For many, realistic operations are a fun and rewarding aspect of the model railroading hobby. Most of the fun is bringing folks together each month to take on the role of train crew, yardmaster, freight clerk, and dispatcher to bring a model railroad to life! For a just a few hours, you get to leave the real world behind and become immersed in a world of your own choosing.
For as much fun as operating can be, finding crews can be a challenge. During ProRail, held in Kansas City last April, several participants from around the country bemoaned this difficulty. Causes ranged from aging friends suffering health and mobility issues, or losses due to folks relocating, and the inenivitability of mortality. My Kansas City friend Bill Hirt highlighted this predicament when he referred a fellow layout owner to me for advice on how to find people to operate his N scale Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad set in 1955. David Pitcher lived in the Atlanta area, where he enjoyed an established operating group there. Since he moved to Charleston, S.C., a few years ago, it’s been difficult to find and develop a regular crew.
David and I recently spoke at length about potential approaches to find either experienced people to operate, or ways to recruit and train new folks to fill out his crew of six. I shared my own experiences dating from the move back to Sioux Falls from Minneapolis in 2005, as well as a more recent move to Central Illinois from Kansas City. Here are several ideas you might consider to add operators if you’re facing this situation…
First, which I categorize as “low-hanging fruit,” is to contact the local hobby shop owner. Tom Ludlam’s McLean Hobby Depot has been a recruitment bonanza here in Central Illinois. Tom — a former Texas short line employee himself — puts me in contact with new potential operators on a regular basis. I’m very grateful for my diverse group of more than 20 operators which includes a healthy mix of college-age, fellows with young families, and “seasoned” (those of us over 50) operators.
Another potential arena is the local National Model Railroad Association division. While our Illinois Valley Division is spread out over a large geographic area, it still proved a fruitful recruitment venue. Shortly after moving here, I made a presentation on my Twin Cities & Western layout at our division’s monthly meeting. A handful took me up on my invitation. Since many were new to operations, I paired them with one of my knowledgeable regulars to learn how the car card and waybill system works for car routing, and to become more familiar with the Digitrax throttle for train control.
Open house layout tours can also attract future operators. The NMRA Dakota Southeastern Division in Sioux Falls, S.D., organized weekend events offering the public the chance to purchase a “Rail Pass” from the local hobby shop. This entitled the bearer to visit half a dozen of our members’ layouts and learn about trains. Open house layout tours yielded several operators on my layout.
Club layouts can be found in some areas and might be another source for new crew members. David indicated Charleston’s club can be found at a mall. His and my experiences are that the members are often more interested in display than operations, but it’s still worth a shot.
Community education classes entail the most labor-intensive and time-consuming recruitment venue, but can also be very rewarding. Master Model Railroader and now retired Pastor Doug Harding lived in nearby Sibley, Iowa, at the time we moved back to the Sioux Falls area. Doug willingly helped teach a model train operations class. Regular members of my call board included several class participants.
A final source for getting the word out involves notoriety from either print or social media. My Wisconsin River Division article that appeared in Model Railroad Planning 2023 sparked a response from the nearby Athearn Trains headquarters staff in Champaign. A crew attended and operated here this spring and plans to return this summer.
Overall, be patient with new crew, and don’t be afraid to share the rewards of a well-run operating session. I hope these suggestions help you increase your call board and the opportunity to share your operating layout. They certainly have provided me with crews and helped me gain a large group of good friends who enjoy our mutual hobby. —Alan Saatkamp, MMR