"All The World Is Staging..."

A look at the pros and cons of different staging methods

By Craig Bisgeier (With apologies to the Bard)

Welcome Page     Links Page     Send E-Mail

Unless they have been living under a rock, or just gotten into the hobby, most model railroaders should have some idea of what staging is and what it does for you. (If you don't, click here for more information.) But not many modelers are aware that they have choices beyond the "classic" staging yard. Some of these options may offer superior performance over others depending on the need. And knowing they exist can allow modelers to make better staging choices for their layouts, or even mix and match different types.

A definition, then, of the major types is in order so we may compare them and their attributes:

  1. "Classic" staging -- a flat yard, with multiple parallel body tracks, either stub or double-ended, a ladder track or tracks connecting the body tracks with one or two exit or entry tracks at either end.
  2. Fiddle yard -- a set of parallel tracks on a sliding or pivoting table, slid back and forth to align a particular body track with the fixed exit / entry track.
  3. Serial staging -- a long single or double stretch of tracks, where trains are lined up sequentially in order of appearance. Most often used in a helix.

Lets talk about "Classic" staging first. I call it classic because this is the type of yard everyone thinks of when discussing yards.

Advantages of classic staging:

bulletAllows random train movements in and out of yard -- This is probably the most useful advantage of both the classic staging yard and the fiddle yard. Every track in the yard has access to the ladder connecting to the exit / entry tracks. It allows the operators a lot of flexibility regarding which train to send out next, or where to put the next arriving train. The dispatcher can choose a time when it's convenient to run the local turn, or if the operator turnout is light that night, whether to run it at all.
bulletCan be made to operate nearly automatically -- Because of the design and operational simplicity of this type of yard, it's easy to automate the movements in and out of it. For instance, by using infrared detectors to signal when a train is almost at the end of a track, and another to indicate when the ladder track is clear, the yard can be completely hidden from view and yet still operated effectively.
bulletIf visible, can represent a prototype yard -- Since a classic staging yard is very close in appearance to a real working yard, one 'concealment' option is to leave it in plain sight and scenick it. This sometimes solves the problem of how and where to hide the staging yard.
bulletWorks best for larger layouts -- It's true, the more space you have available the better the classic staging yard will look to you. When available space is not a major consideration, a classic yard offers the most operational flexibility.

Disadvantages of classic staging:

bulletTakes up a lot of real estate, especially ladder tracks -- No doubt about it, the classic yard is a space hog. Even two or three track staging yards still need an extra foot or two for the ladder tracks, twice that if double-ended. That operational flexibility we talked about above comes at a cost. However, depending on how you employ your staging (and how much room you have to work with), this can often be nullified or minimized.
bulletUsually difficult to make changes to consists -- Because the classic staging yard is often hidden behind scenery or benchwork, it is difficult to perform tasks like switching locomotives and cabooses from end-to-end. This has the effect of creating a finite number of trains that can be operated during a session, based on the number and size of the staging tracks available. This is not usually a huge problem, unless you are someone like Jack Ozanich. His Atlantic Great Eastern RR is known to operate marathon operating sessions lasting days at a time. Classic, hidden staging would not be a proper option for him.


Advantages of the fiddle yard

bulletRequires less total layout space than classic staging -- The fiddle yard idea was developed in Britain where they have very limited space for layouts. It provides the flexibility advantages of the classic yard, and maximizes space by eliminating the ladder tracks. In terms of space efficiency, it is probably the highest ranking of the three major types. Also, since all body tracks are about the same size, it's easier to know how large a train you can store in any given track.
bulletVery easy to make consist changes, change entire trains -- Because the fiddle yard is usually a wide-open area with good physical access to the body tracks, it is easy to make real-time changes to trains in the yard. Often operators design in shelves, or racks, that hold extra cars and locomotives out of the way until needed. A good yard operator can insert a lot of variety into the trains that ply the layout.
bulletCan allow nearly continuous operation of railroad -- Because it is so easy to make changes to yarded trains, there is virtually no limit to the number and types of trains sent out of the yard. Consists can be mixed, substituted, and mixed again providing endlessly variable trains in and out of staging. As an example, this is the method Jack Ozanich uses to keep his marathon sessions going. I don't think he uses a fiddle yard to do it, but the principle is the same.

