The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 155


© July 14, 2010   

 ©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.


Operations by Card-Order
Something More Than Just Riding Around


Written by Rick Henderson

Riding Scale Railroading has been mostly just that, riding around the railroads just for the train ride. And for many in the hobby, they thought that was enough. There is, however, in more recent years, a growing desire for more realistic operation of our trains and railroads. It is nothing new to model railroading actually, as the table-top scales have been doing it in an organized fashion for over 50 years now.
The drawback in the riding scales has mostly been money, as to operate like a freight railroad, you need freight cars and industrial spurs to set the cars out on. For most in the past, the focus has been on cars that people may ride on. Recently that has been changing as more and more car companies are offering a large variety of railroad freight cars.
Many of the tracks around the country are also adding industrial spurs to their existing tracks to allow for operations while others are adding the spurs as they build new track. A spur is very useful during construction as it allows for a place to set out work cars close to a work site during construction. Later these spurs are used for industries and operations.

So what is Operations? Operations is when you move a specific car, by train order, from one location to another. Basically, a train crew picks up a car and delivers it to the next location according to written instructions. There are computer programs that can track all car movements on a railroad much like the prototype operations; however, the most popular system in the hobby, due to its simplicity, is the card-order system that has been in wide-spread use since the early 80’s. In that system, instructions for car movements are on waybills that have instructions to move the car to as many as four different locations.

Yardmaster keeping track of movements of his yard crew sorting cars onto tracks for outbound cars. A temporary folding board is used until an actual tower is built in the future.
What is needed for Operations? Basically you need three things. Freight cars to be moved, spurs for industries along the main line and a yard to sort cars for delivery. The more you have of each, the more fun it can be. Obviously the larger the session is, the more complicated it may become. To get people used to the concept of operating, it is good to visit a railroad with an established card-order operations session but understand, they are not all run the same. Most sessions are tailored for the capabilities of that railroad and the experience of the operating crew. So they are not all exactly alike and in fact, depending on the turnout, a session may be streamlined to work with fewer people on hand.

On a railroad with multiple possible routes and multiple industrial spurs, the most efficient way to operate is to sort cars for delivery by geographical area, into one local train assigned to work the industries within that one area. A common practice so far in riding scales, and to make less work on yard crews, is to not sort by areas but send a train out to switch industries located over the entire railroad; this works until you have an excessive number of locals running around the railroad.


There can be a lot of positions or jobs if you have a lot of people and trains. If you have limited manpower, you can still operate with just a couple of local crews and a yardmaster to sort the waybills. The main positions to consider having are: Trainmaster oversees the entire operation, assigns new waybills as necessary, settles any questions that may arise, approves position requests and ensures adequate manning of key positions.
Yardmaster(s) oversees all movements within their assigned yard, sorts incoming cars according to next waybill assignment and has trains made up by yard crew for local and through freight runs.
Yard Engineer and Yard Crew sort cars in yard area according to yardmasters direction, assist in making up outgoing trains and may switch local industries adjacent to yard area.
Local Freights move cars according to waybill orders to industries, pick up and return to yard with the same number of cars as was dispatched with. Returning cars are picked up from industries within their assigned local area.

Through Freight (with multiple Yards) crew of engineer and conductor moves cars between yards.

Passenger Train(s) follows timetable schedule around assigned route. All other trains must keep track clear so passenger train is not delayed.
Car-Card & Waybills are the heart of card-order sessions. The car-card is a card with a pocket, listing the details of each railroad car used. It includes the type of car, the reporting marks and car number. The card pocket holds the waybill with movement orders; only the current movement order is visible when in the pocket. The waybills are the orders that instruct you where to take the car, location and industry. The cards have up to four sets of instructions so the car may be moved up to four different industries. After the forth move it can go back to position #1 or receive a new waybill. Train crews only follow the waybill shown, the Yardmaster turns waybill when car is returned to yard. When a car is dropped off at an industry, the car-card with the waybill is left with the car, usually in a box near the industry. When a crew picks up a car, they also get that car’s car-card with waybill from the box and take it with them back to the yard.
The car-cards and waybills are reusable and are usually made up before the operating session. Any waybill may be put with any car-card but the trainmaster or yardmaster assigns waybills to cars based on the type of car. Destinations on waybills are set up based on the car type it is written for. A waybill going from a coal mine to a power plant would be appropriate for use on a coal hopper whereas different destinations would be needed on a waybill to move covered grain hoppers or refrigerator cars around. Often there are a lot more waybills than cars so you may switch where cars move on the railroad during a session. Typically, when the 4th order is completed, a new waybill will be used for a car.

How do you make up waybill? While the car-cards are a simple matter of coping reporting marks information off of a train car, making up routing instructions involves a little forethought. The best way to make sure that every industry is served is to list all industries on the railroad, adding a separate line for each type of car that industry would receive. For example, there is a brewery complex that has shipping and receiving docks, grain silos, corn syrup tanks and a coal fired power plant. It is serviced by boxcars, grain hoppers, tankers and coal hoppers. So you need waybills for each type of car. Write out one waybill starting with that industry in the first section and then pick another industry that would be an appropriate stop as either a delivery of goods or as an empty car needing a load. Continue adding industries to the 3rd and 4th spaces. If you do the same thing for every industry, for each type of car it serves, you will have an even set of waybills for the railroad to start with.

