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  • Modeling Prototype Scenes

    by Doug Geiger, MMR

    Photos by the author

    Rio Grande SD45 exits East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel on the author's N-scale FoamRail module.
    Model Railroading - August 1999 - Page 46 Model Railroading - August 1999 - Page 47

    For many, modeling the prototype can lead to several alternatives. One can superdetail a diesel to represent a specific type and even a specific locomotive. Or one can model a real building, down to the interior details and all the roof lines and vents. A few try to model the scenery around a real building. But fewer yet try to model a whole prototype scene, including track layout, buildings and surrounding scenery. The thrust of the hobby these days (and probably even more in the future) is towards more prototype perfection. The free lancer is becoming a minority as more products are developed that simulate the real thing. For me, prototype modeling has been limited to locomotive and rolling stock detailing until recently.

    As a member of the Boulder Model Rail road Club (BMRC) N-scale FoamRail group (see June 1995 Model Railroading), I elected to design and build an 8' N-scale foam module (see Photos 1 and 2). With my commitment to fine-scale N-scale (see July 1996 and October 1997 MRG) and an interest in doing further prototype modeling, I chose to model two complete prototype scenes near where I live: the east entrance of the Rio Grande's Moffat Tunnel and the large Santa Fe girder bridge found on the Joint Line just south of Denver. What I found during the process was eye-opening, especially since I am usually a died-in-the wool freelancer. In this article, I hope to give you some idea of what I faced in modeling the prototype and how I solved it. For many who have done this type of modeling before, this article just contains common sense. For others, maybe I can alert you to some of the problems and joys in modeling the prototype scene. The photos will both entertain you and give you perspective on my efforts. I wish to thank John Templeton of the BMRC for his comments and camera knowledge in writing this article.

    Choosing a Site and Era

    All of the decisions you must make during the project will probably be dependent on each other. Change one decision and that will change another. One of the first and maybe the hardest decisions to make is the choice of location to model and when to model it! You have only a fixed amount of model real estate and there are probably ten times more railroad scenes that interest you. Maybe it's a bridge or a particular piece of scenery that has captured your attention. Maybe it's a particular track arrangement that is of interest on a particular railroad. Or maybe a particular building intrigues you.

    So, how to choose one? There are many factors to consider, none of which by themselves will determine which site to choose. To begin with, consider accessibility. Is it easy to get to the scene? Can you go back for more data or is it a one-time shot? Has the scene changed much over the years? How accessible and prolific is the data if you have chosen to model the past? Consider books and historical societies for photo sources of the scene. Remember, text is not usually as important as a photo when trying to achieve perfection in modeling a prototype scene.

    I choose to model the Moffat Tunnel during the 1970s, before the Rio Grande Railroad changed forever the configuration of the tunnel building in the mid-1980s. Several books as well as personal slides provided the necessary photos. One of the main reasons I chose the Moffat Tunnel was that there were a set of scale plans of the tunnel building (Photo 3). And although the building has changed recently, most of it remains intact. Since the building is the main focal point of the scene, having plans to the building was of prime concern. Without plans that scene would not have been chosen. For the Joint Line bridge site, I decided to model the bridge as it exists today. No plans were available, so I had to draw my own, but the site was very accessible.

    Research and Photography

    So now you have chosen a site and a time (year and season) to model. So what's next? Now comes researching the site. If you've chosen to model an area that can be seen today, be prepared for some field work. If the area has disappeared, then book research will be necessary.

    Model Railroading - August 1999 - Page 48

    For field work, permission may have to be obtained from the landowner(s) and the railroad. This can be difficult if not impossible. It may also be almost impossible to physically get access to the site. These challenges may alter your site decision. Be prepared to visit the site at least twice. You will never get all the necessary photographs on the first visit. If an Amtrak passenger train travels through the scene you want to model, consider taking a train ride. If possible, visit the area in at least two seasons. Fall and winter are good because the foliage has disappeared, making the landforms more visible. Buildings are not obscured with leaves, either. Spring and summer are usually easier to schedule a site visit (called a vacation), and it is easier to measure and photograph without dodging snowflakes or cold weather. Winter travel to a site can prove difficult, too. Consider that once during the research of my Moffat Tunnel scene, we left Denver in decent weather and arrived at the tunnel in a blizzard! I didn't get much information, but I did obtain a beautiful shot of Amtrak #5 coming through the snowflakes.

    Book research is a bit more civilized, but can be more frustrating when you can't find a photograph that will shed light on some item. This is especially true for colors of buildings since most photographs taken before the 1940s were black-and-white. However, the proliferation of color books these days has made the painting task easier. But be warned: the dyes on color photographs change, especially as the image gets older. A red will always be red, but the shade of red can change dramatically. If possible, use several color photos to obtain consistency.

