October “trial” operating session …

The Border District was designed and built with a focus on operations in mind – for me, the most interesting and enjoyable aspect of the hobby. Realising the milestone of “regular operating sessions” moved a step closer on the Saturday just passed, with a “trial” operating session undertaken.

T377 departs NAN on 102

VR 102 “Through Goods” from Tatiara Downs to Geelong, having completed shunting at Nankiva, departs for Edenhope and other points East. Loading on this occasion pushed the T class to its limits … and the length of staging tracks!

The call was put out for volunteer operators, with three brave men heeding the call (and, it should be noted, several others registering their apologies). Mark was first on the list – a fellow VR modeller, long time friend and contributor to many aspects of the Border District – both the physical and the theoretical. Shelton, another VR modeller with several visits to the Border District under his belt, was also able to participate – you can read about Shelton’s layout and modelling on his blog at: http://vrwv.blogspot.com.au. Craig rounded out the group – while not a VR or SAR modeller (yet?), Craig’s NSW railways modelling efforts are the subject of one of the most regularly updated Australian model railway blogs: http://ca55ino.blogspot.com.au

While only his second visit to “the District”, Craig willingly (foolishly?) put his hand up for the Station Master (SM) job at Tatiara Downs – possibly the most involved of the four “jobs” for the session. Shelton and Mark took train crew roles, while yours truly scored the Train Controller (TC) job.

956 shunting TD on 186

956 has arrived in Road 2 at Tatiara Down on SAR 186, the up “Paper” train from Jameston to Adelaide. The loco has uncoupled from the train to collect some additional loading. Interestingly, the driver didn’t bother to turn 956 at Jameston, clearly enjoying the more cramped amenities of the “blunt end” …

The session showed up both successes and shortcomings in the operating scheme and the layout – all good, as this was the intention. Some of the “standouts” were:

While a timetable had been developed (another of my favourite aspects of the hobby), this was used to develop a “sequence” for operations and no fast clock or timetable was used. Information regarding each train and its operation was detailed on separate yellow “sequence” cards – details such as train number, origin and destination, instructions for work/road/etc. at each station. The development of these cards walked a fine line – enough information so you knew what you were doing, but not too much as to become overly prescriptive. On the whole, I think the cards were a success, but they need some refinement to include a greater amount of information for trains with complex shunting.

The layout employs the Adelaide Branch Line Operators (ABLO) car card and waybill system, adapted for local conditions. Despite some operators not being familiar with the cards or the system, they quickly grasped the major concepts and I would count the use of the cards as another success. Again though, the need to perhaps include more information on the waybills was an issued encountered – particularly for wagons/cards that transit on more than one train across the layout. One task I really wanted to have completed before this trial was the installation of revised “car card sorting stations” on the layout fascias. I didn’t quite get there, and the results showed, particularly at Jameston where the front of the baseboard became the default sorting location! See, there IS a reason the scenery is progressing slowly …


Jameston station after the departure of both SAR 514 Roadside Goods and SAR 186 “Paper” – much, much quieter! A good deal of fun was had shunting Jameston by both Mark and Shelton. The narrow gauge in the foreground is a hint of things to come, while the “antique” styling of the image covers up the fact it isn’t the best picture I’ve ever taken …

The Border District is signalled with VR and SAR three position coloured light signalling throughout (I credit my two biggest achievements this year being finalising both the signalling and the ABLO car card system). As TC, I enjoyed using prototypical aspects to control drivers’ movements (comments about “control freak” not withstanding …). The signals worked a treat – but another shortcoming was identified in this success, one that has already been pointed out to me several times. The positioning of controls on panels for low speed yellow signals is located away from the other signal controls and aspects (to the left or right of each panel, as “shunt” signals). However, they are not labelled and their separation from the controls and lights caused some confusion. While symbols could be used to identify and link the low speed indications with the other signal indications (great idea Craig), I think I favour a redesign of the panels, so that low speed controls and aspects are located with the main aspects and controls.

