Serving the Golden Empire – one black line at a time

Last Wednesday, I visited my friend Pierre Oliver to spend the day drawing lines on homasote – something that’s become one of my favourite aspects of the hobby.

Pierre Oliver - Clovis - Lines on Homasote
Clovis, California takes shape in the space formerly occupied by Aylmer, Ontario

As I recently reported, Pierre has made the decision to switch focus – abandoning his vision of Time Table and Train Order-controlled Wabash fast freights across southern Ontario for the relaxed pace of a local freight working a Southern Pacific branch in southern California.

For most of us, abandoning a layout is not an easy decision. We are understandably reluctant to tear out what has taken us so long to build. But sometimes, it’s necessary. In this hobby, if you’re not happy with what you’re doing, don’t keep doing it. You may feel that you’re losing your investment in the layout. You’re not. Because the real investment isn’t in the layout – it’s in you. It’s in the skills you’ve acquired and the knowledge you’ve gained. This includes the knowledge of what does not work for you.

Pierre understands this, so he’s not one to agonize over the time and money he’s invested in the Wabash. Instead, he thought about the pros and cons of the transition from the perspective of what he enjoys in the hobby and how a new layout would either enhance that, or diminish it.

Kettle Creek Bridge - gone!
The big bridge at the west end of the St. Thomas yard has already found a new home. So have the 10 pairs of Wabash F7As that formed the backbone of the old layout’s fleet.

Once Pierre decided that the SP Clovis Branch was, indeed, the way to go, he figured out how he could unload the equipment he would no longer need and acquire the locomotives, rolling stock, and structures that would make the new layout possible.

With a new concept and a plan for the acquisition and disposal of stuff in place, Pierre and I discussed how to transform the existing Wabash layout into the new Southern Pacific project. He decided, and I agreed, that it made the most sense to reuse the existing benchwork as much as possible – especially the long peninsula that currently hosts the yard at St. Thomas.

I scanned a copy of the layout plan from Pierre’s Wabash layout article in Model Railroad Planning 2018. I then erased the Wabash in Photoshop – leaving just the outline of the peninsula, and the room itself. This gave me a nice, scale drawing upon which I could lay in the Clovis Branch. To start, I simply scanned the track diagrams from the Joe Dale Morris book, Serving the Golden Empire – Branch Line Style, and dropped them onto the room drawing. Some quick work with a fine tipped marker connected the scenes:

Pierre Oliver - Clovis branch - early concept
A very quick sketch to determine what would fit. The modest track arrangements at each scene make it easy to work from the prototype, with little compromise. We did make some adjustments, as detailed below.

Pierre liked the idea – a lot – so we fleshed out the details and I did a complete redraw of the plan to create something closer to scale that would actually guide Pierre during construction:

Pierre Oliver - Clovis Branch - Concept
An overall concept for the SP Clovis Branch in Pierre’s layout space. The space is generous for the prototype – much more so than it was for the Wabash – which will make the resulting layout feel very railroady. (Right-click on the image to open it in a separate window, to enjoy a larger view.)

Even with such a modest prototype, there are some deviations from reality:

– Fresno is completely made up. It’s a staging yard, so that’s fine. But since it’s also visible, I thought it would be nice to have some railroady things in it, like an engine house and an SP yard tower. The yard tower and adjacent overhead road bridge help hide the end of staging. Meantime, the engine house (the Port Costa two-stall structure: a kit from BTSRR) will be a lovely spot to store Pierre’s much smaller fleet of motive power.

SP 2-6-0s
Two of three 2-6-0s Pierre acquired for the new layout. Pierre equipped them with LokSound decoders and paired sugar cube speakers. He reports these Iron Horse Models brass imports are smooth runners, sound great, and easily handle 25 cars on the flat.

– I flipped Tarpey so the winery is on the far side of the tracks, against the backdrop. This just made more sense for the space: the stub tracks can head towards the corner, and it will be easier to switch this important customer if the winery is not in the way of the operator.

