Sci-Fi model train landscape

Workers venture out on the dangerous landscape of the Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad

The year seemed to be dominated by larger time consuming projects. January saw me complete my Mad Max style science fiction locomotive kitbash, which I didn’t think turned out to be half bad for my first attempt.

Science fiction kitbashed locomotive for the Mines of Xenon layout

April was the 40th anniversary of the famous lunar model railroad which was a major inspiration in my starting this layout. I marked the occasion by writing a layout tour article giving an overview of The Mines of Xenon and the state of layout construction at that time.

Mining mountain and radio active slime pit scenery progress

During the summer, work progressed mainly on the scenery while the mountain forms and radio active sludge pond were created. Work seemed to come together pretty quickly as I had had some good practice on the diorama.

Kitbashing science fiction ore cars

Next up during the fall was my attempt to scratch building some rolling stock and flying stock. I wanted a custom ore-type car to run around the layout as well as a vessel for a crashed spaceship scene. I cobbled something together for the ore cars that don’t really work, but may be able to be used as scenery props around the layout.

Scratch building a spaceship

Also the results on the spacecraft were not really what I wanted. After watching lots of online videos, I put something together that didn’t really fly. I might find a place for the craft on the layout, but ultimately decided on an obscure Star Trek kit. This ship will be the center of a crashed spacecraft scene. It is a nice size and has some good texture to fit the current setting.

Crashed spaceship scene – first look

I finished the year with some more good progress on the scenery while I tackled the end the layout under the mountain. Some wire screening by the passenger track and lights made a big difference.

Futuristic turbo train pulls into mining passenger station deep below the surface

Another project not directly related to the Mines of Xenon layout was prepping the room for the next big thing. I basically have two rooms available in my basement and worked toward finishing one room. That stalled after the fist stage, but de-cluttering and re-arranging was able to continue. This was more effort that I had planned for and seemed to drag down progress whenever I would look at my actual layouts.

I revisited my radio controlled power on board Athearn blue box SW1500, and redesigned the wiring. While I was working I burned out the receiver board and killed two batteries, so this project didn’t get finished by the end of the year.

St. Mary’s Railroad MD15-AC

And let’s not forget the nice surprise gift from my wife to drive an actual locomotive in October! Behind the throttle of St. Mary’s Railroad MD15-AC also gave me some good ideas for a railroad-you-can-model article or possibly a diorama. Surprisingly, the railroad had a SW1500 that looked very similar to the one I have running on the Southside Industrial District, which I painted about 35 years ago!

The next year is ripe with anticipation of big things. Here is what is on my docket:

Mines of Xenon
– Finish motive power
– Structures – main mine and gun turret
– Village ?
– Detailing
– Write it all up and put it in a bookazine

Southside Industrial District
– Finish detailing some buildings
– Formalize an operating scheme
– Write it all up and put it in a bookazine

Morden Diorama
– Redo Morden station
– Finish platform scene

New Layout
– Make staging modules

Here’s hoping this coming year is great one for you. Keep modelling and don’t forget to have fun!

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The Turbo Train pulls into the station with the mining mountain in the background on The Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad.

The main scenic land forms are now finished. The mine mountain has been in place for some time, but I wanted to make sure all the other parts were completed in proper order so I wouldn’t have to backtrack and redo or take up track if I didn’t have to. Up until now, none of the trackage has been secured. I’m glad I took this approach because I made a few final adjustments at the end.

The radio active sludge pond was finished up with an outlet pipe of goo and some details. The runny stuff is gloops of hot glue and the drippings on the surface is some left over resin from other projects. All these were painted with neon shades of green and then give a sealing coat of Mod Podge lustre (shiny), with some final coats of glow in the dark craft paint. Some vehicles and figures were placed around the scene.

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Who knows what kind of radio active goop is flowing from that outlet pipe?

The hill formations on the “village” end of the layout were created much the same way as the mine mountain – 2 inch extruded foam cut and shaped to fit. These forms are not as big as the mountain, but provide a view block and give a place to put in an “underground” passenger station. I think it works well. Some corrugated cardboard is used for the tunnel sides, weathered to show the affects of the geologic event like an electric storm or resulting quake that is the basis of our story. The passenger station will be completed with details at a later stage.

