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  • Layout: The Bronx in a Basement

    Layout: The Bronx in a Basement

    By Frank Joyce

    This is a layout built by Frank Joyce. See Modeling Memories of the Bronx part I & II for a more detailed explanations.

    The layout is 9’ x 10’ with two tracks on the lower level. 15” curves for the inner turns and 18” for the outer. I used Bachmann’s E-Z track because I wanted something simple and reliable. I painted the track and base with Railroad Tie Brown, then cleaned off the tops of the rails and disguised the track with a light coat of ballast. The outer rail is strictly for continuous running, but the inner rail has some operational fun added. I replaced the plastic rails that came with the Walthers kits with live rail through the pier warehouse and the length of the pier, as well as the carfloat. There are two switches in the tunnel on the inner track that can send my switch engine onto the pier or to pick cars off the carfloat. I use an MRC 280 Tech 4 dual power pack for the trains on the lower level. It gives me much greater slow speed control.

    Track Plan

    The upper level has a point-to-point track that runs off an old Bachmann train set power pack. I use a Peerless model 525 automatic reversing module to keep the subway train going back and forth, so I can set it and forget it. I run the subway trains behind buildings at both ends. They pop out and traverse the “EL” in the center of the city scene. Even though the EL is built with two tracks I currently only have one powered. I have plans to power the other but not yet. First, I am planning to extend the 4’ section of el another 9’ or 10’ and have it visible for a much longer traverse. The new section of EL will run along the top level above the carfloat scene. Then I can have two subway trains running, passing each other.

    I use small engines for the most part, and stick to 40’ rolling stock. With the tight turns smaller cars look and run better. I recently purchased a 60’ coach from Rivarossi/Hornby and will eventually replace my 72’ passenger cars with these.

    For the city streets I used Walthers Cornerstone brick Street System kits, and Busch’s printed surface sheet Worn Asphalt. The Walthers kit comes with sidewalk, which I painted using Polly Scale’s acrylic Concrete or Aged Concrete. I tried to mix it up with color and placement so it wouldn’t all be uniform. I painted the curbs a light grey and the brick cobblestone street with Deco Art’s Americana series Charcoal Grey acrylic. This paint is very cheap and comes in large plastic tubes at craft stores. With the price of paints soaring these days, it’s worth checking the craft stores for these items, especially when you have a lot of area to cover.

    The Busch product is printed on cardboard and has a shiny finish the light glints off, so I used Testor’s Dullcoat after gluing it in position. The Busch worn asphalt street has garnered many compliments from visitors in person and online. I give credit where credit is due. I only wish I was that good! For under $3 you get two sheets a little larger than 8” x 5”. It’s one of the best kept secrets in the pursuit of any street scene, whether city or town:


    You can see this street in use in the photo below:

    In laying out streets I have two at the edge of the layout for close-up, detailed foreground scenes, and the rest at angles leading away from the edge of the layout. Hills and curves are also a huge help in creating the right look. No city, no matter how new, is dead flat, so hills, contours and curves work wonders.

    I use Woodland Scenics lamp-posts spaced along the sidewalks in a zigzag pattern so that light covers the street from one side or the other, the same for corners.

    I have a few Scale Structures Ltd. fire call-boxes and an assortment of mailboxes, trash baskets, and a news stand at select corners. I have a Bar Mills street elevator on the sidewalk by the A&P. This is an amazing little etched brass kit and super easy to put together.

    There are some sections of sidewalk I have scratched cracks into using a dental pick. A very light wash of charcoal grey fills these in nicely. I have plans to do more since it came out so well.
    I have a few key structures on the layout that scenes are based on. The pier and pier warehouse, the tug and carfloat/apron, the apartment building, the elevated, a dockside street with a restaurant named for my wife Lin, shared with a bar/pool hall and an old transient hotel, the subway station, and although no longer a “structure”, an archaeological dig site (my son Graham is studying archaeology and has been on several digs). These key elements are surrounded by details and mini scenes.

    For the EL scene I laid out large “view block” buildings on either end for the train to appear and disappear behind on its back and forth run. To give the EL maximum visibility, I placed small structures in the foreground, then larger buildings behind it towering above, and finally N scale buildings peeking out from behind a tree line in the far background. The N scale buildings give a forced perspective and add more depth in just a few inches of space. Due to the height of the layout the tall buildings and N scale background buildings are especially effective: 

    Construction methods

    The layout consists of three sections that can be separated and moved. A framed and braced 4’ x 9’ table, and two 3’ x 6’ folding tables. The two table ends are joined by a 1’ x 3’ duck-under. There is a 3’ x 5’ opening in the middle for sitting and running trains while surrounded by scenery. 

    Each section has 2” foam insulation board as the base. It adds height and each section can be removed from the table if I ever relocate the layout. Having the base as 2” foam board makes for a very light section to move or store upright. All I’d have to do is remove the buildings, none of which are glued down. I like to change buildings around occasionally and re-work scenes, so buildings and vehicles are movable. I also collect vehicles and can change the time of a scene by swapping vehicles, trains and signs from another decade. I do this for specific scene photographs, but the layout is set for autumn in the late 50’s. 

    The layout’s lowest point, the surface of the Harlem River water, is at a height of 47”, the rails of the twin tracks on the lower level are at 49”, and the apartment building street and the rails of the elevated track are at 56”.

    There are three major plans for future improvement to the layout. When I complete the EL extension I’ll bring you an update. When that project is completed I would like to add a small yard and re-configure the tracks for the carfloat job. I also want to make a better backdrop. Although my buildings are the backdrop, more depth could be added by having a city background. Right now it is just a uniform light blue.

    For 10 years I was a “lone wolf” model railroader, working on and off and learning on my own. It wasn’t until I started working with other model railroaders that my own horizons were widened. Helping others with their layouts continually fires me up, sharpens my skills and motivates me to work more on my layout. I am convinced that helping others gave me the renewed energy and enthusiasm I needed to bring my layout to this stage of near completion. It’s never really finished, though, is it?! There’s always more to do and ways to enhance and improve. I have decided that with all of the time and effort I have spent on this layout, I will keep it going! I have gone through several layouts in the past, learning all the while. Finally, this layout has the key elements and the feel I was aiming for. It took a lot of failure and learning from mistakes to get to here. And helping others got me here a lot faster.

    Since joining Flickr and YouTube I have met a great community of model railroaders and I am constantly inspired by them. The talent and enthusiasm out there is astonishing. The camaraderie between new and experienced model railroaders needs to be continually fostered. Reach out to someone younger in the hobby. Help and encourage them. No matter your level of experience or ability, we all have something to share.

    I am grateful to be a part of something that is so much fun and so relaxing. Life can be so hard. It’s great to have an outlet that is so rewarding.

    There has never been a better time to be a model railroader. We are living in a golden age of products with advancement in every area of the hobby. It really is an amazing time. There are more things available to us now than ever before. It’s exciting to see what’s out there and what’s coming down the pike. Digital control vehicles, (think of the operational expansion that could bring!), more and more items with quality sound and control… The future is very bright.


    For more information, contact Frank Joyce.

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