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Rules of the Rail

Hopefully this will be the first of a series of model railroad operation rules guidelines. While our only goal in this group is to have fun sometimes we don’t pay attention to the task at hand. With DCC this behavior can be disastrous and definitely upsets the train dispatcher and especially the host. Please understand that I am not pointing at any particular person either new to the group or an old hand. My only goal is to educate everyone on railroad practices. Please send me your questions and I’ll give it my best shot to answer them. Let’s begin!


Whistles, horns, and bells are all a part of train movement. Today with available DCC sound we operators should have an understanding of the meaning of railroad sound signals. Folk law has the early steam engines equipped with whistles to “warn the public of danger” but this is only partially true. Whistles and later horns were and still are, although to a much lesser extent, crucial to communicating with the train crew and other railroad employees. One of the things a new engineer learns is that the first thing to move on a locomotive is the clapper on the bell. Engineers always ring the bell just before initially moving and whenever else that is required by the book of rules. Many of the common bell and whistle requirements are listed below. If we have sound, like anything else, it should be used correctly to be most effective.

Bell usage: When the engine is about to move.
When running through tunnels.
While approaching and passing over public crossings at grade.
When approaching locations where workers may be at work near the track.
While passing a train standing on an adjacent track.
In an emergency.

Engine horn/whistle signals (Note O indicates short sound, ___ indicates long sound):

___ ___ O ___ :approaching public crossings, last long sound must continue
until locomotive is on crossing. Approaching and passing
standing trains. Approaching workers near or on track.

Succession of short sounds: A warning for animal or trespasser on tracks.

O O O : Train is about to back up.

O O : Engineman acknowledgement of any signal, especially a stop
signal, commonly used when the train is given permission to
depart. Also used to tell a person that his or her hand signal is
understood. (Ever wave to a train and get two toots back?)

OOOO : Call for signals, either at a manned interlocking or from a member
of the train crew. (Lets go!)

___ ___ ___ ___ : Member of the train crew providing flag protection may
return. (Calling in the flag).

Headlight use:

Headlights must be kept on high except may be DIMMED when approaching other trains, stations, junctions and terminals, or when standing or moving at a meeting point. THE HEADLIGHT MUST NEVER BE EXTINGUISHED WHILE MOVING.

Come on guys we can do this, it’s really fun and will make that guy who invested in sound very happy.


In order to operate safely you must understand the authority of the train dispatcher (or rail traffic controller on some railroads). The railroad is sectionalized into divisions and sub divisions, sometimes called districts. The train dispatcher is in charge of all movements on his or her subdivisions, usually more then one depending on the traffic level. Yards are locations with defined limits that are not usually under the authority of the train dispatcher, however, there are exceptions, usually on very low volume railroads. When a movement enters a yard they no longer take instructions or authority from the train dispatcher but from the person in charge of the yard, usually called a yardmaster. The train dispatcher no longer has to deal with that particular movement, however, if the movement is going to turn back or continue on he or she must remember to plan for that event. Look at a yard as a sanctuary from the main line. If you are operating in the yard at yard speed (being able to stop within half the seeing distance of an obstruction, open switch, or other movement) carefully following the yardmaster’s instructions, or other designated person in charge, you are safe and don’t need the protection of the train dispatcher to avoid catastrophic consequences if the book of operating rules is ignored. Remember a train is “a locomotive with or without cars displaying a marker” and you should not report to the train dispatcher that you are in a yard until the entire train is by the yard limits.

When a train dispatcher asks if you are off his railroad and you are completely within a yard you can say yes, even if in the future you are continuing on or turning back. When that time comes you must offer up to the train dispatcher and receive new movement authorization, unless previously authorized. This does not apply to scheduled trains (trains listed in a timetable such as but not always passenger trains) because the timetable authorizes movement. Even when authority was previously given to continue on most railroads still require that the movement contact the train dispatcher before departing the yard. This is sometimes called a clearance card or “form A”. In any event the yardmaster has no authority to authorize a movement to enter a main line controlled by a train dispatcher and any operator who does so is introducing a disaster.


Before transmitting by radio the employee must listen to ensure that the radio network is not in use.

All transmissions must be repeated by the employees receiving them

When originating or initially responding to a radio call employees must:

Identify the railroad

Identify the location

Identify the train (number if scheduled, symbol if extra)

Communication must be as brief as possible and use the following key words:



EMERGENCY transmitted three times to obtain immediate use of the radio system to warn of endangered train movements.

A typical radio transmission between the train dispatcher and a freight train should be as follows:

“Atlantic Shoals Railway CPFY Extra at Church Point to the Atlantic Shoals Railway train dispatcher at Victoria Mines, over”

“CPFY extra this is the Atlantic Shoals train dispatcher at VictoriaMines, over.”

