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Operations Paperwork

Clearance Card, Train Order, Switchlist
How do you operate your railroad once you have the track down and the trains running? There are a number of different ways to operate your railroad beyond "just watching the trains go by" and if you're trying to stay true to a specific prototype railroad, there's only one right answer to how you operate your model railroad: "However the prototype operated."

On my railroad - and as far as I can tell, on my prototype - there are three essential items of paperwork each local freight crew receives to operate their train:

  • Clearance Card Form A - gives you authority to move your train and tells you what train orders you have.
  • Train Order Form 19 - tells you how/where you're authorized to move your train and what, if any, meets you may have with other trains.
  • Wheel Report - tells you what cars are in your train, including road name, car number, and destination (uses the same form as the switchlist).

Unlike on the prototype where their use is required, Clearance Cards and Train Orders aren't actually necessary on our model railroads - but having them certainly heightens authenticity and reminds you that you're operating a train according to the Rules.  But you have to know what to do with the cars in your train. That's where the Wheel Report comes in.

When a freight train leaves the yard, the conductor has a list of all the cars in his train - essentially a switchlist that tells him where all those cars are destined.  As the train arrives at each town, the conductor already knows if he has any cars in his train destined for industries in that town.  But he doesn't know what, if any, cars he needs to pick up in that town.  So, he checks with the freight agent for that town and the agent gives him a switchlist for that town that tells him what cars need to be picked up and where they're destined.

This is why the agent (aka Agent-Operator or A-O) is so important. If you don't have someone to actually perform the agent's task of writing up switchlists (and depending on how many towns/industries you have, it could be a lot of work), you could simulate the agent's position by following prototype practice for when an agent wasn't on duty: put the switchlist in a box located at the station (or on the fascia at the town).  I went into a bit more detail about the A-O's job here.

On most model railroads, the A-O's job is usually simulated with bill boxes at each town. And in the typical setup, those boxes hold car cards & waybills which contain instructions on what to do with the cars in that town. The cards are flipped between operating session to simulate orders for cars and shipments of commodities. 

While many folks use this 4-cycle car card/waybill (aka "CC/CW") system, that doesn't seem very authentic to me. The freight cars always go the same four places in the same order that the waybill cards are flipped. It makes railroading seem more like a card game than actually responding to customer requests. And I find the cards annoying to carry around and difficult to manage without putting them on the layout for sorting and such. (My thinking on this has since developed further, though I still haven't chosen to use CC/CW)

But without car cards & waybills, how does the A-O know what to put on the switchlist?  That's where the Spreadsheet comes in.

Randy discovered an Excel spreadsheet developed by Mike Rosenberg that simulates customer requests by "ordering" cars to be delivered to different industries & spotting locations, telling you what cars need to be picked up, and what cars to leave alone. It does this by calculating the probability of a particular car type being delivered to a customer or a loaded car that's ready to be picked up. See pic below.

