Be A Selfish Prick

It’s 2006 at the East Rail Industrial park in Miami. The engineer has gotten out of the cab to talk strategy with the conductor about a plan of attack for handling an extremely complex switching situation. Pauses in the action like this are common in the real world.

Just because a comment is annoying and comes across as self-righteous, doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to it.  In fact, there may be a lot of truth it.

Case in point is the oft-repeated refrain, “It’s my model railroad and I’ll run it the way I want. If I want to have the Acela take a siding while my 1880’s logging train rolls by, that’s my business”. 

True, it is his business. The annoying part about these self-righteous guys is that nobody ever told them otherwise and frankly nobody cares.  Not only does nobody care what this dude does, they don’t give a rat’s ass what I do, or….sorry….what you do.  They just don’t.  Take that circus train, run it up to the coal mine, and pull those hoppers baby.  God bless you. Have fun. 

It’s pretty liberating when you think about it though, the concept of being totally selfish in how you run things.  If you’re going to go that route, the selfish route, you may as well be good at it.  That’s the problem, often we aren’t that good at being selfish, at developing a philosophy that maximizes the enjoyment we get from the hobby.

Case in point, the more you understand how an actual railroad operates, whether you chose to employ those practices or not, the more likely you are to enjoy running your layout.  It’s the knowledge, not the implementation of prototype practices, that is the missing component.

Take the extreme of total ignorance when it comes to prototype operational and business practices.  Designing a layout that will keep you entertained coming from that frame of reference is pretty damn expensive (and I’d be happy to build it for you!).  It takes a LOT of track, a LOT of layout, a lot of industries, turnouts, rolling stock,…..a lot of “stuff” to keep you from getting bored.  If your train rolls into town at 50mph, flat spots the wheels to stop on a dime, and does a quick car dump, your work at that industry will be done in seconds.  Running things that way, if you want a thirty minute solo op. session, it may take twenty or more industries to fill that time.  It takes a lot of money, and a lot of space, to build something that puts on that type of show.  If that approach brings you enjoyment, then you don’t need me, or anybody else telling you the “right” way to do it.  You don’t need other people telling you how to have fun.  What matters is that you’ve gotten to that philosophy via a conscious decision not by default.

With just a little knowledge however, you might find you have even MORE fun at a lot less cost and with a lot less layout.  As your knowledge of operations increases, the amount of layout needed to keep you entertained decreases.  You don’t even need to employ most (or any) prototype practices to have more fun.  Just knowing what would likely be happening in the real world as you go through the moves adds interest.

My friend Alex Bogaski was over for a visit recently and the discussion turned to using props to represent prototype practices, paperwork, etc.  It can be taken too far… to the point of absurdity.  Marching a 1:87 conductor down your layout for five minutes at scale walking speeds is getting a little out there.  Alex made a great point, stating “I just visualize in my mind what they’d actually be doing as I go through switching moves.  I don’t really use props”.  That’s a really good middle ground.

You probably don’t need that many operational props.  Just take frequent pauses as you operate the layout to represent setting brake wheels, throwing turnouts, walking, talking to customers, etc.  Drink that beer.  Sip that coffee.  Think about what would actually be happening on the prototype as you take those breaks. How long should the pauses be? Whatever length keeps it fun.

Where do you get the knowledge?   For me it’s watching YouTube videos, talking to more knowledgeable friends, rail fanning, and talking to actual railroaders. On YouTube just put in a search term along the lines of “Railroad Industrial Switching” and you’ll get plenty of clips.  Here’s one example.

Knowledge isn’t limited solely to operational practices, business practices factors in also.  Modelers, through their ignorance of how railroads work, skip a lot.  This takes them back to the same swamp of needing more elements to keep them entertained.  Common examples include spotting loads off spot and then re-spotting them when space frees up, team tracks, car storage, etc.

If you don’t presently have a layout, and are planning one, at least be aware of the ramifications of the two philosophical approaches to operations.  If you come from a place of total ignorance as to how things are done in the field, you may need three or four hundred feet of layout and fifty turnouts to keep you entertained for a half hour.  With at least some knowledge it may only take a hundred square feet and a half dozen turnouts PLUS you would likely enjoy the session more.  Why?   Because with that knowledge, as you run your models, the experience is enhanced by a background movie of actual practices playing out in your mind.

I’m not saying you should operate prototypically.  For many, it just isn’t that interesting.  I get it.  What I am saying is that you owe it to yourself to understand both approaches, their ramifications, and consciously come up with a philosophy that maximizes your enjoyment. Don’t end up there be default, by benign ignorance.  Be a selfish prick….like I am. 

Have fun.

If this subject interests you, check out my book on switching operations HERE.