Getting Real: Prototype operations for modelers

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Prototype operations for model railroaders - Getting Real - Model trains - MRH Column July 2013Click to read this in landscape orientation … Click to read this in portrait orientation …







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Great article

I think this is one of the best MRH articles in quite some time.  Lot of great ideas applicable to any layout, and it's always nice to see Jack's incredible YV.




dfandrews's picture

Definite Bookmark

This is one of those articles where you read the title, and say "I've read these before" and almost go past to 'read another time'.

But, I read it through at lunch time today.  It was clear, with enough info that I can dive right in, has helpful tools and guidance, and just fits what I intend to do with my small regional rr operations. 

Great job.  Thanks much, Jack.


Rincon Pacific Rwy, 1960.  HO scale std. gauge - interchange with SP.


IAISfan's picture

Another great one

I always look forward to articles on prototype layouts, and Jack's is a particular favorite of mine.  I really enjoyed getting a closer glimpse of his operations, and thought it was interesting reading why he made the decisions he did in straying from the prototype to better fit his needs.  Great piece!


Thanks for the kind compliments. Feedback is always valuable and certainly helps when one is committed to writing a certain number of columns each year!

Jack Burgess

passenger trains

This  was a valuable article about Prototype operations. However I am curious about the author's apparent decision to exclude passenger trains, given the remarkable pursuit of realism elsewhere. It would be fascinating to read more about the underlying decision process.

I thought he covered that

I thought he covered that pretty well: the length of the YV passenger equipment would have required minimum radii that would be impractical in his space.  But I suppose we can let Jack speak for himself.

Ore cars?

Interesting that the switch list for aug 1945 showed some east coast ore cars? Looks like there was Erie, C&O and LNE on there?........DaveBranum

"minimum radii that would be impractical in his space"

Yeah, too bad TT scale never caught on, it would have solved a lot of these kind of problems...DaveB

Prototype existentialism

Yes, I read the technical explanation for the omission of passenger service but, having read and admired a number of Jack's articles, I was surprised by the apparent philosophical contradiction with the author's hyper-realistic recreation of the prototype in the rest of the layout (although maybe the curves & grades are less than prototypical at this point). This interests me in particular because the layout I'm working on is attempting to recreate faithfully the structures, track layout and timetable of my rather sleepy local station, where my creative licence would be adding some of those exotic freight trains to the moribund contemporary scene. At the moment, I'm moving towards the idea of adding a fictional station down the line with a roundhouse, freight yard, and other cool stuff...

Passenger operations...

Regarding the question about not modeling the passenger car operations...

I guess that there were a number of factors. First, when I designed my layout back in 1980, I wasn't that knowledgeable about any of the operations of the prototype. That might seem strange these days but remember that true prototype modeling was in its infancy in those days. This was before the Internet and research resources were more "hands on" than today. If you wanted to gain knowledge about your prototype, you talked to the rail fans who had ridden it and photographed it. When I started modeling the YV, there was only one book on the YV and that book, like most published in the 1960s-1970s, didn't discuss operations per se. (My own book on the YV, Trains to Yosemite, was published in 2005 and includes an entire chapter on operations.)

While I knew that the YV ran passenger trains when I designed my layout, I wasn't that interested in passenger trains...the railroad also ran log trains and regular freight trains which provided much more switching opportunities that were the main operational interest back in the 1980s. Compared to operators picking up and setting out freight cars, the passenger trains only stopped at two stations along the way to take water. So, running passenger trains was much like running a commuter train!

Also, in those days when I designed my layout, the operational and layout design emphasis was on including sufficient a layout based on a railroad which connected to other prototypes on both ends and run multiple trains moving cars from staging on one end to the staging on other end and visa versa. My prototype interchanged with the SP and ATSF on one end and dead-ended at Yosemite National Park on the other end...not the "recommended standard" in those days. Compared to through freight trains, the articles on layout design in those days rarely mentioned passenger train operations.

