Introduction to Operations

The purpose of building a layout is so we can see our trains run. Adding operations to your layout can give you more to do with your trains in addition to running in circles.

What is Model Railroad Operations?

Operations is when you move cars around your layout in a manner similar to a real railroad. Your layout has industries where you can drop off and pick up freight cars. How do we know which cars need to be dropped off at the various industries? We can have fun by putting cars where we feel like but operations add more of a purpose to your railroad and layout.

Do I need a large layout?

No, operations can be fun even on very small shelf layouts. In fact, operations can make a small layout seem much larger. The concepts of operations can be applied to layouts of all sizes and scale. A 4′ x 8′ HO scale layout can be enough space for a two person operating session lasting several hours.

I can’t load my cars with real cargo!

You don’t have to load your models with the real items your industries need. We can use a small card with a pocket to represent if your freight car is loaded or empty. This small card is called a Car Card and you will want a card for each model freight car you want to operate with. That can be a lot of cards! Don’t worry, you can make cards in small batches and expand your operations as you want to have more fun. A car card template is linked on this page so you can start having fun immediately

Car Cards

Car cards tell us basic information about our freight car. All of the information needed on a car card can be found by looking at your model car.

Car Card Templates

The following files can be used as templates to get started with car cards.  Simply download, print, and fill out your car cards to get started.

Car Cards – PDF Format – Oper-CarCardsBlank.pdf
Car Cards – MS-Word .doc Format (97-2003) – Oper-CarCardsBlank.doc
Car Cards – MS-Word .docx Format (03-Present) – Oper-CarCardsBlank.docx

Car Card Data

Reporting Marks – Are a series of alphabetic characters that indicate who owns the car. Every owner has a unique reporting mark that is placed on all of the cars they own.

Car Number – Is the number on the left side of the car just below the reporting mark. This number makes the car unique to the owners.

Car Type – Describes the car and it can indicate what kind of goods it can carry. We will know if it is a box car or tank car, covered hopper or flat car. There is a shorthand list of abbreviations set by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) that we can use on our car cards.

Car Length – This is the approximate length of the freight car. This can be useful if you want to get into greater detail, some industries could request specific car sizes for materials. Car size can also be helpful when you are hunting for a car in a large train yard. Car size can also be used when you have short tracks for industries, you don’t want to send a car that is too long for the industry track. If you don’t know the length of your model you can use a scale rule to actually measure the car. The measurement will be the length of your car that you will put on the car card.

How do I load car cards with goods?

Loads inside freight cars are represented by small slips of paper called waybills. Real railroads use waybills to track freight, our version of a waybill will be very simple. If we put a waybill into the pocket of a car card that car now has a ‘load’ and needs to be delivered to a industry.


To fill out a waybill we will need a few pieces of information from your layout.

Waybill Template

The following file can be used as templates to get started with car cards.  Simply download, print, and fill out your car cards to get started.

Waybill – PDF Format – Oper-WaybillBlank.pdf

Industry Name – Is the name of an industry on your railroad that needs a freight car or is a destination of goods.

Town Name – Is the name of the town that the industry is located. Goods / Lading – Tells us the actual materials in the freight car that need delivery or if the freight car is empty.

Car Type – Is the type of freight car needed at the business. When selecting a freight car you want to be mindful of the goods shipped in the car. A tank car can hold liquid so you probably would not ship sand in a tank car.

Operations 1 – 2 – 3 !

Now that we have our car cards and waybills we are ready to run trains. This is a very basic setup that can easily grow as your layout and desires expand

Setup a Train

The setup can be very simple, select a handful of cars you wish to have in your train. You can select your cars in a train yard or if you layout is small they can be setup on a siding.

Place Waybills

In the cars you just selected find or make one waybill for each card. Keep in mind waybills can be reused over and over. Place one waybill into the pocket of each car card. Your train now has a destination and work to do.

Run Your Train

Look at the car cards and waybills and begin switching the cars to the appropriate industries indicated on each waybill. If you have cars already in the industries replace them with the new cars you have in your train. When you are done you can take all of the cars you collected, make waybills for each of them, and run another train.

This operating scheme can be used on a very small layout. You do not need a complex setup to have fun switching cars. As you use the system you will find that it can get repetitive however with additional concepts you can expand your operations without necessarily expanding your layout.

Many railroads send cars to other railroads, you can simulate that by creating waybills that point to a destination off your layout. For an example let’s say that your railroad has a lumber company. The lumber company on your railroad wants to ship wood to a furniture company that is not on your railroad. You can do this by sending the car to a designated “interchange track” (that you pick) where you will pass off the car to another railroad. This allows you to take the cars off the railroad and bring in different cars that could arrive empty to the lumber company.

The fun you can have with operations can be endless with a little imagination. This page serves as a very basic introduction to operations on model railroads. As time permits we will discuss more operating concepts to expand our knowledge and fun with model trains.

– Mark N. Goedert

* The above templates are compatible with the Old Line Graphics car card and waybill system. Old Line Graphics products are available through Micro Mark tool company. You can try out the system above using the templates on this web site and expand with the Old Line Graphics product line if desired. Old Line Graphics and Micro Mark are trademarks of their respective companies all rights reserved