In addition to constructing the track and benchwork, fiddling with electronics, and building models, SVL is dedicated to operating our models in a realistic fashion using Digital Command Control and Switch Lists.

Monthly operating sessions at SVL are meant to be fun, enjoyable and as challenging as you choose. We like to run trains and try not overburden ourselves in doing so.

We run the railroad in one of two eras: transitional defined as before May 1st, 1971 and modern which we define as the Amtrak era, after May 1st, 1971. Our rolling stock is classified as being in one or the other of these two eras. Some rolling stock is suitable for both. We try to pick motive power appropriate for each era. However steam runs in modern typically pulling excursion (extra) trains.

To streamline operations, we keep track of all our locomotives and rolling stock in an online database. This continues to be an evolving process.

Folks are welcome to visit and often we can even arrange for guests to operate. We encourage all levels of expertise from first time operators to seasoned veterans to join us.

SVL normally holds operations on the last Friday of each month, but exceptions are made to this plan. If you are planning to visit to participate in a session, please be sure to check with us via email first at svl@siliconvalleylines.com.

Working on the Railroad

Using Digital Command Control means that multiple trains can be moving at different speeds directions on the same track, so care must be taken to ensure that trains operate safely across the entire railroad. Unlike Gomez Adams, we like keeping our trains intact!

Almost 1800 feet of HO Scale layout requires a fair amount of coordination to keep things running smoothly. Just as on the prototype, in order to move equipment smoothly and safely across the railroad, there are many specialized jobs on the layout during an operating session:

  • Trainmaster: Basically, the “boss” of the operating session. At SVL, our Trainmaster makes the operating sessions possible. Part of this job is to plan and coordinate the flow of trains within a session. Due to changes on the layout, our Trainmaster is keeping track of changes to our available rolling stock and industries. The Trainmaster’s work culminates in the generation of our switch lists and Yardmaster’s paperwork. In addition to doing all the advanced work, the trainmaster also coordinates the distribution of switch lists at the operating session.
  • Dispatcher: While the Trainmaster may be the boss, the Dispatcher is the person responsible for making sure that trains move properly across the railroad without incident. The Dispatcher has a separate “office” away from the layout area. The dispatcher uses a computer display of the layout to keep track of trains on the layout. Also on occasion we operate the layout in two districts with a separate Dispatcher for each. At SVL, the dispatcher cannot see you, when in doubt please recall the following old railroad adage:

YOU may know where you are and what YOU are doing;
GOD may know where you are and what YOU are doing;
BUT, if your DISPATCHER doesn’t know where YOU are and what YOU are doing, THEN I hope YOU and GOD are on very good terms!

  • Superintendent: Responsible for keeping the layout and rolling stock in good working order. During operations the superintendent occasionally may to dispatch MoW crews to make repairs to the railroad.
  • Hostler: The Locomotive Hostler is a developing role at SVL. We are looking to have our Hostler assign power to trains, setup consists and spot check the health of locomotives.
  • Yardmaster: Nowheres and Bayshore yards are our “working” yards. We typically have one to two people work each yard. Our Yardmasters typically start first and finish last.
  • Train Crew, Engineer and Conductor (switching): Our Train Crews can be one or two individuals. A switching train will make stops along its route, adding and/or removing cars from the train. Some more than others.
  • Train Crew, Engineer and Conductor (point to point): Our point to point trains are just that, point to point. This can also include extras and for now our passenger trains.

Operating Scheme

We typically operate with Direct Traffic Control (DTC). DTC is a scheme in which verbal permission is given to the train crew to operate their train in a given named “block”.

FRS radios are our primary communication between dispatcher(s), yardmaster(s) and road crew(s).

How does this work?

In practice, it means that before your train can move, you need to ask the dispatcher for clearance. While the prototype follows a specific radio protocol, a typical radio conversation at SVL will be as follows:

Engineer/Conductor Dewey:”Train 320 to SVL Dispatch.”

