Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Building a Model Railroad: Preliminary Design Issues

In my last post, I developed the rationale for my miniature railroad empire.  With a rationale and purpose for the railroad decided on, I could then move to the design of a track plan that would link together the three main “scenes”of the layout: The small mining village of Robertsdale; the EBT station and shop complex at Orbisonia; and the busy industrial interchange between the Blacklog Valley and the EBT at Blacklog. 
A scale model of anything but the simplest of railroads requires more space than most modelers have available.  Hence, the first step in creating a viable track plan is deciding what to leave out!  Since I model in HO scale (1:87), it quickly became clear that attempting to reproduce the 30-mile long EBT would be impossible.  A one mile long siding in HO would require more than 60 feet!  There simply isn’t enough space.  My train room is a finished bump-out in the attic that measures roughly 19 x 19 feet, with a 10 x 11 foot extension at one end that I use for my workbench, files and storage.  This is a substantial amount of space, but compromises were still necessary.

Thus the first decision in designing a track plan is to determine the maximum available space for the railroad.  In my case, there were windows on two walls of the train room, which complicated the placement of the benchwork.  I decided to leave an aisle along the window walls, placing the benchwork flush against the other two side walls.  This left me with a space of approximately 13 x 16 feet for the layout. 

Knowing the available space is only the first step in layout design.  How to fill that space with an operating model railroad involves a number of critical decisions.  At the very least, these decisions include:
·         The minimum radius of curvature
·         The minimum aisle width
·         The height of the benchwork above the floor
·         The maximum allowable grade
·         The type of benchwork construction.
All these questions will affect the design of the track plan, the benchwork, and ultimately, whether you have a model railroad that is interesting and fun to operate, or one that will be a constant source of aggravation and frustration.

Minimum Radius of Curvature
How sharp you make your curves depends on a number of factors, including the wheelbase of the locomotive and the length of the rolling stock.  Many articles have been written on the technical details of building curves on a model railroad; but for simplicity, I opted for a minimum radius of 24 inches for my HO scale Blacklog Valley, and 22 inches for the Hon3 East Broad Top.  In some places the radius is as much as 26 inches; in a few places (such as the wyes at Blacklog and Robertsdale) the curves are somewhat tighter. 

Minimum Aisle Width 
One of the most common errors in building a model railroad is making the aisles too narrow.  In an effort to increase the space for track and scenery, it is tempting to skimp on the width of the aisles.  I have learned through experience that while you may be able to get by with an aisle of 24 to 30 inches, a good three feet is the minimum when there is more than one person operating the trains.  Squeezing by visitors or guest operators is really difficult with anything less.  In my case, the side window aisles are 40 inches wide and the center aisle is three feet. 

Height of the Benchwork 
How high your model railroad is above the floor is a matter of individual taste.  The Lionel train layout my father built for me as a boy, rested on short sections of 2 x 4 placed on edge, making the layout was less than 4 inches off the floor.   This must have made wiring a nightmare!  My own preference is to have the railroad slightly below eye level.  Since I stand about 67 inches tall, I chose to set the height of the benchwork at Blacklog at 46 inches.  This permits me to view trains up close and personal, while allowing for easy access to mechanical and electrical work under the benchwork. 

Maximum Allowable Grade 
The ruling grade is the maximum degree of incline.  Prototype railroads generally operate with grades of less than 2 percent.  A 2 percent grade equals an increase of 2 feet in every 100 feet, which is fairly steep when you are pulling tons of freight uphill.  Some narrow gauge railroads had steeper grades, but rarely more than 3 or 4 percent.  Steep grades meant using helper engines, or sometimes breaking the train into smaller units.  Either solution added to the cost of moving freight.  Railroads were extremely creative in finding ways to avoid steep grades. 

