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  • Foothills Railroad

    by Bill Stubstad

    Photos by Chris Lane

    A pair of Athearn Genesis F7s leads a local over the South Platte near Littleton, Colorado. The Canadian geese were handpainted by Bill.
    Model Railroading - January 2003 - Page 36 Model Railroading - January 2003 - Page 37

    At the age of 13 (1947), and having never received a longed-for Lionel train set, I bought a copy of Model Railroader magazine and decided to build an HO layout. There was no hesitation...a Varney F-unit, brass rail, power pack, and wood roadbed were immediately procured with re-sources from my paper route. In short time 20' of track was laid (point-to-point) on an open frame in the attic of our home, and the Varney (joined by several cars) was running back and forth.

    The model-railroading bug bit once again in June of 1993 when a friend (Lowell Green) took me to the Colorado Railroad Museum. He accused me of working too much and not having a hobby. A quick trip to the local model railroad hobby shop resulted in Jim White arming me with two Athearn locomotives, flextrack, power supply and car kits. Since I had no real experience, my beginner’s layout consisted of two sheets of 4x8 plywood. The “do it now” principal was used to quickly construct an operational layout (Figure 1) within three months and a fully scenicked layout within two years. The “do it now” principal is the technique employed by great athletes...quit thinking and perform the action previously planned. After all, less than perfect modeling is probably better than no modeling at all. So-called mistakes can be corrected at a later date.


    I began reading (see references) and planning this layout using ideas gathered from my studies and the experience gained from my beginner’s layout. The first task was to establish a philosophy for this layout that would include features I preferred:

    • Branchline, June 1953, single track, threepassing sidings (13-car maximum), spursconnected to sidings, 30"minimum main-line radius, single-end yard, continuousloop, and point-to-point.
    • Pseudo-prototype (semi-freelance) steam,diesel, and passenger.
    • Scenery would include two villages, trees,shrubs, creeks, bridges, no mountains, notunnels, and few vertical rock walls.
    • Grades would be continuous and not exceed 2.25%. 
    • The yard would be 43"above the floor and include a turntable, roundhouse and full locomotive servicing facility. .
    • All mainline turnouts would be #8 and all other turnouts would be Peco large radius.
    • The layout would be walk around with all tracks within 24"of the edge.
    • All operational equipment must be RioGrande prototype as of June 1953. Freight cars from other roads must also be proto-type as of June 1953. No Rio Grande locomotives would be permitted that would not fit on the 12"turntable.

    Getting Started

    The beginner’s layout was severed into two pieces and delivered to a 12-year-old boy for re-assembly. Several of the structures were saved for the new layout, and then the basement was finished, including lighting and carpeting. The design of the recessed incandescent lighting resulted in 7.3 watts per square foot and an average illumination of 70 foot-candles (Figure 2).Seventy foot-candles is the recommended value for reading and writing. The Lighting Technologies software can be obtained from JUNO Lighting, however other lighting companies have similar software.

    A way freight powered by a set of Stewart F7s passes a small farm just north of Colorado Springs.
    Model Railroading - January 2003 - Page 38

    The planning started with a defined layout space of 12'x 19', such that aisle space could be maintained around the periphery. A horseshoe shape permitted 30"radius mainline and access to a central control panel. A dogbone layout allowed the longest mainline (85') in the available space without crossing tracks. The final trackplan incorporated the features that followed the established philosophy; moreover I wanted a ratio of track-to-layout of 1.6' per square foot. A 1:870 scale model (clay, foam board, and balsa structures) of the layout provided a quick 3-D representation of the terrain and structures. Simple modifications to the clay terrain resulted in the desired scenic contours. My modeling and artistic skills (never successful in building a paper and stick airplane) are marginal, at best, thus I developed the track-to-layout ratio by studying ratios of published layouts that pleased me.

    My first layout was initially 42" high, but after raising it to 56", I found it difficult to reach interior track and rolling stock. The Foothills RR has a minimum track height of 41" and a maximum track height of 47" . Chair seating provides eye-level viewing without sacrificing operational ease.

    I chose to use a hand-operated turntable to simplify the installation. The turntable, roundhouse, and associated wiring took an entire summer to build and install. I experimented with various mortar techniques on the brick roundhouse and found the easiest method was to use an overcoat of Durhams water putty (after painting). Let the water putty dry then clean the surface with a damp rag. Dental picks or hobby knives readily remove dried putty from unwanted spaces around windows or in corners.


    The benchwork design resulted in the minimum number of 2" x 4" legs (nine) to support 164 square feet of layout, however a tenth leg had to be added later to solve a tipping problem. L-girder construction, with all legs inset from the edges of the layout, produced a rigid structure. The allowable deflection of the girders is .020" per foot of unsupported span with a 170 lb. weight (guess who provided the weight) added to the center of the span. A deflection greater than .040" per foot will cause cracks in the plaster. The L-girders were made from a 1x4 attached to the top of a 1x4 with adhesive and screws. Even though I used a 1x6 for the vertical member of the L-girder on the longest unsupported span (13'), the deflection was still greater than the allowable 0.26". A 1x4 was added to the bottom of the 1x6 to make a C-girder, which provided a convenient trough for wiring bundles and reduced the deflection to 0.10".

