Set Up an Informal Operating System

Harvey Heyser III, clerk (2017-2020), NMRA South Mountain Division. (Tom Fedor)

by Harvey Heyser

Re-Inventing the Wheel?

Part one.

For this article, I have used the term “informal operating systems” to differentiate less structured approaches from prototype-based operating systems. Steve King has used the term “fun run,” but I feel that term, while easily understandable, does an injustice to both approaches to operations. Those interested in prototype-based operations would not participate if they were not having “fun,” and those, who prefer a more relaxed experience, still want to learn about how the prototype does things. Consequently, I find the term “informal operating systems” more useful and less pejorative. (At the recent NMRA National Convention in Salt Lake City, there was a clinic titled “Operations without the Aggravation.” I find that also an effective way to label less formal approaches.)

Over the years, we have all been harangued by articles and clinics touting the benefits of prototype-based operating systems (TT/TO, track warrants, etc.). The main reason given is that prototype railroads have developed, tested, and refined these systems for many years in the real world, addressing the many situations that come up when operating a railroad. Why would anyone want to re-invent that wheel? Clearly, developing an operating system is not a simple task. Why not use a system already developed and tested?

While this argument is very convincing, it ignores an important fact – prototype operations are very different from model railroad operations. First, prototype railroads are businesses; model railroads are part of our hobby. Second, prototype railroading can be deadly serious; model railroading is supposed to be fun. Third, prototype railroaders are trained professionals; model railroaders are, for the most part, interested, sometimes informed amateurs. Whatever system of operations we choose, whether prototype-based or other, must address these differences.

The goals for prototype-based versus informal model railroad operating systems:

Prototype-based operating systems:

  1. To experience operating the model railroad as closely as possible to the way we might experience operating the prototype,
  2. To have an enjoyable and challenging experience with people knowledgeable about railroads,
  3. To meet the session’s challenges with the tools developed by prototype railroads, and
  4. To replicate the work prototype railroads do.  (Creativity is not OK.)

Informal operating systems:

  1. To experience the model railroad in a railroad-like fashion,
  2. To have an enjoyable and relaxing experience with other people interested in railroads,
  3. To pretend we are professional railroaders (somewhat like re-enactors) and, from that effort, to learn things about prototype railroading, and
  4. To find solutions to the situations that come up without having to make efforts that are too much like work. (Creativity is fine.)

While these two sets of goals are not completely different, the emphasis certainly is different between them. Those differences greatly affect the operating system appropriate for a given model railroad. It may have been designed for prototype-based operations, and then again, it may not have been. Crew members may be interested in the challenges of prototype-based operations, or they may be more interested in a relaxing, enjoyable time spent with friends and acquaintances. The prototype being modeled may be a heavily trafficked mainline, or it could be a backwoods branch with two trains a day. Each of these sets of circumstances warrants a “custom” approach.

Prototype railroads understand that fact and address different situations with rules customized for each region and each operating district. “One size fits all” does not work for the prototype; unsurprisingly, that approach does not work for all model railroads either.

Problems with prototype based operating systems: Crews not interested in prototype-based operating systems have voiced numerous complaints. The following are some of the characteristics of prototype-based operations that superintendents might want to avoid:

  • Too much paperwork: During the often hectic flow of the session, it is often impossible to find time to read, much less deal with, a sheaf of papers, especially when the piece of information needed is buried where it cannot be found easily.
  • Hard-to read paperwork: The effort to make keep instructions and information easy to handle, often results in making them unreadable except with a magnifying glass. Also handwritten entries on forms are often illegible.
  • Rule books – too much to remember.
  • Clearances: Written clearances are an example of excess paperwork.
  • In-depth pre-session introductory material and long verbal orientations – again too much to remember.
  • Timetables, clocks and fast time: Crews want to watch their trains, not the clock (too much like work). Besides, a timetable is not easy to read while trying to run a train.
  • Reporting requirements: Having to pick up the phone or radio every few minutes can be quite distracting.
  • Complicated train instructions: Brevity and simplicity should be the main goal. Crews should be able to find what they need to do easily.
  • Train orders written in “railroad English:” Prototype railroaders would understand; model railroad crews might not.
  • Car forwarding information: Whether car cards, switch lists, or other systems are used, there is often much more information than needed. Also, carrying a large stack of cards around is always a challenge.

Undoubtedly, there are other problems crews might have with prototype-based operating systems, but the above list will suffice for now. (As will be discussed below, some of these items are essential for running a railroad.)

Problems with informal operating systems: After considering the numerous problems common to prototype operating systems, it is tempting to conclude that, by adopting an informal operating system, we can address all those issues and eliminate the things to which crews might object.

