Christopher Brimley updated November 7, 2011


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  • Western Mountain Railroad Operations

    by Jerry Peterson

    Photos by Randy Lee

    As the Bull Moose navigates the deck bridge on its way to the Southpoint yard, a first-time observer would surely think the extreme boiler swing of the big articulated would cause an imbalance and a catastrophic plunge to the gorge floor. The Bull Moose has a perfect safety record. Framed by the towers are the through-truss bridges (in the background) that were engineered and constructed by the Kennedy Construction Company. A favorite scene for visitors is the apparently never-ending gorge created with a mirror below the Kennedy Bridges (see Table of Contents for a better view).
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    Like most of us who have a passion for model railroading, I set out to build my dream HO scale model railroad 25 years ago. I created a list of prioritized objectives based on my admiration of the Union Pacific roster of steam and early diesel locomotives, my love of the mountains that comprise the Wasatch front, and the 10' x 15' space I had available at the time:

    Union Pacific mainline locomotives, heavy emphasis on steam Year 1954 with poetic license to run equipment from the late 1800s Rugged mountain terrain representative of UP in Utah (freelanced) Multi-level track with extensive hidden track to create the perception of going to and coming from somewhere Shortline mining operation Commercial flextrack and turnouts Point-to-point operation with optional continuous loops for visitors

    I planned, sketched and created scale drawings; bought lumber for the open-grid benchwork; moved my tools, supplies and small TV into the 10 ' x 15 ' room and began to build my well-designed, carefully planned dream railroad. I was committed and passionate. Things went well for several years as my trackplan took shape on wooden scenery. I was pleased.

    Having an engineering background (and being a rocket scientist) I had the trains running well in a breadboard scenario (switch machines, wiring and control panels yet to come - oh, and creating blocks also). I had made the decision early to use Hydrocal over window screen for my rugged terrain. That proved to be a good decision. However, I had reached the point where I had no previous experience, only a fairly good knowledge of what others had done. Undaunted, I built two control panels on which the layout was depicted by major blocks using colored tape. I then created mini blocks (many of them) for three-cab block control (see rocket scientist above). By the time I had wired over 30 twin-coil switch machines, LED indicators, turn-out frogs, and countless miniature DPDT block control switches, I had the sinking feeling that my dream railroad would not be operable other than as an exercise in switch throwing just to get one train around the layout.

    I had expected to get three things from my railroad: Pleasure from running steam locomotives up-and-down canyons and in and out of mountains Sessions with friends who would learn to share my passion, and A stage for displaying all the detailed structures I envisioned building Alas, I had built a layout with wooden scenery that was basically inoperable, thus falling well short of my expectations. After six years of inspired work I lost interest as I learned my first major lesson. Running trains should be low-stress fun. I went into a dormant period. The layout became a storage area for seldom-used items such as more womens shoes than could be worn in three lifetimes.

    Rebirth of a Passion

    Since I have been involved with trains from age two, I was loath to abandon my dream railroad. My casual reading began to include the development of a standardized Digital Command Control technology. By the mid-90s I decided DCC was real, affordable and the missing link to all my objectives and expectations. I studied, discussed with vendors, and made the leap of faith into DCC. The passion was now stronger than ever. This was truly the way a model railroad should run.

    In 1996 I made an emotional commitment to DCC and began negotiations to relocate my wife's shoes. The dormant period had allowed some ideas to gel. I bought the Digitrax Chief in early 1997. Pros/cons of DCC brand selection is a major separate (emotional) issue. For this story I'll not discuss brands, but rather the major influence DCC had on my enthusiasm for pushing forward with my layout.

    A Clear Vision

    A Russian Decapod coming from the small town of Gorgetown approaches the retaining walls. Almost all of the shipping in and out of Gorgetown is by rail. The retaining walls are a testimony to the hazards in The Gorge as they were built ten years earlier (in 1944) after heavy rains washed the roadbed and underlying rock structure away. The walls were quickly built and backfilled leaving the original track and ties in place. If you look down from Vista Mesa you can see the slight S-shape where the track originally followed the contour of the rock wall.
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    With my mind free to concentrate on scenery construction and materials, I was once again making great progress. The layout contained extensive running track for a 10' x 15' area. Over half the track was hidden, I had a long winding dual-track run with grade in Snake Canyon, there was modest storage in a six-stub hidden yard, people began showing up with trains in hand, and the scenery was progressing nicely. I began to seriously build structures and plan for more with the ultimate goal of having a flow of goods and materials for effective operating sessions. The final (?) complete vision became clear as a major lesson was learned - if you build a model railroad for people to use, they will come. If you fill a room with a model railroad, they wont have any place to stand.

