Prep for an Op Session

I often field question on how I prepare my layout for an operating session. The Wheeling Freight Terminal hosts a session nearly every month and I’ve fallen into a work pattern that minimizes the time to bring the layout ready for a session. The tasks fall into three basic categories; clean and lube, inbound and outbound car inventory, and fix previous problems. Let’s take a closer look at each category.

Clean and Lube
Cleaning track is in important task for any successful operating session. While my hobby room is temperature controlled, it gets dusty. Knocking that dust from the railhead is done before each session using simple tools made from wine bottle corks.

Cut the cork in half lengthwise with a razor saw to make two half cylinders.

The cork pieces can be rubbed along the rails to clear the accumulated dust. Be careful when cleaning around any switchpoints as the points could get caught as you push the cork along. I use a wood toothpick to carefully wipe the switchpoints if dirt buildup.

Conducta Lube & Cleaner has uses beyond your locomotives. I apply a drop at each spot on a track switch where there is a physical connection. My Walthers/Shinohara switches are built with point rails hinged using rail joiners. While I did add feeder wires to electrically connect the point and closure rails, a drop on each of these rail joiners does improve locomotive performance on these rails.

Another drop is added to the back of each switchpoint and the switch is thrown a few times to spread the material around.

The graphite stick is near the bottom of the photo.

After cleaning track and applying Conducta-Lube to the track switches, I apply some graphite to two curves that all trains pass through during a session. A friend gave me this General’s 6B graphite stick a couple of years ago to help with track conductivity. Used sparingly, it seems to make a difference with my steam loco power.

Inbound and Outbound Car Inventory
Many model railroads use car cards and waybills to forward freight cars to destinations. As my layout is a freight terminal, I believe the prototype waybills were handled by the freight terminal clerks. The clerks would produce inventory lists of the inbound and outbound freight cars for the crews to use in puling and spotting cars at the terminal.

The inbound cars are inventoried first. The AAR car class, reporting mark, and the last two or three digits of the car number are written down. The details for each car are captured in order on one track before taking inventory of another track. My yard is actually two classification yards, and eastbound and a westbound yard, so two crews can sort out the inbound cars. An inventory sheet is made for each side of the yard. All cars in the yard at this point are inbound.

Each of the remaining cars go through a process to determine the destination. Two stacks of cards are used pick a specific destination spot for each car. One stack has team yard locations while the other has freight house locations.

An online random number generator is used to decide what stack is picked. The maximum number on the random number generator is set for 2 and a result is generated. If a number 1 is generated, then a team yard card is picked and the spot details are written beside the car on the inventory. If a number 2 is generated, then a freight house card is picked.

The above image shows how the destinations are added to the inventory but there is a problem. I have a tank car to be spotted at the freight house. It’s the fourth car down on the list, GATX 39. As the freight house is a covered train shed, this needs to be altered.

The next freight house spot card was for the back track, so the tank car destination was altered and the next box car was given the original tank car destination. I usually watch out for any mismatched destinations, such as a gondola or tank car going into the freight house. It’s easy to skip the line and apply the destination to the next proper car. This system is not perfect but there is less to really think about when setting up the layout.

Outbound traffic use similar inventory sheets. Using two types of paper for these helps the crews keep their work straight. Notice the inbound cars on are listed on large white tablets while the outbound inventory is on a smaller, yellow sheet.

There are six outbound destinations that are chosen by the random number generator. On occasion, I tag one or two cars to HOLD so they do not move out. Wheeling was a hub on the B&O and there were five ways out of town; east to Pittsburgh, east to Grafton, east down the Ohio River subdivision, west to Columbus, and west to Cleveland. A sixth destination is for empty cars to the clean out track. The outbound cars are classified and blocked by final destination once they are all in the yard. We usually have lunch before this final part of the session.

Fix Previous Problems
In the course of an operating session, something may arise that needs my attention after the session. A coupler repair, switchpoints not closing, track mis-alignment, a DCC oddity on a loco, etc. My crews are good at writing up the problem and leaving the note on my workbench. I try to tackle these right after a session.

A good running railroad is important to regular operating sessions. If crews have too much difficulty with a section of track or the performance ot the locomotives, they will lose interest. A good runing railroad is fun for all, even if spotting some freight cars are challenging.

All Set Up!
Once the layout prep is complete, I can check the propane in the grill and pick up lunch and drink staples for the crew. I usually send a crew call via email a week before the session and four or five people respond to participate. Check out my last op session blog post from September 2016 to see the crew in action.

Every layout requires similar steps to prepare for an operating session. Get into a process early and operate your model railroad frequently to gain the most satisfaction from your work.

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One thought on “Prep for an Op Session”

  1. For those of us without corks, the vinyl erasers work very well. I buy mine at the Dollar store for 4/$1

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