Mainline Completed

April 21, 2018

SOU 130

On Monday evening I completed the mainline. Last weekend afforded a lot of time to slog through the remaining ~50 feet of track, and so slog I did, strategically dropping in a few switches for passing sidings along the way. By Sunday evening about five feet of track remained to be laid, which was rather quickly knocked out the next night once the kids were in bed.

Laying flex track is one of those things that I perceive as a big hassle and so I put it off. For every piece I have to swap glasses for protective goggles, use the Dremel cutoff wheel to cut the rails to size, swap goggles for glasses, file the cut rails, remove a few ties, and finally attach rail joiners. Then, once it’s all done I step back and think, “Well that wasn’t that bad.” Repeat.

SOU 130

With the mainline completed I was obligated to run a few trains to test out the track, which went well, but strangely it didn’t feel as great as I had hoped. Perhaps because it’s still just a train running on plywood?

Or, perhaps more critically, it’s just a mainline. With exception of staging, there are no sidings, no spurs, no nothing. So all the train can do is run in a loop. It’s time to get some scenery going.

On that note, I have made two very small steps toward scenery, both visible in the photos accompanying this post:

  • I put down a base coat of brown paint on much of the plywood. While it sort of makes the ground look like a muddy, flat wasteland, I think it’s better than bare plywood.
  • I sprayed a short section of track with Rust-Oleum Camouflage Earth Brown, let the paint sit for a couple minutes, and then wiped off the top of the rails. The result is very basic track weathering. The tops of the rails are gleaming (as they should be), the sides of the rails look rusty, and the ties no longer have a plastic-y sheen. The one surprise I had was that it turned out to be more difficult to photograph than I expected.

Taking this layout beyond mainline-on-plywood (the fabled Plywood Pacific) is my next hurdle. I think the next logical step in this direction is to pick a town and develop a plan for its industries and sidings. Lots of decisions to be made – should be easy!


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.



March 26, 2018

Over the years I have occasionally blogged about my model railroad hobby. In 2013 I established this site to document my second layout. The third layout didn’t get much publication. In 2016 I started my fourth layout and, in an effort to simplify my life, decided to post about that layout on my main blog.

Now it is 2018. A new layout is underway, and I have decided that this site would be the best place to write about it. My hope is that it will be easier to write more frequently if I am not trying to consider an audience that has no interest in model railroading (not that my main blog has much of an audience anyway). Plus, it seems nice for my layout to have its own dedicated home on the internet.

I’ve moved the posts about the 2016-2017 layout to this site here, and hope to publish a entry about the new layout soon!


October 2017 Update

October 30, 2017

Night time.

It’s been a tough year for the railroad, but things are looking up. I’ve been very lucky to have never lost anything to lightning before this year, but I suppose my luck ran out – this spring we suffered a couple of lightning strikes. Judging by the path of destruction it appears to have come in on our cable line and used the ethernet as its guide. (Make sure your cable connection is properly grounded, kids.) Most frustrating, it seems to have caused some damage to my Lionel Legacy base unit, which took some time to get repaired and doesn’t seem to be fully resolved yet. I may need to make a budget allocation for a new one. Needless to say I am aggressively unplugging the layout nowadays.

A more happy development has been that I’ve found an operating group to be a part of. (This is also the nerdiest development of the year.) If you’re unfamiliar, “operating” on a model railroad involves a group of people getting together at somebody’s layout and running trains. But not just running the trains – running them as if they were part of a rail railroad. Typically there is a signup board with a schedule of trains. Each train starts in one place and usually ends up in another. Along the way you may have stops to make, cars to pick up and drop off, and other trains to safely make way for, with the dispatcher’s help. They tend to run around 3 1/2 hours and while they were initially pretty intimidating, I’ve found them to be quite a bit of fun. The people are great, and you end up learning quite a bit about how railroads operate – more on that in a moment. Perhaps best of all, I’ve found it to be helpful in keeping me motivated to work on my own layout. On that note…

Rock work.

The most obvious development on my layout over the past few months has been the mountain range, a chunk of which can be seen above. This range separates “Town A” and “Town B” on the layout plan (the two lowest towns). I originally intended this to be a backdrop dividing the two, but after mocking it up I quickly nixed it upon determining that it cut up the room too much for my liking.