Columns L-R are: Industry, Car Type, Frequency, Occupied?, PickUp, Deliver, Notes
Detailed directions on how to use the spreadsheet can be found here, and it was developed primarily for switching layouts. But I've used it for my railroad for quite a few sessions now and have been very satisfied with how it generates traffic for local freights - even multiple trains on three different lines. I suspect it could be further adapted for even more trains, but this is how I use it:
  1. Before your first session, you'll need to place cars at your industries in a way that makes sense to you, based on commodity (car type) and where it came from (car roadname) (e.g. flatcars at lumber companies, hoppers at coal companies, etc).  But for subsequent sessions, all you'll need to do is go around and indicate on the spreadsheet where cars actually are (what spots are currently occupied). Time required: unknown for initial session, about 5-10 minutes of walking around your layout with your iPad, smartphone, or laptop for subsequent sessions.
  2. The spreadsheet populates the "Deliver" column, telling you what cars have to be in your train (or, in my case "trains") at the start of the "day" (session). I build/populate my trains in staging with the types of cars indicated in the "Deliver" column.  While I could just pick any boxcar from my stash to fulfill the "deliver boxcar" request, I choose roadnames of railroads that would most likely have delivered to this particular industry.  For example, on the spreadsheet above, I need to deliver a boxcar to Wethersfield Lumber.  I imagine (and if I had enough research, I could actually know) that Wethersfield Lumber most often got its lumber from Canada.  So I'd put a boxcar from a Canadian railroad in my train to be delivered.
  3. Generally speaking, on my layout I'll populate the Valley Local with the cars that are destined for Valley Line customers, and populate the Air Line Local with the cars that are to be delivered to customers on the Air Line. To make things interesting though (and even more prototypical), I'll often put some cars on the Valley Local which are destined for Air Line customers and (as was actually true for deliveries of Pennsylvania anthracite to Valley Coal in Wethersfield, for example) will put cars on the Air Line Local that are destined for customers on the Valley Line.  Since I'm benevolent when playing the role of yardmaster, I'll put these "transfer" cars at the end of the train since they'll be swapped in Middletown - the meeting and turn-around point for both locals. Time required for steps 2 & 3: about 20-30 mins. (edited to add: Since I originally wrote this up, I've added two additional local freights - PDX-1 "The Shoreline Local" and PDX-2 "The Haddam Local" which swap cars with each other in Old Saybrook. PDX-2 also swaps cars with the Valley Local in East Haddam)
  4. Next, I'll write up a "wheel report" for each train on a switchlist form that lists all the cars I've put in each train, telling the conductor what cars are in his train, and where those cars go.  This bit of paperwork is clipped to the Clearance Card and Train Orders and given to the conductor of each train at the start of the session. Time required: approx 15-20 mins.
  5. Lastly, I'll write up a switchlist for each town.  This will tell the conductor what cars he needs to pick up in each town, from what industries, and where they are going.  If I have an actual A-O, he can do this during the session - he only needs to be sure the switchlist is ready to give to the crew when they arrive in town. If I don't have anybody working the A-O job, I'll need to prepare these lists myself ahead of time and leave them at each town in the bill box. Time required: varies depending on traffic.
And that's "it" - basically a Pre-Ops ops session.  It seems like a lot, but I can tell you from experience that it sounds much more difficult & involved than it actually is. And when the session is over, you don't have to audit anything or worry about whether your crews kept good track of their car cards/waybills and/or delivered the cars properly - your cars are already set up for the next session.

IMO this system does a better job of simulating the "organic" nature of freight traffic - and, just like the prototype, gives the A-O his pile of work to do. The A-O takes the customer requests generated by the spreadsheet, assigns cars to trains depending on where the cars are going, and writes up switchlists to tell the crews what cars to deliver/pull while working out on the line.

Best of all, if you have a lot of cars and dread having to create car cards for all of them and waybills too, this system will get you up-and-running much faster.  It'll mean some work during (and definitely before) each operating session, but if you - or a friend - is willing to act as the A-O you've just added another "job" to your railroad. There's no pre-session car setup required, and you don't have to worry that your previous session "screwed up the railroad" by delivering cars to the wrong places.  You just have to go around and indicate where cars actually are, print out the result, and write up your switchlist(s).

I'd be very interested to hear of anybody else using switchlists rather than CC/WB to operate their railroad. And if you use Mike Rosenberg's spreadsheet to generate the traffic, I'd be especially interested to know how you went about tweaking  the "Excess Delivery Probability," "Leave Occupied Probability," and "Days/Week" fields.

I still have a lot to learn about operations and after using this spreadsheet/switchlist system for quite a few operating sessions, I like it a lot so far.  Even better - if not even more importantly - my operators like it. They like not having to juggle & keep track of car cards & waybills and, while they may not always enjoy having to walk to the "station" to report to the agent, they appreciate the authenticity of the task. It probably helps that I also "on sheet" them each time they report and indicate the (fast) time on their paperwork as I deliver it to them.  This all contributes to a heightened sense of realism and, if I'm doing my job right, gives them at least a little glimpse of what it must have been like to operate a local freight train down the Connecticut River Valley in the late 1940s.

(originally posted to the blog August 8, 2014; edited July 26, 2020)