No. 173: The Rapido Pennsylvania Railroad X31 Model

It has been a very busy year at home and at work, and I’ve only been able to post three times on the blog. since January 1st. My last post was last week after a good railfan trip; the last modeling post was more than 60 days ago. Here’s a catch up.

Despite the lack of modeling and railfanning I was able to take the family on a few trips. Covid restrictions here are 99.9% history and everybody’s traveling again. I took the family to Eindhoven, Netherlands in late February for a long weekend–that was beautiful–and in March I took my youngest daughter to Andalusia, the region on the southern coast of Spain, for a week-long father-daughter getaway. We went there for hiking, sun and fun. There wasn’t much sun, but we went on a few epic hikes and had a great time together.

Below. During our trip to Spain, my daughter and I visited Gibraltar. Here’s a snap from near the top of the rock, with the channel between Gibraltar and Morocco in the distance.

We also hiked a trail in the mountains northeast of Malaga formerly known as “the most dangerous hike in the world”–the Caminito Del Rey. Part of the trail is seen below. The trail was rebuilt in 2015 and it is perfectly safe now, but it is still pretty scary.

Okay, enough of that boring stuff. On to modeling!

The New X31s

By now, most of you prototype modelers have seen Rapido’s new X31 cars. They’re outstanding models. I recall 15 years ago or so, the guys on the old Steam Era Freight Cars list on Yahoo Groups saying “We need a 21st-Century model of the X31!” Thanks to Bill Schneider and the guys at Rapido, we’ve finally got it.

My first two cars came in the mail in February. The Pros: I’m impressed with the overall appearance, paint color, lettering, running boards, fine details, ladders, wire grabs and sill steps. Brake gear is good, not great, but good. The Cons: The coupler boxes are ghastly (I understand they’ve gotta meet NMRA standards, but there’s gotta be a better to to replicate draft gear) and trucks (in the era of Tahoe Model Works, these are just plain bad). Bottom Line: They look great and are layout ready.

Below. The Prototype, circa April, 1937. Courtesy Bill Lane.

I upgraded my models starting with the auto car first. I replaced the couplers with Kadee #78s (and cut off those pesky trip pins) and replaced the trucks with Bowser PRR coil-elliptical trucks with Kadee semi-scale wheelsets. I painted the trucks with ScaleCoat 2 Oxide Red–that’s a really close match for the factory paint. That was it.

I started the weathering process by airbrushing the model with a few coats of clear Testors Dullcote. When that was dry I added a drops of Scalecoat Oxide Red to the Dullcote and mixed it up nicely–making a semi-opaque flat–then sprayed the car again to provide a flat overall finish using something close to the original color. Here’s a view of the opaque below.

Finally I airbrushed the underframe and lower side sills with a medium brown color to simulate some dirt build-up, and then added some car-knocker’s chalk marks with an artist’s pencil. Lately I’ve been using a white pencil for newer chalk marks and a medium gray pencil for older marks, and I like the effect. Finally I finished up with a little highlighting with various dark colors applied with a paintbrush. I sprayed on one more very light coat of the opaque mixture and called it complete. The placard is from Microscale.

Next I finished my single-door X31. Here’s the car right outta the box:

To prevent the cars from looking alike, I decided to heavily weather the single door car like the X31 in the photo below. Charlie Duckworth sent this image to the Proto Layouts list, which was originally taken by Joe Collias in St. Louis in the late 40s. I like the roof weathering and the contrast between the running boards. Check out the PRR T-1 on the right!

To begin, I replaced trucks and couplers as I did with PRR 69402 above, and then gave the model a few light coats of Dullcote.

Next I slowly applied AIM Weathering Powders–Rust and Dark Brown–to the roof. I applied the powders panel-by-panel and took my time. The Dullcote layer gave the powder something to stick to. I worked the powders in with the brush, toothbrushes and soft files. I found that a soft, thin flexible file works great to take off some of the powder and give a streaking effect. When I was happy with the appearance I applies Dullcoat to seal it, and then painted the individual running boards with tan, medium gray and oxide and then lightly sanded the colors in to blend them together. I wanted a stark contrast between the running boards and roof, and I think I got the effect alright.

On the sides, I slowly streaked the same AIM powder mix on the side sand ends. I used wet 0000-grade steel wool to work off some of the powder to get the look I wanted. I wanted the weathering to gather at the top and the bottom. I sanded a little harder on the lettering to weather the letters in to the background. Those details really pop with a little bit of weathering.

I applied and re-applied the chalk several times on the sides to get the look I wanted. Finally I added some chalk marks and sealed it for good with a last shot of Dullcote. I used a dark brown/dark mud mix on the underframe and added AIM Delta Dirt on the lower ends–a favorite weathering color. I think this model turned out pretty well and I’m eager to try it again.

Incidentally, here’s a Bowser car I built and painted in the late 1990s. It was photographed in 2001. The Bowser cars are still nice models and the price is right. I’ve got a repack stencil on the left side of the car, and black trucks. I must’ve finished five or six of these just like it.

Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Rapido’s X31s. An X32 series would be nice–the 50-foot cars–and an X31F–the jeep carriers–would be nice too!

Three-Way Switch

Two weeks ago I drove up to Frankfurt, and on the way I stopped in Darmstadt, a small city right south of Frankfurt. There’s a lot to see there, including this–a three-way switch on a heavily-used industrial track that spins off the freight yard north of the city.

I’ve only ever seen two types of three way switches: 1) The symmetrical type, where tracks diverge on either side symmetrically on each side of the straight track, and 2) The asymmetrical, where a track diverges in one direction and another second track diverges 10-15 feet forward in the opposite direction.

This one in Darmstadt is different still. See below. In this arrangement, we have a straight leg with two tracks diverging in the same direction. It’s not quite a three way. I’d almost call it a compound turnout. Still, it has a Cool Factor of 10.0.

Here is a closer view of all three frogs.

Below. A view of the linkage on the second switch. It is brick-lined. I’ve never seen that anywhere else. This is motivation enough for a scratchbuilding challenge.

I haven’t seen too many of these in the U.S. In fact I can only remember seeing one–the famous three-way stub switch leading to the old engine house on the Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad in Aberdeen, N.C. I did find one online recently, on the Flickr Milwaukee Road Project site–this one on the loop track in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (see it at lower center where the road crosses?):

While on the subject of track, I did about three hours of railfanning this morning in nearby Mannheim. I stared at this turnout near Waldorf for 20 minutes. It looks like a double-slip, but on closer inspection I’m not so sure. It looks like another compound switch of some type. Whatever it’s called, it’s a work or art!

