Posts Tagged ‘urban’


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.



2015 Progress 1

Southside Industrial District in shadowbox relief.

When 2015 started, I had three major goals to achieve for my HO industrial switching layout.

  • Create a shadow box (or proscenium) arch valence for the front of the layout benchwork
  • Convert an old Athearn diesel switcher to battery powered radio control
  • Build a cardstock model of the UK Underground station at Morden

I am pleased to say I made major progress on two, while considering the proscenium arch completed. Scroll down through the blog to see construction articles. More on the London Underground coming in 2016!

The proscenium arch

Southside Arch

Full frontal industrial switching

Battery powered radio control switcher

2015 Progress 2

Southside Industrial SW1500 #703 works the Dupont plant on the edge of the District

Radio control installed and working, but still some work to do on the shell – hand rails and weathering.

Morden Underground Station (OO Scale)

2015 Progress 3

Morden Station on the Northern Line of the UK Underground

While the bulk of Morden station is complete, I’d say the entire diorama is maybe 40% complete. I still have detailing to do like street markings, figures and general clutter. I’m also going add a couple of levels below grade to show some underground passenger service.

Rather ambitious, but I hope to get it done with a little help from my friends.

Beatles test with Morden Station

Zebra crossing dress rehersal.


Battery Powered Radio Control Comes to the Southside Industrial District


For several months now I have been reading about using battery powered radio control to run HO locomotives. This seemed a good fit for my industrial switching layout that had recently been moved to the less-than-perfect climate of the garage. My research piqued my interest and I thought I would give it a try on an aging model I had nearing its end of life.

I selected my sentimental favorite – an Athearn blue box SW1500 (actually an SW7) that I purchased new with my hard earned yard mowing money around 1978 or 1979. For some reason I painted the shell Conrail blue, but never got around to decaling or detailing it. It’s seen a lot of use and wear over the years and is still used in most of my industrial switching operating sessions.

This project actually started a few months ago and consists of two major phases: first, upgrading the 70’s motive power of my Athearn blue box SW1500, then adding the radio receiver and batteries to fit within the shell.

Needless to say my 36-year old locomotive was running a bit, ah, stiff. In actuality, not too bad considering, but the sintered wheels needed frequent cleaning – sometimes after only 40-50 minutes of running. There are plenty of web sites showing how to pimp your blue box loco, but even the most extreme tune ups either tweak the motor or replace it with one essentially the same size.

I might have been able to fit the receiver and batteries in the SW1500 cab, but I wanted to try the latest generation of self contained power trucks. There are a couple of choices available, including Bull Ant and Stanton drives. After doing a little research, I went with a Stanton power truck available from Northwest Short Line because I was seeing some good things on the Internet.

Phase I – repowering the Athearn loco. You can skip these steps if you are tuning up your motor or replacing it with a full size motor.

I started by taking the shell off the Athearn unit. Then I took the motor out by disconnecting the universal. For the Stanton replacement, you won’t need this any more. I also removed the truck I would be replacing with the power truck. I choose the rear truck under the cab because there will be more room there. As for the other truck, you’ll need to make it free rolling. Do this by removing the top of the mechanism case and removing the worm gear. Replace the cover to the case.


Removed parts from the Athearn SW1500 including the motor and the rear truck to be replaced


Northwest Short Line (NWSL) has quite a range of products for powering your locomotive. For the Stanton self powering truck, you’ll need to select the wheelbase, wheel diameter, and tread thickness. Their catalog walks you through how to do this. Luckily, since I was replacing a currently operating power truck, I simply measured my existing hardware and used their ordering chart to select the proper part number.

Stanton power truck

Stanton power truck

At this point you’ll need to find a way to attach the Stanton truck to the frame. I’m not a mechanical engineer and this was a challenging part of the project. The Stanton drive comes with a “king pin” centered in the middle of the drive to attach to the frame. The trick is to find a cross member in the proper place and at the right height to place the drive. After test fitting the apparatus, it was also obvious that the drive was to tall to move freely under the frame, so I ended up having to remove part of the frame. Basically, I needed to make the hole bigger and I did that with a Dremel tool. After a few trail and error grinding episodes, I was satisfied that the drive would fit.

Athearn frame milled out to make room for Stanton power truck

Athearn frame milled out to make room for the new mechanism

Now came time to attach a cross member through which I drilled a hole for the king pin. I did that by using a sheet of .060 styrene. More trial and error was used to attach this to the frame using various adhesives. I finally got a secure placement I liked and test ran it. Seemed to work. Then I added the shell to the frame. Uh-uh. No go. The shell fit snuggly to the frame with no excess room to attach the styrene sheet. What to do?