    For instance, although many photos were found that showed the face of the Moffat Tunnel building, there is a real dearth of pictures that show the back of the tunnel building. I only had two photos to use for reference for that section of the building. Hardcover books are a great source of photographs if you can find the right ones. If you are modeling a fallen flag railroad, correspond with the historical society that deals with that railroad. Almost every present and past Class One railroad (and some shortlines) has a historical society associated with it. Model Railroading regularly publishes the Society Page that lists these organizations. For some railroads, like the Chesapeake & Ohio, the information available is staggering. Others may take a bit more sleuthing and persistence. If you can not find any data (or not enough to model from), then it's back to square one to choose another site to model, otherwise you'll just be freelancing again.

    From an elevated vantage, the ballasted deck shows clearly on the Joint Line bridge.
    Model Railroading - August 1999 - Page 49

    If the site still exists, the field trip visits should be planned early. For field research, take lots of notes. Measurements will need to be made if plans and track layout don't exist. A 100' tape measure will be indispensable as will be a yardstick. A measure-stick is also an invaluable tool. Although not available commercially, a measure-stick can be made easily by painting a good, straight 3' lx2 board white. Subdivide the rod into three 1' sections and paint the middle section red. You may also wish to further divide the first section into inches and paint every other inch division red. Lay the measure-stick somewhere in the scene whenever you need to take a photograph to document some item at the site. The measure-stick provides an instant reference for calculating dimensions. You can also use a yardstick, but it won't show up as well and will make it more difficult to get accurate information.

    For onsite photography, there are several things to remember. First and foremost film is cheap when compared to the time and travel needed to get to the site. Take lots of photos. Prints are usually preferred unless you have access to a good quality, large slide viewer (10" screen or larger). Slides tend to give the truest colors at a site, but prints can be compared against each other concurrently to check items of conflict. Prints are usually easier to handle on the workbench, too. If you use a 35mm SLR camera, you must use a 50mm lens to avoid distortion of the photographed object. A wide-angle lens (28mm is common) can provide good overall shots, but the wide-angle lens will distort locations and sizes of objects. Use a disposable panoramic camera to record the overall scene, but it also may distort objects. When in doubt, always use a 50mm lens and try to take the shot directly at the object.

    Photography during a cloudy day is best to document the scene. Lighting can be tough since it is best to photograph all sides of everything. By definition then, some sides will be sunlit and others will be in the dark. A cloudy day doesn't obscure details like a bright, sunny day will. Details are not hidden in deep shadows on a cloudy day.

    Plan on taking a photograph of each side of every building at the site. Take detail photographs of intricate roof angles, eave brackets and other architectural items. Of course if the building has changed from when you want to model it, photography and measurements will be more difficult, but harder for others to verify! Take photographs of any plaques and signs at the site. Try taking photographs that can be directly used later on the model. For example, on the Moffat Tunnel scene, there are several iron signs that flank the actual portal . By taking a straight-on photograph 60' from the sign (with a 50mm lens) and having it processed as a 4x6 print, the print provided an almost N-scale sign that when cut out was glued directly onto the tun nel building. Similar geometrical calculations can be used for other scales, too.

    A southbound pig train passes over the Larkspur bridge as a motorist drives underneath.
    Model Railroading - August 1999 - Page 50

    Make an itemized list of everything in the scene. List all the structures and their adjacent ground clutter. Take note of all the power and telephone poles and lines that run through the scene. Record all the water elements, including both man made (like dams or ditches) and natural (streams, ponds or waterfalls). Almost any scene will have drainage courses, so don't forget them. Note where the trees are found and where any rock outcroppings are. Take photographs of the trees and rocks to be able to color match them during the model phase. Note where any sidewalks and pavement are. Record all the roadways and highways. Most also have signs, so don't forget them. This itemized scene element checklist will be quite useful when deciding on what to compress or eliminate. It can also be used to ensure progress during the modeling. For my prototype scenes, the Moffat Tunnel checklist included: main tunnel building (with snowshed), MOW building and some of its surrounding clutter, communication poles, grade crossing, stream, rocks and trees. The trestle side of the module contained: the trestle, dirt and paved roads (and their signs), retaining walls, power lines, trees and the stream.

    Compression and Compromise

    These two words can make or break the project. No matter how much scale real estate you have to work with, it will be next to impossible to include every thing. Because of limitations in available track components, the actual track layout will probably have to be compressed. To include every switch and spur may just take too much room. Or the natural flow of the trackwork may have to be adjusted to fit the confines of the room or space you have to work in. Whatever the case, be prepared to compress or even bend the track arrangement to fit. Try not to change too much of the track elements or you may loose the prototype feel of the site.