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Trains pass as they cross the bridges over a stream of radio active sludge on the Mines of Xenon sci-fi model railroad

The track was ballasted with standard techniques. The white track is steel Tyco sectional pieces from the Turbo Train set. The darker track is Atlas brass snap track weathered with a nutmeg color from a rattle can. I made my own ballast by painting construction sand the same color as the scenery base coat (Glidden Peking Orange). I just mixed a few spoonfuls of paint in with about 2 cups of sand and spread it out on some newspaper to dry. Repeat as needed to get the volume required.

I’m pleased with this ballasting process, too. The “familiar but different” effect blends the scenic pieces together. I’ll use this method again because HO scale ballast is usually too big for HO scale track. The sand and paint is cheap, it clumps together just a bit so it doesn’t look like sand, and the colors are versatile because you can use your own latex or acrylic paint. The ballast was spooned into place, formed with a small brush, and secured with a 50-50 mixture of white glue and water using “wet water” as a wetting agent.

A couple of nooks and crannies add visual interest to the formations – one might be a hidden cove for robots and the other a more practical storage place for the Turbo Train throttle. These are fun little details the visitors can “discover” as they interact with the layout.

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Cut out storage for the Turbo Train throttle

There is still plenty of scenic detailing left to do. The passenger stations are specially ripe for some creative post apocalyptic, sci-fi creativity. There is also some rolling stock to kit bash and structures to add, which are next on the To Do list.

The Pour

Posted: August 16, 2018 in Uncategorized
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Rich Erwin pours the resin to make a radio active slime pit on his science fiction model railroad “The Mines of Xenon”

The next phase of the scenery sees several items come together as we finish the radio active slime pit and stream.

After the base of white Sculptmold was painted orange to match the surrounding terrain, I painted the the pit and stream various shades of green to simulate radio active slime. I started with the brightest colors out on the edge and worked towards a very dark green in the center section, being careful to blend the edges from one color to the next. Rather than painting strokes, I used dabs and swirls to simulate the effect of a current under the liquid. The bottom of the stream really shows through the clear resin, so an effective paint job is important.


The stream bed painted shades of green on Xenon 3

Lastly before putting down the layer of resin, I added details to be below the water line. I cut a grocery store toy dinosaur in half to appear as if coming out of the liquid. I cut a Matchbox car tire in half, weathered the two halves, and glued them to the base. I sanded down the end of an HO scale barrel so it would look like it was bobbing up and down. Parts of another toy dinosaur skeleton were scattered about. Bristles were cut from old paint brushes and glued to for long grass and weeds.

Now time to pour the resin. I use Envirotex Lite. I knew from my test attempt that the resin drys very clear – almost too clear. The problem is that light doesn’t bounce off like it would off of a water surface to give the illusion of depth. I thought I would try to tint the mixture to give it some color and visual texture. I mixed the two parts according the manufacturer instructions and added just a few drops of acrylic craft glow in the dark neon paint.


Applying a coat of Mod Podge over the resin-cast radio active slime pit

Then I just poured the mixed resin in the pit and stream. I used a disposable wooden chopstick to spread the mixture about and to get into all the nooks and crannies. After 24 hours I came back to check the pour. It should have been rock hard, but was still a bit sticky to the touch. I gave it another day, but it was still sticky. My theory was that the added acryllic color threw off the mix ratio and affected the drying. I contemplated tearing it out and redoing the whole thing, but then I had another idea.

The next step is to add several layers of Mod Podge (gloss medium) to build up some depth and let the light dance around for that depth affect that is so important. I know this also dried hard to the touch, so I decided just to cover the sticky resin after letting it set for several days. Before applying the gloss medium, I poured some out into a disposable cup and again mixed in the acrylic glow in the dark paint. The affect is clear and subtle, so I added a generous amount – maybe a spoonful.


A newly applied layer of gloss medium along with the debris of the slime pit

I did five layers of dabbing the Mod Podge. The layers built up successfully, but it was still a bit tacky. So I tried a final coat without any acrylic paint. Yes! That was it – it dried hard and solid. A few other dabs over some trouble spots that had difficulty drying and the application was complete. I’m quite happy with the finished effect.


