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February 16th- On the Shoulders of Giants- Part 4

posted Feb 19, 2017, 7:09 AM by Sue Line RailRoad   [ updated Feb 19, 2017, 7:09 AM ]

This week’s story is about a man I never met. This Giant in the Hobby, the late Frank Ellison (below)


 of New Orleans, Louisiana had great influence in transforming how I looked at model railroading.   I read and re-read his articles when I first became serious about operations.  Frank Ellison had a philosophy that the railroad was a stage and the trains were the actors on that stage. Each train should have a script or part which was defined by the operators. The operating-scheme was the plot of the play. Frank Ellison said “As the effectiveness of the play depends on the facilities of a well-equipped stage and props that can be used  to carry out the illusion of reality, so the play of model railroading demands trackage arranged in mainline, yards, sidings and spurs so that the business of imitating a standard railroad at work can be presented accurately as well as dramatically.”  

Frank Ellison owned the Delta Lines (below- N scale version of Frank Ellison's O scale Delta Lines)


a magnificent railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana. Frank Ellison first wrote about the Delta Lines in August 1941 in Model Railroader (page 392).  It was by today’s standards a spaghetti bowl of track, but it worked flawlessly. Frank Ellison on page 89 of the July 1976 Model Railroader magazine reminded us of “The  ART of model railroading”. In this article, he jolted us with the reality that the dreams we had when we first started “playing with trains” had been starved to death beneath a mountain of track, signal and train-control design. It was killed by “model engineering” and “modelbuilding” which had become so all-consuming that we had forgotten about the art of model railroading and that if we lost ourselves in them that we would never produce a play.

Frank Ellison noted “Model railroading is more than simply running trains around a track. It is an art founded on the accumulated principles governing real railroads, but with a separate and very definite set of rules of its own. It is a swift and endless kaleidoscope of dramatic situations, maneuverings, and problems- each with its own exciting moments of suspense and climax…it has more thrills per minute than a game of strip poker.”

At one time, I had two videos produced by a New Orleans television station on Frank Ellison and the Delta Lines.  Tragically, they were accidently erased and I have not been able to find another copy.

Frank Ellison gave trains a purpose and a mission, they did not just run in circles. They went from point A to point B and finished at point C. The cars were carrying products and they had to be moved from the producer to the receiver. In the November 1955, page 26, Model Railroader, the Delta Lines was reviewed. Frank Ellison noted that “Repetition is the No. 1 killer on small as well as large layouts, and to avoid it, Delta Lines trackage and organization provide for unlimited diversity”. Frank Ellison had two divisions on his Delta Lines and “operating in the Chapelle and Fillmore Divisions is like operating on two entire different railroads”. Within his divisional setup there was a place for the operator who had a sense of urgency and speed and “hot-shots” as well as for the operator who liked a slower paced train that perhaps required more thought and mental acuteness. On the Delta Lines there were no unrealistic quick turn arounds. Motive power and equipment was distributed about the layout and one had the feeling that there was a continuation of movement from one operating session to the next.

Frank Ellison used several simple elements which he borrowed from the real railroads. 1) Seniority and a 2) Call Board were used to funnel the right operators into the right operating positions. A 3) time-table was used to space the trains. A 4) dispatcher could follow the trains and help those that had gotten out of pace. Finally, the 5) Operating Code was used to clarify situations. Together these elements help things humming during an operating session. The use of communication between trains and the dispatcher was a key ingredient to give the layout a sense of reality.

For the last 30 plus years, the Sue Line has incorporated these elements to keep weekly operating sessions interesting for the attendees.  We still write sequels to the prequels and by doing so we adjust the story every 4 or 5 years to keep things fresh.  However, applying the timeless principles outlined above keeps our focus on telling a story with each iteration of the scheme.  The story drives the operation.

What’s your story?

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