A place to work

Every layout designed for realistic operating sessions needs to provide conductors with a place to work. On Plywood Pacifics, this is often the layout surface, but that’s a really bad idea once scenery is in place.

I realized that there’s a lot of material to juggle during a session – including prototype waybills, switch lists and LCL receipts… not to mention, an uncoupling tool and a throttle. I found that I was putting things on a stool that’s tucked under the layout when working St. Williams, and using the top of a chest freezer as a desk when working in Port Rowan. Surely, I thought, I can do better: A nice, solid surface that one can use to spread out papers and organize one’s work.

But, I also wanted to keep such surfaces out of the aisles when not in use. So yesterday, I built a pair of slide-away work desks – inspired by the slide-away keyboard shelves found at many computer workstations. Here’s the desk for St. Williams, in the closed and open positions.

Now you see it…
 photo Desk-StW-Open_zpsc972a5a0.jpg

… and now you don’t:
 photo Desk-StW-Closed_zpsa3861f34.jpg

I recently removed a 16″ x 57″ solid wood shelf from elsewhere in the house and it became my donor for the two desks, so each desk is 16″ by 28.5″ (minus a saw kerf). I mounted each shelf on a pair of 20″ under-mount slides I picked up at my local Lee Valley Tools (item 02K33.20):
 photo Desk-Slider_zps5de24990.jpg
(A Lee Valley slide mounted under St. Williams)

I like these because they come in different lengths, they’re modestly priced, and they have stops to hold the shelf in the closed position so it’s not going to roll out by itself when not in use. This is particularly important at Port Rowan, which is in a narrower aisle. Not everybody will be able to use the full depth of the desk – it depends on each operator’s, um, “diameter”.
Desk-Port Rowan (Open) photo Desk-PtR-Open_zpse49c7a8f.jpg

I decided that since each desk is located at a station, it would be an appropriate and convenient place to mount a fast clock, so I next marked out and cut a hole in each shelf to fit a fast clock from GML Enterprises:
Desk-St Williams (Clock) photo Desk-StW-Clock_zps950f9b90.jpg

The two-wire cable that controls each clock is attached to the underside of the shelf. It runs straight to the back of the shelf, where I’ve incorporated a loop of slack so the shelf can slide freely:
Fast Clock - Wiring photo Desk-ClockWiring_zps40f695d7.jpg
(Clock wiring – shelf in extended position)

I still need to get a pair of desk blotters to give conductors an appropriate surface for writing. But it’s already easier to organize the work, which will make operating sessions that much more enjoyable…

23 thoughts on “A place to work

  1. I note the brake wheel, air hoses and glad hands in the first photo. Have I missed something or are they for a future posting?

    • Hi John:
      Good eye. I have written previously about the brake wheels and air hoses. The short answer is, they’re visual and tactile reminders that one needs to set brakes and do air tests. For the longer explanation, follow this link to a post from November of last year.

  2. Neat idea with the fast clocks. Perhaps some enterprising manufacturer will make fast watches someday, but for now this is a very practical device to incorporate in the desks. Now if you want to get fancy, there was a Canadian face used on clocks and watches. But I’m not sure if CN used this on clocks–the CPR certainly did.

    • Hi Steve:
      Actually, some enterprising manufacturer – True Line Trains – announced fast clock pocket watches earlier this year, for delivery in late 2013. I wrote about them here. Assuming they actually get to market, I’ll pick up a couple for the crews to use in addition to the station clocks. My clocks can run at several ratios, including 2:1 and 4:1, and before the watches hit the market I’ll figure out which ratio works best for the layout so I can order appropriately.
      I’m happy with the clock faces as is and changing them would be a challenge.

      • Can you change the ratios to suit what you are doing, for example run them at 20x when running on plain line between stations, and then back to 2x, or even 1x, when switching? Are they synchronised with each other?

        Otherwise, what Mike said.

        • Hi Simon:
          The short answer is “Yes”. They’re synchronized and I can select from a number of fast ratios.
          I’ll write more about the clocks in a future post – stay tuned!

          • If we set the clocks to run fast, will that post arrive sooner, or later?
            It’s all relative, you know, as Freud commented to Einstein.

  3. Love those sliding tray things – I still have a Lee Valley one under the layout that still holds my PFM sound system! Needless to say, it stays retracted most of the time…

  4. Great idea. Love Lee Valley. I find it very hard to enter their store and not leave with something of value! While the pocket watches have been announced is there any news of their progress to market?

    • Hi Daniel:
      When the watches were announced in April I wrote for more details. At the time, True Line Trains reported they would be available “later this year”. I wrote yesterday for an update but haven’t yet heard back. When I do, I’ll share the info via this blog.

  5. The conductor’s desks are very handy. It helped me achieve a relaxed and deliberate state of mind. Using them I committed neither of my usual sins: inadvertently carry off items in my pockets or forget fail to move a waybill to the correct location. Might be a coincidence but I prefer to think not. 🙂

    • That’s great feedback, Mark – thanks! And you’re not the only person I know who walks off with materials – far from it. I had a friend in Ottawa who had to frisk himself after every session. He often took home entire packs of car cards…

      • When I’m operating at the club, I’m always using the surface of the layout as a workspace for my clipboard, radio, throttle, and uncoupling stick. It’s especially awkward if we’re low on operators and I’m performing the roles of “engineer” and “conductor.”

        It looks like you’ve left enough space to leave some things on the desk surface. That would be especially useful at the club because many of our aisles are only wide enough for a person to stand.


        • Hi Hunter:

          The Lee Valley slides have adjustable brackets that allow one to vary the distance from the mounting surface between 1-7/8″ and 3-1/8″ (to the bottom of the shelf). So yes, it’s possible to leave clearance for items left on the shelf.

          I set my shelves so the clocks would clear. That means clipboards, pens, etc., will also clear. (Possibly a throttle, too, although I haven’t tried that.)

          I am considering adding a cradle on each shelf to hold pens, uncoupling tools, and so on – to keep them from rolling off when the shelf is closed – but I don’t want to clutter the surface unnecessarily. We’ll see how this develops. But, it could be done…


  6. Now almost two and one half years after posting, I am wondering if any changes have been done with this retractable shelf…I am thinking of a low edging at the sides and back to prevent items from falling off, never to be seen again?

    And can this slide device be mounted any lower in order to hold taller items….I am considering Digitrax or other train controls.


    • Hi Ian:
      Good questions.
      Nothing has fallen off so I haven’t needed to add a barrier along the sides or back.
      The slides themselves have height adjustments that assume you’re putting them under a solid surface like a desk (they’re designed for things like keyboard trays). But I mounted mine on lengths of wood attached to the underside of my benchwork. In theory, one could build up those attachment points to make them any depth you require. Elsewhere I used these slides to create drawers to hold extra rolling stock, and for those I mounted the slides to the layout’s legs.

      • Thankyou Trevor, it sounds like a very workable solution. Have you ever investigated Lee Valleys LED Strip lighting? They sometimes have two hour sessions on the system. I attend one and may use an eight foot section to light part of my layout which due to ductwork has absolutely no space for conventional illumination.


        • Hi Ian:
          I have seen the system in the store but have not attended a session on it. At this point, I have no need for an LED system as powerful, scalable and flexible as that – the short IKEA strip lights were the perfect answer for lighting these desks. But I’ll keep the Lee Valley system in mind for future projects.

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