    If your chosen scene includes a large building or two, you may have to compress the building to squeeze it into the available space and to align it with the model trackage. Leaving off a section or reducing a wall in length may be needed to get it to fit.

    Of course, whenever you compress something, you need to strike a compromise on what gets omitted. This comprising is usually a personal thing and reflects on your interest in the scene. Rank all the items in the prototype scene checklist by importance to you and importance to the scene. This can give you a way to choose what to compress or even eliminate completely. The elusive goal of the prototype modeler is to compress and compromise as little as possible.

    On my module, the real Joint Line Santa Fe bridge is built on a large, sweeping curve. Unfortunately, my Foam Rail module did not allow a curve within the constraints of the module. So the model ATSF bridge was built straight. Very few people have noticed the change. On the Moffat side, there are several ancillary buildings next to the MOW shed. Again because of space limitations, I elected to eliminate all those extra buildings. However, I felt that the track layout needed to be to scale, so the turnout leading to the tunnel portal is in correct relationship to the scene. This necessitated handlaying code 40 rail and building the turnout. Also, the portal building is the star of the scene, so no compression was allowed there. Although the trackage within the actual Moffat Tunnel is straight, I had to bend it within the tunnel to again match existing FoamRail specifications. Compression and compromise at work.

    Putting It All Together

    After all the research, field notes and measurements have been taken, it's now time to actually model the scene. Don't fall into the research trap of trying to obtain that last bit of prototype data... because you never will. Although research is necessary, you will never get everything. A rule of thumb is that you will obtain 90% of the necessary modeling data in 10% of the time. To get the remaining 10%, you will need 90% more time. The key is to strike a balance. Only you will know when it's the time to begin modeling. The research trap is especially nasty if you have chosen to model a scene from a bygone era.

    At some point, you will need to choose a modeling scale. It may be what you're used to, like HO scale. Consider, however, changing scales to better represent the scene. N scale has a huge advantage over the larger scales since more can be included on the same model real estate, thus leading to less compression and fewer compromises. Scenery can dominate the trains in N-scale in a way that HO or larger can never hope for. Changing scales can also stimulate your model railroading hobby.

    When matching a prototype scene, the structures will be the easiest to model, followed by the trackwork. Scenery will be the hardest to duplicate. Trying to plant every tree and bush and carve or cast every rock outcropping can be a recipe for frustration. Try, however, to follow at least where the trees and rocks occur in the real scene. Duplicating the colors of the rocks and trees is easy. Plant model grass (foam) where the prototype has real grass and weeds.

    Model Railroading - August 1999 - Page 51

    Don't forget the backdrop. During your visit to the site, take some photographs of the distant mountains or hills, water or at least clouds. Take these photos with slide film so that you can use them to project onto an unpainted backdrop. Outline the scenery with a light pencil. Then paint in the clouds. Next fill in the outlined areas. There have been several excellent articles that deal with backdrop painting and most use the "fill-in the-blanks" approach. For many people, a well-done backdrop can instantly identify the scene. I had mine done by a professional landscape artist.

    Be prepared to scratchbuild most, if not all, the structures since few real buildings have been captured in kit form. You may also consider scratchbuilding the trackwork to better match the prototype. This is especially important for turnouts since the prototype has much longer turnouts (like #12 through #22s) than any commercially available turnouts. Even in N-scale, handlaid trackwork is not difficult (see April-June 1996 MRG). After all, without the train, probably only the track tells the viewer that this is a railroad scene.

    Both the ATSF bridge and the two buildings on my N-scale FoamRail module were scratchbuilt. I used a computer-aided drafting (CAD) program to develop the Santa Fe bridge. Fortunately, I had prototype plans to work from for the Moffat Tunnel building, but I still used CAD to refine the prototype plans into model form. Photos 4-6 show some of the rubber molds that I created while scratchbuilding the various components for both scenes. Photos 7 and 8 illustrate the basic structural models used on the Moffat side of the module. The other prototype photos illustrate various details around each of the two scenes that I modeled. They are provided to illustrate a sample of what to record when visiting the selected scene.

    As a final note, modeling a prototype scene can earn you the NMRA Achievement Program's Prototype Modeler certificate. Few modelers have obtained this award because of the challenge it represents. But for some, a modeling challenge is what keeps the hobby fresh.


    Modeling a prototype scene can be rewarding, especially if you consider your self an advanced modeler. Prototype modeling is not for the beginning model railroader. Research takes time and commitment. Finding that elusive piece of data can be frustrating and rewarding. Compression and compromise will become necessary watch words during design and modeling. Duplicating scenery will be difficult, but not impossible. Finally, the knowledge that you have captured a piece of time and history in model form makes it all worthwhile.

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