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The Timesaver Game

Timesaver Description & Instructions


The Timesaver is a small railyard layout first published as a switching game in the November 1972 issue of Model Railroader Magazine by John Allen. The Timesaver we built is based on an article in the October, 1976, issue of Model Railroader Magazine that uses sectional track rather than flex track.

The Timesaver comprises an inbound/outbound track, four short spur tracks, and a run-around area in the middle. Cars are to be spotted in the yard and/or picked up from the yard.


It is generally played with five cars, but can be played with as many as nine to make it more difficult. It is the limited amount of space on the spur sidings and in the run-around that makes it challenging.

At the start of the game, tiles (each bearing the name of a car) are set out to mark the ending position of each car, and hence to define the assigned switching task. The objective is to complete the assigned switching task as fast as you can.


The game never has to get boring because there are literally thousands of different games to be played. The switch engine and each of the cars could start and end in any one of the fifteen positions in the layout; the number of possible combinations is in the thousands (I haven't yet calculated it). The article in Model Railroader magazine suggests that you play a different game every time so it is a test of the operator's skill, not his memory.

While the engine and cars could theoretically start and end anywhere on the layout, model railroad operators prefer prototypical scenarios, i.e., scenarios that would occur in a real-world railyard. For example, in prototypical scenarios:

  • The switch engine starts and ends at the right-hand end of the inbound/outbound track, ready for the next switching operation, perhaps with one or two cars behind it.

  • If a car starts and ends in the yard, it ends up in the same spur track where it started; all the cars on a spur are to be delivered to the same area of town.

  • No cars start or end in the center run-around area because they would be in the way of the next switching operation.

It's also important to note that there are some impossible scenarios. No moves are possible if you start out with two cars and the engine on the inbound track and three cars on track 4.

Also, no moves are possible if you start with two cars on track 4 and two on track 1.

And it's impossible to end the game with two cars on track 1 and two or three on track 4.

Thirdly, there are many games that are operationally identical from the standpoint of how you solve them. In any given game, if you switch the starting and ending locations of two of the cars, they are "different" games, but their solutions are identical. With five cars in the game, that means there are 120 of these identical games. So the tens of thousands of theoretically possible game are reduced to a couple hundred.

Cars are to be moved only by the switch engine, never by hand. Hands are to be used only to assist in coupling, uncoupling, and derailments.

The use of a clock is optional. If everyone is playing a different game, and noone ever plays the same game twice, the amount of time it takes isn't a terribly meaningful statistic. On the other hand, if you pick one particular game and have everybody tackle it in a challenge competition, you can set up a leader board to list the five fastest times and maybe even award prices. Or you might take it a step further and define a set of games of varying degrees of difficulty, and challenge people to work their way up from a simple game to a much more complex and difficult one.

Under John Allen's rules, the clock stops when a derailment occurs and a one minute penalty is assessed; the clock starts again after the derailment is corrected. People who aren't as concerned with formality simply leave the clock running; the time taken to put everything back on the track constitutes the penalty.


Our Club's Timesavers

Our club has built two Timesavers. This enables us either to have two people playing the same game and racing against each other, or to connect them together and have two people working together in a cooperative two-person game.



We took it to the 2018 convention of the NMRA's Pacific Southwest Region (PSR) in San Diego. Members of Boy Scout Troop 11 had a ball playing the game there.

Come visit our clubhouse in Grossmont Center and play the game yourself!

Initially. our Timesavers use conventional AC switch engines. Each had its own AC transformer preset at a reasonable yard speed for the specific yard engine being used, but no power is applied to the track until the "Track Power" button is pressed. The four-position reversing switch inside the engine causes it to change directions as the button is pressed and released repeatedly.


We recently replaced the Track Power button with a joystick that converts the AC power to DC. In addition to giving much smoother switch engine operation, it results in a more intuitive way of operating: move the joystick to the right and the engine moves to the operator's right (forward); move it to the left, and the engine moves to the operator's left (reverse).