It was a good day of railfanning and I’ll write more about it sometime. The next post will cover a few National Car Company cars I just completed. Enjoy your weekend! -John G

No. 172: Roundhouse Day

Even though I model American railroads, I find railfanning in Europe very exciting. There are lots of trains to admire and photograph, and lots of older facilities still standing for modeling inspiration. Here are some words on a railfanning trip to Frankfurt yesterday.

I took the day off of work on May 6th and drove to Frankfurt to railfan and also visit four roundhouses still standing in the area.

I didn’t expect to get to them all. Last weekend I went to Darmstadt to photograph two roundhouses extant there. I was unable to photograph either of them. One is deep in railroad property and I was unable to get to it. The other belongs to a museum that’s only open on Sunday. Trespassing in any way is Verboten in Germany, so I came home empty-handed.

Below. The Darmstadt-Kranichstein Railway Museum is the largest railway museum in the state of Hesse. It can be seen in the distance behind the interlocking tower. The site is now owned by a club, and includes a retired roundhouse, car shop, and yard.

Today was different. It was a warm, clear, sunny day, and with a little begging and pleading I was able to photograph all four roundhouses–well, 3-1/2 of them. Here’s the story.

The first roundhouse was at Bischoffsheim, a few kilometers south of the Rhine River and Frankfurt. There’s a small yard there and a roundhouse viewable on Google Earth. See below. The line at the top left leads to the very busy main line on the south bank of the Rhine River. At right the main line diverges in three directions; one of which leads to a massive Opel plant just out of view. The roundhouse can be seen at the bottom right.

Bischofsheim turned out to be quite a hot spot. First stop was the train station where I took pictures of the parade of passenger and freight trains from the passenger platforms. I was there a little over an hour and saw about 30 freight and passenger trains of all kinds.

Below. This is a Hessische Landesbahn train, or Hessian State Railway at Bischofsheim. HLB operates regional passenger-train service in the German state of Hesse, where Frankfurt is located.

Below. One of many freight trains seen today–this one is on the diverging line to Frankfurt. Unfortunately I had to shoot into the sun.

Another freight, this one with better sunlight but a shadow cast by the overhead walkway. This train is coming off the Rhine River route. The overhead walkway, by the way, provides access from Bischofsheim station at left to the center track platforms. Whether or not you like German railways this is a great railfanning spot!

Below. Here was something unusual–I think it was a DB inspection train. Its shown here heading into the yard from the Rhine River line. It stopped in the yard for a few minutes and then went blazing past me–backwards–on the line to Frankfurt seen on the right. Also take note of the single-slip turnout at right. Single and double-slips are everywhere here.

Below. This is a ICE (Inter-City Express) train. I saw about seven or eight here today, another 20 at other places throughout the day. ICE trains don’t stop at Bischofsheim. They blasted through at–just guessing–80 mph, maybe faster. Probably a lot faster. They are fast and practically silent, a combination of factors that can be very dangerous.

Below. After an hour on the platform I navigated through the dense city streets to the roundhouse area. I stopped and asked a couple of railway employees if I could photograph the roundhouse. Somehow between my broken Deutsch and their broken English it was determined the answer was no, but I could park and try around the other side if I wanted to. There was a lot of railway activity so I grabbed a few photos and left. This roundhouse is privately-owned now, and most of the tracks have been removed. Again, no trespassing.

The fellow I talked to said the roundhouse was built before 1900. Here’s a view of the stonework, below:

Thankfully, the turntable is still in place and operational. Two things I noted were the the pit is very shallow–only about two feet or so, and there’s a manual hand-crank–like an old handcar crank–on the opposite side to spin the table manually. No Armstrong bar.

Feeling good, I then drove 35 minutes north to Hanau, a small city east of Frankfurt, to try and photograph the double-roundhouse and double turntables there. Like Bischofsheim, the Hanau Hauptbahnhof is situated between multiple diverging lines in each direction. There are separate, side-by-side freight and passenger yards. A retired engine terminal where the roundhouses still stand is located in the northeast corner of the yards.

Below. Upon my arrival I stopped to photograph this “flying signal” near the roundhouses. What a beauty. I discovered there are quite a few of these still in use in the area. They change aspects with a screech and a “ka-clunk”!

Here is the first of the two roundhouses at Hanau. The roundhouses are literally located right next to each other. They are both operated by a museum club, so I walked in and politely asked if I could take photos. They allowed me to take photos but only outdoors–what a shame since both roundhouses are full of steam engines.

Below. Next to the roundhouse above is this smaller, six-stall roundhouse and shallow turntable. This table also has a hand crank on the opposite end.

Below. A second view of the smaller roundhouse. It is clean and very much in active use. I didn’t photograph inside as I was instructed, but I did take a look. This one was full of diesels. Also note the stall numbers refer to the track numbers, not the total number of stalls.

Below. a large pile of beautiful Fossil Fuel for steam engines.

Active main lines pass on each side of the roundhouses. Here’s a DB electric passing at about 40 mph. In an hour over 20 trains passed on either side of the terminal.

On the opposite end of the yard, near the passenger platforms, is a control tower and more semaphore signals. There are also plenty of crossings and single-slip switches. The overpass in the background provides a great vantage point for…

…photographing trains from above.

Below. To the right of the photo above is the passenger main line, although I saw–but failed to photograph–a number of freights there too. The lines cross over each other in the background and in both photos the flying crossover can be seen on the concrete embankment on the right.

For some reason, many of the passenger trains on this route were powered by freight engines–that spiced things up a little bit.

Sadly, I left Hanau around 3:00 o’clock and headed west to photograph the last roundhouse of the day. This one was is West Frankfurt–Frankfurt Hochst–close to the main lines coming west out of downtown Frankfurt.

Below. Here’s an HLB on the main lines, slowing for it’s arrival at the bahnhof in the distance. The roundhouse is off to the right. I only saw one freight train in the hour I was there–the one in the distance with the blue engine. It didn’t budge.