“Good morning Ray, CPFY with 15 Cars is ready to depart Church Point Yard, over.”

“Good morning Bob, that’s a roger CPFY with 15 cars ready to go. OK I’ll give you a clear block to Off the Wall at Argyle, Over.”

“That’s great Ray CPFY Has a clear block to Argyle Off the Wall. CPFY out.”

“Roger Bob have a safe trip, train dispatcher out.”

Train to train and train to yard are done exactly the same way. It takes some getting used to but once everyone begins to use proper radio procedure it becomes automatic. Also please remember that with any radio there is a short delay after you key the mic before the transmission starts, silently count to three before talking. All this sounds like work but it’s really fun.


Clear Block Authorization from the train dispatcher to operate between named points.

CPFY Extra you have a clear block from Church Point to Harmony Mills, off the wall, over.

Do not pass Harmony Mills!

Locations Places named, or known, on the model railroad, including but not limited to stations, switches, and yards.

To be a qualified employee you must know all locations.

OS (on sheet) Reporting the arrival, departure, or passing of a location.

Extremely important to the train dispatcher for safe operation.

Stand hard Don’t move.

Offer up Tell the train dispatcher you are ready to move and how many Locomotives and cars you have. Also what cab number you are using if the layout is non DCC.

Also sometimes called making yourself known.
Bulletin Order A publication used to inform employees of rules modifications or Changes.

Division The portion of a railroad assigned to a superintendent, usually the owner.

Sub-division A portion of a division.

Extra train A train not designated by a timetable schedule.

Pilot A qualified employee assigned to a train staffed by unqualified operators.

Timetable A printed booklet containing schedules and or other instructions affecting the movement of trains.

Train A locomotive with or without cars displaying markers.

Trainmaster An expert on the layout who can repair and advise, usually the owner.

Yard A system of tracks used to make up and disassemble trains under the authority of a yardmaster. .

Authorization must be obtained from the yardmaster before movements take place.

Yard limits The main track area between yard limit signs that may be used, clearing timetable trains by ten minutes, without authority of the train dispatcher.

Common sense must prevail when using yard limits, undue delay to all trains should be avoided. Extra trains must approach yard limits expecting the track to be occupied unless instructed otherwise.

Book of Rules Instructions developed over the years to allow safe operation that must be followed.

Rules, it is said, are written in the blood of our predecessors who paid with their lives.

Quiet Zones Locations where talking may cause distraction to someone who is working with the rules.

Congregating near the train dispatcher!

Talking to someone who is operating a train!

Talking on a subject other then the rules while operating a train!



Think of this scenario: You are the brakeman on a locomotive pulling eight cars. Your orders say to take siding at Gassetts! You walk along beside your train throttle in hand, as you approach the switch to Gassetts Siding you casually throw the switch and allow the train to pull in, then you normal the switch when the train is clear.

What were you thinking? Obviously you were not thinking that you were on that train. If you had you would have stopped the train short of the switch, allowed a reasonable amount of time to dismount the locomotive and walk up to the switch stand, thence thrown the switch and motioned the engineer to pull in. As the locomotive passed you would remount and watch for the rear to clear, thence stop the train so the rear brakeman could normal the switch (he had dismounted as the caboose pulled by the switch) thence wait for him to walk forward to the caboose and remount. HOW LONG DID THAT TAKE

Another: You drive a set of locomotives from the Church point engine facility into the yard, couple up to a cut of cars, tell the train dispatcher your ready to go, get clearance and depart.

Wow I’ll bet the real railroads wish they could do that! What you should have done is climb up onto the locomotives, check for fuel, water levels, and sand, have your head end brakeman back you out, stop for two blocks of ice, (one for the engine one for the caboose) pulled up onto the holding track (Broadway in Church Point) asked for permission from the yardmaster, thence slowly shoved onto the correct track and make a hitch. Next the car inspector will do one of two things, if the track has “yard air” (Church point tracks 6,7,8,&9), he will give you a “set and Release” which requires the engineer to release the train brakes, set the train brakes and release them again. If the track does not have yard air the engineer must set the brakes and the car inspector must walk the train to determine that all the brakes on all the cars are on, then the engineer must release the brakes and the car inspector must walk the train again. Most railroads use two car inspectors for this scenario. Once one of these two brake tests are completer the rear brakeman must release any hand brakes that were applied to stop the train from rolling during this test. Now you have a “highball” on the brakes so you and the engineer should read all instructions for the trip (the boys in the caboose don’t have them yet) and ask both the yardmaster and the train dispatcher for permission to depart. As you pull out don’t forget to stop so the caboose crew can get that ice that you left near the yard office along with copies of all instructions and train orders. If it’s winter coal should also be added for the stove. Now you’re off, HOW LONG DID THAT TAKE?