I’ve long been a believer in the US “beyond the basement” concept – that trains come from and go to places both on and off the layout, and everything has a purpose (it should be pointed out that the ABLO pioneers also embraced this concept long before it became “en vogue”). Here, I think the greatest shortcoming of the Border District was revealed – while I’ve thoroughly researched the layout, locations and industries (well, as much as one undertaking proto-freelancing can) , this information isn’t readily apparent, or indeed available, to other operators. My apologies to yesterday’s crew! Hence, the first and most important item before another session is undertaken will be the production of the “spider diagram”, showing how the layout (itself not linear, as Mark correctly identified) relates to both itself and the wider SAR and VR systems.

VR blue at TD loco

VR blue and gold EMD power dominates the loco at Tatiara Downs. B75 has already been started, ahead of being called to work VR 16, the Mt Gambier to Melbourne “Jet”. S306 and S313 arrived in Tatiara Downs on VR 313 “Through Goods” (itself becoming SAR 312 “Roadside Goods”, which departed west behind SAR Alco 946). The two S class locos will wait on shed to work VR 240 later in the session – the Melbourne bound “Overland”.

The other biggest shortcoming wasn’t so much a shortcoming as a realisation. The layout contains two operating “pits”, the first with Jameston (SAR branch terminus) on one side and Tatiara Downs (main station, VR and SAR interchange) on the other. The second pit has Nankiva (VR through station) on one side and the staging yard (Edenhope – VR/points east at one end and Kybybolyte – SAR/points west at the other) on the other. Border Junction, where the branch leaves the main, is located above and behind staging. Most times, all four operators were in the first “pit”, with the second “pit” empty. I think this can be addressed by looking at traffic flows and patterns, as well as giving Nankiva and the VR side of operations a little more prominence.

All in all, the afternoon was thoroughly enjoyable – made even more so by having Mark, Craig and Shelton participating – my sincere thanks guys! We certainly answered the question of “can the Tatiara Downs SM run the station, shunt the industries and hostle locos”? No … unless they get a third arm and second brain! I think the TC role will also take on control of the signals and points at Tatiara Downs, with the SM role to become more of a “head shunter”. Of the 14 movements planned, 9 were completed fully, 2 completed partially and 3 not attempted – great stuff I think for an afternoon’s play (work?). I look forward to the next session and will try to employ  a few of the revisions considered and conceived from the first session.

965 arrived TD on 17

Alco 965 arrives at Tatiara Downs with SAR 17, the “Jet” from Mt Gambier to Melbourne. Here, B75 will take over, also adding 2 loaded vans from the Apcel Paper Mill at Jameston to the consist. These vans were brought up from Jameston on SAR 514 “Roadside Goods”. After undertaking a modified brake test, this train will depart as VR 16 and travel through Border Junction and then Nankiva as it heads east.


4 thoughts on “October “trial” operating session …

  1. Congrats on reaching this milestone – and, since you’re still alive to blog about it, congrats on surviving! Shakedown cruises, and some call them, are nerve-wracking. I remember my first operating session with guests on my own layout – which is, as you know, a very simple affair – and how stressful the days were leading up to the arrival of my first operating crew.
    As you’ve noted, revisions will be incorporated. I look forward to reading more about them. Having an idea of how a layout will be operated is important, but until those first wheels turn it’s all theory.

  2. Trevor,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree, it was very interesting to see the “operational theory” play out – not always as expected.Yes, I’ve heard the term “shakedown”, and used it a little in the lead up to the session. I must say, the gentlemen that operated on the Border District on the first “trial” gave me no need for nerves – even with a loco pushed into a turntable pit …

  3. “Shakedown”, “Sea Trial”, or “PreOps Ops Session” – no matter what you call it, it’s still a huge milestone! Congratulations! Looks like you and I are at about the same point in our progress: I just did my PreOps Ops on Oct. 15. And, like you, I now have a nice(?) to-do list to get through… Enjoy!

    • Chris,
      Thanks for the congrats. The list isn’t too long, and is indeed fun, so all is very good. I’m really enjoying the theory becoming practice, or in a couple of cases, not becoming practice.

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