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.

The Agent has been Considered

I think the Holidays are a great time for playing with trains.
I have hosted two group operating sessions this Holiday season. My hope was to gain enough insight and get enough feedback from visiting operators to be able to go into the new year with a routine established that provides optimized use of the layout and a worthwhile experience for the crews.

Shannon brings the Winwood Turn into Cove

One of my primary goals was to revise the process of managing car forwarding so a visiting operator could do the job. My good friend Doug volunteered to attempt the task, and actually did the job very well. Lessons learned from teaching and observing Doug led to a revised, simpler system. Tom graciously volunteered to sit in the Agent’s seat for the second test. Tom was able to do the job and write switchlists for the crews, but after seeing two experienced operators do the job, I came away with a few impressions:

- In the process of simplifying the Agent’s job, it became not only easier to understand, but quicker to perform. The Agent was left with long stretches of time with nothing to do while the train crews were out on the line.

- I have always found the process developing and revising the Agent’s job interesting. The overlapping workflows, cause and effect interrelationships, and the balancing points that can only be determined by starting the system up and letting it run are a big part of the fun of having an operating layout. But getting acquainted with the front end of operation is not fun for everyone. Generally, attending an operating session means you will run trains. A desk job filling out paperwork is not many people’s idea of fun.

So I am giving up on the idea of having a visiting operator perform the Agent job. Not a big deal since I actually enjoy doing it myself.

Keith picks up an empty tank car on the fuel track.

Another issue which has come up during these operating sessions is how long they run. When I initially set up work for group operating sessions, I estimated it would take about an hour and a half to get through the cycle. In reality it takes at least twice that long, which is too long. The layout is small and the jobs are simple. If the session gets too long the work becomes tedious and operators start to feel time pressure to hurry. I have gotten some good feedback on job sequencing which could cut the length of an op session down considerably.

Mike works the Dust Mill.

One thing that contributes to op sessions running too long is inexperienced train crews. The simplicity of the trackplan can be a hinderance to a new operator who doesn’t immediately see the efficient way to work the sidings. Two man crews might be a good idea when visiting crew members are new to the layout.

Gerry works the Quarry Job

I greatly appreciate the time that visiting operators take out of their busy schedules to attend an op session. There is no substitute for having friends over to run trains. The operation of the layout must be reliable, the instructions must be clear, and the realistic nature of the work performed must be apparent. When everything looks good and runs smoothy, it is easy to stay focused on the task at hand, which makes running the layout a very effective form of recreation.

Thanks to everyone who has attended an op session on the East Blue Ridge. I hope to have you all back to run trains next year.

Consider the Agent

My layout is designed for operation, and can keep two crews busy for over an hour. The size and scope of the railroad is somewhat limited, however. In order to add operational interest for visiting crews, I would like operators to not only cycle through the three train running jobs, but also spend some time in the Agent’s seat, writing orders and assembling switchlists for the crews out on the road.

I have come to the conclusion that I want the crews to use switchlists, as the average job involves moving less than 10 cars. Therefore, the physical writing of switchlists does not take long, and the overall scope of car forwarding on the layout is not complicated.

Car forwarding on the layout is easily managed using a conventional car card/waybill system similar to the one that been popular for decades among model railroaders that are interested in operation. The difference in how I use car cards and waybills is that I do not give them to the crews. The Agent uses them to keep track of car locations, and refers to them when writing switchlists.

Initially, my waybills were the same format as those normally used by crew members. It became clear that waybills for crew members are not well suited for an Agent. An Agent who is very familiar with the layout can use them (me), but they don’t provide a visitor with all the information they need to keep track of a car as it goes through the cycle of being consigned, then loaded, unloaded, and once again being available for consignment.

I had a very difficult time designing waybills for the Agent. They are not waybills at all, just a list of instructions for forwarding a specific car during that particular cycle. I fought gravitating back to conventional waybill cards, and tried hard to see the Agent’s job from the standpoint of a beginner with very little prior knowledge of the layout. I think I have come up with a format that works, and have printed out enough to get through an operating session. We’ll see in a few weeks if it is possible for a visiting operator to hold down the Agent job.

