Original rules - Extended rules

The fact that John Allen's Timesaver has inspired so many others to build identical or very similar layouts based on his switching puzzle has led to a certain variation of the "set rules" on how to play this switching game.
Original rules
The original rules put forward by John Allen consisted of two components:

RULE A1: "Switch the five cars to their destinations on the layout."

RULE A2: "Complete the switching as quickly as possible."

On the original Timesaver layout, John Allen marked out the destinations for each car before each game session and then set up the cars in their "starting positions", which also stayed the same for every round of the game. Time was a key element in the game (as the name implies): you had to make the right switching moves to get the cars to where they were supposed to end up, but you also had to do it as quickly as possible.

This also meant that apart from thinking ahead to do as little switching as possible you also had to be nimble with the controls for the locomotive (which on the original Timesaver operated with a set speed, so you could only change the direction of travel of the locomotive).

A game of Timesaver was therefore set up this way to provide individual players with absolutely the same game configuration, so that at the end of a game session (perhaps an evening at a club, or even an entire day at public shows) you would have a winner: the operater who got the switching done in the shortest period of time.




Any accidents such as derailments etc. would earn the switcher in charge a time penalty.
  In this illustration, five distinct types of freight cars are used to make spotting the car easier and the positions where the cars are required to end up are marked down.

Some Timesaver layouts, especially those built for use at public shows, have these destinations put down permanently, i.e. they never change.

Below you can see all of these rules put to work on the original Timesaver (together with its duplicate twin layout in the foreground) at the NMRA convention 2000 in San Josť. Orange colour tabs indicate where cars are to be switched to, and the late Allan Fenton (right) oversees the switching in progress with a stop-watch.
Not all people, however, appreciate the idea of having to operate trains under the pressure of a clock ticking away, so a variant rule emerged very soon after John Allen first presented his original Timesaver concept:

RULE A2 MODIFIED: "Complete the switching with as few moves as possible."

This obviously takes a bit of the original challenge away, as it leaves the operator with as much time to think about his next moves as he likes - unless there is a set amount of time for this (as in a tournament game of chess) so that if you spend too much time thinking to start with you will have none left towards the end of the game.


Picture by Franz Reichl, used with kind permission

Also, while it is fairly uncommon to have two operators complete the switching in exactly the same time, there are bound to be many draws if the number of moves is used to determine how well an operator has done if a large number of players try their hand at the game.
Extended rules
John Allen's original Timesaver layout was conceived entirely as a brain teaser and with the movement of rolling stock as its one and only objective. Quite logically, the layout therefore wasn't more than just a "gameboard", and the track was laid out much the way tracks are reduced to a schematic on control panels. There was thus no scenery or decoration of any kind, and industries were simply indicated by markers next to the tracks. No fuss, no frills - just operation.

The twin copy of the original Timesaver (on display at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum)

Again, as with the element of the clock, a number of modellers liked the basic Timesaver idea but felt that a bare layout had little visual appeal and that this aspect needed improvement. However, by adding scenery and structures, the entire locale as well as the individual industries take on a more specific character - the layout turns into "an urban industrial zone served by the Southern Pacific" rather than just "the Timesaver" and the spot on the layout which says "boxcar goes here" turns into the "Western Tooling Co." In other words: the layout comes to life in the sense that it now tries to portray a more or less realistic scene in model form - almost like setting the stage for a theatrical play.
  This transition also tends to have an influence on how stock is moved on many scenicked Timesaver layouts. As the layout's visual make-up becomes more realistic, introducing more realistic switching orders than the basic Timesaver balances the layout's interesting scenery with interesting operation. Most often, the preliminary rule of such an "extended operation" of a Timesaver layouts is:

RULE B1: "Switch the five cars to randomly assigned destinations on the layout."

Taking into account the fact that in real life it is highly unlikely that exactly the same car would get switched to exactly the same location over and over again, the element of randomly deciding where the five cars are to go is introduced. The switching gets under way once the five cars on the layout have been randomly assigned to the five possible destinations A-E.

This operation scheme is still very much based on the original rules and still works on the "one destination, one car" principle, meaning that every destination is always assigned exactly one car. However, as there is room for more than a total of 5 cars at destinations A-E, additional items of rolling stock can be introduced:

RULE B1 MODIFIED: "Switch a random number of cars to randomly assigned destinations."

This extended operation scheme does not stick to an equal distribution of cars and may therefore assign more than one car to a destination or none at all, making sure that the maximum track capacity is not exceeded, i.e. "D" cannot receive more than 2 cars.

Note that the numbers given in the illustration below for track capacity include the locomotive, i.e. there is no extra length for the switcher.


Therefore, if by chance two boxcars need to be spotted at both industries "C" and "D", careful planning is required as to how and when they are set out - otherwise the run-round loop will become completely blocked...

There are numerous ways of randomly assigning cars to destinations. With only five destinations to handle, some very basic systems (such as colour-coding the destinations and then using a dice displaying these colours, or just giving the destinations numbers from 1-5 and using an ordinary dice) will work fine. However, some slightly more intricate systems can add even more operational interest, especially if the Timesaver layout is not seen as a self-contained system (as in fact the original is) but connected to the outside world, which then could result in some cars going "off scene" while others take their place.

  In this case, some form of card system is usually introduced to put to work another possible rule:

RULE B2: "Switching according to rule B1 / B1 modified is based on an operational concept which determines traffic flow."

Above all, this rule makes sure that the traffic flow on the layout is purposeful and prevents cars being assigned to destinations where they wouldn't be needed on a  real railroad.

Therefore, customer A, who is a book printer and receives paper and ships books by rail, will not be sent tank cars and coal hoppers to his loading dock, because rule B2 makes sure that the specific types of freight received and shipped by each industry on the layout are determined so that only appropriate rolling stock may be delivered to any given industry.

Although this rule makes for more realistic operation, it also adds to the complexity of the whole system of randomly assigning cars to locations (unless all destinations are defined as receiving and sending goods using the same type of rolling stock, i.e. all customers served only require boxcars). Not surprisingly, therefore, Timesaver layouts operating on the "extended rules" have often done away completely with the aspect of switching against the clock. 

You can get a first-hand impression of what it's like to operate a "Timesaver" layout straight away, thanks to Neil Machin's virtual "Timesaver" switching puzzle, which - amazingly - has been around since 2003.


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Page created: 18/OCT/2002
Last revised: 03/OCT/2013