We’ll always have Perris

Perris CA depot - track side

In September, I was fortunate to attend an NMRA regional convention in Ontario, California. After the convention, I had a couple of days to do some sightseeing – and since it was close by, my friend Michael Gross and I visited the restored ATSF train station at Perris, California.

This is a special place for me – and for other students of layout design. That’s because Perris was the signature scene on the ATSF San Jacinto District – a ground-breaking layout plan by the late Andy Sperandeo, published in the February 1980 issue of Model Railroader.

Byron Henderson has written about this design on his blog as part of his Inspirational Layouts series. Click on the layout plan, below, to read what Byron has to say about the San J:

And I’ve contributed my own thoughts on this plan in a post on this blog about how it would work in 1:64. Click on the image below to read more:

We visited the depot on a Sunday afternoon – unfortunately, the museum inside had closed its doors about five minutes before we arrived. That’s okay – it was a busy day, filled with other activities, and it was enough to see the depot in person and take a few photos before moving onto our next stop.

Perris CA depot - back

Why is this layout so important to me, and to others like Byron? There are many reasons:

– Typical designs of the era tended to be packed with track for running and switching. This layout is open and relaxed – there’s a more realistic track to scenery ratio.

– It’s also a point to point plan with an easily accessible staging area: It was meant to be left open, or perhaps hidden behind hinged panels, and was intended as an active staging yard where the layout builder could fiddle cars on and off the layout between operating sessions. Devoting an entire wall to easily accessible staging (instead of a yard hidden under the visible deck) was a radical concept in the 1980s. Making it an active fiddle yard even more so – at least in North America.

– The layout was designed with a strong theme and purpose. Many layouts of the era – especially smaller layouts like this 9×12 foot design – seemed to have operations grafted on after the fact. But the San J had a clear concept. Andy even introduced the idea of using the changing seasons to add variety to the operating sessions, by describing how the harvest season would change the operations on the layout.

The layout was definitely ahead of its time – and, in fact, still stands up to today’s thinking on layout design. All it needs is, perhaps, larger curves and turnouts (and a little more room as a result) but the basic concept and the track plan remains an excellent choice for a model railway.

While it had nothing to do with the layout design, the article itself also included a terrific 3D sketch of the layout in full colour – it looked like it was done with coloured pencils – to inspire the modeller. Here’s a suggestion of the sketch – note the Perris depot in the upper left corner:

It’s great to see that the Perris depot – an important piece of inspiration for thoughtful layout designers – has been saved and is in good condition. While our stop was brief, it was one of the highlights of my trip. (Thanks for the detour, Michael!)

Perris CA depot - postcard view

More progress in Scarborough

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(Me and Mark hard at work. Not our best sides!)

On Sunday, Mark Zagrodney and I enjoyed a day-long work session on the CP Rail Scarborough Industrial Track that Regan Johnson is building around the walls of his home office.

I’ve written previously about Regan’s layout, but the recap is that he’s building an HO scale layout that I designed for him a couple of years ago. You can read more about it by clicking on the layout plan, below:

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As I noted in the linked post, I built two in-street turnouts – serving the spurs along the left side of the plan. These are not, strictly speaking, prototypical for the spur line that’s inspired Regan. But I thought the street-running and in-street switching would add significant visual and operational interest, and Regan agreed.

Since they were my idea, I felt it unsportsmanlike to force Regan to tackle the in-street turnouts. Plus, I was curious whether I could build them. So I did – well over a year ago.

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(Click on the image to read about the turnouts)

My goal at Sunday’s work session was to finally install these two turnouts and hook them up to mechanical switch machines. Regan, Mark and I worked together on this and by the end of the day, we had two turnouts ready for the paving crews:

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(The results of a few pleasant hours of spiking and soldering. The black lines denote the edges of the road)

Regan has been very patient, waiting for this work session to take place. But he hasn’t been idle. Almost all of the rest of the track has been installed. In fact, we managed to lay the main through the street in both directions, and link it up to the team track area at the bottom of the plan. There’s only about three feet of track to spike in the upper left corner, and the mainline will be finished.

