David Barrow’s vision

David Barrow
(David Barrow discusses his model railway with a visitor during the self-guided layout tour for The Austin Eagle 2018 convention)

If you’ve been around the hobby for any length of time, you know of David Barrow – especially if you have any interested in layout design. I obviously do have an interest, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit David’s model railway during The Austin Eagle – the 2018 convention held by the Lone Star Region of the NMRA in the greater Austin TX area earlier this month.

David emerged in the 1980s with a number of articles featuring his proto-freelanced Cat Mountain & Santa Fe Railroad – a layout that would go on to become highly influential in the hobby over the past three decades. Perhaps more than any other layout, David’s CM&SF promoted the benefits of a linear, once-through-the-scene, walk-around layout. If you Google “David Barrow layout plan” you will find – in addition to plans for his own layout – many plans by others that clearly demonstrate Barrow’s influence.

Barrow - layout tour
(The upper yard at Lubbock, Texas on the right with Posey across the aisle)

Beyond the layout, the room in which it is located demonstrated the design advantages of narrow peninsulas with scenes on each side divided by a backdrop. With its barren West Texas setting, the layout also proved that it is possible to effectively model wide open flat spaces – a lesson that many people are now applying to other settings such as the Prairies.

Barrow - layout tour
(Burris at left, with the lower yard at Lubbock on the right)

David also introduced many hobbyists to the idea of presenting the layout in a space that minimizes distractions – for example, by eliminating clutter under the benchwork and paying attention to things like valances and lighting. (Rather than delve on this too much here, I encourage you to read what Lance Mindheim wrote about his visit to Barrow’s layout in 2013. Pay particular attention to the quote from John Pawson on minimalism.)

David also taught many of us that staging yards did not have to be hidden on a subterranean level or behind a backdrop – that, in fact, it was advantageous to leave them exposed (albeit in a space away from the main layout) for both ease of operation and maintenance.

Barrow - visible staging.
(The benefits of visible staging, on display. A wall along the left edge of the photo visually separates the staging area from the rest of the layout space, with door openings at each end)

In addition to his home layout, David is the architect behind “The South Plains District” – a project layout he built for Model Railroader magazine and documented in a series that ran in the September-December 1996 issues. This series is among those frequently cited by modellers as inspirational.

But David is also known for creating a bit of a tempest in a teapot back in 2004, when he revealed via the pages of Model Railroad Planning magazine that he’d torn out his traditional, scenicked, version of the CM&SF and replaced it with a sectional switching layout built on bare plywood, with no ballast or scenery and ofttimes just mockups for key structures. Many who were fans felt betrayed by this new, minimalist direction – one that emphasized operation by minimizing, or eliminating, any elements that did not directly support that. (Remember that quote from John Pawson? That’s what’s happening here.) His current layout backs off from the switching district theme in favour of mainline running (see plan, below). But as the photos in this post show, he’s maintained the minimalist aesthetic he introduced in 2004.

Barrow plan
(Plan of the current layout. Staging is in a separate space at the right)

I was intrigued – I wanted to know whether the minimalism did, in fact, focus one on operation or whether it was actually a distraction. So David’s layout was a must-see stop on the self-guided layout tour.

The visit did not disappoint. I must admit that David’s approach is not one I would take. I like scenery and structures – not only for the construction challenges they present but also for the context they provide. This is just a personal view, but I found the lack of structures somewhat disorienting: like looking at a schematic of a railway instead of the railway itself.

As an example, I’m currently considering building a new layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway – an interurban line in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. I’ve collected a lot of material on this line (which I’m sharing via a separate blog), including official railway track diagrams and vintage photos. The image below shows two ways of looking at one of my favourite locations – Ontario Street in St. Catharines:

Map vs Reality
(CNR track diagram versus a 1951 photo of switching operations on Ontario Street)

The track diagram is a lot like David’s layout: It shows me what was there, and what I need to model from an operational perspective. But the photo places everything in context. The vehicles, the utility poles, the stores and restaurants on the the right – none of that is required to switch the auto plant that is the reason for this piece of trackage. But for me, it adds so much to the context that I cannot imagine modelling this scene without it.

To be fair, I did not participate in an operating session on this layout (that was not an option). Perhaps I would have a different feeling about the importance of context if I had. But I would be surprised if I did.

Regardless, I was very glad to see David’s layout – and I believe his thinking is an important contribution to the hobby. But for me, the important lesson was in confirming that this is not the approach for me. That’s as important, I think, as visiting a layout that reinforces one’s preferences.

