Ringing in 2020 on the Clovis branch

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Tarpey

Extra 1736 moves a refrigerator block through under-construction vineyards en route to Clovis

On Saturday, my friend Pierre Oliver hosted the first formal operating session on his HO scale model railway, based on the Southern Pacific Clovis Branch between Fresno and Friant, California. Pierre invited four guests – myself, Stephen Gardiner, Robin Talukdar and Hunter Hughson – to take part in the Clovis Branch shakedown run.

It went well. Very well indeed!

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

The day starts in Fresno – represented by this scenicked staging area. Pierre powers up the engine service tracks at the far end while Robin and Hunter check their paperwork

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

Two views of the engine service area in staging (Fresno). I brought along my Southern Pacific SW-1, which I described in the June 2019 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine

Pierre had set up two trains: the regularly-scheduled way freight would work the entire line, while a seasonal special would switch the various produce-packing houses in East Fresno and Clovis. Robin and Hunter had run a reefer extra during an earlier visit so they took the way freight, while Stephen and I teamed up on the packing house job.

The session ran just under four hours and was impressively trouble-free for a layout that’s so early in its operating life. Pierre gave us a quick pre-session briefing – explaining the throttles, the car forwarding documents, and the very simple traffic control scheme – and then we got to work.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

Robin ties his 2-6-0 onto the way freight in Fresno

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - East Fresno

The way freight rolls through East Fresno, between packing houses and the small interchange yard with the Fresno Interurban

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Las Palmas

Hunter and Robin switch Las Palmas while Pierre hovers over Tulare Avenue (on the far side of the backdrop)

The schedule called for the way freight to leave Fresno first, switching Las Palmas and Tarpey en route to Clovis, where it would leave a block of cars to work on the return trip. The reefer extra would be held until the operator at Clovis reported in that the way freight was headed out of town, then head out to East Fresno to switch a row of packing houses there before travelling to Clovis. Once at Clovis, the reefer extra would own the track: the way freight would be held in Friant until the reefer extra was headed back to Fresno.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - East Fresno

With the way freight clear of Clovis, the reefer extra has rolled to East Fresno. Stephen is the engineer on this train, while I took on the conductor’s duties. Here, Stephen is backing a string of reefers towards three packing house customers

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Friant

Meantime, having switched the gravel pit at Rockfield, the way freight has arrived in Friant. Robin is weighing the gravel loads on the scale, located to the left of the station

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Friant

A look at Friant – including a section house, the scale track, and station. I scratch built the scale for Pierre

There was plenty of time in the schedule for each crew to pause, take photos, and watch what the other crew was up to. The trains were respectable: I didn’t count cars on the way freight, but the packing house extra for which I donned the conductor’s cap had 16 reefers in each direction. Even so, the trains were dwarfed by Pierre’s large but simple layout: there was a real feeling of going places as we trundled past line side structures, down the middle of Tulare Avenue, across grasslands, and through vineyards on our way to Clovis.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Maltermoro

Our switching finished in East Fresno, the reefer extra exits Tulare Avenue and rolls into Maltermoro

Our work – mostly in Clovis – was challenging without being artificially complex: There were no puzzles or “gotcha” moments, providing one planned one’s work. (With about 20 identical-looking reefers to move about in Clovis, I wrote a switch list on a scrap of paper taped to a piece of styrene sheet and that kept me out of trouble.)

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

On arrival in Clovis, we drop our cut of empty reefers in a clear track and grab the caboose. We’ll take it up the line to spot it out of the way at the station

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

Towing one empty past our caboose and the Clovis station, en route to United Fruit. This is our only trailing point switch here, so we’re getting it out of the way first

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

We’re hauling a cut of loaded cars down the Clovis main, between packing houses and the ice deck. The real Clovis did not have an ice deck but Pierre wanted the modelling and operating challenge of one so we included it on the plan. It’s a fine addition!

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

The switching in Clovis proceeds apace. Stephen and I designated the left track – in front of the packing houses – as the place to collect loaded reefers that will need to be iced. The ice deck siding holds our empties, destined for the packing houses. Once we’ve emptied that track, we’ll grab the loads and spot them for top icing. We started with 10 reefers for Clovis, so it looks like we’re halfway done with today’s work

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

While the loads were iced, we retrieved our caboose and tucked it onto the far end of the cut of reefers. Here, we’re all done in Clovis and Stephen is starting our journey back to Fresno. We’ll pick up a cut of reefers in East Fresno on our way back to the yard

This is what an operating session should be. It was fun and engaging, challenging without being stressful, and at the end of the day I felt like I’d experienced a day in southern California in 1951. On a personal note, having had a hand in designing this layout, I was very pleased that it performed as I expected it would.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

Stephen and I enjoy some railfanning as Hunter and Robin arrive in Clovis from Friant, with their train of weighed gravel

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020

Stephen has our reefer extra headed towards Las Palmas (left side of the aisle) while Robin and Hunter (barely visible behind Robin) ponder their work in Clovis

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

Hunter and Robin switch a customer in Clovis

As the photos show, Pierre is making excellent progress on a large (although simple) layout that he started less than two years ago. Already, the scenes are coming together and they’ll only get better as more structures and ground cover, trees and details are added.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Tulare Avenue

Running tender-first, the reefer extra trundles past the under-construction homes on Tulare Avenue en route to East Fresno

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Las Palmas

Hunter and Robin switch the future home of Gallo Winery in Las Palmas

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

We’re home again! Putting on our yard crew hats, we will pluck the caboose off the end of our reefer block and spot it on the caboose track before heading to the engine house in Fresno

Thanks to Pierre for hosting… to Stephen for being my engineer… to Robin and Hunter for the company… and to Kate for the wonderful post-session dinner. That was a pretty grand way to start the year – we’ll have to do this again!