Wine tank car.
Pierre has been collecting brass models of multi-dome tank cars for winery service – something he didn’t need for the Wabash layout. Now, if only someone would offer them in plastic!

– The biggest change is the addition of an ice deck to Clovis. Pierre and I discussed this and agreed that while it’s a major departure from the prototype, the additional play value of icing refrigerator cars for all of the packing houses on the branch was just too good to pass up.

Ice Deck at Clovis
Extra moves for on-layout cars justified this design decision

Icing refrigerator cars is an operation that is unique to railroads serving produce packing areas, and helps define the character of the prototype. This is especially important for those of us who live on the other side of the continent, and need all the help we can get in capturing the character of southern California railroading. (In a further adjustment, Pierre decided the ice deck should go against the wall, and that the packing houses I had replaced with the deck should remain in place. So we added another double-ended siding in this space.)

– The quarry at Rockfield was an important customer for the SP, providing a lot of ballast to the railroad. We didn’t have room to model it, but a couple of spurs in the furnace room will allow Pierre to at least model the stone traffic on the branch.

– We could not fit every track in Pinedale on the layout, but captured the flavour of it, at least.

With a plan in place, construction could begin.

Rather than tear out all of the Wabash at once, I suggested that Pierre start with Clovis. This long wall previously held Aylmer, Ontario – the farthest he’d built the Wabash as he worked his way around the room. By starting here, Pierre could get a switching layout up and running relatively quickly. He could then work his way up the branch to Friant to add some play value. Friant can become a temporary staging area, with trains working to Clovis and back. Meantime, Pierre could scrape off the peninsula and start working his way down the branch towards Fresno. The last piece to build would be Pinedale, which will just be in the way during the rest of the construction.

All of which brings me back to last week’s trip. Pierre had scraped off the rails and ties at Aylmer, spackled and sanded the homasote roadbed, and given everything a coat of medium brown paint. It was time to lay out centre lines for the track in Clovis.

Ice Deck at Clovis.
The ice deck at the left end of the Clovis scene.

It was important to determine the icing facility’s footprint before drawing in the track. Pierre went one better and actually built the model – consisting of three Tichy icing platforms and a Walthers ice plant. The deck is 54″ long and can serve 10 cars at a time. As noted above, it doesn’t belong in Clovis, but will add too much to leave out. Rather than displace some packing houses, we added a track to Clovis for icing.

In the above photo, the main is the track next to the icing track. It’s placed on the standard 2″ centres for HO scale. To achieve the more open look of California, however, the siding for the packing houses (to the left of the main) is offset from the main by 3″. The sheets of paper and kit boxes represent packing houses.

Clovis - planning - centre.
A cluster of turnouts near the heart of Clovis. The hairspray bottle is standing in for a town water tank.

To help with laying out the plan full-size, we employed Number 6 turnout tie strips from Fast Tracks. This made sure that we didn’t fudge the drawing and create turnout clusters too tight to build. The paper template is for a Number 4 turnout: I didn’t really want to use one that tight, but the prototype included a spur that branched sharply away from the main at this point and it was the only way to fit in this spur.

We had the plan pencilled in, agreed upon, and inked with black marker in just a few hours. All in all, a most productive day. Pierre is already gluing down ties so we should be serving the Golden Empire – at least in Clovis – in no time!

(You can visit Pierre’s blog to follow along on his new layout building adventure!)

From Wabash conveyor belt to SP peddler freights

This is a story about changing track – in pursuit of an Achievable Layout:

I’ve written on this blog before about the Southern Pacific Clovis branch from Fresno to Friant. I thought at one time that I’d build a layout inspired by this branch in Proto:48 – it’s one of my favourite lines. But it just didn’t fit my layout space – and then I discovered S scale, and the CNR line to Port Rowan.

But a friend was unhappy with his layout, and a recent trip to the La Mesa Model Railroad Club in San Diego convinced him of two things:

1 – He didn’t have enough space or regular crew to model Time Table and Train Order operations effectively.