In addition to his HO layout, David has more recently dabbled in O scale, with a shelf switching layout built in a room adjacent to his crew lounge.

Barrow O scale

Barrow O scale

This layout models the same prototype (AT&SF) and exhibits the same aesthetic as his HO layout – something I found rather curious. I would’ve been tempted to use a change of scale to explore a different prototype or region of the country (or even of the world) – but, again, that’s a personal preference.

Thank you, David, for opening your layout to the tour. I’m really glad I made the time to visit!

If you want to know more about my trip to the NMRA Lone Star Region convention, visit my Port Rowan blog.

Jim Zwernemann’s Proto:48 masterpiece

Jim Z P48

As I prepared for last week’s trip to Austin for the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention, I mentioned my plans on my Port Rowan blog – and Gene Deimling reminded me that one of the layouts on the tour was the superb Proto:48 layout being built by Jim Zwernemann. I immediately made plans to visit – and I’m so glad I did.

Jim is well known in the Proto:48 community for his beautiful scratch-built freight cars. He’s also an accomplished structure builder.

Jim Z - workshop
(Where the magic happens: Jim’s workshop)

What he has not been until relatively recently is a layout builder – but he decided that he needed a place to showcase his work. And what a beautiful showcase it is. Jim is modelling a general theme featuring two transition-era prototypes: the Southern Pacific’s Texas & New Orleans, and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas. The layout features a single-track mainline that hugs the walls of a 30′ x 25′ space, with a peninsula in the middle to provide some additional switching opportunities. Jim’s workshop is located in a room-within-the-room, in the centre of the layout space.

As the photos show, the layout is still very much under construction – but the pieces that are finished are excellent:

Jim Z - Carmine Depot
(Scratch-built model of the SP depot at Carmine, Texas)

SP 5115
(A GE 70-Tonner given the SP treatment)

TNO 345
(Jim’s beautiful model of a Texas & New Orleans caboose)

Jim Z - Kistenmarcher's
(Kistenmacher’s Store)

Jim Z - Mike's Bikes
(Mikes’ Bikes)

Jim Z - Lakeside
(Lakeside Grocery)

Jim Z - boxcars
(A string of Jim’s boxcars)

Jim Z - TT
(SP 178 – a Baldwin AS616 – takes a spin on Jim’s scratch-built turntable)

UPDATE – July 13, 2018: Jim has shared some additional photos and info about the convention with Gene – and Gene has posted them to his own blog. Click here to see more.

While all of Jim’s work is lovely, I was particularly impressed by his scratch-built model of the MKT’s freight terminal in downtown Austin:

Jim Z - MKT freight terminal

Jim Z - MKT freight terminal

Jim Z - MKT freight terminal

This structure would make a terrific anchor for a shelf-style switching layout.

O scale has always been my favourite – even though I currently model in S, and have never built a layout in 1:48. But I do love the presence of the equipment and the massiveness of O scale structures. Visiting Jim’s layout has me thinking again about how I could fit an O scale layout in my space.

I don’t intend to move from S – I’m currently considering a new layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway (an interurban that ran in the city I lived in as a teenager), and 1:64 is the best choice for modelling that. But I may tackle some O scale designs purely as a planning exercise.

If I do, I’ll share them via this blog.

Thanks, Jim, for opening your layout to the convention. It was great to meet you and well worth the trip!

If you want to know more about my trip to the NMRA Lone Star Region convention, visit my Port Rowan blog.

Riley Triggs’ Port of New York Railroad

PoNY Herald

PoNY - LV 27th Street
(The Lehigh Valley’s 27th Street pocket terminal)

I was in Austin, Texas last week to take part in the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention. Among the highlights was a chance to take part in an operating session on the HO scale Port of New York Railroad being built by Riley Triggs.

Riley is building his layout in an upstairs room in his home. The prototype is very urban, with several railroads negotiating complex track work in tight quarters that are shared with buildings, streets, wharves and piers. In addition to the main layout, Riley has used an adjacent room to build two of New York’s famous “pocket terminals” – switching districts isolated from the nation’s rail network, and reachable only via car float. At this stage, Riley has installed most (if not all) of the track work and has trains running. He is just getting started on the dozens of structures he will need for his layout.

I was fortunate to team up with Lance Mindheim for the operating session. Together, we worked the Lehigh Valley’s 27th Street pocket terminal:

Riley and Lance
(Riley (l) and Lance discuss the 27th Street operation. In the background, two more operators work the Erie RR’s Harlem Station. The main layout is through the doorway in the distance.)

