On Sheet – Time and Time again!

On Sheet – Time and Time again!

ince this is a blog about model train operations, I’m going to talk about time (since railroads and time, historically and modeled, are intertwined). Railroads live and die on the clock. Railroad operations are why we have standardized time zones today. You can’t run massive equipment in a delicately-balanced orchestration of time and place if every town consults its rusty clock tower for the local time. It needs to be standardized.

Now, I’ve blogged about time before, HERE. This was an answer for those people who think that clocks equal stress and stress is no fun. If you can run your entire sequence of trains in three hours, you can call it a day (literally) and run an 8:1 fast clock.

But let’s go back to the basics – a timetable is nothing but a sequence of events that occur on your railroad. Maybe at midnight, a train enters. Another enters at two. We use the clock (at a set rate) to walk us through the session.

The problem in this occurs on my own Tuscarora Branch Line. Being a small layout, what happens in one hour might be remarkably different (and more or less involved) than another hour. For example, at midnight, MT-1 wanders down the interchange line, most of its running “off stage” – he doesn’t really get into Tuscarora until 12:30am. The only other move is the coal motive power, who checks over his tally sheets, figures out what is best to move first (loads east or empties west) and motors out of town. That’s it.

But the very next hour, the cars from Martin are taken by the West Drill and resorted into a workable order for the day’s operations. This means six cars have to be indexed into the correct sequence so they can be dropped in an efficient manner (so they come off the front of the train, and the crew isn’t struggling to back half a freight train into a siding for a setout). But it takes a lot of time – it’s one of the busiest tasks we have. And during this, that coal shifter is trying to come back through Tuscarora, so he’s bottled and there is quite the delay.

The thing is – how can I run a  railroad when the activities per hour shift about? We’re either sitting on our hands or working frantically.

Well, who said fast clocks need to actually tick?

For the Tuscarora, there is a vertical post next to the dispatcher. On it are two card flips – one for hours, one for ten-minute increments. Whenever something happens on the railroad that burns time (a train comes in from a neighboring town or a car is handled), ten minutes goes by. It’s up to the dispatcher to “bill” the railroad time. For example, if both trains are doing functions at the same time (in parallel) that’s only ten minutes total. If a train gets a red board when no orders are ready, that’s ten minutes. If the tower operator argues with the dispatcher, that’s ten minutes (if not more). The dispatcher calls the time-shots, and advances the clock as he sees fit.

And if we get all our work done for the hour (all trains have completed their tasks) we don’t just sit around waiting for the clock to run out – we reset the clock to the next hour and pick up the action.

The good thing about a manual fast-clock is that if your railroad has temporal ebbs and flows, the action is still consistent across the session. Also, if you have newbies and have to explain their moves every hour, the clock isn’t racing past. It takes what it takes to get the job done.

And yes, because of conflicts or inefficiencies, we do end up occasionally running late. For this we might run those delayed trains (in sequence), playing catchup, attempting to get the railroad back on its timetable.

Yes, it works like a real railroad. And for something like the Tuscarora, it works well.

If you are just starting out, maybe you might consider your own “manual fast clock”. As owner/operator, you can call the times out (or write them on a white board) as you go through your sequence of trains. Possibly after a couple of runs, you’ll give a fast clock a try. Or maybe you’ll stick with the manual – the Tuscarora has been running manual fast clock for over two years and everyone likes it. It works!