The Yardmaster has the advantage of a real tower to oversee the yard operations,
photo by Bill Hays.
In a full session, the yard crew has strings of cars sorted out in the yard based on the area they will go to. A local train crew arrives, is given three to four cars with their car-cards and waybills and the crew leaves to deliver the cars. When a local crew delivers one car to an area, it picks up another car at an industry in that area or close by for return to the yard for sorting and forwarding to the next industry. A crew should always return to a yard with the same number of cars as they were sent out with, which is how the yard keeps cars on hand to send out again.

While the local crew is out, the yard crew takes cars that have been returned to the yard and the yardmaster turns the waybill or replaces the waybill if necessary and tells the yard crew how to sort them for the next local crews. The yardmaster needs to keep track of what car is on which track and the order they are in. They also need to keep track of the passenger trains operating plus a locator map of all industries is helpful to have on hand.

Crew arriving back at EPRR yard after switching industries.
Working shorthanded is easy; you just eliminate some steps and positions. In the yard, instead of sorting by geographic destinations when cars return, just turn the waybills and set the cars on the storage tracks awaiting pick-up by another crew. During this type of operations, you send locals to the entire railroad to work and the waybills route the cars.

Really shorthanded or don’t have a yard, no problem, you may still operate with card-orders. In this case, when a crew picks up cars at industries, the conductor turns the waybill and the crew delivers the car to the next destination. The crew can work with as many cars at a time as they wish, as long as the conductor can keep up with what needs to be set out according to the waybills.

So who is doing card-order? The recent DLS card-order survey showed that there is a growing interest in card-order operations. Railroads are having operating sessions 1 to 4 times a year and have from 2 to 250 spurs for industries. Several railroads also reported plans for adding many industrial spurs in the near future so they could do more operations. There were also a number of people reporting that they want to get involved in doing card-order operations.

The railroads that were reported as having the most activity in card-order operations are, Adobe Western (MLS) in AZ, Eagle Point in TN, Houston Area Live Steamers in TX, Michigan Central in MI, Mill Creek Central in OH, Ridge Live Steamers in FL, Train Mountain in OR and White Creek RR in MI. There are several other railroads that are known to be active in card-order that did not take part in the survey.

Spur at the Mirror Lake industrial area on the White Creek RR.
Photo by Hank Roberts
A card-order session at the Michigan Central in MI draws a large crowd for several days of operating.
photo by Bill Hays
A local crew working the Allen industrial area on the Eagle Point RR. Several industries at Reed Lake on the White Creek RR.
Photo by Hank Roberts

It is popular enough that groups get together and travel from track to track just to attend scheduled operating sessions at the different railroads. While some tracks are small or new and may only have 10-30 cars to switch, some tracks have 100’s of cars available and they are so popular that you have to reserve a spot to attend and play. Since people often travel far, some railroads operate more than one day. To make the trip worth the expense, some railroads operate for two, three or four consecutive days, some even operating after dark with flashlights.

If you go to some of the railroad websites and look at their track plans, you may notice a growing number of industrial spurs. The Adobe Western Eagle Point, Michigan Central, Mill Creek Central and White Creek are good examples of railroads with lots of industrial spurs built for operations. A couple of railroads have gone so far as to add in the John Allen Timesaver into their industrial areas to make switching interesting. The Timesaver is also one of the requirements of the Boy Scout railroad merit badge. People find the timesaver very different when you are standing in it rather than looking at it on a table-top model railroad.
Most of the railroads in the east have adopted safety chain standards that allow cars to operate on every railroad. If you take cars to a railroad for card-order, they will not stay together but rather be switched separately all over the railroad so it is important that all cars stay couple together and safety chains prevent problems for those car that come uncoupled during movements. Members of a Boy Scout troop are working towards their railroad merit badge by working the switching problem on an Alan Timesaver. Club members operate the train, following instructions from the Scouts.

The basic card-order system comes in a Car Routing Starter Pack from Micro-Mark where they offer a variety of refill or additional items. A search of “card-cards and waybills” on the Internet will yield a wide variety of helpful pages for additional information on card-order options. There are also software programs that will generate car-cards or waybills; however, the ones available from Micro-Mark are inexpensive and a lot less work than printing and cutting out your own.

Card-order is not the only way to do operations, just the easiest to learn and get started. There are computer programs available for model railroad operations where you enter all of the information about your railroad and then enter all of the individual cars information. It then generates a switch list or train orders to move the cars. With a switch list, a conductor has orders where to spot the cars he is taking from the yard and a specific list of which cars are to be picked up. The computer randomly assigns the orders as the cars return to the yard, which means you need a computer running on site with a printer to print switch lists for every local sent out.
Michigan Central yard during a busy card-order session.
photo by Bill Hays
Cars spotted at five different industries during a session. Signs indicate future locations of structures.

Operations by card-order or computer dispatch are not for everyone in the hobby but there can be a place for the less interested to participate. A passenger train running on a timetable has priority over local freights, which must keep track of when the passenger train is due through their area and keep the track open for them to pass. An engineer on the passenger train usually has a clear track and all green lights and often a better non-stop run than a regular run day.

If you are interested in considering operations for your railroad but do not have any nearby track to check out, browse the Internet for Model Railroad Operations and Car-Card Operations to find detailed explanations on how the smaller scales work. It is the same principle.

Written by Rick Henderson

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