Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Toward More Realistic Operations

We reached a new level last week end when we staged our operation session when Murray Bay subdivision was back on service after track improvement: we implemented a dispatcher. The small closet used as hidden staging and storage was quickly transformed into a dispatching office. Louis-Marie also dug out a set of walkie-talkies.

The dispatcher's desk in hidden staging

A dispatcher isn’t a new thing for us. Back in 2007, when we started the original layout depicting Bassin Louise industrial trackage, we used to have two operators (CN and CP) receiving their instructions from a dispatcher sitting on a step ladder. It was quite informal, but still useful and a funny role to fulfill. After each session, roles would be shuffled to ensure everybody would have a chance to operate. It worked like this for a while, but as the old layout morphed and decayed, it became almost impossible to do any credible form of dispatching.

Later, switching lists were implemented, but most visiting operators didn’t care about them and I quickly grew dissatisfied making them. Many people serious about operation always stress this point: your operators must have similar level of interest in operation to make sure it works well.

As the club coalesced around a very few regular members – the three of us – it was enough to simply stage a train and identify which cars went to which customers to get the job done right. We plan to return to more formal switching list in the future and I started to make simplified waybill cards for this purpose. With our 4 “customers”, it shouldn’t be too hard to handle even if the rolling stock pool swelled up as I built more cars recently!

In fact, beyond the paper work, having a dispatcher giving instructions really set the mood right. We really felt it was no more a layout, but a real railroad, particularly while handling clearance forms. They really give you the feeling you are going somewhere, they slow the train movement at a comfortable speed and make the layout “bigger” without adding any track.

I had the honor to be the first dispatcher and did a really poor job at it, having no idea what the prototype does! Since the task was far to be overwhelming, I also acted as a brakeman on the train.

Train 522 and Limoilou Switcher in staging.
Two trains were staged, the 522 doing the run to Clermont and Limoilou Switcher serving the cement plant. Both trains were shoved into the hidden staging track and assigned a locomotive. Train 522 was made of 17 cars plus a caboose. I determined a single Rapido GMD-1 would be enough for the task.

GMD1 1906 ready to pull train 522 out of Limoilou
Louis-Marie would run this train up to Clermont. It was late at night and we only run 522. Meanwhile, Jérôme switched Donohue before 522 arrived there to prepare future action.

Louis-Marie commanding 522 while it crosses D'Estimauville Avenue.

Train 522 departed D’Estimauville around 10:30 AM and swiftly crossed Villeneuve yard before reaching Charlevoix.

522 speeding up to 20 mph while leaving Villeneuve.
Then, the real action started. It was simplistic but realistic: pull the departing cars from Donohue, shove the empties on the plant property then switch Clermont team track. But it wasn’t easy at all! First of all, switching a train longer than the available siding can be done quite easily when you know what you are doing, but we improvised a lot and wasted time on useless moves. To be honest, I figured out a few weeks ago how to do it efficiently, but completely forgot how to do it…

CN 1906 entering Clermont siding.
First, we took care of the team track which was a piece of cake...
Switching the layout: a empty ballast car, a grain car and a plywood load.

...but then things started to get complicated when we tried to pull Donohue’s loaded cars. Train 522 was clearly underpowered and the locomotives started to slip on Malbaie River bridge’s wet rails.

"Dispatcher, we've got a problem!"
Worst, Donohue’s industrial switcher couldn’t give us a push because it was trapped on a siding by our own train! As a last resort, we called the dispatcher and requested a helper locomotive. The nearest locomotive available was GMD1 #1027 in Limoilou, 92 miles away! We wasted a lot of time! It was my own fault because I didn’t take in account we would have to pull Donohue’s cars and Train 522's cars together, resulting in a very long and heavy train. Lesson learned: never venture to Clermont with less than 2 powered units, except if you run an exceptionally short train.

CN 1027 couples with 522 and saves the day.

Switching then resumed and the helper left us when its job was done.

CN 1027 kissing goodbye after giving a helping hand.
It was getting late and finally the train, now called 523, made its return trip to D’Estimauville. And then we found out we forgot to switch Dominion Textile plant! Well, it will be for another day!

After this session, Jérôme decided to explain us how real dispatching is done on the prototype, using the correct lexicon and protocol. This is going to be interesting.

Having a dispatcher also brought a new “material” dimension to the layout as we had to determine what is mainline and what yard limits are. Digging in old cheap trackside details, we found out a few plastic railroad signs that could be useful to operators. It was decided to follow practices.

Villeneuve's yard limit sign post

Track from Limoilou to Villeneuve is now considered yard and track up from Clermont to Donohue too. In between lies the “real” mainline. Speed limits, whistle posts and grade crossing crossbuck are now implemented. When scenery will progress, these will be changed to prototypical signs.
A few other details were added, including relay boxes near crossing signals and a new small office at Donohue.

Clermont's yard limit sign post
Jérôme wants to make a real timetable for the layout and to implement special instruction including motive power restriction in some areas. To this, we will probably add the Power Rating chart I made. It’s quite useful to minimize underpowered train!

Some mock up details in Clermont to bring life to the scene

In the end, there’s still a long way to go for us, but going forward using stand-in operation-oriented scenery details and implementing a not-so-perfect dispatcher is still a better than nothing. It would be completely ludicrous to hope to be perfect from start and it’s better to start with what we have, learn from it and improve accordingly.

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