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Switching Puzzles for Use at Public Events

By Peter Barnes, Joe Driscoll, Hope Kuniholm, & Peter Verheyen
Expanded version of article being published in the ETE Express, No. 107, 3rd Quarter, 2005.


In 2003, Peter Barnes and Joe Driscoll of the SF Bay Area Chapter built a simple switching puzzle to entertain and educate attendees at EuroWest, the annual ETE train show in the Bay Area, with the expectation that a portable unit might be a useful and enjoyable addition to ETE module displays at local train shows and other venues. The switching puzzle proved to be of interest and fascination to both children and young adults as well as extroverted adults unafraid of making a few initial mistakes.

Long interested in contributing to a modular layout [but not finding it feasible], Peter Verheyen found an image of the Barnes/Driscoll switching puzzle during his usual surfing expedition and was intrigued enough by the idea to show it to his wife Hope Kuniholm. Both are members of the newly formed (2003) Central New York Chapter and have enjoyed the experience of interacting with the public at regional train shows. Important to both is that all ages, especially children, can enjoy the hands-on experience of operating model trains on a fully scenic layout. Experience with Kuniholm’s z-scale diorama showed that with supervision even younger children could handle the models appropriately. With this switching puzzle we also wanted to present them with a challenge.

In researching ideas for their puzzle, Peter Verheyen read about John Allen’s “time saver” and found examples of other puzzles, both models and virtual online games. While many of these were very challenging and some amazingly well laid out and modeled, Verheyen kept coming back to the simplicity of the Barnes/Driscoll puzzle. A simple test showed that though simple it was in no way boring and perhaps the most appropriate for the wide range of audiences one encounters at train shows with all the other inviting distractions; it was an easy decision to adopt the Barnes/Driscoll track plan with minor modifications.

Peter Barnes at EuroWest


Both puzzles are built on hollow-core doors, providing a solid, rigid surface while keeping weight to a minimum, a concern when traveling. The size of both puzzles is 20 x 80 inches. the width allows fitting the puzzle in the back of a station wagon with split rear seat.

While Barnes/Driscoll used Märklin K-track, Verheyen/Kuniholm opted to use the C-track which is also used on their large H0 layout. Turnouts and uncouplers on both puzzles are wired to a central control panel which features a track diagram to make use more intuitive. Wiring revealed another advantage of the hollow-core doors, namely that by drilling a larger hole through the door, the excess wires from turnouts and uncouplers could be safely tucked in the hollow space. Only the wire to the control panel runs on the bottom of the door, held in place by staples and taped over to prevent them from snagging. Small rubber feet were screwed to the bottom elevating the layout enough to keep the wires off the table. 20-gauge speaker wire made handling easy and reduced the number of individual wires to fix in place. Three simple door-pulls were attached to the layout on each long side with one along each narrow side. Non-swiveling casters are attached to the other narrow side allowing the puzzle to be pulled by one person. While not useful on rough surfaces it will be a boon on the smooth concrete floors in the show halls. A scenic background was mounted to ½" foam insulation panels and can be attached to the layout with velcro. Construction information and updates can be found by clicking on the "switching puzzle"link.

Overall view of the Barnes/Driscoll puzzle

Overall view of the Verheyen/Kuniholm puzzle

Both puzzles depict a rural European village/station with a passing track and a branch line or siding. Uncouplers are located on the central mainline, the passing track, and the siding. The track, switches, and uncouplers are powered by an analog power pack with an adjacent control panel for the switches and uncouplers. While the town and scenery are not needed for the switching puzzle, they add atmosphere and ambiance giving viewers, especially children things to look for. It’s also a chance to show off modeling skills.

View of Barnes/Driscoll's puzzle from above

Rolling stock was selected for robustness. Barnes/Driscoll use a BR 81 tank lok (Märklin with Delta, partly because electronic reversing is smoother for beginners). Rolling stock are short (<14 cm) older Märklin tin plate passenger baggage and passenger wagons. These seem to be rugged enough for novice and enthusiastic young operators, have reliable couplers and are short enough to include several cars in puzzles in the limited track space available. Passenger cars were selected because they fit in with station concept and with the operations first considered.

