Choreographing Your Own Show

Designing A Solo Running Session For Maximum Satisfaction

The Tradepoint Atlantic crew talks things out on the radio before performing the next move.

The concept of semantics is interesting from the standpoint that two words, theoretically meaning the same thing, can evoke such different emotional responses. If I said, “Come on over. Let’s run some trains, have a cup of good coffee or drink a beer, and shoot the shit”, most people would look forward to it. If I said, come on over for “an operating session” the reaction would be entirely different. It would be much more negative for a lot of people. While they may not admit it publicly, many associate the phrase “operating session” with arbitrary rules, boring running practices, hokey gimmicks, complexity, stress, and fear of embarrassing yourself by making mistakes. There is ample justification for that reaction too.

We can throw that distinction out the window though when we consider the reality that most of the time, especially with smaller layouts, we will be running by ourselves. Common sense tells us to play to the norm, not the exception so let’s deal with that for today’s discussion. “That” meaning you’ll likely be operating solo.

Running trains alone in our layout room is an escape. It’s the one setting where we can create our own world and do things the way we want. How I, or anybody else does things, is absolutely irrelevant. Let’s be real, nobody cares how another hobbyist runs trains in the privacy of their own homes. If you want to blast your Acela down a double track main and race a turn-of-the-century steamer pulling autoracks god bless you.

I’ve always said that we’re usually dealing with an audience of one, and that “one” is you. If you’re going to be selfish about how you do things, and you should, then at least be good at it. Be skilled at being selfish! In that quest, it makes sense to at least consider if there are tweaks in how you choreograph your show that would increase your level of enjoyment. It’s worth asking ourselves from time to time, is the way we’re running our one man show maximizing our personal experience?

There is a rhythmic cadence to switching and branch line operations that I find fascinating. There’s a certain pace to it that has a hard-to-define artful quality to it. The pace and pause of the locomotives, their movements, and the interaction of the crew appears to be choreographed because, when you think about it, it is. I find it mesmerizing to watch. When I operate my layout alone I’m looking to capture that experience. I’m not looking for a puzzle to solve, a timer to beat, or a grocery list to work down.

If we’re all so drawn to the prototype, the starting point of figuring out the best way of simulating that world in our basement (albeit in modified form), is to study the subject we’re trying to emulate. Be a student via railfanning and watching videos. (The one subtle problem with rail fan videos, and it’s not obvious, is that in order to be watchable, certain key operational aspects need to be cropped out. Who wants to watch five minutes of footage of an engine idling while the conductor walks down a cut of cars. Be aware of the fact that important operational steps may not be shown).

So, that’s the starting point, understanding how it’s actually done. You can’t reach the end game of skillful choreography if you don’t have that baseline. The next step is where personal preference comes in. You need to edit what actually happens in the field to fit a model railroad and your personal preferences. Different modelers make different choices. An operating practice that one person finds interesting, another may feel is boring beyond description (Again, we’re talking solo sessions/it’s your railroad). We want to choreograph our sessions from a platform of highly informed, deliberate, decisions tailored to our personality not out of benign ignorance. We need to know the full menu (of prototype practices) before we can pick and choose which items appeal to us. There will be some trial and error over the years. Tastes and methods will change and evolve as you gain experience.

This Matty Gunn railfan video is particularly helpful because he crops out less of the action than usual. He also has the scanner on so you can hear the crew’s conversation. Take note of all that’s involved in performing the basic movements. More than any one aspect I encourage viewers to note the frequent pauses in the action as the conductor does his work. Watch how he throws the switch stand (8:49 mark). Listen to the way they communicate. Watch the running speeds. Watch the intensity of the crew as they focus on the movements.

By contrast, when you watch model railroad operating videos you’ll generally see a train pull up to a switch, a second later the switch is thrown, the next second the loco. is in reverse, the car is “dumped” and then it’s on to the next spot. Total elapsed time? Maybe twenty seconds. If that’s your style then go for it. I will say though, that when you run that way, you go down a switch list really quickly, and it takes a lot of layout to fill up a session.

Through trial and error, I’ve found the following operational practices and “choreography” spins out the experience I’m looking for. Totally FWIW. Your list may be different but perhaps there is an idea or two in there for you.

-More than anything else, I take frequent pauses. During that time I’m visualizing what the crew would be doing. How long are the pauses? No set time. As long as I feel like it. They aren’t so long as to hamper the experience for me. I’ll pull a train up to a switch. Take a break, sip my beer, ponder, then throttle up again.

-I run at a relatively slow speed but it certainly isn’t 1mph the whole time either. Slow during switching moves, 10mph when going down the line.

-Running solo I find that 45 minutes is about as long as I want to go. It usually takes only three or four car movements to fill the time. Keep in mind though that the run length of The Downtown Spur is 100 feet so it does take ten minutes each way in run time alone.

-I have offboard sound run through computer speakers set to deep bass. This gives a much richer sensory experience than with onboard decoders. This isn’t a decoder issue. It’s not a speaker issue. It’s the sound path from decoder to ear that is the issue.

-I’ve learned through trial and error that I use some “gimmicky” practices more than others. I really like the operational fusees and the operational industry gates. Setting car brakes is important but I haven’t used the audio for that as much as I thought I would. I don’t use the switch stand locks as much as I thought I would.

-Making the couple. If you watch a prototype locomotive couple to a car, it’s like hitting a brick wall. The car doesn’t move. By contrast, on our layouts, no matter how careful we are, the loco. “punts” the car down the track a bit. For me it’s a nail-on-chalkboard experience. Over the years I’ve tried numerous remedies and won’t bore you with the list here. Ultimately, I solved the problem with braking. By setting CV 61 equal to or larger than the deceleration CV, you get an “instant stop, hard brake” when you hit the brake button on the throttle. When making a couple, I creep the loco. up to the car at a throttle setting of 1 and the instant the couplers touch I hit the brake button.

-Loco. momentum sounds. If you watch and listen to a prototype locomotive you’ll hear the prime mover spooling up a moment or two before you see movement. Again, the brake function can be an easy way of replicating this. I set the brake, turn the throttle slightly, and as soon as I hear the engine rev a bit, I release the brake.

Wrapping up…. run your layout however you choose. Doesn’t it make sense though to have all of the pertinent information so you can make sure you’ve structured your solo sessions for maximum satisfaction? Study Matty’s video and the two below and see if there’s anything there to make your sessions more fun.

Some resources:

Here’s how a railroad uses fusee’s (go to the :20 mark)

Setting brake wheels is vital operational step (go to the 1:20 mark)

One thought on “Choreographing Your Own Show”

  • I watched the action several times. GVT has one of the great paint schemes, and all Alco’s to boot. I’ve gone through the props phase, then TrainCrew. Ended up finding both tedious. Works better for me, just don’t get in a hurry. About to start a new layout along a 20 foot wall. Could this work if I factor in something else? Doodling.

    John Moenius

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