So with all of the ideas I’ve jabbered on about, here is what I’ve come up with. (Finally!)

P48 Experience_Concept Sketch_s

Looking at this, I realize how simple the design is. It isn’t what many of us have been conditioned to expect from a model railway or even a diorama. Well, the real world is often this nondescript. I’d like to emphasize that these sketches are little more than first efforts at the design and that I think better in 3D rather than on paper. However, this is how I pictured the modeled scene initially, given the elements of the original inspiration.

Is there a greater opportunity here?
I let the initial sketch settle in over the weekend and began to wonder if there was a greater opportunity presenting itself.

Such thinking however, has all the hallmarks of project creep, where nonessential add-ons start rearing their ugly heads. If I have learned anything from this work it’s to be ruthless in eliminating nonessentials. So, I’m going to let this design continue to simmer until I can do some mock ups that give me a better sense of how things will look.

To review, my intent with this work is to provide a simple contextual setting for quarter-inch scale modeling. I see it more and more as a diorama where any operation is the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. In this light, I identify more with the military and aircraft communities than traditional model railroading.

Still, the idea of some form of modest operation is intriguing, so let’s explore that just for giggles.

Switching it up
In the Pennsy era, Richmond had a number of switching districts that would make excellent layouts in their own right. A memorable example was this spaghetti bowl (below) located just west of the depot. When I was a kid, this maze of trackage served a scrapyard, a manufacturer, a bakery and a newsprint warehouse, all in a very confined area.

P48 Experience-3_blog

From 1921, this Sanborn map greatly predates my childhood memories but not that much had changed by the ’60s. The condition of these tracks was a modeler’s dream and the curve radius would look at home on any sheet of plywood. Today, the tracks and a number of the buildings are all gone.

Where the industrial trackage left the main down in the lower right corner of the map, it skirted between two buildings (photo below). The only train I ever saw working these tracks was a Conrail SW7 pulling two or three gondolas of scrap metal through this narrow gap. The cars were rocking like there was no tomorrow and I was surprised at how fast he was moving given the conditions.

The narrow canyon effect created by the tall buildings would be a great way to disguise the entrance to a staging area on the display.

The narrow canyon created by these buildings would be a great way to disguise the staging exit/entrance. I’m facing south toward the main running tracks.

The canyon effect provided by the buildings would be excellent for hiding the hole in the sky on each end of the module, especially if I modeled the enclosed overhead conveyors. This also dovetails with how the buildings over on 14th Street frame the view in my original photo, which is the aspect of that scene that inspired me the most. (See parts one and two.)

In considering this area, I can see the potential for a small, self-contained switching layout.

Get thee behind me clutter
More than any other task perhaps, designing a layout produces more angst and frustration than all others combined. How does one filter through all the choices? I’ve written at length about the degree of self-awareness, one needs to develop but few people care about going that deep. All that navel gazing just seems like too much work, yet those who have taken the time to understand their priorities and objectives know the time spent was not wasted.

When presented with material like this, the usual temptation is to include everything: all the trackage along with every building and their surroundings. Of course those cars have to come from somewhere, so we need to model the yard and trackage in between. Let’s not forget the through freights that brought them to that yard, so we’ll need a mainline with the longest run possible. And thus we find ourselves in the belly of the beast. What started as a simple siding to be switched has morphed into a behemoth of unwieldy proportions.

As a home layout though, there are numerous possibilities here for a satisfying work in a very modest space, if one simplifies the amount of track and concentrated on the car spots rather than separate industries.

To begin, I would focus on the long lead track coming off the main.

A staging track is all that’s needed as a traffic source, which can be hidden or not. A simple two track traverser would add capacity as would a nearby shelf or two to store extra cars. It isn’t relevant how the cars got to this staging track, so mainline traffic, yard switching, other towns and all that can be ignored. The focus for the work to be done is here, on this one track, not elsewhere.

Looking at the specifics of the design, I would include the short (one car) siding to the F&N building at the crossing on Washington Street because it is a manageable element that adds value to the design and operation. At the opposite end from staging, one could also include an additional spur track for the same reason. I would eliminate the cross tracks that served the bakery and casting plant as their configuration introduces too many design problems and compromises for working in a larger scale.

P48 Experience_8s

A small layout in quarter-inch
Many will look at this and dismiss it instantly as too simplistic to hold their attention for any length of time. However, with multiple car spots, rough track and all the other things crews had to contend with (like vehicle traffic), there is more operating potential than one would think. You aren’t dealing with a huge number of cars, so the staging area can also serve as the switch lead. You’ll notice the lack of a run-around. If the Pennsy didn’t need one to work this area, why do we? My hunch is they didn’t switch every spot at the same time as we tend to do.

I also looked at a design that curved around a corner that would cover 10 x12 feet of wall space. Even using a 48-50 inch radius in quarter-inch scale, one loses a lot of space in the corner. There are ways around this but I have a strong preference for keeping things simple and within easy reach. A ten to twelve foot wall isn’t too hard to find in most houses and the design could be condensed down to a single module and staging if space is at a premium.

The secret to a satisfying work in quarter-inch scale is restraint. Let the railroad be a part of the scene rather than dominate it. The I&W has taught me how to focus and to reduce the volume of track you think you need by 60-80%. I know, that sounds draconian but trust me, you’ll be happier with how a scene comes together.

If you’re working in a smaller scale, you could add another siding from the plan but I would caution against going track happy. Use the extra room to lengthen the sidings and the factory buildings to reinforce the idea of an urban industrial setting that generates enough traffic to require rail service.

