James McNab’s Grimes Industrial Track

Many of my layout ideas are for steam-era branch lines or short lines because that’s the style of layout-building with which I’m most familiar. But there are many great examples of prototypes for achievable layouts in the modern world, too.

Even though today’s railroading is characterized by big motive power and long trains hauling commodities and intermodel traffic over vast distances, there are still plenty of examples of prototype crews spending their work day with a single locomotive, shuffling cars for a handful of customers across a territory that would make a terrific, manageable layout.

Here’s one – not presented to encourage others to imitate what the layout builder is doing, but rather to inspire hobbyists to consider the many advantages of an achievable layout design, especially one based on a prototype that still exists and is therefore relatively easy to research.

James McNab lives in Iowa and models the Iowa Interstate Railroad’s Grimes Industrial Track in HO scale in a 12′ by 18′-8″ space. He’s set the layout in 2008, and as the name implies it’s a switching operation set in a suburban area – in this case Des Moines, but with minor changes to details such as street signs, billboards and vegetation, it could be Anywhere, North America.

The layout is modest – with fewer than a dozen track switches and a one-train-per-session operating scheme. But James is observing prototype practices to enhance the operating sessions, he’s doing an exquisite job of detailing the layout, and he’s creating a wonderful environment in which to enjoy the hobby:
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(Click on the image to visit James McNab’s blog at Model Railroad Hobbyist)

I interviewed James earlier this year for an episode of The Model Railway Show – the podcast I used to produce and co-host. You can listen to that interview as part of Episode 47. You’ll also find links on that page to James’ YouTube channel and photo gallery, which includes a layout plan.

Many things about that interview stick with me, months later, so I encourage you to give it a listen (or, a repeat listen if you heard it when it was first broadcast). But one of the lessons from that interview is that James first became interested in the Grimes Industrial Track while working within sight of the line – proving that inspiration can be practically under one’s nose.

“Explaining” Your Layout

I’m borrowing the title for this from well-known Southern Pacific modeller Tony Thompson. The latest entry on Tony’s blog is called “Explaining” Your Layout and it articulates something I’ve thought about a lot with my own layout projects – namely, that most of the people who see our layouts are probably not members of the hobby. They are our non-hobby friends, our spouse’s friends, our family, colleagues from work or school, the guy who arrives to fix the furnace, and so on.

For a layout to be successful, I think – really, really successful – it’s those people that we have to impress.

Non-hobbyists won’t know the difference between a 2-6-0 and a 4-6-0 – or a GP-7 and a GP-9. But they sure know the difference between a 1950 Chevy and a 1980 Toyota. They also know the difference between a Maple and an Oak – and that neither of these look like a clump of lichen stuck on a toothpick.

That’s why on my current layout – representing Port Rowan, Ontario in the 1950s (in S scale) – I have invested a lot of time and effort (and a fair bit of money) to try to build convincing scenery.

Trees are tall:
DW-2013-04 (02) photo DW-05_zps3f3e0b9e.jpg
(Click on the image to find out more about my trees)

Fields and orchards consume a lot of real estate on my layout and require a lot of plants to fill. But I think they’re big enough to convince a casual visitor that they’re looking at a farm, not a garden:

M233 at St. Williams west photo M233-StW-West_zps28961473.jpg
(Click on the image to find out more about the cornfield)

Entering Port Rowan photo Orchard-Planted-Detail-02.jpg
(Click on the image to find out more about the apple orchard)

And so on.

It’s also why I’ve paid attention to scene composition – especially, to leaving space between structures and scenes. I haven’t packed the space with track. Instead, I’ve set the railway into its environment:
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At least, that’s my goal. My layout is very much a work in progress and there’s a lot to do still. For example, I need to build more trees for the Lynn Valley – a lot more. But so far, I’m pleased with how it’s working out.

Great post, Tony – thanks for sharing it!

“If I had more space…”

M233-Arrival-Port Rowan photo M233-1532-Arrival_zps1d382ef9.jpg
(Mixed Train M233 arrives in Port Rowan on my S scale layout. Would more space for the layout make this event any different? No. Click on the photo to visit my layout blog.)

“More space” is a wish almost universal in the hobby. Everybody would like more room than they have for their layout.

I’m quite happy with the space that I have, but I certainly would not object if I walked into the Trainment one morning and discovered another 50, 25 or even 10 percent more room.

If I’d had more space before I started my current, S scale, layout… I would not be working in S scale. A couple of years ago when I was contemplating a clean sheet of graph paper and a change of layout, I hoped to fit a finescale O (Proto:48) layout into my space, representing portions of the steam-era Southern Pacific’s Friant Branch. But O scale was just a little too big for my long but narrow space. Curve radii was the big issue and if I’d been working in a wider space that issue would’ve been solved. So, O it would’ve been – and SP instead of CNR.