Another factor...the layout design "bible" in those days was John Armstrong's soft-cover book on layout design. As I recall, John provided design guidelines based on the largest locomotive which might be run over a layout. In my case, that was a 2-6-0 which, as I recall, resulted in a 22" minimum radius curve.That is considered a pretty sharp curve these days but I incorporated spiral easements into each curve which helped enormously in "camouflaging" those relatively sharp curves. (On the other hand, with 2-6-0s and 4-4-0s and 40-foot freight cars, those curves don't appear that sharp.) The minimum radius curves suggested by John Armstrong didn't (as I recall) include passenger cars. Even if they did, I would have ignored them. More importantly, a larger minimum radius curve would have resulted in larger turnback curves and tighter aisles, something that would have resulted in even more compromises.

As an aside, when I was building scenery, my only concern was to ensure that rock faces and other things like trees and structures adjacent to the track clear a NMRA gage. I only discovered later that 80-foot Pullmans couldn't clear those rock faces.

The other factor (some of which is only in hindsight) is the total length of my mainline. My double-deck layout is built in a 20'x20' space. My article in the January 2000 issue of Model Railroader discusses my choices for my layout design. In that article, I discuss how many choices influence design factors including train length, maximum grades, and passing track lengths. My maximum hidden grade is 2.3% (my visible grades are equal or less than the prototype). That limits my freight trains to 4-5 cars upgrade depending on the type of cars (empty hopper cars, empty log cars, or general freight cars) and the locomotive's tractive effort. That freight car limitation sets the minimum length of passing sidings on the layout. The length of passing sidings influences the distance between "towns" or switching locations since I prefer to not have a locomotive in one "town" while the caboose has been dropped on the mainline in another town. As I mentioned in this MRH article, a typical summer passenger train would have included a 40-foot-long RPO car, a leased SP diner, one or two heavyweight Pullmans (sometimes more), and the YV’s 69-foot-long wood observation car. A train of that length would have made the layout appear much smaller since the locomotive would, in many places, been in one town while the observation car hadn't yet cleared the station in the previous town.

So, in decision was based on lack of any interest in passenger train operations, very little prototype interaction between the passenger trains and freight trains, more interest in freight train operations back when I designed my layout, and the need to increase the minimum radius used on the layout (as well as the length of passing sidings and the distance between towns) to accommodate passenger trains. Even in hindsight, I think that these were all worthwhile considerations. Besides, if you come to view my layout, you would never know that I didn't model the passenger trains...there are a couple of full-size Pullmans positioned in the shade under the train shed at El Portal, waiting for the evening trip back to Merced. For operators who start their working day at around 8:00 am, those passenger trains were already close to arriving at El Portal.

Ore cars?


Good eye! Yes, there were some LNE hopper cars on the YV as shown in that switch list. And those cars were the subject of hours of discussion over the past few decades. I initially asked Al Rose, a fan of the YV who rode it numerous times, about them at least 30 years ago and he didn't have an explanation. I also gave copies of all of my switch lists (unfortunately, all of them are from around the same time period) to freight car expert Richard Hendrickson several years ago and he provided me with details on all of the freight cars listed on them and also noted that the LNE was (as I recall) one of the few railroads that owned cement hoppers at that time.

To understand what was going on at the time, I need to first provide some history. In the mid-1920s, a limestone quarry was developed on the YV at milepost 67 at Emory by Yosemite Portland Cement Co. Limestone from that quarry was transported by the YV to a Portland cement plant just outside Merced (at MP 2 or so). The limestone was run through a rotary kiln to produce Portland cement which could then be used to make concrete.

In those days, most (or all) of the cement companies in California were in collusion to set prices for cement. But Kaiser (of Kaiser Permanente Cement and now Kaiser Permanente hospitals) got into the cement business in the early 1940s and was able to produce cement much more inexpensively than its competitors. In 1944, they purchased Yosemite Portland Cement, not to eliminate the competition as reported by the newspapers, but because they knew that the cost of the acquisition of that plant was less that the value of the manufacturing equipment. As soon as the acquisition was final, they took down the plant and sold it to a company in Columbia.