I know these concepts aren’t to everyone’s taste but if you’re willing to reconsider what a layout can be, then many doors of possibility open up regardless of the modeling scale. Next time, a look at the construction of the module.



  1. Simon

    That’s fascinating, Mike.

    My first thought was, “How is he going to promote P:48 without a turnout?” Then I read on, and the second module would provide that.

    But of course the real point (!) of what you are advocating is that it is far more than track and wheels: prototype fidelity of all details is the key extra. Even on plain track, P:48 wheels will run better, and the relationship between the wheels, the trucks and the car will be correct. But this would be lost if the scene was lacking in considered composition and exacting execution.

    The scheme is also ideal for a newcomer or a modeller starved of space and money. Those buildings will need time, and the initial 48″ * 18″ * 18″ module does not require (m)any freight cars, but it would serve well as a starter/primer for a bigger project (it has great potential for anyone inspired by Jack Hill’s dormant blog), and as a superb scene for photographing models.

    Lots to think about!


  2. mike

    Hi Simon,
    As this project develops, I think my direction will become clearer. I’ve done a mock up which confirmed that the design is adequate. It also showed that 16 inches is more than enough depth, so I’m going with that dimension instead of eighteen as I posted. To answer your question about forced perspective techniques, I don’t think they will be needed on such a small scene. Time will tell.


  3. Chris Mears

    I really like how this both is and could come together. I see a lot of things we’ve discussed before in the plan and from this more to think about.

    When I first looked at the lone 48″ module I thought about the first image you showed and regretted that the covered overhead walkway was positioned on the module in a place where it viewing the space, in the model, couldn’t be done the same as in your photo. I wondered if you were able to move the position of this inboard further so that the module could be viewed from both positions? That first viewpoint with the trains all the way in the back was so different from the typical approach. Then I wondered…

    From the 48″ side the viewer gets the traditional model railroad vantage point. It’s this view we’re accustomed to and would work well when the module was on display on a tabletop. The fine modelwork to be shown off in this space can be seen and appreciated and this broad side provides enough room for two or three to stand in front and discuss a point. It’s the billboard. This is a vantage point to appreciate the work as a model.

    Of course, this module is to do double-duty as a piece to promote P48 and this is the second reason to encourage the viewer to walk around to the end to look at it, down the street, and along the track. From this vantage point the viewer can see the narrower wheel tread and appreciate the detail on the track. Perhaps in his imagination this viewpoint feels like the one we know from wandering along track in real life since the viewer’s eye is centered along our model siding. This is the bookend. This vantage point is for the viewer with his imagination to move past the model and see the prototype.

    I like the idea of using this first module as a starting point for a three-section layout. Within the first 48″ there’s enough to provide a variety of modelmaking challenge without overwhelming the modeler. Having completed this first section we really start to strike some of the riches borne into the bigger plan:

    That first 48″ exists to introduce “what’s coming” in the next sections so when the viewer is just staring at bare plywood he can draw from those queues to fill in the blanks;

    Where in the first 48″ the track is just “plain track” we find our first turnout. For the modeler who has never built a turnout here’s a chance to try that out. With that turnout completed the first 48″ is the perfect switching lead for backing stock through to test and I’ll confess to just how much enjoyment I can derive from watching a car navigate through a turnout without derailing – it’s almost sad how much.

    Further, as the builder approaches completing the second 48″ section he has a chance to compare the skills he has furthered in this second section to where he was in the first 48″. Where he is stronger he can elect to revisit earlier work and tighten it up both to further showcase the great things he’s learned to do but also to provide a homogeny across both sections that is often sorely lacking when we adopt modular construction approaches – so the second looks like the first.

    I also wanted to touch on the track plan itself. I know it’s simple but you did something that I don’t think I do when I’m sketching out plans: you didn’t extend that one siding all the way to the end of the layout. I have a habit of starting it at the benchwork’s edge. In doing so I might visually undermine the distinction between main and siding by not providing enough white space between the two (if they both start at the same place on the board).

    This is neat stuff. My interest is, as always, piqued and I think I might find myself wondering “if it’s Wednesday yet?!” for the next installment.


  4. mike

    Hi Chris,
    I really appreciate the depth of your comments. You touched on aspects of the project I hadn’t considered but now I will because of the value of the ideas. Thanks to your insights (and Simon’s too) I see several ways to improve the quality of a viewers’ experience with the work and that is exciting to me.

    Keep it coming.


  5. Simon

    Forgot to mention ths before, but I really like the view block in front of staging. There is a lovely brick canyon there. The building side could fold down for access to staging, to change cars between sessions, or it can feed through the end, depending on available space, etc: inspiration for anyone reading this with limited space.

    I’m with Chris on wondering if we reached next Wednesday yet!


  6. Matt


    I like the upfront staging. If using sound in you locomotive the anticipation of seeing what is growling down the road will be great. Like the story you are telling of how a giant four track mainline company still switches cars through narrow city streets to service customers. I can see the weeds growing through the concrete as a forklift unloads a boxcar on module one.

    Consider using a C module design. They work great in framing a picture and travel well since they are self contained units. An added plus is that your building flats can pick up an extra two inches to have some interior details and depth due to the plywood C construction.


  7. mike

    Hi Matt,

    I don’t know if I will bother with sound or not. Frankly, I’m a bit indifferent to it these days, mostly due to people my age and older running the volume full bore! Too much noise for my taste. Your C module design has a lot going for it but they are a bit more than I need for this simple display.


  8. mike

    Hi Simon,
    I was thinking the same thing about the staging area. Not certain at this point what the exact treatment will be but that will come as the construction proceeds. You and Chris wouldn’t mind terribly if I did a few other things between now and next Wed.? 😉