Operating Your Model Railway

This article first appeared in the September/October 1988 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Steve Chapman.

Judging from what I have seen at Model Railway Exhibitions over the past twelve years, it would appear that very few Railway Modellers attempt to operate their model railways at exhibitions in a realistic manner. The purpose of this article is to show that operating a model railway in a realistic manner is no harder than operating in the way that model railways are typically run.

It would also seem that almost all model railways which are operated realistically are terminus/fiddle yard types in that it is almost impossible to operate a layout of this type in a way that would seem unrealistic whereas it is easy with a continuous layout to just set something going and to watch it go around and around and around... with almost no need to have an operator in attendance. This probably explains the rarity of the terminus/fiddle yard layout as compared to the continuous run despite the fact that you can build a terminus/fiddle yard in a much smaller space (I built one in OO in a space of eight foot by seventeen inches).

Any layout which corresponds at least approximately to prototype railway practice can be operated in a realistic manner fairly easily all that is needed is to treat railway operation as another aspect of the model railway, along with the scenery etc, which needs to be 'built'.


To be able to operate a model railway in the most realistic way possible requires that operation be kept foremost in mind from the earliest design stages of model railway construction, however if the model railway is already partly or even completely built a reasonably realistic operating method can be still be devised.

When designing your track plan you need to consider things like what sort of line that your model railway is supposed to represent, what sort of traffic would be found on such a line, how would this traffic be handled at the type of station or installation that you are intending to model, where would the sidings for the various purposes be put given the 'terrain' restrictions imposed by the available space, and how long would the sidings need to be to handle required traffic. If this sounds complicated then consider that if you base your track plan on a prototype design then most of this work has been done for you provided that you intend to run a similar type of service to that which is run through the station that you have based your plan on (suitably reduced to allow for the shorter platform and siding lengths and numbers).

To properly design the wiring system for your model railway operation must be kept very much in mind, a fraction of an inch in the length of an electrical section can make dramatic differences in what types of operations can be performed and isolating breaks need to be in different positions depending on the types of operations required. Money can sometimes be saved at this point by removing all electrical sectioning which is not required in order to operate the model railway in the desired fashion. It can sometimes help to draw the track plan out onto the board and before tracklaying commences move the rolling stock around the board to the desired locations to check clearances and to determine whether there are bottlenecks.

Uncoupling ramps to be placed in fixed locations should also be positioned based on the operating plan already determined.

Rolling stock should also be selected to meet the layouts operating requirements. This should not create any real difficulty for those who already own rolling stock which they wish to use on the layout since they would normally choose a prototype for their layout which would make use of at least a major portion of what they own and the rest can be used as fill-ins until the rest of the requirements are met and also for fun sessions where almost anything goes (which is preferably not more than a half an hour at the end of each day at an exhibition).

Even a layout which has already been partly or completely built can benefit from some consideration of the above. At the very least particular uses can be assigned to the various sidings bases on the track layout and available rolling stock so as to enable movements to be determined which have some supposed useful purpose.


The next step after building the layout and obtaining the rolling stock is to create a timetable. The timetable need not be set up to run to 'scale' time but should consist of a sequence of moves which take the various available rolling stock backwards and forwards around the layout so that it appears to be carrying out a useful and realistic purpose.

The various sections of track should be used for the purposes for which they were allocated during the design stage at meaningful time intervals throughout the sequence. If a particular movement would in reality be carried out a larger number of times in succession than would be interesting to operate or watch then the number of times can be reduced but not too excessively, if ten passenger trains of the same type are supposed to run in succession then perhaps four or five might be a more reasonable number of runs to include but a reasonable number of runs should be retained so as to maintain realism. If more trains of a particular type would run on the prototype then more trains of that type should still run on the model.

The sequence can be developed in stages. Work out what each of the alternate actions that each particular train might make when it appears on 'stage' and document each of these sequences separately. If two or more trains can interact when on show then document these sequences as well. If these sequences are numbered then the timetable can be generated by specifying the order in which the various sequences are to be run eg. 122132241. The starting position of all rolling stock should be recorded and the sequence should be set up in such a way as to ensure that the rolling stock is in the same positions at the end of the full sequence as it was at the beginning (but if things in the fiddleyard don't work out quite right they can be crane shunted back to their original position via use of the big hand in the sky - note that this should not be done with rolling stock on the visible part of the layout).

Supposed arrival and departure times can be assigned to the appropriate parts of the sequence so that a conventional looking timetable for your station can be displayed.

Run the timetable through on the layout a few times, modifying it as necessary to allow for problems which you overlooked when you first worked it out.

Once you are happy with the sequence then each of the individual moves in the timetable can be transferred onto a card which can show all details relevant to the particular move eg switch and point positions, this will speed up the setting up of the controls ready for the particular move to be made. These cards can be fixed together in such a way that each card can be flipped over when the move has been completed. It then becomes a simple matter to run the entire sequence by carrying out the instructions on each card in turn.

The end of the sequence provides a few minutes break while the cards are turned back and gives the crowds an opportunity to move on and make room for the next group, but if a short break without running anything bothers you then you can always turn the cards back while the late night goods trundles slowly into the fiddle yard.

Once one sequence has been successfully created then further sequences can be added to allow for different days of the week, or different times of the year and the various sequences can be run one after the other with a short break in between which can give quite a long period of operation before the exact same sequence of moves is reproduced (although some short sequences may appear many times in the full sequence).

Some people having reached this stage even go so far as to time the various moves in their sequence and to produce a taped commentary describing what is going on for the audience. Care has to be taken when doing this as the commentary can disturb the operators of nearby layouts under exhibition conditions.


Operation in a realistic manner adds a whole new dimension to railway modelling and can be as interesting in its own way as layout and rolling stock construction etc. It may take more effort initially to set up a timetable for your model railway but you will find it much more interesting to operate and the viewing public will have something more to look at when you are operating the layout.

Happy operating.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman