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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

. . . you will get more enjoyment out of your trains if you know something about real railroads.

Planning Your Garden Railroad for Operations

Even if you're just learning about trains, you will get more enjoyment out of them if you know something about real railroads and the way they work. This article briefly describes the ways that different kinds of trains go about their business. Then it suggests some ways to try real-world-inspired operations practices on your own railroad.

Most important, if you're in the planning stage, this article should help you design features into your railroad now that make operating it more fun in the future.

This article logically follows the article on Planning Your Garden Railroad for Watchability. It uses a simplified "track plan" to illustrate many aspects of model railroad operation that are just as fun outside as they are inside. But the ideas presented here will be even more fun on a more complex track plan.

Topics included in the following discussion are:

. . . model streetcars are handy for people with limited space because they can fit into tight spaces without looking silly.

Local freights may provide more opportunities for interesting stops along the right-of-way (ROW) than any other kind of train.

Kinds of Trains/Kinds of Operation

Different kinds of trains do different kinds of work. Many hobbyists have found that it's fun to make trains behave like the real thing. But how do real trains work, really? The following descriptions are generalities, based on a wide range of North American railroad practices. Some railroads may have only one or two kinds of trains; others may have kinds not mentioned here. But this list should tell you enough to give you some good ideas for your own railroad.


For more than a century, "traction" meant electrically-powered vehicles that run on rails, usually hauling passengers, but sometimes hauling freight. A century ago, streetcars made it so easy to get around most cities that most townspeople could live a perfectly normal life without a carriage or motorcar. Similar vehicles, called interurbans connected towns. In some cities, electrically-powered locomotives hauled freight as well as passengers. Today, model streetcars are handy for people with limited space. Better yet it is possible, and even prototypical to use traction to perform any of the freight or passenger operations described below.

If you like the idea of one-car "trains," but don't want to mess with overhead wires (even for show only), you can use other kinds of "self-propelled" passenger vehicles, modeled after vehicles that were powered by gas or diesel. These include the AristoCraft "Doodlebug," RDC car, and Railbusses, or the Hartland Locomotive Works Rail Motor Car or Doozie. Such products help you easily add complex operations to a relatively small railroad.


An industrial railroad is are owned by the business it serves, be it a chemical company, a logging outfit, or a quarry, or even a "hard goods" manufacturer who moved a lot of products by rail. (National Cash Register, for example, used to have its own locomotives to shuttle things around its thirty-acre facility, in Dayton, Ohio. G.M's Inland plant in Dayton also had its own railroad, with an oil-burning steam locomotive small enough to fit into your garage.)

Industrial locomotives are usually small, and often maintained on the cheap with borrowed or improvised parts. Attention to the bottom line may trump all other concerns. As a result, many industrial railroads have a hodgepodge of equipment and a "git-er-done" attitude that can be fun to model. Folks who with little space for their railroads appreciate that short trains made up of short engines and cars operate better on tight curves and steep grades than longer trains with bigger equipment do.

To make an industrial railroad interesting to operate, think through how your railroad will be serving its industry. How about a monopoly that owns a coal mine, an iron mine, and a steel mill? One string of coal cars carries coal from the mine to the processing plant that turns it to "coke." Strings of coke cars and ore cars carry coke and iron ore to the steel mill. Other cars carry finished steel products to an "interchange" siding (where they will be offloaded to a "full-sized" railroad for delivery elsewhere). And, of course, all the empties need to get back to where they will be needed again. On your railroad, come up with your own scenario that involves a "shuttling" a bunch of stuff around.


Before any train goes out on the right-of-way, it has to have the right cars attached to it. Every railroad company has switchyards, where trains are made up by slow-but-sure switch engines before they head out on the mainline. Many hobbyists, to be sure, use switchyards primarily as a place to hold extra cars they want on display. But switchyards are crucial to "real railroads." Every train that comes in has cars that need to be switched to new trains for the next day's business. You don't have to run your garden railroad this way, but you can, and many folks think it adds a great deal of fun to their operations.

Some model railroaders have made switchyard operation a feature in itself. A few have even invented switching "puzzles" that take as much though to sort out as a Rubic's cube. The most famous is John Allen's "Time-Saver," which originally became popular in the 1960s. It looks like an innocent little switch yard, but once you have it set up, it can be devilishly hard to get all of the cars from where they start to where they need to end up. Sometimes people compete to see who can solve a Time-Saver puzzle fastest. (Click here for more information on the Time Saver and other switching puzzles.) Today, many hobbyists have incorporated "Time Saver" switch yards into their railroads just to provide a little extra fun.

