Having been around for a long time, and coming from the “scale” side of the hobby, one of the things I became familiar with was “operation.” This is a “scale model railroad” term for switching cars and delivering products to different points on the layout. Once you tire of trains going around and around, this is the next step up the ladder. Many model railroaders even create “waybills” so there is actual paperwork to tell you what is in a car and where it is to be delivered.
Now if you load and unload with operating accessories, this is really not a problem, open cars are part of the fun. But if you’re not into accessories, open cars can be a bit unrealistic going around and around the layout with the same load. This is a problem faced in N, HO, and narrow gauge “model” railroading.
Probably the easiest solution is to use trains of closed cars where you can’t see if they are full or empty. You can see if a hopper car is loaded or unloaded, but you can’t see if a boxcar is loaded or unloaded. Or a refrigerator car, a covered hopper, a tank car, or even a cattle car in some cases.
Here’s an example; Let’s say you have a very basic layout. It’s just an oval with a siding on the front straight and another on the back straight. You want to “operate” freight between these two sidings, but you are using no accessories, just buildings. You can use a couple of boxcars on each siding. On one side of the layout is a factory, and on the other a warehouse.
You imagine that the boxcars leave the factory “loaded,” make a few laps to rack up some “distance” and then are set out at the warehouse to be “unloaded.” You also pick up the cars that were at the warehouse, which were “unloaded” and take them to the factory to be “loaded.” Because you can’t see into the boxcars, there’s no tip off when they’re loaded or empty.
You could do something similar with reefers, perhaps loading at a small brewery and unloading at a beer distributor.
Or you could use tank cars loading at an oil storage “tank farm,” and being delivered to a gas station for unloading. Again, you can’t tell if the cars are full or empty.
You can even use different types of cars. Suppose you have covered hoppers loading grain at a grain elevator for delivery to a bakery, and boxcars at the bakery to take the baked goods away.
To make this even more believable, you could add a third siding as an “Interchange Track.” This is a siding with perhaps a small office only, where
two railroads interchange cars from railroad to railroad. The “other railroad” could be at the other end of the siding and “off layout.”
Still another easy spot to load and unload different types of cars is the “Team Track.” Any type of car can be placed here for loading or unloading into trucks for movement to a business not serviced by the railroad. The name “Team Track” goes back to the days when teams of horses pulled freight wagons to trackside to pick up goods.
This does not mean that you can’t run trains of all types of cars. You just switch the closed cars to the various sidings and their “industries.” The cars you’re not switching are “running through to another destination.”
If you ARE using operating accessories, you can use them too, putting cars into trains to have logs loaded and dumped at the sawmill, or coal loaded and dumped at a fuel dealer. The sawmill might need boxcars to take milled lumber away and that fuel dealer might also take delivery of tank cars too.
Of course, passenger trains are treated the same way as closed freight cars, all you need are two stations for the “local” or “commuter” train to stop at. And, if you can come up with two operating stations, you actually CAN load and unload passengers.
It’s all up to your imagination! And don’t be ashamed to “pretend” this loading and unloading is going on, “model” railroaders have played this game for decades!
While the example I gave of the small oval layout is basic, you can quickly see how you can make much more of these ideas with a bigger layout, perhaps switching many cars to many sidings for loading and unloading. By using Team Tracks and Interchange Tracks, you can get even more variety in your “operations.”
If you have a layout with an engine terminal, you might even have space for a “work train” to do track maintenance. Every once in a while, this train will have to run around the layout, perhaps even stop at sidings or block the mainline for emergency repairs for a time. Maintaining the right of way is yet another part of “operations.”
Perhaps another time I’ll get into making your own waybills and dispatching plans to add to the realism of running your railroad.