Disadvantages of the fiddle yard

bulletRequires a full-time operator -- This is the big downside of the fiddle yard -- it requires constant attention by a dedicated yard operator to keep it running. Unlike a classic yard which can be easily automated or at least require minimal attention, by definition a fiddle yard needs someone to 'fiddle' with it constantly to keep things going. This means somebody in the operating crew has a full-time job, especially on a larger layout served by this kind of yard. It was developed to serve small, compact layouts, and that's probably where it's best implemented.
bulletDifficult to conceal, can be unsightly -- Forget about hiding this kind of yard, unless you put it in another room or behind a wall. It takes up a lot of space both vertically and horizontally, and can be a jarring, distracting element if exposed to the public and not handled tastefully. On the other hand, if built carefully and attractively its obtrusiveness can be minimized.
bulletRequires considerable work space for operator and off-line storage -- You have to plan in a semi-permanent space where the yard operator will sit or stand. This space can't be used for aisle space or benchwork since someone will always be standing or sitting there. For comfort you'll have to provide about 30" square or more for the operator position in front of the yard. You'll also need to plan for storage racks or slots where you keep cars off-line. If the yard and the storage area aren't in the same place, plan on having a lot of back and forth traffic between these two areas.


Advantages of Serial Staging

bulletAllows staging within otherwise wasteful elements like helixes -- OK, I admit I'm not a big fan of serial staging, but it has its place. Especially when it can be used in conjunction with other layout design elements, like helixes, that would be otherwise wasteful of space. In fact I've actually seen advice to use a helix primarily as a staging yard and not as a device to move trains from one level to another. Look at it this way: Lets say you already have a helix in your design. The space below, and sometimes above, is wasted anyway -- why not place extra turns below and above the primary helix to stage trains in? What the heck, it's space you can't use anyway... Even if it only holds a train or two, it's more staging that you had before.
bulletTakes up comparatively little useful layout space -- One thing about serial staging, it's l-o-o-o-ng, but it's narrow. It can be snaked inside areas of tight clearance, like between backdrops on either side of a peninsula, or along a wall. Most interchanges or staged branch lines are handled similarly to this, but on a smaller scale. On a larger along-the-wall shelf layout, you can string out a serious amount of serial staging out of sight.
bulletBest used as a supplement -- Serial staging methods don't necessarily lend themselves to heavy staging, but work well as a supplement to other methods. Having an extra train or two that arrives on or departs the layout from a mid-route junction can add a lot of action to a layout.
bulletStub-ended tracks a better choice -- If your serial staging tracks are stub-ended, it's actually a little easier. You just have to send out all the outbounds before you start filling it up again with inbound trains. Of course, if you have an optional train that doesn't always run, you can bury it at the back of the stub track and choose whether to run it or not once it is exposed.

Disadvantages of Serial Staging

bulletTrains must be used in sequential order -- Since the trains are lined up elephant-style along a single track, you have no choice as to which train should be dispatched next. If you are OK with a strict lineup and schedule, it will not be a problem. Otherwise...
bulletStaged trains must all be moved up to make room at the rear for arriving trains -- If you have double-ended serial staging, and you need to place trains back into staging after others have left, you are in for a lot of fun. ALL the trains on the track must be moved up to the front before space can be cleared to allow arriving trains in. And just imagine trying to keep each train from colliding with the next in line along a hidden track. It can be done, using infrared detectors at closely spaced intervals and a display board with LED's to show occupancy, but it's a lot of expense and work for little return.
bulletUsually less total storage available than other methods -- unless you have a really long layout, or a really tall helix, it's difficult to make heavy use of serial staging. You will probably be better off choosing another staging method for a smaller layout, or use other methods to augment the serial staging tracks on a larger layout.
bulletWhen hidden, can be difficult to operate and maintain -- Think about it. Need I say more? It's probably the most difficult kind of trackage to maintain. What happens if you derail a car? Heck, just trying to find exactly where it happened could be a chore. And rerailing, or even just retrieving a car on the ground could be an exercise in contortionism.
bulletVery difficult to make consist changes, re-stage -- For the same reasons it's difficult to maintain, forget about simple changes like flipping a locomotive and caboose. Once it's in there, you ain't getting to it until it comes back out again. If it comes out again. Better have a couple of helpers handy when the session is over. It could be tough to push the train up and out of a downward spiral with the power on what is now the back end.