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(The roadway is 4.5″ wide – or approximately 33 feet in HO scale. That’s enough for a lane of traffic on either side of the track. A couple of truck trailers and a covered hopper demonstrate the clearances and hint at the visual for this area of the layout.)

I’m looking forward to operating sessions on this layout. The street section will be particularly fun, with the switch crew having to tread carefully down the middle of the street, bell ringing and crew ever-watchful for cars and trucks driving too closely to the centreline…

Presentation (McCook’s Landing)

Over on my Port Rowan blog, a recent post – “Roweham 2017” – generated a lot of discussion about how we present our layouts to others. Roweham is a well executed exhibition layout built by my friend Brian Dickey to 7mm scale (British O scale / 1:43). It provides many valuable lessons about presentation that can be applied whether one is taking a layout on the exhibition circuit, or planning a home layout. I encourage you to read through the comments on that post if you have not.

My friend Gerard Fitzgerald sure did. Gerard has given this subject a lot of thought as well, and shared his thoughts with me. I present them here. (Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Gerard!)

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On the question of “professional presentation” I include some photos of McCook’s Landing, the Civil War roadshow layout that Bernie Kempinski and I – plus a few other folks including Paul Dolkos – built to take to some shows a few years back. A great deal of planning went into this freelanced layout, which allowed us to introduce O scale Civil War model railroading to people at a national and regional NMRA convention.

These photos were taken when the layout was set up in my living room a few years back for an NMRA home open house. The layout was designed to be as photogenic and presentable as possible. Bernie’s mom made the curtains and also probably the red white and blue bunting.

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Much time was spent on designing a layout that was similar to a British exhibition layout but which captured a very rare American prototype. O scale Civil War is probably even a bit smaller than the equipment used at Roweham and so operations were pretty interesting.

The layout had a small fiddle yard behind the schedule/chalkboard.

We received a great deal of positive attention when the layout was displayed and it was a very big attraction at the Atlanta NMRA National (when people could find the display room).

Putting as much effort into the design and construction of a shadowbox/display layout to make it attractive and presentable – to visitors, other modelers, and potential operators – is extremely important. Why people do not always put that much work and planning into small layouts always sort of baffles me.

One of the Model Railroader editors later said this design gave them some ideas for one of their later project layouts. For some reason I recall that at both my home open house, and the MER convention, a number of non-hobbyists wound up stopping by and were really intrigued and excited by the layout and that was quite gratifying. I must admit the layout was very impressive in person. We sweated the “window” approach with the vertical supports, which made the individual units stronger and lighter. However in operating and observing from the front you just sort of forgot about them. Bernie and I debated that approach for a while and we were surprised the supports seemed invisible after a while.

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In the USA, for whatever reason some people seem to associate “presentation” more with home crew lounges than small layouts. Not always but one can go to train shows and see some portable and modular layouts that are, for lack of a better description, unfinished. Public shows are about advertising the hobby to some extent, not to mention putting your best foot forward as a layout builder, but the small British display layout approach just hasn’t taken root in the states. Maybe someday … but I doubt it.

Sadly Bernie tore his sections down and the only section left is my Biscuit Run bridge unit, which I have downstairs along with the other benchwork components. And yes, the legs were attached and folded down and there was lighting.

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I need to finally write something up about McCook’s Landing and send it to Model Railroader, which I promised a while back.

You can see lots of photos and there is more information at Bernie’s blog too:

United States Military Railroads…
Home Page
McCook’s Landing category

– Gerard

Gerard J. Fitzgerald
Charlottesville, Virginia

In-street turnouts for Regan

 photo CP-SID-PeterNewman-1975_zpsslbadhln.jpg
(I recently designed a layout for a friend based on CP Rail’s industrial trackage in Scarborough, Ontario. Click on the image to read more about this design)

Nothing says big city industrial railroading like trackage in the street. So recently, when I designed an achievable layout for my friend Regan Johnson based on CP Rail’s industrial trackage in Scarborough, Ontario, I added a bit of street running, including a pair of in-street turnouts.

The prototype did not have any street running, as far as I can tell – but it could have. More importantly, the stretch of in-street trackage will be a highlight on the layout – visually and operationally – so it was an idea too good to pass up.

