Operating the FCFL: Setup and the Durango – Salvation Point – Phoenix Run

Last week I introduced my laid-back operating scheme for the FCFL. This week I’ll describe the setup for an operating session and run the first train of the day.

A Note About Staging

It’s helpful to think of the layout as a theatrical stage. The “scenicked” portions are where the drama plays out, while the staging yards are the wings. There are rules for the stage and rules for the wings. On stage, cars can only move by locomotive power. Nothing gets picked up. The only manipulation allowed is a little help coupling or uncoupling, and a gentle nudge if a locomotive looses electrical pickup.

The staging yards are “fiddle” yards where none of those rules apply. Operators are free to pick up and move engines and cars, and rolling stock is moved by hand between storage boxes and the layout.


Setup starts in the storage boxes, where I select cars to place at industries around the layout, and to include in the trains that start in staging.

In addition to placing cars at industries, I assemble trains in staging for Globe, Gallup and Phoenix. Later we will run local trains from Salvation Point to Globe and Gallup, and these trains placed in staging at setup will be hauled back to Salvation Point.


Each car’s envelope is stuffed with an assigment card, as discussed in the last post.

Each industry has a nail driven into the benchwork beneath it. Binder clips holding the envelopes for the cars spotted there are hung from the nail.



Once the layout is staged in this manner, each successive operating session requires minimal setup.

Durango – Salvation Point – Phoenix: Train DSPP10


Train DSPP10 ready to go in Northeast Staging. This “unscenicked” area of the layout is like the wings of a theater, where the actors and props are staged for action. Also visible in this picture are trains staged at Globe, Gallup and Phoenix.


DSSP10 is one of the trains assembled by hand in staging. I use a technique employed by real railroads called “blocking.” Cars heading toward similar destinations are grouped together in the train. For the Durango – Salvation Point – Phoenix train, I place the cars bound for Phoenix up front just behind the locomotives, and everything else follows.

The envelopes for the cars on the train are stacked on a clipboard for the crew to carry.


The train departs staging, crosses the Benjamin-Henry River and briefly passes through Many Lost Ways National Park before descending into Salvation Point.


Train DSPP10 arrives in Salvation Point.


When DSPP10 arrives in Salvation Point, all the cars not continuing on to Phoenix are cut off. The yard crew uses the yard goat, a MP1500DC, to pull the local traffic clear and shunt it into the yard.



Any cars in Salvation Point bound for Phoenix are then coupled to the end of DSPP10.


Then it’s a straight shot through the canyon, past Herbst Junction and into Southwest Staging. When DSPP10 arrives in staging, the locomotives are cut off and coupled to train PSPD12, the Phoenix – Salvation Point – Durango train that will be the last “run” of the day. These cars were staged here during setup.


The assignment cards on the arriving train are all turned to their next destination. The cars are manually re-blocked according to their new assignments, thus creating the Phoenix – Salvation Point – Durango train for the next session.


Next week: Action picks up in Salvation Point, where the yard crew gets busy assembling the local trains for Flagstaff, Herbst Junction, Gallup and Globe.


ModelStory: A River Deep and Wide

At first the thing that bothered him most about the whole idea was that they might fall.


“At first the thing that bothered him most about the whole idea was that they might fall.”

As a dad, falls are a major concern. Traffic and roadway hazards are a close second, followed by choking and other ingestion-related dangers. Dads tend to worry about the things that cause immediate trauma.

Moms fret over the hazards of repeated exposure like dressing properly for the weather and adequate nutrition.

Dads worry about falls.

So the notion that his daughter and her cousin would embark – unchaperoned – on a three-hour river raft trip caused him some heartburn.

(It had to be a three-hour tour? The universal code for nautical tragedy?)

“They’re fourteen years old, Ted,” said Marcia. “As long as you’re there to pick them up on time, how much trouble can they get into? Frankly I was looking forward to some time alone during this vacation. Just me and the Discover Card and those cute shops in Salvation Point.”

