On Sheet – Away Game

On Sheet – Away Game

aybe this whole idea of operations seems too confusing and complex to you. You’ve got to figure a train timetable, jobs to be filled, a freight forwarding system, a crew-call system, so many things (I’m not talking you into this, am I?). So, if you are facing this daunting challenge, why not see if you can horn your way in on an existing operation session? Maybe you can wallflower and watch, sure, but any good host should push you in (presumably with an easy newbie job).

But how to find a session where you live?

There are many places where you can go to sniff out sessions. One really good place is a local club. Many clubs either host sessions (and, if they are cool like Orlando-Ntrak, don’t demand instant allegiance and dues to run a few times with them). Further, members of such a club often host sessions on their home layouts and most of those can always use another hand or two.

To go further, inquire at the local hobby shop (if you are blessed with one) for clubs and even layouts in your area. If that fails, the NMRA (National Model Railroad Association) might be able to help. Generally someone in that organization can come up with a place for you to run.

So, you’ve managed to track down your first session. What do do?

Do’s: Tell the owner you are new at this and possibly nervous so you can get an appropriate skill-level job. Listen to what the host tells you in his briefing. Remain quiet and respectful. Carefully run your train, following all rules of the road. Don’t run too fast or stop too sharply. You are not so much trying to deliver a boxcar as you are trying to convince the host you respect his layout, his equipment and his rules. This is your audition.

As Thomas put it, you want to be a really useful engine.

And remain until the end of the session. It is considered good form to stick to your job until the clock is off, and then partake in the debriefing. Bugging out early means you’d rather go to McDonalds then help the owner understand any issues that came up. Very rude.

Make sure, before you leave (and assuming you haven’t set fire to his layout) (and you are interested in coming back) that you leave contact information with the host. Often a crew call will be emailed to those who attended, letting them know when the next session is. If you see such a posting and want to go back, answer as quick as you can. Some layouts have limitations to crew size. You snooze, you lose.

And for goodness sake, if accepted back, be there at the start time and don’t blow it off. If you get in a car wreck, call and let the host know. I had a guy die in my car going to a session and I still got word to the host.

You’ll find, if you get accepted on one layout and gain competency, that you’ll start getting invited to others. This is how you can expand your field of operations, to pick and choose where you’d like to run. I’ve got ten layouts I’m accepted at and for which I get invites. I operate about two-three times a month. If you want to be a boomer (i.e. an engineer who runs on many railroads) you need to prove yourself as skillful and dependable. And most of that comes from being aware.

I’ll admit it doesn’t always work. Had a very caustic friend who got me into a layout here in Florida. It was an hour drive so we carpooled out. I did all these things and was accepted as a member of the crew. Then my friend got in a screaming, cursing, name-calling, FU fight with the host over something trivial (not layout-related, but at a train convention). And suddenly I was no longer invited (since I was his “friend”, and sides were presumably taken). I wanted to tell the host that I’d throw my “friend” under a bus to come back – the guy had picked the hill he’d chosen to die on. Two years went by, the friend moved away, and then one day the layout ended up short an operator at the last second I got an email – would I like to come run?

I suppose that, in TV-dramas, this is the moment I laugh, telling them that I swore they’d rue the day, that the shoe is on the other foot, that now you’ll regret what you did to me…

But no, I wrote back asking what time they needed me.

And even though it was a minor yard job, I ran as smooth as silk. Now my friend’s name is forgotten, his monuments cast down into rubble, and I’m still going to the layout years later.

If you want it, you gotta work for it!


At one of my many boomer jobs, this on the West Virginia Northern. I’m the guy with the stupid raven shirt. Host Gail Komar is in attendance, possibly wondering where she can find better operators – could it be you? (Photo Credit: Husband Komar)