Dispatcher:”Go ahead Train 320, Engineer/Conductor Dewey. Over.”

Engineer/Conductor Dewey:”We’re currently holding in the Dayton siding, but have about 30 minutes of work to do in Jacksonville, and then we need to head to Nowheres. Over.”

Dispatcher:”320/Engineer/Conductor Dewey, at 9:30PM you have permission on the northbound main to Jacksonville. Please be advised that there will be traffic on the southbound main and please remember to set your airbrakes. Over.”

Engineer/Conductor Dewey:Train 320 acknowledges permission to use northbound main to Jacksonville. Over.

Dispatcher:”That is correct 320, Over and Out.”Dispatcher:”320, Over and Out.”
Engineer Dewey starts his train rolling…

When you arrive at your destination, please remember to advise the dispatcher, and release the blocks you no longer occupy.

Another important reminder, with 10 to 20 people on the radio it is absolutely critical that you wait for a conversation between dispatch and other crews to finish before beginning a new transaction.

We have long terms plans to run transition era operations using Timetable & Train Order and/or telephones, but for now, we’re content with using radio-based DTC for our steam nights as well.

Layout Blocks

SVL is a point-to-point double-deck layout. Both endpoints are on the right-hand side of the entrance, and there is one helix between the levels on the left-hand side. Blocks on the layout are named in alphabetical order of the linear structure of the layout. The lower deck has locations “Bayshore” to “Loop” (counterclockwise), whereas the upper deck has locations “Mt.Marvel” to “Windsor” (clockwise). In addition to a large mainline, SVL features two large classification yards, and three staging yards, and a sizable branchline.

The upper level of SVL is largely single-track, while the lower level has a double-track main on the helix and between Kaos Junction and Hallelujah. Like most US railroads SVL employs right hand running. Traffic moving “up” the helix, or in the direction of Windsor is northbound, whereas traffic headed for Bayshore or Bakersfield is considered southbound. Dispatch considers the double-track bi-directional, so as an operator, don’t be surprised if you may be asked to move your train “left hand running” on the southbound main to go north.

Block boundaries on SVL will eventually be denoted with signs and/or signals, but for now small round yellow placed next to the main serve that purpose. In unsceniced locations the benchwork is tagged with which block is in which direction.

You can also often orient yourself on the layout by looking at the block name labelled on the fascia, or by reading the labels on the turnout control panels mounted on the layout.


In addition to moving trains from place to place on the railroad, most need to perform switching.

Train crews receive a switch list. A switch list shows the departure location of the train, the cars to take from the departure location, then arranged by layout location the cars to pick up and set out. The switch list also contains the assigned lead engine’s road number, which is the same as the address.

Before starting work on the railroad train crews are required to clock in on the company time clock– a real electro-mechanical time clock (ker-chunk!).

Train Identification

On our switch lists we have a train number, typically 3 digits. This is the number we use to identify the train on the radio and otherwise. Odd numbered trains running south, and even-numbered trains running north. Trains whose number end in “0” are turns, which go out and come back to their point of origin. Some trains also have a dash number “-” suffix. These trains are said to run in multiple sections. A train is broken into multiple sections in order to guarantee that it can fit in a passing siding, or the advanced section contains high-priority cargo which must be delivered promptly. They also may be combined at the Trainmaster’s discretion. Additionally we have named trains such as yard switchers or branchline trains, including extras or excursions and MoW.

A list of our trains can be found HERE.

General Procedures

  1. Report to Ops Master for your train assignment.
  2. Clock In before running your train. Your time card is your switch list. Note any unanticipated delays on your paperwork.
  3. Check your train against your paperwork before departing.
  4. As needed, get authority from Dispatch and Yardmasters to proceed along the tracks.
  5. Perform any pick-ups and set-outs on the Switch List (Have fun!)
  6. Note any exceptions or issues on your switch list.
    1. If switching note on your switch list any missing cars (pickups)
    2. If a car or engine malfunctions or is damaged, fill out a bad order form.
  7. Call dispatch and Clock-Out once you tie up your power at your final destination.
  8. Place any bad-ordered cars in the “bad order” drawer in the car inspector area.
  9. Return your switch list to the Trainmaster.