P&EBR Running Again

I had quite a bit of work to do this summer in order to prepare for the National Narrow Gauge Convention in September. As a result, I cut the power to my model railroad for two months so I could focus on my modules and the clinic I had to present.

After the convention I turned the power back on to the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge only to find it had petrified. The Command Station had to be restarted several times before it would acquire or dispatch a decoder address. The stationary decoders were slow to start throwing the turnouts. I had to smack the Frog Juicer board under Winwood to wake it up.

Several hours were spent deep cleaning and testing track before the railroad was back to its old self.

Doug pulls flatcars bound for the quarries in Dust Mill Yard.

To celebrate the re-opening of the line, Phil and Doug came over to run trains for a few hours.

Phil runs a train out of Shops Yard to work Piedmont Mill.

I had already created a car card and waybill system for managing the movement of cars on the layout.

The white car card has a pocket containing a yellow waybill. Once the forwarding instructions shown on the waybill are completed, the waybill is cycled in the car card to show the next set of instructions.

For this operating session I decided that I would not give the car cards to the crews. Instead I wrote up switch lists to serve as a list of instructions for the crews to follow in order to forward cars to their destinations. I was still using the car cards to keep track of things, but just transferred the information from the car cards to the switch lists.

Quite a bit of paper was required to run the railroad for about two hours, but it was fun for everyone involved.

The extra step of writing up switch lists added considerable complexity to the job of managing freight movements, but it made the crew’s job simpler, as they had clearer instructions for doing their jobs. And as Dispatcher/Agent, cranking out the paperwork kept me busy, too. I actually enjoyed it. The operation of the layout is not so complex that it requires a lot of effort to manage.

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.

P&EBR Operation: Plausibility

What would have to be included on my layout in order to optimize its long term potential as a recreational activity?

I already determined I wanted the layout to be small, but large enough to include a hairpin curve.

The hairpin curve requirement means the layout will not be that small after all. Accommodating reasonable aisle widths and curve radii spreads things out until this layout would be a very tight fit in a spare bedroom. I settled on 12 by 14 feet as plenty of room in which to build this basic plan.

The Mill Job begins its work at Shops Yard.

It would be possible to build this main line configuration in a smaller space than 12 by 14 feet, but I wanted enough space on the layout to include the reason for the railroad’s existence. There are thousands of miles of railroad track stretched across the country where the reason for the track being in that particular place is nowhere in sight. For example, coal mines hundreds of miles away generated many of the trains that I have watched cross central Virginia. But I wanted my layout to include the industries that were generating the work for the trains to do. The industries would have to be of a nature and size that would be conducive to rail service, and actually exist in the region I was interested in modeling.

Cars consigned to Piedmont Mill are pulled from the yard and blocked into an outbound train.

I was really painting myself into a corner with these requirements for a layout. The fact that the layout had to be somewhat small and compact eliminated a lot of operational possibilities. Add to that the requirement that the layout also had to include the industries that generate all the work for the railroad to do, and only a very few scenarios are possible. The layout could represent a branchline, short line, or industrial railroad. That was about it.

The Mill Job on the Crane Track at Piedmont Mill.

It is fun to dream up ideas for a future layout thinking that the sky is the limit. But there are in fact many limitations imposed on the project, so the goal is to optimize the situation. I could see that the long term success of a small layout would not involve watching trains run ‘round and ‘round. There would have to be situations in place that would force operation to slow down, and require some mental focus to solve problems involving picking up and setting out freight cars.

P&EBR Operation: Justification

How can I justify all the time, space, money, and other resources that go into the construction of my model railroad layout?

The Quarry Job delivers a car to Meridian Quarry

Justification is difficult to be objective about, since I have always enjoyed trains and wanted to have a model railroad. On the one hand, I am fortunate in that I know what makes my happy, but on the other hand it is difficult for me to set priorities and find an equitable balance among a wide variety of pursuits. I realized early on that it would be easier to justify a small model railroad than a large one. The question became “how small can it be?” Model railroads can be built in very small spaces, but what would have to be included on my layout in order it to have the minimal features necessary to hold my long-term interest?