That said, it also meant Regan would need in-street turnouts. And since I’d never built any, I thought I’d like to give it a go. So I did:

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(The finished turnouts, ready for Regan’s layout)

The turnouts are both Number 6, in Code 70. They have a single point, and I used Code 70 to create full-length guard rails throughout the turnouts. These guards will allow us to pave the street without getting plaster (or spackling, or whatever we use) into the flange ways.

I started with a Fast Tracks turnout building fixture and other tools, and built as much of a normal turnout as I could using this gear. This amounted to both stock rails, the closure rails, the frog, and one point:

 photo InStreetTurnouts-FastTracks_zps4slorzzi.jpg
(Out of the Fast Tracks fixture, and ready for customization)

From there, it was simply a matter of cutting lengths of rail to use as guards and fitting them in place by measuring off the running rails. An NMRA track gauge worked fine for spacing the guards while soldering them in place.

The throw bars required special attention. I soldered the single point to the throw bar, then used spare PC ties to trap the throw bar under the opposite rail so that it could not waggle back and forth. Finally, I built up some dams out of styrene to keep the paving out of the throw bar – and used a length of photo etched Farr grille for an EMD F-unit to represent an in-street grate over the throw bar. This is removable so Regan can install and service the turnout, as needed.

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(Closeup of the throw bar area. The single point is the middle rail on the left side)

This was a fun project that required a lot of problem solving on my part, and each turnout required three to four hours of pleasant time at the workbench. Anybody who can build a standard turnout using Fast Tracks tools can do one of these as well. They’ll help set the scene on Regan’s layout, so I’m glad I included them in the design.

Roweham by Brian Dickey

 photo Roweham-08_zps8gvfrnyh.jpg

Yesterday, my friend Brian Dickey displayed his British 7mm scale exhibition layout, Roweham, at an area train show – and he asked Pierre Oliver and me if we would like to help him out.

We both jumped at the chance – and we’re really glad we did.

 photo Roweham-12_zpsvsaicrdi.jpg
(Brian (L) discusses his layout with a show visitor while the Auto Train arrives at Roweham)

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(Pierre uncouples a wagon carrying materials to build a cattle pen at the far end of Roweham. Almost the entire layout is visible in this view. Like many classic British exhibition layouts, Roweham is designed to be operated from the back. The sturdy backdrop provides solid support when coupling, and protects the structures and scenery from errant elbows)

This was my first opportunity to operate on a 7mm British layout, although I have seen many in print and a few at shows. Brian has done a spectacular job, as I hope the point-and-shoot photos I’m sharing here convey. And he’s done all of this in just two years.

As the description below notes, the layout is 16 feet long by 19 inches deep. It’s built in four-foot sections. Brian designed the layout so that everything required for exhibition fits into his Prius v:

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The first – rightmost – section contains has a three-track sector plate / fiddle yard. This is hidden from view by a nicely finished panel:

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(Brian at work behind Roweham. Note the level of finish on all aspects of this in-progress layout. The layout sections stand on short legs that fold into each section for transport and storage. These in turn stand on a set of venue-supplied “banquet tables” to bring the layout up to a reasonable viewing and operating height)

The remaining three sections create a small branchline terminal on God’s Wonderful Railway (otherwise known as the Great Western Railway). There are only four switches, plus a cosmetic derail. The entire layout, left to right, can be seen in the following views:

 photo Roweham-05_zpscevyrmeb.jpg
(End of the line and site of the future stock pen. A railway water tank will be added to the right of the stock pen in this view)

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(The Roweham depot with high-level platform. The not yet built railway water tank will be at the lower left in this view)

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(The main is in the foreground, with the turnout leading to the run-around loop at the front of the layout. A spur – we’d call it a “team track” in North America – comes off the main at left and serves multiple customers, providing several car spots and plenty of juggling of wagons into proper spot order. A loading gauge to the left of the goods shed acts like a height-checker on underground parking garages: It ensures that wagons loaded by the crane can still fit through tunnels and bridges on the line)

 photo Roweham-02_zpsldxdwsyg.jpg
(The mainline disappears under a stone road bridge, as it so often does. In the back, a wagon is spotted at the coal dealer at the end of the team track)

Brian was inspired by two sources – an article on a layout with a similar design, in 00 scale, and a book on the Abbotsbury Branch of the GWR:

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Despite its simplicity, Roweham kept Pierre and I entertained for several hours, and as a bonus I came away with several thoughts about layout design. In no particular order, they are:

Three-link chain couplings are fun in 7mm:
 photo Roweham-14_zpsvhprz2ix.jpg

I’d never used them, but they were surprisingly easy to master. Brian has made up coupling/uncoupling tools similar to my Galvanick Lucipher, with a fine brass hook instead of a magnet at the business end of the tool.