So...why the LNE hopper cars? That was more of a research issue. When I was working on my book, I spent a lot of time researching Kaiser Industries, I came to the conclusion that 1) Kaiser had eliminated the competition by shipping cement from their plant in the San Francisco Bay Area in bulk while competitors (including Yosemite Portland Cement) were still shipping in 100 lb bags and; 2) Kaiser didn't have a bagging operation but; 3) Yosemite Portland Cement was a well-recognized brand name in those days and that brand name continued into the 1960s, long after the plant was closed in 1944. So, I think that Kaiser shipped bulk cement to the closed bagging operation (the manufacturing "plant" had already been dismantled and shipped to Columbia) at Merced and packed it under the YPCo brand. Kaiser basically "confiscated" LNE cement hoppers to ship that cement from their Bay Area production plant to Merced.

After years of trying to figure out why these LNE cement hoppers were on the YV, this video, shot in around 1945 surfaced showing some of these empty hopper cars being taken back to Merced to be hauled back to the Kaiser quarry in the Bay Area:

This is one of the things which is so fascinating about prototype modeling! It is easy to notice such details (and I do) and then the desire to understand such details is overwhelming (for me) and one can keep them in mind for years until and answer finally reveals itself! That is one of the reasons that I love prototype continually challenges my mind to understand why the railroad did things and how they did things...

Jack Burgess

(Just realized that I didn't sign my last post on the passenger train operations...yes that was me too.

" Kaiser basically "confiscated" LNE cement hoppers "

   Hi Jack,  Interesting video, must be that 2 mile run, definitely was not moving them very far as there was no caboose and a man on the rear. Now I'm wondering how the LNE cement cars got to the west coast? Perhaps the War resources board assigned them to west coast service? or maybe Kaiser had some business connection to the LNE? The cement cars would have been so new that it was unlikely the LNE had a surplus of them just roaming around?  The Erie and C&O cars if hoppers would also be unusual to see on the west coast. Boxcars would be more common but the normal loads of hoppers were usually not worth shipping cross country. I guess I noticed the LNE cars on the switch list because I'm a surveyor and have spent lots of hours looking at old field books trying to decipher the notes :>) .DaveBranum

LNE, C&O, and Erie freight cars...

The spur to the Yosemite Portland Cement plant was within the yard limits for Merced, hence no need for a caboose.

I'm not sure how Kaiser was able to get hold of those LNE hopper cars. Maybe the LNE bought them to serve a particular customer who stopped shipping during the War or maybe the War Production Board shut that business down. But if Kaiser was shipping cement in bulk from their Permanente plant to Redwood City in the Bay Area to be loaded onto Liberty ships, they would have needed cement hoppers for that transfer move. Kaiser Permanente cement was being shipped to the Pacific Theater during the War for the construction of air bases, etc. That certainly might have a reason for the War Production Board to have those cement hoppers moved to the West Coast.

The construction of air bases in the Pacific Theater would have been complete months before the date of that YV switch list (August 13, 1945) since the air bases formed a way to island hop to an island close enough to Japan to allow our bombers to directly attack Japan (the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima the week before). So Kaiser might have started using these same cement hoppers to ship cement to Merced to be bagged when they were no longer being used to move bulk cement to Redwood City. However it came about, SP certainly worked closely with Kaiser and didn't let those cement hoppers be moved back to the east coast.

The C&O and Erie cars (as well as the D&RGW car) were gondolas loaded with zinc concentrates from a mine east of Merced Falls...zinc concentrates were considered an essential base material at the time. (The other cars, including the SP cars, which were listed as "Ore" loads were box cars loaded with bags of barite which was used as drilling mud for oil drilling.)