It turns out the roundhouse was inside the massive I.G. Farben chemical plant next door. The plant is surrounded by a ten-foot-high brick wall, and there was no hope in trying to talk the guards into letting me in. However, I got little bit lucky. There was a highway overpass next to the plant and I was able to get a shot over the fence. See below.

Below. It’s only half a shot, but under the circumstances I’ll take it. There’s a turntable in there somewhere, and a half-dozen switchers are in view. A closeup reveals the roundhouse with a date-stamp of 1918. It is good to see it still in daily use at 104 years old.

Below. Google Earth has a good winter-time view, as seen below. Part of the I.G. Farben railroad complex can be seen, along with the roundhouse and turntable at lower center. The plant would make an interesting model in any era–lots of freight traffic!

So there you have it–four roundhouses in one day. I left at 6 p.m., to head home, tend to the family and then get to the workbench for an hour where work continues slowly on a few National Car Company reefers.

Until next time…

– John G

No. 171 – Freight Car Modeling: Rath Meat Reefers and Rock Island Single Sheathed Box Car

It has rained almost every day in southern Germany since about October 15th. Over 130 days of cold, wind, rain and darkness. It has made for good modeling weather, and a good ski trip in December and a good hiking trip in January, but not much else.

In the few month I finished two models–one an old classic, and another a “bespoke” single-sheathed car that I’ve been wanting to build for a long time.

The Mather Meat “Reefer”

Here’s a prototype view of the classic car, below, courtesy Bob’s Photo. This is a Mather company meat refrigerator car

The Mather company built stock cars, refrigerator cars and box cars and leased them to the railroads. The Mather fleet even included a few tank cars. Mather leased cars to some big railroads and many short lines. The Mather cars were unique in that they used “off-the-shelf” steel components rather that complex, proprietary parts used in many other cars. In so doing, they standardized car building long before most other carriers did.

Red Caboose made an excellent model of the Mather reefer, and in the early 2010s I built a few sof these models for my freight car fleet. When Rapido introduced their beautiful GARX meat reefers, I sold off both the Mather cars…and I regretted it right away.

I built the model above using the basic Red Caboose kit and used custom decals to decorate the model.  When I built this model, around 2011, I was still using Accurail trucks…

To overcome my sadness, I bought another Red Caboose meat reefer online last summer to replace the cars I sold.  I assembled the model per the instructions and used a few prototype photos as a guide.  I installed Cal Scale AB brakes (kit includes KC brakes) and Tahoe 40-ton trucks with semi-scale wheelsets.  I also installed Yarmouth metal sill steps to replace the kit-supplied parts. 

If it looks like the model in the photo above has had the factory paint removed, you’re right. This car came from eBay factory painted for the Rath Packing Co.  I managed to screw up the factory paint during the weathering process and eventually had to repaint the model.  I had applied a light coat of Testors Dullcote, and then applied a thin coat of black paint over the top to try and get the black paint between the wood sheathing on the car sides.  It worked well on most of the car, but the black paint streaked on one side by the door and turned all the sheathing black.  I couldn’t repair it.

Eventually I ended up sandblasting the whole model and repainting the carbody. After sandblasting I shot the car with a light coat of Mr. Surfacer 1500, and when that was dry I shot it a second time with Tru Color Milwaukee Road orange. Spraying with a light gray primer coat is absolutely essential when painting a white, yellow or orange carbody.

I talked to my friend Ted Richardson when I was painting and finishing the model.  Ted has done a lot of research on these cars.  Ted–an Illinois Central modeler–told me, “Based on what the retired guys from the Iowa Division told me the paint without the Indian Head logo would be good for the early fifties. The Indian Head logo didn’t come into use until 1953 based on our conversations. I have color photos showing roof and ends as the Oxide color. The guys said the underbody, and trucks were always rusty looking from the brine.”  Ted also mentioned Mather used their own reporting marks for short term leases (MRRX), and the leased cars were usually stenciled with the lessee’s name in black. 

I had a few Rath decal sets on hand, provided by a friend, so I was able to repaint and decal the car back to it’s original Rath-ness.  Meanwhile I painted the roof and ends Scalecoat Oxide Red and the underframe Testors Satin Black.  Then I assembled the major carbody components and applied the decals.  The decals were pretty thick, and it took several applications of Walthers Decal Set to get them to settle down properly.  See above.

When the decals were done I hit the whole model with a coat or two of Dullcote.  Next, I hand-painted the lower side sills and hinges per prototype photos.  I weathered the bottom of the car, trucks and lower side sill with a custom-mixed dark dirt color (made from tan and black paint) and then brush-painted around the whole model with a light tan to set off the decals.  I also applied a few chalk marks using a white Prismacolor pencil.  I weathered the roof with AIM Weathering Powders—a variety of rust, brown and black mixes—and sealed the roof and everything else with one more light shot of Dullcote.

Below. The decals are on and set, and the carbody components are painted and ready for final assembly.

When decaling a model with siding, I usually apply heavy coats of Walther decal setting solution to get them to settle down. Often the decals will not settle into the recesses between the sheathing, so I use a sharp, new x-acto blade and cut them across the sheathing, then re-apply the setting solution. I used that technique on this car and it worked well to help the decals settle.

After the model was built I brush-painted the lower side sills and hinges black per prototype photos.  I weathered the bottom of the car, trucks and lower side sill with a custom-mixed dark dirt-colored paint , mixed from tan and black paint, then brush-painted around the whole model with a lighter tan to set off the details.  I also applied a few chalk marks using a white Prismacolor pencil.  I weathered the roof with AIM Weathering Powders—a variety of rust, brown and black mixes—and sealed the roof and everything else with one more light shot of Dullcote.

The model turned out well, but I managed to break the bottom rung off of both ladders.  I trimmed them both off and will hope that nobody notices all that much. 

 Above, Here’s the new addition on the Hermitage Road layout. This was a straightforward build, but it took longer since I tried to rush the initial weathering which forced me to repaint and reweather the whole thing.

This year I’d like to slowly increase my meat reefer fleet.  Among the cars I’d like to model is this one, below–a somewhat rare 40-foot Mather reefer. I’ll have to kitbash it, and still haven’t found a suitable model to use as a starting point.  I think I can use the ends from a Red Caboose kit, and cobble some sides and a roof together from two kits. Photo below courtesy Chuck Yungkurth.

