Training operators is an important component of operations. Operators who don't know how to perform their assigned jobs will cause traffic jams on your railroad and adversely affect the experience of everyone involved in an operating session.

The first thing to do is to make sure your trainer (probably, you) understand how to perform all the jobs which he or she will train others to perform. Operate a train on your railroad by yourself a few times. Figure out how to switch both trailing and facing points (see the article on layout design) effectively. If you pass Station A going in both directions, think about whether you should pick up cars at Station A which are headed for Station B when you are going one direction or the other. The more practice you get running trains on your layout, the better prepared you will be to train others to run trains. Once you have some other operators to run trains, practice the jobs of dispatcher, shipper, and station master. Again, you need to have a good idea which jobs you need to fill and how these jobs should be performed before you can teach someone else to do them.


The easiest job on a train crew is that of the brakeman. All the brakeman needs to know how to do is to throw a switch, how to set the brakes on a car or a set of cars, and how to release the brakes. On the Lake Town & Shire, we use inexpensive orange survey flags as brakes for cars left standing on sloping track. The brakeman just shoves the flag into the ground between the ties so that it will keep cars from rolling away. The orange flags are hard to overlook later when the cars are recoupled. The brakeman removes the brake/flag just before the cars make contact during a coupling operation. The brakeman takes all his instructions from the conductor.

The next easiest job on a train crew is that of the engineer. The engineer needs to know how to operate the locomotive, both on the mainline and during switching operations. That means he will need to know how to operate whatever kind of throttle you use. If you use DCC or some other method that requires you to link a throttle to a particular locomotive, then he will also need to know how to do that. The brakeman takes all his instructions from the conductor.

The most difficult job on a train crew is that of the conductor. He needs to know the movements for all switching operations. He tells the brakeman when to set a switch, when to uncouple a car, and when to prepare to release a brake during a coupling operation. He tells the engineer when to move the train, which direction to move the train, how fast to move the train, and when to stop. He must know the order of towns and industries along the line so he knows when a car on a siding is headed for a destination ahead of his train or behind his train. He needs to understand any siding labels you use so he knows where to drop off both loaded and empty cars and when to pick up both loaded and empty cars. He delivers all "paperwork" for his pick-ups and deliveries to the dispatcher. (On the Lake Town & Shire, this means he takes the marked washers and loads to the dispatcher after delivering a car.) If there are station masters, then he listens to there instructions about when to leave a station, which track to take when arriving at a station, and which cars have priority for pick-up. If there are no station masters, then he must coordinate train movement between stations with the conductors on other train crews. He is the captain of his train.

The normal progression is to first train an operator as a brakeman, then train him as an engineer, and finally to train him as a conductor. Of course, either the engineer or the conductor can also be brakeman. Our normal routine on the Lake Town & Shire is for the conductor to also be brakeman. And of course, you can have a one-person crew where a single operator does everything. How many people you assign to your crews will depend on how many trains you are running and how many operators you need to keep busy.


To teach conductors how to interpret siding labels, you just need to show them the labels. And you can teach conductors the order of the stations and industries by walking them around the layout and then testing them. But you need an area on your layout where you can train your crews how to do switching.

If you are only operating one train at a time, then of course you can use the entire layout as your training area. You can also do this if you train all of your operators at the same time. But if you run operating sessions in which some of your operators are experienced while others need training, then using the entire layout for training will probably slow down the experienced operators to the point where they will experience frustration.

One option is to take on station which has a passing siding out of the layout and use it as your training site. To do this, you will not route any cars to any sidings at this station. All normal operations will just pass through this station on the mainline. Then you can use the passing siding and industrial sidings at the reserved station to teach you train crews how to operate the throttle and how to complete switching maneuvers.

An even better solution is if you have special areas more or less separated from the main part of the layout where you can do your training. On the Lake Town & Shire, we have developed three dedicated training areas. One is a mining tram which runs back and forth between a mine and a stamp mill. New engineers can learn how to use the throttle to run the locomotive on this piece of track. We could have also added a siding for storing mining cars to this tram, allowing trainees to perform simple switching maneuvers on the mining tram, but we handled this in another way. We also have a separate loop of track (the Lonely Mountain loop on the Lake Town & Shire layout diagram) where new engineers can be trained to use the throttle. On our layout, we built a wye at Dale which includes a caboose track. This is a function wye attached to the mainline, and we could use to turn locomotives and store cabooses. But we don't really need to turn locomotives at Dale. So we only use this area to train crews to do switching movements. They can practice switching both trailing and facing points in this area without ever blocking the mainline.

