Archive for the ‘Layout Tours’ Category

I found some pictures of my first three layouts I built as a young lad growing up. As far as I can tell, the earliest is from 1977 or before, all the way up to what my last layout looked like in about 1986 before I dismantled it sometime around 1991.

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The plywood pacific loop I inherited from my brother. I tried to break up the monotony by adding some land forms. Circa 1977

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The Plywood Pacific first layout. Note the kinked 15″ radius track. Yes, that is a Tyco F7 on the elevated track. 1977

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Layout #2 based on Linn Westcott’s HO Railroad That Grows. It joins a revamp of Layout #1 at 90 degrees. Circa 1979

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Skills and techniques continue to improve with layout #2 based on the book HO Railroad That Grows. About 1979

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A diorama or staging table built for photography, circa 1980.

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The start of model railroad empire #3. Starting to use more pro techniques – open grid benchwork with risers, broad curves, #6 mainline turnouts, double ended yard, and block cab control able to run 3 trains. Circa 1982

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Layout #3 with foam scenery, separate mainline and yard control panels, and a loads/empties in/out industry combination with the coal mine and power plant. All rolling stock equipped with Kadee couplers. Craftsman, kitbashed, and custom built kits. Several kits and all rolling stock still in use today. Circa 1986

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Layout #3 with the freight yard in bottom right. 1986

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Layout #3 in its most complete form. 12’x12′ HO scale. 1986

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!

The Du Pont Washington Works is a major shipper on the Southside Industrial District. Rich Erwin explains how he made it.

The Du Pont Washington Works is a major shipper on the Southside Industrial District. Rich Erwin explains how he completed the multi-structure complex.

The Du Pont Washington Works plant anchors the East end of my HO switching layout, the Southside Industrial District. The facility is actually a collection of buildings with three spurs for rail traffic. Track #4 receives shipments of various chemicals in tanker cars and the odd load of coal in hoppers. Track #5 is for receiving other raw material and equipment in boxcars, flats, and gondolas. Track #6 is for shipping plastic pellets in covered hoppers.


I used a mock up process to determine the size, color and placement of the main elements of the chemical plant. After mocking up, it was time to create the main warehouse building near the front of the layout. After seeing the mock ups, I had decided that the gray building was just too large and would go with some the size of the blue building I had tried out. I also liked the color, so blue it was. The modern warehouse would be modelled to represent corrugated aluminum, so prevelent in today’s industrial parks.

Blue warehouse #6 anchors the scene, while building #4 can be seen in the background. The other two buildings are still mockups at this point.

Blue warehouse #6 anchors the scene, while building #4 can be seen in the background. The other two buildings are still mock-ups at this point.

Du Pont warehouse number 6 is constructed from a foam core shell. I really love working with foam core because it is light, strong, easy to work with and cheap. I basically made a box with not top or bottom out of the stuff. In the past I had used white Elmer’s glue, but on this one I used a glue gun and liked the results. I temporarily pin the walls I am joining with whatever is handy. Track nails work well. Then I run a bead from the glue gun on the inside corner join. The “glue” in a glue gun is basically heated up silicon. When it cools, it hardens and acts like an adhesive. It will cool and set faster (a couple of minutes) than white glue (several hours or overnight), so I quite like the glue gun. A coat of a bright, medium-hue blue finished the core of the structure.

Du Pont warehouse #6 was scratch built using corrugated sheet styrene over a foam core shell.

Du Pont warehouse #6 was scratch built using corrugated sheet styrene over a foam core shell.

I had planned the location of windows and doors on the front, and cut those out in advance. Once the box was assembled, I glued Evergreen corrugated siding to the sides of the front and long side facing the layout front. The other two sides would be hidden from view, so I did not add siding to them. The company I currently work for has a couple of similar buildings. I looked at them every day when I went to and from work to get the feel. They are really plain and reflect their function-over-form design priorities. Many are just large boxes of corrugated aluminum, which is what I wanted to model. I didn’t worry about too many details as far as the structure goes. The side and back walls have no windows or doors. The glazing and casting for the front entrance of the building came from my scrap box. The roof is card stock cut to fit with vents from Pikestuff.