Further thoughts:

– There are never any false couplings – e.g.: uncoupling then moving the train in the wrong direction and recoupling.

– There are never any false couplings – e.g.: thinking you’ve mated couplers, but when you pull away, the couplers separate. This isn’t usually a problem with Kadees but it’s definitely an issue with Sergents.

– Delayed uncoupling to shove a wagon into a spot is a snap. It’s the default condition.

– All places where one must couple or uncouple must be easy to see and to reach. Carefully consider structure and tree placement and how they would affect this. Brian’s layout is at an ideal height for working with three-link chains, while the 19″ depth meant we were always able to look down on the job – not try to do it from the side.

– You can neither couple nor uncouple while laughing. So cut that out.

The locomotives are beautiful. We operated with a GWR pannier tank engine from Lionheart Trains on the goods train, and a lovely 0-4-2T from Masterpiece Models, hauling a Loinheart Autotrailer. Both locomotives were factory-fitted with DCC and sound. The 0-4-2T’s decoder even provided appropriate Autotrailer sounds, including guard’s whistle, carriage doors slamming shut, and the warning gong.

 photo Roweham-01_zpssobghc7w.jpg

The control over the locomotives was astonishing. Never mind the lack of need to thump the table: When Pierre and I were shunting wagons, we could ask the engine driver to give us slack in the chain – and the engine driver could back up so slowly and precisely that one could provide slack without hitting the buffers on the wagon. Basically, one could creep back half a link at a time.

7mm British modelling is an ideal size for an exhibition layout. The models are big enough that they have real presence at a show. At the same time, they’re small enough that a nice exhibition layout can be built without requiring a gymnasium to set it up. With the exception of the Autotrailer, which was quite long, all the equipment on the layout compared in length to what one would find on an HO layout that ran 50-foot freight cars.

Presentation is important. While those in the UK may be used to layouts that exhibit some thoughtful and professional presentation, I find this is rare in North America. Brian has done a wonderful job of finishing the layout. The benchwork is nicely painted. There’s a drape to hide the legs (and the DCC system, and a camera or two, and lunch, and…) – plus another drape to hide the venue’s banquet tables. There are some nice signs to tell punters what they’re looking at, and so on.

Operating from the rear of the layout was a new experience. I know there’s a debate in UK circles about operating from the back vs the front. The argument goes something like this:

– Back: Exhibition layouts are like a theatre stage, with the trains as the actors. The people who bring the theatre to life – the director, the stage manager, etc. – are backstage, in the wings, so they don’t take away from the performance.

– Front: Exhibition layouts are like a TV talk show shot in front of a live audience. The trains are the guests, the layout is the stage – and the presenter is out front, where she/he can engage with the audience.

– Back: I don’t agree with you.

– Front: I don’t agree with you.

– Back and Front: Let’s grab a pint.

That said, I enjoyed working from behind the scenes – although I also made a point of talking over the backdrop with the punters. The narrowness of this layout – just 19 inches – definitely helped in that regard.

From a practical perspective, the sturdy backdrop was important, given that we had to reach into the layout frequently to couple and uncouple. It protected structures and trees from our elbows and gave us a place to steady our arms so we could hook a link.

I need to learn more about British railways, particularly operating practices that one can adapt to a model. For example:

– What sort of paperwork is used to move wagons? Did the GWR have waybills, and what did they look like?

– When and how was the locomotive whistle used? (UK locomotives, in general, do not have bells.) If I recall, a “long-short” is used when emerging from tunnels, under bridges, or other sight-limited situations. But the 0-4-2T had two whistles – a high-pitched one (with long and short function buttons) plus a lower pitched “warning whistle” (with long and short function buttons). When would I use each of these?

