Posts Tagged ‘modeling’

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!


Rich Erwin freshens up the Southside Industrial District and addresses some nagging scenery issues


So, after a house move and some space prep, the time had come to clean things up a bit. I wanted to fix a couple of dings as a result of the move, enhance and correct some benchwork, and  tackle a couple of nagging issues with the scenery (paved areas).

First the benchwork. I reassembled the layout on its base legs. Since the new space isn’t finished yet, I had a pretty good inkling that I would be moving the layout a fair amount while things got sorted out. I turned the layout over, being carful to damage as little of the scenery as possible. Then I added 1/4″ center post casters I picked up from a big box home construction store. Flipped the layout back over and we were ready to go. The locking casters made a big improvement and maybe my best move yet.


The District in its new space with rolling casters and an upgraded backdrop


Next up was the backdrop. For whatever reason, the current backdrop had about 1/2″ gap down the center. I don’t know if I originally measured wrong or what, but it had been like that for 3 or 4 years. Now was the time to fix it. I got a new 8′ section of 1/4″ Masonite and cut it to fit. It was long enough for a single piece to span the length of the back of the layout. I attached 1×3″ bracing to the back with Gorilla glue and painted the smooth side the same sky blue as the side boards. I attached it with clamps and drilled holes to match the existing holes in the frame. One quarter inch bolts with washers and wing nuts secured the backdrop to the benchwork frame.

On the backdrop I use photos of real scenes to fill the space between buildings. I still had the original backdrop and reference photos, so I peeled the photos off the backdrop and re-affixed them to the new backdrop. Another step done.


Painting the backdrop



The sidewalks at the back of the layout needed attention, so that was my first modeling chore. It was pretty straightforward. I use .060″ styrene cut to fit for the raised sidewalks. and I scribed in expansion marks every 1 inch. I then added curbstones with a width of 1cm, rounded the corners at the intersections, and beveled for crosswalks and driveways. I follow that up with spray painting the sidewalkes with textured sandstone. I carved in some cracks and applied a dark wash for weathering (and to bring out the detail) which completes the work before I glue it in place.

On to the pavement issues. The paved areas consist of several materials. Most was either painted styrene or cardstock. At one point I used thin black card which was essentially black poster board without a sealed surface. This was mostly used in the Du Pont area. In an Georgia garage with no climate control, this thin and unsealed stock had warped in a few places, especially around the track rail. Also, on the west (left) side, there was no pavement under the track or up even with the railheads.


Pavement redo with styrene at Du Pont


First on the list was the cardstock at Du Pont. I pulled the paper layer off, being careful to preserve the shape as a template for the new material. The bottom layer, even with the top of the ties, remained. I used a .030″ styrene stock and traced the piece of card on the styrene and cut to fit. I sprayed a base coat of black primer and then highlighted areas with gray to represent traffic patterns. I added some arrows and street markings with oil pastels and traffic templates (made for UK roads). Of the three sections, I replaced the two closest to the front of the layout and left the back section intact, as it is mostly hidden and in the best shape.


Finished Du Pont section complete with road markings. Note the weathering indicating traffic patterns.


The paving on the west section was next. I did some research and wanted to try some differing techniques to see which provided better results. Three sections to process (plus between the rails), so for each I would try a different material. On the back section by Sylvan Foods, I used black foam core with the paper backing removed after soaking in water. The pieces were cut to fit and sanded. The resulting texture was a nice rough one, simulating a paved surface.


Plaster used to fill in the space between spurs on the west end of the Southside Industrial District. Wax paper and painters’ tape protect the track work.


For the area between the tracks of National Transfer and Storage and Sylvan Foods, I took a page from the old-school plaster playbook. I needed 1/10 of an inch, plus the height of the ties, for code 100 track, so I applied in layers, let dry, sand, repeat. Finally I painted a coat of black/gray acryllic mix and added some chalk for weathering. This took a couple of weeks not necessarily would I call it messy, but I did feel that doing each layer was burdensome – having to repeat the cycle of wait and sand, wait and sand.


Weights assure a good bond for the foam core paving onto the benchwork top


Finally back to foam core for the base under the National Transfer and Storage. I made it a little larger and shaped and sanded to fit the existing access road.


The completed scene includes pavement made out of five different materials: card stock, foam core, styrene, craft foam, and plaster


So now these nagging little projects are done, I can get on to the next thing. We often forget that track is scenery, too, and with just this little bit of effort, the layout feels more complete, and has a more finished appearance. On to detailing the city!

Morden Station

Morden Station

The year has started off well with some good progress on my London Underground scene. I’m calling it Morden Diorama and using it as a proving ground for the upcoming exhibition layout based on the London Underground. More on the layout later in the year as progress develops.