The Bespoke Rock Island Single-Sheathed Box Car

Living in Europe and watching a lot of British TV has made me familiar with a few common British terms. One of those terms I use frequently is the word bespoke, which means custom-made. In other words a custom-made model in American lingo would be a bespoke model, or just plain bespoke, in the King’s English.

I’m scheduled to write an in-depth article on this build for the Resin Car Works blog, so I’m not going to go into too many details here.

So what’s the big deal about this car? Westerfield makes a kit, but the Westerfield kit has as-delivered wood ends. This model represents a later car with Murphy ends. Oh, and it’s Not a Fowler car, by the way–which is also unlike the Westerfield model–even though Westerfield says it’s Fowler. I got a stern lecture from Steve Hile on this, and he should know being a Rock Island expert. Anyway, to make this Not-Fowler correct I used Murphy ends from a NYC kit. I’ll explain later in the RCW post.

While I was painting the 133000-series car I used the K4 set to also repaint this car below, which is an old Sunshine model. The 141000-series car looks a lot like the 133000-series car, but it’s taller. They have a nice family appearance–especially since I repainted them both with Tru Color TCP-197, Rock Island Freight Car Brown.

Meanwhile, the Hermitage Road layout continues to get a few upgrades. I lowered the top of the front fascia four inches to close in the scene a little more. I think it looks a lot better. It’s kinda hard to tell without a “before” picture, but I think this view sums it all up. I’ve just gotta finish that last darn building and the layout will be complete. Oh, and I still need to work on the backdrop a little bit more too…

Hope you’re all enjoying a wonderful spring. Slava Ukraini! – John G

No. 132: Ackley Layout – Last M&StL Ops Session

In October I moved from our big, old house in Albersbach to a smaller, newer, more efficient house in Ramstein-Miesenbach. I took an entire week off from work, rented a large moving van and moved almost everything myself.  I hired a moving company to move the big stuff.  Then I had to completely clean the old house, to include patching holes, painting, and doing other routine maintenance I had put off over the years  The process took 12-14 hours a day for nine straight days, but I got it done.  Whew!
Here’s the crew from the moving company, having a break while moving some of my train room stuff.  They were good guys.
Before disassembling the Ackley layout I ran one more ops session.  That session was on September 29th. To be honest, I didn’t prepare for the ops very well and the session kinda broke down about halfway through.  I kept moving cars around and enjoyed it, and took a lot of photos.  Here’s a run-down.
Below.  The layout prior to the final session. Everything looks good—the layout is clean and ready to go.  There are a few cars left from another train that we will have to clean up as we go.
This was an all M&StL session, with two Atlas RS-1s leading the way.  Below.  Here I’m setting up the consist, which is a super-simple process using NCE.
Here is the train coming into town.  I didn’t notice it until later, but someone has positioned a dried-out insect on top of the tank car at right…
First I cut off the train and set the two meat reefers into the passing siding to get them out of the way.
Then I pulled two box cars out of the Carsten’s track and put them in the siding too.
Here are the engines passing the dirt road next to the depot.  I used my son’s iPhone 10 for most of these photos, by the way.  The close-up capability of that device is outstanding.
Next, I sorted a few cars in the train, then pulled three loaded cars from Marshall canning…
…and then spotted four empties in their place.  The car next to the engine is the mini-kit from Cocoa Beach RPM, around 2006 or so—a KCS rebuilt box car.
I got distracted a few minutes and took some freight car photos.  The ATSF high-side gon is an Intermountain kit that I finished in 2008 while I was living in Little Rock for a month.  The Staley and UTLX cars are recent Tangent releases.  The Mobil tank car is an old Proto 2000 model from the early 2000s.
I re-sorted the cars again and then pulled the reefers and hoppers left on the city track, and put them in the passing siding with the rest of our pick-ups.
Last time on the City Track.
I didn’t take a photo of the train reassembled and leaving town. But I hope you enjoyed a few more photos of the layout in operation.
And one final photo, of the layout being taken apart in its component pieces for the move.
Below.  Here’s a photo of the new room.  It is 19 x 12 and has a sloped ceiling on one side, with a window on one side and a skylight just off to the left.  It is a bedroom, and we had it set aside for my son, but he decided he wanted the attic room instead so I took this one.  It’s not a bad room—it is small so that’ll keep me from building anything too ridiculous.  And it’s got floor heat!
In the photo shows the computer desk along the short wall on the right.  My modeling workbench is behind me on the right.  You can see the Ackley layout at the extreme left.  This configuration leaves me a clear 5 x 19 space for a new layout.
I’ll share some more thoughts on layout planning in a future post.  – John G

No. 130: Moving from Albersbach, and Maybe to a New Layout

Labor Day

In my last post I whined about how hard my summer has been.  It was, but today I’m happy to report I’ve still got all my fingers and toes, and the rebuilt shoulder is better than ever.  I played soccer the other day for the first time in 5-6 months and came away unscathed.  The family is doing great.  What is there to complain about!

Trip to Dwingeloo

To accelerate some relaxing, last month, over Labor Day weekend, I got away with my kids to the northwest corner of the Netherlands near a place called Dwingeloo National Park.  This is a lovely, quiet area, with clean forests, hiking, and plenty to do, and the locals are very friendly and speak excellent English.  This isn’t the kind of place where “Ami’s” (Americans) tend to vacation.

One afternoon we visited a small town called Giethoorn.  Giethoorn is near the coast and naturally, there are canals everywhere.  The main attraction here is an intricate system of small canals that run right through the center of town.  You park your auto outside of town and walk into the town center, and if you want to get anywhere you can walk—or—take a boat.


Naturally, we took a boat.  The kids and I rented a ship with an electric motor and boated around town for a couple of hours.  The little canals go all over the place; the locals even have private canals up to their houses, like driveways, with little boat-houses.  No cars or garages.  I had to resurrect old boating skills but managed to navigate the canals without causing any accidents.  The whole experience was too cool for words.


Meanwhile I am under more stress these days with the move from our old, very large, very overwhelming rental house in Albersbach to another place closer to work.


In my current house I have a big upstairs den, roughly 22 x 22, for all my modeling stuff. The new rental home will have a much smaller modeling area—just half of a 13 x 13-foot room.  I will take only two 13-foot walls, maybe less.  My workbench will have to go in a closet in another room—that’s not a big deal—but the Ackley layout at 21 feet will definitely not fit.

