you have built a
shunting puzzle layout with sound baseboard
foundations and track laid down in a trackplan
arrangement which allows for the rules of your chosen
shunting puzzle and provides smooth and reliable running
of your stock, you will want to operate it - after all,
you have set up the playing board, now you want to have
fun actually playing the game - for which you may find a
few useful or interesting hints here.
The actual rules of various shunting puzzles are covered elsewhere (e.g. here for Inglenook Sidings and here for the Timesaver) - this page is all about making things move on a shunting puzzle layout.
|A shunting puzzle requires a model locomotive which runs reliably at slow speeds. In doing so, it replicates the prototype which doesn't allow excessive crashing and banging simply because real railway shunting operations try to minimize damage inflicted on rolling stock (and the goods it carries) as well as accidents.|
|As the word
coupler implies, its primary function is to join
up individual pieces of rolling stock and ensure that
they stay coupled, be it whilst in motion or standing
still. This effectively results in the necessary control
to form and run a train without unwanted
The same holds true for the model - couplers are designed to attach one piece of rolling stock to another as securely as possible. One specific aspect of shunting puzzle layouts, however, is the fact that uncoupling is just as important as coupling.
|Ever since model trains were produced commercially the major concern with regard to couplings was to make sure that individual vehicules remained coupled. This certainly makes sense from the continuous run perspective, and therefore the vast majority of model coupling systems supplied with ready-to-run models for a very long time seemed to assume that once you had coupled two items of rolling stock together you would not want them to part again.|
|The problem from a shunting puzzle perspective is obvious: the fun to be gained from operation is in direct proportion to the amount of both coupling and uncoupling involved, and if this is a tedious process in itself, then the fun factor immediately drops radically. In order to prevent this, there is the option on a DCC controlled layout of having rolling stock equipped with digitally controllable couplers - if these are available or can be retro-fitted, there are no uncoupling devices to be installed, and yet stock can be uncoupled anywhere on the layout. On a conventional DC layout, (electro-)magnetic uncoupling devices have proven their worth in terms of appearance and function over a long period of time.|
|As the pin is still forced outward by the magnet, pushing back into the (open) knuckle allows for delayed uncoupling: a piece of rolling stock can be moved to any point and dropped off after it is uncoupled without recoupling as long as the loco is pushing it.|
|However, using Kadee couplers with European or British outline stock is not as straightforward as the existence of the NEM-362 coupler pocket would suggest, even though Kadee has a range of different couplers suitable for specific models. Converting these models to this type of couplers can still be a task requiring skill and time.|
manufacturers offer set pieces of "uncoupling
tracks" which have a magnet ready installed between
the rails (e.g. Kato Unitrack) or out of sight (e.g.
Rokuhan Z scale track which hides the magnet in the
The positioning of uncoupling devices is also very crucial for a successful shunting puzzle layout - there should at least be enough of them to allow for all the necessary uncoupling moves.
If necessary or desired, an Inglenook
Sidings layout can be operated with one uncoupling device
want to reduce the number of uncoupling devices to a bare
minimum and will accept having to sometimes make lengthy
and not very prototypical shunting moves such as pulling
the entire string of rolling stock from its siding in
order to get at one single freight car, while others may
want to spread a larger than needed number of uncoupling
devices around the tracks. In any case, the trackplan and
operating rules of a shunting puzzle need to be studied
carefully in order to know what the minimum requirements
for uncoupling devices are. The rest is, as so often, a
matter of personal taste.
Personal taste also relates to as to whether or not to use magnetic uncoupling. Some modellers - and there seems to have been something of a revival of late - seem to prefer manual uncoupling. Their argument is that this has the advantage of being able to uncouple wherever you need or want to without any restrictions, rather than having to pass over a magnet first. Manual uncoupling - often using some device which can best be described as a "stick" (for N scale, a toothpick will indeed do the job) - also eliminates problems with unreliable uncoupling and the necessity to fine tune couplers. In the end, the important thing is that uncoupling is easy and reliable - possibly the most important point of all when operating a shunting puzzle layout.
|Setting up the game|
when all is well on the layout and running smoothly, it's
time to start playing the game. With other games, this
would mean perhaps throwing a dice or picking a card -
but how do you start a game on a shunting puzzle layout?
With both classics, Inglenook Sidings and Timesaver, you need to know which freight car (8 of them in a standard game of Inglenook, 5 in John Allen's original way of switching the Timesaver) is required to go where before you can start. Obviously, there are almost endless ways of doing this, ranging from stone age to high-tech, but it will always involve handling tokens which represent the individual cars and where they are to be moved.
Alan Wright used his famous "tiddlywink computer" (a mug which held a tiddlywink (i.e. a token) for every piece of freight stock on the layout) from which the required number of 5 would be drawn, and the order in which this happened at the same time determined the order in which the cars were required to end up. You really don't need more than that, but I have found that using a system heavily influenced by the classic American way of creating switching orders, the card and waybill system, will make things unmistakeably clear even to someone having their first go ever. The following illustrations apply for an Inglenook Sidings layout, but they're just as valid for a Timesaver layout (which due to its US roots will probably feature car cards anyway).
The system is quite simple. On a classic Inglenook Sidings you have 8 freight cars, each of which needs its own card as a means of referring to this specific car. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you care to make it - perhaps a slightly more elaborate form could look something like this:
For this US prototype Inglenook Sidings layout, every car not only has its own card but cars have also been selected so that the colour of the car (there's only one yellow, one green, etc.) allows for immediate spotting of the car. All in all, there's a total of 8 cards of identical size which are shuffled and then the five uppermost are put down. The order in which this takes place also serves to determine the order in which the cars should end up.
Here, another two cards need to be drawn, but so far you can tell that the car which is required to be the closest to the switcher is the the brown D&H boxcar, then the yellow ACY boxcar, followed by the green Vermont Railway boxcar.
It takes a bit of work to make all the cards you'll need (though it can be done in 5 minutes if you don't feel like having any fancy special effects), but it's worth it, and it adds quite a bit of atmosphere to operating a shunting puzzle layout. Naturally, the same can be done e.g. for a UK prototype layout.
|Naturally, you could also have a computer do the shuffling for you - which is precisely what the Inglenook Random Wagon Selector by William Pearson will do.|
Text, pictures and illustrations not
labelled otherwise are © Adrian Wymann