    Having been influenced by the work of John Allen, the treacherous beauty of Feather River Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon (only a half mile from my house), and dozens of wonderful scenery photos of western railroads, it was clear that a wall must come down for a major layout expansion. Two things I dared not put in my original objectives (that for me constitute the ultimate challenge and joy, visually and operationally) are:

    Floor-to-ceiling near vertical rock structure and A walk-in gorge enhanced with a mirror

    Objectives Met

    This article is presented to highlight the many rewards one can get from model railroading. If you see yourself in the above path to creating a major layout, I hope it produces a few good laughs. If you are contemplating a layout, I hope this article will help you get through the stall points. The following technical material summarizes some of the techniques that worked well for me. When in doubt I find it helpful to try different techniques and ideas to see what works best. In many instances I find the most difficult step is to start. Generally, materials are relatively inexpensive so I just jump in and see what happens. Most of the time I get to a satisfying result. This approach is especially true for scenery.

    The wall came down and a 15' steel I-beam went up. Exercise equipment was consolidated, and a large closet was built in the garage. The wall contained two closets. Guess who had them stuffed with clothes and shoes? I worked in marketing for years and have a minor in psychology - both were needed to sell the closet-in-the-garage notion.

    The expansion was designed with the ground rule that a walk-in gorge with nearly vertical walls would be the first priority. The next priority was a logging support operation situated on a small mesa some 320' above the gorge floor. The railroad was the third priority. The challenge was to make it all fit with good access, reasonable grades and radii. The overall scenery emphasizes contrasts - massive rock formations vs. spindly bridge towers in the foreground; large vertical distance between tracks; gorge dimensions that dwarf even the large 2-8-8-0 Bull Moose; ominous large cataract areas glistening with seeping water that could come crashing down on track and train at any second; huge boulders propped up with wooden poles to avoid costly track closures for repair.

    There are two railroads: fictional branches off the Union Pacific mainline and the privately owned T. Roo Railway. Both are standard gauge. The UP-owned Southpoint branch dual track spans the gorge twice and a single track hugs a rock ledge on the lower inside wall of the gorge. The T. Roo barely achieves a viable radius by running right at the top edge of the inside wall. T. Roo makes a lucrative logging operation possible using Shays, Climaxes and Heislers to navigate beyond Vista Mesa on a 4% grade to the logging camps. The route to Vista Mesa is served by a fleet of logging lokies; large and small articulateds, small rod logging 2-6-2s and 2-8-2s, both tender and tank types.

    The Decapod local meets an FEF-3 Northern that is high stepping out of the lower end of Snake Canyon. The Decapod has a long 2.6% grade ahead on its way to Southpoint. In the lower left corner of the photo is the removable mole hole cover that provides access to the hidden helix.
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    The T. Roo also services the worlds only true brass mine with the brass ore taken to a processing facility via a bridge track out of Dumont. The interchange with the UP tracks is through the Roo Loop that has an 18" radius - smaller than the minimum radius on the shortline. Thus, the Roo Loop inherently limits access to locomotives suitable for the shortline.

    Vista Mesa is accessed via a dual-track, seven-level helix with a minimum radius of 19" and a maximum grade of 2%. The dual track is a continuous track whereby the trains go up and down on the same sub roadbed by looping around at the Vista Mesa summit. The helix is hidden inside the rock structure. The cavity inside the helix is large enough for two people to stand in comfortably. This cavity comfort is important as many other key features of the layout are housed in the cavity. The robust helix approach allowed me to meet my objectives for the expanded layout with the above priorities intact. The railroad was built to fit the scenery!

    Overall, the T. Roo shortline has 275' of running track. At the high end of the prototypical speed range for shortline lokies (12 mph) it takes 23 minutes to make a complete circuit. The interior of the helix cavity is monitored using an infrared camera and a 13" TV. This is critically important, as it is not uncommon to have three trains running in the helix. Vista Mesa operations include minor locomotive repairs and rough cut sawmill services.

    The UP-inspired fictional branchlines (frequently called the main) are best viewed as three levels. The lower level is the heart of the layout built around Dumont, which is the fictional connecting point with the UP mainline. Dumont also is the interchange point with several foreign railroads, which are commonly seen on the layout.

    The Shay has taken on water and a full load of cordwood, and is backing to the turnout that leads to the monster 10,000 board foot log. The workers call these "Trophy Logs."
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    Dumont is the focus of the Dumont branch with a major yard, sidings, helper track, caboose track and program track. Most operating scenarios start or terminate in Dumont. The Dumont branch is completely hidden inside the helix cavity and under the layout.