Control Panels

We run the layout with DCC.

Push Button Panels:

We have removed (almost) all of our push button panels and moved to “soft panels”

Soft Panels:

We currently have all locations on the layout where we have touchscreen devices that control our layout. This capability was created using obvious and available languages, standards based protocols as well as features of most any DCC system.

We have a bit of custom software running on JMRI to provide our soft panels. The panels are accessible to any device with a web browser on our local network.

There are also speciality soft panels – for the Dispatcher as an example. The Dispatcher can control the entire main line during operations.

For the soft panels the switch motors are driven either by NCE SwitchITs or NCE Switch8s. Since the Switch8s don’t have push button inputs and a greater motor density they are well suited for soft panel implementation.

Switchster: SVL’s Operations Software

Switchster is an application that sets up and executes operational flows for model railroads. Or more simply, it generates switch list paperwork to simulate a railroad’s freight operations. It does this using a probabilistic supply/demand generator for each online industry to create simulated shipments of railroad cars. It then routes and assigns cars to trains, generating the necessary paperwork for yardmasters and train crews. Switchster is written entirely in Java.

Currently our Passenger Service is scheduled and runs ad-hoc. We are looking to becoming more structured in our passenger service

Example switch list HERE.

Why does SVL use Switchster?

Switchster was created in response to frustrations using other software. Our planning and preparation process for a typical session is usually one or two hours if that long. Due in no small part to our own custom operations software we can setup quickly. Special emphasis was placed on the following items:

  1. Ability to annul or defer trains that didn’t run, making it easier to keep layout and software in sync.
  2. Ability to disable individual items (i.e. cars, trains, industries, interchanges) without deleting them.
  3. Ability to update any/all fields of an object (i.e. car, industry, etc) and not break the software or lose sync.
  4. Specify train schedules with minimal information (i.e. not every block requires an arrival/departure time).
  5. Probabilistic supply/demand models to keep the flows dynamic and interesting.
  6. Use scale units (i.e. actual car lengths in feet or meters) instead of numbers of cars to prevent overflow of industries.
  7. Provide sufficient reports to easily set up and run the layout.
  8. Use of car types only to define traffic. More specifically, commodities seemed one level too deep since most model railroad cars don’t actually have a load.

While Switchster is not perfect, it has largely met or exceeded these goals.

How does it work?

Switchster is split into four main work areas. First, you must define your layout at the block or town level. This includes specifying what industries and interchanges are present and their capacities (linear units). Graphically connecting the blocks specifies how main line and/or branch lines are connected.Second, you specify a car database of the cars that are available on the layout. Cars must be uniquely identified and have a car type and length. Car types are arbitrary and user defined to increase the operational freedom of the layout.

Third and most importantly, the desired operations of the layout are specified. This is broken into three areas as follows:

  • Industry supply and demand — Allowable car types are defined between industry (shipper/receiver) pairs along with supply/demand parameters.
  • Cars/trip plans — Specifies the current location and intended trip plan (routing) of cars.
  • Train schedules — Defines the routes, activities and frequencies of trains.

With these datasets defined, Switchster can then generate switch list paperwork for an operating session. Paperwork is generated as html files for ease of online display as well as offline printing. Available paperwork includes:

  • car starting location reports — reports sorted in multiple ways to help you set up the layout before the session begins
  • switch list reports — switch lists with set-outs/pickups for a train crew to execute
  • yardmaster reports — switch lists for yards to help a yard master route cars between trains (especially in the same session)
  • block activity reports — block reports that indicate how cars should have moved within a block over the course of the session
  • dispatcher reports — time-based reports indicating how trains move about the layout to aid a dispatcher in tracking train movements