The profile of the mountain is formed by 2” pink foam, and then the traditional cardboard webbing with plaster paper towels gives it some body. Rock walls give its steeper inclines some detail, which brings me to another development: I learned how to make latex rock molds! It turns out to be quite easy; the hardest part is finding good rocks. As I mentioned in the last update I used the methods demonstrated by Rich Battista in the Black Diamond Railway to fill in the gaps between the molds.

Eventually everything but the rock faces will be covered in trees and greenery. For now it has been painted a dirt color, as you will see in the later photos.

Town D work.

Over the past week I’ve started to develop some more concrete ideas about “Town D”, the highest and largest municipality on the layout. The seeds of this have come from my involvement with the operating group – I’ve learned why you might want to have a “passenger main” and a “freight main”, and why the track configuration and positioning of key structures like the passenger station might be arranged a certain way. I had designed (and built) Town D to have a lengthy siding, but it turned out that this didn’t allow for the passenger station to have my preferred orientation (toward the viewer) while having the other track be the freight main (from which industry spurs extend). So I’m reworking the path of the siding to be more effective freight while allowing the passenger station its rightful prominent location.

Oh, and the passenger station is new as well: an Atlas O kit that I picked up from Legacy Station. I used a brush to paint the roof and decided that that was way too much work, and so I dug out the airbrush and used it to finish the rest. This was my first time doing anything of substance with the airbrush, a device which can be almost magical when you are operating it properly. Unfortunately I have found the learning curve to be significant. More practice is needed. The cool thing is that it does use a tiny amount of paint, and of course the finish is very smooth.

There is still work to be done on the station: installing the window glazing, interior lights, maybe some very basic interior. I’d also like to weather it at some point. Maybe in 2019.

Day time.

Lastly, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lighting on the layout. For a few years now I’ve wanted to do some sort of RGB computer-controlled lighting so that I could simulate a day-night cycle, or at least have a more credible nighttime lighting mode than “lights off”. This is one of the few areas of model railroading where there isn’t a well-trodden path to follow. There are a number of people experimenting with this, but it seems like it hasn’t been fully figured out yet. So I’m joining the group of people experimenting with it.

I’ve determined that LED strips are the most reasonable and economical way to achieve this effect (RGB smart bulbs are much too expensive to be practical, and frequently their version of “soft white” is not terribly good). The trick has been finding the right LED strip that is bright enough. A good number of people are using LED strips on their HO and N scale layouts, but those scales can get away with having the lights much closer, say 18” away from the track. For my O scale layout I’m looking for a minimum of 24”, and preferably more to keep the lights out of your face and camera field of view.

After trying out a number of strips I have finally settled on SMD2835 600 LED/5M warm white strips. The photo above was taken under one such strip, 32” off the track.

The photo at the top of this post was intended to resemble a night shot, lit using only the blue channel from an RGBWW strip I had handy.

(The California Zephyr car is one of the only pieces of rolling stock I added this year. While it doesn’t have any business on an appalachian railroad, it looks too damn good not to be on my railroad, if only for photo ops.)

Lighting test, behind the scenes.

Here’s my test lighting rig. The plan is to suspend these light bars from the ceiling.

I didn’t get nearly as much done as I might have hoped, given my progress over last winter, but I’m optimistic for the next few months. One thing I’ve learned about this hobby is that many times the hardest part is making decisions. Especially when deciding what contours the landscape should have over a vacant space. The usual advice is to look at what a real railroad did, and model that. I should do more of that. While I have vague ideas that my railroad lies somewhere in western North Caroline, or maybe north Georgia, or perhaps even part of Tennessee, and I’ve visited those areas many times, I haven’t made dedicated trips to take photos of the landscape for this purpose. (It turns out that you can do a certain amount of this research using Google Maps streetview, which is especially handy when it’s not the right season.)

I’m going to continue to focus on a few small scenery areas, in the interests of filling in those voids, so that I can start to experiment with how to make trees and so forth. And while I’m happy to have made a decision on the lighting, I’m not sure how aggressively I’ll work on it. It’s one of those things that can wait, and there are more problems to be solved (how, exactly, am I going to build those bars? And how will I power them? Control them?) I haven’t even mentioned signals and occupancy detection in this post. (I also haven’t made much progress on it.) So many interesting little things to figure out and build, and new mistakes to make and skills to develop.

Until next time!