I determined that the very least that could be included on a railroad layout that could potentially hold my long-term interest was a hairpin turn.

While making this the definitive minimum seems arbitrary, it implies many things that would have to be true. Primarily, it shows that my main interest in model railroad is operation. Watching a train negotiate a series of reverse curves strikes me as the minimum necessary to give a feeling of distance and going somewhere. Also, the hairpin turn as a design feature requires defining things like minimum radius and aisle width. When accessibility and reliable operation are taken into account, the overall size of the layout is defined. The hairpin turn as a priority also implies that I feel it is more important for the space to comfortably accommodate the layout than for the layout to represent any actual place. For me, the model railroad setting is a veneer that is applied to the layout. The plan comes first, then a setting is determined that compliments it.

Assembling an outbound train in Shops Yard

Much of the proof of a layout’s justification is in the amount of time spent on it. If it is easy to turn off the TV or shut down the computer to spend time on the layout, then it is holding its own among the wide range of activities vying for my time.

P&EBR Operation: Beginning

This fall, I have greatly enjoyed running trains on my layout now that the trackwork is complete.

The yard crew stops in at the office to pick up paperwork and get instructions.

In fact, I can hardly bring myself to take time to do anything else but operate the railroad. While this is delaying progress on the vast expanse of work yet to be done, I think the railroad has already passed a critical test, and it has proven that it can hold my interest for the long term.

Working the Yard Track at Shops

I see the success of the P&EBR rooted back in decisions made about how I would pursue model railroading 30 years ago.

Working the RIP track, the Yard Crew pushes a long string of freight cars past the machine shop.

Just out of college, my monetary situation only allowed me to think about building a layout. Long hikes on railroad grades along the James River allowed me to formulate a personal priority list, much like what
John H. Armstrong would call “Givens & Druthers.” But I called it Justification, Plausibility, and Legitimacy .

These main headings are vague and interrelated, but basically can be defined:

Justification - I want the pursuit of model railroading to be an effective form of recreation, and be worth the investment of time, space, and money that it entails.

Plausibility - I want my model railroad to include the reason for the railroad’s existence.

Legitimacy - I want the operation of my model railroad to be a reasonably accurate representation of how a real railroad would operate within the modeled setting.

The Quarry Job arrives at Dust Mill Yard.

P&EBR Operation: Where to Start?

Brian Bond’s Deer Creek & Laurel Railroad showing pockets for car cards and waybills on the fascia.

With the trackwork and trackpower complete on my P&EBR layout, I am itching to start running trains with a car forwarding system of some kind. Barry Cott, whose layout was featured in the 2003 Model Railroad Planning annual, wrote an exhaustive explanation of how he planned to operate trains on his small On3 layout. I downloaded his PDF and studied it thoroughly. His simple Pakesley Mill & Timber layout was similar to mine in some respects.

Barry had some great ideas about managing the running of trains on his layout. He relied heavily on prototype railroad practice to create an intricate “ceremony” for generating traffic and controlling train movements. Maybe he felt that, if the management of train operations were too simple, running trains would not be interesting.

Just as I was considering this issue for my own layout, I had the opportunity to attend two operating sessions on the same weekend. The two could hardly have been more different: at Clint Foster’s, about 12 operators were involved in running a large number of trains with complex instructions. At
Brian Bond’s, it was just Brian and I running a few log and coal trains with simple instructions. Running trains on the two layouts allowed me to compare and contrast the management systems of each.

As for my own layout, I want to keep in mind that the P&EBR is an industrial narrow gauge shortline. It seems to me that such an operation would not have use for complex paperwork or rules of operation. As I discussed typical op session paperwork with Brian Bond, and I thought back on the experience of participating in an op session myself, I had a more practical understanding of what I needed as an operator, and what I wanted as a host.

