Realistic Operations vs. Run What You Want

Realistic Operations vs. Run What You Want

Last week I talked about making your proto-freelance model railroad as realistic as possible. This week, I want to talk about realistic operations vs. run what you want. So what’s the difference between the two? Realistic operations is an element of making your proto-freelance layout more realistic, but sometimes model railroaders just want to run whatever model trains they have or whichever ones makes them happy or whichever trains bring back good memories. While most model railroaders will have a preference for one or the other, neither is better. Whatever makes you happiest is what is most important.

Conrail by Emmett Tullos

Conrail and Amtrak models, by Emmet Tullos, used under the Creative Commons License

Realistic Operations

Realistic operations involve two things mentioned in last week’s blog: paying attention to the type of freight the railroad(s) you are modeling haul, in the regions you are depicting on your layout and using realistic operating procedures. I won’t detail those two, just link you to last week’s blog.

But, realistic operations are more than just those two things. It’s limiting your train engines and train cars to the specific time period you model. If you model, say, 1965 in Pennsylvania, in order to maintain realistic operations, you would want to avoid any types of train engines or train cars built from 1966 on. You would also want to avoid any railroads that didn’t exist until after 1965, like Conrail or CSX.

Likewise, if you are modeling modern day iron ore hauling railroads in Australia, you’d want to make sure to have SD70ACes and AC44CWs or ES44ACs for power, maybe some Dash 9s, too, and avoid Alco C628s.

When it comes to the non-train items on your layout – cars and trucks, buildings, trackside structures, etc. – you would also want to be careful with the depictions. You wouldn’t want to put a bunch of modern SUVs on the streets of your town set in 1930s England, for example.

By picking an era and meticulously sticking to it you can make your layout extremely realistic. For a good look at a layout that uses realistic operations, take a look at this 1 ¼ hour long video of an operating session on the Colorado Joint Line model railroad, which models the Denver to Palmer Lake section of the famous Colorado Joint Line, from 1992-1995.


Run What You Want

Many model railroaders just simply run whatever they happen to have or whatever they find cool or neat or brings back good memories from childhood. They make mix 1930s steam with modern diesels on the same layout. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. We do model railroading to make us happy, not to please others, after all.

If you’ve got a bunch of older train cars from old model train sets, you might include the cars and engines from them on your layout, along with the stuff you’ve purchased in the last year or three. In some cases, it won’t make a difference as some railroads that were around 20 years ago are still here. Also, many railroads still run train engines that were built 20, 30, or even 40 (or more!) years ago, and on a regular basis.

Running what you want also allows a lot more freedom and flexibility in what you purchase and add to your layout. If you see something really, really neat and you’d love to have it, but it doesn’t fit your 1987-era Burlington Northern layout, you will probably pass on it. But if you run what you want, without trying to model a specific era or region, you can acquire that model and put it on your layout.

For a nice look at a great model railroad that runs a mix of engines, cars, and paint schemes of different eras, take a look at this 25-minute video of the Kansas City Eastern:


In the end, the type of layout you have, the type of trains and equipment you run, is all up to you. Do what makes you happy. Neither of these types of operations is better than the other. Some may prefer one over the other (I prefer more realistic operations, for example) but no one should look down on a model railroader for doing what makes them happy. I’ve been involved in several operating sessions that were “run whatever you want” operations, and had fun doing it.

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Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.

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model trains for beginners


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