The great thing about the new room is it’s on the main floor near the family room.  Half will be “the train room” and the other half will be an office/study/computer room.  I like playing trains in the same room where the kids are studying and internetting, so this works out perfectly.  No hunkering down alone in the basement.  I’ll be right there with the family where I should be.

Thoughts on the Next Layout

I have been considering a new layout for about 18 months.  Ackley was 95% complete and I was running trains a few times a month, but it had some problems.  Chief among them:

  • I’m tired of point-to-point; I’m a fan of continuous running and want a loop
  • The layout was too wide, requiring a whole lot of extra scenery work.  I did not heed Bill Darnaby’s advice to make the layout as absolutely narrow as possible
  • The layout was still too heavy and unwieldy to be moved reliably
  • I was unhappy with the scenery; I really wanted the scenery to be “cleaner”, like what I see built by Chris Nevard, the famous British modeler (as seen below)

If you haven’t spent any time looking at Chris Nevard’s work, check out his site at  Go to his Flickr site–there are folders for each of his layouts there.   Be sure to allocate plenty of time for this–you will be impressed and inspired.  Photo below used courtesy Chris Nevard.


I also considered a city switching layout, like this—the Terminal Railroad Association’s West Belt Line in central St. Louis.  Look at all those tracks and industries!  This is a 1958 photo.

RI Belt Line Large

I’ve also put some thinking into building a small British layout, and even something smaller, but bigger–like something in 1/35th scale.  My 1/35th scale inspiration comes from seeing the German Feldbahn layouts here, and also those seen on Claus Nielsen’s Flickr site.  Look at and go to the Nystrup Gravel folder.

I’d like to build them all someday, but for now I’m considering replacing the Ackley layout with a similar layout that offers more in less space.  Ackley was close; I’d like a similar layout but one with turnback tracks on each end going to a loop of track behind the layout. Much like the show layouts you see here in Europe.  Here’s a drawing…

New Layout Map

This kind of design isn’t anything new or innovative, but it allows continuous running.  The scenicked layout at around 16 x 1-1/2-feet would be smaller than the Ackley layout but the whole layout itself would take up a lot more space than that.


Before we found the new rental home my thinking had focused on repalcing the Ackley layout using about the same footprint, hence the drawing above.  I was looking at Farmington, Minnesota; it was close to our summer home and I had a family connection there growing up.

Farmington is about 25 miles south of the Twin Cities on Milwaukee’s single-track, north-south Iowa & Minnesota (I&M) Division, and was sort of a grand junction of Milwaukee Road lines.  The Milwaukee’s east-west Hastings & Dakota (H&D) line crossed there, and a branch to Mankato originated there too.  I liked the notion of a crossing and also a branch line connection, as that can drive a lot of interchange and connecting traffic.  Rock Island used the I&M to reach Minneapolis so the line also hosted many RI freight and passenger trains too.  Who doesn’t like the Rock Island!

Here’s a postcard view below of Farmington circa the late 1930s.  Love that WP single-sheathed car on the left!


Farmington would make a pretty attractive small-town layout.  Mainline Milwaukee Road passenger and freight trains, Rock Island passenger and freight run-throughs, Mankato branch mixed trains, and lots of local traffic.  Yet, despite my best planning efforts, I wasn’t able to get all the major features of Farmington into the old Ackley layouts space, which was 16 x 2.  It just won’t fit.  And it definitely won’t fit in the new 13 x 2 space.

Still Thinking

I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, as I’m still a month away from being in the new house.  This photo of the Milwaukee Road in Minnesota, from the Milwaukee Road Archives site on Flickr, is giving me something to think about.

Minnesota Lake Town

Maybe something like this would work.  A station on the left, an interchange on the right, 18-inch radius curves on each end to behind-the-backdrop-staging and loop tracks.  The whole layout could be kept around 38-inches max, with the scenicked layout no more than 16-18-inches deep.  And a 48-inch radius mainline curve on the scenicked area, of course:


I know you’ve got ideas for two walls, each about 13 feet long, so send ’em!  As always I will learn a lot from your advice.  – John G

No. 127: Ackley Layout Ops Session (Seaboard Air Line)

Hi Friends!  I hope you’re all doing well and are enjoying a nice back-to-school weekend.

In April or May I ran an ops session on my Ackley, Iowa layout using New York Central equipment.  I joked to one of my friends online that I should run a Seaboard session, and then thought “Hey, that’d be a cool idea!”  So a few weeks ago I pulled out all the Seaboard equipment I had left, and all my southeastern freight cars, and ran a “Montgomery Line” ops session.  It was a lot of fun.

SAL Pitts, GA - Salter

The SAL Montgomery Line—sometimes called The SAM (the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery)—ran from Savannah, Georgia to Montgomery, Alabama.  It was a low-density branch line and by the 1950s typified rural Georgia railroading.  The prototype photos above and below are all from the late 1940s, taken by master photographer Hugh Comer.


Light rail, little engines, short trains, and country depots–that’s what the Montgomery Line was all about.


In honour of the photo above, I thought I would use something special for this ops session.  And here it is—“the big engine”—Baldwin Centipede 4512.  This is a BLI model of one of SAL’s 12 1949-built Baldwins.  The versio I bought has sound and DCC installed and it runs pretty well.  The paint is excellent.  The model is actually a PRR prototype but it is definitely close enough for what I want it to do.

Below, here is 4512 leading a short train into town.


Below.  Here’s another view of the short train on the main.  In the consist are a couple of FGE reefers, a tank car, and an ACL ventilated box car.


Running a Seaboard scenario gave me the opportunity to take out the SAL Standard No. 2 depot I built back in 2004, along with all the section and tool houses I built for an SCL Modeler article in 2008.


I made up this session as I went along.  The first thing I did was cut off the train on the main track and then pick up two empties on the Carsten’s lead.  Yes indeed, the Centipede will get around the 24-inch radius curve, but it looks pretty silly doing so.


Here, below, I’m pulling those two empties back to the main track.  I’ll put them on the head end, and then work the back end and spot a couple of cars at the cannery.


Now I’m back on the other end of the 16-foot layout.  First I’ll pull these loads from the cannery and then spot empties in their place.