That didn’t make him feel any better, but he realized he was licked and agreed to drop them at the dock.

And now he stands here all alone experiencing one of those unforgettable moments of immense transition:

She WON’T fall.

She’s fourteen and a pretty good swimmer and smart enough to stay seated.

She’s not the little girl who couldn’t help but skip everywhere she went, the one who fell out of bed and fell off the jungle gym and fell off her bike and needed him to fix her up and remind her to pay attention.

She hasn’t needed any of that in a long time. She’s done some growing up, and he wishes he’d been paying closer attention.

Because there’s this boy, sitting right across from her, and they’re not fifty feet from the dock and already talking to each other.

She’s going to have different kinds of falls now, harder ones to recover from.

He’s not sure he’s ready.

*   *   *

At first the thing that bothered her most about the whole idea was that she might fall.

As a kid, falls were a major concern. Falls out of bed and falls off the jungle gym and falls off her bike – and Dad was always there to fix her up and remind her to pay attention.


“At first the thing that bothered her most about the whole idea was that she might fall.”

So the notion that she would embark with her cousin on a three-hour river raft trip without him had her freaking out a little.

(Dad kept singing some stupid song about a three-hour-tour, a THREE-HOUR TOUR, like that meant something.)

“We’re fourteen years old,” said Brittney. “As long as he’s there to pick us up on time, how much trouble can we get into? Besides, it’s better than hanging out with your mom in town.”

She didn’t entirely agree with that, but she realized she was licked and agreed to be dropped at the dock.

And now she sits here experiencing one of those unforgettable moments of immense transition:

She WON’T fall.

She’s fourteen and a pretty good swimmer and smart enough to stay seated.

She hasn’t needed to worry about falling or choking or getting hit by a car in a long time. She wishes she’d paid more attention to the growing up she was doing.

Because instead of Dad – well, hello cute boy across from me!

The falls are about to get harder.

She’s not sure she’s ready.

(Scratchbuilt river raft, factory-painted Preiser and custom-painted Model Power figures, EnviroTex Lite water with clear silicone caulk effects.)

Operating the FCFL


FCFL MP1500DC #534 sorts a string of cars at Salvation Point Yard. The FCFL uses a “car-card” operating system to route cars across the layout.

For my 10th birthday or so my Dad gave me an Athearn F7 A and B set in the Santa Fe warbonnet scheme and when my friends came over for my birthday party I proudly showed it off, lap after lap, on our HO layout.

I still remember my friend Steve asking, “So all you do is run it?”

No, my friend. We don’t run trains. We operate them.

Some guys golf, some guys make their own beer, I use a home-grown car-card system to route model train cars to various destinations on my model railroad layout.

Yes, that’s a thing.

IMG_2719One of the finest examples I’ve seen is the Ford City Northern – the spectacular freelanced layout of a friend from the railroad club. He runs formal operating sessions and has manuals, handbooks and schedules for the trains.

My operations are pretty rudimentary by comparison, but I think my system is still pretty fun. Over the next few posts I’ll describe it.

If you’re a model railroader, maybe you’ll get an idea or two for your own layout. If you’re not a model railroader, it’s not too late.

The Schedule

IMG_2713The layout operates sequentially. A typical “day” (which may take a week or more) goes like this:

Train DSPP10: Durango – Salvation Point – Phoenix

Train SPF11: Salvation Point – Flagstaff – Salvation Point

Train SPH21: Salvation Point (local industries) – Herbst Junction – Salvation Point

Train SPG31: Salvation Point – Globe – Salvation Point

Train SPL41: Salvation Point – Gallup – Salvation Point

Train PSPD12: Phoenix – Salvation Point – Durango

The Car Card System

Each of my model train cars has a little paper pocket with its road number, physical description and car type on the front. I am gradually upgrading them to neatly printed labels with a photo of the car. For now most of them (okay, all of them) look like this:


I make the pockets by sealing stationary envelopes and cutting them in half.