On my layout, I arbitrarily set the maximum grade at 2 percent.  Coincidently, Woodland Scenics sells styrofoam inclines for two, three and four percent grades.  My Hon3 East Broad Top has a steady 2 percent climb from Blacklog to Rockhill, and again from Rockhill to Robertsdale. 

The HO gauge Blacklog Valley Railroad has a 2% descending grade out of Blacklog, such that the return loop passes 5 ½ inches below the narrow gauge EBT at Robertsdale.   In the photo below you can see the standard gauge tracks of the Blacklog Valley emerging from beneath Robertsdale on the HOn3 East Broad Top. 

In my next posting, I will explain how I built the benchwork that supports the layout, and why I decided on extruded foam insulation as the base for the railroad.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Designing the Blacklog Valley

Like many model railroaders, my interest in the hobby began as a boy, when I received my first Lionel train set for Christmas.  My father had worked secretly in the basement for weeks, building a layout consisting of two 4 x 8 sheets of plywood laid end to end.  To my young eyes, it was perfect, with its painted grass and streets, Plasticville houses, and a figure eight track plan that wound across the miniature landscape. 

I can still remember that wonderful model railroad of my childhood.  So of course, when I built my first layout some 25 years later, I used the same technique: sheets of ½ inch plywood resting between pairs of sawbucks.  To my dismay, I soon discovered that unsupported plywood tends to sag, especially in a damp basement!  Moreover, my first efforts at designing a track plan were less than satisfactory.  I spent more time picking out a name for the railroad than figuring out what it was supposed to do.  Watching a train go round and round in a circle is fun for a while, but eventually it gets boring. 

My current model railroad is the fourth reincarnation of my initial effort.  After some 35 years in the hobby, I have learned a lot about building solid, stable benchwork that provides a suitable support for the track, switches, yards, sidings, and spurs that make up a scenic and interesting model railroad.  I have also discovered the importance of developing a rationale for your model railroad before you begin to build.  In my early efforts to construct a layout, I built the benchwork first, then tried to design a track plan that would fit the available space.  This approach inevitably led to tight curves, inaccessible track, and a “bowl of spaghetti” railroad to nowhere!

Real railroads don’t travel in circles; they are built to carry coal, oil, livestock, merchandise, commodities or passengers from point “A” to point “B”.  Even if your model railroad follows a loop or figure eight track plan, there should be some basic rationale to justify its operation.  That means that before you nail one piece of lumber to another, you need to sit down and decide on a track plan for your model railroad empire.  Only then you can design the benchwork to support your layout. 

In my case, a single thread has connected all five of the layouts I have constructed over the years.  My very first model railroad, built of plywood on sawbucks, was named for a nearby topographical feature in the mountains of central Pennsylvania where I lived.  Blacklog Valley runs in a southwesterly direction from Port Royal, on the former Pennsylvania Railroad, to Hancock, Maryland, and the Western Maryland Railroad.  My first model railroad was named the Blacklog Valley, a bridge line connecting the two class I common carriers.  Every layout I have built since then has included the freelanced Blacklog Valley. 

But while living in central Pennsylvania, I discovered and fell in love with the narrow gauge East Broad Top Railroad, which ran from Robertsdale in southern Huntingdon County, to Mount Union, where it connected with the PRR.  The EBT hauled coal north from the Broad Top coal fields some 30 miles to Mount Union, where the coal was sorted, cleaned, and transferred to standard gauge hoppers.  The EBT also provided ganister rock to several area brickyards, as well as a small amount of freight and passenger service.