However, informal systems come with their own set of problems – a couple of them major. 1) By adopting informal procedures, we have essentially discarded the administrative organization that works so well for managing prototype traffic.

2) Crews may not have the information and directions they need to do their jobs. Between these two problems, it is almost certain that difficulties will arise. The following are some of the potentially maddening situations that develop when using informal operating systems:

  1. Sessions degenerate into confusion: This is perhaps the most serious criticism of the Mother, may I? operating system. Crews (sometimes behaving like spoiled children) all cry out for the host’s attention at the same time. As the number of problems encountered multiplies, the volume of cries increases. The host has far too much to deal with; the session becomes a confused mess.
  2. Situations get resolved without taking into account the railroad’s overall objectives: This problem arises when crews take it upon themselves to resolve a conflict by gentlemen’s agreement – such as the problem of too many trains in one location. The resolution may be quite creative; it may be quite satisfying. But, if the through freight gets held up by the local, that resolution is not the right one.

Worst of all, the crews involved miss an opportunity to experience how the prototype might resolve a similar problem.

  1. Crews blithely unaware of anything but their own train: That might work on a backwoods branch or a one-train-a-day shortline, but when more than one train is running, crews need to be aware of other trains and to coordinate their efforts with those of other crews. (This issue also comes into play when crews have to share aisle space.)
  2. Operating systems that do not address all aspects of operating the railroad: For instance, some layout owners consider having a car card system to be the same as having an operating system. That approach does not consider traffic management, and the car cards lack much of the information crews need to do their jobs. Crews have no sense of time, no information about other trains, no understanding of the superiority of trains, and no authority to use a specific track (in fact, no instructions about which track their train should be on). Confusion reigns. Of necessity, figuring out how to do a given job becomes the primary effort for the session. Enjoyment comes in a distant second.

The result of these situations can be an atmosphere of “chaos,” an atmosphere not conducive to having a relaxing, enjoyable time. Because crews do not have the information they need to do their jobs, they feel uncomfortable. They cannot enjoy themselves – the main reason for adopting informal operations in the first place.

What have we learned? Prototype-based operating systems come with quite a few rules and procedures: things that crews looking for a relaxed operating experience might object to.  Adopting an informal operating system seems like a good way to avoid those objections. But informal systems often cast aside the organization needed to run a model railroad and often fail to give crews information needed to do their jobs. The result can be chaotic, quite the opposite of the relaxing, enjoyable experience desired.

Adopting an informal operating system does not have to degenerate into chaos if some effort is put in place to establish basic organizing principles and to give crews the information they need to do their jobs.

Part two of this article will endeavor to discover ways to correct the deficiencies of informal operating systems and will open discussion of the enjoyment possible when adopting such informal systems.

SMD NMRA March 8 Meeting Reminder

Alex Polimeni, superintendent (2017-2020), NMRA South Mountain Division. (Tom Fedor)


Just letting you know, once again, that we’re meeting this Sunday, March 8th at Jay Beckham’s home in Berkeley Springs, WV. Doors open at 2PM for the layout tour, with the business meeting and a clinic about laser cutting to follow. I’m told there’s more to see on the layout since the last time the Division has visited, so make sure not to miss it! Please email me at if you need directions.

Keep in mind, this will be our last meeting before April’s Mini-Con.  You will also find an impeccably prepared post of our February meeting minutes HERE.

In other news, May’s election meeting is fast approaching! You can review our bylaws referencing nominations and elections by clicking HERE, and in particular, I’d like to draw attention to this point:

In addition, any three members may nominate someone via a written notice to the Nominating Committee, with the permission of the nominee. Such nominations must be submitted to the Nominating Committee at least thirty days ahead of the election.”

So, if there’s someone you’d really like to give a little “push” into the Super’s chair, well, you have the means to do so! Heaven knows, it’s how I got the job. Our nominating chair this year is Ron Polimeni, who can be reached at .

I’d also like to take a moment to recognize Wheel Report editor Tom Fedor for another great year of our little Division publication, and to thank you guys for the contributions which make it possible, too.

Hope to see you all this Sunday,

Alex Polimeni, Superintendent

SMD Draft Meeting Minutes – February 9, 2020

Minutes submitted by Clerk Harvey Heyser

Division members met at the Cumberland Valley Model Railroad Club (CVMRR) in Chambersburg, PA.  19 or so were present.  After viewing the Club’s layout and displays, Superintendent Alex Polimeni called the business meeting to order.

20.2-1 Paymaster’s Report:  Paymaster Ray Price (not present) submitted a report that the Division has $4115.08 in its bank account, the same as in November, 2019.  Purchase of the $150 Mainline Hobbies gift certificate for the Mini-Con raffle prize will happen soon.

