Posts Tagged ‘design’


Work has begun in earnest on filling the swamp. I had already coated the bottom with joint compound, sanded and painted it. Light green on the outside, blending to a black in the middle represent depth.

I had also fashioned a couple of industrial pipes from PVC and a prescription pill bottle and added toxic drainage. A how-to video by Wyloch can be see here:

Now it was time to add some detail to the area. I cut a dollar-store toy dinosaur in half for the “swamp monster” emerging from the pool of blech at the waterline. Paintbrush bristles and Noch static grass were glued in to represent whatever type of wild reed grows on Xenon 3. I also added part of toy dinosaur skeleton tail.

Next I poured the resin. About 20oz of both resin and hardener were enough to lay down a layer of about 1/4″ inch thick. I let it cure and harden at least 48 hours.

Next comes the magic. The resin dries incredibly clear. Every fault from the plaster and paint can be clearly seen.  The resin, as poured, needs some texture and color variation to get the light to play and bounce. This can be achieved by adding some acrylic paint to the resin pour, but it was too late for that now (note to self: add some color to the resin next time. Fluorescent or glow in the dark?)


I remembered technique of making water of nothing but coats of Mod Podge by long time Model Railroader Magazine contributor Dave Frary. The effect is stunning and explained on Dave’s Youtube page here:

Even though the effect of building up the coast of Mod Podge is amazing, the bottom layer of paint also counts for a lot as well. Again, a lesson for the main layout, but now time to start laying down the layers. As the video states, blotching is key. Thicker layers are better, but tend to cause air bubbles, which destroy the effect.

This is a fun task where you can get a little help from your assistant. You can do at least 1 coat a day, two for the thinner ones.


On the backside of the diorama, which is the underground sub station, I started placing in the various elements, The platform and bulkhead are basically finished. I tested coloring the ties white to differentiate the passenger line. I made some other pieces out of sci fi gaming textures from the Internet. I still need to add some details to get a grungy, sci-fi, post apocalyptic feel, as well as a futuristic train or locomotive, low level lighting, and passengers on the platform.


Over on the main layout, it is time to start laying track. I have put in place the cornerstone pieces (basically the switches) which will key the placement of the rest of the track. There will 5 electrical blocks (standard DC block wiring), so I mocked in some curves and identified where the feeders will need to be.


I drilled the holes and will start laying the track for real next week. Soon trains will be running on the Mines of Xenon!



Last week, a tradesman came to the house for a service call. I moved the Southside Industrial District so he could access a utility space. While moving the layout, the legs became unstable, so I’ve spent the last week repairing and strengthening those. They’ve been on casters for several months now and I love that feature of the layout. But it has forced a slight digression from working on The Mines of Xenon 3.

Speaking of Xenon 3, I bit the bullet there, too. I wasn’t happy with the strength of the so called benchwork, so I built a proper frame from 1×4’s.


I had laid all the track out with the final trackplan, so before starting, I marked the location of the track. Since any marks on the foam would be painted over, I keyed on the two main turnouts and outlined them in the foam by applying a little pressure with a pencil.

There was also a wee bit of warpage, so I flipped the layout and put weights on it for 48 hours or so, so it would lay flat.


Instead of placing the layout (1″ extruded foam over 1/4″ plywood) directly on top of a completed frame, I turned the layout over and built the frame around it. This resulted in the top of the baseboard lying flush with the top of the frame. For the first time in building benchwork, I laid the cross members horizontal. This gives more surface area for the plywood to make contact (since I can’t practically nail through the foam) for gluing, as well as making space should I decide to add hardware for folding legs. The result is a strong and sturdy benchwork durable enough for leaning or the likes of an 8-year old.


Work continues on the diorama. I decided not to try and smooth out the layers into a standard hill formation that we see in model railroads. The resulting layers appear to accent the stratifications that would result in a mining operation. Well, on Xenon 3, anyway! I used SculptaMold to give some texture to the flat surfaces. I layered on ruddish colors of spray paint to give the final look.


The bottom of the swamp has been painted, and some industrial pipes created to dump sludge from the mining operation into the pit. Various shades of green were used, with the color getting gradually darker towards the center. Next, I’ll glue some weeds and debris to the bottom before pouring over a resin.


Work is also going on on the backside where the underground subway station is. I’m working on using corrugated cardboard for the bulkheads with doors and access made from printed texture glued to foam core. I’ll add some expanding squirt foam insulation for effect. There are lots of possibilities here.

