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!)

4 thoughts on “Serving the Golden Empire – one black line at a time

  1. Trevor, thanks for the update on Pierre’s layout. As one who has developed TT&TO on a few layouts (including borrcs.wordpress.com) I had felt that the new Wabash was a bit tight. It was good to see Pierre see that the Wabash was going to struggle to be a great TT&TO layout running fast freight. The new SP layout is better matched for his single deck layout.
    I’ve developed TT&TO on 1910 freelanced layout that is just 90 feet of mainline. It’s been fun to operate a good training for those getting started on operating a train under TT&TO. I expect Pierre will enjoy this layout.
    When I saw the initial design proposal some weeks ago, I thought Rockfield might be in a crawl space. Much better to now understand that Rockfield is going into a furnace room, so accessible. Where is the door to the furnace room?

    • Hi David:
      It was something, I think, that Pierre had to build to realize that it wasn’t going to deliver the kind of TT&TO operation he was looking for. Plus, he’s now enjoying such operation on other layouts – including a couple of really big ones, with many scale miles of track and multiple meeting points. So he’s getting his fix.
      I should’ve included the door on the diagram. It’s basically at the end of the peninsula – if I recall, it’s almost centred on the wall.
      Cheers!

  2. Hi Trevor,

    Can I please ask what are the main dimensions for Pierre’s basement (there is no scale on the plans) and what was the minimum radius used on the curves at the ends of the straight runs?

    Regards and thanks,

    Tom.

    • Hi Tom:

      I don’t have exact dimensions because they weren’t important for the planning: the space is big enough, and the prototype scenes modest enough, that planning could be done with a sketch followed by laying out the towns full size. I believe the squares shown in the workshop area are 24”. In the refined concept drawing, there are dashes along the outside of the room area that represent the same 24″ squares.
      The minimum mainline radius is 30”.

      The important thing is, the space is big – but the layout that fills it doesn’t have to be based on a big subject. Pierre’s room is so big that it’s tempting to tackle too ambitious a prototype. The obvious advantage of exercising restraint is that a modest prototype in a large space is easier for one person to build and maintain. It’s achievable.

      A less obvious advantage is that such a prototype is more suited to operating sessions by oneself, or with one or two friends over. That means it’ll get operated more often than a larger prototype, which might require a crew of a dozen – or a couple of dozen. (I know of a number of hobbyists who have built such empires, and they never get to run their own layout. It can only be run during formal operating sessions with a full crew, because running in between times would throw the time table out of synch. And during those formal operating sessions, the owners are so busy being hosts that they can’t pick up a throttle. Obviously, this situation works for them – somehow. But it’s not the way I want to engage with the hobby.)

      Finally, filling a space this size with a large and complex layout would – assuming it got built – result in something that looks and operates like a model railroad. If, instead, we fill a large space with a modest prototype, the result can be a model of a railroad. It’s an important difference.

      By devoting as much space to it as he has, Pierre’s rendition of Clovis has the potential to look a lot like the real thing:

      Southern Pacific - Clovis CA

      Cheers!

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