Tasha Oates updated September 16, 2011


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  • Railroading on the "Plywood Pacific"

    Is scenery necessary to fully operate a layout?


    Left: This is the town of Midway on the author's Dixon, Wyanet & Lake Superior Railroad. North of this point, the area has finished scenery, and south it is open benchwork. When running a train, the operator hardly notices the transition as he traverses the line.

    Right top: The city of Clinton was rebuilt once and had several other small changes made while the Wyanet's operations were refined. None of these improvements would have been possible if scenery had been permanently installed. Note the card standing behind the gondola, the author's method of identifying an industry site before the structure is in place.

    Right middle: At Almont, the Wyanet serves a number of industries, including the Garnhart Elevator -- a kit box standing on end and labelled as such. Note the recessed area below the town where waybills and train orders can be conveniently kept.

    Right bottom: Between towns, the layout looks like this in the unscenicked areas. Other than the possibility of rolling stock falling to the floor, there is no disadvantage to fully operating trains through this type of scene. The operators concentrate on the train, and the scenery (or lack of it) becomes part of the background.
    Prototype Modeler - May 1986 - Page 36 Prototype Modeler - May 1986 - Page 37

    One goal of this hobby is to get scenery in place on the layout. The sight of a train running through finished scenery has an impact like nothing else. Scenery offers increased realism, a better setting for your modeling efforts and is in itself a joy to create. Even considering this, I suggest there should be no hurry to start scenery.

    Before I am hung in effigy (and possibly without an effigy), please read on. These thoughts are offered for your consideration and in the hope you will find something of use.

    Unless you can visualize in the third and fourth dimensions, and can plan your trackage with unusual accuracy, many things you will want to change become apparent only during operating sessions after your initial track designs are in use. This is especially true if you wish to build a railroad model instead of a model railroad.

    For myself (and many others, I suspect), installing scenery creates a degree of permanency which makes trackage changes difficult, both mentally and physically. Please do not assume, though, that I am anti-scenery. There is over 150 running feet of scenery on my Dixon, Wyanet & Lake Superior. This is located, for the most part, along the main line between towns. Scenery is a fun and relaxing part of this hobby and is an expression of three-dimensional art. But, I refuse to allow scenery (or anything else) to interfere with the refinement of trackage and operation on the Wyanet.

    We have been operating the Wyanet version of the Plywood Pacific since 1981, and I did not even start any scenery construction until late 1983. The scenicked part of the layout is greatly enjoyed, but there have been no complaints about operating on the Plywood Pacific areas.

    On all parts of the layout I use place keepers for future structures. These are empty kit boxes marked with the name of the industry or business, extra structures with a labeled card folded over the roof, etc. When I build the structures for that location, they are replaced. During a busy operating session, the combination of place keepers and structures looks like a town. Oddly, it is a rather satisfying illusion.

    One important reason why I don't rush scenery is this "golden age" of our hobby. Consider what has come to be offered in just the last couple of years: Central Valley's truss bridge, fences, and stairs; Design Preservations' excellent line of structures; the Scale Scenics line of products; Chooch's ever-expanding line; Walthers superb sign kit; Woodland Scenics dry transfer signs. The list goes on and this doesn't consider offerings in locomotives, cars, and track.

    Right: The town of Halls on the Wyanet is a good example of what can be achieved by not rushing into scenery construction. The diagram on the adjacent page shows the original plan for Halls. Because of new product availability and refined operation plans, the town concept was changed considerably before scenery was built. The finished town of Halls is seen here. Note how the corner curve is well hidden by the blacksmith shop and trees. The eye is also drawn away from the curve by the town structures themselves.
    Prototype Modeler - May 1986 - Page 38 Prototype Modeler - May 1986 - Page 39

    You may well find as I have, that your original ideas about a certain area on the layout can be enhanced or totally changed by new product availability. Given the length of time it takes to build a layout, there will be many new product offerings during construction, and taking your time before scenery could allow the key component for a scene to come on the market. The following experiences with the Wyanet are offered in the hope you will find something valuable to apply to your situation.