Whoops!  As I was pulling the cars, and trying to take photos at the same time, one of the cars split a switch and turned over.  That’s an ACL car, so I’m sure my Seaboard crew could care less…


Speaking of oddballs, here’s an oddball car getting a workout.  This is a model of one of C&O’s rebuilt cement hoppers.  I built this model using an Intermountain hopper as my starting point and used Microscale decals for all the lettering.  It was a lot of fun to build.  Apologies for the poor lighting.


Here I have already dropped the loads and am spotting the empties.


Man, that is a big engine!


Now I’m on the City Track, pushing the loads and empties out so I can spot new cars.  I enjoyed getting all these southeastern cars out on the layout for a run.  This Central car (Central of Georgia, not New York Central) is an old Intermountain model that I rebuilt and painted.  The SAL AF-1 at far left is a Sunshine Models kit.


After pulling the Central car and that SAL auto car, I’m spotting that ACL vent on the City Track.


Finally I sorted a few cars on the sidings for the next train to pick up, then reassembled my train on the main track.  My train has now swelled to a whopping 12 cars.  The big Baldwin can easily handle them…if it doesn’t break down, which I understand the prototypes were prone to do.


After checking with the agent-operator, we can pull out and continue down the line.


SAL 5227 is bringing up the markers.  This is an Overland brass model that I bought when I was in college in 1986.  I have repainted it three times!


This session was a lot of fun.  I need to do an M&StL session next.

Here’s a parting shot.  Back in 2008 I was able to take a full day to photograph virtually the whole line from Savannah to Montgomery.  Back then, there were a lot of remnants of SAL heritage left.  Here’s a photo of one of my favorite depots, this one at Milan, Georgia.


Have a wonderful weekend!  – John G


And a postscript.  My buddy Tom Holley, recently retired from 30+ years of engine service with NS, wrote the day after I published this article to tell me:

Hello, John.
I really enjoyed the Seaboard operating session you featured on your blog. Great photographs of great models, on a great layout. Made me want to fly over there and switch cars with you.
As an addendum, the SAL engine was referred to as a “Thousand-legger” down here.
Your information about the SAM line reminded me of a story my dad told that happened when he was running to Montgomery from Columbus on 71 and 40. The Central crossed the SAL at Hurtsboro at grade. The crossing was not interlocked, and both railroads rules required trains to stop, and, if no opposing traffic was approaching, cross the other carrier.
Back then, Central’s train 40 out of Montgomery (the flip side of 71) was always heavy. My dad developed the technique of, when it was dark, approaching the crossing at a slow speed, cutting out his headlight, and looking for a headlight on the SAL. If he didn’t see a headlight on the SAL, he’d just drag across without stopping, and save trying to start the train again.
That worked fine, until one night the SAL engineer turned his headlight out, too. My dad had just started on the crossing when the Seaboard engineer cut his light on. My dad was already on the crossing, so, technically, he was in the right. The brakeman jumped…the fireman stayed, and SAL train stopped very, very close to my dad’s train. My dad kept on pulling, the brakeman caught back up, and on they went.
After that, though, my dad started stopping at the SAL crossing…
Warmest regards,
Tom Holley

No. 124: Ackley Layout Ops Session (New York Central)

Last week I got the layout plugged in and running again, and after cleaning track and polishing up a few wheelsets, and testing operation of all the switch machines and points, I ran a little ops session.   While I was at it I took a few photos with my son’s iPhone 10.  

I ran this session with New York Central equipment.  Power was provided by a single Kato RS-2 with Loksound and DCC installed by my friend Mike Christianson in Albert Lea.  And old Alco Models NYC caboose was on the back end carrying the markers.  The engine model is still under construction—you can see there’s no window glass or details or weathering, but it sounds great and runs beautifully and I enjoy using it, finished or not.

Below.  Here is our train, Extra 6219 South, heading into town.  I’ve already made a plan to work the town and have left about half the train and the waycar out on the mainline so I can switch the cannery first.


Below.  You can see the rest of the train on the mainline (see the tank car in the background, in the “tunnel”?).   First, I’ve pulled three empty 40-foot box cars consigned to the cannery into the passing track.  I’m going to pull the four loaded cars from the cannery first, then shove these three empties into position.


Below.  The iPhone 10 does a great job with close-up photography.   This is my favorite picture in the whole set.  The cattle pen is a new addition to the layout.  I kitbashed it using the Walthers kit.


Below.  We’re pulling the loads…


…and now shoving them back to the rest of the train, and out of the way.


With the cannery track clear we can shove our three empties into position.  The crossover switches here are handlaid Code 55 using Proto87 Stores components.  These are the first Code 55 turnouts I’ve ever built and they work well.


I’ve pulled the loads ahead so I can bring the rest of the train into town.  The train wasn’t blocked so now I have to do a little work and sort some of the cars at the back end.  This is a perfect spot to do it.


Below.  Now I am running around to bring up the rest of the cars.  The rest of the train can be seen in the distance.


Below.  I’ve brought the rest of the train and left it next to the station on the main track.  After switching a few cars to get them in the right order I pulled a Burlington gon loaded with coal and a GATX tank car loaded with gasoline for delivery on the City Track.  Here’s our engine crossing the IC, which is required to allow us to reach the switch.

I’m still working on scenery here.  I’ve made a mess of the ballast work in the foreground.  The foundation for the interlocking tower is on the right.


Below.  This photo shows me running the engine up the City Track to pick up a loaded box car at the grain elevator.  To save a few moves I’m taking the tank and gon with me.  When the box car is out of the way I’ll be able to spot the gon and tank.  The main track and siding are temporarily full of cars.   


The box is picked up and we’re pulling it south across the dirt road.  The box, by the way, is an old NYC USRA single-sheathed car.  It’s 1950, and that old car’s days are numbered…


I’ve kicked the NYC box car back to the train, and now I’ve gone back up the City Track to drop off the tank car at City Oil.


Below.  Next, we cut off the CB&Q car at the Roosevelt Brothers coal house.  That car doesn’t look very full…I think the Roosevelt Brothers might be losing a lot of money.


The last car we need to deliver is CMO 31248, a box car with a load of bagged feed consigned to the old city elevator.  I don’t want to waste time switching out that reefer so we’ll take it along for the ride.


Here we are, shoving the box into position at the old elevator.  This is some of my favorite trackwork on the whole layout.  It is Micro Engineering Code 55 flex track.


We’re carefully putting it into position…


…and now pulling away.


Below.  After that last drop, I brought the engine and reefer back to the main track and reaassembled our train for the next station south.  


