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  • Build an Operating Model Railroad

    By Mark Preussler, MMR

    Through the years a lot has been made about building a layout that operates. When I first entered the hobby, I thought that statement meant just running trains. I soon learned that having a layout, which “operated” in that sense didn’t especially do it for me in the long term. While some people enjoy running trains in circles and collecting, that wasn’t what I wanted. I found that trying to copy the prototype was the key to long-term enjoyment, at least for me.

    Let’s look at what makes a model railroad act closer to the prototype. There are two major building blocks that most operation-based layouts have:

    1. Independent (usually DCC) control of trains
    2. A track plan based on prototype practices

    Without a doubt, Digital Command Control (DCC) or other independent control of individual trains on a layout is a huge advantage for today’s hobbyist. Yes, you can employ DC on an operating layout, but once passing sidings, interchanges, and yards come into play, the wiring to accomplish multiple train movements simultaneously can become a headache. For a lot of us, wireless DCC has added another element. Running your train, not the track, is the mindset that you need when thinking in terms of building an operation-based railroad. On my railroad, operators can follow their trains and do the work required of them along the railroad. The how’s and why’s of train movements along with car forwarding will be discussed later. Right now let’s concentrate on a track plan. I use the following diagram to help illustrate what a prototype plan should include:

    There are five points that we see on almost all good operation-based model railroads. Let’s look at each. 

    1. Staging Yards can be a thought of as a place where trains pass beyond the basement walls. In all likelihood, your modeled portion of the railroad represents a small slice of the line. Staging allows you to think past the basement or train room walls. Some staging yards are hidden from view in the layout room while other modelers prefer to leave them in the open, perhaps in a corner of the room.
    2. Passing Sidings are used on the prototype to allow trains to get out of the way of other trains. As traffic runs east and west on most lines, the passing siding is also important to avoid the old cornfield meet! Even multi-track mainlines have passing sidings at certain locations. Your layout should also have at least one or two areas where trains can pass.
    3. Interchanges are part of almost all prototype operations. On your model railroad they need not be fancy or complex, just an area where one railroad crosses another and cars from one line can be interchanged with another. On my layout, the Soo Line interchanges with the Milwaukee Road at Hilbert Junction and with the CNW at Medina Jct. A Great Lakes Carferry also interchanges cars between the Soo and Ann Arbor at Manitowoc. On many modern railroads, traffic rights granted to a railroad to operate over another has changed the rules somewhat. However, on your model railroad this can also be accomplished using designated tracks in your staging yards for “foreign” traffic.
    4. An Intermediate Yard can be used effectively as a division point where engine and crew changes can be simulated or as a base for switching operations. A smaller layout usually does not have an intermediate yard as shown, but might employ a local switcher and a setout track for industries located in the modeled town. 
    5. Naming of Everything like the prototype is important on a model railroad. We don’t need to think in terms of mileposts, but having industries, cities, sidings, and interchanges named are paramount to building an operating layout.

    If you are still in the planning stage of your layout, incorporate the above into your plan. When I first learned about operating like the prototype, I had a small basic layout built. I went back and was able to modify that old layout to include the interchange, passing siding, and naming features. When it came time to build a new model railroad I was able to add the rest. 

    Obviously, a lot of variables exist as to what features you can use from the above concepts. Even your choice of era makes a difference as noted. However, I think you’ll find that your model railroad will never get stale or boring to run if you use the operating concepts listed.


    For more information, contact Mark Preussler at

    Naming everything related to the railroad is important. In this case the structure sign itself is used as the information for train crews. You can also place signage on the layout fascia board, create a track chart for a town on the railroad, or even create a booklet that includes all layout locations your crews will need to know about.

    Wireless DCC systems have revolutionized layouts built for operation. The main issues being the ease of wiring as compared to multi-block DC systems of years ago as well as the ability to easily follow your train around the railroad.



    Article Details

    • Original Author Mark Preussler
    • Publication Date December 29, 2010

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  • Christopher Brimley
    Christopher Brimley Great article Mark. You did a fantastic job at keeping this intro to operations simple for the beginner to understand. Not always an easy task for something that can get very complex, but very exciting.
    December 29, 2010
  • alejandro reibakas
    alejandro reibakas Congratulations Mark, your article is very good. I very much agree with what you say.I believe that the most important one is operational layout from this is where it ceases to be a toy to become something prototypical.To achieve this requires knowledge o...  more
    December 30, 2010
  • UPfanatic aka Martin Canteros Paz
    UPfanatic aka Martin Canteros Paz I agree a lot with this!
    December 30, 2010
  • Bart Overton
    Bart Overton Mark, Great article with alot of basic/easy to understand information.
    February 2, 2011