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Model railroad operation is a very important and exciting aspect of model railroading that for many model railroaders serves as the main goal in the hobby.

In fact, many renowned modellers comment that before you even start building your layout, you should sit down and think about your layout – just accept it.. Planning , even if only done in your head, is an essential part of your model railway journey!

Think about how your railroad will be operated, how trains will move, how trains will be assembled, where the staging yards will be located (or perhaps you do not need a staging yard?) and possible power requirements. Give consideration to things like DC/DCC, lighting, sound, scenery, and also consider possible restrictions such as time space or perhaps your budget..

Topics that form part of this Article:

Whatever the objectives for you layout may be, it most probably involves more than just going around in a circle, and ideally your layout has some form of purpose- be it moving passengers, perhaps you only model a small country siding, or an interesting industrial switch operation..maybe you move cargo to/from a harbor, or you simply move lumber out of a forest?

The possibilities are endless and is only limited by you imagination!

Another aspect of Operations is trying to figure out which one of your crew is suited for which particular job on the railroad – a job that in itself may be somewhat challenging at times!

Here are some additional notes on “hosting a session

  • It’s probably a good idea to move people around on different jobs at different sessions, so that no one gets bored doing the same thing over and over.
  • Some folks will never want to be a dispatcher or yardmaster, while others won’t want to leave the dispatcher’s chair or yardmaster’s position once they’re in it.
  • Newcomers will have to start slow to get the hang of it.
  • You may want to limit the number of newcomers to each session, so you don’t get too bogged down in orientation.
  • You should always try to make sure everyone has a job. If not, some members may need to come to alternate sessions, or you may just have to limit the number of members.
  • You want your operating sessions to be lively, interesting, socially inviting and friendly – never boring, and always fun!


Moving railcars to and from their industries, customers and staging yards is the main goal of model railroad operation; and it should be done in a way that is at least somewhat prototypical and makes the most sense. There are several ways that model railroaders have devised over the years to accomplish the tasks of moving cars. Two of these methods are described as follows…

Switchlists are a very prototypical method of moving rail cars in model railroad operations, since this is what the real railroads used. Basically, the yardmaster lists all the cars on his switchlist, and then, next to each car, depending on its destination, he places a number for the track in the yard that it’s supposed to go to – so that it can be placed in a consist with other cars going in that same direction or to that same location. Furthermore, the cars can be lined up in order corresponding to where they will be dropped off. You could use numbers of mileposts to help with sorting, such that cars going to milepost 74 would be closer to the engine (and the last to be dropped off) than the one going to milepost 52. Further back, would be the car going to milepost 19, which would then be the first of the 3 cars to be dropped off.

Using car cards and waybills is probably the most popular method of car forwarding used for model railroad operations. You can buy the forms for this through Micro-Mark or Old Line Graphics; or you can make your own. Basically, each rail car has an associated car card containing a pocket that holds the smaller waybill, which tells where the car is going. You can make up the waybill so that it can be used for 4 operating cycles or sessions and just turn the card upside down and/or front to back to use the different cycles at different operating sessions. That way you, the host, only have to set up the cards and waybills once to use them for 4 different sessions, and then use them over again starting with cycle 1. This provides variety for each session. By the time you get back to cycle 1 everyone has forgotten about it.

The car cards contain the road name, like PRR for Pennsylvania RR, the type of car, like coal car, and the number of the car that you can find written on the side of the car.

The waybills contain the routing information for the car, like which railroad lines it will be traveling along (e.g., B&O, PRR, C&O, WM), the name of the shipper and the name of the receiver, for each cycle.

The yardmaster’s job in a model railroad operation session, then, is to arrange the cars according to where they’re going and the order in which they will be set out, or dropped off – in other words, make up the consist for each train. When the train is ready, it can be placed on a departing track; and when the yardmaster receives clearance from the dispatcher, the train can be pulled out by a crewmember and taken to its destination, dropping off cars at various industries along the way.

Railcars in train yard

Railroad station clock

All of this activity is often done according to schedules and timetables set up by the host or by the chief dispatcher to hopefully provide for smooth model railroad operation. The typical operating session is run based on a fast-clock, which compresses a 24 hour train schedule into 3-4 hours, depending on how long you want your operating sessions to last. The operating crewmembers must try to keep their trains on schedule as much as possible. The trains are expected to arrive and depart at certain times to be sure the goods are picked up and delivered on time. Otherwise the shipping and receiving “customers” of the railroad will be unhappy and may start using a trucking service instead (not good for the railroad company). This requires a lot of teamwork as you might expect and a little time pressure to get the jobs done, but that’s all part of the fun.



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