Jack Burgess

Thanks + following a real timetable

Hi Jack,  Thanks for your detailed reply. I was particularly interested in the article because I have found balancing fidelity to a real timetable with the 1:87 space/motive power constraints more challenging than I had expected. My initial hope was to reproduce the authentic traffic of my station almost exactly, complete with the real station announcements for each train on mp3. The problem here is, of course, how to set up the non-realistic tracks leading to and from the prototype-based station so I can get the HO trains there on time (crucial for meets on a single track line) without looking silly or landing on the floor. It also became clear I needed more of certain commuter trains than I really wanted to buy...

tomebe's picture

Placervile Branch

I have been building my SP Placerville Branch for a few years now. I hope to have mainline and most spur trackage completed by end of summer. Your article was very interesting, as I have started to think about operating schemes, schedules, front end power, car types to fit my era etc. The Pville branch had a approximate ruling grade of 2%, which I duplicated. I am double decked and used the length of the room to reproduce this grade and not use a helix. I am not prototypical correct however in number and types of industries. Although 99% historically accurate, I tended to pull from various era's to provide purpose - maybe too much so - for the rr. Some of my spurs existed in the beginnings of the last century, others all the way into the fifties. Since I am using consolidations, 2-8-0's, as was the SP practice in the 30's, I've found that I am limited to approx. 10 cars including caboose on EB uphill runs. I fear this may not be enough cars to serve the various industries along the way. In the early to mid 30's SP ran 2 locals each day, each way to serve this branch. A McKeen car ran both ways as well from Sac all the way to Placerville. My original thought was to run extras, or several sections of the same local up the hill at each operating session to cover branch industries, but I really liked your idea of creating several scheduled locals to keep up with business. This could certainly serve the Placervile Branch as well as providing a more interesting operations schedule. I don't know how many operators you fit into the YVRR, even though I have been there several times. My room size is 11 x 27, and will limit my operators to 5. I am sure more folks would simply be too much. I hope they can handle that much traffic in a 3 hr. session. 1 yard, 1 passenger, 1 CP&LT operator and 2 ops for the locals each way. Its definitely a balancing act! Thanks for the thought provoking article and I hope there is more proto ops articles to come.

Tom Ebert

Auburn, Ca.

"as was the SP practice in the 30's"

   Hi Tom, Probably wouldn't be too hard to find an SP timetable for the 30's and see how they handled the trains on the branch. Ten cars on 2% with 2-8-0's sounds pretty realistic to me. How about starting a blog on your P-ville branch layout so we can follow your progress? ...DaveBranum


Jack, all you need is a couple of the MDC shorty Harriman cars and you have passenger service.  I find it interesting how many model railroaders skip passenger ops...while on the other end, you have modelers who almost specialize in passenger trains!

Placerville Branch...


Ten cars per train sounds like plenty to me...any more and you might need to lengthen passing sidings which reduces the distance between towns. Keep in mind that not every industry needs to be served on every run and  an empty box car picked up on the westbound local can be delivered at an industry further west rather than simply taken to the interchange.

I use just four operators on my layout. It takes about 2-1/2 hours for an operator of one of my locals to build their train, run the length of the layout making set-outs and pick-ups, and put things away at the other end. Note that since they are working on a timetable, there is quite a bit of "waiting" time for meets. Since I don't have a dedicated crew, I usually spend an easy half hour on general orientation before they start. While the operations themselves can seem intense, the pace is easy which means that by starting after lunch, even the slow-pokes will be done before 5:00.

Some things to think about...rather than a yard master, run four locals, all of which do their own work. Two locals would be already built when the session starts and just need motive power and a caboose to start out from each end first thing. The other two local operators would need to build their trains at their respective yards before leaving a real hour or so later. Burying some of those cars to be added to their trains would easily use up that locals only need to pick up 4-5 cars before leaving and still take a real half hour to do that. Studying the switch list, getting their locomotive from the turntable lead and their caboose from the caboose track, running prototype speeds, pulling out cars and putting back the extras, etc. all takes time. Having the second locals build their trains first would help space the locals so that one train isn't following the other one out of the yard. The locals which start out first thing would need to put all of their pick-ups away when they reached the other end of the line. The amount of time for these four trains to run one way and do their work would thus be fairly balanced.

