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Secrets of staging

By Tony Koester | May 11, 2021

An introduction to staging

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View of Frankfort, Ind., yard on Tony Koester’s HO scale Nickel Plate Road layout.

Why do you stage a model train layout?

Let’s be clear about the need for staging. Unless you’re modeling a very small railroad or perhaps a branch line, you’re faced with the need to simulate the connections that the part of the railroad you’ve opted to model makes with the rest of that same railroad or with other railroads.

Way-to-go waybills!

Staging is almost never what I’d call fun.

Some of this work of setting up individual car and locomotive locations could probably be computerized. But I do what the prototype did in 1954: use paper waybills that travel with the person responsible for the train.

Why? It’s relatively easy to make up the cards and an operator can typically identify car type and reporting marks by sight less expensively than any computerized radio-ID solution. But organization is key, without it, you’re just moving trains around.

Fiddle yards: real-time solution

The most elegant solution to the need to re-stage the railroad between operating sessions is to do so during the session using fiddle yards. The concept originated in the United Kingdom where layout space is often limited.

North American fiddle yards are fully operational yards but usually lack scenery. They typically have locomotive turning facilities for steam-era railroads to minimize handling, and they’re fed by shelves or drawers that allow a person to quickly change consists.

Railroads that employ moles, out-of-public-view operators, still need to cycle waybills at each industry between operating sessions. That could be done during sessions by assigning a person as a general freight agent who monitors in- and- outbound traffic and cycles waybills as he or she feels is appropriate or as stated on a job aid.

Important Tip: I strongly advise against having road crews cycle waybills. Experience has shown that this will be at best a hit-and-miss proposition. It’s better that they simply “read and heed” the instructions on the waybill and let the layout owner or general freight agent handle the cycling duties. It’s more realistic that way, too.

Hidden vs. visible staging

I’ve always been a proponent of hiding the staging yards based on the idea that the trains that originate or terminate there are supposed to be miles and miles away from the modeled portion of your railroad. Convenient access aside, if I can see it sitting there, the illusion is gone.

Based on experience, road crews — model train operators — don’t deal with staging. Instead, different operators handle staging yards or switching yards.

A friend coached me to understand that road crews would derive a lot more satisfaction from a terminal-to-terminal trip rather than if they had to begin or end their runs in a hidden staging yard. It pays to listen to those who have done their homework.

Worth the effort

The bottom line is that the time and effort required to stage a railroad for an operating session isn’t one of the most enjoyable aspects of scale model railroading, but it’s worth the effort. None of us can think of an alternative short of not holding regular operating sessions at all, and frankly we’ve had our fill of that during the recent national health emergency.


View of Frankfort, Ind., yard on Tony Koester’s HO scale Nickel Plate Road layout.
Much of the visible action on Tony’s railroad takes place in the east- and westbound yards at Frankfort, Ind. These yards are fed by the modeled Third Subdivision of the St. Louis Division as well as the staged Second Sub of the Toledo Division and the Peoria and Sandusky Divisions.


Photo of west-end staging yard depicting the Fourth Subdivision of the St. Louis Division on Tony Koester’s HO scale Nickel Plate Road layout.
The west-end NKP staging yard represents the Fourth Subdivision of the St. Louis Division and is hidden from view by a low fascia. Unlike the other three staging yards, which are managed by one staging crew member, this yard is managed by the nearby Charleston, Ill., yard crew.


Two HO scale Nickel Plate Road steam locomotives meet at a rural grade crossing on Tony Koester’s HO scale model railroad.
On an early version of David Barrow’s Cat Mountain & Santa Fe, trains were visibly staged in an outlying yard. This simulated a holding yard outside of the main yard, something that would not have worked for a steam-era railroad. Note the equipment storage drawers below the yard. David Barrow photo


Two HO scale Nickel Plate Road steam locomotives meet at a rural grade crossing on Tony Koester’s HO scale model railroad.
Trains – here eastbound No. 48 meeting No. 41 at Linden, Ind. – don’t magically appear on the railroad; they ideally come from somewhere beyond the modeled area. Contributing editor Tony Koester shares advice on different staging yard options for model railroads.


View of Tony Koester’s multi-deck HO scale layout with Charleston, Ill., on the top level; Cayuga, Ind., in the middle; and the east-end staging yard on the bottom.
The east-end staging yard on Tony’s railroad is actually two yards: the 12-track Sandusky Division and 5-track Toledo Division Both are stub-ended, which requires trains to be backed out between sessions so engines and cabooses can swap ends and passenger consists can be repositioned.
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