The first op session for the Wheeling Freight Terminal

The quiet before the storm of the first op session.
The quiet before the storm of the first op session.

My B&O Wheeling Freight Terminal layout has reached the point where I can hold an operating session. All of the track switch controls have been installed and adjusted to proper working order and a few track gauge issues have been corrected. It was time to make the leap of faith. My friend Mike committed to the initial shake down session so I was now locked in and needed to prep. This will be the first op session on a layout in my home since the summer of 2001. Where have the years gone?


The task list to prepare the layout.
The task list to prepare the layout.


As a first step, I made a check list of tasks so the session can have a chance of success. Cleaning off the layout is the first step. The flat spaces attract all sorts of detritus and tools. These were removed to proper storage or the trash can. A vacuum was employed to pull away lots of small bits and dust. A small fleet of hopper cars were removed and packed away as there was no use for 20-some coal hoppers for the session. The rails were wiped down next to remove a thin layer of dust then I took an inventory of freight car locations and where those were headed.

I don’t have any car cards or waybills, so I crafted rough switch lists for this first session. This first team track job would move seven cars from the yard to the team tracks and seven cars from the team track area back to the yard. While this sounds easy, the team tracks are accessed by a switchback of limited length. A loco and four cars are the maximum. Here’s the track plan sketch from a couple of years ago.

B&O Wheeling Freight Terminal layout plan.
B&O Wheeling Freight Terminal layout plan.

The switch lists carry a basic instruction on what cars to pull. In this case, all cars on track one and the auto track would be pulled. I listed each car by reporting mark and car number (or partial car number) and also noted their routing beyond the yard. I did this to add another layer to the session so east bounds and west bounds can be sorted, and empty cars (MT) moved to the clean out track. The bottom half of the switch list notes where the cars coming out of the yard are to be spotted. Here’s what Mike had to work with.

The first switch list.
The first switch list.

After preparing two switch lists for the team tracks I realized I needed to break out more freight cars in order to work the freight house tracks. There is an 18 car capacity at the freight house dock and I was a dozen shy of that number. Fortunately, I had some models packed away that follow prototypes of an era a couple of decades beyond my focus, but they were decent stand in cars for the session. I also tagged a number of undecorated cars using a letter and number code on paper that was taped to the roof. While these didn’t sport any paint or lettering, the simple unique tag was enough to use as an identifier.

Once the freight cars and switch lists were set, I prepped a few locomotives. I’m glad I prepped several as a couple decided to be difficult during the session. it took a few hours to complete all of the prep work but the layout had never been operated like this before so I was expecting the first prep to take awhile. When Mike arrived, the yard looked just like the photo that led off this column.

The team track yard.
The team track yard.


Mike arrived in mid-morning and was briefed on the layout. He had visited before and was instrumental in developing the track switch controls. We reviewed the physical components of the layout and how things work. I reminded him of some prototype practices to keep in mind as the B&O probably had a crew of three on the ground in order to get the team track work done. Safety first is one of the top rules. With little more to review, Mike took control of his loco, coupled up to the string of cars, and headed down the track to the team tracks. I turned my attention to the cars headed for the freight house and compared the switch list to the cars in the yard. I considered a couple plans of action while I assembled a long string of freight cars and moved the locomotive to the far end for the shove down the track.

After my train arrived at the freight house, I heard Mike having some loco problems. It seemed there was a slight rail misalignment that was affecting the locomotive. We swapped out the motive power and jotted down a repair note on a pad of paper. This is another key tool for any operating session as gremlins often arise when others come to run your layout. A model railroad needs constant maintenance and tweaks to improve the operating experience. Somehow this rail alignment issue had eluded my attention. Take notes during the informal first operating sessions so issues are not forgotten. Mike got back to his work and I pulled and spotted cars at the freight house tracks.

Mike working the team tracks.
Mike working the team tracks.

I was about to head back to the yard with a string of out bound cars when Mike had another loco problem. I use digital command control (DCC) on the layout and something had gone awry with his loco. We swapped it out again and he finished up his first switch list. He returned to the yard with the team track out bounds and grabbed the second switch list and string of cars. I sorted the out bound cars and moved several empty box cars and reefers to the clean out track. I did not have any other freight house work so I messed around with the balky loco with no luck. Mike found a few more track issues that need attention as well as coupler issues on two freight cars.

After he wrapped up the second switch list we decided to break for lunch. We visited a German place and enjoyed some schnitzel. The restaurant folks were in a good mood as Germany beat the USA in a World Cup match that morning. Mike and I were lost in trains and forgot all about the World Cup.

We returned to the layout after lunch and sorted out the east bound and west bound cars. Mike had a few prototype questions so I showed him photos and maps that had been instrumental in designing the layout. Much of this is covered in an earlier blog post. We reviewed the list if items to fix and added a couple more items. The next session should be a notch better once these are taken care of.

Mike sorts the out bound freight cars at the end of the session.
Mike sorts the out bound freight cars at the end of the session.

Today’s operating session was great fun. Sure there were a few bugs in the system, but you don’t know what to fix until you use it, right? This marks the first time I’ve operated my own layout since the summer of 2001. It also marks a spot on the timeline for this layout, which I began in August 2012 shortly after I moved to El Paso. The session now gives me a list of things to fix or massage for the next session. I also realize I need several more freight cars to keep the freight house crew busy. I have over two dozen kits built but unpainted. I guess I need to get busy on those!

Thanks for stopping by to check in on the progress. I’ve been promising a layout update for a  few months and I thought there’s no better update than an op session review. Your questions and comments can be posted below. All comments are reviewed and approved before they appear.

