Archive for the ‘Planning’ Category

Sci-fi Train locomotive engine

Progress on the science fiction locomotive for the Mines of Xenon model railroad

2017 was a year of stabilization on one front and expanding horizons on the other.

First it was time to finally redo and finish the asphalt pavement areas on the West end of the Southside Industrial district. The plaster drying and painting process seemed to go slow and took a few of real-time months.

Southside Industrial District industrial switching

Paving on the Southside Industrial District industrial switching model railroad

With a new and improved back drop as a blank canvass, I applied the background photos and finally got the structures set back to their allotted positions for the first time in the new basement. Work began on the final detailing for structures.

Southside Industrial District model railroad switching layout

Southside Industrial District in its place


Then I approached a fork in the road, so I took it.

Mines of Xenon

Getting started on the Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad layout

The idea for the Mines of Xenon layout was birthed. That set of months of research, planning, Googling and even playing. I decided on a simple 4×6′ space mining layout and build a 2×4′ diorama as practice. My daughter would help and get an introduction to model railroading.

Mines of Xenon sci-fi model railroad

Mines of Xenon track plan sketch

Scenery, rolling stock, and motive power (and the odd robot) were stock piled. The last part of the year was spent finishing the space loco kitbash and diorama to place it in. Scroll through last year’s blogs for details and photos.

Mines of Xenon sci-fi model train layout overview

Running trains on the Mines of Xenon


So, what’s up for 2018? The theme for the year seems to be finishing. We all know a model railroad is never finished, but here is what is on tap for this year:

  • Finish the Sothside Industrial District with detailing buildings and a simple operating scheme
  • Finish the Morden diorama with a station re-do and a reasonable facsimile of an Underground platform
  • Finish the Mines of Xenon layout with the main mountain and detailing
Mines of Xenon model train family play

Xenon is a family affair

I would also like to have a go at getting some new projects underway:

  • Finalize plans and prep for the new train room
  • Get a jump on starting the Morden exhibition layout


In the short term, the Mines of Xenon is the highest priority, so keep checking the blog for progress.

Sci-fi Model Train Play tunnel

Goal for 2018: Play with trains!


20170616_203500I’ve started gathering raw materials for what is now being called “Mines of Xenon”. Shopping is taking on a whole new dimension. I’m seeing things with all new eyes and it is so fun! Previously, I would look at toys and odd shaped containes with the view of how they could be used to augment a mill or factory model to make a model look more realistic. Now, robots, super heroes and spacecraft are all fair game for inclusion on the science fiction train terrain of the future.


While poking around eBay, the first thing I found was Tyco Turbo Train from 1986. I snagged it for $25 – a steal compared to the $499 list price on Amazon. It is so cool. Then a visit to the dollar store and grocery store produced a robot, 2 dinosaurs and a couple of souped-up Hot Wheels.


I’ve also discovered the world of Sci-Fi war gaming terrain. I’m busy searching for images on the internet and putting together an idea book of images and concepts.

My daughter and I have put a few pieces of snap track to determine the layout geometry and I believe I’ve come up with a final trackplan. The Tyco train runs on the old Tyco steel track, and has trouble with turnouts, so it is better to keep that loop separate and have two independent lines working. There will be an outer turbo passenger track (it goes really fast!) and the inner mining track with a passing siding under a mountain and a couple of industry spurs. This will be standard brass or nickle silver and electric switch machines. Standard “first ‘real’ layout” kind of stuff. We’ll go DC control with blocks that can be turned switched on or off.

I also snagged a Bachmann 44-ton switcher which has a nice size of a layout of this type – small wheel base with two electrified 4-wheel truck to keep contact. Of course at anytime we can add a battery powered radio control motive power with no changes to wiring.


The idea book is coming together and I am spending many nights a week in the basement with my daughter as she helps and learns. I can imagine my time for the next few weeks will be divided between Google image search, eBay and the basement. So much fun!



Southside Industrial District proscenium arch

My modeling career has followed the trajectory of what I feel is common to many American modelers. I inherited my brother’s Christmas train set that was an oval on a sheet of 4×8 plywood. The 4×8 doubled, and was eventually replaced by a 10’ x 12’ basement empire, all by the time I was the ripe old age of 20. Then real life showed up and I was off to college to seek my fortune. Family and career followed as my models were put away, only to collected dust for several years.

Becoming a home owner allowed me to dig out the old boxes from my parents’ basement a few years ago. I secured a section of a spare room, dusted the cobwebs off the old rolling stock and set up a small industrial switching layout, which I call the Southside Industrial District (follow my blog at

During the active periods of railroading in my life, I did the typical: grew a rolling stock and locomotive fleet, practiced scenery, learned wiring, and honed my modeling skills. Beyond ground cover and weathering, I paid little attention to presentation of the layout as a whole. Saw horses and visible dimensional lumber were good enough for me. I tacked on a few sheets of paneling to the benchwork and called it a day.