Trains are ready to go as the finishing touches are put on the slime pit on the planet Xenon III

The slime pit and stream are the lowest piece of scenery and several other items on the layout depend on them being finished before I could continue, such as the final track placement and ballasting. In the next installment, we’ll add the drain pipe with some glowing sludge coming out and then move on to securing the track.

Mines of Xenon scenery and rock work

The next step is to knock out most of the scenery. I finished the big mountain that contains the mine the same way I did the diorama. I stacked the 2 inch extruded foam and cut it to shape to allow for the three tracks that go through the mountain. Again, I didn’t smoothe the edges, but left it rough cut to suggest a terrain like a quarry.

Mines of Xenon Sculptamold makes bed channel and terrain

I dug out the slime pit and stream, then sealed the bottom with patching plaster to give some texture and hide the plywood grain. Then I covered it with Sculpamold to smooth the banks to give some texture. I glued down some small rocks (“talus”) to simulate the rocky planet surface. The extruded foam has score marks every 16 inches, so I covered those with plaster as well. The whole thing was painted Peking Orange and then weathered and blended with various ruddy shades from rattle cans. I even created a bit of a cave on top in case there happens to be a spider robot that needs a place to hide!

Inside the mountains of the Mines of Xenon model railroad. Some final clearance work and painting still needs to be done.

The bottom of the stream was painted various shades of green starting with bright on the outer edges and then blending towards black in the center. I’ll add some reeds and debris in the next step.

Mines of Xenon scenery and sub-terrain turbo station under construction

I needed a little more room at the end where the turbo station is under a hill, so I extended the passenger (white) track another couple of inches. Two inches is a lot of room when you’re making an underground tunnel! I also deconstructed the Turbo Train power section and moved the connector parts under the layout and fed power to the track with standard feeder wires. The result looks much better.

Mines of Xenon work vehicles from Matchbox Jurassic Park 5-pack

And I got some new work vehicles suitable for the environment. Jurassic Park? Who cares! Fun!

Next we’ll finish detailing the slime pond and creek bed and pour the resin.

OK, it is not Mars, but the Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad layout. Here are some pictures of the latest progress on the scenery. Mostly making the mountain and the sludge pond and stream.

I’ll add a couple more rock formations to create coves where robots can hide. Then paint the whole thing, add a passenger platform, details, and scatter.

sci-fi model train

HH-78 #15 crosses over the sludge pond as the Turbo Trains shuttles a crew to work at the Mines of Xenon

The year is 2154 and humanity has built a mining outpost on the planet Xenon III. Profits have been down for the Xenon Mining Company (XMC) for decades, forcing them to cut corners, defer maintenance, and ignore required firmware upgrades to their ageing AI mining robots. An electrical storm has enveloped the planet and XMC’s command center has taken a direct hit. The current surge has shorted out the coupling between the robots and the master servers, allowing the automaton units to move freely about the planet. The robots have taken control over all systems on the outpost and the humans must defend themselves.

The Mines of Xenon layout depicts the early days after the ‘bot revolt and the workers’ counter-uprising in which the miners must secure a base, scrounge for supplies, and fight for survival. The humans have managed to commandeer the existing freight and passenger rail systems as their only way to ensure safe passage around – and under – the planet surface until either they arrange to escape in a freight launch-craft or help arrives.


One of the greatest benefits I get from reading print model railroading magazines or books is the power they have to spark my imagination. I will often read an article again and again, poring over every detail of the photographs to fuel my dreams.


The earliest modeling memory I have from my teens is when I first discovered Model Railroader magazine and found the article “A Lunar Railroad You Can Model” in April of 1978. By checking the date you’ll know that it was meant to be tongue in cheek, but the lead photo of rail cars on the lunar landscape stayed with me, if though dormant, until adulthood.

Recently I was inspired by watching an outer space themed movie and went back to that old photo. A new project was born: The Mines of Xenon layout. It has now been 40 years since I first saw that magazine article.

