Archive for November, 2014

The Timesaver

I can almost here the groans as I type out this article. “Oh, no! Not another Timesaver!”

An SW1500 switcher picks up a boxcar for setting out at the Ames tool company on Rich Erwin's HO Southside Industrial District loosely based on John Allen's Timesaver.

An SW1500 switcher picks up a boxcar for setting out at the Ames tool company on Rich Erwin’s HO Southside Industrial District loosely based on John Allen’s Timesaver.

In 1972, John Allen published an article about a devilish little track plan that has had enthralled model railroaders ever since.

A lot has already been written in the model railroad press about John Allen’s switching puzzle he dubbed the “Timesaver.” John developed the “layout” as game to be played after operating sessions on his famous Gorre & Daphetid railroad. The Timesaver has a specific track configuration, shown in figure 1 with the prescribed car capacity of the sidings marked with the numbers in the boxes.

Figure 1. John Allen's Timesaver

Figure 1. John Allen’s original Timesaver track plan

The object of the game is to switch five freight cars to their destinations on the layout as quickly as possible.

The original game differs in standard model railroad switching problems in the following ways:

  • Time is counted as opposed to moves
  • Power is always on at a constant speed – you can only change direction of the locomotive
  • Uncoupling is allowed only over devices placed at designated locations

For any given round, the starting and ending positions of cars on the track are the same. Subsequent contestants would try their hand at the throttle and times would be compared to determine a winner.

I did not so much create my version of the John’s Timesaver, but rather used his track plan as the basis for my industrial switching layout. The mythology and its execution on the Southside Industrial District are all mine.

The Timesaver in Layout Design

Some would cringe at the idea of basing a layout on the Timesaver. The claim is that the track configuration is in no way prototypical. Fair enough, a real railroad would never intentionally design a switching section to be difficult on purpose. But there are real world examples. Check out Also, the argument goes, is that John Allen invented a game, with no intention of it ever becoming part of a larger layout. Just say no to the timesaver!

Even Mode Railroader’s own Steve Otte states: “But no real railroad would build trackage that cramped and complicated! If you follow the Timesaver plan, you’ll probably get frustrated and bored with operations before too long.” ( , Thursday, September 15, 2011 10:45 AM)

Others welcome the challenge, and even consider the Timesaver a valid Layout Design Element. Charlie Comstock gives a good treatment of the issue on his website at He’s got some good points such as the track plan should be isolated from the mainline.

The always-interesting small layouts website started by Carl Arendt has a lot of good information on the Timesaver and actual layouts that people have built. The website is a fun place to just poke around from small layout information in general.

Google “Timesaver” and you’ll find opinion on the design falls basically into two camps. One claims the configuration is a game, totally unprototypical, and has no place as a design element when planning a layout. Others incorporate the track plan into their layout, or base their layout on the Timesaver entirely.

A prototype switchback somewhere in Winnipeg

A prototype switchback somewhere in Winnipeg

I fall somewhere in the middle. Given my space constraints and that I enjoy switching and even puzzles, the Timesaver was a natural fit. By adding a few operating ground rules to the original “game”, I’m able to operating in a more conventional manner and my layout works for me.

Timesaver on the Southside

In planning my layout, I took the Timesaver concept and modified it for my use. I wanted to use the constraints inherent to the Timesaver, but applied to an industrial switching module. I would operate as a standard switching puzzle and count the number of moves required to make a determined number of pickups and setouts.

The Southside Industrial District as seen from the air, without buildings

The Southside Industrial District as seen from the air, without buildings

I used the same basic track configuration, but did not adhere strictly to the spur storage capacities. I also set the railroad in a modern industrial urban setting with appropriate scenery.

Southside Industrial District based on Timesaver

Timesaver-based track arrangement for the Southside Industrial District

In researching and planning my layout I decided the pros outweighed the cons. It looked like I could enjoy the challenge and gaminess, while still give me the chance to do scale modeling. It looked like the Timesaver would fit the bill.

What appealed to me was

  • challenge of switching puzzle
  • confined parameters (= small layout)
  • lends itself to industrial setting
  • ability to expand operational variety
  • can be modularized
  • expand the layout physically beyond the edges

If you’ll notice, the trackplan for my layout is not strictly a Timesaver. I’ve made the following modifications to what would be considered the “classical” Timesaver specification:

Structural Changes:

  • Mainline through-way
  • Mainline can be used as additional spurs for 7 instead of 5
  • Left- and Right-hand switches instead of Y’s
  • Slightly different track configuration
  • No strict adherence to spur capacity

Operational Changes:

  • Time not counted
  • Moves counted in “competition” mode
  • Throttle not set to constant speed {no constant-speed throttle}
  • Starting position determined by either conductor’s choice or wheel reports
  • May include “pickups”
  • Uncoupling may occur any place
  • Stage not reset after a session unless running in “competition” mode
  • SID contains setting, scenery, and details
  • Expandable for off-line staging, other modules, or continuous run

But no matter, I did not set out to build John Allen’s Timesaver. I set out to build my model railroad. It happens to share a similarity and some of the same concepts as John’s famous switching puzzle.

