Monday, December 8, 2008

Decisions, decisions. . . .

DON'T make me use these!

Model railway design should encompass more than just benchwork, wiring, track planning and equipment--one should also consider just how the railway will be operated. The method of operation and its various nuances will influence things like how (even with DCC) electrical blocks are divided up, and how points will be thrown.

For lack of anything cheaper, easier to use, or more elegant in design, previous layouts I've built have used Caboose Industries ground throws to align the points. They're certainly cheap and easy to install, but there's no getting past that they're large, shiny, plastic lumps in an otherwise prototype-driven world--it's the price one pays for cheap and easy.

There've been lots of home-grown alternatives as the best way to throw points manually (i.e., without resorting to electric motors), ranging from hand-bent springs above the benchwork to inexpensive Radio Shack switches mounted below, attached to the throwbar with a piece of stout wire and manipulated through the fascia of the layout with a wire or dowel. One non-electrical solution is the Blue Point controller, which installs much like a Tortoise motor (and almost costs as much!) but is manually operated; another option for manual control is offered by Modratec using "wire in tube" connections. My preference is for manual control of points whenever possible--it just seems more realistic, from an operating standpoint, for train crews to actually throw points rather than just flipping an electrically switch to do the job.

Understanding "how" the New South Wales Railway operates should guide my decision. My cursory and admittedly flimsy understanding so far of NSWGR safeworking has led me to believe that nearly all mainline points are manipulated from a grouped "lever frame" where several points are thrown from one area. In some locations, these lever frames are located at the train station or staff office, and thrown by a station employee; at outlying areas at a station, train crews throw the points. Unlike US railroads, where train crews use a universal switch key to open locks at individual turnouts to set the points, the lever frames are unlocked using a "key" integrated into the same staff that gives them their authority to operate within a mainline track segment. . . thus, to be most realistic, I'd not use the Caboose Industries ground throws (which look horrible, anyway), and would opt for a model simulation of a ground frame (exactly what Modratec offers), or, barring that, at least grouping my point levers to locations on the fascia that would emulate what the prototype would do. . . ideally, they'd need to be unlocked using some sort of staff that also allows movement on the main track. Within shunting yards and away from the mainline and loops, single points are thrown, however, from levers adjacent to the points, much as in the US practice. And that's just the mechanical end of things--the modeler in me would of course want to feature the piping and levers and all that other stuff on the layout, even if static in nature, just to "look right." Then there's the issue of catch points, and . . . . .

This striving for prototype duplication leads somewhere else, too: how would one best model the staff system on a DCC layout? In reading descriptions of the operating rules and various scenarios on how trains were worked in the modeling press (and on line), it's clear that the staff safeworking system used in New South Wales is waaaaay different from what us Americans are used to. It would be easy, as a modeler living in the US, to just gloss over this difference: after all, if the trackage is based on Australian prototype, as are the structures and all the railway equipment, what harm will it do to run them just like we would here in the States? Modelers in the US are, after all, used to running trains a certain way. . .to learn a different way of doing so would really be a mind-blower! But if one does, indeed, strive to emulate the prototype with realistic track planning, judicious purchasing of equipment to match a specific time and place, the tabling of trains for operations to match what the real NSWGR did, etc., isn't it just dropping the ball NOT to model the safeworking system as thoroughly as possible?

These are the things that keep me up at night.

So while I go over and over in my mind on how to control the points on the railroad, let alone how I can create a model of an operating staff system, at some point, in order to get the damned thing operating, I'll have to make a decision. . .should I judiciously study if further, or just bite the bullet and go for a cheap, quick (temporary) alternative to use until the lightbulb goes off over my head, the "ah HA!" moment strikes, and I figure out the best way to deal with this?

Aussie modelers: what do YOU use to control your points?


Michael said...

Hi Blair,

Interesting you are looking into operations. This is an underdeveloped aspect of Aussie modelling, and there seems to be only a few of us with interest in it.

Background, I'm (slowly) working on an On30 layout, based on our Victorian narrow gauge practice. Many of the questions you are asking, I have to face too, although admittedly some things are easier for me.

Firstly to switching those points. In stations large enough to require a ground frame, I'll be using a Modratec, also using it to control the home signals. You may also require distant and starter signals, and maybe shunters signals as well. I presume you are still in the semaphore era? Operating the signal box might well be a full time occupation on your layout.

When it comes to ground throws, I'm in a quandary. I'm thinking on using HO Caboose Industries throws, of course these are only "half" the size in O scale, so maybe not as offensive. An alternative is to use dummy leavers, and have operators move the throwbar with their decoupling skewers. I know of several people who do this successfully.

How do staff systems relate to DCC? Well of course they don't really, except to say that DCC makes disobeying the rules have consequences. Do you know if the area you are modelling used electric staff or staff and ticket. The latter is a manual system, and just requires a telephone system between stations. Electric staff uses staff machines to restrict the availability of staffs, and I haven't seen these duplicated in model form yet. I say yet, as I believe somebody is working on an operating staff system for railways - it shouldn't be too difficult as the technology dates back to the 19thC!

I'm happy to explain the rules associated with staff systems and signalling for single lines, the basics are not difficult to get around, but I don't want to tell you how to suck eggs!



Ray P said...


While this link won't solve the modelling problems it may help with understanding the Staff and Ticket system. It is from 2005 but reading it I think it would be the same as the era you are modelling (and earlier?).

I use relays to operate points primarily but have started to use the Blue Point mechanisms for sidings.

The only 'Staff' I scenario I can think of is to use a 1/8" (3mm) stereo male plug as a staff which can be inserted into a female socket to control the access to the main line between stations or point control at stations.

The plug and socket could be wired between the three stereo sections in various combinations so that you would need the correct staff for the section.

The 'staff' could be used to turn a relay on to supply power to the point motors and signals. This of course doesn't help if you are using a mechanical system but maybe someone could still use a relay to lock a lever frame that is mechanical.

Still doesn't help for the individual point though.

Just a few thoughts.

Ray P

Ray P said...


Further to the relay idea.

Of course you can always have the stereo plug 'Staff' give power to many relays locking many individual mechanical point levers, just got to work out a simple way to lock the throw.

Ray P

Iain said...


have you checked out the point levers made by Humpyard Purveyance? Their web page is

I haven't tried any of their products as none seem to have made it to Australia and they don't have a credit card facility which makes it difficult to order from Australia.

However the levers look authentic and they are manually operated which is what I am looking for at this time.

loop_to_main said...

Hi Blair,

as a former signalman and modeler of NSWR its good to see someone wanting to include the unseen hero of our railway system (signalling.

I would like to send you some pictures of both ground frames and full size signal box frames, as well as working HO signals that I build, please contact me if you are interested