The foam is painted on the main layout, and I have been acquiring the switches for the control panel little by little. Just a bit more base scenery, and hopefully, trains will be running soon!


20170705_180832Yes, OK, so it is Xenon 3, not Mars, but we are having a practice go at a making foreign world. I used the left over 2×4′ section to start making up a diorama that will resemble the final Mines of Xenon train layout.

I wanted to get some practice using the extruded foam (XPS), shaping it, painting it and working with it in general. Also wanted a trial run at the slime pit swamp. That will give us some training using the planned resin as a medium for making the swamp. We’ll work on the color scheme and scale.


Eventually, on the diorama, we’ll also build an industrial building to scale and map out the mine structure, as well as textures for raw materials. But that is still to come.

On the main layout, I think I’ve decided on a track plan. I wanted lots of features, but when in doubt, keep it simple. The Tyco Turbo Train runs on (magnetic) steel track, but had some trouble traversing turnouts since it essentially a slot car mechanism. (Have I said it is lots of fun, though?). So I made a simple loop to go around the perimeter of the benchwork.


The mining branch is another independent loop with a passing siding on one end through the mountain. That allows for an empties/loads operating sequence. There are also two spurs which lead to the barracks and freight depot. All curves are 18″, number 4 turnouts, code 100 rail, with 5 block sections.

I’m not happy with the support, so first thing is to shore that up with a benchwork frame made of 1×4″ dimensional lumber. We’ll do that in parallel as we continue to work on the diorama.




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!


The Timesaver

I can almost here the groans as I type out this article. “Oh, no! Not another Timesaver!”

An SW1500 switcher picks up a boxcar for setting out at the Ames tool company on Rich Erwin's HO Southside Industrial District loosely based on John Allen's Timesaver.

An SW1500 switcher picks up a boxcar for setting out at the Ames tool company on Rich Erwin’s HO Southside Industrial District loosely based on John Allen’s Timesaver.

In 1972, John Allen published an article about a devilish little track plan that has had enthralled model railroaders ever since.

A lot has already been written in the model railroad press about John Allen’s switching puzzle he dubbed the “Timesaver.” John developed the “layout” as game to be played after operating sessions on his famous Gorre & Daphetid railroad. The Timesaver has a specific track configuration, shown in figure 1 with the prescribed car capacity of the sidings marked with the numbers in the boxes.

Figure 1. John Allen's Timesaver

Figure 1. John Allen’s original Timesaver track plan

The object of the game is to switch five freight cars to their destinations on the layout as quickly as possible.

The original game differs in standard model railroad switching problems in the following ways:

  • Time is counted as opposed to moves
  • Power is always on at a constant speed – you can only change direction of the locomotive
  • Uncoupling is allowed only over devices placed at designated locations

For any given round, the starting and ending positions of cars on the track are the same. Subsequent contestants would try their hand at the throttle and times would be compared to determine a winner.

I did not so much create my version of the John’s Timesaver, but rather used his track plan as the basis for my industrial switching layout. The mythology and its execution on the Southside Industrial District are all mine.

The Timesaver in Layout Design

Some would cringe at the idea of basing a layout on the Timesaver. The claim is that the track configuration is in no way prototypical. Fair enough, a real railroad would never intentionally design a switching section to be difficult on purpose. But there are real world examples. Check out Also, the argument goes, is that John Allen invented a game, with no intention of it ever becoming part of a larger layout. Just say no to the timesaver!

Even Mode Railroader’s own Steve Otte states: “But no real railroad would build trackage that cramped and complicated! If you follow the Timesaver plan, you’ll probably get frustrated and bored with operations before too long.” ( , Thursday, September 15, 2011 10:45 AM)

Others welcome the challenge, and even consider the Timesaver a valid Layout Design Element. Charlie Comstock gives a good treatment of the issue on his website at He’s got some good points such as the track plan should be isolated from the mainline.

The always-interesting small layouts website started by Carl Arendt has a lot of good information on the Timesaver and actual layouts that people have built. The website is a fun place to just poke around from small layout information in general.

Google “Timesaver” and you’ll find opinion on the design falls basically into two camps. One claims the configuration is a game, totally unprototypical, and has no place as a design element when planning a layout. Others incorporate the track plan into their layout, or base their layout on the Timesaver entirely.

A prototype switchback somewhere in Winnipeg

A prototype switchback somewhere in Winnipeg

I fall somewhere in the middle. Given my space constraints and that I enjoy switching and even puzzles, the Timesaver was a natural fit. By adding a few operating ground rules to the original “game”, I’m able to operating in a more conventional manner and my layout works for me.

