2016 in Review

In retrospect, I will remember 2016 as the year that I discovered operations.

I knew early on that I wanted to build the layout so that it would be more than a railfanning concept and could eventually grow (with me) into full operations. But I had no idea what that practically meant. Like most things, reading about it theoretically wasn’t doing it for me – I really needed to see it and experience it.

This year I got to operate on four very different layouts, each of which was a complete joy and all of them have informed my thinking and have contributed to the evolution of my trackplan.


First up, was the N scale Grand Trunk Southern layout of John Johnson (CARM founder and Canadian editor, above) in Hamilton, ON.  You can read all about it at the blog post here.


Then in  June, I was invited to operate on Sheldon Frankel’s fantastic Quebec & New England layout. I first discovered the Q&NE on Sheldon’s YouTube channel and was amazed to learn that this was a local layout. I have since become a regular monthly operator on the Q&NE and very much enjoy being part of an operating group.


Trevor Marshall, who I met at the Copetown Show this year, invited me over to operate on his S scale Port Rowan in 1:64 and blogged about it here. I had listened to Trevor on his podcast, The Model Railway Show, watched him on trainmasters.tv and was an avid follower of his blog. This was another layout that I was on my ‘TOP 10 to visit’ list!


Finally, I had the pleasure to be a guest operator on the Waterloo Region Model Railroad Club. I was invited by Chris van der Heide because he knew of my interest in learning more about OCS operations.


In addition to being a ton of fun, I learned something from each of these experiences. A little bit of each of these layouts will make it into my trackplan and operating concept.

Which beings me to the second theme of 2016… the year that I ‘finalized’ my trackplan. I was really struggling with the trackplan and had actually thought about soliciting some professional help and purchasing some design services. Like most things, a number of people/factors came together to break the logjam.

After watching Bill Beranek, The Track Planner’s excellent Operations presentation on the YouTube Model Builders channel, I became very interested in the AnyRail track planning software. It was fun, easy and finally I was able to try out ideas and really see what would work!

This got me to a trackplan – good but not great. Many thanks to Sheldon Frankel, who in addition to being the owner of the Q&NE is a professional civil engineer and happens to have worked for the railways. No better person to take my previous mess and clean it up with some good, practical, prototypical track design. You can view the revised track plan as a more detailed PDF here.

The final theme of 2016 is friendships. None of the above would have been possible without the friendship of some pretty incredible people.

Being located in Toronto, ON means that I am lucky to be surrounded by hundreds of fantastic modellers and their layouts. I’ve said it before, but I am constantly amazed how generous this community is with their time and encouragement and I have had the good fortune of learning from some of the best. Thank you.



September 10th, 1976


Yesterday I had the pleasure to be a guest operator on the Waterloo Region Model Railroad Club. I was invited by Chris van der Heide because he kindly replied to my last post regarding my interest in learning more about OCS operations. The club uses this method in its operations and he thought that it would be of interest to me to learn how they approach this. Thanks Chris!

The Waterloo Region Model Railway Club (WRMRC) is a 2000 square foot, HO-scale (1:87) recreation of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Sudbury Division, as it appeared and operated during the 1970s. The layout features include:

  • a multi-level (mushroom) design over 2 floors with tracks interconnected by helices
  • track arrangements of the modelled towns are duplicated closely to the prototype locations
  • locomotives and rolling stock match real equipment that operated in northern Ontario during the ’70s
  • long freight trains rolling smoothly over handlaid trackage powered by NCE Digital Command Control

The session started at Noon and first task was to sign in and get on a crew. I joined Crew 4 and my partner was a 20-year club veteran Peter Korschefsky. Trains are operated with 2-man crews and we communicated with the isolated dispatchers via Motorola radios. Real freight and passenger schedules were followed, along with proper blocking of freight traffic between trains. Freight delivery was governed by a car-card and waybill system mimicing the prototypical generation of traffic by railway customers. In short, we were operating the Sudbury Division prototypically – as a miniature transportation system.

Peter at home in his dispatcher’s chair.