Sci-fi Turbo Train

The space Turbo Train pulls into sub-terra station on the way to take workers to the Xenon mine

Until that moment, I had been a by-the-rules model builder. I have a small industrial switching layout that stays pretty much true to script (explore this blog for a lot more information on the Southside Industrial District). It is my first layout as an adult and has given me the chance to hone my modeling skills and learn updated techniques that I learned as boy. But now it was time to branch out.

Modeling the Story

The trains run through a fantasy environment of robots, spaceships, and dinosaurs. As the trains run, a world unfolds around them. Radioactive sludge fills the extract pond as rogue robots attempt to take over the planet. Humans have retreated in defense, planning their next move.


The Turbo Train speeds past #15 on the way from the mine to the underground station by the workers’ village. Notice the heavy modifications the humans have made to the freight engine for safety and survival

Design Parameters

I wanted a place for imagination to have the freedom to run. I wanted people to feel welcome to operate or touch the layout (within reason). It should be created from relatively cheap and available materials and provide low entry barriers for new and young modelers. It should be simple and include interactive possibilities (like some of the old Tyco electric accessories). Basically, a glorified Christmas morning train set.

I had become frustrated with the lack of a continuous-run possibility on my industrial switching layout so I knew I wanted a loop. If this was to be on exhibition, I wanted to be able to let trains run of their own accord, freeing me up speak to visitors at a show or guests in my home.

Initial sketch of the Mines of Xenon track plan. Notice the point-to-point passenger line as well as the ore dump spur in the upper right corner, both of which were abandoned in the final design.

I would also take this chance to introduce my youngest daughter to model railroading and she would help me out with design decisions and age appropriate tasks.

The Search

So then it was off to the Internet to get inspired. I started mixing standard model railroading search terms with words like “science fiction”, “fantasy”, “futuristic”. What I found was amazing. I found a whole other world of hobbyists, especially in the gaming community. I would encourage you to check out the war gamers and their creativity. There are some amazing modelers out there that have nothing to do with model railroading. I wanted to learn from them and incorporate as many cross-genre techniques as I could into my model making.

In my searching for futuristic railroad items, I came across the Turbo Train set that Tyco sold in the 70’s. This would fit the bill perfectly and I picked up a used box set for a nice price on eBay.

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I settled on a mining theme on a foreign planet. The mines would add some operational possibilities, the use of heavy industrial machinery (and robots), and the chance to incorporate a passenger line to move workers around. I knew Tyco also offered an operating ore dump car and set, so I would be able to work that into the plan.

The genre would be science fiction with a bit of a nod to post-apocalyptica a la Mad Max style. Other genres you might consider for your own railroad are fantasy, Gothic, Viking, steampunk, or even a mix of different genres. I didn’t want the apocalypse to be too dark, so I went easy along that dimension.

The Diorama

I wanted to test out some ideas and modelling techniques before committing them to the layout, so I built a 2×4′ diorama. I had never worked with extruded foam (for the mountain) or resin (for the sludge pond) so I wanted a place I could try my hand and practice. I tried out combinations of colors that I think turned out OK.

I also wanted to test out size and spacing. One side of the diorama is the sludge pond, the other is the underground passenger terminal. After a couple of attempts, I settled on a technique for the pond. I found that leaving the foam cut and not smoothed like a mountain made it appear more as a quary (or mine) might look. Using different combinations of pieces gave me the look and feel I was going after for an underground station.


Adding texture to the sludge pond on the diorama

The diorama also gives me an setting or background for photography. I can quickly add pieces or move them around for the affect I am going for.

The Layout

I decided early on it was best to keep it simple. Every time I was tempted to add a siding, turnout, or crossing, I resisted and pulled back to what is basically a loop with a passing siding. The Turbo Train must run on steel track (it is held down by magnets), so it ended up being a separate outer loop. I added a couple of spurs to the freight line so I could 1) dump the ore with the Tyco accessory and 2) have another destination and holding siding for processed material headed for the freight space shuttle.

Mines of Xenon sci-fi model train layout overview

This photo shows early progress of the layout with most track in place. The mine and processing plant will be on a mountain at the far end and cover the three loops of track. The Turbo Train passenger line is independent of the freight line and painted white.