– When was the Autotrailer’s “Warning Gong” used?

– What language was used between engine driver and the guy on the ground (what we’d call a brakeman here) to communicate shunting moves? Is he a brakeman in the UK?

I’d love to find out more about GWR operating practices to help bring Brian’s layout to life at shows.

I would love to see more quality layouts like this at exhibitions, as opposed to layouts that emphasize quantity. A huge, poorly-conceived and poorly-executed layout leaves me cold, but smaller, well-done layouts like this are a delight – regardless of theme, scale, or prototype.

Thanks, Brian and Pierre, for a terrific day out in GWR country: I look forward to future opportunities to run trains to Roweham!

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CP Rail: Scarborough Industrial Spur

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(Peter Newman shot this photo of a CP crew working the Scarborough Industrial Spur in 1975. This is an ideal prototype for an achievable layout. Click on the image to see a larger version, with Peter’s story, on the Railpictures.ca photo site.)

My friend Regan Johnson recently asked me for ideas for an HO scale layout to fit around the walls of his home office. He wanted something based – or at least inspired by – a prototype. He wanted space for lots of structures. And he wanted it to fit existing benchwork for a layout that he has now outgrown.

About the same time, the Toronto Railway Historical Association published a track map and customer list on its Facebook page for CP Rail’s Scarborough Industrial Spur. These can also be found on the Old Time Trains website, so I’ve reproduced them here, along with a Google Earth view overlaid with the track maps from the Southern Ontario Railway Map project:

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(CP Rail in Red, CNR in Green)

This short (3.4 mile) spur in Scarborough – now the east end of the amalgamated Toronto – served a number of small industries, a couple of larger customers and a small team track facility.

I shared the track map with Regan and he thought it would make a suitable prototype. We exchanged several emails and as a result, I developed a plan to give us a starting point for a discussion over dinner. Turns out he liked the plan, so we’ve moved directly to plans to build this in his home office.

 photo CP-SID-Plan-01-Labelled_zpsv3dwuq0e.jpeg

Given how modest the space is, the layout plan is “inspired by” the Scarborough Industrial Track, rather than a faithful reproduction of it. The idea was to capture some of the typical operations of a suburban switching spur, along the lines of those advocated by Lance Mindheim, but with a southern Ontario aesthetic.

In the plan above, the structures are pencilled in as the final positions would depend on the kits or plans Regan wants to build. And since he requested it, I swapped out IBM for a brewery.

Regan wanted the option of continuous run so he could have a train circle the home office as he worked, so I’ve accommodated that by including a lift-out section to bridge the entryway. At other times – including during formal operating sessions – this would be removed and the track along the right wall would become a spur serving Warden Lumber. An extension could be fitted, as shown, to provide more room for spotting cars.

In normal operations, a train would start staged on the main at lower right. It would enter the scene and then use the main and storage track to sort its cars. Rather than switch everything at once, it would work in zones – perhaps working the lumber yard, then the brewery, and then returning any lifts to the storage track to exchange for cars destined for the warehouses at 351, 353 and 361. Finally, cars for the facing point spurs – the scrap dealer (344) and team yard (356, 358) – would be handled in a third trip along the spur.

With the benchwork already in place, construction should start early in the new year with a turnout-building party, using a Fast Tracks Code 70 #6 fixture. The turnout to 344 is in the street, and will be fun to build. We’ll likely start with most of a turnout built in the Fast Tracks fixture then add longer guard rails to represent trackage in the pavement, finishing off with a single point switch.

Even in a modest space that’s used for other purposes in addition to the layout, it’s possible to develop a plan that’s at least inspired by a prototype and without overcrowding, that will offer a couple of hours of entertaining switching. I look forward to operating sessions on this layout!

45 Original Track Plans

I don’t often publish reviews but I’m making an exception here.

In track planning books, it’s rare that the plans can be built as presented, because it’s highly unlikely that the reader’s space for a model railway will correspond exactly to the spaces used by the plans the layout designer presents. So, these books should really be judged on their value as inspiration for a modeler to design a layout for their own space.

