Monday, May 22, 2017

Monday Musing: Ops Session Hosting - Pro/Con?

Given the time of year at work, there hasn't been much progress on the layout lately, but the long commute does give me lots of time to think. I won't regale bore you with all my mindful wanderings, but one topic I've been thinking about lately is hosting operating sessions for strangers folks previously unknown to me.

Now that I have an operating layout (though it is presently un-operable as some areas are under additional construction), I've been approached by folks who would like to participate in an operating session. Up until recently, these are folks I know or friends of friends and the resulting sessions have been fun - any stress being totally of my own making (wanting the layout to operate well, making sure guests have all they need and have a good time, etc.), and I'm sincerely flattered when everyone enjoys themselves and wants to come back.

Even so - still being relatively new to this ops session thing - it does sometimes occur to me that the session host is essentially inviting folks over to use his railroad, handle his locomotives and rolling stock, operate the electronics, etc. And that's the point - as a layout owner, one of the coolest experiences you can have is seeing your layout come to life, which only happens effectively during an operating session. And when you have a good crew of trusted friends over, it probably doesn't even occur to you that you're literally placing a lot of your valuable stuff their hands.

But what of the apparently increasing number of operating weekends, "ops til you drop" and such, when you're putting your layout in the pool for all and sundry to come over? Clearly, there are many good souls out there that are willing to do that - otherwise such events wouldn't be so popular. And these events certainly expose more folks to the joys of railroad simulation (aka model railroad operating sessions), even - or perhaps especially - folks that don't have a layout of their own with which they can reciprocate.

So I guess the questions is - what do you do? Have only friends or friends-of-friends operate on your layout? Open it up to anybody that wants to come? Do you use different equipment depending on who's coming over? Maybe have unknown folks paired with your regular operators?

I certainly hope that those who know me know that I'm generous with my time and what I've been blessed with (or at least try to be), but at the same time, I've put in a not-insignificant amount to time and money into this project. So I'm just trying to get a sense from the more experienced among you how you go about approaching this topic.

So please feel free to leave a comment - or you can contact me directly offline if you'd rather. Really interested in hearing the different perspectives and approaches.

(Bonus if you have any funny stories to share involving Bright Boys and/or peanut butter sandwiches . . .)


  1. Chris,
    These are excellent questions, that only YOU can answer.
    In may case, I can only accommodate 6 or so operators, IF they are agreeable to running with 2-man crews. I started out slowly with a core group of guys I had operated with on other layouts. I now have more operators interested in running than I have room for, so I'm trying to figure out how to manage that.
    That said, I'm was pretty selective about who actually got an invitation to begin with.
    Not everyone will be compatible with either your personality or modelling philosophy, and you shouldn't feel guilty about not extending invites to people you have qualms about.
    Never hosted ops event with complete strangers, so I can't help you there.

  2. Clearly Chris you are an excellent modeler. I modeled pretty solo for decades, happily, and new little about operations. I was drawn in to operating sessions and it opened new horizons for me, and I wanted to throw some thoughts in here.
    First, you will absolutely never achieve your full potential as a modeler until you are hosting operating sessions involving both strangers and highly seasoned traveling operators. This is true IMHO for myriad reasons... just like when you are having imporrant dinner guests over, you clean up, decide on the menu, get nervous as they are coming, refocus on details. Then it happens, and it is rarely perfect. You will get comments that are mostly kind and usually constructive, but you will curse your own lack of prep (I thought I cleaned that track!) or find flaws (I never tried backing a train in there, it derailed). For my opinion essions, I sat with a pad an recorded every flaw no matter how small, and shut the pike down for a couple months after to hit them all. I rerouted track, I hand laid turnouts in places where commercial weren't working, I added hot frogs, I purged uncooperative cars, the list goes on and on. But each time, it got better. In my last and final op session, the pad was empty. It was like watching a no-hitter in baseball unfold, and this was the final session for my layout. I have gone on with confidence to something much more ambitious.
    Op sessions are generous to host but also selfish. You are saying come have fun... you are also saying bring all of your life experience and input and critique and ideas and live my layout so I can make it great. That's selfish in a good way. Yes some goons may come by, once. I have hosted maybe 150 and one bozo waneeded through. So what. I have gotten much more from hosting than I gave, and I gave a lot to make each session the best I could. But the math is unassailable.

    1. Also sorry for typos, I have little command of English but those are autocorrect and tiny keyboard problems!

    2. No problem Paul! I really appreciate you taking the time to write such a long and thoughtful reply!

  3. I just found your blog today via Randy Hammill's blog.
    My 2¢, Im from the Syracuse NY area, and the local NER division of the NMRA, routinely hosts "Ops till you drop" tours. I do not personally host any operating sessions, but MMR Bill Brown does, and usually with a crew of 15ish guys, from all over the north east. He has a few locals, including myself, to help in certain areas, like yards. I think they do two of these a year, not always the same layouts. Some guys return to do it again.
    However, when Bill built his current house, he built it knowing that he would have folks coming over to tour the layout, and built an entrance off the basement family room. When you come over, you are more or less contained to the basement, where there isnt much other than a 1700 sq ft layout.
    I know he loves having folks over, showing off his, and others work (He has a work session weekly for a few local guys to come over and help build his empire), and letting folks run trains.

    Bill models a current take of a "leased" UP Tennessee Pass on the lower part of his double level layout and 1950 narrow gauge on the upper level. There is a narrow gauge helix to the lower level, where the lines interchange, for tourist operations...

    We do run into problems, but it all in fun, and I think everyone has fun.

    If any of your readers have been to Bills house for one of these sessions, I am usually the yard master in Minturn. I do not operate, I just help the 2 guys assigned to the yards out.

  4. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your post. You raise an interesting question.

    I have a layout and have moved into the operations phase. My philosophy is "I want to share this with others."

    One thing that I have struggled with is the fact that I model a prototype that is unfamiliar to where I live. I model Chicago transfer ops and live in California. My big challenge is to communicate with the ops crew how things were done in my prototype and era. It's a learning experience for me -- how do I create a clear message.

    For me the layout really comes to life when it is being operated. We have a bunch of skilled operators here and each ops session is a learning experience for me. My goal is getting their valuable input on how to make my layout better. So, I have to listen carefully to their comments and probe for the real meaning.

    If it was not for the regular Tuesday night group, my layout would not be at its current level of completion. (Still lots more to go.) So, those men and women are the top on my invite list. they have put in the sweat equity and have become friends and I want to enjoy getting to know them also as operators.

    In terms of opening up to strangers -- I have hosted at an ops weekend. The experience was really enjoyable. And what I took away from that was some new friends.

    Unfortunately there will always be the guest who makes himself or herself unwelcome.

    Operations is a chance to share this hobby with others. I enjoy this hobby and the folks in it.

  5. Thanks so much for all your great comments and feedback - I really appreciate your taking the time to weigh in. In the spirit of full disclosure, I recently (after posting this and after the comments) was asked to write an article on this topic and I suspect a big part of that will include some of the feedback here. Anything attributable will certainly be credited, but I plan the article to be an amalgam and distillation of all the information that I'm gathering on this. If *for any reason at all* any of this makes any of you the slightest bit uncomfortable, please let me know - you can write me directly at This is the first time I've ever been asked to write for a magazine, so I'm not at all sure about the proper protocol. But I did figure at least that it would be good to let y'all know ahead of time. Thanks again SO much for taking the time to share your experience. Frankly, being able to learn from the readers of this blog is a major reason I do it.