Lately, I’ve begun to think of how the layout exists in its environment in total. Lighting, fascia, sight lines, skirting and experiencing the layout in its entirety all contribute to this thing I am calling presentation.


The Southside Industrial District was originally housed in a 28” x 88” closet (thus its dimensions, which are the same, even until today).

I left the light on in the closet one afternoon and returned later in the evening to a darkened room. The HO scale skyline of the Southside popped out of the darkness. I decided then and there I wanted to eventually maximize the effect for my visitors even if now wasn’t the right time.


Humble beginnings in the closet for my HO Southside Industrial District switching layout

Later, the railroad was moved to function outside the closet as a stand-alone module, moving from room to room until eventually finding a home in our new garage / studio space. Still resting on saw horses, the time had come to raise the rail height, create dedicated legs, and add a theatre-style shadow box to the front.


Switching layout without a home gets moved from room to room during construction

It was time for the proscenium arch.

The American Way

Until recently, most US modelers have given little attention to presentation. Layouts are built as permanent structures, often bolted to the wall. If you want to see your friend’s layout, you go over to his house and head down to the basement.

In UK and Europe, things progress differently, I would guess mainly due to stricter space constraints as compared to the US. First of all, layouts tend to be smaller on average. Other countries simply don’t have the space per person the build pikes the size of their American counterparts.

Layout on a Ironing Board byPaul Allen Academey Modellers

Paul Allen’s British themed Ingleton Sidings is built on an ironing board and features a shadow box display.

Second, the layouts are built as stand alone entities and not merely as a club NTrak or Free-Mo module to be assembled at a meet. Layouts are crafted to function and stand (literally) by themselves. You can see this in the work of British author Iain Rice, modeler Paul Allen and his Ingleton Sidings layout, and others.

A possible third reason as to why Americans build their train layouts with different priorities is that in other countries, I would guess there is a higher participation rate at train shows. Often you’ll find several 1- or 2-man layouts side by side from different scales, eras, locales, and themes. No attempt is made to connect them as the Americans would in order to see who can run the longest train.

Smaller layouts standing on their own need to emphasize presentation.

Styles of Presentation

“Picture Frame”, “shadowbox”, “theater-style”, and even “proscenium arch” are all words used to describe ways of framing your layout in a box to maximize and control how users experience your models. There are a couple of different approaches to making your master creation stand out in its surroundings by using one of these styles.

Southside Industrial Model Railroader Olympia Logging

Model Railroader Video Plus’ Olympia Logging layout stands in shadowbox relief behind producer David Popp (subscription required)—display-style-design

The simplest might be what I refer to as the “picture frame” method. This is the method I’ve chosen for my own layout and describe in more detail below. It consists simply of creating a picture-type frame to frame the layout and adding it to the front fascia. A good example of this is the recent Olympia logging layout from Model Railroader Video Plus, a joint venture with Model Railroader Magazine. Their video website has a good tutorial on how to add a picture frame to a presentation layout.

Geoff Nott’s Leigh Creek On3 Layout

Geoff Nott’s Leigh Creek On3 Layout Carl Arendt’s Small Layout Scrapbook


Another way to do it is with an overhang, or valance, in which the top of the front frame hangs over the front of layout by a few inches and usually houses a lighting fixture. This way, the light can shine down onto the front of the layout. Iain Rice is a big proponent of this method and you can see in almost any of his track plans. Even his book Shelf Layouts for Model Railroads (2009, Kalmbach Publishing) has a diagram on the cover.

Shelf Layouts for Model Railroads by Iain Rice

Shelf Layouts for Model Railroads by Iain Rice

Larger home and club layouts often have a permanent valence attached to the ceiling which controls lighting and sight lines. There are also museum type displays which can be quite extravagant. Some may even include a model railroad as a portion of a larger theme, as in Banco Popular’s light rail tram proposal for Puerto Rico by Smartt Inc. and Estudio Interlinea.

Estudio Interlinea’s On Tracks Exhibition

Estudio Interlinea’s On Tracks exhibition demonstrates the benefits of adding tram light rail to Puerto Rico. An HO model railroad is the centerpiece of the exhibition.

Do an internet search to get an idea of the variety of styles and see which is right for your circumstances. Of recent note in the hobby press is the aforementioned Olympia layout as well as the High Line featured in Kalmbach’s Great Model Railroads 2015.