Timesaver on the Southside

In planning my layout, I took the Timesaver concept and modified it for my use. I wanted to use the constraints inherent to the Timesaver, but applied to an industrial switching module. I would operate as a standard switching puzzle and count the number of moves required to make a determined number of pickups and setouts.

The Southside Industrial District as seen from the air, without buildings

The Southside Industrial District as seen from the air, without buildings

I used the same basic track configuration, but did not adhere strictly to the spur storage capacities. I also set the railroad in a modern industrial urban setting with appropriate scenery.

Southside Industrial District based on Timesaver

Timesaver-based track arrangement for the Southside Industrial District

In researching and planning my layout I decided the pros outweighed the cons. It looked like I could enjoy the challenge and gaminess, while still give me the chance to do scale modeling. It looked like the Timesaver would fit the bill.

What appealed to me was

  • challenge of switching puzzle
  • confined parameters (= small layout)
  • lends itself to industrial setting
  • ability to expand operational variety
  • can be modularized
  • expand the layout physically beyond the edges

If you’ll notice, the trackplan for my layout is not strictly a Timesaver. I’ve made the following modifications to what would be considered the “classical” Timesaver specification:

Structural Changes:

  • Mainline through-way
  • Mainline can be used as additional spurs for 7 instead of 5
  • Left- and Right-hand switches instead of Y’s
  • Slightly different track configuration
  • No strict adherence to spur capacity

Operational Changes:

  • Time not counted
  • Moves counted in “competition” mode
  • Throttle not set to constant speed {no constant-speed throttle}
  • Starting position determined by either conductor’s choice or wheel reports
  • May include “pickups”
  • Uncoupling may occur any place
  • Stage not reset after a session unless running in “competition” mode
  • SID contains setting, scenery, and details
  • Expandable for off-line staging, other modules, or continuous run

But no matter, I did not set out to build John Allen’s Timesaver. I set out to build my model railroad. It happens to share a similarity and some of the same concepts as John’s famous switching puzzle.

Southside Industrial District places the Timesaver in an industrial setting

Southside Industrial District places the Timesaver in an industrial setting


I operate the Southside Industrial District according to what many model railroaders would consider standard practice.

I’ve found I can have 8-10 cars in service on the track at one time. More than that leaves no empty space for shuffling cars.

Setouts as well as pickups are included and use the RIP track for “online staging.” Setouts start on the RIP track in the bottom left of the track diagram. The final destination for pickups is also the RIP track. Throttle is variable speed as determined by the engineer. Uncoupling can be anywhere. I use Kadee magnetic couplers and a wooden skewer as an uncoupling device.

A typical session starts with setouts placed on the RIP track. The cars can either be chosen by random by the conductor, or from a randomly generated wheel report. Pickups are determined by the conductor before the session begins. A full discussion on operating details will be addressed in another article. Cars are switched to their destination location per standard operating procedures. This can be a 1 or 2 man job. A single operator controls the throttle, switch points, coupling and uncoupling, as well as dictating moves. In a 2-man move, the Engineer runs the train while the Conductor does everything else.

A typical op session will have 3-4 cars already set “out” at various spurs. Three or four more cars are placed on the RIP track to spot.

Time is tracked to the nearest minute per session. I’m more interested in broad time ranges such as a 3-in / 3-out configuration takes 20 minutes; 4-in/4-out takes 40 minutes, etc.

Switching continues until all the setouts are swapped for the pickups already spotted.

If the competitive juices are flowing, the layout can be operated in “game” {competition} mode where moves are counted and the board is reset to the same configuration after each session. Typically there will be no pickups pre-spotted when operating like this. Complexity can be achieved by varying the number of cars to start on the RIP track. Beginners can try their hand with a single freight car, while brass hats may want to try five or even six. Including pickups adds another level of complexity.

An Example

Let’s look at a small example.

We’ll start with 3 cars (box car, tanker, covered hopper) on the RIP track and 1 car already set out for optional pickup. At the start of the session, the conductor decides to pickup the gondola (and place it on the RIP track to end the session).  See figure 3 for a photo of the starting configuration.

Three cars and their ultimate destinations to start a switching session on the Southside Industrial

Figure 3. Three cars and their ultimate destinations to start a switching session on the Southside Industrial

First is to place the boxcar in the warehouse. If we are counting moves, that takes at least 3, depending on the starting position of the loco. Likewise, getting the tanker to DuPont track #4 requires a runaround of 11 moves.

