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Lights, sound, and… action! - The Yard Switcher

The Yard Switcher has active operational control of the “manual” yard turnouts via his Lenz 100 handset - this replicates the switchman’s job on a switching locomotive in the real world. Incoming and outbound locomotive engineers must also ensure that manual turnouts are correctly set (also via their handset) as they travel through the yard to designated sidings (under the orders of the Yard Master), so they also need to have personal control of the yard switches. Either the power on the incoming train or the Yard Switcher will pull or add allocated cars, following the instruction on each waybill and under the supervision of the Yard Master. Power can also be detached, changed and serviced in the MPD while the Yard Switcher attends to the train: co-ordination and mutual understanding are essential pre-requisites for this to take place without mishap or, just as importantly, short-circuit.

Branch train crew seeing instructionsIt quickly became apparent that, if we’re to attempt prototypical running, every car that is to be individually moved or switched must have an allocated waybill. Therefore, incoming trains are pre-blocked in the storage yard, with any cars for switching in Anson Yard placed at the appropriate point of the train (usually the back or the front). Cars placed on any part of the scenic side at the start of a session are also given a waybill. However, not all cars on main line trains will require this paperwork, only those that are to be cut off in the yard or elsewhere. Several club members are now selecting cars to which they will allocate a specific waybill (including photograph), and a waybilled pool of about 60 cars of all descriptions is now available to switch and service the industries on (and off) the layout at each meet. This number is more than adequate for a “live” running session of 3-4 hours. Since all stock is removed from the layout at the end of each session, there’s no facility to “pick up where we left off”, as would occur on a permanently-erected layout at the start of another session, but this presents no problem.

Empty cars of various types are pulled from incoming trains, either to be spotted at points on the visible layout (elevators, MPD fuel, sand and supplies etc), or to be taken up the branch by the local to imaginary but “named” destinations. After a suitable amount of time has passed, a pre-blocked “new” branch train will be run from the inner storage loop back to Anson Yard, the power will cut off, and the yard switcher will follow the instructions on the waybills: cars will then be placed for eastbound or westbound collection by the next available train. Loads or empties for or from the visible portion of the layout are also dealt with in this way. More than one branch train can be run if desired, and there’s never any shortage of spare power in the MPD.

CSX 5117 at sanding towerThe Yard Master and the Yard Switcher must work in tandem, and make best use of the small three-track facility. We’ve already found that too many inbound or outbound cars from or for a train can result in long delays for following operations, no matter how quick the Yard Switcher tries to classify them, so we try to limit things to a few cars at a time, as well as running block trains independently on the main to ensure that something is always moving. It’s not fully prototypical, but it keeps things enjoyable and fluid. “Through trains” (ie those that keep to the main line or Anson Siding, and do not enter the yard) are also under the Dispatcher’s control, and must also obey all signals, even if they just circulate around the layout. At times they will be required to stop at signals to facilitate a switching or other move, either on the main or siding, or from the storage yard. When a branch train is made up and ready to depart, the branch line Engineer, under radio orders from the Yard Master, will pick up his power in the MPD, start up the engines and ensure correct lights are displayed, connect with the fresh train that awaits him in an allocated siding, and haul the new loads back up the branch once he has cleared a route with the Dispatcher. And on it goes.

BNSF power at Anson gantryAs can be ascertained, we’re only just beginning to discover how to do all of this, and we have so much more to learn. On a fully practical level, we’ll need to construct some boxes in which waybills can be placed, probably at the front of the actual yard where the cars and trains are switched – otherwise you end up placing the cards on the scenic baseboard itself; presently, a table placed below the layout does this job. What’s the point of creating an accurately scenicked yard if you then dump ten or so huge waybills down by the trackside, each the size of a 1/87 scale cricket pitch? All uncoupling is done manually, through the use of what we call Twizzle Sticks (Patent Pending) – shortened wooden barbecue skewers which are glued into the bodies of empty Bic or similar pens. I’m continually knocking up batches of these and they are great for the task, so much so that they gradually and mysteriously disappear into members’ stock boxes at each close of play. Like overdue library books, we have to have an amnesty every few months to get them back. Cut a small notch just below the point, in the manner of sharpening a pencil point with a knife, so that it’s slightly uneven when you twist it between the couplings – proper job, as they say in Devon.

UP twins in Anson YardWe thought that we’d be a smidge self-conscious when using the radios, particularly if you’re almost standing next to the person you’re communicating with, but this hasn’t been a problem – you also quickly get into the swing of using the lingo: Dispatcher, this is Extra 3047 Inbound Branch Local at signal number 7, requesting clearance to proceed into Anson Yard…Over… If you listen in to one of the many live links to the real thing you can find on the internet, you’ll quickly grasp that the discussions between the Dispatcher and Locomotive Engineer have a sort of “informal formality”: they use the correct terminology (naturally), but in a more chatty fashion than you would get, for example, in a police radio discussion. For complete accuracy, it would appear that we require a Dispatcher who can replicate the polite mid-western tones of a female in her mid-thirties, but until then, the manly Plymothian burr of the likes of Mr Mike Ruby will have to suffice. Have a safe day, y’all. Pasty anyone?

As said, it’s very early days, and we will, no doubt, make some mistakes as we embark on this journey. What we can tell you is that the effort is wholly worthwhile. This sort of thing can only come about when like-minded people work together and are willing to learn new tricks and/or operate trains in a different way by developing a variety of new skills. Rules have to be created and adhered to. For club members who prefer to run trains only on the main, the facility will still exist to do this, but all trains must still be under the control of the Dispatcher, and can only be run with possession of a radio set. Even if constantly circling the layout with his train, the Operator will still have to be constantly vigilant of the signals and expectant of instruction from the Dispatcher. We plan to install light signals on the storage yard exits, so that trains can be controlled visually on every part of the layout, and moves are also afoot to upgrade the curved corner boards and the backscenes. We are also aware of the need to place some working dwarf signals at a couple of places on the layout too, and wireless handheld controllers would, of course, make things almost perfect.

 

Anson dawn

 

Everyone who’s taken part in these early sessions will tell you just how enjoyable they’ve been, despite the hiccups and learning pains. Usually, at the end of a meet, what with the early rise, car loading and unloading, heavy lifting, setting up and breaking down etc, we’re mostly quite happy not do it all again for another month. Now, most of us would do it again the next day in a flash, so that we can have yet more fun running trains closer to the real thing than ever before. You can’t have a better indication than that of how Dispatcher and radio-controlled operations can really transform a meet. It could do the same for yours too.