Some brief notes (expanded on elsewhere) on adding switchyards to garden railroads:

  • If possible, put the switchyard somplace that gets shade from the early afternoon on. It will be better for your cars and better for your operators.
  • Have the switchyard off a passing siding, so the switch engine doesn't have to keep coming onto the mainline while it's making up trains, and so it's easier to isolate the switchyard electrically.
  • Allow plenty of space. Large Scale cars and turnouts take up more room than you might think.

Local Freight

A local freight train usually bypasses stations unless something needs to be dropped off or picked up. (In the days before radio, the latter was indicated by waving a flag - ergo the name "flagstop". After dark, a railroad official would wave a lantern sideways across the track to get the train to stop. Later, mechanical signals were attached to some stations.) Local freights do stop at industries, to pick up and deliver individual cars or short strings of cars along their route. Most cars that are picked up are delivered to the switchyard to be sorted to appropriate trains for the next day's work. Local freights may provide more opportunities for interesting stops along the right-of-way (ROW) than any other kind of train. As an example, at each stop, the train can drop off cars that are "full" of some supply that the industry needs and pick up the "empties" from the previous "day's" route. (Wil Davis reminds me that it could work the other way around - the train could also be picking up "full" cars with the industry's output and dropping off "empty" cars that the industry need to ship out the next day's goods. Several examples are given below.)

Locals are sometimes called "peddler" freights, a term that especially applies to locals that don't have a particular route and let the business needs of the day (or the hour) determine where they go and when. On the other hand, most hobbyists who don't plan their operating sessions and who just shuffle cars around "as the spirit moves them" claim to be operating peddler freights. You can do that, too, if you want to, of course (but you'll have more fun doing it on a well-planned layout, so you still need to read the rest of this article).

Mainline, or "Fast Freight"

Today, many freights you see may have over a hundred cars, but there will only be a few kinds of cars on a single train. These trains are put together with the idea of traveling a hundred miles, or five hundred, without stopping. They run on a well-planned schedule and typically carry similar loads every time they run. Although "fast freights" are fun to run and to watch on very large layouts where they have room to run, they don't necessarily offer as many operational features as local freights, because they bypass the "mom-and-pop" industries by default. Still, if you have a 1000' railroad and want to put together a 100' train, go for it.

Passenger Trains

Passenger trains deliver passengers, mail, and packages that must be shipped in a hurry or handled in a special way. As an example, refrigerator cars holding oysters used to be attached to express passenger trains so they could get from Chesapeake Bay to inland cities as quickly as possible. On a more prosaic scale, many local passenger trains between 1850 and 1950 pulled a refrigerator car so they could pick up fresh milk from farmers and farming co-ops at each stop along the way. A "milk run" might accept passengers, packages, and milk at ten or more different stops along its route, delivering them either at another stop or at a terminal or interchange where they would continue their journey. On very small railroads in the past, there was no real dividing line between a milk run that might also pick up a freight car or two in a pinch and a "mixed local" that dragged an old passenger car around in place of a caboose, so it could accommodate passengers if necessary. Although express passenger trains usually have newer and bigger equipment than locals, hobbyists are affected even more by the differences in those trains' operation:
  • Express passenger trains bypass most small stops and connect only city stations. They have typically carried interstate mail, passengers going on long trips, and refrigerated goods that required high-speed, distant delivery. Frankly, it's a little difficult to model the operation of an express passenger train unless you have a lot of room. On the other hand, it's fun to build an express passenger train into your schedules - say by 8:05 your local has to be on a passing track so the express (real or imaginary) can "tear through" on the main track.

  • A local passenger train usually stops at every "regular" station and also stops at any "flagstop" stations where the flag is raised. It may also pull a refrigerator car for milk and other perishables it picks up along the way. If you are operating a local passenger train, your train would stop at most stations and flagstops, but wouldn't be picking up or dropping off freight cars except in an emergency. So it wouldn't be using sidings except for passing sidings. This is a fun type of train for children to operate. The kids can start and stop the train at each station, but they don't have to worry about sidings or couplers.

Mixed Local

The word "mixed" indicates that cars of different kinds are on the same train. In today's jargon, a "mixed freight" might be a train that has steel cars and stock cars on the same train, but a century ago (and only a few decades ago in some parts) a "mixed train" might include a passenger car or two as well, for the occasional passenger. This diversity makes mixed locals fun to model and fun to operate. You can even combine the rigors of a passenger schedule with the unpredictable nature of freight pickups and dropoffs on the same train.


