Operational Switching Railroads

This is a small 18" x 10 (46 cm x  300 cm) industrial railroad (in HO) designed to maximize switching.

Track capacities, shown in red on the track plan, are in terms of 40-foot cars.

The era is around late 1940s to 1950s when 40-foot cars were the norm. Using 40-foot cars means a few more can be added on the limited space available. A 2-6-0 or 0-8-0 steam engine or a first generation diesel with a short wheelbase like a SW9 or NW2 would be perfect. A GE 44 tonner would work as these 350hp prototypes could handle up to 8 cars at a time, about the limit on the TIRR.

A semi-hidden two-track interchange/staging yard connects the TIRR with the outside world.

The "mainline" is the third track in from the front so that this layout could be incorporated into a larger layout at a later date.

Dimension A must be as long as the longest locomotive. I used 12" (30 cm) which is more than enough for a SW9. Dimensions B and C should be equal. Dimension D must be at least as long as B plus the length of the locomotive otherwise you can not pull all of the cars from the staging tracks or sort them prior to delivery. Dimension D is critical.

Industries are chosen such that cars emptied by one industry maybe used by another for shipping. Most industries both ship and receive commodities. A large grocery distributor only receives. Using four doors (no unloading dock) spaced on about 55 foot centers requires each car to be spotted individually so the car door aligns to the building door. This customer stipulates that certain commodities must be spotted at a specific door. For example: frozen foods at door 1, perishables at 2, dry foods at 3 and other commodities at door 4. Our way freight crew finds this a bit of a challenge.

Trackage (Atlas #4 turnouts):

5 left and 5 right turnouts. 1 25 degree crossing and about 12 lengths of 36" flextrack.

The drawing uses Atlas #4 turnouts (with Caboose Hobbies ground throws). Peco small turnouts will work just as good.  Atlas #4s are more of a #4.5, are a bit longer and not as sharp as the Peco small radius turnouts. Peco has released complete line of code 83 track products that match North American standards but they are pricer. These turnouts have a built in spring and do not require an additional ground throw to operate them. If you use Peco turnouts, also use the Peco small 24 degree crossing instead of the Atlas 25 degree crossing. 

This layout could be built with two 18"x 5' (46 cm x 150 cm) modules. You must take care to make sure that no turnouts span the module joint. Begin assembling the track by soldering the left turnout for the run around track, the right turnout for the interchange track, the right turnout for the team track and the left turnout for the cold storage facility. Position these carefully making sure the critical length at D can hold your loco plus 6 cars. Next, position the left turnout for the flour mill and the right one for the grocery distributor. Then, add the crossover and the left turnout for the storage track. With this track complete, you can position the 25 degree crossing and complete the rest.

Some Operating Guidelines:

  1. An operating day constitutes pulling one staging track of inbound cars, performing switching chores and placing outbound cars back to the same staging track. On the second day, the other staging track is used. This keeps some cars out of sight for a while.
  2. Shipments in loaded refrigerator cars get priority.
  3. Customers have 1 day to load a car and unload refers, 2 days to unload other cars. This is very prototypical for this era and results in cars having different cycling times. No two operating sessions will be the same.
  4. Empty home road cars are switched to the empties track for at least 1 day before releasing to a customer for loading a shipment. Foreign road cars are returned to the staging after they are empty. This last rule maybe relaxed such that foreign cars may be used for outbound shipments. On a railroad area such as this, most cars would be owned by other railroads.
  5. Cars that can not be spotted because the track is already occupied (off spots) are put on the empties track until they can be delivered.
  6. Use of Car Cards+Waybills for this railroad is ideal for governing car movements.
  7. Do not fill every spot on the layout with cars. to 2/3ths capacity is a rough rule of thumb. The layout can very quickly get clogged if too many cars are used.
  8. Tip: sort inbound cars from interchange in sequence: Grocery > Warehouse > Freight Xfer > Flour Mill > Cold Storage > Team Track before delivering.


  1. Grocery Distributor (4 box/refers) receives frozen foods, perishables, dry foods, household products. A 2 or 3 story structure (to hide staging tracks behind) constructed from DPM building modules. Size is 12 modules long by one module deep.
  2. Warehouse (3 box) ships and receives various goods. A 3+ story angular structure built from DPM modules. 8 modules long by 2 modules deep.
  3. Transfer Agency (3 box) ships and receives various goods. Walthers REA Express building.
  4. Flour Mill (1-grain hopper or 2 box) ships bagged flour in boxes, receives grain in boxes or a covered hopper. Walthers Red Wing Flour Mill.
  5. Cold Storage (2 refers) ships and receives frozen food products. Walthers Jack Frost Cold Storage.
  6. Team Track (4 cars) ships and receives various goods.


The car capacities , shown in red, are for 40' cars. If you prefer a more modern era, 50' cars would be more appropriate. Add 18" (46 cm) to the length of the layout to keep the capacities the same.

About 28 freight cars consisting of 19 box cars, 6 refers, 1 grain hopper, 1 flat and 1 gondola are about the limit for this layout. Choose your cars carefully to fit the commodities delivered or shipped by the industries.

Increasing the size

Several modelers have written to me over the last two years that they intent to build Tenderfoot but make it a bit larger. Increasing the depth by 2" grants a third staging track adding another 4 or 5 cars. Using Atlas #6 Customline turnouts will require a 12' (366 cm) length keeping the track capacities the same. Use a 19 degree crossing instead of a 25 degree one.

I originally thought of building it using two 5'(159 cm) modules as shown by the vertical dotted line. If you increase the length be careful to choose the module lengths so that the turnouts do not fall over the joint between the modules.

Again, if you prefer 50' cars, add 18" (46 cm) to the length so the layout would be 13' 6" (412  cm).


Designed: September 6, 2004. Last updated: 01/16/2008