Tasha Oates updated December 2, 2010


Tasha Oates's Tags


Browse Articles » Layout Tours

  • Larry Reynolds’ Pennsylvania Railroad, Middle & Pittsburgh Divisions

    By Larry Reynolds
    Photos by Robert Schleicher

    Like many others in the hobby, I graduated over the years from stark beginnings to a functioning, miniature transportation system. At first, my interest was in the Reading Railroad. We lived very close to one of the many Reading tracks that honeycombed the intercity of Philadelphia. This, along with the easy availability to take Reading commuter trains from Wayne Junction into center city and back, was a thrill to a young boy who was so enamored with the fascination of railroading. Then the day came when our family took a train ride from Philadelphia to East Meadows, Long Island to visit my grandparents. This was my first introduction to the Pennsylvania Railroad. My interests have been with that road ever since. To me, everything about the Pennsy was exciting. Its very size was overwhelming, along with an equipment collection that was rivaled by none. This just had to be the railroad of choice to satisfy my modeling hunger.

    From my childhood to the present time I've built many model railroads. Each one was a little better than the previous. When a corporate move found my family in the Lehigh Valley, I made up my mind that this was home and that this would be the final and best model railroad of my life. Wrong! Oh, 1 built one all right. It was pretty, had a lot of track and it was large, but it was not an operating railroad. Something I never gave a lot of thought to. I was stuck in a rail fan rut and didn't realize it. After picking up the March 1994 issue of Railmodel Journal and becoming enthralled by Ken McCorry's Central Region, I decided that I just had to rebuild my railroad. I realized that I'd never be able to have something as grandiose as Ken's railroad, but the very thought of a railroad that did something besides run around aimlessly was just what I needed to get off dead center. I didn't say immediately, did I? No, it took two years of planning and considering options to arrive at what I believed to be my final version of the mighty "Standard Railroad of the World."

    At first I toyed with the idea of replicating the railroad from Harrisburg to Altoona-Harrisburg being the last visual portion of the east end and Altoona being west end staging. I drew up a pretty neat track plan that would fit comfortably in my basement and was ready to destroy the old layout. I was charged up and ready to go. Thoughts of trains racing through the Middle Division and passing over the Juniata River time and time again fueled my enthusiasm to begin this monster project. I dreamed of the electric to steam and diesel "hand off' at Harrisburg, which just fascinated my imagination, but I'd have to do catenary! This just couldn't be! I'm not that good, nor do I have the time for such an aggressive endeavor. Back to the drawing board.

    After much careful thought of what would best suit my interests as well as my skills, I chose to model a very short portion of the Pennsy, namely from Huntingdon to Gallitzin. The main reasons for this choice were the Altoona facilities and, of course, Horseshoe Curve. The struggle over the Alleghenies was compelling and added an operational interest that is considerably challenging.

    The Plan Evolves

    So, the decision was made and the plans began to take shape. First I drew a variety of footprints that would be the foundation for a complete track plan. This footprint had to follow a few absolute rules:

    • No train shall pass through the same scene twice.
    • View blocks would be incorporated to hide one specific area from another. I didn't want the crews coming out of the tunnels at the top of the hill to see Altoona, Tyrone, etc.
    • A long run up the East Slope Control, staging and proper interlockings did not come into play at this point of planning. A big mistake that had to be corrected later.

    As the plan progressed and a final blueprint was drawn, I realized just how much the basic shape of the whole thing had in common with John Armstrong's Canandaigua Southern, sans the reverted loop and tail tracks. It occurred to me that if I used John's reverted loop design, I'd have a good deal more mainline at the east end of the railroad rather then utilizing a pure reverse loop as originally planned. This was just what the doctor ordered, so it became a part of the final plan. Far be it from me to criticize the "Master's" personal plan, but it didn't work out so well in an operating session as I soon found out, the hard way. The difficulty with the reverted loop was derailments of passenger trains during backward movements and the time it took to complete those movements. After about the second or third session, we all agreed that something needed to be done to eliminate the problem, but what? So much of the layout was already constructed along with an ample amount of scenery.