At the same time, the plans presented should be grounded in reality – they should have realistic curve radii and turnout sizes for the scale and types of equipment to be run, adequate space for structures and scenes, excellent access to all track, aisles that are wide enough to make building and operating the layout comfortable, and so on.

From any measure, Bernard Kempinski has hit the target with his latest book, 45 Original Track Plans from Kalmbach:

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(Click on the image to visit the Kalmbach store online)

These 45 plans – never before published – present many great ideas, from small shelf layouts to empires that will fill a large basement or special purpose building. There are also some plans designed to take advantage of popular modular standards, or to be exhibited as self-contained layouts. Truly, there’s something for everyone between the covers.

And for the purpose of this blog, several of the plans would build into what I would call “achievable layouts” – layouts that can be built and operated by one person, with a modest annual investment in time and financial resources, while still providing a lifetime of construction and operating enjoyment. In particular, I encourage people to look at the following layouts (plan number in brackets):

– Canton Railroad (1)
– American Can (2)
– Bear Island Paper Mill (4)
– Menial-La-Tour (11)
– Fort Miles (13)
– Victoria Crater (15)
– West Bottoms (17)
– SNE Air Line (19)
– Ballard Terminal Railroad (25)
– Sunon Motors (26)

The above represent my favourites in the book, because I think they’re all highly achievable layouts. Some are simple shelf switchers, while others fill a modest room.

Some of my favourites would be even better than they already are if they’re built as-is, but in one scale down. For example, the O scale West Bottoms layout (plan 17) is a 10×20-foot U-shaped layout that features 48″ radius curves and #5 turnouts. If one were to do it in S scale (or even HO) on the same benchwork, those 48″ radius curves would look spectacular and the builder could bump up the turnout sizes to a more prototypical #7. At the same time, the structures would be that much more impressive (and could even be slightly smaller, to provide more open space between each). Car capacity would increase, without the need for additional trackage. And so on.

Each plan is accompanied by a photo or two of the prototype (or prototype inspiration) and a description – about a page worth – that provides some background and highlights the key features of the plan. The plans are nicely rendered and the text is very readable – and provides just enough information to start the reader on a Google-powered adventure to find out more about the plans that most inspire him or her.

I particularly like Bernie’s introduction – and recommend that every buyer read it. In about a page, Bernie details his criteria for drawing plans, and they’re good concepts for anyone to adopt when designing their own model railway. Those who do will find their layout gives them maximum pleasure and minimum frustration.

I also appreciate that Bernie has presented a set of plans that cover a wide spectrum of interests.

– As one would expect, there are many examples of traditional steam/diesel transition era railroading, as well as modern railroading. But there are a number of plans based around less-modelled eras, dating back almost to the beginning of railroading.

– What’s more, while most of the plans are of North American themes, there are plans based on prototypes in the UK, Iran, France, Peru – and even on Mars. (This last, while futuristic, is not fanciful: as Bernie notes, it’s based on the ideas presented by Robert Zubrin in the book, The Case For Mars. And Bernie’s timing could not be better, with the book’s publication taking place just ahead of Hollywood’s release of The Martian).

– And finally, Bernie has explored a range of scales – including N, HO, S and O, in standard and narrow gauge formats.

There are many track plan collections that feature layouts that would frustrate anyone who attempts to build them, or result in an unrealistic layout that’s not very far from “toy train under the tree” status. Some designers are notorious for this. Readers of this book will not have that problem. All designs have been created with construction in mind.

If I have any criticism, it’s of the phrase “track plans” in the title. These are “layout designs” – because they consider everything from the placement of structures and key scenic elements, to the availability of the key locomotives and rolling stock required to bring the finished layout to life.

Highly recommended!

Zurich: A ghost town you can model

My recent post about the Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge prompted to me to revisit my many books on the three-foot gauge Keeler Branch – and the result is this closer look at what could be done with this prototype in a modest space.

While the SP Narrow Gauge is a small prototype, the two terminals – Laws and Keeler – would require a fair bit of length to model properly. The mid-point connection with the standard gauge Southern Pacific at Owenyo would also be a space-eater. None of them is very complex, however, and I may draw them up … some time.

