Bespoke Operations


Whenever a guest operator would visit my former IAIS Grimes Line layout, I would always include a quick briefing ahead of starting the session. Each time, I opened with the following statement:

“This will take as long as you want it to.”

That somewhat cryptic comment wasn’t meant to serve as some sort of Dante-esque warning about the eternal suffering awaiting in our basement. Rather it was an introduction to a layout with a philosophy built on procedures… and a layout owner who believed in practicing said procedures.

I am enamored by day-to-day steps that the prototype railroads follow in going about their business. Naturally I wanted to include as many of them as I possibly could. This ranged from unlocking switches and gates before throwing them to writing down a car’s pull and spot times so that demurrage costs could be properly calculated.


The Grimes Line was built to support said activities. There were locks on the turnouts that physically prevented a throwbar from moving without it first being unlocked. There were gates and derails that would block spurs and industries from being worked without first being opened.

What’s important to note, however, is that at no time were any of these procedures enforced.

The nature of the Grimes Line did not lead itself to formal scheduled operating sessions. Every time I ran a session it was because a guest was in town and wanted to stop by. Sometimes it was one person, sometimes it was a group. But they were always ad hoc events.

Each time, each session was geared to the audience present. I had one visitor that focused so intently on the job at hand that we didn’t speak during most of our time operating. I had another that was scarfing down pretzels with one hand while the other held the throttle cracked open to top speed, sending cars zipping from one end to the other.

I had a blast both times. I hope my guests did the same.

On The Hills Line, the same philosophy will apply. There’s not going to be a lot of work to be performed from a volume standpoint. You will, at best, move six or seven cars. How long that takes is ultimately up to you.

For me, I will continue to revel in the policies and procedures that make real-life railroading a fascinating case study. That, in turn, will lead to a more fullfilling op session that I believe demonstrates the advantages of a devout understanding and adherence to prototype practices.

But I’m willing to try it at your pace.


3 thoughts on “Bespoke Operations

  1. James:
    When I started my current layout I ordered a bunch of keyed switches, similar to yours, with the idea that one must unlock the switch stand before it could be moved. Since these are servo or Tortoise it occurred to me that the keys could actually activate the device. How did you do your mechanically? I still like the idea but many on my line will be manually controlled so your method appears to be the ticket!


    1. Hi Kulika,
      The photo with the switch locks was taken on my former IAIS Grimes Line layout. While I’m planning on replicating them on The Hills Line, I haven’t installed the locks yet. In a nutshell, the cam lock pushed a piece of piano wire into a hole in the throwbar, preventing the switch from being thrown without first unlocking the switch. More details are available in my article “Locking Up Your Layout” in the December 2013 edition of Model Railroad Hobbyist.


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