    The middle level services the small towns of Newtown and Gorgetown. Both are hidden inside the helix cavity. The middle level contains the scenic lower gorge track that forms a loop from which trains can go down to Dumont or up to Southpoint. The loop is called (dont get ahead of me here) - the Gorgetown Loop.

    The upper level combines with the middle level via the steep, long dual-track Snake Canyon to form the Southpoint branch of the UP. The light industrial area of the town of Southpoint creates numerous opportunities for the movement of goods and materials to and from Dumont, the lumber camp, the brass mine and all points inbetween. A roundtrip from Dumont to Southpoint at a prototypical speed of 30 mph takes 15 minutes to navigate the 435' of running track, assuming no stops and no need for a helper in Snake Canyon. Again, the extensive hidden track creates a peek-a-boo effect and an element of surprise that keeps the operations more exciting, sometimes even to the seasoned veterans.

    The running times on both the shortline and the main are longer than many layouts with a much larger footprint. The UP/T. Roo uses a modest horizontal space that, when combined with its vertical space, enables the effective movement of trains into and out of numerous scenes and settings. Operations on the layout are at their best with three operators and a dispatcher.

    Keys to a Happy Layout

    Using the tips from model railroaders who have unselfishly shared their time and experiences in clinics and the literature, my own learning experiences (mistakes) and some common sense, I have reached a point where I am happy with the form and function of the layout. I have had hundreds of visitors and hundreds of critiques. The overwhelming majority of comments are a genuine interest in techniques. A small number of comments are negative, which is fine. The layout has been vastly improved from constructive criticism. Some are just plain humorous. I am not a rivet counter or a prototypical modeler. I build model images that appeal to me. I pick out what I feel are attractive features in a scene, amplify those features toward a caricature, and often violate rigorous scale to enhance the perception. If you like to count rivets (especially with no layout) or measure rail height, the sonic parameters of whistle sounds, the speed of a turnout throw, etc., you might be annoyed if you read further. The most cherished critiques come from those special model railroaders who start every other sentence with, "When I build my layout..."

    There is no perfect layout, even for your own personal standards. Everything in modeling is a compromise in some way. That is why I emphasize writing objectives and expectations before buying supplies. It eases the impact of reality as it creeps in along the way.

    Southpoint is just beyond the operators pit. It features a pickle plant and open-air machine shop. This section of the layout is quite low, only about 30 above the floor. Access to the operators pit is done via a step over rather than a duck under.
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    The first step for an operator like me is to have a layout that runs well. Good running requires sturdy benchwork. Open grid and L-girder construction with 1x4s and 2x4s is versatile and time proven. Build your benchwork so you can stand on it - you will. Plan to modify your plan. I found that sooner or later virtually every subroadbed riser will be tweaked - use screws, not glue. Use clamps so you can float lengths of grade to get smooth slopes before screwing risers to grid, or after if you prefer. Steep slopes are a frequent compromise on a layout; dont make them worse with local variations. This is especially true for steam.

    A very emotional and controversial topic is rail size. I used code 100 everywhere and rely on weathering, ballasting, tie spacing and grass to create the proper "code." Look at pictures of vintage rails and factor in how you are going to finish the track. Measuring track height and laying the exact scaled rail is not going to make a happy layout if code 70 ends up looking like code 50 when ballasting and cosmetics are completed. Im a rails-in-thedirt fan. I like a lot of fine ballast and dirt around my rails. If I started with short rail I would end up with wheels in the dirt.

    My experience is to use taller rails for good train running and create the code with the finishing materials. For ballasting I use what I call the big toe approach. Remember when you were a kid walking along the tracks. A piece of ballast was about the size of your big toe. Look at one of your scale figures and envision the big toe. Thats the largest your ballast should be. Off mainline material is smaller. Im a big fan of using natural material for ballasting. Its fun to search for colors. Its easy to make a couple of screen cuts, and you get a dust cut that you will need to color your rock structures. It doesnt matter much what you use for roadbed. Cork is easily sanded for smoothness and is cheap. All that quiet stuff gets covered with ballast that is a harsh sound reflector. Save your money for trains.

    How Do Those Electrons Work?

    Im not really going to go there. Bigger wires conduct better than little wires and copper wires generally conduct better than nickel silver rail. Assuming we are all using DCC or are going to, a friendly layout is easy to create. I used 12 awg bus wires run off of a terminal strip with 20-24 awg short feeder wires to the rails. More is better. Be sure to buy good wire and stick to a color code. I number each bus wire with a tape flag so I can troubleshoot effectively. I have four major blocks. Each has a PC board that catches a short before the DCC Command Station sees it. Two of the boards also provide auto reversing. I use Tonys Train Exchange Power Shields. Other brands are available. In my opinion this approach is a must. A short in one block does not stop the electrons in the other three blocks. It seems there is always someone with a newly acquired brass steamer that shorts on every curve. Dont be angry; isolate them so they dont bother your inherent right to electrons for your train that never shorts.