20 thoughts on “The first op session for the Wheeling Freight Terminal”

  1. Eric,

    So glad to see the Wheeling Terminal come to life!
    The “gremlins” come out every time so I wouldn’t worry about a few problems in the initial run. Are you going to have solo sessions in between hosting ops sessions with friends?

    Thanks for sharing your successful event! Can’t wait to hear about more progress….even “small” updates are good.

    Tim Moran
    Akron, OH

  2. Congrats on holding your first operating session on the Wheeling Freight Terminal. Well done! It’s a great feeling, isn’t it?
    – Trevor @ Port Rowan in 1:64

  3. Thank you for the comments, Tim and Trevor. I look forward to holding more sessions, possibly one per month. The task list from the first session needs to be tackled before the next attempt and I do need to make more freight cars rail ready to keep the freight house job rolling. Once you take the first big step though, it doesn’t seem as difficult to make the next.
    – Eric

  4. A good start, but I would have thought you would have run most of that equipment over that layout before and found those track errors. When I worked for WECo. installing equipment a Bell Tel. Companies we always tested what we just installed before turning it over to go into service.

    If you have space you should add a Scale track and house to add more operation for your outbound loaded cars before they go to your outbound yard.

    If you have a Boilerhouse to furnish power for your terminal to get steam for heating buildings, electric for lighting and maybe air for cleaning out Mty. cars. You will need those loaded coal hoppers in and Mtys. oubound.

    It looks like you have a good start to having fun.
    Ed K.

    See the B&O book Standard Plans for M of W & Construction on pages 53, 54 and 55. Three sizes of scale houses.

    1. Great to hear from you, Ed! I did extensive track testing, especially after I set the layout up in the new house and got everything connected. But the testing I did was mainly hand pushing small strings of cars along. The 4-6-0 picked out a problem spot that rarely affected a box car. A lesson learned!

      As for adding those other elements, they are great ideas but they were not parts of the prototype Wheeling Freight Terminal. A goal of this layout is to follow the prototype and there are no scales or boiler houses noted on the valuation map. No scale is noted in the B&O Form 6 book either. I think outbound cars were weighed in Benwood, a few miles downstream from this facility.

      I hope to review some Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of this area later this year to see if some structures adjacent to the team track yard had coal bins for their boilers. My fingers are crossed!
      – Eric

  5. Really great progress Eric. I actually saw some switching done by the Pennsy in that area in the early 60s as I am from Wheeling and grew up there. The B&O freight house was gone by that time and the Warf parking Garage was built along the water front then. There was only a tiny bit of the pennsy passenger station left in the area I believe it was a lower level ticket window. Your session just brought back some pleasant memories, thanks for posting. Looking forward to reading more about your layout in future installments.

    1. Thanks for checking in, Rob! I saw a hockey game at the Wesbanco Arena that sits on the B&O freight house site about 15 years ago. I had no idea what had been there before at that time. The Pennsy had a freight house adjacent to the B&O facility. Here’s a 1937 aerial shot from the Ohio Public Library collection. We get to see just enough of the freight house areas to whet our appetites.

      Note how many freight cars are spotted at both terminals, and how there seem to be cars spotted on the ladder to the B&O team yard. this adds another layer to operating.

      I’m glad this blog post brought back some memories for you. That’s one of the truly great things about this hobby.
      – Eric

      1. I just spent some time looking at the photo s in one of your links and realized my time frame may have been off a bit. According to the photos they were taken in 1974 and I started my first real job out of high school in 1975 and parked my vehicle in the warf parking garage near the freight house area. So the sw switcher must have been in the 1975 time frame. That last picture was a beauty I am going to try and print one best one so far I have seen.
        Rob in Texas

        1. We were fortunate the Wheeling B&O Freight Terminal site was documented by a team of historians just before the structure was torn down. The documentation became part of the HABS/HAER archives and can be accessed through the Library of Congress website. Sadly, the Pennsy freight house was not documented, as far as i can tell.

          1. interesting thing regarding the folks doing the documentation, they were from Texas tech University

  6. That freight Headhouse looks like it has a big stack probably for heating. Coal had to get there somehow. Maybe on one of those tracks under that covered roof.

    In that era many of those buildings were heated with coal put into the basements. It was a smoky town back then.
    Ed K.

    1. One of the things that was going on in the late 1800s in wheeling was a conversion to natural gas from coal by many of the industries. The driving force was cleanliness, and it was very popular in the paper and glass industries. The sites Eric talk about also have the interior of the buildings as well as many others. The News register and Inteligencer papers are great sources for info in the old days as they did lots of articles about the area.

    2. Ed, the head house has two chimneys. Since it was built in 1852, I would think those are for fireplaces. I do not see any other stacks or references to any boiler room on the HABS/HAER materials. I am also not certain if downtown Wheeling was served by a central power plant for steam heat and electric. This is another aspect to check whenever I access the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps.
      – Eric

  7. Eric, congratulations. Given all the givens its amazing how rapidly you have progressed. Well done. Sorry we won’t see you next week at the National in Cleveland. I’m sure some of your buds from your WV days will be here. But you enjoy.


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Frank! I hope you have a few moments to enjoy the CLE NMRA shindig, too. I know it’s tough to find a few moments when you are one of the cogs in the host machine!
      – Eric

  8. Eric: Congratulations, this is a great start. I’m gearing up for my first operations since the LV move, so this is helpful. We need to talk sometime soon- Nevin

    1. More operations details will be posted here very soon, Nevin. There has been some fine-tuning of a different system for a smaller layout and I look forward to sharing the ideas here. – Eric

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