How To Toy Train Layouts 7 ways to break out of an operating rut

7 ways to break out of an operating rut

By Bob Keller | February 11, 2024

Bored with your routine? Find easy ways to liven things up again!

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I recently bought a Weaver O gauge E8 A-A pair online. Eagerly, I waited for its delivery. Once it arrived, I quickly put it on my layout. Sadly, it was “Dead as a brick.” The pair was sold as “functional.” Contacting the seller, I was told, “We didn’t have any reason to think they didn’t work.”

Needless to say, that seller is off my list of favorites. But this isn’t a gripe about a bad purchase. I took the powered unit to Sommerfeld’s Trains & Hobbies near my home, and Matt dug into the problem. Vintage electronics and a quirky QSI system that may have been an aftermarket addition complicated the repair. In the end, he got the rig up and running.

1. Don’t leave it sit

This whole experience got me thinking about gear I hadn’t run lately. I’d been running a few engines within easy reach: two Atlas O and two MTH modern freight units. In the meantime, I had been neglecting my fleet of transition-era Williams cab units!

I have two pairs of Williams Baldwin RF16s, two pairs of Electro-Motive F3s, an EMD F7 duo, an Alco PA-PB pair, an Alco FA duo, and not one, but two sets of E7s. Where had it all been? Some were in the box, and others were on my RailRax shelves gathering dust.

scene of diesel engine on layout: break out of an operating rut
Williams E7s liven things up on Bob’s layout, after riding the rails once more. Bob Keller photo

2. Cab units — how retro can you get!

I went through a diesel renaissance of sorts and began greasing gears and oiling axles. Soon, I was having a blast running my New York Central streamlined engines with container loads at passenger train speeds!

Not that there wasn’t trouble. I hadn’t run some of the locomotives in five or six years, so I should have anticipated a few bumpy starts. One unit kept stopping and triggering an overload on my transformer. Smoke poured out! Yikes! As I’m sure you all know, Williams diesels lack smoke units! I ordered a new E7 motor from Williams by Bachmann and ran back to Sommerfeld’s for more help.

But I was still having a great time, running multiple cab units with a train of colorful foreign containers and a range of trailers from the Central, the Florida East Coast, and the Union Pacific.

I had been in an operating rut and didn’t even know it!

3. Don’t let it rust away

I was always a bit sad when I visited a layout, and the owner had a wall of engines he never ran. I’d ask why. The answer was often “to preserve their value.” Maybe, but you sure aren’t having fun with it gathering dust on the shelf. At least when running locomotives, you have sound, motion, and action — exactly what the models were made for.

4. Spice it up

Buy a diesel locomotive that doesn’t fit your theme. I saw a northbound Canadian National train roll through Waukesha with four Ferromex engines on point. Thanks to railroad power sharing, anything can show up these days. There isn’t a “wrong.” Besides, it’s your railroad.

5. Add home brew loads

Use strip balsa for dunnage and combine your flatcars and die-cast equipment for unique cargo loads. Get more ideas for unique items here.

6. Embrace the seasons

You don’t need to redecorate your layout, but seasonal themes, including Christmas, Veteran’s Day, and fall harvest, are ways to get your family involved in this great hobby. Here’s an idea for adding a Christmas theme to flatcars: https://www.trains.com/ctt/how-to/expert-tips/quick-and-easy-flatcar-loads-for-christmastime/

7. Have some fun!

My suggestion that you enjoy motive power currently gathering dust isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know. If you haven’t run your trains in a while, or operation has become a routine drill, break out your creativity and make it a fun experience again. After all, fun is why all of us are gathered here in the first place.

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