My focus is on determing how much information an operator actually needs in order to perform the duties of a crew on the railroad, and what is the clearest way to present that information. And as a host, I do not want it to require a great deal of time to set up the paperwork for the next op session. And, I do not want to have to focus on creating new paperwork during the course of operation when trains are running and fires need to be put out.

P&EBR Workflows: Hauling Passengers

The primary reason for the existence of the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge Railroad is to move soapstone for the parent company, Piedmont-Standard. Since no other shippers use the line it is strictly an industrial railroad, not a common carrier.

As such, the P&EBR is not responsible for providing transportation services for the public good. Its singular priority is stone. But since the rails link all the various facilities and operations of Piedmont-Standard, the rail line does provide a convenient means for moving people. In this remote corner of Nelson County the roads are unpaved, and many streams must be forded due to lack of bridges. So using the railroad to haul people is a necessity for much of the year. But only employees, and only on company business ... at least that is the rule.

Passenger service on the P&EBR is small scale and low key, Still, in order to be effective, passenger trains run on a schedule. The train schedule reflects the times workers need to commute to and from their homes in Ariel Church and Winwood. There is also a connecting train to meet the standard gauge daily passenger train of the C&O Railroad at Winwood.

From a model railroading standpoint, having a train that runs on a schedule introduces a lot of interest to operations. All crews running trains on the line during the time a passenger train is scheduled will have to have a copy of the schedule, and make sure they clear the mainline in time. And to keep track of time, there will have to be clocks displaying the “relative time”, which is the compressed time of performing all the daily activities of the railroad in a few hours. Compressing the work day requires the layout clock to run fast.

The blue track sections show where the passenger train would have a scheduled stop. These stops are located for the convenience of the employees of Piedmont-Standard Soapstone Company.

Since providing passenger service requires running all the way from the company offices in Piedmont to the tiny depot in Winwood, the P&EBR may increase the utility of passenger trains by using them to haul some freight as well.

Freight cars in the Shops Yard bound for Winwood could be hauled by the passenger train, as could freight cars in Winwood bound for the Shops Yard.

The passenger train would originate at the office of Piedmont-Standard, which is immediately adjacent to the soapstone mill. The departure time from Piedmont would be determined by the connecting passenger train on the C&O at Winwood, allowing for stops along the way.

From Piedmont, the passenger train would run to Ariel Church, stopping at the yard office which will double as a small depot. While at Ariel Church, the train crew may pick up freight cars bound for Winwood. Then the train would continue on down the line, stopping at Cove, Dust Mill, and Meridian. There would be very small buildings at each of these stops to allow a few folks to get out of the rain while waiting for the train.

The depot at Winwood is very small and spartan, with a small office and freight area for transferring packages and express between the narrow gauge P&EBR and the standard gauge C&O.

The passenger train would have some layover time at Winwood. This allows the train crew to leave the passenger car sitting at the station while they pull the freight cars down to the transfer warehouse and work the small yard there. Then the passenger car is coupled up and the outbound train is assembled and ready to go. The same stops are made on the way back to Ariel Church, where any freight cars from Winwood would be dropped in the Shops Yard. Then the lone passenger car is pulled to Piedmont to complete its run at the company office.

P&EBR Workflows: Hauling Stone

Hauling stone and products made from that stone is the primary purpose for the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge Railroad. The functions of the railroad discussed in previous workflow posts would not necessarily require the use of a railroad at all. But moving extremely heavy soapstone boulders and large quantities of finished products would be too much for the unimproved rural roads in the area.

Green tracks indicate shipping points, red tracks are receiving points.

As can be seen on the trackplan, moving stone involves working tracks in just about every operational area of the railroad. Moving stone is the basic, foundational work of the railroad, having the highest priority relative to any other freight that needs to be delivered.

The stone workflow on the P&EBR follows several routes, but all stone related shipments trace their origins back to the quarries.

