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.


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