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Rail Traffic Control Operations (RTC)
A Guide for the Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) or Dispatcher and Engineers


This page was last updated on March 30th, 2013.
Table of Contents


The Ottawa Valley HOTRAK Modular Club includes radio communication Rail Traffic Control during its regular operations to increase our experience of prototype railroading and to enhance training opportunities for our apprentices.  We try to schedule a few hours of RTC operation at each operating session. Some members enjoy operating under an RTC  while others prefer a more free form approach where engineers regulate themselves.  This document provides information about the skills and protocols that will contribute to an enhanced railroad operating experience using a Rail Traffic Controller.  The term "Rail Traffic Controller" has been in use since the introduction of the Canadian Rail Operating Rules (CROR) in 1989.  Although some prefer the earlier term "Dispatcher", we will use "Rail Traffic Controller" or "RTC" throughout this document.


The keys to operations as the Rail Traffic Controller are a good understanding of the operating layout of the day with particular reference to:
- where the mainline narrows from two to one track. 
- where the inside main will be required for switching industries
- where branch lines begin
Over time, the RTC will understand the way different engineers operate their trains.  This will help to keep the trains running smoothly.


The RTC is responsible for managing the layout mainline by communicating with engineers and giving movement instructions.  In most cases the area of control is obvious but it may be necessary to establish in advance those parts of the layout over which the RTC has control.  In general, branches are not controlled by the RTC while yards are under the supervision of a yardmaster (See Yard Operations)


Large magnetic mat (at least 14 inches by 20 inches)
Large Schematic of the Layout (minimum 11 x 17)  with
- clearly marked module names;
- clearly marked passenger stations, sidings, industries, junctions and crossovers, and
- clearly indicating directions for East and West
Set of 2 part magnetic counters with train numbers on both parts to indicate head and end of the train
Radio headsets
These pictures illustrate a typical RTC operation.


The RTC controls the movement of all trains on the layout by providing authorization to engineers to move trains from one location to another.  When permission has been given  for a train movement the two-part magnetic  indicator is moved to show the beginning of the authorization and the end point to which the movement is valid.  The section of line in between these two points is blocked and no trains may be allowed to enter.

To reflect prototypical operation, different trains have different priorities in completing their movements.  The priority of trains is as follows:

Intercontinental  Passenger
InterCity Passenger
Local / Commuter passenger
Through Freight
Local freight
Work / Maintenance of Way
Local switching

The RTC controls train movements following, whenever possible, these priorities although the RTC may need to vary this according to traffic demands.


6.1 General Procedures

At the beginning of a scheduled dispatching session, RTC ensures that the Traffic Superintendant has issued operating passes to all engineers operating on the layout.
The Rail Traffic Controller announces what channel will be used for communications and asks all engineers to equip themselves with operating radios and check in with RTC and advise of their train number. type of train, current location, and destination.

The radio is frequently very busy.  Engineers must be patient and must not break into an existing conversation.  Messages should be short and to the point with no extraneous comments.

6.2 Radio Exchange Protocol

The layout used in the example below is that of march 2013 http://www.hotrak.ca/Layouts/Layout_Mar2013.pdf.  We will follow local freight train 550 (red marker) in its journey from Ottawa Yard to do work at Brantford then BDU and returning to the yard.  We will concentrate on the radio traffic with 550 but 437 (blue marker) will also be involved.  The Brantford Branch would not normally be controlled by the RTC but we have included it here for purposes of illustration.  Not all conversations are shown, only those to illustrate a specific point or procedure.

6.2.1 Initial contact

The first transmission will be:

Engineer: "RTC this is new train 550 at Ottawa Yard"

The RTC will now look for the magnetic tag and then call back.

RTC: "Train 550 this is RTC.  What is your destination?"

The engineer now informs RTC of the type of train, direction of travel and the first destination.

Engineer: "RTC from 550.  I am an eastbound local freight with first destination Brantford."

RTC will now determine the route and advise the first clearance.

RTC "Train 550 you are cleared eastbound to M&O Junction right hand running."

Note that the clearance may not be all the way to the first destination.  The reply to the clearance is:

Engineer: "550 cleared to M&O Junction."