Quarries at Cove and Meridian

Soapstone is cut and lifted out of the quarry, and loaded onto railroad cars. The quarried stone falls into two categories: commercially viable blocks that can be cut and assembled into fixtures at the mill in Piedmont, or stone that for any number of reasons is not suited for cutting. Waste stone from the quarries is ground into soapstone powder at the Dust Mill.

When the quarry has commercial stone blocks ready to be shipped, the P&EBR will provide flatcars for loading.

Piedmont Mill

The loaded flatcars will then be delivered to Piedmont Mill for stockpiling until it is needed at the gangsaws.
At Piedmont Mill the stone will be sawn, polished, cut, and assembled into a wide variety of products. The products are then crated for shipment. If the product is part of a special order, it will shipped directly to the Transfer Warehouse in Winwood. Most of the production of Piedmont Mill is not special orders, but items from the company catalog that have not actually been sold yet.

Piedmont Warehouse

Products that are built at the Piedmont Mill that are not ready for immediate shipment are moved by the railroad from the Mill to the Piedmont Warehouse, where they go into inventory.

Once orders for items in inventory come in, the railroad delivers boxcars to Piedmont Warehouse for loading.

Scale House and Track

The loaded boxcars are set off on the Scale Track to be weighed. It is company policy that all freight cars loaded with finished products must be weighed. The cars are pushed one at a time over the scales, and the yardmaster records the weight of the car.

Winwood Transfer Warehouse

The weighed boxcars are then assembled into a train bound for Winwood. There they are spotted at the Transfer Warehouse, and their contents is loaded into standard gauge boxcars for shipment on the C&O Railroad.

The above summary applies to commercial stone shipped from the quarries, but much of the stone coming out of the quarries is not commercial grade due to fractures, impurities, fissures, and other problems.

When the quarry has accumulated enough waste stone, the railroad will deliver side dump cars for loading.

Piedmont Mill also generates waste stone through cutoffs, breakage, and make ready test pieces that are not useable.

The railroad will also spot a side dump car at Piedmont Mill to serve as a dumping point for waste stone.

When side dump cars at the quarries and Piedmont Mill are filled with stone, the railroad delivers them to the Dust Mill.

Dust Mill

At the Dust Mill, the carloads of waste stone are pushed up the elevated back track and spotted over a storage bin where they are emptied. The stone from the bin is processed through a series of mills until it has been reduced to a very fine powder, which is basically talc. The talc is transferred to a bagging plant where it is loaded into sacks, and palletized for shipment.

Once the Dust Mill has made up an order, the railroad delivers boxcars for loading.

Scale House and Track

The boxcar loads of talc will have to be weighed. Just as the boxcars of products from Piedmont Mill and Warehouse were previously, the yard crew at Shops will spot the boxcar on the scales, and its weight will be recorded.

Winwood Transfer Warehouse

Once weighed, boxcars of talc are ready to be forwarded to the Transfer Warehouse at Winwood, where they will be transloaded onto boxcars for shipment on the C&O.

Stone related shipments utilize the entire P&EBR. Moving cars through the associated workflows requires using many tracks, some of them multiple times.

Keeping all aspects of the stone workflow organized and moving will be the job of an Agent/Dispatcher, who will be responsible for providing train crews the information necessary for them to keep not only stone, but supplies, fuel, and lumber all moving over the line.

P&EBR Workflows: Hauling Supplies

Piedmont-Standard Soapstone Company depends on its railroad, the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge, to haul the supplies necessary to do maintenance and repairs.

Supplies are picked up at the green track in Winwood and set out at the red tracks in Ariel Church, Shops, or Piedmont

The daily operation of the Company requires a wide range of repairs and maintenance. The quarries require new drill bits and cable, pipe and pumps. Trucks and cranes working at the quarry sites are in constant need of repair due to the extreme wear and tear of working with stone. Piedmont Mill requires new gangsaw blades and sand for cutting stone, as well as bandsaw blades, hydraulic fluid and pumps. And the railroad itself requires everything from lube oil to paint to railroad spikes in order to keep running.

Parts and supplies are hauled where they are needed in narrow gauge boxcars.