A "special" is a train that operates outside the railroad's regular schedule, and maybe even outside the railroad's ordinary business plan. A special train may be as prosaic as an extra passenger train that takes an irregular route on Christmas Eve to handle the extra passengers. Or it could be an "excursion" train on a sight-seeing trip or to a special destination, such as to a beach or to a baseball playoff game. Special trains offer unique operational opportunities beyond the "normal" rules of railroading.

. . . one of the easiest kinds of operation is a local passenger train which could be stopped at each station and at each flagstop where the flag is "up."

Easing Into Operations

Okay, so you have an idea of how different kinds of trains operate and you'd like to "get your feet wet" without getting overwhelmed. Here are a few ideas for getting started with operation that no one should find overwhelming. To illustrate some of the points, we will use a version of a railroad illustration that is used in the Planning Your Garden Railroad for Watchability article, a companion piece to this article. For this article, we've added a switch yard and skootched some sidings around to make it easier to illustrate our points.

Please keep in mind that the following illustrations are meant to show basic principles of operation. For that reason, they use a simple "overgrown track circle" plan. But once you see how typical operations are done, you can adapt those principles to any kind of track plan you like. For more ideas about track plans, refer to the Planning Your Garden Railroad for Watchability article.

Local Passenger Operations

As mentioned above, one of the easiest kinds of operation is a local passenger train which could be stopped at each station and at each flagstop where the flag is "up." You could vary this, of course, by rigging mechanical signals at the "flagstops" to operate on timers, or by deciding that flagstops only rate a stop every third time. That way you wouldn't be stopping at the same flagstops every time. This operation can be done from a powerpack by children who are too young to worry about turnouts and couplers.

Simple Pickup and Dropoff Operation

To get the "hang" of operations that involve switching cars in and out, try running a simple "pickup and dropoff" operation with a mixed local freight. In this exercise, the train stops at each siding, picks up one car and drops off one car, without being picky about which cars are being delivered at each siding. This also gives you the chance to make certain your turnouts and power systems are working the way they are supposed to before you plan any more complicated operations.

Illinois garden railroader Ric Golding does a version of this in which he exchanges "like for like." He drops off a tank car and picks up a tank car, drops off a hopper and picks up a hopper, etc. Ric has just installed a passing track in his train shed so he can alternate between two trains that have different cars and serve different industries.

To move to a slightly higher level of realism, try operating a train that serves a particular set of industries.

Single Industry Operation

To move to a slightly higher level of realism, try operating a train that serves a particular set of industries. For example you might move lumber cars from the lumber mill to a furniture factory, and boxcars ostensibly containing furniture to a downtown warehouse. What might not be so obvious is that you need to get the cars you find at each siding back to where they will be needed for the next pass. So at each stop, you drop off a car or a few cars, but you also pick up whatever cars were sitting there when you arrived. You also have to keep track of which cars are "empty" and which cars are "full," though, as you will eventually be carrying both "full" and "empty" cars on the same train. (Some people have good enough memories that this isn't a problem. Others use little tacks or stickers to keep the "full/empty" thing straight - others use "car cards" which are discussed in another article.)

On our sample railroad, let's assume that Frances is a lumber mill, Gary is a pickle factory, Hannah is a warehouse, and Ida is a furniture factory. For this sample pass, start by placing a "full" lumber car or two at Frances and an "empty" box car or two at Hannah. At Ida you place an "empty" lumber car and a "full" box car.

Then you start your train clockwise from the switchyard with 1-2 "empty" lumber cars, 1-2 "empty" box cars, and 1-2 "full" box cars.

When you stop at Frances, you pick up the "full" lumber car(s) on the siding and drop off the "empty" lumber car(s) you're carrying. You bypass Gary, since it's a pickle factory and you're not doing anything with pickles today.

At Hannah, assume that any boxcars on the siding are empty and pick them up. You also drop off the "full" boxcar(s) you are carrying. You . (Note: you now have four empty box cars, but you're only scheduled to leave two at Ida today.)

At Ida, you:

  • Pick up the "full" boxcar(s) and "empty" lumber car(s) from Ida's siding
  • Drop off the "empty" boxcars that you left the switchyard with at the beginning of the session (the empties you picked up go back to the yard at Hannah), and
  • Drop off the "full" lumber cars you picked up at Frances.