The terrain includes a mountain to add visual interest and provide a destination for mine trains. One end of the freight tunnel is the xenon mine and the other end houses the processing facility. This orientation allows me to use the old empties in / loads out operating scheme I first learned about from Model Railroaders N scale Clinchfield Railroad.


Workers try to contain the radioactive runoff before it gets out of hand

For passenger operations, there are two stations modeled of a shuttle line. One station is at the mine and the other at the dormitory for the workers. The simple loop allows me to turn on trains and let them run while leaving me free to speak or explain the layout. I can add some basic switching to break up the monotony.

The turbo train is really fun to run and can be run by youngsters for an interactive experience. A big red button on the side of the layout invites you to push it and dump the processed ore for shipping. I’ve also added some battling robots for another aspect of interaction. Plans also include a crashed spaceship with lights and smoke, as well as an operating turret to protect the mine with lasers and sound.

A radio active sludge pond with runoff creek adds visual interest, while the setting allows a lot of freedom for inserting a cast of unique characters and vignettes.

Construction Techniques

Construction is mostly by the book, despite the topic being modeled. Extruded foam over an open grid of 1×4’s make up the benchwork. The mountain is more 2″ extruded foam stacked. The only thing I did different here was to not smooth down the edges, but rather keep the edges “cut”, much like a quarry on the planet Xenon might look. The sludge pond is resin with several coats of Mod Podge to give texture on the surface.


Even a science fiction model railroad starts with a plan and sound building techniques

Track is mainly a mix of brass Tyco train set and Atlas snap track, as are turnouts. I invested in a few new #4 turnouts because that is where reliability issues show up first. The Turbo Train track is steel Tyco track painted white to set it apart and give it a familiar, yet different, look.

Beyond the basics, details were made with what I could find on hand. Two plastic soda bottles make the bridge tunnel for the Turbo Train. Ballast is construction sand painted with the same color as my base terrain.

Rolling Stock

Rolling stock is Athearn Blue Box PS hoppers modified for the outer space mining environment. I’ll cut the three bays into individual units and place on a single truck. Some modified train set flat cars will be used for hauling heavy equipment and maintenance of way purposes. At the moment most couplers are NMRA horn-hook style for robust operation by little hands. Upgrading to Kadee style may be an option.


Modified HH-78 #15 gets final preps to make the dangerous run from the sub-terra station to the mines to pick up supplies

Motive power consists of custom kitbashed “space locos” (see article “Kitbash A Deep Space Model Locomotive”). There will be at least one for a mine train and one for freight ops. The head unit of the Turbo Train comes out of the box unmodified. It is basically a slot car motor on a chassis with plastic wheels of the correct HO gauge. The engine and wagons are very light and held down to steel track with magnets. This design is quite effective and the train can travel vertical and even upside down, though I have chosen not to exploit that at this time.


Basic operation involves continuous running of the mine train in a loop. There will be two mine trains so I can operate an empties / loads operating scheme using the passing siding within the mountain.

Automatic operation can be interrupted for picking up, setting out, or dropping a load of processed Xenon ore with the Tyco ore dump accessory. The Turbo Train operates independently in a loop and can be run by young observers. Other interactive pieces include the battling spider robots, a gun turret on the mountain, and possibly lasers on a crashed spaceship.

Mining in Space

Plenty of interaction and animation on the railroad layout “Mines of Xenon” –  a nice little eBay score

Still To Do

I’ve come this far in just a few months which is fast for me. I still have the mine cars to build, locos to finish kitbashing, mountains and toxic waste pools to model, all the while stretching my imagination on how to use those dollar store robots.

Then I must decide if I take the layout on the road for shows. If you happen to see me out there, be sure to come by and say “hi”! You just might find yourself saving the human race from an onslaught of killer robots – or at least have fun trying!

Sci-fi Model Train Play tunnel

Fun and play is the name of the game on The Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad!

C’mon. You know you wanna


The History
Intergalactic Transport Machines (ITM) will build 3725 HH-78 models between 2142 and 2159, used mainly for deep space heavy industry like mining and transport. “HH” stands for “heavy haul” and these machines are revered for their simple mechanics and their robust life spans in the harsh working conditions of the space mines. Three hundred year old internal combustion engine technology is still quite effective and cheap and is the basis of many of  ITM’s designs, including the HH series.


