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Track Planning 

By William (Bill) J. Beranek - The Track Planner


In September 2018, Joe Desmond and I presented the first in a series of videos for YouTube Model Builders on model railroad operations.  (You can learn more about Joe’s Central Jersey Conrail in N Scale on Facebook and YouTube.)  Our initial episode dealt with how to set up the paperwork needed for a successful operating session.  We included examples of car cards, waybills, switch lists, engine cards, train cards, and so forth – all the things you’ll need to hold an operating session.  In the upcoming shows, Joe and I will get into greater detail on operations and operating sessions including preparing the layout for an operating session and applying the paperwork.

Preparing for the first show reminded me how much my understanding of real railroads operations affects my track planning business.  In this issue of The Modelers Journal, I would like to go into greater detail on why having a good working knowledge of railroad operations can help every modeler.  Having even a basic knowledge of how real railroads operate can be the difference between building a layout where trains run in circles (e.g. the engine chases the caboose) and a layout that closely represents a “mini-transportation system.”

The premise of the first show was accumulating and preparing the necessary paperwork, described from two different perspectives: Joe’s and mine.  It recounts how two prototype modelers developed different (and sometimes, distinctly different) procedures to arrive at the same goal: operating a model railroad in a prototypical manner.  Preparing the paperwork, for some modelers can be intimidating and be their least favorite part of operations.  In many cases, intimidation is a byproduct of a lack of understanding.

Joe models a section of the Conrail system in central New Jersey, while I modeled, (the layout has since been dismantled because of a move) a small regional railroad in northcentral Idaho, called the Camas Prairie Railroad (CPRR).  Joe models a small section of a large, class-one railroad, while I modeled a small section of a relatively small regional railroad.  Each of us took different approaches in preparing our paperwork but we both arrived at the same results; we are/were able to operate our layouts in a prototypical manner.  Every train has a purpose for running.   Joe’s approach to paperwork was influenced by the prototype, while my paperwork was more “operator driven.”  That is, for the most part, Joe’s paperwork reflected what the prototype railroad did, while my paperwork was designed to create as little stress on the operator as possible.  Neither approach is totally right or totally wrong; rather, both systems work to meet our own specific needs.  I held approximately 18 operating sessions before dismantling the CPRR.  Joe is into his third or fourth operating session and is still “tweaking” his system.

TP - Operation Oriented TP - Figure
TP - Operation Oriented TP - Figure

My Camas Prairie Railroad (CPRR)

I’m confident that a majority of model railroaders have never heard of the Camas Prairie RR.  The CPRR was a small, regional railroad operating in northcentral Idaho, as seen in Figure 1.  The CPRR was unusual in that, for several years, the railroad was jointly owned by both the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern.  The two railroads not only shared profits, but they also shared operating expenses.

While doing research, it became clear that the CPRR was the perfect regional railroad to model, based on my available space.  Instead of trying to model most of the CPRR, I settled on a sixty-six-mile portion, from Lewiston, ID to Grangeville, ID.  Then, using “selective compression,” I was able to represent the sixty-six miles inside a 22' x 19' space.  (See Figure 2.)  What was it that made the CPRR a great railroad to model? Within the sixty-six miles, the line had a 3,000-foot elevation change.  This was perfect when designing a track plan that, because of space limitations, needed to crisscross over itself to gain elevation.

The railroad’s primary sources of revenue were agriculture and wood products – two commodities that are easily replicated on a model railroad.  Being a smaller, regional railroad made it easier to pick out a specific area to model.  Having done the research and using my knowledge of prototypical operations, I developed a track plan that had what I call the “believability factor.”  Visitors and – more importantly – operators got a sense of its “believability.”  I wanted my version of the CPRR to look like and operate similarly to the real CPRR.  Once decisions were made on the towns and industries, the track plan came together quickly and was finalized within a couple of months.  Over the next three years, I erected my version of the CPRR.

Next came developing an operating plan.  When you model a prototype, don’t try to “reinvent the wheel.” With today’s internet, most of the information you’ll need is out there.  As mentioned earlier, this railroad’s main revenue stream consisted of agricultural products, in the form of grain harvested on the high plains of central Idaho, and wood products from the forested regions in northcentral Idaho.

By knowing what commodities needed to be shipped, developing the operating plan was rather straightforward.  To get commodities to customers, the CPRR needed a connection to the “outside world,” or as Allen McClelland (of V&O fame) described it, “thinking beyond the basement.”  The CPRR needed a link to the “outside world,” and hidden staging provided that link.  Because of the CPRR’s geographical location, products were shipped primarily in two directions: west to the coast and east to the large, metropolitan areas.  To simulate products “going somewhere,” I included three staging yards: one for eastbound traffic, one for westbound traffic, and a branch line connected to Montana Rail Link (MLR).  The MLR connection was a figment of my imagination.  The MLR is also one of my favorite railroads and, being geographically close to the CPRR, I was able to make the connection between the two railroads “believable.”

The CPRR Paperwork

Once the region’s towns, industries, and commodities were established and the trackwork was 75% complete, it was time to tackle the paperwork.  My priority was to hold operating sessions that were semi-prototypical, but easy on the operators.  Having operated on numerous layouts using many different types of operating schemes, my number one priority was to make the sessions as enjoyable as possible with little stress.

To accomplish this, I created what some would consider being a non-prototypical scheme; I did not use timetables (TT), train orders (TO), or fast clocks.  Having operated on layouts with TT/TO and fast clocks, I felt that when you combine all three, you put undue stress on operators, especially operators unfamiliar with the layout; operators can begin worrying about the timetable and whether they are running late, and they don’t concentrate on the job at hand.  In my opinion, operators tend to make more mistakes when they are under the constraints and pressure of TT/TO operations.