20.2-2 Clerk’s Report (Meeting Minutes):  Clerk Harvey Heyser summarized the draft minutes for the January meeting (previously distributed by e-mail).  It was noted that Ron Polimeni will chair the Nominating Committee with Bob Law’s participation and Tom Fedor’s assistance with communication.  Brian Greenawalt made the following motion (second by Tom Fedor):

Motion:  That the draft Minutes for the January 2020 meeting be approved as revised.  The motion passed unanimously.

Old Business:

19.9-7 2020 Mini-Con will be April 18, 2020:  Chair Pete Clarke will contact Brian Wolfe of Mainline Hobbies for final coordination.  Chair Clarke reported the following:

a. Informal Clinics:  1 slot remains to be filled.  Back-ups (in case of no-shows) would be helpful to plug holes the day of the Mini-Con.  Contact Pete Clarke.

f. NMRA/SMD promotion at the Mini-Con:  It was suggested that the Division raffle off Rail Pass memberships.  Further discussion pointed out the need to gauge a recipient’s actual interest and suggested a need for current members to sponsor Rail Pass recipients.  Another suggestion was to reimburse recipients for the cost of a Rail Pass at the end of 9 months (if they felt that NMRA membership was not what they hoped it would be).  The discussion also touched on the cost of full NMRA membership and noted the fact that the hobby itself can be quite expensive.  CVMRR Club dues are $20 per month.

The promotional pamphlet was discussed as separate new business below.

19.10-6 White Elephant Table:  Although not discussed at length, it was observed that the Philadelphia Division had great success disposing of HO rolling stock (with Kadees and weathering) for a bargain price of $5 at the recent Timonium show – “passing the hobby forward.”

20.1-8 Spring Wheel Report deadline:  February 15, 2020.

New Business:

20.2-3 Host Cumberland Valley Model Railroad Club welcomed everyone to the Club.  The SMD expressed thanks for hosting the meeting.

20.2-4 SMD promotional pamphlet (tri-fold) giving specific information about Division activities:  Bob Johnson presented a draft copy of the pamphlet for discussion.  (A copy of the draft will be kept with the meeting Minutes.)  Discussion pointed out that the National NMRA policy limits visitors to two (2) meetings before requiring membership and that the URL’s listed were too long.  Bob will make corrections.  In addition to distributing them at the Mini-Con, members recommended flyers be placed at Mainline Hobbies and HobbyTown USA Frederick.

Printing costs and printers were discussed.  CVMRR Club recommended their printer OSI.  Bob will follow up.  Dave Thalman made the following motion (second by Ken Mazer):

Motion:  That the expenditure of up to $150 be authorized for the printing of SMD promotional pamphlets (tri-fold).  The motion passed unanimously.

20.2-5 Steve Green, a long-time SMD member, has contacted the Division to assure everyone that he is still involved in the hobby (despite not being able to attend meetings) and is recovering from a car accident last October.

20.2-6 The Waynesboro MRRC open house scheduled for Monday 2-10-20 will feature a presentation from Scale Trains.

Adjournment:  The Superintendent accepted a motion to adjourn.  The next meeting is scheduled for March 8, 2020.  Members will be notified of the location by email [Jay Beckham’s in Berkeley Springs, WV].

SMD Draft Meeting Minutes – January 12, 2020

Minutes submitted by Clerk Harvey Heyser

Following an open house at the Frederick Society of Model Engineers, Division members met at the HobbyTown USA Frederick, MD store.  23 were present.  After looking around the store and socializing, Superintendent Alex Polimeni called the business meeting to order.

20.1-1 Paymaster’s Report:  Paymaster Ray Price (not present) submitted a report that the Division has $4115.08 in its bank account, the same as in November, 2019. 

20.1-2 Clerk’s Report (Meeting Minutes):  Clerk Harvey Heyser summarized the draft minutes for the December meeting (previously distributed by e-mail).    Ron Polimeni made the following motion (second by Jane Clarke):

Motion:  That the draft Minutes for the December 2019 meeting be approved as submitted.  The motion passed unanimously.

