Car Handling Basics

by Larry Tuttle


The first two op sessions have been whole load of fun running the Pacific & Eastern.  Watching and helping others with their first operating experience has been especially enjoyable.  Maybe not so much to them at times, and I’m not making fun here, it has been rewarding to see others learn by doing…making mistakes…and trying again. 


This brings up two things.  First, some of us, me included, have been switching model trains since our youth and many of the moves and the logic behind them have long been second nature.  Second, some of our newer members are suddenly thrust into this mix of strange new ways of operating trains amidst their peers who are quite at home with all of this.  One member asked me, “When did you guys learn to do all this?  What did I miss?”   So, I think a clinic on the basics is in order.


Pulls, Holds and Spots (New Tricks for Old Dogs?)


To start with, cars at industries are there either to receive loads or to discharge loads.  When a car comes into an industry, it’s called a Spot, because it’s spotted (parked) at a place in an industry where it will be loaded or unloaded.  When it’s finished being loaded or unloaded, it becomes a Pull, ready to be pulled (picked up) by a switcher, turn, or hauler, and go back to a yard for further assignment.  In some cases, it may not be ready and is to be left for the next op session in which case it’s a Hold.  While a Hold may be moved during the course of switching other cars in and out of an industry, it must be returned to its original location. 


Switching Industries (The Heart of the Dog)


So, here comes YOU, the switcher (or turn or hauler), with a cut (group) of cars to be spotted at one or more industries in a local area.  The first thing to consider is where these cars need to be spotted and what cars need to be pulled.  Fortunately, most of the industries work on a short turn-around, so most cars at industry docks are Pulls.  Most but not all, so keep an eye out for Holds.  But, before you can make the spots from your train, you need to make pulls from the industry(s).  One good way to do this is to leave the bulk of your train out of the way with only the spots for a particular track attached to your power. Your locomotive needs to be on the far end of the spots when you get ready to enter the industry track (ending up with your power buried at the end of a siding after you make your spots it rather embarrassing, albeit entertaining for others).  Go into that track and couple up to the pulls.  Pull them out and drop them in the clear.  Then, re-enter the industry track with the spots and leave them at their appropriate location(s).  Note:  Sometimes it’s not possible to fit your spots and pulls and power on a track leading into an industry (the Medco loading shed and flat car loading area are two examples), so you have to get clever on where you leave your spots while you make your pulls, being careful not to block your spots when you drop your pulls.  (I call this the chess game where your opponent is time and confusion.)   Working through your pack of cards, you can spot multiple industries while assembling a new consist from the pulls.  In most of the switching areas, it’ll be necessary to make runaround moves to get on the proper end of you cars to do your work efficiently. Initially, it’s best to only consider one set of pull/spot moves, but eventually, you’ll develop a mind set to think several moves ahead and plan your work even more efficiently (an advanced version of the chess game).  Finally, when you’ve finished your pulls and spots, you’ll need to reassemble your train, with the locomotive pointed in the proper direction (usually back to where you came from) and the caboose, if any, tacked on the rear.


Paperwork (Dog Litter?)


By now you know that each car has a car card and most car cards have way bills attached.  With or without a waybill, there’s some sort of instruction for where the car is going next.  The trick now becomes keeping these cards well organized so that you and the next person to handle your consist doesn’t have to wonder and scramble around matching cards with cars and cars with tracks.  Fortunately, there are drawers convenient to most industrial areas and yards with organizer trays where you can sort, block and store car cards.  Each industry and yard is a little different, so there’ll be variations.  At the beginning of an op session each industry track will have slots for Pulls and Holds.  You’ll go in and make the Pulls, picking up the cards as you go.  You can then move any Holds over to the Pull slots and put your Spots in either the Hold or Pull slots.  Next to most drawers there’s a “bread board” or shallow drawer for you to use to lay cards as you work industries.  While there’s a natural tendency to lay cards out on the plywood around yards and industries, eventually, there’ll be scenery with such niceties as static grass, shrubs and small trees.  Getting in the habit of using the breadboards early on will prevent nasty comments later about abusing the scenic efforts of other with arrays of car cards strewn about.  The breadboards are also designed to hold packs of car cards when assembled into trains.  Throttles can be left there too.  But, go easy on using them for radios, loads and general clutter or they’ll no longer be useful for sorting cards.


There’ll be instructions on the waybills, too, so do as directed (typically, either turn over or remove the way bill) when you put the spots into their slots.  There’s been considerable discussion about how to organize the cards – back to front of the consist, top to bottom of the pack or vice versa.  Personally, I like the car farthest from the power to be at the top of the pack when I’m switching.  Then, I put the card down into a slot when I’m done with its car and go on to the next.  This way, at least the cards stay in the same order as the cars, even if they’re reversed for future moves.  If I find myself with a reversed deck, I just sort through them, reversing the order while double checking the order with the cars on the track.  When you’re done switching, do make sure your car cards are in some semblance of order and that you take the cards for your train (but not for the cars you’ve left at industries) with you back to the yard. 


Blocking (Keeping the Yard Dog happy)


Now, you’ve got a string of pulls and all your spots are made.  You’re ready to go back to the yard, right?  Not so fast, if you want to stay on the good side of the yard master.  He has many cars to switch around and he doesn’t really want you coming back in with a “shotgun” consist of cars for one destination intermingled with those for another.  See, the YM is building trains to go both east and west as well as to various interchanges.  So, if you bring him cars blocked (sorted so all cars for the same destination are together), all he’s got to do is switch out two or three blocks from your train and he’s done.  You can easily use your local area main and passing siding to block the cars for similar destinations before you return to the yard.  When all of the locals/switchers/turns do this, things move quickly through the yard, no one gets stuck out on the line for hours waiting to get into the yard and we all go home early.  Plus, you get to have fun switching cars around a little more.  Sometimes the order of the blocks is important, but it’s most important that they be blocked. 


Clearing Up (Big Dog Coming)


Sooner or later, in the midst of your switching operation, you’ll hear the dreaded “East (or West) Hauler to Your Job, I’m three minutes out and need you to clear up so I can get through.”  Uh oh, you’ve got cars spread from one end of your industrial area to another and are right in the middle of some very creative chess moves  and of all the gall, this Train wants to come barging through!  Well, you have every right to hold up the Hauler, but not for too long.  (You did say you wanted to go home on time, right?)  Eventually, you’ll develop a technique for keeping the main line clear or easily cleared and anticipating the arrival of through movements.  Initially, do use the main to your advantage, but also be ready to get out of the way for Haulers and Turns. 


One other issue has to do with main line switches.  Be sure to align them back to the normal or through route when you’re done using them.  You’ll definitely owe “cookies” when you allow a hauler into a siding with your freshly spotted cars.  In fact, it’s just a good and necessary habit to get into – always restore all turnouts to their normal/through/closed position when you’ve finished a move.  This applies not only to switching out on the line, but entering and leaving the yard as well. 


Boo Boos and Help


In spite of your best efforts to learn switching there will be times when you’ll make mistakes and feel overwhelmed. 


All of us make mistakes from time to time so don’t feel alone when you discover you’ve left a car at the wrong spot or have a hold in your consist.  It’s best to try to handle a mis-spot as realistically as possible.  Can you just fix it yourself?  Can another train come along and do it if you’ve already out of the area?  Sometimes the car needs to go back to the yard and be spotted at the next op session. 


Last but not least, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Those of us who’ve been switching since Hector was a pup are more than willing to help you sort through any problem.  But, do be patient, sometimes we’re involved in a complex series of moves or need to get a train in or out asap and might take a couple minutes to get back to you.