All in all, I would say the building cost me about $10.00. The one thing that I find difficult in scratchbuilding is cutting the walls to the proper size. I just cannot cut as accurate by hand as a commercial casting. One alternative to scratch building this warehouse would be to bash some Pikestuff kits. What you spend in money you’ll save in time because you wont’ have to cut all the pieces to a custome size, though you’ll still need to do some work.


The front of the blue warehouse begins to get some details and weathering.

The front of the blue warehouse begins to get some details and weathering.

I finished off the area by adding piping made from a sprue from a previous kit. I got something that looked about the right size and painted it bright yellow. Yellow and blue are primary colors and by placing the pipe in front of the blue warehouse wall, the pipe stands out. I got a couple of brake wheels from old cheap railway cars, painted one white and one red and placed them above what appeared to be valves. I’m not exactly sure what the pipe does, but I think it looks pretty good.

A Little Help From My Friends

Next it was on to the background building that sits against the backdrop by track number 4. This spur forms a wedge with the layout edge, and models the lead to the storage of chemical cars (and the occasional coal hopper) to the complex. The administration building acts as a view block and this gives the impression that the tankers are going somewhere “over there” or “back there” which helps make the layout seem larger. The background building would represent the end of some type of manufacturing.

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The red manufacturing building will go in the empty space to the left of the repurposed tank car.

To get the right feel and size for this building, I also used mockups. After the warehouse #6 was in place, I quickly made three different buildings for this area – 2 paper, and another corrugated warehouse type building set on a concrete skirting about 10 feet high. Then I took to the internet and asked for opinions and comments on what I had done so far.

Some early trial runs at sizing the background factory.

Early trial runs at sizing and fitting factory #4.

The cardstock buildings were photo realistic with nice detail, but they just didn’t feel right for this location. The area is wedge shaped and I wanted something with a sawtooth to fill the space. The paper buildings were also smaller and just didn’t produce the mass I was looking for. By building my own, I could make it any size and fit the space better.

Agian, I made a shell of foam core and glued corrugated styrene sheet over it. I raised the sheet about 1 1/2 inches up from the bottom to make a simulated concrete skirting. This I painted an ivory beige color. The rest of the building was painted a bright red (another primary color) to offset the blue warehouse. More spues were painted silver and used as piping.

Du Pont building #4 as a saw tooth background building.

Du Pont building #4 as a saw tooth background building.

I created vents for the sides of both buildings of various sizes by rotating the corrugated sheet 90 degrees and gluing that on a slightly larger plain styrene base. These were then painted silver or gray and glued over the corrugated siding of the walls.

I removed the chemical storage tanks at the back by building #4 because of a lack of space. I wanted any extra space to go to the background structure. This decision was also a result of the mock ups. I did find space for an old railway tank car turned into a storage tank. In due time this will be weathered so the Shell logotype is not so obvious. A photo of a chemical plant in the corner completes the scene and adds to the illusion of the complex extending beyond the edge of the layout.

The final two structures are still in mockup form. The administration or business bulding is a Swift meat packing plant from (now) Alpine models painted gray. The sandstone receiving building is poster board glued over corrugated cardboard. These help me determine the size, color, and placement of the final structures which will have a better level of modelling and detailing.

The white tanks at the front of the complex are for storage of outbound plastic pellets. In reality, a manufacturer of pellets would most certainly have many more tanks for loading covered hoppers, but I have modelled two. The tanks are made from plastic contact solution containers. They are glued together and joined them at the top with a walkway. Handrails and other details will be added later.

Du Pont's white plastic pellet tanks in their alternate position.

Du Pont’s white plastic pellet tanks in their alternate position.

The pellet containers can be moved from their current positon to the “concrete” pad for an alternate arrangement. The concrete is poured plaster stained with an indian ink wash. This was originally the place for the gray building, but the mock up excercise showed this was a little cramped. I liked the broad view of a couple of colorful covered hoppers parked up against the deep blue of the warehouse. I can move the pellet tanks over to the concrete pad on a whim to give the complex a little different feel.