    A Stewart S2 switches on the elevator siding at Pueblo. The tan elevator is a Walthers kit, while the white one is an Alpine Division Scale Models kit. The tree armatures were scratchbuilt from local sagebrush. The wooden bridge is a Midwest Products kit.
    Model Railroading - January 2003 - Page 39

    Exterior grade, good one side, 3/4" plywood was used for the subroadbed, which allowed the vertical 1x4 cross pieces to be spaced 18" apart. The 3/4" subroadbed also allows gradual transitions between grade changes. Thin subroadbed on the elevated portion of the beginners layout caused locomotives to become partially airborne at the top of the grade. A hand-held jigsaw readily cuts 3/4" plywood, if you use the correct blade.


    Construction (including elevated subroadbed) began in November 1997 and was completed in two weekends with 40 manhours of labor. Drawings of the benchwork, subroadbed, and elevations made the task an easy effort. Track and power-routing turnout installation, including cork roadbed, completed the first level of construction. The wiring, control panel and turntable installation resulted in an operational layout with manual turnout control, 16 blocks and power-routing turnouts. The block-control switches provide power from either of two power packs and have a center-off position.

    Katos new Rio Grande business car, the Wilson McCarthy, sits near the end of the Walthers passenger platform at Denver. The coaling tower at rear is a scratchbuilt plastic model of Bills own design.
    Model Railroading - January 2003 - Page 40

    A 1/8" thick Masonite fascia, varying in height from 10" to 14", with 18" minimum corner radii, completed the structural phase of the layout. All of the Hydrocal plaster, covered with Sculptamold, slopes downward several inches to the top of the facial. Dark green paint applied to the fascia and legs provides a semi-finished look to the layout. A second coat of paint, to be applied later, will hide any blemishes caused by scenery construction.

    Scenery construction consists of cardboard strip, Hydrocal plaster and Sculptamold. I applied pre-cast Hydrocal rocks to the plaster base with Sculptamold and filled in the gaps with hand-carved Sculptamold. The pre-cast rocks are handy, because you can arrange them in position before permanently attaching them to the scenery. Plaster cloth filled some spaces where the cardboard strips could not be readily applied. Durhams water putty is an ideal material for filling small holes and cracks.

    The costs listed in the Table do not include any planning effort, structures, vehicles, people, animals, details or rolling stock. The labor effort is based on an average person with some previous experience, however careful research and planning preceded all of the listed activities.

    Railroad & Scenery

    The layout loosely represents the D&RGW between Littleton and Pueblo, Colorado. My wife Jane and I conducted field trips along the Joint Line, took photographs of scenery and collected dirt and sand from the various washes along the route. Culverts, underpasses and wooden trestles dot the Joint Line between Littleton and Sedalia, and the layout also includes many to provide proper drainage. I have modeled the lesser Canadian geese that we encountered on our field trips by hand painting commercial white geese. Ravens will be

    A pair of Stewart S2s handle switching chores in Denver. The platform at right is for servicing passenger cars.
    Model Railroading - January 2003 - Page 41

    a future modeling project. The trees and shrubs included various conifers, cottonwoods, sagebrush and scrub oak. Two colors of dirt and sand exist along the selected route, a tan, with a hint of green, and a red brown. A local paint dealer identified the two colors and provided matching paints for the base coat of the layout. Sifting resulted in a collection of HO-scale boulders, rocks, pebbles and dirt. A base coat of paint covered the Sculptamold and pre-cast rocks and provided an adhesive layer for the first layer of scenic materials.

    The base for structures and roads is plywood, foam blocks, cardboard and foamcore. All of the base materials were painted and covered with sifted dirt or, in the case of roads, Smooth-it (a Woodland Scenics product that is readily sanded). Concrete or asphalt colors completed the roads, and provided a finished look to the layout. The application of sifted-dirt, ground foam and shrubs blended the structures (including bridges) into the scenery so that no gaps are visible beneath the structures.

    Trees, Shrubs & Water

    Trees installed on ridges provide view blocks and a finished look to the layout. I handmade the conifers for the beginners layout, but decided the process was too time consuming for this layout. Additional ground foam, applied to Heike trees, results in respectable conifers with a minimum of time consumed. I cut sagebrush armatures in the winter and make them into cottonwoods. The upper armatures were first sprayed with clear, satin-finish polyurethane, then 1/4" long fibers of hemp rope were added. These were then sprayed and 1/8" fibers were added to complete the twig structure. The twig structure was sprayed with a dark brown or gray paint, given an overcoat of polyurethane and dusted with leaf material, then sprayed again.

