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The basics of car switching

Tips for operating your model railroad like the real thing
If you’re new to model railroad operation you may not be familiar with the basic switching moves for picking up and setting out cars and assembling trains. I’ll review the two primary moves you’ll need, and explain how to apply them to a common task that sometimes challenges even veteran operators.


Trailing, facing, and running around. We’ll start with some common terms, which are illustrated here. “Trailing point” turnouts and spur tracks are those you can back an engine and cars into from your current direction of travel­. “Facing point” turnouts and spurs are those your engine can head into without changing direction.

You can easily pull a car from a facing point spur using the engine’s front coupler, but it comes out in front of the ­engine. Cars behind the engine can’t be put into the facing point spur without a momentum maneuver called a “drop” or a “flying switch” that’s impractical with small-scale model trains. Our cars don’t have enough inertia, and it’s hard to open our couplers on the move.

To get a car or cars on the other end of the engine, we make a “runaround” by placing the cars on a double-ended siding, then moving the engine around them on the other track to couple from the opposite end. Such a double-ended siding is known as a “runaround track,” and it can also be formed by crossovers between parallel tracks.

Skip the runaround. Running around can be time-consuming, and crews on the big roads prefer to avoid it if they can. Besides the momentum tricks that we can’t copy (and which now are generally prohibited by rule), you can avoid running around by only working trailing point spurs. If local trains work in both directions on a given line, they might do only trailing-point work and leave cars for facing-point spurs on ­double-ended storage tracks for the ­other ­local to pick up and set out. This was a common practice in the steam era.

A local that works as a “turn,” out and back from its home terminal, may do only trailing-point work on the way out. The crew will leave the other spurs for the return trip, when they will be trailing. A runaround will be necessary at the turnaround point, but this tactic can still be a big timesaver.

A present-day practice to avoid runarounds is to put a diesel unit on both ends of a local train. The crew can use ­either engine as needed for trailing and facing points, and even a turn doesn’t have to run around to head back home. Our power units can’t freewheel like the prototype’s, but DCC consisting makes this practical on model railroads.

The long shove. Rookies may still be challenged when cars have to be placed at two or more spots along a single spur. There may be several different industries, or several spots at one large plant, but the task is the same in either case.

Here’s a plan that usually works. First, line up the cars to be set out in the order in which they’re to be placed on the spur – any convenient spur lets you sort a string of cars into any desired order. Then keep those cars to be set out next to the engine while you pull all the cars from the spur and set them over with the rest of the train.

If all of the cars pulled are outbound, you’re ready to make the “long shove” into the spur with all the inbound cars, making cuts as necessary to leave cars at the required spots. If some of the “pulls” are going back in – cars the industry is holding because it hasn’t finished loading or unloading them – you’ll have a
little more sorting to do. First, put in cars that go behind the “holds.” Then go out and get the hold cars and put them back on the spur, and finally make the shove with cars that go ahead of them.
This strategy works for either trailing or facing point spurs. A long shove into a facing spur means making a couple of runarounds, but you know how to handle that.

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Freight yard design and operation.

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