Old Business:

19.9-7 2020 Mini-Con will be April 18, 2020:  Chair Pete Clarke reported the following.

a. Informal Clinics:  1 slot remains to be filled.  2 or 3 back-ups (in case of no-shows) would be helpful.  Suggested topics – Kadee uncoupling and hands-on model railroad photography (with attendee’s own phone).

e. Attendance:  Chair Clarke indicated that the 220 or so attendees at recent Mini-Cons is about the limit of what the venue can handle.  Consequently, the current promotion is successful.

f. NMRA/SMD promotion at the Mini-Con:  Discussion indicated that the Division has gotten some new members from Mini-Con attendees but not as many as we would like.  It was observed that many attendees are not yet at the point of their hobby “lives” when they want to become NMRA members.  (They are most interested in information that helps them build a layout.)  The following were suggested:

1) Brief announcements at breaks regarding the Division and the NMRA (stressing Rail Pass and the layouts in the SMD),

2) Invitations to attend SMD meetings (noting the limit of three before required membership),

3) Efforts to determine what attendees are looking for from the Mini-Con (check-the-box type survey forms better than ones requiring written response),

4) Directions to Division “specialists” who can help answer their questions (including the many at the Mini-Con),

5) Display of the banner advertising the MNRA /SMD (Bob Morningstar), and

6) Handing out the SMD promotional pamphlet (tri-fold as discussed earlier) giving specific information about Division activities – layout visits, clinics, etc. (Bob Johnson).

19.10-6 White Elephant Table:  At this late time of the year, it was the consensus that this issue should be discussed during the Planning Meeting for next year (summer 2020).

New Business:

20.1-3 Host Richard Benjamin welcomed everyone to HobbyTown USA.  The SMD expressed thanks for having the meeting area nicely arranged for a discussion between all present. 

20.1-4 Guest Attendance at Division Meetings:  It was noted how important this is to promoting new members for the NMRA and the SMD.  Almost all Division activities happen during the meetings held during visits to members’ homes.  Wheel Report Editor Tom Fedor reminded all present of the NMRA’s policy limiting to three (3) guest visits to Division meetings.  There was discussion of how this policy makes the SMD look unwelcoming and hampers promotion of the NMRA through invitation to Division activities.  Editor Fedor reminded everyone that meetings (and clinics, when known in advance) are listed on the web-site.  With regard to Mini-Con attendees, the consensus was that when they are ready to participate in the SMD, they will join the organization.

20.1-5 SMD membership:  The Superintendent indicated the Division is in a good place right now and does not need a major effort to grow.  The following was reported:

Current SMD membership around 80

Meeting attendance between 15 and 30

Number of people involved in the Mini-Con around 42 (most are SMD members)

The event reaches about half of SMD members.

20.1-6 Cross-bucks:  Don Florwick distributed the 4 remaining.  (The SMD paid for these.)

20.1-7 Nominations Committee for the May Election:  Bob Law was suggested for membership on the Committee (to report at the March meeting).  Tom Fedor will facilitate communications.  Job descriptions (including the Superintendent’s) will be in the Wheel Report.

20.1-8 Spring Wheel Report deadline:  February 15, 2020.

20.1-9 Frederick County Society of Model Engineers’ layout status:  Nothing to report.  They still have to relocate at an undetermined future date.

Adjournment:  The Superintendent accepted a motion to adjourn.  The next meeting on February 9, 2020 will be held at 2:00 p.m. at the Cumberland Valley Model Railroad Club in Chambersburg, PA.

Following the meeting, those in attendance expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to have a wide ranging discussion of the SMD and its activities and again thanked host Richard Benjamin for his efforts facilitating the meeting.

SMD NMRA January 12 Meeting Reminder

Alex Polimeni, superintendent (2017-2020), NMRA South Mountain Division. (Tom Fedor)

Happy New Year, everyone!

With the hope that you’ve all had a Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season, I’d like to extend an invitation to our January meeting at Richard Benjamin’s Hobbytown USA location in Frederick, MD. Doors will be open by 2PM, with the business meeting to follow. Hobbytown’s address is …

454 Prospect Blvd., Frederick, MD 21701

In lieu of our typical home layout tour, SMD has been invited to visit the Frederick County Society of Model Engineers club car! Their doors will open at noon. If you have time, leave home a little earlier and come see what they’ve been working on! The FCSME club car is at …

423 East Patrick Street, Frederick, MD 21701

As always, if you need to catch up on last months meeting- I know I did, since I missed it!- you will find meeting minutes HERE.

In other news, the deadline for the Spring Wheel Report is fast approaching on Feb. 15th! Share with us what you’ve been working on this winter, or even what projects you’re planning for this coming year. 

April’s Mini-Con is also coming up, so if you’re signed up to give an informal clinic- or even a formal clinic, like I’m doing- absolutely don’t do like me and wait until the last minute to prepare it! April may seem months away but is, in fact, functionally tomorrow.

Speaking of the Mini-Con, I’ve only just now realized an error made it into the Winter Wheel Report; the Mini-Con will be held Saturday, April 18th, not April 20th. How did I notice this? By looking up the date so I could refer an interested friend who needs to apply for leave at work in advance, of course! Do make sure to invite your friends, relatives, coworkers, *their* friends, relatives, coworkers…

Here’s to another great year for the South Mountain Division!

Alex Polimeni, Superintendent