Unit HH-78 #15 engineer’s side

Engine number 15 is one of the locos present on Xenon III during the Machina Revolt of 2154. My model depicts the unit after it was confiscated by the miners and modified for maximum protection and military operations.

HH-78 00a

The Model
No model train manufacturers make a model of the HH-78 since the prototype doesn’t exist yet. A kitbash would be in order. Since this was my first science fiction locomotive kitbash and first engine kitbash overall. I sought out the advice of Jack Hess, author of the article “An Out of this World Kitbash”  published on the Railroad Model Craftsman website. Jack had actually started work on this unit himself and graciously let me finish it to my own specs and in my own style.

The Bash
The chassis and mechanism is from an unmodified Atlas blue box SD45-2 and the shell started out as a Bachmann electric E60PC in Amtrak livery. Jack had already made the first cut and splice to get the shell to fit on the chassis when he passed it on to me.


The factory paint was stripped using a bath of 91% isopropyl alcohol. Horns, exhaust, and window glazing were removed for the final prepping step. The color scheme for the series of locos the Xenon Mining Corporation has purchased for its fleet is an orange corporate logo over a beige base color. The logo is a simple scriptograph produced from the letters “XMC” in a futuristic font I found on the Internet.


I attached a few extra vents and hatches from my scrapbox and gave the engine a base coat of Rustoleum ivory from a rattle can. I printed the logo on Testors water-slide decal paper and applied to the sides per the manufacturer’s instructions. Everything on the engine body with the beige color represents the “stock” production model from ITM before the humans got a hold of it and added the upgrades.

HH-78 00d

I liked what Jack had done on his Colony 5 model engine, so I took an extra sprue from a Walthers building kit and added an extra exhaust pipe amidships, which also serves to hide part of the body splice. I softend the sprue with heat from a hair dryer and bent it to fit the space. I bored out one end with a small hobby knife to represent hollow tubing. I spray painted the piece gold and attached it to the main body. I then did some light weathering on the overall model to show some light road use.

The Fantasy
Next was the fun part and required a bit of imagination and some courage. The idea is that the miners and workers on Xenon III took over operations of #15 in the early days of the android uprising. They “upgraded” the unit by adding armor cladding on the sides and general body protection at the fore and aft of the model. A few simple mechanical upgrades like an extra fuel tank helped the engine run for longer distances. Protection for crew comes from grates and wire mesh added wherever possible. Battle guns on the top side add some offensive power. Finally, survival supplies and spare parts are crammed in wherever possible to ensure the crew has everything they might need.


Unit HH-78 #15 Mad-Max style model locomotive

I scrounged the Internet for ideas, and my scrap box  for “Mad Max” style bits and pieces to see what would work. Mostly I tried to replicate some images I found of post apocalyptic vehicles without going overboard. I wanted a bit of a mix of science fiction and apocalypse. Materials should look like they were added hastily (see “Tips for Mad Max Upgrades to Your Sci-Fi Model Train” in the blog post below). Evergreen corrugated siding provided armour to reinforce the sides. The end of a 70’s era Athearn Pullman Standard hopper and some picture wire provided a nice plow for the front end. I think Matchbox has some really good stuff and they contributed the oil tank, back snow plow, gun turret, and the rack of camping (survival) equipment. Railing from an old AHM house helps protect the crew cab. A friend’s screen door mesh provided the safety cage on top and on the back end.


If the pieces don’t fit quite right, that’s OK. If the paint doesn’t match, all the better. It all adds up to an effect of humanity making do and surviving in real time. Some war-time graffiti and another layer of weathering completed my model.

HH-78 14

The Future
My next model will use the same techniques, but look totally different. Why don’t you get some extra locomotive shells and see what you can come up with? The model doesn’t have to actually run and should you not be satisfied, just chuck it in the bin. A little imagination and out of the (scrap) box thinking will have you building your own space ship train, unique to you. It is impossible to do it wrong. Maybe I’ll see you out there somewhere.


C’mon. You know you wanna.