A recent comment on the Model Railroad Hobbyist forum has got me thinking about operations. I think that operating a small layout is actually different than just a piece of a larger layout, as asserted in one of the responses.
Now, first, I must confess that I’ve very little experience with operating small layouts. There was the one time that I operated John H Wright’s Federal Street (incidentally, also my only experience with a double-slip switch too). And a very satisfying evening operating a large-scale indoor layout here on the North Shore. Two sessions does not an expert make.
But this is the Internet, and we don’t have to be experts to publish! So, I’ll go on, and you can assume that this is as much for me as it is for you.
One key difference for small layouts is in the randomization. With a larger layout, the vagaries of the rest of the operation will naturally introduce variations in operations on a small portion of the layout that add interest. The interchange train is late; some cars don’t make it out of the yard and don’t appear today; something generates sufficient traffic as to warrant an extra section, etc. How you model these random events could have a significant impact on the fun and realism (they could be over-done) of operations on a small layout.
Small layouts also give us opportunities to model extra detail in operation, such as the agent role. For example, larger layouts typically run on a scheme where any empty car gets routed back to the yard. However, an agent may decide to clean that car and reuse it immediately, or even hang onto it for a day or two rather than sending it back immediately so they don’t have to request an empty the next day. On most large North American style layouts, where the engineer plays agent/operator when they roll into town, there is no long view to serving the customers in that town.
Small layouts make us consider the frequency of delivery more than on a large layout. While some industries get switched every day, others receive attention only once a week or when the business requires it. While this is true on a large layout as well, it is more obvious that an infrequent shipper is doing too much business if the same crew switches them all the time.
The detail and discipline of operating a smaller layout will, I think, make for more interest than the 10 turnouts would suggest.