But let’s start with a more modest undertaking: Zurich, California:
Zurich-1954 photo ZurichCA-1954-BillPoole_zpsa4a85c0a.jpg

That’s Zurich in the early 1950s as captured by Bill Poole and found on the Carson and Colorado Railway blog. Click on the image to visit the blog, and consider donating to help the railway restore SP #18 – a 4-6-0 that ran on the Keeler Branch.

As the image suggests, Zurich was a pretty small town in a dramatic setting. Today, Zurich is a bona fide Ghost Town. Desiccated timber, crumbling concrete and a plaque marking the former location of the station are all that remain:
Zurich-Marker photo Zurich-Marker_zps80b603d8.jpg
(Click on the image to read more about the Keeler Branch on the Abandoned Rails website)

But in happier days – the kind we like to model – Zurich generated a respectable amount of traffic for the SP Narrow Gauge. In Southern Pacific’s Slim Princess in the Sunset, author Joe Dale Morris notes Zurich had a 20′ x 46′ depot, plus the following customers:

Blue Star Grinding shipped Talc, Marble, Clay and other products from its plant. Many of these were in bags, shipped in boxcars.
A loading ramp south of the depot was used to load gondolas with talc and soda ash.
The Standard Oil Company had a facility to receive petroleum for the area in tank cars.
The stock pens shipped cattle and sheep in stock cars.

That’s a great variety of car types for such a small place. Here’s how they look when laid out on a layout that’s fairly faithful to the prototype:

SPNG-Zurich CA-On3 or On30 photo SPNG-Zurich-On3_zpsc28d38d9.jpeg
(Click on the image to view a larger version)

In this plan – designed for the O scale enthusiast (in “n3” or “n30”) – Laws is to the right, while heading left takes one to the transfer yard at Owenyo and beyond that to Keeler. I describe it as “fairly faithful” because the oil dealer spur should actually connect to the mainline between the two double-ended sidings. The way I drew it saves a considerable amount of length without compromising the operation.

Zurich would make for a manageable, but interesting, narrow gauge layout. The modelled portion takes up 17 feet (plus staging to either end, which could be accomplished with a sector plate), which is pretty good for O scale, even O scale narrow gauge. (This same plan could be used for Sn3 in 12′-9″. However, I’d be tempted to keep the layout at 17 feet and add more distance between the structures for an appropriately relaxed presentation.)

I’ve designed Zurich to fit a 24″ deep space, perhaps on top of storage shelves. But if one had more depth then I’d suggest adding 6″ to the back. One could also make the layout 36″ deep, adding 8″ to the back and 4″ to the front. With this kind of depth available, I’d also be tempted to run the main at a slight angle to the front edge for additional visual interest.

And switching Zurich would be interesting too. It’s not a puzzle layout but there’s still plenty to do and not much track in which to do it. Stock cars would have to be moved when switching Blue Star, and in reading about the Keeler Branch I believe that the Laws-bound train would switch the trailing point spurs and leave any pick-ups on one of the double-ended sidings to collect on the return trip to Owenyo.

The wide open spaces and flat terrain around Zurich suggest an high-level layout – perhaps up to the breastbone – while the incredible mountains in the background demand a backdrop with curved corners.

This would be a great layout for the hobbyist who loves to build things. The SP Narrow Gauge is very well documented and the wooden rolling stock and structures lend themselves to scratch-building. What’s more, a high layout with strong lighting would be a great place to display one’s craftsmanship. Finding prototype steam power in On3 will require hunting for a brass 10-wheeler, but Rich Yoder Models has imported the GE 50-Ton diesel “Little Giant” in On3 and On30 – and as reader Bill Uffelman notes, Bachmann’s On30 “Tweetsie” 4-6-0 would work as a good stand-in with some redetailing and the addition of a Whaleback tender from Wiseman Model Services. Backwoods Miniatures also offers a Whaleback tender kit as part of their On30 line.

In Sn3, PBL and Railmaster have done the 10-wheelers (in RTR brass and in kit form, respectively).

Looking for more information? I highly – highly – recommend Joe’s book. It’s out of print, but click on the cover to launch an AbeBooks search:
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The Desert Princess

The Southern Pacific’s Keeler Branch in California was an other-worldly place.

