How to Play With Your Trains

Getting out more often to rail fan industrial switching operations has had a direct impact on how much I enjoy operating my layout. The above shot was taken a few months ago in Annapolis Junction, MD.

I was a little surprised with the response I received from my recent Operations 101 YouTube videos. What it comes down to….I think….is that most of us don’t really know how to “play” with our trains. We put all of this effort into building our models….,we engage with the hobby community, and still it comes to “What in the sam hell do I do with all of this?!!”

What doesn’t help is the negative image people conjure up when they hear the term “operations” or worse yet…”FORMAL operations”. Boredom. Stress. Being forced to follow rules and procedures we don’t want to follow. Total confusion and disorientation when visiting another modelers layout. Confusing paperwork. The hobby has brought it upon itself and I’m as guilty as anybody (my apologies to anybody that attended my early operating sessions). Let’s step back for a second and do a re-boot.

I do, in fact, have friends with larger layouts that routinely and successfully host monthly sessions with multiple operators. They are in the distinct minority. My readership base skews towards smaller, modern era, industrial and branchline themes. The multi-operator, long mainline run, session you normally associate with “operating sessions” doesn’t apply to you. You will be operating solo. That fact alone changes everything. It gives you total freedom to set a session up anyway you please. Common sense dictates that you should do so in a way that maximizes your satisfaction does it not? Nobody cares how you do things. They really don’t. That being the case, let’s take a look at some ways to approach operating that might make things more satisfying. Obviously, these thoughts are totally subjective.

For me, the chess game aspect of operations has zero appeal. Moving a six inch long piece of plastic (aka a freight car) in front of another piece of plastic (aka a structure) does nothing for me. What does interest me is capturing the prototype experience. Visualizing the power,mass, vibe and rhythm of prototype railroading is what I enjoy. To do that I need a library of mental images that I can ratchet back and forth from when I’m running. The only way to build that library is through watching videos and rail fanning. (A subtle caution on the videos….as a practical matter, video producers need to edit out much of the process. If you dig around you can find some where this cropping is not done or at least is limited).

So, the first step is building that mental library. The second is to gain a basic understanding of what happens when the prototype performs switching operations. Professional railroaders, on the whole, are great folks that are extremely generous and patient when it comes to explaining things. That’s your first source. The other is going back to the videos and studying them. Finally, if you can, do some rail fanning.

Once you know the steps involved, what a real railroad actually does, you’re then in a position to apply those procedures in a way that you find most satisfying. The steps that a modeler incorporates, or chooses to skip, will vary from person to person. How fast you run? Up to you. How long to pause between moves? Up to you. Props or no props? You get the idea.

Personally, I try to run at least once a week and generally go for thirty to forty-five minutes. My approach is: Run….Pause…..Sip…..Visualize….Relax….Repeat. I’ll do a move, pause while I visualize an operation going on in the field (Three step, walking, opening a gate, etc.), take a sip of coffee or adult beverage, then move on to the next step. This is a hobby. We’re evolving into a “cat chasing a laser pointer…check your phone every few minutes” species. Industrial switching operations provides an opportunity to escape from that hamster wheel…but only if you let it.


Sidebar. Professional railroader Tom Holly has been very generous with his time when it comes to educating me on how the pros do it. We all appreciate it Tom! As part of my “training” he sent me THIS video of a NS switch crew in action. If your scroll to the 2:30 mark you’ll see what’s involved in the basic act of throwing a switch. First you have to unlock it. Then you do a quick visual check of the points. Note the pace they are working at. The locos are moving slightly above walking speed. He also sent me THIS CSX training video explaining the importance of and procedures related to hand brakes. I represent dealing with this step with a short pause.

On the same subject, Matty Gunn produced THIS excellent video of a very basic loads-for-empties swap that gives you a good sense for speed, pacing and the steps involved.

8 thoughts on “How to Play With Your Trains”

  • Lance, If I can, I’d like to suggest interested operators check out Tim Garlands Seaboard Central YouTube channel. Tim is an NS engineer with years of experience. He operates his Seaboard Central layout as prototypically as he can.