    Ken McCorry, always quick to enhance things regardless of the work involved, asked me what was under the tracks on the approach to and through Horseshoe Curve. My reply was, "Risers to support the mainline." "Well, why not use that space for east end staging?" was Ken's retort, and I just stared at him blankly. Was he kidding? No, not at all! He was dead serious. All I could think about was the work involved, but this was the only way to solve the problem, and it had to be done. And so it was. I don't want to tell you just how difficult sawing away ''T'' risers and replacing them with cantilever types was, not to mention laying sub-roadbed, Homasote, tracks and a switch ladder in a space with a total height of eight inches that tapers down to four inches. Such are the joys of model railroading! The project was completed and the results were certainly worth the effort. The reverted loop remains, now double tracked with two stub tracks branching off, and it is used only for the Bald Eagle Branch staging. It does, however, serve as a valuable tool during restaging. The staging tracks under the East Slope number seven, complemented by the three original tail tracks. All in all, the project has improved the east end staging area to a total of 14 tracks, a far cry from the original plan.

    Over the years many other changes and enhancements were made to the railroad. Ken McCorry and Doug Watts gave me invaluable suggestions for changes to the overall track plan in the beginning. And, to this day, I'm quick to listen for operational inspiration from other "Altoona Area Operators," such as Steve Mallery (a dispatcher for Norfolk Southern and the son of the "late, great" Paul Mallery), Ray Fisher, Jeff Warner and Gale Smith, just to mention a few.

    Electrical Control

    Initially, I wired the layout for DC block control utilizing PFM and Soundtraxx throttles. So many of my locomotives were equipped with speakers and I just had to have that ever­satisfying sound. Nick Kulp, a good friend of mine, was after me for some time to change to DCC, but I just wouldn't give in. After visiting another good friend, Jim Hertzog, and seeing his Shamokin Division of the Reading Railroad in the December 2000 issue of The Journal, which employed Lenz DCC, I saw the light. I was amazed at just how easy it was to control so many trains with so many individual engineers, and not needing to worry about blocks, current direction, and all the other things associated with DC that that are so cumbersome.       During this period, Soundtraxx was offering sound decoders. The decision to go to DCC was a no brainer.

    Today, my railroad operates with Digitrax DCC. Four boosters are employed along with circuit breakers and auto reverses from Tony's Train Exchange. A Digitrax PM42 is also used in various areas. All of these help immensely in ensuring a smooth, uninterrupted operation. I have become a strong believer in multiple protected sections. (Particularly if the railroad uses a lot of QSI sound equipped locomotives.) Currently, the area from SE to the top of the hill is protected in four separate sections with Slope and MG interlockings being isolated individually. Future plans call for all of the interlockings to have exclusive protection.


    Since the year 1953 is the "approximate" time period modeled, both steam and diesel locomotives abound. Just about all of the steam classes are represented, with a great variety of diesels, including second­ generation  types for planned 1960s sessions diversity. Don't worry; these "modern sessions" will be few and far between. Also, the second-generation locomotives are being kept off the railroad until their time comes. At that time, steam will be lifted, but quickly placed back for the next session.

    All of the 675-plus freight cars are your typical mix of Athearn, MDC, Atlas, Bowser and Branchline plastic cars. On the other hand, the passenger equipment is mostly brass with recent additions of Branchline and Walthers sleepers. I am very pleased with what the industry has offered lately. I'm convinced that we've never had it so good and that it will only get better.


    Atlas flex track on N scale cork is used throughout the layout. Code 100 is used on the Middle Division while Code 83 is on the Pittsburgh Division area. The reason for the code 100 is simple: I had a lot of Shinohara switches left over from the old layout. The minimum radius of the mainline curves is 38 inches. All mainline curves are super elevated with easements. All mainline switches are number eight or larger, controlled by Tortoise switch machines.

    Operations Today

    Sure, building the railroad and seeing trains run is joyful. However, my greatest satisfaction with the hobby lies in the monthly operating sessions. We generally hold a session every fourth Saturday of the month. The railroad requires a minimum of 15 people to function properly. As many as 20 can be handled comfortably, over that it becomes a little crowded. Control of the operations is administered by a central dispatcher at Alto with an additional operator at the east and west end staging who controls all traffic in and out of the active railroad. The CTC for this "AR/Hunt" operation is located inside the west end staging loops which affords good visibility enhanced with closed circuit TV. It also keeps the operator out of the aisles. Future plans call for the dispatcher at Alto to be moved upstairs into the dining room. This concept has been embraced by all three of my dispatchers, and by the way, who needs a dining room anyway?