The pockets fit “assignment” cards – 3×5 cards that have four destinations written on them. The destinations are numbered one through four.


The car is delivered to destination one, then at the next operating session to destination two, and so forth. The fourth destination is always one of the staging areas, where the car is taken off the layout and stored until called upon for another cycle.

I have made assignment cards for all the different kinds of rolling stock on the layout – boxcars, grain hoppers, plastic pellet hoppers, refrigerated cars, gondolas, etc. Eventually I’d like to start a session by pulling 20 cards for the Durango-Phoenix run and then going to the storage boxes to find the appropriate rolling stock. The fleet isn’t large enough to accommodate that yet. For now, I have to figure out what cars I have available and sift through the assignment cards to find matching loads.

Next week: I’ll walk through the setup, and we’ll ride along on the Durango-Salvation Point-Phoenix run.

Abide With Me

crossAt a somber Good Friday service twenty-five or thirty years ago, the congregation sang “Abide With Me” and I looked up in the dim light to see tears in my mother’s eyes. I was eight or ten or twelve – too young to understand her anguish. She was grieving, as though someone had died. Someone close to her. Someone she knew well, and loved.


Abide with me; fast falls the eventide

The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide

When other helpers fail and comforts flee

Help of the helpless, Lord abide with me

Age has brought me bits of understanding, and I now grasp the immense faith on display in Mom’s tears. Someone had died. Someone close to her. Someone she knew well, and loved. Jesus Christ, her friend and Savior, died on the cross to redeem her and give her eternal life. It wasn’t a tradition she observed out of habit, not just something she believed. She was certain of His suffering and death, and mourned it.

Swift to it’s close ebbs out life’s little day

Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away

Change and decay in all around I see

O Thou who changest not, abide with me

It’s been nearly a year since Mom died, suddenly and unexpectedly – a thief in the night on a Wednesday afternoon. We sang “Abide With Me” at the funeral and I cried, but I haven’t since then. I’ve been waiting for the heavy hand of grief to fall on my shoulder but it hasn’t. I miss her, but I can’t be sad for Mom. She loved the Lord she served so deeply that His suffering brought her to tears, and now she’s risen to eternal life with Him. Who can cry over that?

I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless

Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness

Death where’s thy sting, oh grave thy victory?

I triumph still if Thou abide with me

I rejoice for a faith that made Mom’s Savior real and alive and present for her. I pray for that kind of faith. For myself. For my wife and children. For my father and sister and nephews, for my in-laws, for my friends. For you. The glory of Easter outshines the sorrow of the grave for all who believe. Christ has Risen, He has Risen indeed.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies

Heaven’s morning breaks and Earth’s vain shadows flee

In life, in death oh Lord abide with me

Weekend Hopper Rebuild


It’s a grim sequence all model railroaders eventually face: The tick-tick-tick of a derailed wheel, the clumsy search for the throttle, the sickening crash, one or three or five models in gruesome postures on the ground.

The pieces are collected and added to the pile of wounded, and someday maybe…


Someday finally arrived for this Micro-Trains cylindrical covered hopper, and with a few simple steps it returned to revenue service in a weekend, with materials I had on hand so it was cheap. And, truth be told, I like the car more now than I did before I wrecked it.

The damage: Smashed end railings, dislodged roofwalk and brake gear, totaled trucks. I disassembled the model and cut away the bent and broken beams from the end structures. The roofwalk is photo-etched metal and thankfully it wasn’t too badly kinked – once I cut it loose of the model it pretty much returned to straight and flat.


The only hard part was rebuilding the smashed railing structure with some strip styrene I had on hand. I glued long strips against the remaining structure with CA. When they were dry I used a sharp scissors to trim them to length.


I glued the horizontal bars in place with CA, using a spring-loaded tweezers as a clamp to keep everything straight and square while the superglue dried. Again, I glued longer strips in place and trimmed them to size when the glue set.