Signs are everywhere in the real world. Take a look around and see how many signs or advertisements you come across in you day to day lives. It’s like we humans wouldn’t be able to do anything without a sign to tell us what to do.

When I look at some of the urban modeling that inspires me, I find that the scenes have a lot of signs. The Southside Industrial District should be no different. Signage not only adds to realism, but can also help set the locale and era of a layout as well as literally spell out which industries are which or the function of certain elements that compose a scene.

For the chemical complex, I used the Du Pont logo to tie the buildings together and define the boundaries of the facility. Smaller signs are scattered throughout the scene and are typical of an industrial area. They identify buildings, convey general saftey information and identify places that might be dangerous.

Details, Details

Detailing comes next. I view detailing a model railroad the way a painter might consider a work of art in oils. I like to add details by applying them to a section in layers. A layer is completed before moving on. The layers are considered right from the beginning of building the pike through to the end. Actually it seems I never finish a scene, but keep tweaking it, changing, and making updates just as happens to any locale in real life. Here are what I consider to be the distict layers, in order from the first to the last:
1) benchwork and subroadbead (tabletop of plywood or foam)
2) roadbed, track, ballast, “classic” ground cover
3) backdrop including painted or photo scenes (my preference)
4) buildings, both foreground and background, city streets, small structures
5) detailing – signs, people, clutter, vehicles, etc.
6) weathering buildings, rolling stock,
7) more detailing

Right now on the Southside, I am working on layers 4 and 5, depending on the location within the layout.

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I find details add a level of completion to a scene, as well as bring it to life. There can be just a few small additions that can totally make or change the feel of a scene.

Woodland Scenics ground cover did a lot to tie the scene together. I added clumps around structures – the abondonded tanker car, the chain link fence, the guard house. I used the finest grade between the rails on track #4 to get just a touch of grass growing on the lightly used spur. Yes, urban areas do have trees and I placed a couple next to building number 4 to help with the transition to the background. I could probably add another, taller tree here as well. I placed another tree near the guard shed.

Figures give life to the scene.

Figures give life to the scene.

The lights are from Model Power and are place in sections of styrene tubing to lengthen them. I also placed one behind the guard house. A few vehicles and scale figures of people going about their work bring some life to the scene.

An etched brass chain link fence by Micro Engineering defines the edge of the Du Pont property. I bent the barbed wire to about 45 degrees with pliers and painted both sides with a dusting of red oxide primer. There was only enough fencing to span one half of the three places where the track enters the fence. The rest of these gates will need to be added later.

Grade crossing and guard shack at the deliveries entrance.

Grade crossing and guard shack at the deliveries entrance.

The main entrance to the facility contains a guard house, grade crossing, drop gate, and signage. The access road was built up to rail height using Sculptamold. I painted it with brown acrylic and then sanded it once completely set so freight cars could pass on the rails unobstructed.

I created the grade crossing by using half- height ties from Campbell Scale Models, circa 1979. First I “stained” them by rubbing on a brown acrylic paint with a rag. A couple of coats and wiping to get the effect I wanted. Then I glued them onto a piece of styrene of the correct size. This was then glued between the rails before ballasting. The guard house was a gift and originated as a European yard office from a shipping container. A Bachmann automated crossing gate was removed from its pre-fab base and added to the scene.

Moving On

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The next natural steps will be to update the two remaining structures, weathering, and adding details. Track #5 still needs paving between the rails and the pavement could use some painted markings like lanes and edging. Tank piping and hand rails on the pellet tanks will need to be added. Pipes and more pipes, as well as general clutter. Finally, a few more signs will convey the importance of safety in the area and welcome guests to the Du Pont Washington Works plant.

Just found a neat resource on RailModel Journal Sep 99 has a couple of articles on modeling NYC after the prototype. Be sure to check out the index of city modeling articles on page 49.

RailModel Journal Sep 1999 p11

Railroad Journal Sep 1999

Also found “Big City … Small Space” a nice article on building a modular urban scene by Bill Hughes in the March 2002 issue of Model Railroading magazine.

Model Railroading March 2002 p38

Model Railroading March 2002

Big City Small Space by Bill Hughes – Model Railroading March 2002