Friday, April 12, 2013

The Best Time To Rip Up Track Is Two Weeks Before An Operating Session

Well, well! It's certainly been a while since I talked about model railroad subjects!

Let's just say it was a busy spring. I hosted an operating session for the Bay Area Layout Design and Operations meet (always the week before the Superbowl, best event on the calendar, come on over next year!). I hosted another operating session in March for our local model railroad invitational, BayRails, and hosted some very skilled operators from Santa Rosa, Arizona, Southern California, and British Columbia. I also had an open house for the Vasona Branch in early April as part of the local Iron Horse Express convention. Whew!

But that list doesn't quite tell how crazy a winter it was, and some of those stories are worth telling.

Adding some "Hurry Up and Wait" to a Model Railroad When I've heard professional railroaders talk about their jobs, I often hear about the "hurry up and wait" moments - how they'll have moments during the day when they need to rush, and other points in their jobs when all they can do is wait for long stretches of time.

I'd had a couple folks remind me that railroaders don't just show up to large industries and start switching; often they'll arrive, search around for the foreman, ask about car placements, and then start switching. Even though my switch lists already contain car doors, that idea of having to walk in and talk to the foreman seemed like a nice bit of the daily grind worth bringing into the operating session.

My low-tech solution was to take a Post-It, fold it in half to make a standing sign, and write "Contact foreman before switching plant". My crews would pull their trains out of staging, think about their moves, then start backing down the track to Plant 51 before seeing the signs. They'd come over, I'd make a couple changes to their switchlist and door spotting instructions, then turn them loose.

I liked how this worked out. The crews got a brief interruption before they started switching that got them away from thinking about the layout, and I dragged out operations a bit more (which is usually a good thing on a smaller layout). Even if their initial plans may have been thwarted, the crews seemed ok with the interruption.

The idea of "find the foreman" isn't original; Seth Neumann has blue flags made from pins and tape blocking some tracks at the Snoboy transshipment yard on his WP Milpitas Yard model railroad; I'm sure other modelers have used similar tricks. It worked well for my layout, so I'm suspecting it's time to make more permanent signs. Excitement At The Operating Sessions As usual, hosting operating sessions on a model railroad can be a bit stressful. I find my Vasona Branch requires a fair amount of prep work beforehand - cleaning track, vacuuming scenery, testing switches, tuning locomotives. I'd told the story back in January about how the prep obviously wasn't enough; on Saturday night before the operating session, cars were constatly derailing when backing into the track leading to Plant 51. Much of Saturday night and Sunday morning was spent trying to tune the cars and track so one of the busiest locations on the railroad didn't turn into a sea of derailed refrigerator cars. That repair worked and led to a good operating session on Sunday afternoon, but that track had gotten me mad.

That track at Plant 51 had been installed probably on day 3 of the model railroad. The offending section was a climbing track with a curved turnout leading to an industry, and with the turnout placed over a joint in the subroadbed. What seemed like inconsequential bumps on my first day of construction had always been trouble spots. It took the frantic effort Saturday night to convince me it was time to fix that track for good. The next week, I ripped up that entire stretch of track. I took a power sander to the roadbed to even out some bumps in the homasote, stiffened some of the joints in the plywood underneath, spackled the roadbed to get rid of any detectable unevenness, and got the track back into operation in time for BayRails. I also ripped out some of the adjoining scenery to better model the missing Los Gatos Creek bridge. Photos forthcoming as soon as I can mock up the Higgins-Hyde Packing Company plant.

The Plant 51 switch ran much better during BayRails, but I'd caught a few cars derailing during the operating session. Being conscientious, I went out the following Sunday morning determined to run the badly-behaving cars around the layout and identify trouble spots. I immediately hit two big ones - some uneven roadbed near Alma that had always been a low-grade problem, and much more frequent derailments at the Los Gatos siding that had been a constant annoyance for the last few years. After the good luck with the Plant 51 switch, I decided to rip out and replace both stretches of track... only to realize that I had two weeks to get both locations back in order before the Iron Horse Express open house. Short answer: the track got replaced, but it was a little touch-and go there.

I did learn some lessons from all these episodes. The Los Gatos Creek scene in San Jose, while unfinished, still came together remarkably fast once I'd decided to rip out and replace the track, and the new trackage makes operations a dream. I'd forgotten how fast I could build and repair when I had some hard deadlines, and the deadlines certainly contributed to getting some lingering problems fixed for good.

Going out that Sunday morning after the operating session was also a wise move, for I fixed several misbehaving cars while I could still remember where the problems had been occurring. More importantly, running a test train with only the worst cars helped me realize how badly-performing some of those cars were, and helped me zero in on bad trackage that I might not have noticed during a regular operating session. I'll certainly try to repeat this exercise after future sessions.

Guess it's time to schedule another operating session soon so I'll have a reason to rip up some track at inappropriate times.


  1. Great blog. I came across it while looking for information on scaling Blender and Skeinforge. My first project - when the machine arrives - will be a copy of the rail mounted Mortar Dictator form the Civil War - thus the railroad cross over.

    Though more of a British outline N guy, wandering through your pages here brings back memories of an old Model Railoader (?) article on a layout centred around the orange crop. Thanks for re-kindling the memories.


  2. Thanks for the kind words, Pat - it's been a fun blog to write!

    Good luck with the mortar; Shapeways and the frosted ultra detail can do some beautiful model work. I'm already thinking I need of doing some additional models with 3d printing. I'm thinking huge stacks of fruit lugs might be a quick and satisfying 3d-printed model.

  3. Robert, multiply what you went through here by a bunch and you realize the work required to maintain and keep the Cumberland West in order, and still have issues. It never ends. Just yesterday I was checking out a switcher that had stopped working, and found the motor part of the decoder dead. Oh well. Leo

  4. I definitely understand what y'all do to keep a large layout running, and I'm grateful for all that work when I come over and operate on the Cumberland West. At the same time, I'm glad that the Vasona Branch isn't any bigger, for I'm not sure I could handle more maintenance on my own!