    There are several good, reliable switch machines. Some are too fast, some too slow, and some too noisy. Follow instructions and use the right size wire for the current flow. I use twin-coil machines and power them with a dedicated 24V transformer through a commercial capacitor board. I bought cheap pushbutton switches. Spend more money for the good ones.

    The Bull Moose is approaching the yard entrance at Southpoint, the terminal point for the train. In the foreground is a meat processing facility that will require two of the incoming reefers for tomorrows shipments. The crew will overnight in the second-floor quarters above the general store. Also in the action are the salvage yard and farm supply operations in the background.
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    Beyond Wooden Scenery

    This is where we thought we wanted to be, but it seems to be the place where many creators of dream layouts find reasons to not go. A favorite diversion is to build more track. When I arrived here I was tempted to lay more track. Indeed, I eventually did, but I faced the scenery first. I was somewhat intimidated because I had never gone beyond wooden scenery before.

    Everything up to this point was well suited to a planning mentality. Now I had to become an artist. Never been one, dont see being one any time soon. I still had the passion and the commitment. I tried several techniques of coloring Hydrocal castings: zip, dyes, inks and acrylics. It was not working. Colors faded away, colors changed color, and colors didn't look natural. Then one day at the craft store I found dark burnt umber acrylic. It was the missing link. When diluted one drop per milliliter of wet water, a good fundamental earthy brown came out of the plaster. All the other colors from the usual suspects (raw sienna, burnt sienna, vermilion, black, etc.) were now good for accent. About this time I discovered a very excellent Bragdon latex rock mold. I once again was happily making progress. Bragdon now has a couple of excellent additional large molds available.

    The two critical things for me were creation of massive, rugged rock walls without a repeat of a pattern from the mold, and coloring the rock structure. Coloring a piece of plaster is a lot different than coloring a room full of plaster. After using the Bragdon mold numerous times I ran out of ways to randomize the pattern and had to start making my own molds using liquid latex. It is easier than it first seems. A key is finding deeply stressed rocks for painting with latex. A couple of coats is enough. When casting rock formations, I had good mold release and reuse results by spraying the cured molds with wet water before applying the Hydrocal slurry.

    Coloring was done using dilute acrylics. I made a sample board with five smears of Hydrocal and painted stripes of eight different dilutions for reference. The large area of rock and mountain structure was extremely hard work created by hanging pieces of cured plaster on roughly shaped window screen. It is basically an industrial-strength puzzle where you create the pieces and then put the puzzle together. Coloring just takes practice. Start dilute and work up to the desired effect with many washes. The final touch is to paint rough spots such as the joints between plaster pieces where you pressed the plaster in with your fingers (higher density, less color absorption) with the dust mentioned above. I had good results by dipping my brush in dilute white glue, then dipping it into the dust, followed by application with painting strokes to the rock structure. Try it, the results are excellent.

    The finishing touches are conventional application of ground foam, clump foliage, twigs, lichen, scrub oak (fiberfill, hairspray, ground foam), and pine/aspen trees. I was very satisfied with the quality and cost of pine and fall aspen trees available from Grand Central Gems.

    One good thing to remember is that nature is made up of many different colors. Study them, photograph them, try many different washes on Hydrocal samples until you find that look you want for your layout. Dont forget black, it is everywhere in nature.

    Details, Details, Details

    While much detail is in place on the UP/T. Roo layout there is much more to come. The scenery work is so very important because it is the stage for all the little details that become conversation pieces.

    I find much enjoyment in scratchbuilding and kitbashing. As with the rail code discussion, detail scenes can be built using inexpensive kit parts, wooden coffee stirrers, emery paper, wooden matches, goody boxes at train shows, clearance matting board at craft stores, etc.

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    Building a larger layout is a long, tedious task, but the benefits are many. The informal group that meets at my home almost every Thursday evening is named the Dudes from Dumont. We are avid steam locomotive fans. As a group we run approximately 70 brass steam locos, all with decoders. DCC allows building custom speed curves for double-heading, onboard sound, realistic lights, load compensation, momentum, and much more.

    We are in the final steps of creating an operating system based on train service plans, car cards and waybills and plan to have a formal operating session once per month. We hope that use of train service plans without a fast clock/schedule will reduce the stress and allow us to meet our - top priority having fun with model railroading.

    One of the purposes of this article is to encourage model railroaders to get beyond the benchwork stage and to start doing scenery and structures. If you would like to discuss techniques in more detail, feel free to contact me at I will be happy to respond to your email.

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