"They say whatever you start out doing railroading, it gets imprinted, and that's what you are most comfortable doing from then on. I couldn't have picked a better place to break in than Watsonville Junction. It was old-time, local-freight, full-crew switching. Kicking cars and passing signs. The basic stuff you have to learn at first or you never get no matter how long you're out here."
-- Linda Niemann, Boomer: Railroad Memoirs

The whole point of operating sessions on my layout is switching. Just like Linda Niemann's description of Watsonville Junction in the sidebar, running trains here means spending a lot of time shuffling boxcars in front of canneries and packing houses. The good news is that you'll be running trains during the entire operating session. The bad news is that you'll be out there "kicking boxcars" all day long.

High Season Operating Sessions

All my past operating sessions have been set on an early summer day in the early 1930's. The canneries are running full-blast as a new crop of apricots or cherries arrive. (Though demand slacked off during the Great Depression, folks were still out in the orchards picking fruit, and the canneries were still running. There were several strikes by farmworkers and cannery workers in the Santa Clara Valley in the early '30s.) Even in the great depression, the traffic is probably realistic. During high season, the canneries and packing expected cars to be switched between shifts. I run two separate kinds of freights to support this. The early morning switching jobs handle only the cannery industries, bringing in cars of fruit and taking cars of canned or processed fruit. One train handles the San Jose industries -- the Del Monte warehouse, Del Monte cannery, and Abinante and Nola packing house. Another train handles the canneries in Campbell and Los Gatos. Each train has an hour or an hour and a half (real time) of work, and because each is switching a separate region of the layout, they don't interfere.

(Actually, the two cannery switchers can interfere in dangerous ways. If both trains pull long strings of cars around the curve between Campbell and San Jose, they can collide if both crews aren't observant. We discovered this danger on an early operating session, and little paper "flagmen" are now available to warn the other train that the track's in use.)

These trains start the session; as a crew member running the "San Jose Cannery Turn", your first switching job would be at Del Monte's Plant 51. Plant 51's two tracks are four feet lower than the main tracks, so you'd back your locomotive down the siding, pick up one track worth of cars, place any not being taken on the other track, and pull the rest up to the train. You'd then place the arriving cars at the assigned door. Each of the six doors can take two cars. (In real life, plates would be placed between the cars so that the second track of cars could be loaded through the car on the first track.)

Later in the morning (and in the second half of the operating session), a separate freight train handles the non-cannery traffic -- oil for the canneries and Standard Oil, lumber for the lumberyard, and so on. This train goes from San Jose to Los Gatos and returns. Generally, the crew that took the more relaxed Campbell cannery job get to do this freight so they can see the San Jose side of the layout. The other crew usually gets broken up and each crew member gets another train. One of these jobs is the mixed train goes between San Jose and Santa Cruz as needed; it primarily switches industries in the mountains, and can be a sightseeing run for the engineer assigned. The other job is a "transfer job" that serves the canneries mid-shift. It's a switching-puzzle sort of job; it needs to place some cars at each Del Monte plant, bring others back to the yard, and swap other cars between Plant 51 and the Del Monte Cannery. It's a bit more challenging because the switching isn't as straightforward. The regular cannery run usually handles lots of cars, but almost all are easy, trailing point drops. The transfer job spends more time grabbing cars and running around them to get things in the right position.

Other trains can be run as needed. Because the bypass around San Jose was still being built in the early 1930's, I run a gravel train to serve the construction crews. That train runs from Santa Cruz, leaves the car on the PG&E spur in West San Jose, and returns. I've also run through freights down the hill from Santa Cruz to complicate life for the switch crews. The through freights turn out to be a great way to use the Santa Cruz staging tracks for trains starting in San Jose. I've staged the non-cannery freight train in the Santa Cruz staging yard, and brought it downhill to San Jose staging in the first half of the operating session. This frees up a track in the San Jose staging yard. I've also considered running maintenance of way trains, but haven't actually run these yet.

Running a high season operating session requires at least two people, each taking a separate train. I can keep five people busy by putting two people on the two cannery switcher jobs, and letting the fifth person run passenger trains and some of the occasional trains.

Off-season Operating Sessions

I've also thought about running a more relaxed operating session set in the winter. In the off-season, the canneries are shut down for maintenance, so those industries will be quiet. The non-cannery industries should have as many cars arriving and leaving as they did in high season. One switching crew handling San Jose and Campbell should be able to do all the work, and this train can probably be extra-long because no other trains will need to get by. Another crew might bring a train from Santa Cruz to San Jose, or perhaps exchange cars with the San Jose crew at a fixed time.