Once the train has been reassembled, and the air tested, and everybody is aboard, we’ll give five short blasts on the horn to request signals from the tower operator.

The staging yard on the south side of the layout hasn’t been connected yet, so we have to end our ops session here.  Once it’s connected we’ll be able to actually run the train off the layout and into staging, simulating the run to the next station south of Ackley.  For today, this is as far as we can go.


Maybe a Seaboard Air Line scenario next time???  – John G




No. 121: John Barry Visit…and Rebuilding the Marshall Canning Co.

Last week my friend John Barry was visiting Europe and he spent a couple of nights at nearby Ramstein Air Base.  John is a well-known Santa Fe modeler and historian, and he maintains an interesting blog.  We met a few years ago at the Virginia RPM meet and have kept in touch ever since.

John and I had dinner last Friday evening at one of my favorite local restaurants, Berndt’s Blockhouse–up on the hill in Weilerbach–where we enjoyed a couple hours of dinner, beers and conversation.  John is a former C-130 pilot and instead of talking about trains we spent most of the night talking about work and aviation and Air Force stuff.  Here’s John about to plow through a plate-full of schnitzel.


Rebuilding the Cannery

About nine months ago my friend Doug Harding sent me a couple dozen photos of rail-served customers he found at the Ackley Heritage Society.  I wrote about the photos back in an earlier post, The Marshal Canning Company of Ackley, Iowa, Part 5, which can be found at

Marshall Canning plant 1952 edit

Included in the package Doug sent were a few photos of Marshall Canning in Ackley that “changed everything”.

One of those photos is shown above.  This is a circa 1952 photo according to the information from the Ackley Heritage Society.  In the process of moving the layout from one side of the room to the other, I’ve been refreshing the scenery and fixing all the little problems on the layout—including rebuilding the cannery buildings to a more prototypical appearance.

The photos, especially this one shown above, reveal some details about the cannery that I hadn’t been aware of.  Apparently, there was a power plant at the cannery into the mid to late 1950s.  Doug, Clark Propst and I talked it over online and we agreed that the photos seem to indicate that the plant burned coal for power and/or heat.  Doug told us the plant was converted to gas in the 60s or 70s.  The photos didn’t reveal everything needed to make a credible scale model but they did show enough to warrant rebuilding the model on my layout.

I finished the major rebuilding work three weeks ago.  Below, here’s how the cannery looks today.  It still ain’t perfect, but it’s a lot closer.


I rebuilt the model in several stages.  First I refreshed the main cannery by stripping everything off of it, including the windows, and then rebuilding it with all-new windows and new details.  Second I scrapped the “annex”—the long warehouse formerly to the right of the main building—and built in it’s place a facsimile of the power plant.   Finally, I rebuilt a portion of the annex into a smaller building that can accept a single car.

The model of the cannery on my old Ackley layout in Illinois, shown below, included a large “annex” building that could accommodate three cars.  To be more prototypically accurate, there should’a been a power plant between the main building and the annex.


I rebuilt the main cannery building by replacing the windows and refreshing the rest of the details.  I also painted the windows, doors and a few other details red.  Why red? Well, I wanted the building to “pop” a little more and the brown windows just “wasn’t doing it” for me.  The prototype appearead to have white windows around 1950, but I thought white would be ugly against the beautiful brick finish.  Red is not prototypical but I can live with it.


The inspiration for red trim comes from this Eugene Van Dusen postcard of a New York Central train on the South Bend Branch in northern Indiana, circa 1952.  I really like the look of the factory building on the left.

IMG_5968 (2).JPG

The windows are from Tichy and I also installed a new door on the front of the building using a part from a Walthers Cornerstone set.  Replacing the parts and repainting everything was easy but very time-consuming. I haven’t finished the roof yet, but that job will involve painting the roof black and adding a few details.

Another unprototypical thing I want to do is add a large sign that says “Marshall Canning Company” on top of the building.  The idea is to change the sign when I want to run a scenario featuring another railroad.  I can just change the sign that way and it can become another factory or something that would better fit a different scenario.

Including a Power Plant


I had zero information or photos of the power plant.   I made something as simple as possible—just a brick facade with a covered conveyor belt connected to it.  I added two smoke stacks on top of the power plant per the prototype photos.  Those stacks need some work still but we’re getting closer.  I need to paint everything and add a few more details and then re-scenery the whole area.

I had a leftover fuel tank from the old Grandt Line set that I decided to use too, just in case the plant needs oil for heat or anything else.  The prototypically-based idea is that the plant receives a drop-bottom carload of coal which is conveyed into the building where the boilers and heating plant is located.  I wanted to keep it simple.  Simple is good.

The annex, on the far right of the building shown above, is simply a cut-down version of the original annex I built.  I used Walthers brick sheet for the job.  That stuff is great.  I tried to splice half-used pieces together–hence the multi-color appearance.

Once again, here is the original version built for this layout:


And here is today’s rebuilt version:


I like the rebuilt version a whole lot better!

Here’s a closeup of the conveyor.  I’ll add details and supports once new ground cover is installed.


Another view of the “annex”, below.


And finally, a view with a car spotted.  The power plant adds a nice dimension to the facotry model.


The Cattle Pen

I am also getting around to installing the cattle pen.  I’m using the Walthers Stock Yard set and just using what I want to make a simple square pen.

Here’s the Sanborn view below.  The pen is on the left side of the track just below Herman Avenue.

Ackley 1930 96007 (2)

Below.  I’ve laid out some pieces from the Walthers kit to check the size and fit in the available space.  I think it’ll work out nicely.  The large pieces on top are parts from the covered feed troughs, which I won’t be using.


Below.  Construction has begun!  More to follow in a later post.  In case I didn’t mention it earlier, the cattle pen on my layout wasn’t used after 1950 so I’m modeling it abandoned and overgrown.


I pray you all have a great week!  – John G


No. 120: The Ackley Layout – Coal Bins on Carstens Siding

It’s been over a month since my last post.  I’ve been very, very busy with work and family stuff, and whatever time I had left went to planning St. Louis RPM. 

We also, during that time, took an eight day trip to the Canary Islands.  We visited Lanzerote and Fuertaventura and we had a wonderful time.  We went for the sun, seafood and beaches and it didn’t disappoint.


