Christopher Brimley updated December 2, 2011

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  • Rio Bravo Industries

    Model Railroading - January 1999 - Page 44

    How many times have you heard the following excuses?

    • I have no space for a layout Exhibition layouts need a van for transportation

    But when a small layout is suggested, the people that use one of the above excuses, respond that small layouts:

    • Are unsuitable for Class I roads
    • Involve unrealistic sharp curves
    • Can only run absurdly short trains, and even then are tail chasing
    • Do not interest the public at shows, and worst of all, they are boring to operate

    Because these are all valid points, the challenge is to overcome these problems. Rio Bravo is an attempt to solve the problems. The first decision is obvious...to me anyway...use N-scale. The second is to keep it small - Rio Bravo is 2' by 4' the size of the basic N-Trak module and roughly equivalent to a 4' by 8' layout in HO. This solves the space and transportation problems and provides a good chance of completing a presentable layout in a reasonable time. And I should point out that before building the Rio Bravo, I had started several layouts, but haden't finished any of them.

    "Ha," did I hear you mutter, "switching layouts have been around ever since John Allen devised his Time Saver." But hang on, most switching layouts involve a single locomotive moving cars one at a time between spurs, with no purpose other than to solve the puzzle. They are not entertaining for the public at shows, and operation soon becomes boring for the creator. So, how can we deal with the limitations of a small layout?

    All Class 1 roads have (or had until recently) extensive industrial spurs. Rio Bravo was inspired by the numerous industrial branches off the Santa Fe mainline to the east of Kansas City. The name is from an industrial area south of Albuquerque on Santa Fe's Raton route. The location is a fictitious industrial district.

    Model Railroading - January 1999 - Page 45

    The sharp curve problem, minimum radius 9", was attacked by hiding part of the curves by the backdrop and disguising the rest with buildings. Incidentally, one hole in the back drop is hidden by a highway overpass (adorned with the Santa Fe logo), the other, by the grain elevator in front of it and by the furniture factory to its side. Westbound trains appear from behind the elevator between the factory and the cold storage and disappear under the bridge, suggesting connection to the transcontinental network in both directions.

    Choice of an industrial area solves the short train problem too, as locals serving such districts are often short. I have fond memories of spotting a BN train near Ottumwa, Iowa, with two locomotives and only five cars. Four or five cars plus caboose are usual on the Rio Bravo. For public entertainment, trains of up to eight cars can be operated without the appearance of tail chasing, as the train will disappear completely behind the backdrop on the continuous run.

    Now for the cruncher, how to make operations entertaining, credible, prototypical... and infinitely variable. Rio Bravo has eight industries attracting eight different types of cars, plus a passenger station. The industries (and the cars they require) are a power station (coal hoppers/gondolas), engineering plant (covered gons, gons, boxcars), grain elevator (covered hoppers), freight house (boxcars), cold storage (reefers ), tank farm (tank cars), furniture factory (bulkhead flats, boxcars) and a warehouse (boxcars).

    Storage tracks (representing the yard of a major city) hidden behind the backdrop, can hold three trains. The basic operation is to bring a train of assorted cars from the storage track, exchange the cars in the train for cars already spotted at the industries and depart.

    Model Railroading - January 1999 - Page 46 Model Railroading - January 1999 - Page 47

    Variations include:

    • Picking up and setting out all the cars in the train. Exchanging one pair of cars on each appearance. Just picking up or setting out to either increase or decrease the length of the train.
    • Switching by the road loco or a resident switcher, and switching between industries. Cars are spotted according to type at the appropriate industry, but this can be varied if the loading point is occupied by a car which has not been picked up. The dropped car will be switched to its proper location by a later train or by the resident switcher. When a resident switcher is used, it is possible to have a train circling the layout while the switching continues. This is very useful at exhibitions as the general public is attracted by constant activity. Occasionally, normal operation is interrupted by the arrival and departure of a passenger train, usually an RDC, but now, thanks to Bachmann, a gas electric (Doodlebug) may appear. Switching can continue while the passenger train is standing at the station.

    This flexibility ensures that home operation never gets boring. The consist of trains changes with each circuit and is unpredictable. Every exchange of cars presents a fresh switching problem depending on the choice of cars to be spotted, their position in the train, the choice of cars to be picked up, and the availability of space.

    To achieve this, the layout uses cab control (two controllers and three block sections) and three uncoupling magnets. All turnouts are operated by switch machines wired to a track diagram. All cars are fitted with Micro-Trains couplers.

    What about credibility? The atmosphere of an old big-city suburb is helped by a row of low-relief shops and offices along the whole length of the backdrop and other "non-industrial" buildings. The industrial buildings are, of necessity, not really large enough to justify full car loads, but, in practice, this does not seem to matter and has not been criticized (YET).

    The center piece (the depot) is a model of Santa Fe's Cajon station, scratchbuilt from HO drawings and photographs in Pete Youngblood's Modeling Cajon. It has been moved by mysterious means from California to somewhere in the Midwest and renamed "Rio Bravo." Most of the other buildings were kitbashed, but some are scratchbuilt to fit the location.

    Both the power station and the furniture factory are kitbashed from chopped-up sides from a Heljan Brewery kit. Most of the store fronts are from DPM kits. Some backs from these kits were used for the police station and the restaurant.

    The streets and industries are brought to life by vehicles (all stopped forever by trains crossing the road or for loading) and by people. The vehicles are from a variety of sources... Viking, Con-Cor, kits, toy shops and autoracks. The humans (70+) are hand painted figures from Preiser unpainted sets.

    No period is specified (cries of "SHAME") as I have stock available to operate steam, early diesel or modern eras.

    All cars used at shows are weathered, and the open hoppers, gondolas and flats have appropriate loads (removable). One boxcar has a hobo riding at the open door...he doubles as the worker unloading the car when it is spotted at the team track.

    Rio Bravo then is a response to a challenge. The problems have been solved to the best of my ability, but how successfully, is not for me to judge. It is NOT an advertisement for tiny layouts as such. Fifty-car trains with multiple lash-ups sweeping around wide-radius curves are impossible on such layouts. Autoracks, TOFC and double-stacks are banned from Rio Bravo as they look ridiculous on it.

    Building the layout was fun, and I still enjoy operating it. It has been well received at the N-Trak UK Convention and at several public shows. It has been invited to the premier train show in the UK at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.

    Finally, a challenge to all who are short of space or who want to participate in shows. Build YOUR solution to the portable layout problem! It can be done. And as for me? - I am building N-Trak modules. I want to see my multiple lash-ups hauling 50 cars...and..."I have no space for sweeping curves."

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