Supplies might be handled in regular boxcars or smaller, 4 wheel boxcars

Winwood Transfer Warehouse is where barrels of lube oil, kegs of nails and railroad spikes, buckets of paint and pitch, and cases of hardware and plumbing fixtures arrive on the C&O Railroad and are transferred to the P&EBR Railroad.

Winwood Transfer Warehouse

Supplies are forwarded from Winwood to three destinations:

Piedmont Mill is where parts necessary for the cutting and polishing of stone, and assembly of finished products are consigned. Sand, saw blades, pitch, bolts, and belts to run the machinery from overhead shafts are just a few of the many things needed at the Mill.

Piedmont Mill

Supplies needed for operation of the quarries are delivered to the Shops Platform track. At Shops, parts and supplies are stored until needed either for repair and maintenance of the railroad locomotives and rolling stock, or for a repair at a quarry site, in which case the necessary parts will either be loaded in a truck or railroad car for the trip to the quarry.

“RIP” track and platform at The Shops

While repairs and maintenance of locomotives and rolling stock are done at Shops, the supplies needed for work on the right of way itself are kept in a storage area at Ariel Church. Here is where the railroad stockpiles rail, crossties, rail joiners, and spikes.

Ariel Church “house track” and maintenance sheds

When the train crew picks up a loaded boxcar of supplies at Winwood Transfer Warehouse, they will have to check the switchlist to determine whether that car is to be set out at Piedmont Mill, the Shops Platform Track, or Ariel Church Maintenance Shed.

P&EBR Workflows: Hauling Fuel

Another routine task for the P&EBR Railroad to perform is hauling fuel. The soapstone operation would require both coal and oil fuels for day to day operation. Fuel handling is focused primarily on three areas; the fuel transfer track in Winwood, the Shops fueling facility, and the Boilerhouse of Piedmont Mill.

The red track in Winwood is where fuel is transferred to the P&EBR, which delivers it to the green tracks at Shops and Piedmont.

Coal and fuel oil are delivered by the Cheaspeake & Ohio to an elevated track in Winwood where the standard gauge cars are emptied. Narrow gauge cars are loaded on a lower, parallel track and the fuel is delivered to either Shops or Piedmont.

Coal is loaded into small, one bay hoppers for transport on the P&EBR. Oil is handled by a fleet of home built tank cars.

The pickup point for fuel is in Winwood. It is a visually and operationally interesting facility, which, unfortunately, I do not have space on my layout to model.

Winwood Fuel Transfer

A curved track running through a tight alley between Winwood Mill and the Transfer Warehouse represents the Fuel track. Empty hoppers and tank cars will be set out on this track, then picked up later as loads.

Shops Fuel Facility

Both coal and oil are delivered by the P&EBR to the fuel facility at Shops. Locomotives are fueled here, and trucks can be loaded here to deliver smaller quantities of coal or oil to outlying points.

Piedmont Mill Boilerhouse

While Shops takes delivery of both coal and oil, only coal is delivered to the Boilerhouse at Piedmont Mill. Coal is used to generate the steam which powers most of the machinery at the mill.

Delivering fuel requires the crew to make a pickup at Winwood, then determine from looking at their paperwork whether the load is to be set out at Shops Fuel Facility, or Piedmont Boilerhouse.

P&EBR Workflows: Hauling Lumber

Setting up operations for my P&EBR layout is similar to operations on layouts representing standard gauge railroads. But there is one fundamental difference. While a standard gauge railroad is part of a nationwide network, with only a small part of the whole represented on the layout, my layout represents the entire railroad system. There are no “beyond the basement” staging yards where freight cars appear and disappear. Both the loading and unloading point for every car on the P&EBR is on the layout.

The P&EBR exists to provides a means for Piedmont-Standard Soapstone to move people and materials. Tracks have been placed to allow the trains to access the points that need transportation services.

Overall trackplan of the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge

In generating work for the railroad to do, I came up with a series of “workflows” that represent routine tasks the railroad will perform. One of the simpler workflows is the delivery of lumber to Piedmont Mill.

