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There are many aspects of our hobby for a model railroader to enjoy. It may be researching the history of a particular railroad to model, or designing the track plan, with or without computer assistance. Someone may really like the “brick and mortar” construction and/or laying track – sometimes by hand one tie and rail at a time and scratch building turnouts. Another might like the wiring and electronics involved with building a layout, to include Digital Command Control systems and equipment. Others enjoy building models, whether it’s a locomotive, railcar, building, bridge or any other structure on a layout. These might be from kits or totally scratch built. Adding realistic scenery to a layout is also one of the more important activities that many model railroaders excel at. Still others just like the fellowship of being with like-minded individuals sharing their ideas and knowledge, or giving a how-to clinic on some part of the hobby.


Some really like, and/or are good at just a few of these, while others do well with all aspects of the hobby. We call those individuals Master Model Railroaders and they earn that distinction by participating in a structured achievement program that covers everything to do with the hobby.


The point is, there are many things for a model railroader to enjoy. While I like many of these parts and pieces of the hobby, one of my real interests is called “operations”, and I discussed in the Design section that I built my layout to be operational (go back and read that for a refresher).



So, how do I operated my railroad?


I started having operating sessions on my railroad in August, 2013, and once or twice a month I have a few of my model railroader friends over for an operating session. At the start of each session I run a free computer program called JMRI (Java Model Railroad Interface) that takes data I entered about my layout – locations, industries, track lengths, cars, loads, routes, expected moves, etc. – and “builds” up to 24 different trains to do work on the layout. The computer program randomly selects cars for a particular train based on what an industry/location needs, what cars are available, how much track room is available, how many moves are requested for each location and a few other factors, and prepares a manifest, or switch list. The good part about JMRI is that the program does the work and I don’t have to. No two trains are ever just alike so it keeps everything interesting from session to session. I also frequently modify some of the movement and routing parameters needed to build a particular train, or even add/delete trains between sessions.

Sample JMRI Pages

Location detail


Train list

These manifests are printed out and given to the operators so they can run their trains. A manifest may tell an operator to pick up certain cars at a starting place – usually a yard, take them on a specific route to another place and set cars out. Along the route it may tell them to pick up or set out cars at tracks for specific industries. The real challenge is that they are not the only train on the railroad. As many as four other trains may also be running on the layout doing similar things at other locations. These trains will probably meet somewhere and want to occupy the same track so the operators have to work out how they are going to pass each other and allow others access to sections of track.


Some model railroads use a dispatcher to control the flow of traffic and to instruct operators, usually by radio, where to take their trains during these situations. My layout is small enough that we use more informal verbal communications between operators to resolve any problems. I will inform the operator of any possible traffic issues when I give them a manifest, but after that they are on their own.

If you have been to my layout, or have looked at the pictures or videos elsewhere on this site, you will have noticed a lot of operating signals. These are not there to control the movement of trains, as might be the case on the prototype or during operating sessions for other model railroads. My signals merely indicate the direction an upcoming turnout is thrown. This can be helpful to an operator if he/she is not standing directly over a turnout, or can't clearly see a turnout's direction, so that they would be sure to take a correct route or even avoid a derailment. There are also signals at the top and bottom of the two helixes, as well as the entrances to the tunnel between Fairfield and Ensley under the pipe mill. These signals indicate if a train is occupying the track in these hidden areas. I think the signals also add to the scenic attributes of the railroad.


When an operator has done all the work required by the manifest he turns it in and I “terminate” the train in the computer. JMRI then knows where the cars are that were just moved and can then use them to build other trains during a session.  We will keep rotating operators and building and running trains for a least three hours and often longer. A typical session may have about 6 operators taking turns running trains. On average we manage to run about a dozen of the scheduled trains per session and move over 200 cars among 33 different industries, locations and yards. We have run as many as 17 trains and moved over 300 cars in an extended session.



In addition to operating the railroad, a session is a great way to get with other model railroaders to share ideas and to discuss our hobby in general. All in all it’s a good way to spend a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

Here is a link to a document that I send to new operators that might help you understand how we operate the layout.  Operations.


Click here to see a spreadsheet showing some operations data for a year.

There are a few videos showing trains being run that were built using the JMRI program on my

Videos Page.



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