The object of the Inglenook Sidings shunting puzzle is fairly simple, the order for the shunting crew being:

"Form a departing train consisting of 5 out of the 8 wagons sitting in the sidings."

In addition (and this is where the "game element" of the puzzle comes in) the shunting order states:

"The 5 wagons are selected at random."

On the original Inglenook Sidings, Alan Wright employed what he called the "Tiddlywink Computer" for this task, i.e. distinct tokens for each wagon drawn from a mug. No matter how these 5 items of rolling stock are determined, the order in which this happens is important because:

"The train must be made up of the 5 wagons in the order in which they are selected."

Here's an example of what this can look like, illustrating that despite its simplicity, this shunting puzzle can produce some combinations which require a certain amount of thinking and a number of moves.

  The challenge of fulfilling this shunting order is linked to the fact that some advance thinking is required - due to the fact that there is limited space available to juggle around the rolling stock, as determined by the lengths of the individual sidings and the headshunt.

What looks like a simple task can thus provoke quite a bit of headscratching. And since the number of possible combinations regarding the positions of these 8 items of rolling stock amounts to 40,320, it should take a while before a feeling of "oh yes, I know this one" grabs the operator.

Once the train is made up, the five items of rolling stock are either simply redistributed on the sidings wherever there is room for them, or replaced with five other items if the headshunt leads to somewhere, e.g. a fiddleyard or perhaps even a larger layout.

You can get a first-hand impression of what it's like to operate an "Inglenook Sidings" layout straight away, thanks to Neil Machin's virtual "Inglenook Sidings" shunting puzzle (which in itself has become a small internet classic).

Whilst it is one of the strong points of the Inglenook Sidings shunting puzzle that the tokens needed to identify the individual cars can be as low-tech as imaginable (indeed, eight torn out pieces of paper with the characteristics of the individual cars scribbled down are all you need), 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.
  This neat little piece of software dates from 2003 (it will still run fine on most hardware running Windows OS), and the screenshot shows an example list of cars on the layout and how the Selector produces a random list of cars in the order in which they are to be shunted (courteousy of and with the kind permission of Mark Kendrickng you can still download it from this site as a zip-file.

Or, if you prefer, you can input your rolling stock into an online random list generator and have your shunting order made up in your web browser by simply ignoring the last three items in the list (one example is the List Randomizer from




A question often asked by both newcomers and veterans is whether or not there is a "best way" to tackle the Inglenook Sidings shunting puzzle. While best may be a matter of subjective opinion, there is certainly a systematic way of looking at how to solve a specific Inglenook Sidings problem.
Rule of Thumb #1: "Get the whole picture"
In order to understand the systematics of the Inglenook Sidings shunting puzzle you need to take into account that there are 14 slots available where rolling stock can be placed at the end of a shunting move.

8 of these slots are occupied by rolling stock, leaving you with 6 free slots at all time. Try to focus not only on the freight stock (i.e. the occupied slots) - think of the free slots as items you can "move around" too. There is a moment in each randomly selected setup when having the free slots in the right places can be more important than where the freight stock actually is. Remember: the free slots define which piece of rolling stock can be moved where.

Rule of Thumb #2: "Clear the way"
Next, focus on the occupied slots which are not part of the setup you need to put together in order to solve the task you have been given (for the sake of clarity, the locomotive is always shown in the same position; when solving a real puzzle task, there is of course no need to move the locomotive to its starting point after each move).

You need to be able to move rolling stock around in order to successfully solve an Inglenook Sidings puzzle. In other words: it is important to get those cars out of the way which are in your way. The setup chosen to illustrate this principle makes this obvious: there isn't a single piece of rolling stock which you need to assemble into the order 1-2-3-4-5 which is accessible to begin with. So, you need to get the surplus cars (black) out of the way first before you can do anything else.

Other possible configurations may tempt you to start shuffling cars into the required order straight away, but unless you really have enough free slots to move around, all unwanted pieces of rolling stock should be moved to positions where they don't block moves.

Rule of Thumb #3: "Count backwards"
Once you can reach the required pieces of rolling stock, it is important to have a clear strategy. Placing car #3 in front of car #4 won't really help unless you can fit the other cars around this formation. It is generally easier to back up cars to the buffer stops than to build up the string of rolling stock from the loco end. In other words: count backwards, try to set off car #5 at the end of one spur and then add the appropriate cars to this. If that's not possible, try doing the same thing with car #4.

In our example setup, the positions of cars #5 and #4 need to be switched first.

With cars #4 and #5 in their correct sequence, attention now turns to the remaining three cars which, for the sake of illustration, have been placed in the most awkward positions - they're exactly the wrong way round, requiring the maximum moves to get them in the right order.

At this point, you need to remind yourself of rule of thumb #1 - make the empty slots part of your moves. In this case, this means coupling up to some of the rolling stock which is not part of the required configuration in order to gain room for shunting moves.

You can now back on to car #1, couple up, advance, back up to car #3, couple up, and your train is ready to depart with all cars in their correct order.

Now, that wasn't too difficult was it - how about another game...?




Back to the Model Railways Shunting Puzzles Website main page



Page created: 01/MAY/2001
Last revised:06/NOV/2022