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, it was a mobile layout. 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.
At each Convention we held a number of three-hour operating sessions, Monday through Thursday, for its attendees. At our home base, we hold semi-monthly five-hour operating sessions on Sunday afternoons and semi-monthly two-hour sessions on Wednesday nights. We hold special sessions for guest groups and we participate in area operations weekend events.
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.
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
We exercise modelers' license with restraint. For example, the modeled portion of the Wabash was actually controlled by CTC 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.
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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