  • I find it interesting that you comment “My readership base skews towards smaller, modern era, industrial and branchline themes.” You often mention clients, however, who prefer just using their layout for trainwatching. I’d fall into that second category. I’m curious if you see a big difference between your clients and your readers.

  • I watched a WSOR crew switch out a plastic container plant with 2 tracks, 10 spots that required going through the same switch 5 or 6 times. EVERY time he threw the switch, he sighted down the rails even if it had only been 3 or 4 minutes since he’d thrown it for the other track. METICULOUS to say the least, but that degree of anal-retention saves lives and prevents not so good things from happening that we modelers don’t have to worry about!

  • I wonder if an aspect of this is recognizing a vulnerability modellers feel about their hobby? I think of this because my layouts live in our living room, alongside all the other things we do in that space. It causes me to think about what it looks like to operate a model railroad. As modellers, our myopia forms as we concentrate on the action within the box. It never occurs to us that we are also actors performing a one-person show based on what it looks like to be the perfect human operating a model train.

    To us, and the monologue we perform during an operating session, we know what we are here to do. The operating session we are performing exists both on the table in the form of the models we are moving around and also in our imaginations where we fill in the gaps that models alone can’t stimulate.

    The limited vocabulary of our hobby directs most of our purpose, regarding why we’re doing this, into a narrative collected around creating tributes to real life trains. That’s a comfortable space to exist within because it means that we “need” to do things because we’re building accurate models of the trains and places where trains are and go. We never need to address how we feel about the hobby or what it looks like to model because we’re consumed with “I need to do this so what I’m making is a good (accurate) looking model.” We don’t, however, see ourselves in the doing of this work. Hidden in our train rooms, we’re relieved from having to be seen as the modeller at their work. We can direct the question of why into a definition of “what is being done” and away from the more self conscious “what is it that makes me want to do this?” or “what am I attracted to?” and “what is entertaining me about this activity?”

    When our operating sessions are scripted around rigid practices like detailed and controlled environments we can be busy with our work, consumed by it completely, but still not accountable for our role in it. “I have to do this, in this operating session, because it’s what the timetable says I do” or “the switchlist says so”. If we don’t have that reason we’re left with “I made this because it makes me feel good and playing with these train models also feels good.”

    “Serious” modellers like to correct “non-modellers” that what we are building is not a train set. It saves us from feeling insecure about expressing how good it feels to do what we’re doing. We seek sanctuary in the space of what little vernacular we have, the serious hobby provides, to explain what we’re doing.

    I enjoyed the moments in your films where you paused to sip a coffee or beer. I do the same. It yields a cadence that is prototype-like. It slows down the session. This time also allows me to step outside the imaginary cab and appreciate the model railroad I have made. If it is working so well that I can’t see it anymore, this time, is grounding to appreciate that I did a lot of work to make the trains run this smoothly, sound this good, look this pleasing. Feel this good.

    “It makes me feel good.” is an incredibly vulnerable statement. It’s easier to rationalize our acitivities when we can justify them as work some third party guides us into the performance of. Maybe part of what we need isn’t so much help on how to play with model trains but the confidence that it’s okay to do so and that alone being enough. A validation of sorts. Permission to play.

    I love this conversation. It’s easier to get carried away with it. I’m enjoying the video series you’re releasing on this. They’re a joy to watch. It feels like an appreciation of what you’ve created in your layout. You reference prototype practice without using it as a justification or sales pitch. I feel as comfortable railfanning alongside you on your layout as I would watching actual CSX at work in the real places. This is a wonderful thing. The way you’re releasing these means we’re getting a chance to witness not just the beautiful model you’re creating but also your vision of it, the personality shared between you and your work. It personalizes the layout.

  • Your videos and commentary have made me go back and rethink my approach to running trains on my layout. Although your themes are modern I have found they translate nicely to my 1925-era Maine narrow-gauge layout. I know running trains and switching at a slow pace can give ME so much satisfaction. I’ve had 3 fun-filled sessions since watching your videos.
    As I contemplate down-sizing in the near future, I know I can be quite satisfied with a layout in a smaller space where I can relax and enjoy a slow paced session.

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