Although the YV only ran two locals per day rather than four, those locals were ready to go a half hour after the crew came on duty. So, having one set of locals leave right away might not be that unrealistic.

An hour or so into the session, you would then have four trains out on the line at the same time, trying to make their pick-ups and set-outs while moving out of the way for trains coming the other direction. I'm not sure how much work the CP&LT operator has to do but you might think about having that operator work the interchange as needed and then run the McKeen car per the schedule about in the middle of the session and then go back to finish up at the interchange. If each of the locals included 10 cars, I suspect that an operating session would take more than 3 hours!

Jack Burgess

MDC shorty Harriman cars...


True...shorter passenger cars would solve one problem. But there was virtually no "local" passenger traffic over the line except for an occasional local resident who needed to take the train into Merced (the only "large" town on the line) to visit the doctor. Instead, summer passenger trains consisted of, as a minimum, a 40-foot RPO car, a leased 80-foot SP diner, at least one 80-foot Pullman coach, and the YV's 70-foot long wood observation car. As such, I'd rather not run passenger trains than run a caricature of the prototype...

Jack Burgess


tomebe's picture

SP in the 30's

thanks for your comments Dave......I do have several time tables. One from 1949 and another from 1939. The earlier one can be found at tomebe on google drive....its a shared file. Its shows that EB 2nd class local left Sac. EB @5:50am, arriving Pville 1pm. the WB left Pville @ 06:30a and arrived Sac - actually Brighton at 11:50. They met by schedule @ White Rock. The branch was dark and train order stations existed at Sac, Mills, Folsom, Diamond Springs and Placerville. I am modeling tween Brighton (staging) then Folsom to Camino, which is the modeled portion - or will be anyway.

I have a blog on blogger - although its more to do about the history of the branch, then it is about my modeling efforts. Look up Placerville branch and I think you'll find it. I am amazed at how some modelers have the ability to quantify much of what they do in print, but I find I would rather spend more time in the railroad room or at the bench then detailing what I've done. I have taken hundreds of iphone photos however, with the hopes that one day it will get chronicled. After 3 years from creating the space to getting close to driving the golden spike I would say its been, well an interesting experience.


Auburn, Ca.

tomebe's picture

Placerville Branch

Thanks Jack....these are good ideas. In reality Folsom was not a yard. It was a TO station; the town had several industries over the year - warehouse, Standard Oil, Earl Fruit and Stirling Lumber all which are served on my version. The line continued out to the prison and the quarry, but I've chosen not to model that. There was a small TT, abandoned early and a wye was created to turn the #45 McKeen car that ran out to Pville daily. Having not created the wye, I've substituted a TT that will turn my loco's for the EB and WB work. Its certainly feasible to imagine an exchange yard where work performed was by local service, rather then being overseen by a yardmaster. Phil Gulley who has done 90% of my Placerville Branch trackwork has suggested similar schemes. His thoughts, like yours is that my railroad will easily keep 5 operators busy for an evening. What I want to do, if possible is recreate a balanced flow of cars coming in and off the branch. I've operated on several layouts where this wasn't very well thought out and if I recreate a half way prototypical environment, then I start thinking about just that. How would a business requiring freight car loads do it?

The Camino, Placerville and Lake Tahoe Rr used a standard gauge Shay for delivery of cars from the planning mill at Camino and later after Pino burned down a new mill was built at Camino. SP gave up trackage rights to the CP&LT due to weight restrictions and track quality concerns in upper Placerville. The Shay would come down grade in the morning with outbound lumber loads and set these out for pick up by the WB local.  The CP&LT continued to work most of the day in upper Pville and there was a bunch to do. Standard Oil, Atlantic Richfield, El Dorado Mineral Co, as well as the PFGA (Placerville Fruit Growers Association), Lambert Marketing (another packing house) a huge box shed. It served basically as a yard goat for these operations into the 1950's. At this juncture I can't imagine this operator having time for anything else. 