Other kinds of staging

Well, that covers the major types of staging. But Wait! It ain't over yet! There are several other types of what I call "minor" staging. These are smaller, operational enhancements that usually occur along the modeled mainline rather than at the extreme ends of the layout. I'll try to name and describe some of the more popular types below.

Loads In / Empties Out

This is a neat feature that can be included on even the smallest layouts. It's particularly useful for open-top railcars like hoppers, which have visible loads. The scenario requires complementary industries on the layout, like a coal mine (supplier) and a power plant (consumer). The two industries are located back-to-back on either side of the layout or a peninsula with a view block between them. Siding tracks run from the mainline, through one of the industries, the view block, the other industry, and finally to the main on the other side. Usually two or more tracks are employed, but one track will work fine too.

It works like this. A train arrives to service the coal mine. It picks up a set of filled hoppers staged at the coal mine, and drops off a set of empty hoppers for filling on the same track. Later, another train (or even the same train) can arrive at the power plant on the other side, pick up a set of empty hoppers (dropped off earlier to the coal mine) and drop off a set of filled hoppers. As you can see, this can go on and on indefinitely as long as there are strings of empty and full hoppers to trade off.

Ferries / Car Floats

This type of staging usually involves a removable ferry or car float model fitted with staging tracks. The model can be temporarily attached to the layout and deliver and take away railcars with style. In practice it operates kind of like a fiddle yard open to public view, but special procedures and equipment add interest and 'spice' to the handling of the cars. For instance, locomotives are usually too heavy to move onto these boats or floats, so old flatcars are used as 'idlers' to reach onto the boat and pull off the cars. Also the boat has to be unloaded carefully so as not to overload one side or the other, causing it to capsize. Just loading and unloading the ferry or car float becomes a challenging and interesting job.

The physical plant to support this operation offers an interesting layout design element, including the float bridge, the quay where the ferries / car floats are docked, local industries like fish canneries, etc. It's also a great way to introduce variety to layout by changing the cars on the boat while off-line. Several articles on car float operations have been written in the last few years, including an excellent 3 or 4-part series in Railroad Model Craftsman. That's where I'd start if I wanted to model this kind of staging.


The prototype constantly turns traffic over from one railroad to another, to get the freight to its final destination. A boxcar bound from Oregon to New Jersey may travel over the rails of many different roads during its journey. Our models should do the same. We can enhance the believability our layouts by modeling interchanges with connecting railroads along our right-of-way, and exchanging cars bound for off-line destinations with them. It doesn't have to be much, it can be as simple as a junction with a short spur to store a few cars on. The other railroad is represented with different colored ballast along its track, perhaps rail of a different size, different types of track signals, etc..

This is also a type of staging, and one that really brings home the "beyond the basement" concept. Instead of your little trains chasing their tails on a simple loop, now your trains are trading cars with other railroads that will take them to far off places. And you get cars from them that may be bound for locations on your layout, or that need to be handed off to yet another railroad you connect with. Railcars come from somewhere, and go somewhere else. Your little pike is part of a nationwide transportation system. Maybe just a small part, but let your imagination run wild... This is what staging is really all about, folks. Expanding your reach beyond the four walls in your home. As the title of this article says, all the world really is staging -- at least the rest of it is.

Like ferries and car floats, interchanges are a good way to introduce variety to the layout. An elaborately modeled interchange can even provide entire trains that travel onto your layout, perform work locally and go back home, or allow several different pickups and setouts each session. All that's required is a siding that connects with one or both of the lines where cars can be set out by either railroad. It helps if its cosmetically possible for trains on either line to access the interchange track. A junction like this is a layout design element that can be modeled on nearly any size model railroad. It's a source of traffic on and off your road without a bulky industry to serve. Put one or more on yours and you'll have a great time with it.

Whew! That's about it. There are surely more options available I haven't touched on, and I'd like to hear your opinions about them. I've set up a comments page where readers can post their experiences with staging for other to read about. Click this link to go to the comments page. You can Email me your comments by clicking on the EMail hotlink below.

I hope this helps you examine your options for staging as you plan your own model railroad.

Send EMail to the Housatonic Railroad!

Welcome Page     Links Page     Send E-Mail