6.2.2 En Route

 On approaching M&O Junction train 550 reports in to the RTC.

Engineer: "RTC this is 550 at M&O Junction."

The RTC will then either hold the train there or extend the clearance.

RTC: "550 hold at M&O Junction and wait for further instructions" or the RTC may merely fail to respond.


RTC: "550 you are cleared to Garry."

Engineeer "550 cleared to Garry."
In the meantime train 437 will have reached Wilkes Crossing and reports in:

Engineer: "RTC this is 437 at Wilkes Crossing.  We have switching here and wish to use the inside main."

The RTC will reply with:

RTC: "437 you are cleared to use the inside main at Wilkes Crossing.  Report in when you are finished."

Engineer will reply simply "437" or "437 cleared to use the inside main at Wilkes Crossing."

In this case the engineer does not need to repeat the clearance since he/she originated it as a request.

Train 550 will have been listening to this conversation and will slow his train approaching Garry knowing that he may have to stop because 437 is using the main line ahead of him

Engineer: "RTC this is 550 at Garry."

437 is switching at Wilkes Crossing, using the main line, so the RTC must route 550 around 437.

RTC: "550 you are cleared to Jock River. Take the crossover at Beachburg Siding, left hand running to Cremona, take the crossover at Cremona, right hand running to Jock River".

Engineer: "550 cleared to Jock River, Left hand running from Beachburg to Cremona."

Train 550 reaches the first destination at Brantford and switches as required. When work is completed the Engineer will call the RTC. 

Engineer:"RTC this is 550 at Brantford"

RTC : "550 go ahead"

Engineer: "RTC, 550 has finished at Brantford and requests clearance to BDU."

RTC: "550 you are cleared to Orleans."

Engineer: "RTC, 550 cleared to Orleans."

550 will take the right hand main at Orleans.  Right hand running is the rule unless otherwise authorized by the RTC.

6.2.3 After a Designated Train has Arrived

Engineer: "RTC, 550 is holding at Orleans."

RTC: "550. After 437 has arrived at Orleans you may prodeed to BDU."

Engineer: "RTC 550 is cleared to BDU after 437 has arrived at Orleans."

The Engineer of train 550 may proceed  to BDU after train 437 has arrived at Orleans and cleared the switch. The engineer of train 550 must verify that the train clearing at Orelans is, indeed, train 437 and must not proceed until he has done so.  

6.2.4 Updating Location Information

If an engineer has a lengthy clearance, as in this case, it can be helpful to the RTC and other trains to broadcast his location.  He should wait for a lull in radio traffic and send a short message such as "Train 303 is by Castor River".  In effect, this gives up that part of his clearance he has already used.  If the RTC wishes to use this section for another train he must acknowledge  this message.

6.2.5 Protect Against

An engineer may receive a "protect against" order.  Such an order may only be issued to a train following another train traveling in the same direction but both trains must be advised and the following train must be aware of the train number and the name of the engineer he is following.  The two trains must be in visual and/or radio contact.  In this example train 550 has finished work at BDU and is returning to Ottawa Yard.

RTC: "550, you are cleared to M&O Junction.  Protect Against 437, a local freight in front of you."

Engineer: "RTC, 550 cleared to M&O Junction protect against 437."

6.2.6 Finishing The Run.

Approaching M&O Junction the Engineer will contact the RTC.

Engineer "RTC this is 550"

RTC "Go ahead 550"

Engineer: "550 is approaching M&O Junction and requests clearance back to Ottawa Yard"

The RTC will now route the train back to the yard.  Short of the yard limits the train will contact the RTC.

Engineer: "RTC this is 550 at Ottawa Yard."

RTC:"550 from RTC.  Contact the yard master for permission to enter the yard"

The engineer will then  contact the yardmaster for permission to enter the yard.  Once off the main line, the engineer will contact the RTC for the last communication.

Engineer: "RTC this is 550."

RTC: "550 go ahead."

Engineer:"550 is clear of the mainline and going off the board."

RTC: "550 thank you and have a good day."

Although these examples are given for freight trains, the conversation would be the same for passenger trains except that passenger station stops would be given instead of switching locations.