Below. Here’s a pano of the area around one of our favorite towns, El Golfo, in the Timanfayo National Park.  Spectacular black sand beaches are a favorite spot on this side of the island.


It was pretty cheap living, and at least once a day we got a big meal that looked a lot like this:


There were no railroads ever on either Lanzerote or Fuerteventura, so after seven days I was eager to get home to the layout and get back to work.

Back in Albersbach…


The re-working of the north end section of the layout is just about complete.  The only things left to be completed are building the stock pen and rebuilding the cannery.  The cannery, seen below, needs a whole lot of work.  New windows are being installed and it will need a new roof too.


Before leaving for the Canaries I did a lot of work on the coal bins adjacent to the elevator on Carsten’s siding.  Sanborn maps indicate there were coal bins on the siding but I have not found any pictures of them.  I decided to freelance a little and built bins I saw in an aerial photo at another M&StL site.  Here’s that photo again below.  Apologies for the graininess…

Coal Bins

I was also inspired by a photo I found online of a British OO scale (1:76) scene.  I like the open bins and thought that modeling an open bin would be more interesting than building a typical closed bin. 


Here are a couple poorly-lit photos of the bins I built.  I used whatever I had on hand–mostly leftover styrene strip and wood from other projects.  I saw another photo of bins that were supported by logs, so I trimmed down a few sticks and used them in the prototype manner.  I deliberately tried to make my bins look old and beaten up.


Another photo showing how I built them around the curve.


And finally, a longer shot to show how they’re built next to the elevator.


The bins need to be loaded at least halfway, so I cut down a few pieces of German “Styrodur”, and shaped them a little bit…


…and then glued them into place.


I painted the faux coal piles with Tamiya Flat Black and then put real coal on top.  I used scale “lump” coal on the nearest and farthest bins, and fine-sifted coal in the center bin. 

When the paint was dry I saturated the coal pile with matte medium, with plenty of rubbing alcohol added to break up the surface tension, to fix ithe loose coal in place.  Then I sprinkled on another light coat of coal on the top.  The result is a nice coal pile with a slightly shiny, glossy coal sheen.


Below.  Here’s a closer view.


While I was fixing up the south end the layout I touched up a few places on the fascia, and found to my surprise that the green paint I have always used seems to have shifted.  So I had to repaint all the fascia on the south end for a third time.   Check out the photo below.  The south end of the layout is on the right.  The paint color shifted and now I’m going to have to repaint everything.


I also repainted all the telephone poles on the layout.  I used Rix poles for the railroad lines and a combination of Rix poles and Walthers crossarms–from the 933-3101 Electric Utility Pole Set–for the city lines.


I must admit that I’ve had a lot of difficulty motivating myself to work on the layout since I moved it across the room.  Work has really been getting me down, my schedule has been relentless–even on the weekends–and St. Louis RPM planning has been more than frustrating.  It was nice to take a week away and I felt refreshed and motivated to get back to it when I got home.

Sometimes you just need a break, right?  – John G


No. 118: The Ackley Layout – North Side Scenery Refresh

Last time I explained that I took apart the layout and moved it to the other side of the room.  While the layout is still in pieces, I’m refreshing scenery and backdrops and fixing other problems so when the layout is reassembled it’ll be better than ever.


Above.  I started with what I call the “north side” of the layout–which, when viewing the layout–is the right half of the 16-foot layout.  To begin the refresh I removed the backdrop and then removed all the buildings, trees and details, and then made a plan to remove scenery.

Below, here’s the north side with everything removed, ready for a face-lift.


The first thing I did was sand down a lot of problem areas.  I sanded down all the parking lots and structure lots, removed some static grass, and also sanded down the new highway crossing that I just finished decaling last month.  

I didn’t mess with the track and the bean fields, or anything otherwise important.  I focused instead on the areas that had poor paint or finish.  


Here’s another view of some of the cleared areas.  The front of the layout is on the right.  Being able to access the layout from all directions was a big plus.


Next I vacuumed the layout and got it all cleaned up, and then mixed a batch of plaster with some water-based paint added.  I applied thin coats of plaster on all the problem areas.


I applied the plaster to the parking lots, roads, and structure foundations, and other areas that needed attention.

For example, here is one of the dirt road crossings, which I felt needed a little leveling.



Above.  Here’s the north side, after the plaster was applied, ready for sanding, repainting, and a static grass refresh.

Below.  After the work was done, here’s the view after a new coat of paint and some more static grass.  Yes, I know–it kinda looks like a golf course.  When the buildings are re-installed and trees are up, and some areas are tweaked, I think it’ll look great.


Here’s another view of the completed work.  I ran out of my preferred static grass–Silflor Late Summer blend–so I made my own blend using Silflor Summer and Burnt Grass.  I think the new color is a little more rich.


Here’s a closeup of the mix I used.  I’ve got lots of different lengths all mixed up. 


While things were drying I refreshed the backdrop.  I added a little paint here and there, and added some houses to the backdrop where they exist in the real world.  I took a bunch of photos of houses in Litchfield, Illinois last summer and added them near the roads.  Ideally these areas will be obscured by trees so getting the backdrop perfect isn’t too important.


I also moved the cannery to make room for an addition.  The addition is the cannery’s heating and/or power plant, which I discovered existed with the help of photos from the Ackley Heritage Center.  Doug Harding found the photos and sent them to me last year.  I cut into the plaster parking lot and moved the building “forward” about ten scale feet.  Building the plant will be a lot of work.  For now I’m just making space for it.  The whole building will get a face-lift as part of the refresh.


This weekend I completed re-decaling the road, and adding details.  I want to add external piping at the Standard Oil place below, but I just can’t seem to find the time to get it done. 


Below.  The Highway 20 scene is looking good without the backdrop.  More details are going in every night.  Hopefully the backdrop will make everything look complete.  

I ordered one of the Walthers stock yard kits and am going to put that in the empty area behind the NYC auto car.  It was out of service by my 1950 modeling date, so I’m going to model it abandoned.


Meanwhile…across the pond, my buddy Jim DuFour is doing some heavy duty work on his B&M Cheshire Branch layout.  He sent a long e-mail with a bunch of photos.  He has removed the backdrop from a portion of this layout and is replacing track, roadbed and a bridge scene.  Jim is an inspiration, and if he can do it, we can too.


Here’s hoping you guys have a great week!  – John G