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Model Railroad Planning 2018


Model Railroad Planning 2018 is back with more creative solutions for modeling your best layout yet. From the publisher of Model Railroader magazine, the 100-page special issue features 15 all-new layout stories in HO, N, and O scale. Learn scenery tricks, track planning, yard construction, and more, from top experts in the field.

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Applying lessons learned

Over the past six decades, I’ve built numerous layouts, beginning with my grandfather’s and father’s Lionel trains, then N scale, and then converting to HO. Each layout was a valuable learning experience as well as another step away from the first “loop of track” layout toward something that resembled a full-size railroad.

College was a place for learning, both for my future family business career and for my future model railroading endeavors. I think that what I learned from Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman was just as important as the college courses. The late 1970s were when articles in MR by Jim Hediger about his Ohio Southern introduced the double-deck layout, and Allen McClelland’s seminal Virginian & Ohio series appeared in RMC.

Interchanging cars via car floats

Over the years, I’ve collected a variety of highly detailed rolling stock for my Virginia & Western RR (see “It’s done with mirrors” in Model Railroad Planning 2017) with little consideration for the type of car. But after I was introduced to realistic operation, I realized I had far too many tank cars, refrigerator cars, and in particular anachronistic billboard reefers for an East Coast railroad set in the 1950s.

With few places to spot them on the railroad, I would move them from one end of staging to the other and back again, or simply remove them from the railroad by hand. Surely there was a more creative way to use some members of my freight car fleet.

It finally dawned on me that a car float provides an excellent place to spot cars that serve industries that are either under-represented or nonexistent on the railroad. The assumption is the industries needing the cars are across the harbor, river, or lake. A car float or ferry could also serve as a connection between two or more railroads. A car float thus creates a job for a local port crew.


Bellevue reborn

As a professor at the University of Illinois, I’m fond of telling students that you can’t plan your life. A great example of this is how I came to build an N scale layout inspired by the Nickel Plate Road in northern Ohio in 1957.

I didn’t grow up anywhere near the NKP. As a child, I lived across the street from an Illinois Central branch line in southern Illinois. As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated by trains. In grade school, I did a little HO scale modeling of the Illinois Central but lost interest during high school.

Then in 1990, after graduating from law school, working at a law firm in Georgia for several years, and then returning to Champaign, Ill., as a professor, I decided to return to the hobby. One of my students introduced me to her husband, who was a member of the local Ntrak club, the Midwest Central Railroad Club. The long trains and amount of layout possible in a small space with N scale was a big draw for me, so I joined the club and built a module for the club layout.


Modeling an M&StL branch line

Ever since I had the good fortune to operate Charlie Duckworth’s Bagnell Branch [see Model Railroad Planning 2010Ed.], I’ve been intrigued by out-and-back branchline operations. This prompted me to study the Minneapolis & St. Louis’ branch line west out of Hampton, Iowa, and rail service to rural communities.

To be frank, things had become pretty ho-hum in my basement. My M&StL layout depicting Mason City, Iowa, was finished (Great Model Railroads 2015). I passed the time hosting regularly scheduled operations for the local group. That was fine, but the itch to build something – anything! – needed scratching. So I spent several months modeling a large local feed mill complex and associated tracks with no real plan for what to do with it when finished. I was happy building.

When we sold our house and found a new residence – that is, obtained a new basement – I had an excuse to follow Charlie’s lead.

Fitting an industry to the space

One of the most enjoyable aspects of building a new layout is imagining how we can maximize the layout within the space provided. When you’re a prospective home- owner, there’s a certain level of excitement that comes with investigating a basement’s potential. But there’s more to buying a new home than sizing up the railroad room to be. My wife and I have three children, so we needed a house with four bedrooms plus a home office for my wife.

The good news was a four-bedroom house should fit nicely over a good-sized basement. That said, the house we chose did have some basement challenges. It was 28 x 32 feet, still more than enough to allow a reasonable reincarnation of CP Rail’s Lyndonville and Newport subdivisions.


A 1990s trunk line in an 1840s basement

Those of us who grew up in the 1980s were keenly aware that the “golden age” of railroading had passed. We heard about how great things once were, and why many people with an interest in trains were no longer excited by the ones they now saw.

In the Northeast, Conrail had taken over. Drastic changes had come, and Conrail itself was born of government action required to save the railroad industry in the region. Main lines were consolidated, even outright abandoned.

But the trains still ran. And although some “old hats” hated Conrail – it replaced the beloved railroads of their memories – for many of us, Conrail is the memory!


How high should your railroad be?

As we plan and build our model railroads, our focus is mainly on the dimensions of horizontal elements like curve radius, clearances, and track spacing as we strive to squeeze a desired configuration into the available footprint. Setting the benchwork and track height above the floor is usually not the first order of business.

Although layout height options can be debated, usually they aren’t critical in determining the overall track plan, particularly with single-deck configurations. Height is, however, a bigger factor in multi-deck or mushroom layout designs.


Modeling a Michigan short line

I model the 20-mile Adrian & Blissfield RR in HO scale. Along the 240-foot main line, I’ve managed to model what I consider the signature features of the prototype.