6.3 Communication Protocols and Terminology

The notes in this section are suggestions for the engineer on radio communications with the RTC

Communications must be brief

The most important thing to remember in using the radios is to keep communications short.  The distances on our layout are short and we do not have the luxury of time in order to complete our communications.  Only communicate what you have to.  Just say who you are and specifically what you want to do or know.  The engineer should not, for example, give the RTC the entire route and list of stops on the first contact.  Don't tell the RTC the switching you need to do at BDU when you are still at Wilkes Crossing.

Repeat back clearances

This does several things.  Most importantly it confirms to the RTC that you heard what was said.  It also reinforces in the mind what was said so that you are less likely to forget it.  Finally, it informs other trains in the area as to what you are doing.  The engineer must ensure that he has a clear understanding of the authority granted (e.g. from the above example "Train 303 is cleared to Wyecliffe"). Responses such as "Message received", "message understood", "Roger", "OK" and "10-4" are unacceptable because they do not indicate what authority the engineer understands he has.  The RTC receiving such a response must require an engineer to answer correctly.

Always give the train number.

This ensures that the RTC is hearing the right train.  With our short time between transmissions we have a tendency to "double" (talk at the same time as another engineer).  When you give your number the RTC will be sure of who he is hearing and will not  give clearances to the wrong train. This also helps other engineers to know who is out there and what they are doing.  Note in the examples above that it is only necessary to give your train number, not "this is passenger train number 432".

Give your location.

Tell the RTC your location at the beginning of each exchange of communications.  This will help him find you on the layout plan.  On your very first contact remember to tell him that you are a new train so that he can find your numbered magnet and place it correctly on the layout plan.

Always listen first.

Listen first to what is going on before transmitting.  You do not want to interfere with a communication going on between the RTC and another engineer.  Also, you can help the flow of traffic by keeping an ear on what is happening all the time.  If you see that there is a traffic jam at one spot on the layout, then you may be able to hold off on your transmission for a minute to let that situation resolve itself.

If you run into problems.

If there are problems with your train or the track let the RTC know and he will contact the Traffic Superintendent or the Road Master.  They will then deal with the problem.  This will also allow the RTC to route other trains around the problem.  Ensure that you keep the conversation brief and on point.


7.1 Not to Divulge Plans

The RTC should not divulge his plans to engineers.   If an engineer requests details of his likely movements beyond his current clearance he should be told to wait for his instructions.

7.2 Clearance Point

In giving authority to a location the RTC may name either the module or a junction. The authority granted will be:
- to the end of the module named, or
- to the junction switch named

8. Setting Up Work Limits - Rule 42 Protection

On some layouts choke points become evident and it can prove difficult to pass trains through as well as conduct switching.  One way to minimize delays would be to set up work limits as is done by the railways under rule 42 protection.

The RTC would designate someone to act as a foreman in designated limits. The foreman would be standing (or sitting) at the location. All trains would be advised that a rule 42 was in effect between the limits under Foreman xxx and they can only proceed through these limits under his instructions.  The foreman would have a radio and use the same channel although if it became busy he could switch to another channel.

Example - A section of line between A, B, C and D with the choke points B to C. The RTC would give authority for a train to proceed between A and D (or vice versa) telling the engineer that he can only proceed between C and D under the instructions of Foreman xxx.  The radio conversation would be something like this:
Engineer: "Calling Foreman xxx, this is 482 with authority to proceed from A to D. I am approaching your limits at B, what are your instructions please?"
Foreman:"482. This is Foreman xxx. You may proceed through my limits with no restrictions".
Foreman:"482.  This is Foreman xxx. You may proceed as far as the road crossing at YY and wait for further instructions."
etc., etc.

Rule 42s are protected with a red flag or light at each limit.

The foreman has complete control over all train movements within his limits. The person holding the rule 42 could be the engineer of the local freight that is switching the choke module.  To keep things simple and to keep the airways clear, it could be a simple person-to-person conversation between the local freight engineer and the engineer seeking to pass through the Rule 42 limits.  When giving a clearance from Point A to Point B, the RTC would simply tell the through engineer that there is a restriction at Module XYZ and to check in with Train #9999.

Although a Rule 42 would normally be set up under RTC control this could also be used when dispatching is not in operation and without the use of radios.