Brooklyn: 3am

Brooklyn: 3am Carl Arendt Small Layout Scrapbook

Brooklyn 3am by a man whose internet handle is “Prof Klyzlr”, is another great layout that takes all aspects of presentation into consideration. You can see an excellent discussion of the Prof’s layout at Carl Arendt’s Micro Layouts website. Pay special attention to the treatment of the entire “feel” of the layout including sights, sounds, and animation. This is one layout that continues to inspire my modeling and motivated me to consider this project of adding a proscenium arch to enhance my visitors’ experience of my model railroad.

Brooklyn: 3am

Brooklyn: 3am from Carl Arendt’s Small Layout Scrapbook website

Framing the Southside Industrial District

I chose to build my shadowbox as a flat-on, picture-frame style. The layout was already built and operational with backdrops on three sides. The backdrop and “sidedrops” were already in place, so I had to work within those constraints. I chose to put a “flat” window on the front, framing the railroad for maximum impact.

The layout had been moved about frequently as sat on a pair of saw hourses, so the first step at hand was to raise the layout height and give it its own legs. I followed standard practices of 2×2 legs braced with 1×2 cross members. These were attached to the 1×4 cross pieces of the frame of the layout with ¼” carriage bolts for a semi-permanent installation. A 1×4 brace at the bottom of each leg structure provided additional support as well as a support planking to create some storage shelving.


I chose 3/16” plywood as my fascia material. The window “frame” had to be strong enough to hold its own weight, yet sturdy enough so it wouldn’t sag or buckle. The frame would be attached to the 1×4 members of the layout frame. There would be no cross bracing from the frame to the backdrop for added support.

I first measured my stock plywood to match the width of the front of the layout and the height of the already existing side drops. After cutting to size, I clamped the stock in place to the front of the layout. Then I drilled ¼” holes for carriage bolts. The bolts are used to secure the frame as well as index for position. As with the leg assemblies, I used carriage bolts so the frame can be removed for layout transport or maintenance.

Next I cut the opening using a jigsaw. While the plywood was attached to the railroad, I marked the height of the sub roadbed against the plywood from the inside. I also marked space at the top for my lighting fixture with some added clearance. I used that same measurement (4 inches) to mark the width of the sides of my arch.

Test fitting the front fascia shadow box

Test fitting the front fascia shadow box

Now a box “window” was marked on the plywood stock. I found a plastic lid from the kitchen to round the edges to give a softer feel to the viewing window. It was about 24” inches diameter or maybe a little more. It doesn’t really matter as long as you’re happy with the results. Find something that works for you.

With the window marked out, I used a saber saw to make a doughnut hole in the board. The cut was mostly free hand, although you may wish to use a straight edge on the longer sections. I painted the front side with a flat black latex-based house paint. You’ll want to pain the underside (inside) as well.

Finally, using the previously drilled holes as guides, I attached the window frame to the layout using the carriage bolts.


The arch frame was light enough so it doesn’t put undue stress on the layout structure, but as expected, it was a bit wobbly and lacked the internal structural strength to keep itself straight. I needed to brace the structure as well as attach it to the existing backdrop pieces.

I placed 1×3 pine pieces cut to length along the top and two sides. Standard wood glue secured the pieces to the arch. Fitting was done in place to insure clearance with existing scenery, side drops, structures, etc.


Detail showing the back of the shadowbox fascia attached with angle brace to the Masonite sideboard.


I picked up some common metal corner braces at the local hardware store of about ½ inch long on each side. These were attached with the provided screws to the inside on the braces and side drops. These braces were a small detail, but probably did the most for keeping the sides stable and true.


The lighting is provided by an off the shelf 18 inch fluorescent lighting fixture. I considered LED strips, but I wanted to keep the cost down for my first attempt. I actually tried various LED under – cabinet lighting fixtures, but they really weren’t bright enough. The fluorescent fixture was a nice compromise of cost vs. brightness. After verifying the supplied power cord would stretch to the edge of the layout, I attached the lighting fixture to the top 1×3 stiffener with the lamp screws that came in the package.

Southside Industrial proscenium arch from behind

Backside of proscenium arch showing 1×3 bracing and fluorescent light fixture

The fluorescent light left some dark spots on the edges of the layout, so I used some battery powered LED lights on the top edges of the frame. These come with a sticky attaching fixture, and can be angled as desired.

Finally, I attached a power strip to the under side of the layout. The light fixture as well as my DC power supply plug into the power strip. The power strip is plugged into the closest outlet.

Southside Industrial theater style proscenium arch

The Southside Industrial District with its theatre style proscenium arch complete. The final step will be to add some black skirting to hide the underneath storage and complete the effect.

The improvements to the layout have been fantastic. The proscenium arch and lighting really set off the layout within the room. Visitors are immediately drawn to the presentation of the trains. Plan on incorporating presentation in designing your next layout or add it to your current one. The results are worth it and you’ll be glad you did.


Spring has spring down south and I’m able to get into the garage to work these days.