View of a Barnes/Driscoll's train

Verheyen/Kuniholm opted primarily for freight cars because of the variety of designs offered made it easier for "contestants" to identify the individual cars. They were also a bit more daring (and hoping for the best) in selecting more detailed cars and engines. The favored engine is a Köf which has the advantage that even in analog operation, the speed and acceleration can be controlled (This may change, however). All couplers are Relex making for more reliable coupling.

The Game:

The goal for both puzzles is to develop shunting tasks that a) require different skill levels to solve, and b) that can be solved by operating the trains, uncouplers and switches on the layout. “Contestants” are presented with three challenges:

  • 1 – Can you solve the puzzle?
  • 2 – Can you operate the layout to solve the puzzle?
  • 3 – How fast can you solve the puzzle without errors (minimum number of moves, minimum operator errors)?

Beginners are urged to start by running the train up and down the tracks, operating the switches and uncouplers to become familiar with controls, before attempting the puzzle.

Barnes/Driscoll present their game in the form of a Power Point presentation which introduces the puzzle and presents the various scenarios, beginning with the most basic. The PowerPoint presentation can be downloaded via the site mentioned at the end of the article which also features more details about both puzzles.

  • Level 1 – Move the lok to the other end of the train so the engineer has better visibility.
  • Level 2 – Move the bolt lok and the baggage van to the other end of the train (with the van located between the lok and cars) to keep smoke and out of the passenger cars.
  • Level 3 – Level 2 plus add a passenger wagen (soccer fans) to the end of the train.
  • Level 4 – Move the locomotive and baggage car to the other end of the train and add a 3rd passenger car (rail fans!) behind the baggage car and a 4th passenger car (soccer fans) at the end.
  • Level 5 – Reverse the position of all the cars on the train and add 2 additional cars at the end (soccer fans and rail fans?)

    View of a train on the Verheyen/Kuniholm puzzle

Kuniholm/Verheyen selected a more low-tech approach, in part necessitated by a lack of portable hardware. Images of the various cars are printed out and mounted on thin cardboard. These cards are then shuffled and a random consist is drawn. The length of the train can be adjusted easily by randomly drawing more or less cards. The position of the engine alternates with each game. The destination track can also alternate or be determined randomly. Experimentation showed that this was the easiest way to determine engine position. The puzzle will have seen its first public use by the printing of this article, with experiences during a recent Central New York Chapter meeting making us hopeful of success. Even with a permanent layout with large shunting yard, the compact, intimate, scale of the puzzle can provide hours of challenges, or just a quick shunt

Example of Verheyen/Kuniholm's cards

The shunting operations on both puzzles are limited by the length of the sidings, the length of the "main" line at either end and the locations of the uncouplers which especially become a issue for the more advanced levels. We are certain there are other challenging puzzles possible, and especially hope for suggestions and comments from amongst the Express readership. An example might include pushing uncoupled cars beyond the uncoupler.

Overall view of Verheyen/Kuniholm's puzzle. The cards in the foreground on the puzzle indicate the composition of the next train. The engine now at the right will lead from the left.
Construction and detailed images of the Verheyen/Kuniholm can be found here.

The Puzzle in Use – Conclusions:

The Verheyen/Kuniholm puzzle was introduced to the public at the Finger Lakes Railfair in Ithaca, NY the weekend of April 23-24, where it was very well received by the public. Though a curiosity because of its "Euro" theme, the public enjoyed the different stock, details, combination of card and plastic models, and scenery. The "cards" featuring images of the various cars worked very well, especially with the younger children. These were asked to draw 3-4 cards and lay them out in whatever order they wanted. Verheyen then "drove" the train, asking the children which car was next, and how they might get it into the proper position. Slightly older children were provided with the opportunity to set the switches and operate the uncouplers in addition to selecting the cars, and helping solve the puzzle. The more responsible ones and adults were allowed to try to solve the puzzle without mediation after receiving some basic training in operation. All were challenged equally by the analog Märklin reversing system, but quickly picked it up. Though far more detailed than might be prudent, the puzzle and rolling stock withstood the stresses of travel and public use exceedingly well with no damage reported. An interesting aside, though not represented in the pictures below, girls dealt best with the challenges of the puzzle and its combination of logic and operation. They also happened to be the most responsible drivers, something supported by automobile accident statistics. Perhaps a large part of the future of this hobby lies with these girls. We certainly enjoyed the experience and look forward to more.