It was a place where whaleback tender-equipped 10-wheelers hauled classic narrow gauge boxcars, gondolas, flat cars, stock cars, tank cars, specialized hoppers and water cars, plus unique cabooses. Trains ran past weather-worn structures and through spectacular scenery that ranged from fertile to desert, framed by the incredible Sierra Nevada, Inyo and White Mountain ranges, to serve small towns and large resource industries.

And, it’s a great subject for an achievable layout – in narrow or even standard gauge.

It’s a narrow gauge modeler’s delight and a scratch-builder’s dream – especially for someone looking for an alternative to the Colorado three-foot lines. What’s more, the SPNG is incredibly well-documented. There are a lot of top-notch books on the line, including Southern Pacific’s Slim Princess in the Sunset 1940-1960 by Joe Dale Morris and Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge Locomotives and Freight Equipment by Robert A. Bader – both published by the SP Historical and Technical Society. While these are my favourites, a number of other books have been published too. There’s plenty of information about the SPNG – including hundreds of photos and excellent track diagrams for many of the places along the line.
Morris-SPNG photo Morris-SPNG_zpsa47fd30f.jpg Bader-SPNG photo Bader-SPNG_zpsd4dee8ed.jpg

For atmosphere, the Classic Railroad Videos series from A&R Productions includes The Desert Princess. (In fact, it’s their best-selling title, according to their website.) Here’s a very short clip, courtesy of the publisher:

So what’s missing? Well, frankly, there’s not much commercially available for the SPNG in any scale. And that’s a shame. In Sn3, P-B-L imported some SPNG steam locomotives at one point, but they’re hard to find. Here’s one that turned up recently in an online auction:
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PBL-SPNG-8 photo PBL-SPNG-8-02_zps707ca821.jpg

Also in Sn3, Railmaster offers a kit for SPNG locomotives – one that even the manufacturer admits is a challenge:
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I recall seeing brass models in On3 and HOn3 as well, but as with all things brass they’re hard to come by.

For diesel fans, Rich Yoder Models did an On3 model of SP-1 – a GE end-cab unit known as “Little Giant”. I wrote a review of this model – also offered in O standard and On30 – for Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, and the review is posted online here.

The rest of the equipment is also problematic. Some craftsman kits exist for freight cars in Sn3. If there’s other equipment available, I haven’t encountered it. The fact that one can spend a day doing Google searches on modelling this line and turn up almost nothing by way of equipment is most telling of the challenge one would face.

That said, one could use stand-in models. In On30, the Bachmann 2-6-0 is two wheels short but is a suitable small steam locomotive – and the modeller could do some kit bashing and scratch-building to give it a whaleback tender and SP-ify it. And narrow gauge equipment tends to have advantages over standard gauge stuff when it comes to scratch-building. First, it tends to be of simple, wooden designs, which are easier to build that riveted steel cars. Second, a layout doesn’t need a whole lot of equipment since narrow gauge freight cars are, by their very nature, in captive service: They don’t roam the national rail network, because they can’t.

If narrow gauge is not your thing then in HO standard gauge, the Bachmann 10-wheeler would be a decent start for a smooth-running model. Again, it would need modifications to make it more SP-like. Or one could standard gauge the branch and use SP 2-6-0s from Glacier Park Models (O scale), River Raisin Models (S), or Iron Horse Models (HO).

It’ll come as no surprise that I have not found many layouts online that depict The Desert Princess. Byron Henderson has created a layout plan for HOn3, which can be found on his Layout Vision website. Better yet, find the Morris and Bader books and work right from the prototype plans they contain.

Meantime, I hope someone of influence at one of the larger manufacturers catering to the narrow gauge community (a Bachmann or a Mountain Model Imports, for instance) grabs the Morris and Bader books and falls in love. It would be easy to do, and both SP modelers and freelancers would delight in models of the SP’s narrow gauge 10-wheelers (Numbers 8, 9 and 18 are the most famous), interesting freight equipment, and distinct water cars and cabooses. On3/On30 models would have a lovely presence without overwhelming a layout space, and one could spend a great deal of rewarding hobby time switching the modest yet interesting yard at Laws, California… the transfer yard at Owenyo… or the talc company at Keeler.

Well worth a look if you’re in the market for something a little different!