With the structure rebuilt, I gently washed the car in soapy water and let it dry thoroughly. Then I sprayed it an oxide red. The brake gear got a coat of primer gray. Everything was set aside for 24 hours while the paint dried.


The Red Earth Co-Op in Herbst Junction operates a hodgepodge fleet of second-hand grain hoppers, and this resurrected unit is a perfect fit. Decals were scavenged from my odds-and-ends collection. I ran out of Xs for the RECX reporting marks, so I had to use a different font. Not perfect but so what? I imagine the outfit is a low-budget affair and good enough is good enough for them.

The car was fitted with new Micro-Trains 100-ton roller bearing trucks (I keep a 10-pack on hand) and Fox Valley Models 36-inch metal wheels (also an important staple). The roofwalk was glued back in place with CA. Finally, I did some light weathering with weathering powders.


When your models crash, save the pieces! Such unfortunate events can become fun, inexpensive weekend projects.

Good Sense, Even at the Very Noisy Circus

The monster truck show came to town last week, leaving us much to ponder about not-quite-sports and the people who live in the not-quite-mainstream.

???????????????????????????????Nevermind the monster trucks doing their wheeled two-step over the corpses of some late-90s Dodge Neons.

Nevermind the scripted minibike race between the Home Team and a villainous opponent from a neighboring state.

Nevermind the lawnmower races, nevermind the ceaseless sales pitch for monster truck merchandise.

For all that, I could not take my eyes off the MC.

He was an old-school ringmaster straight from the Big Top, updated with crisp white shirt and wireless headset.

A traveling showman bringing us spectacles wondrous and bizarre, he only barely hid his shame at so shamelessly efforting to separate us from our money.

What’s the deal with this guy, do you think? Is that a “real job”? Where does he fit in the hierarchy of teachers, lawyers, truck drivers and bean counters?

I don’t think he cares. Isn’t that the beauty of it?

See, I was raised by prudent, mainstream achievers to achieve mainstream, prudent things. My upbringing tells me look down my nose at him and say something about how he needs to grow up, be “productive.”

But I don’t want him to.

I never wanted to grow up and do anything productive myself. Frankly I’m not sure I have. But life happens and one day you realize you’ve surrendered to good sense and prudence. You’re part of the hive, doing what you’re told. Jobwise at least, careerily speaking, you’re on the path of least resistance.

The straight and narrow.

Turns out it’s … straight and narrow. Passionless, safe, sensible, indoor, daytime work in exchange for just enough to keep you coming back.

I want the monster truck guy to be the antidote to that. I want to believe he’s run away with the circus, told prudence and good sense to pound sand, and hasn’t given it a second thought.

Don’t you wonder?

What did he set out to do for a living, and what crooked path landed him here?

Does he feel like something went wrong or does he feel quite the opposite?

How long does he plan to do this, and what is he shooting for next?

For heaven’s sake, what do his parents think?

We may never know. The media contact at the company that produces the monster truck show (yes, they do circuses, too) did not respond to repeated requests to interview the monster truck MC.

Anyway, I doubt the answers would be as liberating as I imagine. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

He was probably raised by showfolk and there was no great leap, no wandering in the desert, no breaking of shackles to pursue this dream. He probably grew up in a monster truck world and is doing exactly what’s expected.

And don’t let the big tires and wicked names fool you. Monster truck people are as sensible as they come:

During the “freestyle competition,” each truck is allotted sixty seconds to romp around the arena in search of the most extreme, crowd pleasing stunts. Each time one roared full throttle toward the heap of crumpled Neons, I hoped for it to launch a dozen stories into the air and land with a devastating crash and a great cloud of dirt and parts, maybe fire.

Instead they each braked at the last and rolled over the cars with a banal crunch.

Prudence and good sense, even at the monster truck show.

What a bummer.