September 23, 2017

Aquia Line Initial Operational Test 1


For those unfamiliar with concept of a model railroad operating sessions, here is a brief explanation. The hobby of model railroading has many facets. Like other modeling hobbies, we get to build models. Not just of trains, but also the structures they serve and scenes through which they traverse. But building is only part of the fun. We also get to operate the trains, and not just in circles around a Christmas tree. Our operation tries to simulate what the actual railroad would do. In effect, we use our models to play a simulation game. So instead of gathering dust on shelves, our models come to  life. The human element introduced by the operators (or players) greatly expands the enjoyment of the hobby.


With that background, lets talk about today's operation session. This was the first test of the Aquia Line model railroad. The PoLA layout had already been operated 9 times before, so it was well tested.

For over 24 years I worked in the defense business doing operational testing of military systems, especially Army combat vehicles. I worked on systems like the Abrams M1A1, M1A2, Bradley M2A3 and the Stryker. So it seems appropriate to run the first operational test of the Aquia Line like a military operational test.

One of the main tenets of operational testing is to use real soldiers for the test, not engineers or highly qualified "golden crews." Also, the test needs to take place in a realistic environment.  To achieve those aims, I  wanted some operators that were new to  the layout, as well as some "old hands."  To make it a realistic environment, and to maximize stress on the system, we ran PoLA as well as the Aquia Line at the same time. Since they feed off the same Easy DCC system, albeit with separate boosters, this was a realistic operational environment.

Three man crew on train 8 went smoothly. 

The test participants included Paul Dolkos and John Barry on PoLA. They are both experienced operators, so I assigned them to PoLA since PoLA didn't need to be stress tested.

Doug Gurin thought the engineer position was quite busy,
 especially with all the bell and whistle tasks.
On the Aquia Line we had two crews. Train 7 with engine Haupt originated  from Aquia Landing under command of  John Drye as the conductor/brakeman with Doug Gurin as Engineer.   At the same time, Train 8 with Fury originated from Falmouth under command of Joel Salmons, with  Jeff Peck as Engineer, and Christian Peck as brakeman.

The op session stated at 1400 instead of the normal 1300, so both trains were late at the start at the start of session. That's not a big deal and actually meant less time waiting.

John Drye had trouble seeing the links
without his reading glasses
However, both crews took about 45 minutes to get their trains out of the originating stations. Train 8 had to turn their engine on the turntable, then build it. Some of their cars were buried behind loaded cars and had to be dug out.  The crew of train 7 was having a hard time adjusting to the link and pin couplers. The conductor forgot his reading glasses and could not see what he was doing. I eventually took over brakeman duties on train 7 and that helped get things rolling. Lesson learned - bring young eyes or reading glasses to operate.

Each crew got to run a train in both directions on the layout. By then 2 hours had passed and we called an end to the session.


The results of the test were generally favorable. The crew on Train 7 felt that they were very busy and could just barley keep up with all the tasks. They recommend running smaller trains. They started with 4 cars and picked up a few a dropped off some.  The crew on Train 8 said everything went smooth.

Train 7 had trouble with both engines Haupt and McCallum. They started with Haupt and switched to McCallum. I tested Haupt separately and could not find a problem. That's Murphy for you.

The process of randomly deciding if loaded cars had been unloaded and thus ready for pick-up worked pretty well. Crews flipped coins. Only one car never got picked up, a box car at Potomac Creek. It survived two coin flips.  I am considering adopting the 4-cycyle waybill system for the cars in addition to the random process.

Most of the crews did not read the instructions or bulletins before the session. It's too bad, as some of their questions were covered in them.

One problem overall was the lack of freight cars. I only had 15 in total. When Train 7 left Aquia Landing, the yard and wharf was totally out of cars. In an ideal situation, there would be cars left at Aquia for the next train to take out. Instead, during today's session, I had to re-stage the cars that came to Aquia Landing on 8 as soon as they arrived. There are 6 six cars now in partial states of assembly to help resolve this shortage, thanks in part to JB Weilepp, who brought another to the house today, but he couldn't stay for the session.

John Barry operating PHL Engine 30 at PoLA
Paul Dolkos suggested that the PoLA switch list include cars that are on the layout, but are supposed to stay in place, these are called hold cars. On my switch lists, I only list cars that they have to pick up or set out.  My suggestion was to make notes on the switch list of the hold cars so they know where to put them back if they move them. That seemed to satisfy Paul, though he claimed that is not how the prototype does it.

I use the hold cars to adjust the complexity of the session. If I know the operators are experienced, I put more hold cars on the layout to get in the way. Since Paul and John are very experienced, I used several hold cars. For newer operators, I remove the hold cars.  It took Paul and John about 2 hours to work PoLA today, so you know it was a more complex session.

Most importantly, everyone said that they had a good time. That may be because they finished all the chocolate chip cookies that Alicia baked for them. Thanks to my testers for coming today. And thanks to Alicia for making cookies and other help.


  1. So very sorry I missed it. Looks Great! Congrats!

  2. I'd like to know more about your Aquia Line timetable system.

    1. The trains follow the schedule shown in the timetable.
      Two general rules apply.

      1. Trains can not leave a station before the scheduled time, but they can arrive early.

      2. Inferior trains must give way to superior trains. On the Aquia Line southbound trains (typically loaded) are superior and get priority.

      However, the timetable shows a scheduled meet for most trains at Brooke. That means that even a southbound (superior) train has to wait at Brooke for a northbound train, if the southbound arrived first. If the northbound was going to be really late, the dispatcher could issue a train order to let the southbound train move. However, he would then have to tell them where to meet, otherwise the northbound would be frozen until the southbound passed it.

      It's a very interesting system that requires the conductor to think on his or her feet.

  3. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask a few follow-up questions:

    I assume the conductor fills out the Conductor's Report as the op session proceeds. Are the telegraph sheets just used for reporting arrivals and departures, or are they used in other ways as well?

    How does a 4-cycle waybill system work, and how would its implementation change things?

    Do you intend to always use the same timetable & general rules (perhaps because they were actually from your period), or do you plan to use different timetables at different op sessions?

    I trust that your ACWRRHS op session will be fantastic. Wish I could be there!

    1. The conductor fills out the report. It starts off with a few cars listed already. I do those before just to get things rolling. They add the cars as they encounter them. I use a random token flip to determine what cars they pick up.

      I am not using 4-cycle way bills. I am using two side tokens. If the token flip says empty, the car returns to Aquia. 4 cycle waybills have 4 possible destinations for a car, including some off the layout (represented by staging) I don't have off layout staging, except for the the car ferry. So My simpler system should work. We'll find out.

      Yes, use the same time table for multiple sessions, though I could tweak it if needed.