Model Railroad Blog

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)

Car Forwarding Systems

The Fish Market Seafood Restaurant on East Rail 2

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about carforwarding systems and paperwork. How should the movements be designed? Dice? Computer? Other? What type of paperwork should I use? Prototypical? Car cards? Waybills? Other? Let’s break it down. It depends on the size of your layout and whether the operator is just yourself or a visiting guest.

As far as coming up with an overall scenario for moving the cars, the key issue is layout size. The larger the layout, the more daunting the task is, and the more likely you’ll need some form of computer help. That said, most of my blog readers have small or average size layouts that focus on modest branches or industrial parks. In this case the answer is simple, no dice, no computers… generate the movements manually. By far it will give you more plausible scenarios. It’s faster. It’s easier. In most cases you simply aren’t looking at that many cars. Also keep in mind that prototype movements tend to be very repetitive day in and day out. There isn’t much mystery. In Miami you know low-side gons go to FP&T, high side gons go to Miami Iron, LPG tanks go to the only LPG dealer on the line. I don’t even need a list really and doubt the prototype crews does in most cases.

As far as paperwork goes, it depends upon whether you’re operating by yourself or will have guests. As a guest I’ve been handed “prototypical waybills” and spent half the session scratching my head wondering, “what the hell am I looking at? Where on this sheet or card is the information I really need? I don’t care what route the car took or will take two days down the road”. Save the complicated “prototypical” paperwork for when you’re running by yourself. Your guests will appreciate it. A new person is going to be disoriented as it is. They only want (and need) to know two things. When I approach an industry do I pick up any of the cars? When I approach an industry do I drop off any cars and where do I drop them? By default if a car on the layout doesn’t have paperwork that means it stays where it is.

This is the paperwork I use on my layouts and mentioned in my operations book. Three things can happen: you pick up a car, you drop off a car, or if it’s not on the list you do nothing.

Bottom line, if you’re layout is small or of modest size, design the car movements manually. In most situations a super crisp, easy to follow, work order works best for paperwork. You don’t get style points for making things hard to follow and your guests will thank you for it.

More Horse Before the Cart Talk

Conductors don’t have wings. They can’t fly. In this view, the conductor is taking a final look at his work before walking back to the locomotive. Motion isn’t constant. Pauses like this are frequent. Incorporating even a touch of this reality effectively stretches a layout requiring fewer elements to keep you entertained.

Drawing a track plan is the last, and easiest, aspect of layout design.  Planning is the hardest because it involves doing some soul-searching and requires a level of self-awareness that we all “think” we have but often do not…myself included.

Drawing, sketching, and daydreaming is easier and more fun than planning.  I get it.  However, if you don’t have a clear objective in mind as to what you want to accomplish you’re setting yourself up for trouble down the road. Here are some questions you should be able to answer before you start designing.

1. Where is your enjoyment and satisfaction going to come from?  Building the layout and models?  Looking at it? Operating it? A combination?  This is a tough one that even experienced modelers don’t have as much of a handle as they think they do.  For me, the Downtown Spur is for operating.  East Rail 2 and the LAJ are 3D art and photographic platforms. I enjoy them all but in different ways.

2. If some form of operations is important to you, what type? Casual train runner and rail fan?  Semi-prototypical?  If prototypical, what type of operations do you enjoy most? Yard, branch line, mainline/through, industrial?

3. Will you be running solo or with the occasional guest operators?  I’ll answer this for you.  The vast majority of the time it will just be you.  A cautionary warning not to overreach and build in more elements than you can absorb.

4. How long will your running sessions be?  Again, I’ll answer this for you.  Generally, people go thirty to sixty minutes when running by themselves.

5. How much operational variety do you need from session to session?  If you need a ton of variety and visual stimulation you’ll need a lot more elements and layout to feel entertained.  In the prototype world, they tend to do the same thing week in and week out.

Armed with the answers to these planning questions you are better positioned to come up with a plan that is focused on what you enjoy most.

Exaggerating the Ordinary

In August of last year I wrote a post on the topic of caricature, caricature being defined as an artistic style leaning towards the exaggeration of features. In model railroading terms it’s an orientation that focuses more on fantasy and whimsy.

Styles fall on a spectrum with modelers spread out among various approaches depending on their personal tastes. We tend to view the ends of that spectrum, the boundaries, as having caricature on one side and a prototypical orientation on the other. That’s not the case, and that reality offers the opportunity for a third stylistic approach. If caricature is an overemphasis, then following that same logic, it has a counterpart. That counterpart is underemphasis.

Decades ago I was watching an Allen Keller video on my friend and mentor, Chuck Hitchcock. During the interview, Chuck made the statement that, “The key to achieving realism is to not just represent the ordinary, but to slightly overemphasize it”. It’s a pretty profound insight that has stuck with me to this day.

What would “emphasizing the ordinary” look like? Take an example where you have a city block with six mundane, white, shotgun houses, one yellow one, and one red one. The white structures are the “ordinary” elements. The eye will be drawn to the red one. A stylistic approach of dialing things back would be to make the entire block white structures. If a section of town has a few faded, rusting corrugated, one story warehouses, you might emphasize those and give them more visual priority, more square footage, than something that is more eye catching.

Let’s take another example, illustrated visually. In my last newsletter, I discussed how vehicle colors played out by percentage, the numbers being supplied by one of the paint manufacturers. On a percentage basis it breaks down like this: silver 20%, white 16%, gray 13%, black 13%, blue 10%, red 10%, other 18%. In other words, two thirds of the vehicles on the road today are silver, white, gray, or black.

The left photo is caricature approach with no attempt to be prototypical as far as color percentages go. It’s overly saturated. The center photo matches the prototypical color percentages exactly. On the right, I’ve overemphasized the ordinary and used only “ordinary” colors (white, silver, gray, and black). Even though it’s technically not prototypical, in an odd sort of of way, it looks even more realistic, almost an optical illusion.

There is no right or wrong to any particular style. No style is superior to the other. If you’re enjoying what’s in your layout room then that’s what it’s all about. However…..what IS important is that the style you choose be by conscious decision, by thoughtful intent, and not out of benign ignorance or following the herd.