Peter is usually a dispatcher on the WRMRC, however yesterday he and I were Conductor and Engineer on three Manifest trains. Peter and I quickly started scheming about how to model CN 1501 using Rapido’s upcoming RDC-1 Phase 2 and I fear that I might have pulled him over to the dark side. Sorry about that Peter.

Over the course of a 6 hour session, a group of around 14 guys ran 21 trains – all simulating the traffic found around Sudbury on September 10th, 1976. And man was it FUN!

Peter and Phil are trying to figure out where we are – or more specifically -where we are supposed to be.

This was my fifth time operating (each time a different layout) and I have to say that I am hooked. Every session has been very unique; whether its been N-scale or  HO-scale, big club layout or small basement layout; fully sceniced or ‘plywood pacific’; mainline freight operations or switching layouts – it doesn’t matter. Each experience is fun and teaches me a little bit more. The more I operate on other layouts the closer I feel to knowing what I want for my QGRY in HO scale.

Hunter Hughson‘ working the Sudbury Yard Switcher.
Bob Fallowfield looks to be up to no good in the Sudbury Yard.

I really enjoyed my time on the WRMRC and hope to be back for another visit. Special thanks to Chis for inviting me, Peter and Ted who showed me the ropes, and everyone else that made me feel welcome.

If you are interested in a club with great prototype operations check out the WRMRC at their upcoming  2016 Annual Fall Open House on October 15th.

Rules, rules, rules!

2016 CTGSo I finally went out and bought myself a copy of the 2016 Canadian Trackside Guide. The book by the Bytown Railway Society is “the comprehensive listing of Canadian railways including their US-based operations. The 2016 edition features the latest updates (to end of February) to all the sections including motive power, industrial locomotives, preserved equipment, passenger equipment, work train equipment, subdivision details, radio frequencies and more.”

The reason I wanted The Guide was to gain insight on how trains operate on my prototype (the QGRY). I had hoped to find a timetable of trains and gain insights into operations, and while I was unsuccessful in this regard, I did learn something new.

Beside the listing of subs and milemakers I found the initials OCS which I learned stood for OCCUPANCY CONTROL SYSTEM. The QGRY operates in what is known as “dark territory” and no signals are used to govern train movements. All movements must be authorized by the dispatcher, who verbally instructs the train to proceed, usually by radio. The dispatcher selects the stations or mileposts between which the train may move – a segment of track known as the authority limit. In the US this is called Track Warrant Control.

Googling ‘Occupancy Control System (OCS)’ lead me to Transport Canada’s Canadian Rail Operating Rules – an amazing resource that I will attempt to digest and understand. You can download the entire PDF doc here:


Not sure yet how this will inform my plan for operations, but at least I have learned that I don’t have to worry about installing signals on the QGRY.



Operating on the Q&NE


Last week I was invited to operate on Sheldon Frankel’s fantastic Quebec & New England layout. The Q&NE layout is 19′ x 29′ HO layout based on the southern end of a regional railroad that runs between Montreal and Boston circa 1990. The focus of the layout is the interchange with Conrail and the many industries served by the QNE.

I had originally discovered the Q&NE on its youtube channel and have been enjoying the 50+ videos over the years. Recently I met Sheldon at a train show and was thrilled when he emailed with the news that he was celebrating one of his regular operator’s retirement and relocation. Bill’s punishment for abandoning his post was that he had to train a replacement operator. Did I want to apply for the job? I warned the gang that my operations experienced was limited, but was welcomed to ‘apprentice’ with Bill.


Operating sessions began in 2012 with a crew of four. Car and train movements are governed by a home-made XL program that assigns and tracks all car locations and train consists. A daily QNE train arrives from staging with local traffic as well as cars for interchange with eastbound and westbound Conrail trains. The QNE crew and power lay over and return northbound during the following operating session. There are two separate staging loops so that westbound departures are automatically turned to become eastbound arrivals (and vice versa) in a later operating session. The same trains do not show up on the layout more often than every third operating session.

The OPS session lasted around four hours and was HARD WORK. We were moving freight! This was a very realistic working session and I felt an appreciation for the very hard work done every day by real railroaders.