Yet another; Your on the road and have a car to set at an industry, you pull up and stop, make the cut, shove the car into the siding, return to the train and continue onward.

Wait a minute, did you walk into the industry and ask the shipper what door he wanted the car spotted at? Did you make sure the empty car had the loading plate removed, was the car you set so deep in your train that the rear brakeman had to walk up and assist with the cut and hand signals? When you were all back together did you do a set and release brake test? HOW LONG DID THAT TAKE?

MY POINT; This thing we call model railroad operations is suppose to duplicate real railroad practices. I don’t mean to the point of pain, after all we do this to have fun, but it should take some real “scale” time to get over the road. The next time you operate give some thought to how the real crew would do the job at hand and how long it would take them.
Krause Von Steinflegan, rules examiner, Atlantic Shoals Railway.


Once again, these are guidelines to help everyone enjoy the operating sessions and introduce elements of real railroading into what we do. As with most rules, they are in place for a reason. Maybe these are not written in blood, but some are written in melted locomotive shells and damaged equipment.


Call if you can’t make the operating session.

Be on time. Depending on the location, some of us may have up to an hour to travel home after the operating session. If we get started on time, we can finish on time.

Please refrain from leaning on layouts.

Please refrain from placing drink cups/snack cups on layouts.

Re-railing equipment: When a derailment occurs, the preferred method of re-railing is by holding the trucks, not the sides of the equipment. Never attempt to re-rail equipment by scrubbing it back and forth over a turnout frog.

All of the hosts have worked hard on their railroads. When you reach into a layout to uncouple, re-rail, or throw a turnout, look first, then reach carefully.

Some of the hosts have provided racks at station/yard locations to hold the car cards/waybills. These are sort of a 3-D switch list and should be used, rather than placing car cards/waybills on the layout. If the host railroad should not have these racks, try to keep the car cards/waybills off the layout.


TRAIN SPEEDS: Train speeds should not be excessive. Two examples: the Green Mountain Flyer, Train 65 averaged just about 34 miles per hour between New York and Montreal. Train 88, the Milk averaged 25.6 miles per hour. Model railroads look better at slower speeds.

STARTING/STOPPING: We all know it is far better to avoid jack-rabbit starts and stops. We all should make a conscious effort to start our heavy trains slowly and, likewise, bring them to a slow, smooth stop.

TRAIN LIMITS: Most of the hosts have train limits. Why? Mostly because of passing siding capacity or staging yard capacity. Even on railroads with long passing sidings, it serves only to frustrate by sending a twenty-one car freight into a yard when a fifteen car freight will (a) fit better and (b) make it easier to break up for classification or spotting.

CAN’T MAKE THE GRADE? Occasionally, a train may be too heavy to make a grade or combination grade on a curve. What to do? Please don’t continue to spin the wheels on the locomotive. Adding volts doesn’t help. It’s unprofessional and irritates the host. Call the dispatcher and let him know the problem. The dispatcher will either have you double the train or call out a helper.

COUPLING/UNCOUPLING: In general, all of the host railroads have given a lot of thought to the placement of uncoupling ramps. By and large, the ramps work as they are supposed to. However, there are times and places where a crew needs to uncouple and no ramp is available. Again, most of the hosts have provided uncoupling sticks for these times and places. Some are designed to insert down between the couplers and some are designed to pull the trip pin. Both types are meant to work after the coupler slack has been run in. UNCOUPLING BY LIFTING THE EQUIPMENT IS STRONGLY DISCOURAGED! Some times, (like the prototype) couplers do not always line up for coupling. When this happens, an uncoupling stick can be used to line up the offending coupler.

KILL SWITCHES: Some hosts have made provisions to electrically isolate track using kill switches. These may be engine house tracks or other sidings. There is a reason the host has provided these switches. Please use them and turn off the particular track when leaving a locomotive.

NORMALLING TURNOUTS: After train crews have completed their work, all turnouts should be returned to their normal position. Likewise, train crews should be paying close attention to the track in front of their train, taking care not to run into an open turnout.

WHEN ALL ELSE FAIL READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: All of the hosts have taken some effort to supply instructions with train cards, card cards, waybills and station information to guide train crews as well as introduce elements of prototype railroading into the operating session. For example, on Dividing Creek, there are a couple of train cards instructing both yard and train crews to place that particular car at the rear of the train, in front of the van (caboose, hack, buggy, knowledge box, etc). The idea is so the train crew can keep an eye on the particular car (depressed center flat car with a transformer load). Before taking a train over the road, the crew should check the waybills for correctness and to see if any cars require special handling or placement in the train.

It doesn’t take much time, is prototypically correct and slows down the operation the same way as other suggestions in RULES OF THE RAIL.