The 27th Street terminal is essentially a self-contained layout in a book case, connected to the rest of Riley’s empire via a car float. While tiny, there’s a lot of track packed into the space. You can read more about the terminal on Riley’s blog, but here’s a photo of the track arrangement from his post about building the terminal in a day:

Riley Triggs 27th Street track arrangement

I took the role of conductor, while Lance was the engineer. We were handed a switch list and spent a solid two hours moving cars about this terminal- unloading the car float, sorting cars between a couple of storage tracks, the freight shed and other customers, and prepping the car float for its return trip to the mainland.

Switching 27th Street

PoNY Switch List

The first thing I learned was that traditional methods of switching just don’t work in a pocket terminal. I approached the task as if I was working a traditional yard, which goes something like this:

Classifying Cars

Well, that quickly got me into trouble. In many cases, the switch lead wasn’t long enough to hold an entire track of cars. In some spots, we were limited to a single car in addition to our locomotive. (While this would be frustrating on a traditional model railway and represent bad layout design, this was actually pretty close to reality in many of New York’s pocket terminals.) After trying this a couple of times, and failing miserably, I abandoned what I knew about switching cars and resorted to cherry picking what we needed. The key became, “What can I move that gets something out of our way?” Once I got comfortable with that, things went much more smoothly. And it was a most enjoyable operating session!

At first glance, Riley’s Port of New York may not strike one as an achievable layout. For example, there are approximately 120 turnouts on the layout, including many complex pieces of track work such as slip switches and double crossovers. The number of structures he needs to build is also intimidating.

However, it is an achievable layout because of some of the choices Riley has made.

The structures would intimidate me, but Riley is an architect by profession, which means he will have some terrific ideas for tackling all of the structures he needs to build. I suspect he will approach this challenge differently than someone who does not work with structure designs all the time. I look forward to seeing how he does this.

To address the complexities of the track work on his chosen prototypes, Riley has taken advantage of commercial track components and all turnouts in our pocket terminal were hand-thrown.

Furthermore, he has eliminated all track wiring (which would be problematic with the many double slips and crossings) by adopting a “Dead Rail” system for his layout – in this case, the AirWire system from CVP. Each locomotive is permanently coupled to a car which contains the DCC Sound Decoder, a radio receiver, and batteries. The engineer uses wireless throttles to send DCC commands over the air to the battery car, which then supplies power to its locomotive. The system worked really well: We had no issues with power or signal during our two-hour switching assignment.

The only drawback from an operations perspective was that the permanently coupled car ate up a lot of space in the pocket terminal. It often doubled the number of moves required to spot cars on a track, for example. However, that’s a minor quibble and is certainly more than offset by the wiring nightmare that such a layout would otherwise have required. The battery car would not be an issue on a more tradition layout, where one could permanently couple a set of locomotives and put the Dead Rail gear into an unpowered model. It would also not be a factor in larger scales such as O, where there would be plenty of space inside a single diesel for batteries and a receiver.

There’s a lot to learn from Riley’s layout, from a design perspective. My takeaways included:

– What’s achievable for one person is not for another. Professional skills may make the difference.

– Exploring new ways of doing things (for example, Dead Rail instead of traditional wiring, 3D printing and Cricut cutting machines, and so on) may make a previously daunting plan more achievable.

– While Riley’s layout is large, the two pocket terminals he’s incorporated are definitely achievable by anybody, yet would still offer many pleasant construction and operating challenges.

I had a lot of fun during this operating session, and learned about Dead Rail in the process. Thanks for the great day, Riley!

If you want to know more about my trip to the NMRA Lone Star Region convention, visit my Port Rowan blog.

SP Slim Princess models in HOn3


(Scenes like these may soon be more achievable, at least in HO…)

A while ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the Southern Pacific’s narrow gauge Keeler Branch. These posts included an overview of the prototype as inspiration for an Achievable Layout, and a sample layout design based on Zurich, California. At the time, I wrote:

There’s not much commercially available for the SPNG in any scale.

Well, it seems that’s about to change, at least of those who would consider modelling the SPNG in HOn3.

I recently stumbled across a blog run by Union Terminal Imports. At the end of May, UTI announced that it’s planning to offer an extensive line of SPNG equipment in 1:87.

In addition to the announcement, UTI has posted the complete list of equipment it intends to produce for this prototype. It’s pretty extensive, and includes page references to the Robert A Bader book that documents the equipment.

Prices have not been announced, although at least one dealer (Brass Trains) is now taking reservations.

I have no experience with the importer, so this is not an endorsement of their products or their business. I’m simply passing along the information for those who may be interested.