TP - Operation Oriented TP - Figure

Sequential Train Orders List

Early on, I decided to use a sequential train order system.  (See Figure 3.)  I predetermined the order trains would run.  This is not quite as easy as it sounds, as you must think about how trains interact with each other; which trains need to run early during an operating session and which ones can run later.  On the CPRR, I had four “through” freights: two eastbound (one AM and one PM), and two westbound.  Their jobs were to run from staging to staging with a stopover in the Lewiston classification yard where they would set out or pick up cars depending on what the car cards dictated.  These four trains took commodities “beyond the basement” or brought commodities and supplies to the CPRR.  I also ran numerous “turns” and “locals.” Turns would leave Lewiston yard, servicing various towns and industries; locals would deliver and pick up cars from the larger industries on the CPRR (e.g. the sawmill or the paper mill plant) or from locals coming off the MRL branch.  The turns and locals needed to be coordinated with the “run-throughs” so that commodities left the CPRR and arrived at the customers’ locations on time.

The train order list included the train number, a job description, where the train originated, and where the train terminated.  At the beginning of an operating session, I would assign operators the first trains (i.e. the first “jobs”) on the list.  The jobs varied from run-throughs to locals, to turns.  Some jobs were very specific, such as switching out the Potlatch Paper Mill (PPM), shown in Figures 4 and 5.

The PPM job could take an experienced operator up to 45 minutes, in real time, to switch out.  When operators completed their assigned job, they would come to me (in my role as the dispatcher) and I would assign them the next job on the train order list.  Having used such a sequential list of jobs for numerous operating sessions, I know the system worked.  Operators were under no pressure to speed up and complete a job as quickly as possible.  There was no timetable or fast clock to worry about.  Incorrectly spotting cars at the wrong locations was minimized.


Car Cards

Car cards help operators identify individual cars. The information on car cards is an area where, in my opinion, less is more.   On the CPRR, I designed and printed my own car cards.  (See Figure 6.)  The cards had minimal information printed on them: the call letters, car number, the type of the car, a picture of the car, and the “return to” information for when the car was empty.  This was all that was needed for an operator to successfully identify a car.

Most modelers assume the car number is the most important information on a car card.  In my opinion, the most important feature is the photo.  Operators react better to visual information.  Having a photo helps operators visualize the car they are looking for; although having car cards without pictures may be more prototypical.  But early on, I decided to use visualization to help operators.  I’m convinced photos help eliminate mistakes.

TP - Operation Oriented TP - Figures 4 a
TP - Operation Oriented TP - Figures 6 a


The waybill is another area where too much information can be distracting during operating sessions. Waybills fit inside the pocket at the bottom of the car cards; across the top of the waybill, you will find the routing information for that car.  To print my waybills, I purchased a software program named “Waybills” from Shenandoah Software.  I like the program because I can include as much or as little information as I feel is necessary.  (See Figure 7.)

For my purposes, I included the car type, the town name, the “routing” information, the “to” information, the “from” information, and the car “contents.”  The “contents” information was not necessary if the car simply was being moved from point A to point B.  For the yardmaster, the most important information was on the color-coded top line.  All the yardmaster needed to know was where the car was going; by taking a look at the color coding and destination (town, industry, or staging), a yardmaster could quickly determine into which train the said car was to be “classified”.

A yardmaster doesn’t and shouldn’t care about the exact destination a car is going to, just the train in which the car should travel.  On the CPRR, I had a different color code for every train.  On the example shown in Figure 7, the Spaulding Turn was color-coded in red; when the waybill was flipped over, the UP Eastbound Through Freight was color coded in yellow.  This made it easy for the yardmaster and it is was almost impossible to insert a car into the wrong train.

The benefit of using color coding was very evident for new yardmasters who had never operated on the CPRR before.  They were able to understand the system and most got up to speed quickly.  As anyone who has ever been involved in an operating session knows, the yardmaster controls the pace of the session. Anything you can do to make the yardmaster’s job easier benefits everyone.  Colors and photos, in my opinion, create a less stressful environment for operators, thus making the operating session more enjoyable and smoother running.


In Closing

In this article, I have covered only a few of the basics of operations – those things I feel are the most important to a successful operating session.  Much of what I’ve written about influences my layout design business.  I’d like to have a dollar for every time I have heard the phrase, “But, I just want to watch trains run.”  Please understand, there is nothing wrong with watching trains run.  But, I always follow up that statement with the question, “What happens next, after watching trains run around in circles gets old?”
I’m a firm believer in designing and building model railroads based on prototypical operations.  Operations will give the owner more enjoyment and satisfaction over a longer period.  Engines chasing cabooses is only interesting for a short time; eventually, the modeler wants more.  If the modeler starts with the premise of building a “mini-transportation system” and not a model railroad layout, they’re light years ahead, and their enjoyment of the hobby will last many years into the future.

About the Author


Bill Beranek - The Track Planner has over forty years in the model railroading hobby.  Bill enjoys golfing, traveling, and of course designing “prototypical operations” focused track plans.  He has been a member of a local 135+ member model railroad club since 2003 and has served twice as the club’s president, twice as a board member, and is currently serving as the club’s treasurer.


Bill is currently working on his latest triple-deck HO scale layout depicting the SP&S (Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway) in southern Washington and the OTL (Oregon Trunk Line) on the upper level in northern Oregon in the mid-50s. 


You can find out more about Bill—The Track Planner at

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