Southside Industrial District places the Timesaver in an industrial setting

Southside Industrial District places the Timesaver in an industrial setting


I operate the Southside Industrial District according to what many model railroaders would consider standard practice.

I’ve found I can have 8-10 cars in service on the track at one time. More than that leaves no empty space for shuffling cars.

Setouts as well as pickups are included and use the RIP track for “online staging.” Setouts start on the RIP track in the bottom left of the track diagram. The final destination for pickups is also the RIP track. Throttle is variable speed as determined by the engineer. Uncoupling can be anywhere. I use Kadee magnetic couplers and a wooden skewer as an uncoupling device.

A typical session starts with setouts placed on the RIP track. The cars can either be chosen by random by the conductor, or from a randomly generated wheel report. Pickups are determined by the conductor before the session begins. A full discussion on operating details will be addressed in another article. Cars are switched to their destination location per standard operating procedures. This can be a 1 or 2 man job. A single operator controls the throttle, switch points, coupling and uncoupling, as well as dictating moves. In a 2-man move, the Engineer runs the train while the Conductor does everything else.

A typical op session will have 3-4 cars already set “out” at various spurs. Three or four more cars are placed on the RIP track to spot.

Time is tracked to the nearest minute per session. I’m more interested in broad time ranges such as a 3-in / 3-out configuration takes 20 minutes; 4-in/4-out takes 40 minutes, etc.

Switching continues until all the setouts are swapped for the pickups already spotted.

If the competitive juices are flowing, the layout can be operated in “game” {competition} mode where moves are counted and the board is reset to the same configuration after each session. Typically there will be no pickups pre-spotted when operating like this. Complexity can be achieved by varying the number of cars to start on the RIP track. Beginners can try their hand with a single freight car, while brass hats may want to try five or even six. Including pickups adds another level of complexity.

An Example

Let’s look at a small example.

We’ll start with 3 cars (box car, tanker, covered hopper) on the RIP track and 1 car already set out for optional pickup. At the start of the session, the conductor decides to pickup the gondola (and place it on the RIP track to end the session).  See figure 3 for a photo of the starting configuration.

Three cars and their ultimate destinations to start a switching session on the Southside Industrial

Figure 3. Three cars and their ultimate destinations to start a switching session on the Southside Industrial

First is to place the boxcar in the warehouse. If we are counting moves, that takes at least 3, depending on the starting position of the loco. Likewise, getting the tanker to DuPont track #4 requires a runaround of 11 moves.

Moving the tanker requires 11 moves

Moving the tanker requires 11 moves

Next, we go back and pickup the gondola and temporarily park it on one of the runaround tracks. Then a straightforward series of moves to pickup the covered hopper and drop it off at the food processing plant.

switch 03 and 04

Finally, we go back, pick up the gondola and place on the RIP track to finish the session and grab a cold one at our favorite watering hole in the District.

Everyone in the place to finish the day's work.

Everyone in the place to finish the day’s work.

As you can see, the layout is very flexible in terms of operation. Beginners and yeomen crews can learn operating procedures by just using a few cars. Standard model railroad operating practices can be used with a minimum of paperwork. The layout can be a module and connected to a larger system. Finally, operators or even crews can compete head to head and earn bragging rights over the entire Southside.

Small consists of 4 cars or less don’t require any paperwork. Look for a future article on using Jim Hediger’s method of wheel reports as a car forwarding system. Car cards and waybills could also be easily used on the layout.

By taking the best elements of the Timesaver that fit my circumstances, I’ve been able to incorporate one of the classic track plans into my scale model railroad, along with the flexibility to run my layout in either a game type puzzle mode, or along the lines of more traditional operating procedures.

In contrast to its name, the “Timesaver” has given me hours of fun on my layout, with more to come. And that’s a good thing.


If you’re considering building a layout or even just a switching game based on the Timesaver, you’ll want to do some research first. Here are some resources you might find helpful.  – a great little site dedicated to switching puzzles with good information on the Timesaver – Carl Arendt’s web site dedicated to small and micro layouts with  a page dedicated to the Timesaver (

The British railway modeling site RMWeb engages in a spirited discussion on the Timesaver –  – All about John’s Gorre and Daphetid railroad, including the Timesaver and a for-purchase DVD (I’m not associated with this site).  – Jeff Witt’s Gorre and Daphetid fan site  – Charlie Comstock’s (of Bear Creek and South Jackson fame) version with a few design notes on incorporating the Timesaver into your layout.  – Wikipedia even has something to say on the subject

THE “TIMESAVER” SWITCHING YARD AS A MODULAR LAYOUT” Model Railroading, Winter 1982 (Trainlife

Byron Henderson of Layout Vision discusses incorporating switchbacks in track design ( and even as it applies specifically to the Timesaver in a session at the NMRA 2013 convention in Atlanta. Notes from the session are downloadable . All good and valid points.

Kalmach’s downloadable PDF book –