    The first three operating sessions after the layout was "complete" were filled with troubleshooting of wiring, track, cars and locomotives. No matter how intensely you work at getting the layout to run smoothly, an operating session with its random train consists, varied throttle handling, and multiple throttle usage will allow problems to arise like red flags.

    The fourth session found track, locomotives, etc., all working well (miracles do happen). With things running smoothly, scheduling and trackage problems became obvious. Some of these were too many three-way meets, locals with too much work, a town which needed to be rebuilt (Clinton), and several placed where the trackage had to be rearranged. With a full crew and extra men, it took over 40 hours on the fast clock to run out a 24-hour schedule.

    To correct the problems, I split up work on the locals, rescheduled start (list) times for trains, added trackage at the towns of Wyanet, Midway and Almont, and redesigned and totally rebuilt Clinton with a city yard.

    Ebner is the mid-line tie-up point for the two north-end locals, two south end locals and two mine runs. As such, three trains originate and three tie up at Ebner. Originally, the locals made up their own trains. Through several operating sessions this was found to use up too much of their duty time (16 hours per shift -- the Wyanet is set in 1929). To smooth out this part of the operation, the trackage at Ebner was torn out and redone. I enlarged the yard from three to five tracks and stationed a switch engine there. During this time I also added a staged run from an off-the-layout strip mine to the coal washer at Almont. These station names are probably meaningless unless you are familiar with the Wyanet, but the point is without scenery and ballasted track, these needed changes were easy to make and I could relocate tracks without having to scrape an area clear. From a cost standpoint, there was no damage or loss of track because of relaying.

    To illustrate how new product offerings can change and improve original concepts, I offer the following. The town of Halls was to be a simple, three foot-long grain elevator siding with its "business district" beyond the visible layout. The main line would curve out of town past a farm scene, and the idea of the plan was to draw the eye away from this 180-degree bend.

    While I was making the changes mentioned earlier and refining the operation (well, at least trying), Campbell came out with their post office and South Pacific Coast freight station. the post office was built stock and the freight station kitbashed into the Halls Corners farm supply and general store. About a year later, Mil Scale released their coal bunker. With these kits Halls changed into a small town, and the addition of a blacksmith shop served as a view block to help hide the corner curve. See the diagrams.

    Had I rushed into my original concept (I had all the structures for it) and scenicked the area, it would have been attractive enough. However, by not rushing, Halls has become a very satisfying small town and an asset to the rest of the Wyanet. It is far more interesting, both visually and operationally, than my original idea.

    Another offshoot of the growth at Halls was visual proof that commercial and residential buildings alongside the main line do not reduce the feel of distance between towns either visually or operationally. The effective distance is that between the turnouts where sidings begin. As a result of this discovery, the unbuilt town of LYons will have the "down the middle of main street" trackage I have always wanted.

    In another area there was to be a small creek with a stone or concrete bridge and culvert. In the interim, Central Valley came out with their truss bridge and Chooch produced the abutments for it. The creek will not be a fair-sized stream. None of these changes would have occurred if I had gone ahead with the scenery or my original ideas, and the layout would be poorer for it.

    It has been two years since I started arranging structures at the town of Wyanet. The structures there now have been in place for over six months. I am still pleased with the arrangement, and it looks like Wyanet is about to get scenicked. When the placement of buildings in a town looks good with out scenery, adding it can only serve to enhance the area.

    I have waited many years for the space to build my dream. After waiting as long as most of us do for the space, I see no reason to hurry any aspect of scenery. After all, the scenery will do more than anything else to express and define the layout. Holding back on it has allowed me to enhance the operation (and final appearance) of the Wyanet, and operation is the prime reason I build a layout.

    Take the time to refine the trackage and operation of your layout. Deter mine structure locations and consider the scenic features you wish to have. If you allow the Plywood Pacific enough time to become a believable railroad operationally, adding scenery will be the final touch to make it your dream.

    Article Details

    • Original Author John Swanson
    • Source Prototype Modeler
    • Publication Date May 1986

    Article Album (4 photos)

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1 comment
  • Tom Hooten likes this
  • Tasha Oates
    Tasha Oates Good question Dieter. Unfortunately, I don't know the answer. Let me see what I can find out.
    September 16, 2011