But of course I'm guessing and won't know until I am able to run trains, perform switching and understand how long it takes in real time, something which you talked about in your July article. My vision is to get some of by Placer County operating buddies over here, make sure they bring watches and help me sort it out.

attach is a photo of Folsom yard looking toward town. Not sure how to make the photo smaller yet, so please bear with me.


Auburn, Ca.

Placerville Branch...


I'm not very familiar with the SP Placerville branch but now I'm a little more confused. Your photo of Folsom shows a lot of trackage. But I'm assuming it would be needed to hold cars set out by the SP and destined for the branch as well as storing cars brought down the branch which need to be picked up by the mainline SP crews. Obviously, there won't be much in the way of building a train before heading out for Placerville. But you mention, some of the local industries could be serviced by the local crew. Was there a scale for weighing cars coming off of the branch (the YV had one at Merced but I didn't model it or even know about it for a long time)? If so, all loads would need to be weighed before being handed off to the mainline crew.

My operational suggestion was based on your comment about the prototype running (if I'm reading it correctly) two locals each way each day. If so, I'm guessing that they were timed so that the branch only required 2 locomotives. In order to increase operational interest, my thought was to have all four trains running at the same time, thus resulting in more meets, etc. Since there wasn't a yard at Folsom, one EB crew could be working the local industries while the second EB crew leaves for Placerville. Likewise, if there were local industries in Placerville to work, one WB crew could do that while the second WB crew left town. Also, I didn't realize the the CP&LT crew did so much local switching. Although that job wouldn't have the interaction along the line as the SP crews, it sounds like they would stay busy.

You also wrote:

"What I want to do, if possible, is to recreate a balanced flow of cars coming in and off the branch. I've operated on several layouts where this wasn't very well thought out and if I recreate a half way prototypical environment, then I start thinking about just that. How would a business requiring freight car loads do it?"

I not sure about your question regarding balancing flow. For a branch line, it would seem that flows are automatically balanced as every load going out typically requires an empty to be brought in to be loaded. Likewise, a load going up the branch will result in an empty coming back out in a day or two. I think that I am not understanding your concern.

Jack Burgess

Passengers on the locals

Jack, my grandparents lived in Bagby, and my mother and her little brother rode in the caboose to El Portal to go to school every day.  They got to school late, and had to leave early to catch the train back home.  My mom told stories about other passengers riding in the caboose, too - evidently paying passengers because they weren't locals.  Over 20 years ago I got to show her your article on MR, and she loved it!


Passengers on the locals...


Thanks for sharing that story Paul! Is your family name Clontz by any chance?

Jack Burgess

tomebe's picture

Placerville Branch


I do like the idea of running 4 local freights as well as a McKeen car up and back. I think that will get me started. It sounds like there is plenty to do on the Yosemite Valley. There is probably no reason to think I shouldn't get the same results once I figure out the timing.

I have never seen a scale in Folsom or Placerville for that matter. But with packing houses and livestock wouldn't there be a need for both. I have both a Folsom and Placerville SP maps from the 50's which I got from CSRM. I'll look them over for that.

It does seem logical in regards to balancing shipments, meaning that one car would comes in and another goes off. But I've operated on lines where the owner didn't get that at all. And I ask myself why would a single industry spur with the ability to hold, lets say 4 cars have 10 more sitting on my train waiting for delivery? I know off spots and all that, but 10 extra cars? I've seen it happen more then once. 

Thanks again for the article. Looking forward to more.  I have enjoyed the experience of building the Pville branch so far and I know I will have many more years to look forward to. 


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