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Operations Road Show

  Main Page Updated: 01-SEP-2023
News Page Updated: 12-AUG-2023

Operations Road Show Hosted Sessions in Conjunction with Free-moN at the 2023 NMRA International Convention!

In partnership with a team of Free-moN module owners, the Operations Road Show team hosted ten operating sessions at the 2023 Texas Express NMRA International Convention in Grapevine, Texas, during the week of August 20-26.

The next joint Operations Road Show/Free-moN operatings sessions will be held at the Station No. VI 2025 NMRA National Convention in Novi, Michigan, July 14-19, 2025.

The Project

The Operations Road Show is an ongoing project to build and operate a large portable HO scale layout to demonstrate and teach prototypical timetable and train order operation in a friendly, low-pressure environment.

Until 2018, we took the layout to conventions. We took it to the NMRA National Conventions in Toronto in 2003, Cincinnati in 2005, Hartford in 2009, Grand Rapids in 2012, Cleveland in 2014, Indianapolis in 2016, Kansas City in 2018, and brought out guests to the layout from the Great Lakes Express convention in Detroit in 2007. The 2018 trip to the NMRA National Convention in Kansas City was the last road trip we have planned for the layout, though we continue to hold sessions at our home base, near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Starting in 2022, we have begun to partner with Free-MoN modelers to set up layouts at National Conventions.

At each Convention we hold a number of three-hour operating sessions, Monday through Thursday, for its attendees. At our home base, we hold monthly five-hour operating sessions on Saturday afternoons and monthly two-hour sessions on Wednesday nights. We hold special sessions for guest groups and we participate in area operations weekend events.

A westbound Wabash freight flying the flags of an extra


Over a period of several years in the mid-1990s, three members of Rails on Wheels developed a particularly strong interest in prototypical operation. This interest was intensified by the participation of these members in operating sessions sponsored by the Operations Special Interest Group, and by attending operating sessions held by Jack Ozanich on his indoor Atlantic Great Eastern railroad, and his 7.5" gauge outdoor Sandy Ridge & Clear Lake Railway. These railroads feature operation based on prototype rules, utilizing timetables and train orders (TT&TO), such as Will Tajibnapis described in his article "Timetable and Train Order Operation", in the August, 1999 issue of Model Railroader magazine.

During an operating session on the AGE, OpSIG coordinator Bill Jewett suggested that with our experience in building and setting up modules, we might consider arranging operating sessions on a modular layout, so that sessions could be offered to teach TT&TO operations at a convention site. We thought that this was such a good idea that we picked up the ball and ran with it.

The Layout

Initially, we attempted to apply a timetable and train order operating scheme to layouts made up of Rails on Wheels' existing modules, but found the physical plant to be limiting. The "display layout" modules were not built with the idea of single-track operation in mind. Particularly lacking were the relatively frequent passing sidings that would be required by the layout we envisioned.

With this in mind, three Rails on Wheels members conceived of the "Operations Road Show" project. Our core group agreed to develop, finance and construct a layout that would meet our operational interests as a side project. This is neither a formal Rails on Wheels project, nor is it specifically a project of the Operations SIG, though members of both groups are participating. Our plan was to have this new layout operational in time for the Gateway 2001 NMRA National Convention, held during July, 2001 in St. Louis, Missouri, but we came up short on time and manpower. In July, 2003, the layout had its public debut at the Maple Leaf 2003 NMRA National Convention in Toronto.

The construction techniques we used on this layout are influenced by ideas published by Free-mo and Bend Track, and an overall shallow-scene design concept we first saw in articles about the late Batavia (Illinois) Model Railroad Club in Model Railroader magazine.

Our core group has grown to five members: Jeff Fryman, Bob Milhaupt, Fritz Milhaupt, Al Robertson and John Young.

