Friday, August 21, 2020

Friday Fun: Ops Session Setup

I've said before that it's ironic that layout owners seldom operate their own layouts, often playing host for operating sessions instead. Seems the only time we really get to participate in any way (other than by acting as dispatcher, trainmaster, or troubleshooter) is through a "pre-ops ops session" - aka ops session setup - where you get to act as freight agent, yard clerk, and transportation manager all at the same time.

Now though, with so many ops sessions on hiatus for the duration, many layout owners are taking this opportunity to scratch the operating itch by - gasp! - actually operating what they've built, all by themselves. And while I've been enjoying (and not enjoying) doing some modeling and making more progress on the layout where & when I can lately, my favorite aspect of the hobby - right after research - is operations.

Before you can operate though, you have to get things set up. The links above provide an overview, but I thought it'd be fun to document my process in a bit more detail here.

I start by consulting my Ops Session Checklist which lists all the steps required:

Remember, you can always click on the image for a larger view.
The first step is to grab a bunch of blank switchlists and go to each town to record the cars, their location, and where they're headed. Since the New Haven was basically a large terminal railroad, most of the cars going out are empties.

Here we are in Saybrook where we record 4 cars - 2 tanks & 2 boxcars - all headed back west to Cedar Hill yard in New Haven.

Another example: Wethersfield, where there's a car on the bulk track, in front of Gra-Rock and a boxcar at the house track. Both of these cars are also bound for Cedar Hill yard, but since Wethersfield is served only by the Valley Local (HDX-7) and it doesn't go to Cedar Hill, these cars will have to be transferred to HDX-12 (the Airline Local) in Middletown for further forwarding. They're headed ultimately to Oak Point and off the property to the PRR.

Once I've recorded the cars in each of the towns, the next step is to tell the spreadsheet what spots are occupied. Keeping with our Wethersfield example, I've entered an "X" in two spots which stand for a boxcar at the Wethersfield bulk track and a boxcar at the Wethersfield house track.

As I'm noting ("X"-ing) what cars are where, the spreadsheet is determining which cars are to be picked up, which cars are to be left alone, and what industries/spots need cars (and what type of car they need). In the photo above, you can see that one of the boxcars at Hartford Rayon won't be picked up during this session.

I then just go back and erase those cars from the switchlists.

I build my four local freights with the cars in the "Deliver" column of the spreadsheet.

  • HDX-7 originates in Hartford Yard and serves Wethersfield, Rocky Hill/Dividend, Cromwell, Middletown, East Haddam (where it exchanges cars with PDX-2), and East Berlin. It then returns to Hartford.
  • HDX-12 originates in Cedar Hill Yard and serves the towns of Somerset and Mill Hollow and also leave cars for - and picks up cars from - HDX-7 in Middletown. It then returns to Cedar Hill.
  • PDX-1 (the Shore Line Local) originates in Cedar Hill, switches Old Saybrook (leaving westbound cars for - and picking up eastbound cars from - PDX-2), and terminates at Fort Yard in New London.
  • PDX-2 (the Haddam Local) originates in Fort Yard, swaps cars with PDX-1 in Old Saybrook, and serves Essex, Deep River, and East Haddam - where it exchanges cars with HDX-7. It then heads back down the branch to Saybrook and continues west to Cedar Hill, where it terminates.

The cars to be delivered go into the trains that serve the towns the cars are going to. But there are exceptions. For example, based on what I know about my prototype's operations, I know that most of the traffic coming into Middletown comes via the Air Line Local (HDX-12). So you see noted above that two boxcars are destined for the Middletown house tracks via HDX-12. So even though HDX-7 serves Middletown, these cars being delivered will be placed in HDX-12's consist for delivery.

I keep track of the number of cars in each local - but note that HDX-7 and PDX-1 each got one car added . . .