The point of this section is that as the number of people who come to your operating sessions gets longer, and as the frequency with which you must train new operators increases, then the more important it becomes that you make arrangements so you can train new train crews without interfering with the main operating session where your experienced crews are running trains. Our three dedicated training areas allow us to train several people during a normal operating session. You probably will not need as much training area, and if your sessions remain small, then you may not need any dedicated training area. But these suggestions may prove helpful if your operations group grows.


The best method we have found for training dispatchers, shippers, and station masters is the apprentice method. Assign the trainee to assist an experienced operator. First, let them watch their mentor as he performs the job and explains what he is doing. Then turn the job over to the trainee while the mentor observes, asks questions about why they are doing what they are doing, and makes suggestions about how to do it better. This probably sounds obvious. But the first training method that will often occur to people is what I call the "lecture and abandon" method. With this method, you tell the trainee how to do the job and then turn the job over to them without further supervision. This method is very tempting, and I have tried it. The problem is that the trainee often develops bad habits with this method that then become hard to break. For example, I have had shippers who came up with the idea of always sending cars the furthest distance possible. If an industry shipped to three different destinations, these shippers would always pick the destination that was furthest from the industry. This is not only unrealistic, but it drastically reduces the number of cars that are delivered to their destinations during an operating session. A shipper might get it into his head to do this in any case, but it is less likely to happen if a mentor explains that you should rotate among possible destinations to make operations more realistic.


To paraphrase a popular expression for the 60s, "Derailments happen." But they happen less often with proper training.

The most common causes of derailments during our operating sessions are operating error: trains passing through switches set the wrong direction, backing trains through switches at high speed, forgetting to remove a brake (survey flag) when coupling cars, coupling cars at high speed, and backing a train beyond the end of a spur siding. You need to emphasize these problems during your crew training.

Derailments can be caused by problems with the track or switches: trash on the track or the switch, track sagging because ballast needs replacing, track that has become twisted, etc. Operators need to be taught to look out for trash on the track or trash that could interfere with the proper function of a switch. Derailments can also be caused by problems with cars. Wheels set to close together or too far apart can cause derailments. So can various kinds of problems with couplers.

Crews need to be taught procedures for handing derailments when they occur. You may want them to report all derailments to your MOW chief (you or someone else) who will then work the problem. Or you may want to train your crews to handle derailments themselves.

Whoever handles derailments should of course know how to put cars back on the track. I have found the easiest way to be to stand over the car, put my fingers on the wheels on each side of the derailed truck, and feel the wheels back onto the track. But this is not the first thing that should be done when handling a derailment. The first thing anyone responding to a derailment should do is try to determine the cause of the derailment. If the derailment is the result of operator error (switch set wrong, excessive speed during switching, etc.,) then you will have to decide what kind of action is appropriate. Maybe one of you crew members needs additional training. If the cause is trash on the track or interfering with the switch, then the solution is simple: remove the trash. It it appears that the problem is with a switch that is not working well or with a track problem, then fix the problem immediately if that will not slow down your operating session too much. Otherwise, put the problem on a list of things to fix before the next operating session and notify all your train crews of the problem and tell them to take extra care in this area. If the same car keeps derailing (or uncoupling) and you are not having problems with other cars at the same location, then remove that car from the operating session and plan to fix the problem before the next operating session.

It is important to train your crews how to handle derailments whether you have them report all derailments to one person who will go through the above procedure or you train someone on each crew to follow this procedure. If you don't do this, you will probably have lots of derailments and lots of frustration.


I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good training program for your operators. Simply handing someone a throttle with a few words of instruction might work fine if you have one visitor running a train by himself on your layout. But any kind of serious operating session is going to go very badly if your operators don't have a good idea what to do. The time you spend thinking about what your operators need to know and then putting into place training procedures to make sure they know it will pay huge dividends in smooth operating sessions that everyone will enjoy. You may even want to try to schedule training sessions when only new operators are invited and normal operating session when only operators who have received proper training are invited. But whatever you do, training is as important as the quality of your track work and equipment and the efficiency and simplicity of your care movement system.


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