Moving the tanker requires 11 moves

Moving the tanker requires 11 moves

Next, we go back and pickup the gondola and temporarily park it on one of the runaround tracks. Then a straightforward series of moves to pickup the covered hopper and drop it off at the food processing plant.

switch 03 and 04

Finally, we go back, pick up the gondola and place on the RIP track to finish the session and grab a cold one at our favorite watering hole in the District.

Everyone in the place to finish the day's work.

Everyone in the place to finish the day’s work.

As you can see, the layout is very flexible in terms of operation. Beginners and yeomen crews can learn operating procedures by just using a few cars. Standard model railroad operating practices can be used with a minimum of paperwork. The layout can be a module and connected to a larger system. Finally, operators or even crews can compete head to head and earn bragging rights over the entire Southside.

Small consists of 4 cars or less don’t require any paperwork. Look for a future article on using Jim Hediger’s method of wheel reports as a car forwarding system. Car cards and waybills could also be easily used on the layout.

By taking the best elements of the Timesaver that fit my circumstances, I’ve been able to incorporate one of the classic track plans into my scale model railroad, along with the flexibility to run my layout in either a game type puzzle mode, or along the lines of more traditional operating procedures.

In contrast to its name, the “Timesaver” has given me hours of fun on my layout, with more to come. And that’s a good thing.


If you’re considering building a layout or even just a switching game based on the Timesaver, you’ll want to do some research first. Here are some resources you might find helpful.  – a great little site dedicated to switching puzzles with good information on the Timesaver – Carl Arendt’s web site dedicated to small and micro layouts with  a page dedicated to the Timesaver (

The British railway modeling site RMWeb engages in a spirited discussion on the Timesaver –  – All about John’s Gorre and Daphetid railroad, including the Timesaver and a for-purchase DVD (I’m not associated with this site).  – Jeff Witt’s Gorre and Daphetid fan site  – Charlie Comstock’s (of Bear Creek and South Jackson fame) version with a few design notes on incorporating the Timesaver into your layout.  – Wikipedia even has something to say on the subject

THE “TIMESAVER” SWITCHING YARD AS A MODULAR LAYOUT” Model Railroading, Winter 1982 (Trainlife

Byron Henderson of Layout Vision discusses incorporating switchbacks in track design ( and even as it applies specifically to the Timesaver in a session at the NMRA 2013 convention in Atlanta. Notes from the session are downloadable . All good and valid points.

Kalmach’s downloadable PDF book –

Since the layout is in a closet, the backdrop was simple – at least to design! I didn’t have much choice. Walls surround 3 ½ sides of the layout with an opening in the middle of the front for the hinged closet doors. This is an unaltered part of the house structure so the backdrop is actually dry wall painted blue. I wasn’t picky about the blue – I had about a quart left over from painting a bedroom. I think it turned out pretty good.

Forming the backdrop is a combination of photos and building flats. These are layered in combination with full 3-D models to produce a density worthy of a crowded urban area. Each subsequent layout forces your eye to stop and focus at different depths, taking time and thus reinforcing the concept of depth to your brain. Standard forced perspective and selective compression techniques were used.

The photo backgrounds are various ones I found on the internet and printed on a color printer at work. Home printers produce good enough quality, but the one at my work was cheaper because of the ink. The skylines are of several different cities, but they ended up matching quite well. I had a lot fun searching on the internet for the different photos to use.

I attached the printer paper to the wall with … Scotch tape. Keep it simple and have fun!

Look for more details in an upcoming post on scenery.

I love Robert Smaus’s wiring for his Port of Los Angeles layout. Something to the effect of “Two wires to the tracks. That’s it. It took me about two minutes.” I’m in the same camp. With such a small layout, I would most probably only be running one engine at a time. Also, I’m not ready to go the DCC route because of the cost. I have a bunch of DC equipment so the choice is easy. After initial wire up to get trains running, I did go ahead and divide the layout into blocks so I could have two on the layout at one time. An Atlas Connector did the trick with standard common rail wiring to break things into 3 blocks. A second cab can be easily added.

Since this won’t be part of a club layout (I didn’t build to any common spec and there is only a single mainline), I didn’t have to conform to any standard so I kept it simple. If I expand in the future, I plan on using some sort of modular wiring scheme with multi pin connectors between the modules. For now this is easy enough and meets all my goals.

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.