Lumber workflow involves pickup at Winwood and delivery at Piedmont.

Piedmont Mill requires a lot of lumber so crates and cribbing can be fabricated for packing the finished soapstone products the mill assembles. The lumber is delivered to Winwood by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. There it is transferred to the narrow gauge flatcars of the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge (green track). The P&EBR then delivers the lumber to the Mill in Piedmont (red track).

Train crews handling lumber would be moving flatcars between Winwood and Piedmont.

The Transfer Warehouse at Winwood is where freight moves between the narrow gauge P&EBR and the standard gauge C&O. The narrow gauge tracks actually run under the roof of the building where an overhead crane facilitates the loading and unloading of freight.

The Mill at Piedmont is where quarried stone is cut, polished, and assembled into appliances and fixtures for commercial and residential construction. An overhead crane is used at the Mill to unload cars.

Delivering lumber is relatively straightforward for the crews. It involves a pickup at the Transfer Warehouse, and a set out at Piedmont Mill.

Generating Work for the P&EBR

Steve Sherrill's Shady Grove & Sherrill On30 layout | January 2006

Enough trackwork is done on my layout to allow limited operation to begin.

Completed track on P&EBR layout as of March 2009

The prospect of using a system of orders and lists to give crews instructions for running trains is very intriguing to me. I have friends who are excellent model railroaders who do not see the point in going through all the setup necessary to get operations started. They get a great deal of enjoyment out of just putting trains together and running them in a random fashion. Personally, I do not find random running of model trains fun for very long. Giving the trains purpose adds a dimension to model railroading that focuses my attention, making the hobby an even more effective form of recreation.

What is the purpose for trains on my model railroad? The theme of my layout is the soapstone business that once thrived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Large deposits of high quality stone in Albemarle, Nelson, and Amherst counties were in rural areas with poor roads. If a company wanted to move heavy stone from quarry to mill, it had to build a railroad to do it. Therefore, my railroad is an integral part of the production process for the parent soapstone company.

Where does my railroad go? The placenames are noted on the trackplan above:

Piedmont: Location of the parent company's stone cutting and assembly mill. The parent company is called The Piedmont-Standard Soapstone Company. The hyphenated name implies that the present company was formed by the consolidation of two companies. When Piedmont and Standard merged, all milling operations were moved to the Piedmont plant. Quarried stone is hauled here by the railroad. It is then cut, polished, and assembled into a variety of residential, commercial, and industrial appliances and products.

Shops Yard: The railroad's repair and service facilities. The machine shop at Shops also services the mill and quarry equipment of the parent company.

Ariel Church: the only town near the railroad big enough to have a post office. Ariel Church is the gathering place for the railroad's maintenance of way equipment and supplies. Since the railroad exists only for the benefit of the parent company, it does not serve any businesses in Ariel Church.

Cove: Location of Piedmont-Standard Soapstone's largest quarry.

Dust Mill: The waste stone from the quarries and the mill is hauled here to be milled into a very fine powder. Due to the mineral properties of soapstone, the fine powder is industrial grade talc, which had a wide range of industrial applications. The talc was bagged and sold to tire, paint, and portland cement manufacturers, to name just a few of the customers for this versatile product.

Meridian: This quarry was once owned by the Standard Soapstone Company, whose mill was further down the same branch that serves the quarry. Once Piedmont and Standard merged, the Standard mill was closed, and the railroad was abandoned back to the quarry.

Winwood: The site of an historic mill on the James River. This is where the narrow gauge Piedmont & East Blue Ridge transfers freight to and from the standard gauge Chesapeake & Ohio.