I wanted my railroad to include both the free-lanced Blacklog Valley and at least portions of the EBT.  This turned out to be a marriage made in heaven, since the EBT once had a spur that actually served the village of Blacklog, situated in the scenic Blacklog Valley several miles east of the main office and shop complex at Rockhill, Pennsylvania.  Here was the rationale for the layout!  The narrow gauge EBT would haul coal, stone and passengers from Robertsdale through Rockhill to Blacklog, where it would be transferred to the standard gauge Blacklog Valley Railroad. 
With a rationale and purpose for the railroad decided on, I could then move to the design of a track plan that would link together the three main “scenes”of the layout: The small mining village of Robertsdale; the EBT station and shop complex at Orbisonia; and the busy industrial interchange between the Blacklog Valley and the EBT at Blacklog.   In my next post, I will look at some of the issues involved in designing and building a model railroad.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Finding Your Niche in the Hobby

Model Railroading is a hobby with something for everyone.   Building a model railroad can involve carpentry, wiring, track planning, scenery, architecture and electronics.  It can lead the modeler to immerse oneself in history, geology, mechanics, and civil engineering.  Some folks like to replicate entire railroads with computerized operations and time clocks.  Others just like to watch the trains go around and around.   There is no right or wrong way to be a model railroader.   The hobby's Rule Number One is paramount: "It's my railroad!"

When you really get into it, model railroading involves a lot of skills, some of which take years to hone.   There are a lot of things I enjoy about the hobby, some of which I am pretty good at, and some I still have a long way to grow.  But over the last 35 years or so, I have found a great deal of enjoyment in building structures -- whether of wood, plaster, plastic or metal.   In fact, I still have most of the models I built when I first got into the hobby.  If memory serves me, my very first foray into structure building was the Timberline Rio Grande Water Tank, which still occupies a place on the layout.

It was probably not the easiest structure to choose for my first craftsman kit, but I learned a lot about building, painting and weathering a basic lineside railroad structure.  If you look carefully, you can see my first attempt to weather the shingle roof with stains radiating out from the center.  Not bad for a first effort. 

My second attempt was even more ambitious -- a bandstand from Campbell.  Even today I can remember what a pain it was to cut and assemble those tiny little lattices.  But I found that building that kit provided so much enjoyment that I was eager to move on to something more challenging:

 It was sometime in the late 1970s that I discovered Fine Scale Miniatures -- marvelous little kits created by George Sellios of Peabody, Massachusetts.  I had never encountered a kit as complicated as his two story station, which came with a whole box full of tiny white metal details: lamps, barrels, architectural ornaments, even a coke machine and a box full of empties!  Nor had I ever purchased such an expensive kit!  (It was almost $30 -- a lot of money to spend on a box containing little pieces of wood, metal and plastic!)   It must have taken me months to build that station, but today it still occupies a place of honor on the layout.  (Recently, I had a chance to chat with George at his fantastic layout, the Franklin and South Manchester.  When I mentioned that I had built the two story station, George got really excited, and told me that it was one of his favorite kits.  It is one of mine as well!)

After the station, I built one more FSM kit, a coal shed and sand house that was, if possible, even more challenging and complex than the station.  It makes me smile to realize that kits that once sold for $25 and $30 back in the 70s now sell for hundreds of dollars!  I loved those kits, but I had reached the point where I wanted to try building something on my own, not from a kit.

By this time I had become an avid reader of Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman magazines.  In the December 1975 issue of RMC there was an article on Retail Coal Dealers with plans for a coal yard with a really neat three silo coal dock.  I decided to strike out on my own for the first time and build a structure with nothing to go on but a set of drawings and some pictures.  The first challenge was how to construct a round coaling tower.  The answer was at hand -- in fact, it was IN my hand -- a cold brewsky that I was sipping while I read the article.  I built the towers from three empty beer cans, wrapped in scribed basswood, with rubber bands for the steel reinforcing rods.  (No, really!  It worked better than you can imagine!)  The end result was a source of immense satisfaction, not least because I did it myself.  I had become a scratch builder!  (The entire structure finally fell apart a few years ago when the Ambroid cement I had used dried out, and the rubber bands finally rotted and broke.  I still have the parts, and one of these days I may try my hand at resurrecting the beer can coaling dock!

The story doesn't end here.  My passion for building craftsman level structures had led me in new and challenging directions.  But that will have to wait for my next posting.