauge connection extending into the unmodeled world beyond.

What I eventually came up with was a trackplan that supported several local “Job” trains out of a central Yard. The Yard is the common point for all Jobs, and becomes their “interchange” point. The Jobs themselves are very different from one another in the situation they present to the crew. Interesting enough to require mental focus, but not overly contrived or complex, each Job takes a reasonable amount of time to complete; from 20 minutes to an hour.

The Jobs can be worked in rotation by one or two crews. In this way, at any given time some Jobs will be “vacant”. Vacant jobs are staged up for the next crew during the course of the op session, so it is possible for every crew to work every Job. After which all involved parties should be ready for a well deserved trip to Virginia Barbeque in Lakeside.

This operating scheme has proven to be very interesting, but honestly has no basis in the historical operation of the soapstone railroads in Virginia. It could be applied to a wide range of industrial settings, none of which would be faithfully represented from a prototype perspective. But the layout would be fun to operate, and therefore remain an effective recreational activity for the long term.