The Givens and Druthers of the 'Operations Road Show' layout

  1. We will use modular, portable construction
  2. In addition to its role as a layout based in the Ann Arbor-Saline, Michigan area, it will be designed to be operated by attendees of conventions for entertainment and as a teaching tool. During clinics, all jobs on the visible portion of the layout are to be handled by guests, with only coaching from the Road Show crew
  3. Mechanical reliability will be the primary concern, the quality of scenery will be secondary
  4. Sample waybill and clearance from Jack Ozanich's Atlantic Great EasternThe layout will be optimized for timetable and train order (TT&TO) style operation
  5. We will use a fast clock running at a 3:1 ratio
  6. Car cards will be used for freight forwarding
  7. The scenery and general design will be generic enough to allow prototype themes that would occur anywhere within a 400 mile radius of Chicago
  8. The permanent layout scene will be adjustable to look right for any era from 1930's to most modern
  9. Control will be Digitrax DCC with radio throttles
  10. To hold costs down and simplify wiring, no allowance will be made for multi cab analog block control
  11. Turnouts will be locally and manually controlled, except for a few turnouts at Lafayette Junction which the Fiddle Yardmaster will need to control remotely
  12. The layout will be designed for 'sincere' scenery, in that the mainline passes through a scene only once
  13. Staging will be accomplished using an active fiddle yard
  14. Our design standards will call for 30-inch minimum radius curves, number 8 turnouts for mainline crossovers, number 6 turnouts for other uses, and number 4's only in some industrial situations
  15. Operating semaphores will be used at stations for train orders, with repeater lights mounted on the fascia
  16. There will be multiple junctions with other railroads with active interchange
  17. An open-line telephone system will be used for communication between station agents and the dispatcher
  18. The running distance between towns will be long enough to give the feel of going somewhere, ~24 feet on average
  19. Train lengths will typically be up to 16 cars
  20. Operations are to be as self-staging as possible, other than servicing car cards between sessions
  21. The compass direction will remain constant throughout the modeled scene, specifically that "east" is always to the right when looking at the railroad
  22. Backdrop skyboards will frame the scenes
  23. The layout will be built at a 48-inch rail height for comfortable operation
  24. Crews will operate their trains only on the scenicked portion of the layout
  25. By preference, we will utilize a dispatcher and an operator. The dispatcher will dictate orders, messages and clearances to the operator who will write them out, then post them on clips at train order stations.
  26. The prototype chosen should have sufficient traffic volume to occupy up to six two-person crews, simultaneously
  27. As we have no control over the room environment with regard to radio interference when at a convention, we will install throttle sockets around the layout to use as a fallback should we find ourselves in a radio-hostile situation
  28. Uncoupling will use skewers to open coupler knuckles, to permit maximum flexibility in spotting cars

Wabash 1964 Pocket CalendarBased on those general criteria, we did our homework. After several months of research, what we decided would best meet our objectives was:

  • Prototype: Wabash RR
  • Era: Fall 1964
  • Location: Mainline from Peru to Lafayette, Indiana
  • Interchange with NYC, NKP and Monon at Lafayette Jct.; PRR at Logansport; Monon at Delphi; C&O and NKP at Peru
  • Working signals at junctions
  • Scheduled trains: two first class passenger trains each way, each day; six second and third class freights each way, each day; other 'arranged' extras
  • Local switch jobs for East Yard/Lafayette; interchange work with other railroads; the stone job at the quarry; daily locals each way between Tilton (unmodeled, off line) to Peru; grain work on line
  • "Foreign road jobs" to handle Monon work in Delphi. Transfer jobs from the NYC, Monon and NKP into East Yard at Lafayette.
  • Overhead traffic heavy with automobiles and their parts, general merchandise, TOFC, expedited reefer traffic from the west coast
  • On line traffic: grain, general merchandise, ALCOA plant, quarries, Anheuser-Busch
  • No unit trains, no solid blocks of coal traffic or ore
  • No modeled class yard or division yard; East Yard is the local city yard

Extra 622 East passes a tree farmWe exercise modelers' license with restraint. For example, the modeled portion of the Wabash was actually controlled by Centralized Traffic Control during the era we chose. However, in order to operate using our preferred timetable and train order system, we choose to overlook that inconvenient fact. Some locations are being modeled as precisely as is possible, while others are being simplified or rearranged if necessary to fit within our space constraints.

There were three major factors that contributed to our choice of the Wabash as a prototype for this project. The first was that the Wabash is a road that two of the core planners were interested in modeling in other projects (Jeff Fryman even worked, briefly, for the Wabash in the 1960s). The second was the ready availability of locomotives and rolling stock appropriate for modeling the Wabash. The third was that the Wabash was the only railroad with a direct route between our base in the greater Detroit area and the 2001 NMRA convention site in St. Louis, where we'd originally planned to debut the layout.

Through conversations with other modelers, we discovered a wealth of resources on the Wabash in Indiana, especially the portion of the Second District of the Wabash's Montpelier Division between Peru and Lafayette. This stretch, at about 55 miles, appeared to be of a length we could model on a layout occupying the space provided by a standard 30 by 50 foot hotel conference room.

Initial Implementation

The Operations Road Show: Wabash Edition features modular construction with a 390 foot-long mainline and a 22.5 by 51 foot size. The basic modules are 24 by 72 inches, but modules are as wide as 36 inches.

A unique aspect of these modules is that they are double-sided in a manner similar to the modules Bend Track uses in N scale. A backdrop runs down the middle of each module with a mainline scene on each side. Most of the layout has about one foot of depth to the modeled scene. We have tried to be generous with aisle space, providing about five feet of width in most areas.

Our track plan is available for viewing, as are photos of the layout under construction and reports on our progress.

While this layout is designed so that we can take it out of the basement to public events, doing so requires a considerably greater effort than moving Rails on Wheels' display layout. For this reason, we only took the Operations Road Show layout out every few years to the NMRA National Convention. Rails on Wheels' display layout is the one designed to be taken out to train shows and one- or two-day public events.

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All original contents of this web site are Copyright © 1999-2023, John F. ("Fritz") Milhaupt on behalf of the Operations Road Show, All Rights Reserved.