But, the space I had encouraged me to look beyond my Proto:48 goals, and I ended up doing the CNR’s Port Rowan branch in S:
Port Rowan layout photo PortRowan.jpg

Upon reflection, I’m really glad I did. It’s been a great decision – not only for my layout space, but also for the social side of the hobby. I’ve strengthened some friendships and made new friends as a result of the scale and the layout. No regrets.

Knowing what I know now, if I were to acquire larger space (and it’s not in the cards) then I would continue with my present theme. In fact, I’d build pretty much the same layout. I’m really happy with the arrangement of “Staging – Intermediate Town – Terminal” and feel no desire to add to it with, say, the yard at Simcoe – or even another online town such as Vittoria.

In the case of Simcoe, the extra operational benefits would be offset by the need to build and maintain a fairly extensive yard and set of industrial spurs, plus another turntable. It would require a lot more structures. It might even require more people to operate prototypically. No thanks. I’ve come to realize I don’t need more trackage to have fun with the layout: I’m having buckets of fun as it is. And a place like Vittoria, while another dot on the map, would not add anything operationally to the layout. It would just eat up space I could put to better use.

How? If I had more space, the first thing I would do is increase the minimum radius. Currently, it’s 42 inches and that works, but could be better. Freight cars and small steam are really happy on 42 inch curves. Passenger cars manage it, thanks in part to the 15 mph speed restriction in the CNR time table (and enforced on the layout through custom speed curves for the locomotives). But the varnish does look a bit toylike on those curves. They’d be happier – and I would too – if I’d had the space for curves of 60 inch radius, or even 72 inch radius. So, that would be the first priority.

In line with that, I’d also increase the turnout sizes. I’m already using longer turnouts than typically employed on a model railway. My spurs have #7s, while the runaround track in Port Rowan and the west siding switch in St. Williams are #9. The turnout by the St. Williams depot is #10 – and I love the look. So, if I had more space, I’d bump up the turnout sizes – I’d use #9 on all spurs, and #10 (or even #12) for the double-ended sidings.

Next, I would add more open running space. The layout works fine as is, and the feeling of Going Somewhere is quite strong, I think, on the mainline between St. Williams and Port Rowan. But that feeling could be enhanced:

I would start by adding mainline running between the staging area and St. Williams:
Test-fit field photo Tobacco-BackField-02_zps828739c8.jpg

I would add more houses to the area around the St. Williams station – for example, on the east side of the road crossing, which is currently occupied by the tobacco farm. This would push the tobacco field and its related kilns further east, towards Simcoe. I’d do my best to make the transition from town to farmland less abrupt. From an operations perspective, this would give the engineer opportunity to get out of the staging area and up to speed for a bit of open country running before having to worry about slowing for the road crossing and station stop at St. Williams.

The second place to add running room would be between the Lynn Valley water tank and the apple orchards that mark the entrance to Port Rowan:
Weeds and bushes photo M233-1532-Meadow-03_zps764aaa8a.jpg

As with the issue in St. Williams, a crew barely gets up to speed after stopping for water before it’s time to slow down again to enter the yard. In addition, while I’m happy with the transition from forested river area, through meadow, to orchards, I think this area would’ve benefitted from more breathing room. I think it would also be a great spot to add a level crossing. I only have one on the layout – at St. Williams. (The orchard crossing in Port Rowan doesn’t count – it’s a farm track, not a public road.) It would be nice to give crews another place to practice their level crossing whistles – preferably on a section of straight track. As it is, a crossing in the meadow to the east of the orchards would look contrived, especially since the main line is on a tight curve through the scene. I want to de-emphasize the curves – not draw the eye to them.

Finally, I would revisit St. Williams to see if I could model it more faithfully to the prototype:
M233 at St. Williams west photo M233-StW-West_zps28961473.jpg

The real St. Williams had a short double-ended siding and was straight – not curved as it is on my layout. The single spur is correct, but it did not branch off from the siding. Rather, it was down the main from it – towards Port Rowan, and a facing-point move for westbound (Port Rowan-bound) trains. Operationally, I can replicate work at St. Williams, and the area around the depot will look reasonably accurate when compared to the single photo I have of the railway through this town. But it could be better.

To reiterate: I would build essentially the same layout again if I had more space. I would focus on making the layout even more relaxed, with broader curves, larger track switches, and more open country running. What I would not do is add towns, yards or complexity – not even additional spurs along the way.

I’m really, really happy with my layout as it is. It’s the right mix of challenges and fun, I can enjoy frequent operating sessions on it – by myself or with friends – and building and maintaining it does not suck up all of my spare time.