The full-size Adrian & Blissfield (ADBF) is a Class 3 short line that operates between Adrian and Riga in Lenawee County, Mich. The right-of-way was originally part of the New York Central’s “Old Road” main line between Buffalo, N.Y., and Chicago.

The ADBF’s largest shippers are the Michigan Agricultural Commodities grain elevator and the Green Plains (previously Global) Ethanol plant, both in Blissfield. The grain elevator ships numerous unit grain trains out year-round. The ethanol plant, which ships tank cars of ethanol and covered hoppers of corn mash, is switched daily.

Scene swapping

My White River Division is a smaller layout, measuring 12 x 14 feet, which I built fairly quickly during four winters beginning in 2002. (For more on the WRD, see the March 2009 Model Railroader.) Building a smaller layout let me devote extra time and funds to detailing my layout and building many more craftsman-style structures than were actually required.

But I model rural New England, so packing more structures into an urban environment wouldn’t have projected the look I wanted. It occurred to me that perhaps the best way to handle the additional structures was to build bases that could be changed out at designated locations on the layout.


A removable staging area

Staging is one of the key elements to consider when designing a model railroad. It’s especially important when the layout is small and every inch of space is at a premium. While staging yards can be configured in numerous ways, they all accomplish the same goal: giving the illusion that the layout is connected to the rest of the rail network, thus providing a plausible purpose for a model railroad.

A staging yard is often compared to the backstage area of a theater from which the actors enter and exit the stage during a performance. Our trains can operate in much the same manner, where they leave or enter a staging area before or after their operations on the scenicked portion of the layout.


Just what the doctor ordered

Pounding a square peg into a round hole causes a lot of stress on the hole, the peg, and the hammer. Sometimes it’s best to adapt the peg to the hole. Let me explain.

I often design layout plans for friends, but I usually don’t provide a finished design. My intention is to help them determine what their layout could look like by sharing ideas and concepts. I can provide finished layout plans if asked, but often the plans I draw are only to facilitate discussion and to spark new thinking.

I tend to design complex layouts that are strongly focused on prototype operations. Of course, complex layouts and prototype operation aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. Think “square peg, round hole” in this case.

Designing the Shasta Division

One of my favorite parts of any National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) convention is discussing potential layout plans with attendees as part of the Layout Design Special Interest Group’s free track-planning help sessions. Richard Kelliher was one help-seeker I met in Sacramento in 2011. Richard had recently completed a large, dedicated train building and was looking forward to building an HO layout covering a portion of the Southern Pacific’s Shasta Division in the transition era.

His hoped-for layout scope included one or two of the railroad bridges located to the south (railroad timetable west) of the division point of Dunsmuir, Calif. He had already acquired suitable brass models. Other high-priority elements included the Dunsmuir area itself, Mount Shasta, Black Butte, perhaps a bit of the connecting McCloud River RR (MR) – and whatever else might fit. He was already building an angular section encompassing the engine service terminal in Dunsmuir; although not yet completed and scenicked, this scene was to be incorporated.


The not-so-direct journey back to O scale

My current Santa Fe Plains Division Fourth Subdivision HO layout, which was shown in the August 2009 Model Railroader, is a 30 x 36-foot prototype model of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF) from Lubbock to Slaton, Texas, in the summer of 1977. The layout has been operationally finished for several years. It has a prototype track plan, signals, a Traffic Control System machine copied from the original, and correct rolling stock and motive power.

The buildings are accurately scaled cardboard mock-ups, and the track is unpainted Atlas code 100 – what I call “representational” modeling. So how did all of this lead to an O scale switching layout?


Modeling the Wabash in Canada

St. Thomas, Ontario: Today, it’s a small city in southwestern Ontario, struggling to cope with massive job losses as a result of the “new economy.” Sixty-five years ago, it was a bustling railway center, home to three U.S. railroads as well as the two big Canadian railways and an interurban line.

One of the U.S. railroads was the Wabash. In 1898, the Wabash negotiated a running-rights agreement with the Grand Trunk Ry., predecessor to Canadian National, which remained in place until Wabash successor Norfolk Southern left Canada in 2006.

The Wabash operations in Canada are perfect to model for this freight car junkie. In essence, there were two separate operations. First was the “Redball” traffic: Hotshot through freights would transit the province, doing no work along the line. Perishables, priority freight, and parts for the auto plants in upper New York State made up the lion’s share of the consists, complemented by the usual variety of freight traffic. These trains were essentially “sealed” at the border in Detroit and Windsor, and all cars had to be accounted for when they returned to the U.S. later in the day.


7 things not to do

We’ve all made mistakes when it comes to planning and building our model railroads. It’s part of the learning process that makes the hobby enjoyable and challenging. But many of our errors could have been avoided if someone had cautioned us about the pitfalls that lie ahead. Much as we thought we knew what we were planning or doing, it often turns out that what we thought we knew wasn’t quite the same as what we should have known.

So, at the risk of raising a few eyebrows and maybe even ruffling a few feathers, here are seven concerns that at least warrant further thought before you plunge ahead.

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Layout Projects

Tips and techniques for any layout

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