Each Timesaver has two pairs of turnouts that, due to their configuration, always need to be switched simultaneously. For that reason, we use remote control electrical turnouts; each pair is wired together and both are operated simultaneously by a single lever on the operator's control switch. As you can see in the picture below, each pair is labelled and the lever that controls it bears the same label; this is intended to help the operator understand how to control the layout.


The other two turnouts are independent. All of our uncouplers are Gilbert's #704 Manual Uncouplers. (Lots of our members wanted to get rid of the ones they had!)


To facilitate transport of the Timesavers, we bolt a plywood panel on each end. Their first outing will be the Display Hall at the NMRA PSR Convention here in San Diego September 13 - 15. Look for us there!



Single-Player Game Scenarios

There are three classes of scenarios that reflect realistic rail yard operations:


1. Spotting Scenario: a through freight has dropped one or two cars on the inbound track. They are to be moved to specified positions on spur tracks in the yard for delivery to local industries at some later time. The other cars are on spur tracks in the yard and are to remain where they are.

Sample game #1

Starting positions

On the inbound track, from left to right: hopper, tank car, switch engine. On track 1, boxcar. On track 2, refrigerator car. On track 4, gondola.

Ending positions

On the outbound track, switch engine.  On track 1, hopper to the left of boxcar. On track 2, refrigerator car. On track 3, tank car. On track 4, gondola.


2. Pick up Scenario: all cars start in the spur tracks; one or two are to be moved to the outbound track so they can be picked up by a through freight this afternoon; the others are to remain where they are.

Sample game #1

Starting positions

On the outbound track, only the switch engine.  On track 1, hopper to the left of boxcar. On track 2, refrigerator car. On track 3, tank car. On track 4, gondola.

Ending positions

On the outbound track, from left to right: hopper, gondola, switch engine.  On track 1, boxcar. On track 2, refrigerator car. On track 3, tank car.


3. Switching Scenario: combination of the above: the one or two cars on the inbound track are to be moved into the yard, and one or two cars that start in the yard are to be moved to the outbound track. The other cars are to remain where they are.

Sample game #1 (from the 1976 Model Railroading Magazine article)

Starting positions

On the inbound track, from left to right: hopper, boxcar, switch engine. On track 2 gondola. On track 3, refrigerator car. On track 4, tank car.


Ending positions

On the outbound track, from left to right: gondola, refrigerator car, switch engine. On track 1, boxcar. On track 2, hopper. On track 4, tank car.



The Two-Player Cooperative Game

To create a two-player game, the two Timesavers are connected together with a bridge track between them. One Timesaver is designated "the black side" and the other "the white side." That's why one set of our tiles has black letters on a white background and the other has white letters on a black background: the tiles with a black background designate the ending positions of the cars that started on the black side, and the tiles with a white background designate the ending positions of the cars that started on the white side.

Like the single player game, the two-player game starts with some number of cars (between five and nine depending on how difficult you want to make it) on each side and tiles indicating their ending positions.

Like the single player game, the scenario can be spotting, pick up, or a combination of the two. The difference is that one or more cars end up on the opposite side from where they started. That's where the cooperation enters in: to move a car from one side to the other, the operator spots that car on the bridge track and the operator of the other side picks it up and moves it to its ending location.

Since our Timesaver uses AC power rather than a digital control system, an engine cannot cross over to the other side because, if it does, its operator loses control of it. (Timesavers that use digital control have the same rule for the game, but have no way to enforce it.)

Sample game #1

Starting positions

Both sides start with cars in the position shown in the 1976 Model Railroading Magazine article. On the inbound track, from left to right: hopper, boxcar, switch engine. On track 2 gondola. On track 3, refrigerator car. On track 4, tank car.

Ending positions on the black side

On the outbound track, from left to right: the white track gondola, the black track refrigerator car, switch engine. On track 1, the black track boxcar. On track 2, the white track hopper to the left of the black track hopper.

Ending positions on the white side

On the outbound track, from left to right: the black track gondola, the white track tank car, switch engine. On track 3, the white track refrigerator car. On track 4, the black track tank car to the right of the white track boxcar.



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