From this point on, I worked with the shell attached to the frame so I knew exactly how much room and clearance I had to work with. I came up with a system to get the sheet of styrene to span to ridges on either side of where the cab attaches to the rest of the shell. See the photo. It turned out that the front edge of this ridge is right where the hole for the king pin needed to be and there wasn’t enough room at the end of the styrene piece. So I cut off the two front corners at a 45 degree angle and was able to slide the styrene a bit closer to the front. That gave enough room to add support around the place where the hole would be.

I placed the shell / frame over the truck so the king pin touched the styrene. I marked the spot and drill the proper size hole according to the instructions. The fit was a little tight, so I widened the hole just a pinch with a nail slightly larger than the hole, as well as a smidge extra using my hobby knife. I secured the styrene to the shell using 2-part epoxy on the inside, and Testor’s liquid cement for styrene on the outer joint.

Altered shell modified to accept the Stanton power truck

Altered shell modified to accept the self driving truck

It ended up that the top of the king pin clears the styrene surface by the smallest acceptable margin. Just enough for the nut to whole the whole thing in place. A thinner piece of styrene would help this problem. A run around the test track confirmed proper placement and let me adjust the height of the shell by a small tweak to the lower nut of the king pin.

You’ll want to add some weight to account for the removal of the motor and the rear Athearn truck. There is plenty of room in the center well where the motor used to go. I used pennies and quarters glued together with super glue. You can use your favorite method of adding weight.

Modified Athearn shell with weights

Modified Athearn shell with weights

Remember, the Stanton truck comes wired for DC out of the box, so at this point we have finished the first phase of replacing the stock Athearn motor and are ready to go. Go ahead and test your locomotive on track or your layout. Be sure to check the vertical clearance with the truck and the shell, as mine had little margin for error. Make certain the trucks move freely through curves and turnouts. Correct any running problems now because adding battery power won’t fix mechanical issues. You’ll just have a battery powered engine that has problems through curves and turnouts.


Phase II

The next phase is to add the radio receiver. There are many options, but like I said, I went with the DelTang system. The Stanton S-cab system, which is a combination of radio control and DCC, looked promising. However, I wanted to keep it simple and not have to be tied to DCC. It looked like I could get up and running fairly quickly, even though I would have to forego sound initially, which was alright by me.

DelTang radio receiver. Photo: DelTang

DelTang radio receiver. Photo: DelTang

DelTang is manufactured in UK, so you’ll have to find a US importer. I went with the On30 Guy, who has excellent information on his website. He even packages together a starter kit, which is what I went with.

The starter kit comes with a transmitter for up to 12 different locos (dubbed the “Selecta” feature by DelTang), a receiver, two LiPo batteries, and on/off switch, connectors and instructions. Recharging LiPo batteries must be done carefully, so I also procured a charger for specifically charging packs of multiple LiPo batteries. The entire was just over $200, including shipping. You could probably order the batteries and charger cheaper from different sources on the internet, but you’ll also have to factor in separate shipping charges if applicable.

Fig. 1. Wiring up a basic radio control receiver to a motor and battery

Fig. 1. Wiring up a basic radio control receiver to a motor and battery

The simplest configuration for wiring up any receiver is four wires: two to the power source and two to the motor. See Figure 1. The basic configuration for wiring a DelTang to rechargeable batteries is a bit more complex, and the straightforward instructions from the On30 Guy walk you through it. You’ll want to include a recharging port and an on/off switch. More advanced options include directional lighting and switch options, which I chose to omit. You can check the DelTang website for advanced features and even programming.

Fig. 2. Suggested DelTang wiring schematic

Fig. 2. Suggested DelTang wiring schematic

A single cell LiPo battery is 3.7 nominal volts – not enough to run an HO engine. You’ll need to make a multi-cell pack or wire in a step-up regulator. I chose to create my own two cell battery pack wired in series (2S). Again, On30Guy to the rescue with all the 411 you’ll need on how to do this. See Figure 2.

Fig. 3. How my DelTang receiver is wired

Fig. 3. How my DelTang receiver is wired

Being a micro electronics application, some of the wires and connections are quite small. You’ll need soldering skills, understanding of basic electronics, and knowledge of how to read a circuit diagram. I coerced my friend Ian Currey to wire it up for me. It took him a couple of hours. See Figure 3.

