East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad


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.

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.


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.