Christopher Brimley updated October 12, 2011


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  • BNSF Fall River Subdivision

    by John Parker

    Photos by Doug Geiger, MMR

    As BNSF continues to haul record amounts of coal from the Powder River Basin, the Fall River Subdivision often sees up to four coal trains a day.
    Model Railroading - June 2002 - Page 34 Model Railroading - June 2002 - Page 35

    They say the third times the charm... and thats certainly true with my Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Fall River Subdivision. Experience with the planning, construction and model building on two previous layouts provided the opportunity to work out most of the must-haves based on the givens for this new layout. I enjoy railfanning and modeling current local prototypes, so that was a prerequisite.

    The Fall River Subdivision is a fictional piece of the vast BNSF system. The locale i s completely freelanced because thats m y preference, which allows modeling different terrains such as farmland plains, various sized towns, a large rail yard and mountains where a double-track mainline travels through. Prototypical motive power and rolling stock are found on the subdivision and structures along the line are typical of industries located throughout North America.

    Layout Construction

    The room which houses the layout is completely finished with drywall ceiling and walls, recessed fluorescent (daylight bulbs) lighting and carpeted floor. Fascia and skirting are finished in dark earth tones to hide storage under the layout and direct the viewers attention to the detailed scenery. Eighteen-inch industrial carpet squares are used to cushion the concrete floor. During any messy construction jobs, they can be easily replaced if any unfortunate accidents cannot be cleaned-up. The lighting and electrical circuits all terminate at three switches located outside the layout room entrance door. This allows a quick shut down of all power and provides a great visual indication that nothing is left on at the end of the day.

    Meets on the double-track mainline happen frequently. Byrd's Sand and Gravel provides ballast used on both the BNSF and Union Pacific railroads.
    Model Railroading - June 2002 - Page 36

    Construction techniques on the layout itself are traditional, such as L-girder benchwork, plywood and Homasote roadbed, Masonite fascia, and cardboard web and plaster for the scenery foundation. All of the track and switches are Peco code 75, painted and weathered to provide a more realistic appearance. Number six switches are used throughout the layout and number eight switches are used on the crossovers between the double-track mainline. Minimum track radius is kept at 28" and spiral easements have been used to keep train movements smooth and reliable. Almost all switches are thrown by Caboose Industries handthrows. Any turnouts past a 24" operator reach distance use under-the-table electrical switch machines.

    Structures on the layout are primarily a mix of commercially available kits, which have been built either stand-alone or kitbashed together depending on space availability and requirements of the industry. Commercially available scenery products and detail parts are also used in the final scenery, as their quality and effect equals or surpasses what I can build at the workbench.

    Digital Command Control

    Digital command control was recently installed on the layout, and I regret not making the changeover years ago. A Digitrax Radio Chief II was selected because of its capacity to handle a large number of trains, ease of programming (using the DT400 throttle), and because its the same system that my local club uses. Once I became familiar with the intricacies of this system, using it became simple and second nature. Although the transition expense was difficult to finance, benefits such as train control, operating flexibility and realistic sound/lighting effects made it a worthwhile investment. Anyone evaluating which DCC system to purchase should carefully list what each system has to offer and then make a decision based on current and possible future needs.

    Designed for Operations

    A pair of Oakway SD60s pulls a coal train up the nearly 1% grade through Kimber Canyon. A hi-rail truck inspects track on the Kimber Canyon branch, which is seldom used anymore.
    Model Railroading - June 2002 - Page 37

    The BNSF Fall River Subdivision is designed for both railfanning and operations. There are times when I retreat to the train room to simply run trains and watch. There are also times when I host an informal operating session with a few friends. During each session, operators can expect to see a variety of trains. Included are high-priority double stacks, unit grain trains, unit auto racks, coal drags, mixed freights and even a daily Amtrak passenger train. Local freights run in each direction between the end-point stations (hidden staging), making stops at each town to set out or pick up cars. Specials can also be seen through the year, such as the annual BNSF Christmas train in December and an occasional steam excursion.

    Because the layout is linear in design, trains only pass through each scene once between the time it leaves hidden staging and when it returns to staging. Staging also provides a continuous loop and trains can s top within the yard limits during operating sessions or continue to circle during "railfanning" ses sions. This approach also works well when I feel like operating a local freight alone and need the challenge of opposing traffic.

    Operating sessions are very informal and work well when there are between three and six operators. With a minimum aisle width of 30", it tends to get cozy when more than six operators are working. Operating sessions have few rules and no fast clock. A car card system was recently introduced to add some reasons behind the switching moves. The basic intent is to have fun and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow model railroaders.

    Principles of Organization

    To reduce operating expenses and keep frustration levels low, I have developed two organizational principles to keep the railroad running efficiently. Using these principles for years has contributed to my overall enjoyment of the layout.

    A GP9 passes Sages BNSF office as it prepares to set out a boxcar. A BNSF GP60 and Santa Fe GP60B are the power on todays eastbound Train 104.
    Model Railroading - June 2002 - Page 38 Model Railroading - June 2002 - Page 39

    1) Keep it clean. After every project (from small to large) everything is cleaned up and put away. Nothing is stored in the aisles or on top of the layout even unfinished sections. I have found that retreating to the train room and running trains, even for a few minutes after work, in a pleasant environment makes it all worthwhile. My workbench, well thats another story....

    2) Everything has its place. Scenery details, construction materials, unused structures, figures, vehicles, and so forth all have their place together. These items are stored in cabinets under the layout so they can be easily found. Theres nothing harder on the operating budget than having to purchase something, then later discovering that there were three more hidden somewhere else.


    My fictional representation of BNSFs Fall River Subdivision has provided countless hours of enjoyment. Future plans include completing scenery on the branchline, enhancing future operating sessions and holding public open houses to help share my passion and promote the hobby.

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  • Paul Brennecke
    Paul Brennecke I visited John's newest Fall River Sub layout at the RMR of NMRA convention. It is the finest home layout I have ever seen. See his web site at
    November 1, 2011
  • Christopher Brimley
    Christopher Brimley I was going to go to this convention but unfortunately had to back out.
    November 2, 2011