    The addition of shrubs, ground foam, rocks and debris finished the scenery until additional details (animals, tree stumps, etc.) can be added. Rocks, boulders and sand provide a natural streambed prior to the application of Envirotex® water. All fishermen, boats and debris must be bonded to the streambed before adding water. The propane torch I used to remove the air bubbles from the epoxy water also melted the plastic fishing rods of my fishermen. These had to be replaced with brass wire. I suggest replacing them first or suffer my mistake. I also recommend building a small diorama or similar structure to test your scenery techniques before using them on a layout to prevent costly mistakes.

    Structures & Details

    Most of the structures are from kits by American Model Builders, Mainline and Siding, Central Valley and Walthers. They have all been detailed, weathered and provided with interiors before installation on the layout. Many of the structures are modified with scratchbuilt porches, decks and platforms. The coaling tower is entirely my design and scratchbuilt from styrene.

    Many of the figures have been reshaped or modified (e.g., hats added) and repainted. Only a few of the vehicles have license plates taken from the March 2002 MRG, however, all vehicles will have plates in the future. All vehicles are either dull-coated or satin-finished.

    Rolling Stock

    The rolling stock includes D&RGW freight equipment in the proportions listed in the 1953 ORER (i.e., 36% wood boxcars, etc.), whereas the D&RGW passenger equipment is generic due to cost considerations. The total roster includes 15 locomotives, 73 freight cars and 17 passenger cars.

    Operation & Maintenance

    Two power packs (one fixed and one hand-held radio controlled) and 16 blocks enable running two trains simultaneously. All turnouts are manually controlled. The main yard creates opportunities for switching passenger equipment (a passenger car service track is included), freight equipment, coal in, ash out, diesel fuel in, plus moving locomotives in and out of the roundhouse.

    This layout was designed for a single operator, however five operators have been used. Our round-robin group has periodically operated the Foothills RR without layout problems. The possible trains include the following:

    • Accommodation passenger trains - Locals that serve all or most station stops. They consist of mail, express and some passenger cars. Freight cars may also be included. 
    • General merchandise freights - These trains drop and pick up cuts of cars at any of the three sidings. 
    • Way freights - These handle local pickup and delivery of cars, switch any of the cuts dropped by the general merchandise freights, and prepare cuts for pick up by the general merchandise freights. 
    • Drag freights - Coal drags are the main ones. Helpers are needed on the grades.

    The turntable and roundhouse are Walthers products. The detailed Mantua Mikado is Bills first steam locomotive.
    Model Railroading - January 2003 - Page 42

    Up to five trains (all four of the above mentioned trains plus an extra way freight) can be staged on the three sidings and in the yard at the onset of an operating session. The Foothills RR is primarily a bridge route with a main purpose of interchanging freight between the Union Pacific, CB&Q (Colorado & Southern) and ATSF railroads. The operating scheme is based on the procedures outlined by Bruce Chubb for small-to-medium size layouts using car cards and bill-of-lading cards. The spurs and sidings will hold 83 freight cars while the yard will hold 12 passenger cars and 40 freight cars. The Foothills RR will contain a maximum of six locomotives, nine passenger cars and 35 freight cars at any point in time.

    Maintenance is reduced to a minimum by using a flip-out control panel, 24" maximum reach, manual turntable and trackcleaning cars. The track-cleaning cars are simply boxcars with Masonite pads freely mounted to their undersides. The Masonite pads are tapered on each end and bonded to two nails, which ride freely through two clearance holes in the bottom of the boxcars. All rolling stock has metal wheels, thus the non-conductive residue (first layout experience) from plastic wheels is not a problem. Occasionally, I use rubbing alcohol applied to a soft cloth to clean track (usually after applying scenery) and TV tuner cleaner and Atlas conductive oil on turnouts. I do not use any abrasive erasers to clean track except for the removal of soldering flux.

    An American Models Builder barn kit was used on the farm just south of Colorado Springs. The tractors are from Athearn and Woodland Scenics.
    Model Railroading - January 2003 - Page 43

    Our grandchildren (ages 4-6) happily operate the layout, and Leo (our cat) has paraded across it with no apparent damage. Visitor damage is limited to one broken tree branch, which I painted to simulate storm damage.

    Summary & Future

    I selected a design with construction and scenery methods to meet a five-year layout completion schedule (1,500 man-hours @ 6 hours/week), and fully operating trains after the first year. (I missed the 6-month goal.) The Foothills Railroad is now completely finished with all scenery in place. Signals, switch motors and details will now be added at my leisure along with rolling stock detailing and weathering. Details include fences, telephone poles, more animals, people, debris, etc. Scratchbuilt structures will replace some of the items presently on the layout. This layout is entirely built by one person (yours truly) on a reasonable budget, while maintaining a normal work schedule and family life. If you do it now, an average person can have a layout.

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  • Brent Rush
    Brent Rush This Layout is actually for sale. Anyone interested in learning more contact Mizell Trains in Westminster, Colorado for contact info and details
    June 13, 2012