New Layout, New Scale

March 29, 2018

In April of 2017 I attended my first operating session. For the uninitiated, an operating session is where a group of people get together to operate a model railroad as if it were a real railroad: usually you have a dispatcher, yardmaster(s), and a bunch of engineers. I was lucky to find a great operating group for my first session: they were helpful and encouraging. They also match my sensibilities about these things: they take it somewhat seriously, but not too seriously.

I’ve been curious about operating for several years now, but didn’t know whether it was something I would enjoy doing, and therefore how much I should consider operating in my layout design (a layout designed for operating tends to be much different from one designed for watching trains go around). I read books, articles, forum posts. I scoured YouTube for good videos on the topic (this turns out to be rather difficult: it’s one thing to run a train at realistic speed (slowly) along a run-around when you’re holding the throttle; it’s quite another to watch someone else do it on video). It wasn’t until I attended several sessions that I felt I had a decent grasp on it. If you yourself are curious, I strongly suggest you seek out a group to give it a try.

After attending a number of sessions it turns out that operating is something I like. I like simulations, and I like complicated systems. A signalled railroad with five or so people operating on it at once is just really cool. Depending on how crowded the railroad is you can run into times when you are stopped at a red signal for several minutes. While this might sound boring, my experience has been that there is an almost zen-like quality to it. Yes, you’re having to wait, but you’re waiting because there are other things happening around you. There’s much more I’d like to say about operating, but I’ll save that for another post.

The layouts in the operating group’s rotation are predominantly HO scale, although there are several N scale. A few years ago when I got back into model railroading, I bought into O scale for the theatrics of it. Lionel Legacy engines have great stage presence, if you will: they’re big and heavy, sound awesome, and have great smoke effects (synchronized chuffing and simulated steam blowing out when the whistle blows). By comparison, HO seemed more like a model, and N just ridiculously small. Additionally, in the smaller scales derailments seem much more common: the cars are sometimes rather light, and any flaws in the trackwork are magnified.

After spending some time running HO scale trains, however, I was starting to realize that they weren’t that bad. Some even had rather good sound, even if it didn’t have the richness of O scale with its relatively massive speaker enclosures. At the same time, the expense of O scale was starting to weigh on me.

Think of what you could build in HO scale, I thought. Sure, I had put close to two years of work into the layout, but if my goal is to build a layout for the next twenty years, better to get it right a little late than never, right?

An Experiment

The Experiment

I resolved to make a small investment in some HO equipment: an entry level DCC system (Digitrax Zephyr), a locomotive with good sound, a few cars, a few switches, and a little bit of track. I built a sort of shelf layout (2’ x 8’) as an learning experience and a test, to see if I could handle such tiny trains.

To be perfectly honest I didn’t let the test run its course. After putting down the track (and finding that it was incredibly easy to deal with when compared to 3-rail O scale “flex” track), barely a few days had gone by before I started putting together new layout plans in HO.

A New Layout Takes Shape

At first it felt amazingly freeing: compared to O scale, I now had all the space in the world! It took some time to temper that. While the smaller scale afforded me the ability to do numerous things that were impractical or prohibitively expensive (have a turntable and roundhouse, for example), my space was not limitless. Additionally, while track configuration can generally be scaled down to close to a quarter of the area, curves still take up roughly the same amount of room: research showed that 30” was a good minimum radius for HO, if you can swing it, which is not that different from the fairly generous 36” radius curves I had built in O scale.

At one of the operating sessions I mentioned that I was looking seriously at building an HO scale layout and another of the members, Norm Stenzel, generously offered to design a layout for me. While I have generally prided myself on my layouts being all mine – my design, my construction – Norm’s layout, the Brandywine & Benedictine, had been one of the layouts I had been studying for design ideas. I couldn’t accept Norm’s offer quickly enough.

The Layout Plan

With input from me on my interests (long mainline, space between towns, small yard), Norm created a design for a point-to-point layout with shared staging entered at a wye, which makes the staging more flexible, as well as cleverly allowing for continuous operation (i.e., running trains on a loop when guests are over). My plan is to loosely model the Southern Railway’s Murphy Branch in western North Carolina, possibly from Bryson City to Murphy, where it interchanged with the L&N. This part is still in flux, however.

Construction Progress: Viaduct taking shape

Construction has begun in earnest. In some ways this is my favorite phase of layout building; the astute and snarky reader might say that that’s because it’s the only phase of layout building I’ve done, to which I would reply that that is only 80% true (I have made plaster mountains and rock molds). Still, building benchwork shows quick results and laying stretches of the mainline is gratifying work. I’ve managed to reuse and repurpose a great deal of the benchwork and subroadbed of the old layout, thanks to using a similar radius, and have been gradually selling off my O scale equipment to fund capital purchases for the new railroad.

The photo shows construction from the right hand side of the layout plan. You can see part the wye at right, partially obscured by the (trackless) viaduct which leads to the yard. The track from the wye leading left enters a single turn helix down to staging, which can be seen in the distance.


So far I couldn’t be happier with the change to HO. There is so much available on the market compared to O, and the economics are vastly better. Interestingly I have heard long-time HO scale model railroaders complain about the market being a fraction of what it was, and prices going up and up, but from a former O-scaler’s perspective, the water is fine!

I hope to complete the mainline in the next few weeks; construction of the next sections of subroadbed will be trickier because because I need to accomodate the staging track below, but it will be great when trains can run the full mainline.