I was honoured to be a part of the gang, and as you can see by the photo at the top of the post, I passed the initiation. Not sure it was my skill or my thick skin but I got to take the T-Shirt home. Looking forward to the next session, and a big thank you to Sheldon and his crew for showing me the rails to and for making the evening so much fun!


And finally…a track plan!


For the last 2 years I have been really struggling with my track plan.

As I am on a Mac, I never did find a CAD/layout design program that I liked and that had a complete track library. There was one that I played around with, but honestly I couldn’t get it to work properly (and I am trained as a graphic designer!). Maybe that was the problem as I am used to more sophisticated layout and design programs.

In any case, the lack of good design software meant that every idea in my head and then roughly sketched on paper had to be manually tried (and tested) with turnouts on the benchwork. What looked good ‘on paper’ never really fit together the way I intended and I never could get it all quite ‘right’.

After watching Bill Beranek, The Track Planner’s excellent Operations presentation (above) on the YouTube Model Builders channel, and visiting his website, I became very interested in the AnyRail track planning software . Also happily, I just bought my 10 year old son his first computer – a PC. I purchased a full version of AnyRail and started playing around. It was fun, easy and finally I was able to try out ideas and really see what would work!

The result is my track plan (downloadable PDF file). I am still soliciting feedback from friends in the hobby that know more than I do about operations; however, I feel very close to having a track plan that works.

I can recommend the AnyRail track planning software and there is a fully functional free trial. Any thoughts or comments on my track plan are greatly appreciated.

Operating the Grand Trunk Southern



Saturday, I had the opportunity to visit the N scale layout of John Johnson (CARM founder and Canadian editor – pictured above) in Hamilton, ON. This was the much anticipated operating session on his Grand Trunk Southern layout and followed his excellent presentation last October on layout operations. The Grand Trunk Southern is a two level freelanced layout set in Central Pennsylvania in 1969. The layout is DCC powered with Digitrax and features early diesel power.


I was especially excited as this was only the second time that I had been invited to an operating session, and the first time that I had used car cards and waybills. My job was to run a local that switched the industries in Nathansville. Powered by two beautiful Rapido GMD-1s, I spent an enjoyable hour shunting cars between the interchange track, the builders supply, the propane dealership etc. and building the train to Clarion.


So some thoughts about my first ‘real’ OPs session…

Model railroad operations is work. Real, hard work. But man is it fun work! After an hour of thinking about how to achieve the tasks at hand, and constantly checking to make turn that the turnouts were properly aligned, I was ready to take a break. This gave me an appreciation for the real work done by the real railroads.

John was a gracious host and especially patient with a newbie like myself. I was very appreciative of his insights around operations and for his help in planning operations on my QGRY.

Thank you John for a wonderful Saturday afternoon!


Helpful hints for Operating Model Railroads

Video Thursday

This YouTube four part series is THE BEST tutorial I have seen explaining how model railroad operations work. This has helped me immensely as I modify my track plan for operations.

Mike Hamer and Chris Lyon hosts us on the Lyon Valley Northern in this four part series on helpful tricks and hints for operating model railroads. In part one, they explain some of the things you should do when visiting a model railroad for the first time. How to familiarize yourself so that operations are more comfortable.

In Part 2, Mike and Chris bring a Way Freight into Shelby on the LVN and they explain some of the better practices of protecting against mainline traffic. They efficiently handle lifts and drops in the yard and provide insight into good operations practices that can be applied wherever you run trains. They take the mystery out of operating a layout you have never worked before..

In Part 3, they explain the yard throat, arrival departure activities and the track occupation principles. By understanding these practices, the new operator at a layout will be less intimidated by yard movements, track occupation and locomotive servicing.

In Part 4, our hosts take us through a process of bringing a cut of cars into an industrial area with timesaver design on the Lyon Valley Northern and they describe in detail useful approaches to simplify lifting and dropping cars, They explain, classification, blocking, facing and trailing switches, using the runaround and yard leads. Also how to best reduce the number of moves to accomplish the switching task. The video is intended to provide you with some new knowledge or confirm what you know. Having a good handle on these concepts will simplify model railroad operations so that you can go to any layout and feel confident that you can step in and do your part to enjoy the experience of model railroad operations.