Friday, January 25, 2008

An Operating Session with Paying Customers

Every year, there's a mini-convention on model railroad design and operation in Santa Clara. It takes place the weekend before the superbowl. Saturday is filled with talks -- discussions of the problems someone encountered building their layout, history of a real place being modeled, or stories on how to make running the layout seem more realistic and fun. On Sunday, everyone's invited to one of the model railroads in the area to join an operating session.

Operating sessions are a lot like role playing -- you take over a particular job on the model railroad, and do that job as if it were real life. It's fun because you can solve problems, pretend to do real railroad work, and see what happens when everyone works together. I've operated on different layouts for at least four years, and each one's different. On Rick Fortin's layout, that meant sorting boxcars for eight hours in the yard, and figuring out what order to do work to make sure each train was made up in time. On Dave Adam's Colorado narrow gauge, I got to dispatch -- controlling how trains went between towns. On Dave Parks' B&O layout, I got to manage a yard and add or remove hoppers full of coal as trains passed.

This year, I decided to return the favor; my layout's going to be one of the open layouts. Four people will get to spend a few hours shuffling boxcars at the canneries of the 1930's Santa Clara Valley and hopefully get some appreciation for the era and the way railroading was done. My layout might not be the largest layout open to guests, but hopefully it'll be a fun experience.

I've spent the last few weeks cleaning up -- tuning cars and locomotives, fixing problems in the track, improving instructions and labels, and whatever else might make the experience better. In the week before Christmas and New Years, I managed to shanghai four friends to do a trial run and help me figure out what needed to be fixed before the paying customers arrived.

Mark Gurries comes around the bend to find San Jose blocked with two trains already switching industries.

Dave Falkenberg uncouples part of the train before switching Del Monte Plant 51.

The only big issue was stalling locomotives. The track got dirty quickly, and my small steam locomotives would hit the dirt and stop. Mark suggested modifying the decoders in the locomotives with "keep-alive" capacitors to give the train a chance to coast past a bit of dirty track. I took his advice, and also cleaned all my freight cars' wheels in hopes of cutting the amount of crud that could be carried around. Fingers crossed. Thanks for the help, guys!