Working on the Railroad: My current workbench with the Southside Industrial District in the background.

Working on the Railroad: My current workbench with the Southside Industrial District in the background.

Here is what I have going on:

  1. Building a shadow box for the layout. The plywood for the front valance is actually acting as the workbench in the photo above.
  2. Re-powering an Athearn SW1500 with a Stanton drive. If I can get this in, I would like to eventually add battery power and radio control. You can see the original shell and Stanton drive on the test track
  3. An OO cardstock kit of a London Underground station for an upcoming diorama.

The warm weather definitely has the creative juices flowing.


Here are some books that I refer back to again and again. Some of the layouts or plans in these were the basis for the real life layouts from my inspiration post.

6 HO Railroads You Can Build  (Bob Hayden) – some excellent information for module builders and city settings, including Port of Los Angeles (Robert Smaus) and the Carbondale Central (Malcolm Furlow).

48 Top Notch Track Plans – Another track plan book which wouldn’t normally flip my toggles, but a couple of the smaller layouts are sufficiently developed to be usefull for planning.

Model Railroading in Small Spaces – very practical tips, including benchwork for stowaway or coffee table layouts. The Northwest Terminal and Port of Los Angeles (above) are very similar.

Shelf Layouts for Model Railroads – I tend to like more “… you can build” books or articles, and this book is bascially hypothetical track plans. Still some good information if you can get a copy at your local library.

Building City Scenery – the ultimate eye candy for urban modeling. Photos do a great job of illustrating city scenery concepts.

Walthers Catalog – Never too far away so I can look up stuff. Pick up at your local hobby shop.

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.

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

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

I started out with a plan based on Shortliner Jack’s Ness Street Yard. [I ran across this and some other good resources in the forum post at] As I started to lay it out, things became a little hairy, especially at the crossing. I wanted some good and reliable trackwork and it just wasn’t coming together. Since I hadn’t done this in a while, I decided to back off and keep it simple.I knew I wanted something with a run around like John Allen’s Timesaver. I didn’t want to design a timesaver specifically, but basically a run-around track with spurs shooting off the ends. I came across Gateway Central XV, a project layout of the Gateway NMRA. That seemed to fill the ticket.

I had a little more room, so after tinkering a while, I mimicked the plan with flextrak and added a spur. I also liked the “look and feel” of Gateway XV, so that was a good starting point and something to shoot for.

There are no grades and no below-the-tracks scenery elevations. Like I said, I wanted to keep it simple. Maybe someday, or on the next layout!

Track is Atlas nickel silver code 100 sectional that I picked up on eBay. It is just so readily available and cheap that I couldn’t resist. At this point I didn’t really care about the profile being out of scale. (We’re having fun, remember?) Flextrack and additional sections I bought new from my local hobby store.

Benchwork was an old standby – a sheet of 1/2″ plywood. I purchased a 4×8 at my local home supply store and had them rip a section 30″ wide. I knew my closet wasn’t quite 8′, so I went home and cut that to fit. I experimented with various support systems and ended up usingaround-the-wall 2×4’s to act as shelving support for 2×4 cross pieces. This was a simple and elegant solution. I wanted to keep the molding around the edge of the closet doors, so the front operator area has no support. This works fine as long as visitors don’t lean on the table.

Adding shelving support. The blue painter's tape marks the wall studs.

I also wanted the table top to be a single piece so I could just pop it in. The physics just didn’t work with the length and height, so I made a cross cut at about 12″ where the front opening started. The joint lays ontop of one of the moveable cross support pieces. To position the table top, the larger piece goes in first the position of the cross pieces if finalized. The smaller piece can just sit down in place.

Breakdown is LIFO (last in, first out) manner with the smaller piece of sub roadbed coming out first. The design works quite well as the railroad is quite moveable (not really portable or modular, but that’s a different blog). I wait until I have several items that need attention on the backside and pop the table top out for a couple of weeks to work. Visitors coming? Pop ‘er back in!

A coat of cheap-o earth tone latex paint finished the prep for the table top. I finalized the track plan with the table outside of the closet, then held the key components in place (the run around) with tape as I placed the table top into position. I determined the final track placement in accordance to the size of my buildings. Doing this with the sub roadbed in place helped with the spacing and feel of the layout.

Track was laid directly on the plywood sub roadbed and temporily spiked in place. After final tinkering, the track was glued down with a 50/50 mix of white glue and water.

Layout height is 38  inches so kids can see it. I just can’t stand armpit height layouts. I don’t think any gain in realism from low viewing angles  is really worth it. I’ve never heard anyone say of a high layout “Oh, I thought I was going to get hit by a real train there for a minute!”. I would rather my guests (and me) be able to see the areas that have been modeled, so I like my layouts lower. Still having fun, right?

Painted sub roadbed with run-around in place