I’ve chosen to model the London tube station “Morden”, which is at the end of the Northern Line. I purchased a cardstock kit of Morden station from Kingsway Models in UK – a firm that specializes in cardstock models and London Transport. The kits are OO scale which is 1/76 ratio, but uses the same track gauge as HO.

Working on Morden Station Diorama January 2016

Working on Morden Station Diorama January 2016

The kit comes with the pieces pre-printed on cardstock. I spent most of 2015 assembling the building – lots of cutting and gluing. Most of the model is finished, however I’ve got some details to add to get it to a higher level of completion.

I placed the building on a foundation of 0.06 styrene atop a standard sheet of black foam core purchased from a big box store. Using Google Maps, I determined the placement of sidewalks, medians, and pavement of the surrounding area. Again, I modeled all of these with 0.06 styrene. Some were painted with grey primer, while others were covered with texture sheets including a herringbone pattern for one of the walks.

Applying road markings to Morden Diorama

Applying road markings to Morden Diorama

Next came the road markings. I deliberated long about the method to use to create them. The straight lines would be simple enough to mask off, but other markings, especially text on the road, would be more complicated. I knew free hand would not yield clean and crisp results, and cutting a template from printed text would be just as difficult. I settled on some vinyl sheets of road markings from the UK manufacturer Scale Model Scenery. They were the perfect solution.

After watching my wife apply various media to black foam core, I settled on oil pastels. You can color over the template like crayons and then rub them in with your finger to fill in all the nooks and crannies. I works surprisingly well. With the ability to zoom in on Street View of Google maps to get correct placement, you can get a pretty convincing final effect.

Street View from Google Maps outside Morden Station in London

Street View from Google Maps outside Morden Station in London

That’s how far I have made it to date. Still to do are the hardware – railings, guardrails, lights; figures; and vehicles and some minor details. Then as a stage 2, I plan to model two levels below ground somewhat like the urban sculptor Alan Wolfson. Though not prototypical, I’ll model the station platforms and passenger cars (carriages) under ground.

So far, doing the research and modeling has been a fun project and should give me some good experience for the upcoming London Underground exhibition layout. Check back for progress updates.



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.


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 mockups 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.

chem finish 02

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.

chem finish 05

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

chem finish 10`
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.

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 –

After a hiatus to put our house on the market (didn’t sell, staying where we are), I started on my chemical complex last night.

It is going to be a Dupont plastics processing plant, making plastic raw materials for other manufacturing firms. I’ve chosen to name the complex after that Dupont Washington Works that is located near my hometown of Parkersburg, WV. I won’t model the prototype directly, but a generic chemical plant that generates rail traffic.

The complex will consist of 6 structure groups – a large manufacturing building, a smaller materials processing plant, a shipping warehouse, a set of plastic pellet bin towers, a set of liquid chemical storage tanks, and an off-line office building closer to the urban district. See the diagram.

The complex will be fed by 3 tracks. The variety of in and out materials will provide the opportunity for different types of rail traffic. Loads will come in on covered hoppers (plastic pellets), tank cars (liquid chemicals), and box cars (various machinery, manufacturing and packing materials). A few hoppers of coal will be unloaded each week to generate heat and electricity for the manufacturing process. Loads out include chemical waste (tankers) and finished product (box car). Products will also be shipped by truck, which will be modelled by the warehouse.

Though the complex is active, I still want the look and feel of a space that has seen better days. There will be plenty of aged and derelict buildings. I’ve taken some inspiration (and backdrop scenes) from the Detroit Packard building, though it is a bit extreme. Lots of piping, tubes, and clutter will add interest to the scene. Most of the buildings will be scratchbuilt or kitbashed. The materials processing plant is an old Swift meat packing plant from Apline models that I build about 30 years ago. I’ve repainted it gray to simulate a concrete building. The main manufacturing will be scratchbuilt cardstock and the warehouse will be a Pikestuff warehouse modified to fit the space. Various pieces yet to be determined will represent tanks and the office building will be a Smalltown Vicky’s Fashions. Some sort of fencing and guard gate will finish off the complex.

I’ve started the paved area the under the materials processing by putting down drywall joint compound. I added black acrylic paint and spread out with a spatula. It is a little thick and hard to get smooth. I’ll try sanding once it is totally dry. Also, it shrinks a bit upon setting, causing cracks which is actually a nice effect. The tough part is controlling the amount of shrinkage, especially around the rail ties. I may have to add another layer or retouch before I’m happy.

The rest of the paved areas will be a combination of cardstock and styrene, which work successfully on the paving of Third Street. I’ll start that after I finish with the joint compound. I’ll also add ground cover, a dirt access road and details.