Plausible Design for a "Virtual" Branch
A separate layout section linked by staging and operations
When I helped Rick Fortin set up operations on his ATSF 4th District layout, we wanted to include interactions "beyond the benchwork" to suggest the inter-relatedness of this modeled portion of the proto-freelanced 4th District with the rest of the world. Hidden staging areas representing Central and Southern California, Northern California and Oregon, and the San Francisco Bay Area are natural destinations. But there were also other locations that could logically be served from the proto-freelanced visible classification yard (Orchard Yard) Rick imagineered for Chico, CA.
One of these locations was Hamilton City, CA. "Ham City" is a real place, served in Rick's 1973 era by the Southern Pacific. But we imagine that there are (primarily) agricultural customers that might well be served by a competing Santa Fe branch. I came up with a list of likely customers (one or two real and the balance freelanced) and sketched a simple imagined layout of the ATSF tracks in the town. From this, it was easy to come up with a blocking order for yard crews to use in building the train in Orchard Yard. Yard crews block the Ham City Local just like the other locals on the visible layout, placing cars in the order that the local's crew would need in switching the imagineered town configuration.
Even though in actual fact the train to Hamilton City leaves the visible layout and runs directly into staging, it still adds interest and reinforces the modeled place and time for the visible layout. There are even some priority car movements involved, with expedited shipments of perishables from Hamilton City pulled off the "inbound" local for the Shasta Fruit Express headed east. No matter that the waybills are simply turned during reset -- there is interaction and layout personality added by the imagined ATSF customers in Hamilton City.
Rick's layout is HO scale, and there is simply no more room to squeeze a physical Hamilton City branch in the train room. In fact, it was never intended to be part of the modeled layout. Instead, it's a reasonable destination we dreamed up long after the layout was designed to be served by this train movement in and out of staging.
But there might be a way to include the actual switching in Ham City, albeit through a little tinkering with the space/time continuum. I designed an N scale version of Hamilton City that could be placed on the coffee table in Rick's crew lounge so that a crew could actually "work" the town. Separate cars and locos (obviously, since they would be a different scale), but the same industries and the imagined configuration. These cars wouldn’t actually return to Orchard Yard, but a quick turn of the waybills would allow the N scale Hamilton City segment to be operated again at the next (or the same!) session.
In fact, the N scale Hamilton City could even be a different era, since its connection with the main layout is conceptual and operational, not physical. The Hamilton City Local might leave Orchard Yard in 1973 on Rick's HO ATSF 4th district behind GP-30s with a brace of mechanical reefers in tow. But since my own N scale modeling interests include Santa Fe in the 'fifties, when the Ham City local appears on the separate section in the crew lounge, it could be 1955 -- the low nose blue-and yellow turbocharged Geeps might have been replaced by Zebra-striped GP-7s. And the mechanical reefers' place might be taken by SFRD icers. Mostly the same customers, same concept, but a shift in eras, scales, and physical location.
The 28"X60" layout section was designed to fit well in my small SUV so it could easily be moved back and forth to Rick's op sessions. Since the N scale layout is set in the 1950s, I've added oil distributor and seed-and-feed industries that probably would not be rail-served by the 1973 era of the main layout. The other industries are part of the blocking the Orchard Yard crews use in building the Ham City Local on the main layout. Another addition is the SP staging tracks at the lower left. These represent cars coming from the SP for spotting at ATSF-served industries, adding to the interest for the Ham City crew.
In operating the layout, the "inbound" train from Orchard Yard in Chico would begin on the track at the lower right (labeled "to Chico"). After working the various industries on the layout and the SP interchange, the local crew would gather the cars for Orchard Yard together and pull the train (pointed "toward" Chico now) back to the original track, then go off-duty.
The switching challenge is designed to be engaging, not frustrating. There are both facing- and trailing-point spurs, but there is a decently-long runaround and room to work. The fact that there will be cars to be picked-up and others to be set-out to the SP interchange tracks means it's more than a quick shuffle to switch this version of Hamilton City. But I would not overload the layout with cars in order to give the crews a fair chance. The runaround on the small layout will handle ten or twelve cars, which is about the length of the train that leaves the main layout for "Hamilton City" via staging.
The destinations and types of cars could change from session to session (one session, many inbound reefers for Ham City Growers, a couple of sessions later, no reefers, but empty boxcars for rice loading at Glenn County Coop). This would add a sense of seasonality and variety to the Ham City job.
A simple turn of waybills and a swap of engines and caboose would reset the Hamilton City mini-layout for the next crew, so it could operate more than one "trick" if desired.
[By the way, friend Bruce Morden saw the design and asked "What about the beets?". Hamilton City was the site of a large sugar beet factory in real life. But since that was actually located on the Southern Pacific, I decided to leave it with them. Besides, sugar mills are huge and it would have overwhelmed this small layout. I did think about putting a suggestion of the mill and dummy SP tracks in the area in the center of the layout where there are no ATSF tracks -- and that might be worth it to capture more of the flavor (so to speak) of the real Hamilton City.]
No one ever took up the challenge to build this layout, but I'm sure that it would work fine if it were ever done. The same basic design could also be "unfolded" into a shelf layout to fit a corner of a room. You might want to consider building such an ops- and staging-linked section for your own layout to add operating interest even if there's no room for a physical connection. Let me know if I can help you with a layout design for your main (or auxiliary!) layout.