Deltang receiver wired up to Stanton drive and battery cells

Deltang receiver wired up to Stanton drive and battery cells

At this point the receiver, battery, and motor (Stanton truck in my case) are all wired up and must be attached to the frame. Per alterations mentioned above, my power truck, in fact, attaches to the shell, which must already be clipped onto the frame when the rear truck is attached. You’ll also want to have any weights added to the frame at this point.  Now’s the time to test your circuitry along with the transmitter. Just lay the unit on its side and go through the binding function and the other transmitter features. You’ll want to read the DelTang documentation to check out all the features of the transmitter and chip, including binding, “Selecta”, momentum and reprogramming for center-off “yard mode”.

Frame and shell ready to accept receiver and motor with battery pack

Frame and shell ready to accept receiver and motor with battery pack

I attached the shell to the frame, and then positioned the truck with kinpin under its anchoring hole. All the while, I was stuffing the electronics into the shell. The batteries went the farthest forward, then the receiver. The SPDT on/off switch and charging port were kept close to the cab for easy access. Finally the truck was secured to the shell via the kingpin and bolts.

Fitting components into the Athearn unit

Fitting components into the Athearn unit

You can quick check the receiver again by turning on the unit and making sure nothing came loose during the last step of the install. If everything is still OK, you are good to go. Place your loco on your layout and take her out for a spin. Turn the transmitter on first, then the receiver. The one thing I noticed right away was that to change direction in low-off mode, you have to turn the rheostat completely off (to the left) before the change of direction is applied.

The repurposed Athearn loco ready to roll

The repurposed Athearn loco ready to roll

Most sources on the internet rate the battery life at about 2 hours, maybe sometimes as much as three. For me, it didn’t seem that long, though I can’t say for sure. I ran the engine 10 – 20 minutes at a time on switching duty. I didn’t keep strict records, and furthermore, I can’t confirm what the starting charge was the first cycle, so I had no way of knowing how long the first charge lasted.

Regardless the duration of your charge, at some point, you’ll need to recharge your batteries. All the literature states that LiPos can be a bit tricky and care must be taken. You need a charger specifically for LiPo batteries (or whatever type you use). The On30 Guy sells, and I purchased, the iMax B6 charger. Its versatility can make it overwhelming, but Geren’s instructions at the On30 Guy and a trip to the inter-webs gave me all the information I need. You’ll need to fashion a custom lead to monitor the balance charging per Geren’s tutelage. I also needed to fashion a power lead from a couple of cannibalized power supplies. Another session with my friend Ian and I was off and running. Worked like a charm. Following the instructions, I recharge the 2 cell battery while it is still within the shell of the locomotive. Currently, I remove the cab to charge, as well as to power up.

Custom power lead for charging and monitoring multi-cell LiPo battery packs

Custom power lead for charging and monitoring multi-cell LiPo battery packs

Sideframes, details, decals, and weathering complete the model. Possible upgrades include directional lighting, reprogramming for “yard mode”, a magnetic on/off switch, and exposing the port for charging. Look for a progress report in upcoming posts.

Balance charging the newly fitted R/C locomotive

Balance charging the newly fitted R/C locomotive

I’m really happy with the results of both the insertion of the Stanton drive and the conversion to battery powered radio control. This is my first non-DC setup and I love the slow running which is ideal for switching chores. Another plus is that living in the humid southern United States, I don’t have to worry about cleaning dirty track or locomotive wheels since my layout is located in my garage. Wiring reverse loops, turntables, block control, DCC power districts, power frogs and layout shorts are a thing of the past. Fuggetaboutit.

Category First Unit Next Unit
Stanton power drive $85.00
Stanton shipping $6.00
Dremel tool $35.00
DelTang Starter set $156.00
Balance Charger $40.00
On30Guy Shipping $12.00 $10.00
DelTang Loco set $60.00
total $334.00 $70.00


It’s been a long journey and I’ve learned a lot. The sidebar above shows the approximate cost of the rebuild, along with a comparison of the cost of converting a second model. Assuming the cost of the Athearn engine to be a conservative $15.00 in the late 70’s, you can see I’ve got upwards of $350 invested in this little switcher. Without any motor refitting, subsequent conversions will only be the cost of the DelTang receiver set – about $60.00.

Most of the other members of my engine fleet have acceptable mechanisms, so I don’t anticipate repowering those. But with one R/C conversion under my belt, I hope to follow up with more and expand my radio controlled roster. Don’t be surprised if someday you see a remote control critter running around the Southside Industrial District – one that was bought with hard earned “yard” money.
Radio Control Conversion links
Athearn Tune Up –
Free Rails RC Forum –
Stanton Power Trucks –
DelTang –
On30 Guy –
How To Charge a LiPo with iMax B6 –

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.


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 –