2 – He really liked California railroading.

And then I told him that in addition to my collection of Proto:48 Southern Pacific steam I had three SP moguls, in HO scale – plus kits for cabooses, a station and an engine house.

Well, I don’t have those anymore – and Pierre Oliver has a new project.

“Well, my work here is done…”
– The Model Railroad Enabler

(I’ve turned off commenting on this post. I encourage you to join the conversation on Pierre’s blog!)

SP – Clovis (Friant) Branch

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about the Southern Pacific’s branch line to Friant, California as the subject for an achievable layout. I think this branch is interesting enough to warrant a closer look. Since Dan Navarre at River Raisin Models has announced he will import a run of brass Southern Pacific “Valley Malleys” (2-6-0s) in 1:64, I decided to do a quick sketch to determine how an S scale Friant Branch layout would fit in my layout space.

(No, I’m not switching prototypes. But I find layout planning more interesting when using real spaces with real constraints.)

This is a very rough sketch – and as far as I’ll take it. I’ve included some notes below the plan.

SP Friant Branch Layout in S scale (space test) photo SP-FriantBranch_zps8053816f.jpg
(Click on the image for a larger version.)

Some notes:

– I’ve flipped the Italian Swiss Colony winery at Tarpey by 180 degrees because it fit the space better. It would look right in layout photographs, but on the prototype it was a facing point switch for trains headed to Friant.

– The winery is an interesting customer, using the railroad to ship bulk wine in multi-dome tank cars and receiving inbound refrigerator cars loaded with grapes. Looking at photos, I’m guessing two cuts of tank cars were spotted on both spurs near the bumpers, while refrigerator cars were spotted in two cuts near the switch. Grapes were also delivered by truck, and photos of the winery show a long line of trucks on a driveway between the main and the siding here, waiting to be unloaded. The winery had its own track scale, and the operation was surrounded by a fence with the run-around and two spurs inside locked gates. By itself, the winery could be the basis of a satisfying one-industry layout.

– I don’t have a map of Pinedale Junction, but a description notes at one time the junction was a wye, with one leg subsequently removed. Trains that had work in Pinedale would take only the cars for Pinedale down the branch, leaving the rest of the train at the junction. In Pinedale, crews would switch the cotton company warehouses, and leave with lifts in tow. Back at the junction, traffic from Pinedale was left on the branch to be collected on the way back to Fresno.

– Rockfield was the site of a company ballast quarry and crusher. There should be four spurs, but I had room for two. Like the prototype, these spurs are reached via a sharp downgrade from the mainline. This often required crews to haul loads out of the quarry in multiple cuts of cars. Loads were collected and taken with the rest of the train to Friant, then backhauled to Fresno for routing to the rest of the Espee system.

– Friant – the end of the line – had two double-ended spurs and a stub spur serving a turntable.

– I had to reverse the direction of the turntable spur in Friant – the switch is in the right spot but it should head toward the stock pen. It fits the layout room better this way and keeps the turntable close to the aisle for easy operation and maintenance. I also used a 65-foot turntable instead of the prototype’s 70-foot model – basically because I know how to build a 65-foot turntable in S scale.

– I’m not sure where the track scale was in Friant, but it was apparently used to weigh the loads of ballast out of Rockfield. I’ve placed it arbitrarily.

– The end of track was in sight of the massive Friant Dam. It can be seen in photos of the railroad in Friant, and a photo or painting on the backdrop at the end of this peninsula would be a really nice touch.

My information on this branch comes from the photos, maps, text, charts, tables and tour of the line in Serving the Golden Empire – Branch Line Style by Joe Dale Morris. It’s a great book and I recommend it to anybody who wants to know more about this really neat branch line operation.

Serving the Golden Empire photo Serving-the-Golden-Empire-_zpsa3e3e541.jpg
(Click on the cover for more information, including how to order a copy from the Southern Pacific Historical and Technical Society.)