When you understand the true size of the real world, it’s obvious how little one can actually include in model form. Just to nail the point again: in 1:48, my 15-inch wide by 96-inch long cameo is only 60 x 384 scale feet and that’s just fine by me. With this project I’m experimenting with ideas of minimum compression that have been stirring in my head for some time.

The central question is what do I want to see and experience on this layout? As iconic as the image of a single car at a small town siding is, my current experiences are of long strings of cars being sorted into spot order with the most interesting action taking place in a very small area. From these observations, I believe one or two turnouts with appropriate lengths of track coming off them can provide more than enough operation for my tastes.

Boxcars at a grain elevator are a model railroad icon.

My railfan images also include sorting out long cuts of cars.

Back To Basics
With this project I’ve returned to my roots by modeling a rural setting. The non-specific Indiana location is mundane and ordinary with only the railroad, a grade crossing and the surrounding vegetation. While that may sound boring, there is plenty to keep your attention here. It’s a hazy overcast day that obscures the fields and tree line in the background. Look closely around the tracks and you’ll find remnants of the past but they’re slowly moldering away into the landscape. This crossing at Mill Road is a perfect front row spot to watch the local work back and forth sorting out a long string of cars for the elevator.

I temporarily placed the cameo on sawhorses so I can sit comfortably to finish up the track work. The backdrop is a sheet of aluminum flashing stock that I painted with spray cans. The fascia is a charcoal gray that frames the modeling nicely. Low profile LED strip lights provide the illumination. The cord is hidden in the rear corner.

The cameo is more like a well-composed photo than what we think of as a traditional layout. Contrary to what most believe, with only eight feet of modeled track and scenery, there is little reason to compress anything. A key with a design like this is to focus on a single feature, in this case the right-of-way, and let it speak with a clear voice. By eliminating non-essentials, the scene can breathe and the imagination can stretch its legs.

With staging included, the entire layout will be 24 feet long; the same as the old one but it feels much smaller because only one third has scenery. The staging areas are painted the same charcoal gray as the cameo and should not draw your attention even though they are in plain sight. Instead your eyes will be drawn to the light, colors and visual texture of the scene at Mill Road.

Imagination Fills In The Gaps
To switch a long cut of cars requires a fair amount of track. Since I have to use the space anyway, why not include one or both staging areas as part of the scenery? Doing that would destroy the illusion of a train coming and going. It’s a mistake I made with the old layout and it’s a realism killer. If the finished scenery goes from here to there and we can always see the train, that determines our perception of how big this world is. However, if the train can disappear from view, or at least seem to, then our imagination has someplace to go.

You all wanted a track plan, well here it is. I salvaged the turnouts and crossing from the old layout and it feels good to put them back in service. You’re looking at the entire scene. The surrounding scenery will be mostly ground cover and a few select tree models. Transitions to staging at both ends will be quite simple. The boxcar sitting on the elevator track gives a sense of scale.

On the left end of the scene, I have three tracks. The center track is the running line that extends the length of the layout into both staging areas. This lets me simulate through movements from off stage locations, such as a light engine on its way to pick up cars at an interchange. Later, the engine returns with those cars and works the elevator. When the work is done, he can leave the same way or continue further up the line back to the other staging track on the opposite end.

Staging also plays an important role in working the elevator. The track nearest the backdrop is the loading track. Once it enters the staging, this track is long enough to store a number of cars. The pretense is they have been positioned beyond the nonexistent grain elevator, loaded one by one and moved forward to make room for the next one in line. In reality, they will just sit there until the next session when I reposition them for pickup. Depending on how many are spotted, the loads may span the threshold between on stage and off, strengthening the illusion of unseen activity and the passage of time.

I think there is something important here to consider. When the engine shoves the empty cars down this track it will leave the scenicked area completely. As a railfan, I don’t have to see where the train goes or how far. My imagination can fill in the missing details and in doing so the scope of the layout is greatly expanded from one where everything happens in plain sight, to one that is a just a segment of a much larger world.

The third track is general storage for off spot cars waiting their turn for loading or that just need a place to go. I could also spot loaded grain cars here for later pickup by another train. This track uses the same principles just outlined.

This is how the scene looks closer to the normal viewing position. I’m still reflecting on the treatment of the backdrop. I believe it needs to be quite simple and carefully blending the colors is critical to a seamless transition from the 3D foreground. From this perspective, the lack of depth isn’t that apparent to my eyes.

With this cameo, I can represent through movements and switching cars at a customer large enough to justify rail service with a minimum of visual compromises. I’m nearly finished with the track and will soon move on to ground cover and look at how to gracefully enter and exit the scene. Sounds like a plan and it only took me forty years to figure it out.

This style of layout is quite common in other parts of the world. With our basement empire mentality and having the notion that space is a terrible thing to waste drilled into our heads for thirty years, we simply don’t consider options like this. We see them as a second rate last resort rather than a deliberate first choice. I believe it’s important to understand that such design concepts make a scale like quarter-inch or 1:64 possible for a wider array of room sizes and personal budgets. While the basement empire dream is something many still aspire to, this craft offers so much more.