Lifelike Model Railroad Building

Learning how to operate your model railroad realistically is the key to having many years of enjoyment from the hobby.

Model railroading is a very popular hobby, with people of all ages and occupations taking part. Of course, one of the main goals of any model railroader is to build his own model railroad "layout", where he or she can run the models they have built and collected. Normally, these layouts are fairly small the first time they attempt to build one, typically on a four by eight-foot sheet of plywood. Although this gives a limited amount of space, it does make the project a manageable size, so that there is a higher likelihood of them completing it in a reasonable time. A typical beginner's layout might consist of a loop of track, perhaps with a passing siding, some buildings and roads, and a bit of scenery. Although fun to build, most beginning modelers find themselves getting very bored with just watching their trains run around in circles over and over. In some cases, they get bored with the entire hobby and simply give up. There is a solution to this problem, and it has been getting more and more attention in the model railroad press over the past 10 years or so. It's called prototypical operation, and it may result in a lifetime of hobby enjoyment, as its many areas of interest are explored to their fullest.

Lets face it; most people get involved with model trains because they are interested or impressed with real trains. The models they buy are increasingly accurate copies of real locomotives and cars. Some of them are virtual works of art, and are indistinguishable from their prototypes. So, logically, if we are going to go to great trouble and expense to model the equipment of a real railroad, why not go to the same amount of trouble to model what the railroad actually does? Railroads exist for one purpose; to move people and goods for the purposes of industry and commerce. To do so, they employ thousands of people, in many different occupations and with many different responsibilities. They use a huge physical plant, with two-way radios, large computer and signal systems, extensive work crews and equipment, and complex scheduling methods to make it all work together smoothly.

Some prototype railroads may do things entirely different from other railroads, due to management preferences, and types of traffic found on particular railroads may be entirely dissimilar to other railroads found only a few hundred miles away. What this means to the modeler is that there's a lot learn! And the learning part of this hobby is one of the most enjoyable parts of the hobby. Most modelers I have known who have undertake to study their chosen prototype railroad, have told me that it was an unexpectedly enjoyable experience to do so. It's like industrial archeology! What types of traffic predominate on your chosen railroad? Does this change from region to region? For instance, I model Canadian National, which carries a lot of auto parts, manufactured goods and grain products, but hardly any coal, which is a staple of several big U.S. railroads. Except in the west, where CN does carry a lot of coal. CSX, on the other hand, carries huge amounts of coal, along with lots of steel and manufactured goods, but not as much grain as CN. Some modelers pick a year, or a decade, and then decide to base their model railroad on that particular time. Then they have go out and find out many pieces of information, such as; what locomotives were in use at that time? Did your railroad lease other railroad's locomotives to help out? If so, what types were they? What kind of traffic predominated at that time in history? Which other railroads existed, and did your railroad exchange traffic with them? What kind of operating system did they use? Train orders, CTC signals, block signals, etc. What the heck ARE Train orders, CTC signals, block signals, etc.? The list is endless!

The task may seem somewhat daunting, but it really isn't. It's a hobby, and no one is going to care how long it takes you to learn about your favorite railroad. You can take it to whatever level of detail you want, and believe me, you'll never run out of things to research and build! What kinds of automobiles were in use at that time? What kind of architecture is prevalent in the area you're modeling? What about the local topography; is it flat plain, rolling hills, mountains? What kinds of industries do you find in the area, and what kind of freight cars do those industries use? The list goes on and on. The sources of information are many, from magazines and books, to the Internet and the guys at your local hobby store.

So let's say you've decided on a railroad and a time period, and you've started to learn some facts on what was going on with it at that time; then what? Then it's time to incorporate those facts into your model railroad layout. You can start by modeling some of the industry types you found out about, and obtaining some of the necessary freight cars needed to service them. For instance, if you install a coalmine on your layout, you'll need coal hoppers to go with it. If you haven't got any industrial sidings, then it's time to buy some switches and install some. Even two or three industrial switching tracks can add a lot of operational interest to a small model railroad.

Now, instead of just running your train around in circles, it's got a job to do. You've got to drop off those empty coal hoppers and pick up the loaded ones, because the power plant on the other side of the layout needs that coal, or your town is going to be dark! Also, the furniture factory has a loaded boxcar full of couches to ship, and is anxiously waiting for that flat car of lumber you have on your train. Meanwhile, you notice by checking your schedule that a passenger train is due any time, and you have to get out the way on the siding to let it by, because the superintendent of your subdivision will have your neck if you delay it!

And once the last passenger train goes by, you have to go back to the yard and pick up that oversized generator load (this is called a "dimensional load") for the power plant, which you couldn't bring on this trip because it was too wide for another train to pass you in the siding. You drop it off at the power plant, and then in your next operating session you come back to pick up the old generator, which has been loaded on the same car for shipment back to the GE plant for rebuilding. The number of different trains and operations is mind boggling. Some examples of types of trains you can run are: Inter-city passenger trains, local commuter trains, special passenger trains (such as steam excursions, political specials, etc.), railroad inspection trains, unit trains (trains that carry only one type of commodity, such as coal, oil, ore, steel, grain, etc.), general freights, intermodal trains (truck trailers and containers), local freights (which switch local industries), work trains (which work on the track and other railroad infrastructure), auto trains (cars and car parts, which move in special types of freight cars), etc., etc. If your layout is a bit bigger, you can even have multiple operators working on it. This requires more complex wiring, which requires more research, which we agreed earlier is a good thing!

One club I belonged to tried to simulate real operations as closely as possible, with a full railroad timetable, two-way radios, train order sheets, and a special "scale clock", which compresses time to make up for the prototypically shorter distances on the model railroad. There are a number of books available on prototypical operation, and one of my favorites is "Track Planning for Realistic Operations" by Kalmbach Publishing (available through most hobby shops). There are a large number of books which show suggested track plans, and many of these are aimed at people who wish to operate their railroads in a realistic manner. Bottom line: There's lots of help out there for someone who wishes to learn about railroading, and apply that knowledge to a model railroad. The process of learning is truly one of the most enjoyable parts of a very enjoyable hobby, so get out there and give it a try!

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