(For other perspectives on the day, you can read posts by Pierre, by Stephen and by Hunter on their websites.)

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

15 thoughts on “Ringing in 2020 on the Clovis branch

  1. Thanks for including the photo of the scale track. I’ve got a lot of resources thanks to my dad’s extensive library, but haven’t found guidance on how long, from point to scale, the live “approach” track should be. Right now, I figure it’s probably equivalent to the scale itself.

    • Hi Matt: I would try to make the approach on each side of the scale long enough to hold a freight car before curving towards the switch points. It’ll just look nicer.
      One of the things that works about Pierre’s layout is the uncrowded nature of every element. When you look at the image of the track scale, you’ll see the scene has a lot of empty space between the speeder shed, instrument case and station…

      • Others have commented on the openness of Pierre’s layout, and I’ve found myself gradually loosening up Circleville on the N&W over time. Seeing your layout – openness in a smaller space – was influential, as was (more recently) Lance Mindheims arguments for “negative space” in his most recent book. The latter finally gave me “permission” to remove a retail coal dealer that I sorely wanted to keep, but whose removal had multiple benefits.

        Back on topic, my initial scale layout was exactly what you are suggesting. Some photos suggested the live rails turned back to the main track about a truck length after leaving the scales (partly, I’m sure, due to perspective), hence the question. Thanks!

        • To tie the two thoughts together…

          If you design a layout with more negative space, then you also free up space to stretch each element. Regardless of how “tight” a given prototype element could be – how close to the scale the points for the gauntlet can be – chances are there was space on the prototype, and space on a model can only look better.

          When designing a layout, hobbyists often ask themselves about “minimums”: How tight can I make this curve? How sharp can I make this turnout? We are conditioned to this through the practice of creating standards for our layouts: minimums below which we should not step for reliable operation of the equipment we wish to run. (The NMRA even has recommended practices based on scale, car length, locomotive type, etc.)

          What if, instead of asking ourselves “What’s the smallest I can go?”, we designed layouts around the premise “What’s the largest I can go?”

          What’s the broadest possible curve in this space?

          What’s the largest possible turnout?

          What can I do without, in order to enable this? If I delete a spur, can I use #8 turnouts instead of #6? And so on…

          I think our layouts would benefit from this. They would look more realistic, and operate better.


  2. I like that you have a separate roles of engineer and conductor. It makes the operation a social occasion.

    I have started an garden line on raised beds 1/29 > 1/32 on 45mm gauge. It will be an ex ACL – SCL Branch with an Southern connection ex CofG.
    My aspiration is:
    Conductior – dictating the moves and pickups
    Switch man – operating turnouts & uncoupling cars.
    Engineer – being told by the other two as what to do!!

    With a larger scale, I hope there is enough space for 3 man operation.

    • Agreed: it’s definitely more social when you have a fellow crew member on your train. Stephen and I were able to discuss the work, but also share observations about the layout (and general kibitzing).

      In addition, two-person crews mean each person can focus more on their role: the engineer can pay more attention to actually running the locomotive, while the conductor can look after planning moves and ensuring lifts and set-outs are done properly.

      As operators embrace more prototype practices (eg: Time Table & Train Order) and as DCC+Sound add more capabilities to our locomotives, operators have more to manage. For example: before sound, engineers didn’t have to think about when and how to use whistles and bells: now, they do.

      As such, splitting the tasks into roles makes it easier.

      The good news is, with two-person crews we need less layout to keep the same number of friends entertained!


  3. Thanks for sharing the op session on Pierre’s layout. Simple, yet inspiring.

    Errata: Your article on electrifying the SW-1 appeared in the June 2019 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman, not May’s issue.

  4. Thanks for sharing your evening with us. I like the open look of the layout and the comfortable pace of the operations.

    Ken Zieska

    • The open look and relaxed pace are benefits to any scale – but especially to a scale like S (in which you and I both model), because it has relatively little available for it.

      A relaxed layout design and modest, branch line theme needs fewer pieces of equipment, fewer structures, and so on. Open areas covered with static grass are the easiest way to fill a large layout space.


  5. Nice to have that much room; but by not crowding it, it looks even better.
    Thanks for taking us along. A really good post.
    Cheers, Gord

  6. Absolutely terrific! You must all be pleased by the proof of concept, and it is beautiful to look at.

    More please!

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