Austin Eagle: Operating Sessions

My trip to Texas to take part in The Austin Eagle – the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention – included a really fun day of operating on local layouts. The first stop was a session on the HO scale Port of New York Railroad being built by Riley Triggs.

Riley is building his layout in an upstairs room in his home. The prototype is very urban, with several railroads negotiating complex track work in tight quarters that are shared with buildings, streets, wharves and piers. In addition to the main layout, Riley has used an adjacent room to build two of New York’s famous “pocket terminals” – switching districts isolated from the nation’s rail network, and reachable only via car float. At this stage, Riley has installed most (if not all) of the track work and has trains running. He is just getting started on the dozens of structures he will need for his layout.

I was fortunate to team up with Lance Mindheim for the operating session. Together, we worked the Lehigh Valley’s 27th Street pocket terminal:

Riley (l) and Lance discuss the 27th Street operation. In the background, two more operators work the Erie RR’s Harlem Station.
The main layout is through the doorway in the distance.

The 27th Street terminal is essentially a self-contained layout in a book case, connected to the rest of Riley’s empire via a car float. While tiny, there’s a lot of track packed into the space.

The Lehigh Valley’s 27th Street pocket terminal.

I took the role of conductor, while Lance was the engineer. We were handed a switch list and spent a solid two hours moving cars about this terminal- unloading the car float, sorting cars between a couple of storage tracks, the freight shed and other customers, and prepping the car float for its return trip to the mainland.

The first thing I learned was that traditional methods of switching just don’t work in a pocket terminal. I approached the task as if I was working a traditional yard, which goes something like this:

Well, that quickly got me into trouble. In many cases, the switch lead wasn’t long enough to hold an entire track of cars. In some spots, we were limited to a single car in addition to our locomotive. (While this would be frustrating on a traditional model railway and represent bad layout design, this was actually pretty close to reality in many of New York’s pocket terminals.)

After trying this a couple of times, and failing miserably, I abandoned what I knew about switching cars and resorted to cherry picking what we needed. The key became, “What can I move that gets something out of our way?” Once I got comfortable with that, things went much more smoothly. And it was a most enjoyable operating session!


Later the same day, I took part in a large operating session on the HO scale D&RGW Moffat Route built by David Nicastro and his son, Sam Nicastro. Sam is a millennial who is already passionate about, and accomplished in, our hobby. He’s a modeller, a railfan, and a member of several groups including the Operations Special Interest Group. More than anything I can do, guys like Sam will help keep the hobby strong and viable in the future.

Their layout features a number of advanced electronics applications, including a dispatcher’s desk complete with virtual CTC machine linked into the DCC system and phone system. What’s most remarkable about this is it’s Internet-enabled, so the Nicastros can call upon a friend out of town (or anywhere in the world) to direct traffic during an operating session.

David’s goal with this layout was to give one the feeling of running a train through the mountains, and he is certainly achieving that. I signed up to run a manifest freight as it would take me the length of the mainline – from terminal to terminal – and it took almost two hours to make the trip, with several pauses along the way to meet opposing trains.

While this is not the sort of layout I would build for myself, I really enjoyed running on it and would be happy to contribute to building and operating the Moffat Route if I lived in the area. Thanks, David and Sam – and your crew – for hosting us!

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and amateur shepherd, training a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

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