Finally, you pause at the switchyard before the next round. Pretend that a day has gone by during which the people in the industries have been busy emptying any full cars and filling any empty cars. If you're using stickers or tacks to indicate this, you can make a physical "round" of your railroad to reset the markers (or get a grandchild to do it). Consider your pause at the switch yard as a sort of "reset," like passing "Go" in Monopoly(tm). The "full" and "empty" cars on your train, however, remain in the same state they were in, since nobody's been messing with the freight "overnight."

You may wonder why you had to set out with "empty" boxcars, when you could have simply taken the empty boxcars from Hannah directly to Ida. The answer is that the railroad didn't know when you set out whether Hannah would be done unloading those cars by the time you got there, and Ida needed empty boxcars today.

You might also be thinking that it would make some kind of sense to backtrack and leave the "full" boxcars at Hannah before you complete your trip, instead of leaving the furniture sit in the yard overnight. But in the real railroad, those industries might be thirty miles apart, and backtracking wouldn't even be part of the picture. In fact, on most local freights, you leave with one set of cars and come back with another, period, and every car you pick up will spend time in the switchyard before it goes out again. (The full lumber cars you picked up at Frances and dropped off at Ida are an unusual exception. You knew the cars were full, so there was nothing keeping you from dropping them off on the way.) That said, some railroads' "peddler" freights have shuffled back and forth and let local business needs drive their "schedule" on an hour-by-hour basis. (Think "Petticoat Junction.")

In other words, operate on the assumption that most of the cars you pick up will have to pass "Go" before they are redeployed. It doesn't matter which industries you hit in which sequence - the operation at each industry is determined by:

  • What you left the switchyard with this morning, and
  • What you find when you get to each siding.

Where you've been in the meantime, and where you plan to go next have little or nothing to do with it. Programmers call this "state-based" processing. As you repeat your operation on the next pass, the "full" boxcars will get to the warehouse, the "empty" lumber cars will get back to the lumber mill, the "empty" boxcars will get back to the factory, and so on.

If you have multiple operators and multiple trains, you can different trains serving different sets of industries. Alternatively, once you get the hang of this mode of operations, you can serve multiple industries with one train.

What if you have an industry that doesn't have any related industries? Designate one of the sidings as an "interchange," a place where cars are transferred to another line to finish their journey. Say, you have a steel mill but no "heavy manufacturing" plants. You take the cars carrying output from the steel mill to the "interchange" and leave them on the siding. The next time you come past the "interchange" you pretend they have gone away to wherever they were needed and come back empty. As you can see, the possibilities of this kind of operation are just about endless.

You'll have the most fun with a special . . . if you decide what it's for . . . before you start it around your empire.

"Special" Trains

Specials operate by their own rules. You'll have the most fun with a special, though, if you decide what it's for and how it should fulfill that purpose before you start it around your empire. Maybe it delivers Christmas baskets to all of the railroad employees (so you have to stop at every station and flagstop). Maybe it's picking up passengers to a trip to the Superbowl (this will probably mean leaving the passengers off at the "interchange", unless you've modeled a football stadium).

One clever idea for a special comes from Ric Golding's Kaskaskia Valley Railway. The KVRwy serves a former logging camp that is now a summer resort called KV Cabins. The KVRwy runs a springtime special that does nothing but drop off bunk cars for the campers. In the fall, Ric runs a special that picks them up again and returns them to storage tracks. I can't help but think of this "ceremony" as a sign of spring, like the buzzards returning to Hinkley, Ohio - a sure sign that the Garden Railroading season is underway (or at least around the corner - sometimes Ric gets an early start).

Garden railroaders who want to learn more about prototypical operations can take lessons from "indoor railroaders"

In addition to the examples above, many hobbyists use simplified versions of real-world paperwork to plan their operations the way real railroads do. For a brief description of how that works, refer to Introduction to Train and Car Cards. The point of all of this is to get you thinking about how you can design your railroad to take advantage of such systems if you ever decide to use one (or several).

Timetable Operations

To make the railroad operations even more prototypical, some folks put a timetable together, for certain trains to run, or certain pickups and dropoffs to happen at certain times of day. This often adds interest when you have several people running trains on the same road, because you have to do things like moving locals into sidings while the fast freights pass, etc. BTW, remote control operation is really helpful once you have more than two people running trains on the same railroad at the same time.

Of course, your trains don't really spend an hour or more getting from one stop to the next like they do on the real railroads. So folks who do timetable operation use what they call "fast clocks" to fit a "day's" worth of operation into an hour or two.

Longtime garden railroader Orlyn Glover says:

    I use a regular clock but only look the minute hand. Each minute = 12 min. and numbers equals hours. The time table is set up for leave times and arrive times using 12:12 , 12:24, 12:36and 12:48 ect. and every 5 min= 1hr.