The puzzle in use at the Finger Lakes Railfair in Ithaca, NY, April, 2005

The puzzle at EuroEast in Marietta, PA, August, 2005

Three Other Puzzles:

Two puzzles by Ralf Sydekum for a MUCIS "Stammtisch." At left a simple puzzle in which the two trains "pass each other using only the stub siding. An online version of this puzzle exists here.

At right, John Allen's "Time Saver" adapted to Märklin C-track Download the track diagram and instructions.

Two puzzles by Martin Brandt for the MegaMIST 2003. The challenge in the foreground puzzle is to have both freight cars swap position; they don't fit through the "tunnel" (the arch in the rear) while the lok does. A minimum, of 12 moves is required so that the locomotive is back at its current position.

The challenge in the background is to have just the locomotive and caboose of a train change place while the order of the other three cars remains the same. The siding holds only three vehicles at a time. (A minimum of 8 moves is required to complete)

A selection of links to other switching puzzles (models and virtual):

In German but pretty self-explanatory...

  1. Switching Puzzle - Get the green engine to the yellow buffers. Kind of hokey, and you can't turn your engines, but the potential for fun is there
  2. Tetris - make a continuous track set
  3. There are also some other puzzles on the site at
  4. An interactive Brio-based switching puzzle. The first two picture show the start and end. Click on the correct pictures to get to the next steps and complete the puzzle.
  5. A switching puzzle / diorama - A bit more involved then ours will be...
    <> and <>
  6. A much simpler one by the Modelleisenbahnclub Dülmen <>

In English

About the Authors:

Peter Verheyen was introduced to the hobby as a child, rediscovering it following the birth of Hope's and his daughter. Clinging to H0 (AC) analog operation his layouts have grown in size and complexity with lots of room for shunting. Interests include DB/DR era 3-4 (mostly) operation, scenery, card modeling, and scratch building. Always wanting trains of her own, Hope Kuniholm encouraged husband Peter Verheyen to rediscover the hobby and jumped in when she received a mini-club starter set. She currently has two layouts, including one integrated into their H0 layout. The switching puzzle grew out of their joint interest in outreach, especially to younger rail fans, and education and creative problem solving (Hope is a pre-K teacher). Both are active members of the Central New York Chapter of ETE, with Peter maintaining the website and listserv. He also recently taught a hands-on workshop on making realistic trees. They can be reached at <>.


Peter Barnes received his first European trains (Märklin) from an appreciative Dutch gentleman his family helped immigrate to the US in the late 1950s. The hobby languished for 20+ years during college, grad school and family, then was rescued from almost oblivion in the early 1980s. Subsequently, focus has been on rigorous expansion of his collection, the therapy of playing with trains, and layout building, as well as an "impulse shopper" approach to collection and layout construction. He has almost moved to complete digital operations and is active in SF Bay Area ETE Module venues, ETE chapter programs, and EuroWest activities. He would like to see more educational and "involvement" activities in ETE meetings and a bit less socializing. He can be reached at <>.


Joe recalls wonderful memories of his youth playing with his brother's Lionel train sets in the early 1960s. In 1994 during the Christmas season, he decided to rekindle those memories with a layout around the tree. He researched the brands of model trains and decided on the Märklin HO digital system. His hobby took seed and began to grow. His first layout was a Märklin M track 4' x 8' of a German switching yard, farms and lumber industry. Soon after he met his neighbor Peter Barnes and caught his enthusiasm for European trains. Currently, Joe has taken over half of the garage with a 16' x 6' multi-tiered Märklin digital C track layout. On most of the California summer weekends you will find the garage car door open and the neighborhood kids enjoying the trains.

He is a current member of the Bay Area ETE and the NMRA. In November 2004, he toured the Märklin factory. As soon as he arrived home he began planning a larger layout modeling 1945-1970 European operations. He is requesting help from his fellow ETE members for information written in English on the various methods of generating, moving and controlling traffic, along with any prototype track diagrams for European industries. He can be reached at <>.

Peter's & Hope' s Märklin Trains © 1998 -
Peter D. Verheyen
Last Modified: Tuesday, 04-Mar-2014 17:59:24 EST
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