Dan George's Spring Creek Lumber Company HO scale layout | April 2005

August 6, 2004

Having never seriously considered modeling a narrow gauge railroad before, I do not have a clearly defined picture in my head of what one would look like in my train room. My preconceived notions about narrow gauge fall into three main areas, which I identify by the time frame that I think best accommodates each of the operational styles:

1890-1915: The narrow gauge as common carrier. In this time frame, the narrow gauge operates just as a standard gauge railroad would, since the idea of there being a "standard gauge" for railroads was new at that time. During this timeframe, a considerable percentage of the total amount of business the railroad does is passenger, parcel, and general merchandise. I think of this as "the Iron Age" in Virginia, when several furnaces were in blast along the Alleghany Mountains. The narrow gauge of this time frame might have iron mines and/or a furnace on line to reinforce the era.

1915-1945: The narrow gauge in transition/decline. In this time frame, the narrow gauge operates primarily to support a single on line industry. Its role as a common carrier is losing priority, and is being handled by the most economical means possible. Rail busses and rail trucks are being used to handle as much of the business of the railroad as possible beyond the focal freight of a primary industry. This time frame included technological developments that increased demand for wood. Wood was used to make paper, and the demand for paper was increasing. Wood was also used for making rayon, which was in high demand during the war years. The narrow gauge of this time frame might have been hauling lumber and pulpwood, with iron traffic on the decline.

1945-1960: The narrow gauge as conveyor belt. In this time frame, the narrow gauge operates solely as an integrated part of an on line industry's production process. The only responsibility of this narrow gauge railroad is to move raw material, equipment, and finished products around for the parent company. From mine to prep plant or quarry to kiln, the narrow gauge exists entirely within the confines of one particular corporate entity. Equipment is specialized for dealing with a narrow range of transportation needs. The narrow gauge of this time frame is owned and operated by a company that is not in the transportation business, and probably is not inclined to spend a lot of money on improvements and upkeep for the rail operation. The shop forces would be charged with creatively extending the usefulness of the railroad and its equipment. This time frame included the rise of internal combustion engines, so the narrow gauge of this time frame is Dieselized in whole or part, The relatively short distances involved in train hauling would mean equipment could be small, and the odd set of circumstances which led to this railroad existing at all would also lead to the railroad being very unique to this particular operation.

To consider modeling in 1:48 scale in the space I have available keeps me concerned over just how small an area I am able to represent. In HO scale, I had the capability of modeling big trains in small scenes ... the big locomotives pulled big freight cars past small farm houses and sheds, making the windows rattle and drawing the attention of everyone around. But in On30, the situation would be somewhat reversed. The tiny locomotive would pull a short cut of small freight cars through the shadows of barns and sheds along the fringe of the field, rattling along without attracting much attention. The elements of the scene double in size from HO to O scale, but the trains themselves stay about the same size, feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland.

illustration by Sir John Tenniel

Running a Railroad

As construction on the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge progresses, I am spending more time thinking about how to operate the layout.

Tracing out the flow of materials and supplies over the railroad.

Operation of a model railroad is a game of sorts that uses the layout as the "board" and the locomotives and railroad cars as "pieces". The rules of the game reflect the rules used to manage a real railroad, and the object of the game is to run trains on the layout in a way that reflects the same purpose that trains run on a real railroad. Industrial railroads like the P&EBR are an integral part of the production process of the company that owns them. The railroad is an extended conveyor system for moving raw material to the mill, and moving finished products from the mill to the distribution warehouse. I would like to develop a system whereby friends who come over to run trains on my layout will not only see a model of the process of converting quarried stone into finished products, but will actually get involved in the process by providing the transportation necessary to make the whole system work.

Flatcars will be used to haul stone from the quarry to the cutting mill, and boxcars will be used to haul the finished product from the cutting mill to the transfer warehouse.

Having group operations as a goal for the model railroad is a priority that has impacted all the planning and construction of the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge. The train movements involved in providing rail service need to be interesting without being overly complex or contrived. And all the stopping, starting, coupling, switch throwing and other mechanical procedures need to be practical and reliable. Sustaining the illusion requires everything to work smoothly, and greatly increases the recreational aspect of running trains. To be completely focused on the trivial pursuit of running a model railroad can be as fun as building it, but only if everything works like it is supposed to. Out of respect for friends taking time out of impossibly busy schedules to come over and run trains, the trains need to actually run, and run well.