    I run 15 trains point to point in a "24hr schedule" - actual time two hrs.


If you read the Planning Your Garden Railroad for Watchability article first, like you were supposed to, you should have some pretty good ideas about the overall path of trains on your railroad. And now you know why I kept stressing that you would probably have to go back and add sidings. The next article in this series, Planning Your Garden Railroad for Reliability tells you how sidings and other features need to be planned carefully to provide the most reliable operation. After all, you wouldn't want to design the perfect operational, most watchable railroad only to discover that your trains won't run on it.

In the meantime, the content and examples in this article should help you plan a railroad that you can operate like a real one (once you get it "settled in," at least). Here's some things you might consider as you're planning your railroad.

  • Leave space for sidings and industries even if you don't have time or budget to install them now. This includes having straight stretches that you can stick the "straight" leg of a turnout on later. It also means leaving enough open space to stick a building near the future sidings without having to move waterfalls or established trees or the like.
  • Consider "families" of industries, so that cars can logically be dropped off and picked up at two or more industries. Eventually your choice of industries will go a long way toward defining the "character" of your railroad. They will also help you think about what kinds of cars to look for the next time you go shopping. The following examples of "families of industries" are just to get you thinking:
    • Grain elevators ->closed hoppers -> corn syrup plant -> tank cars -> candy factory -> boxcars -> grocery warehouse (Wil Davis reminds me that before the mid-1960s, grain was shipped mostly in boxcars, but you get the idea.)
    • Logging company -> log cars -> lumber mill -> lumber cars (staked flats) -> builder's supply warehouse.
    • Iron mine -> ore cars -> steel mill -> gondolas holding sheet steel -> plow factory -> boxcars -> farmer's supply warehouse.
  • Leave space for a switch yard somewhere where you will be able to reach easily. Remember, most Large Scale freight cars are nearly a foot and a half long (some are longer), and turnouts take up more space than you might think, so allow some room. Also, consider having the switchyard electrically isolated from the rest of the railroad, perhaps on a passing track as show in the examples above, so the switcher doesn't have to keep coming out onto the mainline to shuffle cars.

Where to Go for More Information

This introduction to railroad operations has barely scratched the surface - I hope you're "inspired" enough to:
  • Design your railroad for operations now, and
  • Get into some operations once you've got the right of way under control.

Garden railroaders who want to learn more about prototypical operations can take lessons from the "indoor railroaders" who have more time to spend on operations because they can do it in the winter and they don't have to weed. A few links I have found useful follow.

  • Family Garden Trains'(tm) Introduction to Train and Car Cards article - gives an overview of how "car cards" and related "paperwork" can help make operating your railroad more realistic.
  • Bob Johnson's: Basics of Operations, Car Cards and Waybills for your Model Railroad Layout - provides suggestions for "easing into" various kinds of prototypical freight and switching operations.
  • Jack Burgess' Yosemite Valley Railroad - describes one model railroader's attempts to make operating sessions on his railroad as close as possible to the operating sessions on the prototype short line he models.
  • Matt Snell's Every Railroad Has Its Paperwork - describes real-world "car cards" and other documents that affect train operations on the New Jersey short line he models as well as on his own model railroad.
  • John Russell's Railroad Freight Operations - Summarizes several of the most popular systems for planning prototypical operating sessions.
  • The Freight Operations FAQ page from the Haggis Mailing list describes some real-world local-freight operations, as well as the differences among the various kinds of freight cars.

And as always, please contact us with questions, corrections, or other feedback.

Best of luck, all,

Paul D. Race

Reader Feedback on Planning for Operations

As part of my research for this project, I am soliciting feedback from several friends about their experience. I will put their comments here as they come in.

Wil Davis

Miami Valley Garden Railroader Wil Davis gave me input under a number of topics that I have already embedded in the article. Discussing peddler freights, Wil adds that:

There is an excellent article in TRAINS magazine?s August issue [2006] on the Ohio Central and how they work to satisfy customer?s needs. In one case they deliver steel to a factory and actually shuttle the cars in and out of the warehouse while the customer unloads them.

Richard Friedman

Richard, of the greater Sacramento, CA area, found a typo and added:

Good article, and particulary timely as I'm making additions to my RR to make it possible to pick up and drop off cars. (Look ma! I'm operating!).

I guess I did leave space for switches and industries without thinking directly about it. No one suggested I do that . . . . But I do see that I have space for extensions of my yard and construction of a new one. It might be a good suggestion to have a "interchange" in the garage or basement if you can.

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