    A typical session, consisting of 36 trains, lasts about 4½ hours. Twenty­four symbol freights, five local freights, six mainline passenger trains and one local passenger train fill the schedule. The two main focal points during the operation are the Altoona Yards and the helpers on the hill. Altoona is a beehive of activity, requiring a yardmaster, yard crews at the east and west ends of the yard, as well as a foreman at the East Altoona enginehouse. The foreman's job is to supervise and implement motive power changes for through trains, as well as providing power for originating trains. Traveling west from Altoona there is generally at least one train being shoved up the East Slope at all times. It is not uncommon to have two trains going up with an additional two or three descending.

    Waybills and car cards

    I use a waybill and car card system created by Ray Fisher. Ray has been an invaluable asset to my railroad as well as many other model railroads within our operating group. Not only has Ray supplied the format and materials for the waybills, he also creates and maintains the schedules and the dispatcher's, yardmaster's, and operator's worksheets. He is currently building complete rulebooks for many of us. All of the four­ part waybills are color coded for ease of operation. The color codes comply with a matching color code on all of the other paperwork which is an immense benefit for new crews.

    The Future

    As we all know, no model railroad is ever fully completed. Building, changing, enhancing and changing again is half the fun. The future for the Altoona Area is bright. Plans call for a complete signal system. This enormous project will begin following the 2006 NMRA Convention being held in Philadelphia. The future will also see a completely new CTC machine at Alto to complement the signal control. Concurrent with the signaling project will be a complete revamp of Altoona Yards. In addition, the west end of the railroad will be extended beyond the current staging location and double decked into a new and improved west end staging. This will include the addition of a visible town of Gallitzin along with improved tunnels.




    These are just a few of the Prototype-based layouts that have appeared in past issues of "The Journal" that are also scheduled to be open for the "Layout Tours" at the 2006 NMRA Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania July 2-9, 2006.

    Santa Fe Railway (ATSF)

    • John Altschool's 25 x 40-foot Santa Fe Southwestern, April 1993.

    Chesapeake & Ohio (also C&O, Chessie, & CSX) 

    • Ted Wilk's 18 x 50-foot layout on four decks, August 1998. 


    • Harold Wirthwine's basement-size divisions in operation, January 2002.


    • E-L Operations in Pennsylvania in HO scale, by Joe Lofland, March 200l.

    Lehigh Valley Railroad (LV)

    • Doug & Steve Kley's 16 x 36-foot, two-deck Lehigh Valley and Reading Railroad, December 1990.

    Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR)

    • Bob Davis' 20 x 20-foot Blue Mountain Division, March 1993. Ken McCorry's 31 x 79-foot Buffalo Division, on two decks, March 1994 and reprinted in LAYOUTS OFTHE MASTERS.
    • AI Buchan's Erie & Ashtabula Division, Erie & Pittsburg Branch, in HO scale, February 200l.
    • Bill Blackburn's 18 x 24-foot GreatValley Division, November 2005.
      • Larry Reynolds' 27 x 43-foot Middle and Pittsburgh Divisions "Altoona to Horseshoe Curve," December 2005.

     Reading Company (RDG)

    • Doug & Steve Kley's 16 x 36-foot, two-deck Lehigh Valley and Reading Railroad, December 1990.
    • Jim Hertzog's 32 x 41-foot Shamokin Division, December 2000.

    Metropolitan Corridor Railroads

    A Railroader's Story Series: Charles Carangi is squeezing most of the operations at the southern end of the busy Northeastern Seaboard's "Metropolitan Corridor" into an average-size basement. The railroad is triple decked, and most of the tracks and train lengths have been compressed to a fraction of their size. He is recreating all the passenger train movements in one of the busiest areas of the world in HO scale-albeit with shorter train lengths. Part I of this series appeared in the December 1990 issue, with a basic statement of the principles of compressing mainline operations into minimal spaces. Part II, in the December 1991 issue, explained how major yard operations can be condensed into minimal spaces. Part III, on duplicating the railroad operations at the Aberdeen, Maryland military installation: April 1993 issue. Part IV, on the operations at major towers: August 1993 issue. Part V, describing the operations at the Ragan, Delaware interlocking tower: October 1994 issue. Part VI, describing the operations in the prototype and model yards at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: April 1995 issue. 

    Article Details

    • Original Author Larry Reynolds
    • Source Railmodel Journal

    Article Album (23 photos)

    Share - Report