Like the Middletown example above, you see in this photo that the hopper of coal consigned to the Essex Bulk Track is coming via PDX-1. Coal tends to come from the south (so through Cedar Hill yard) and not from the east (Fort Yard/New London) nor the north (Hartford Yard). So the best routing for coal to Essex is for PDX-1 to bring it from Cedar Hill and transfer it to PDX-2 at Old Saybrook. I also have a load of utility poles going to Deep River, but they're coming from the north - through Hartford Yard and down the Valley on HDX-7 to East Haddam, where they'll be transferred to PDX-2 for their final delivery.

Fun, eh? Actually, using your prototype research to imagine all this traffic is pretty fun. And we haven't even started the ops session yet!

Here are the component parts of HDX-7's paperwork to illustrate further. On the left, you see the note about the poles. On the right you see HDX-7's wheel report, which is a listing of all the cars in its train to be delivered (gleaned from the spreadsheet), blocked according to town. The last entry is the last car in the train - a gondola load of poles. Also, since this car will be left for a subsequent local freight for delivery to the final destination, I've completed a waybill that will be left with the car in East Haddam. The waybill replaces the old (and unprototypical) "Car Transfer Form" I'd been using to accomplish the same purpose (providing paperwork to go with the car which instructs the subsequent local what to do with the car).

And here is HDX-7 staged and ready to go . . . 11 cars . . .

plus the gondola makes a total of 12 cars in its train.

Then just "rinse & repeat" for the other locals:

  1. See the spreadsheet for what types of cars need to be delivered and where.
  2. Create trains with those cars.
  3. Note swapping between trains as required.

Here's the Airline Local (HDX-12) staged with 9 cars from Cedar Hill yard for delivery - a whopping 6 of which will be transferred to HDX-7 in Middltown. Per the prototype, the Airline local just drops and picks up cars in Middletown and the Valley Local does all the switching. I didn't bother writing up waybills for the 6 transfer cars since HDX-12 will be able to just leave this list with the cars.

Here's PDX-1 staged at "Cedar Hill" staging, track 2. There are only 4 cars on its wheel report, including that hopper of coal for PDX-2 to deliver to Essex (and its associated waybill). The remaining cars in the train are ostensibly destined for Fort Yard having been picked up from towns between New Haven and New London.

Finally, here's PDX-2 staged in Fort Yard/New London. Seven cars, all being delivered to towns it serves, so no transfers (or waybills).

So there you have it! I'm all set up for another session (actually, if you paid attention to the Ops Session Checklist above, you'll note that I also had to stage 7 Shore Line trains, but those are easy and outside the scope of this post). Writing it all down, my process may seem more complicated and time-consuming than it is.

Or maybe I just enjoy playing the role of freight agent - drinking my coffee and listening to big band music as I imagine all the different freight traffic coming into, and leaving, the Connecticut River Valley during the late 1940s.

It's that type of immersion that really starts to transport you to a different time and place and is where prototype modeling shines the most. Ops session setup - especially what I go through - may be a bit overboard but it's enjoyable in its way. And it literally sets the stage for my favorite part of the hobby - actually operating all these local freights and doing the "retail railroading" that was an everyday part of the Mighty New Haven.


  1. Chris, I do something similar. As I am walking the layout to plan the switchlists, I consider other factors. I model the "grain rush" season so I consider running a boxcar local that brings empties to my Centralsota brachline. They might pick up some loaded grain cars that may be off spotted on line waiting for final consignee designation. Every week of so, I need to spot a few gondolas at the powerhouse to haul away ash. I enjoy adding in these little wrinkles for my fun. For me, this give my railroad the personality I want.

  2. In your example, how does the spreadsheet determine what cars will be picked up? Is there a random number generator that determines this or something else? Is this something you created or is it part of some pre-built software?

    1. Hey jridge & thanks for stopping by! The short answer is that the cells in the spreadsheet have formulas that generate whether a car is to be delivered (and what type), whether a car needs to be picked up, or whether a car stays. I go into it in more detail on my website here: and I got the spreadsheet from MRH here: Hope this helps!