Recent comments to my January 23, 2013 post titled: Your Layout is Finished, Now What? indicate that I’ve done a poor job of communicating the purpose and operations of my layout/railroad/empire/transportation system/whatever. After umpteen blog posts, a dedicated book (Pieces of The Puzzle), a three-part series in O Scale Trains Magazine, and an entire volume of our digital magazine The Missing Conversation (Vol. 02), I thought I had covered the topic to death. Well, apparently not.

The prototype I draw inspiration from is a 26 mile long branchline that runs from Valley Junction, Ohio (VJ) northwesterly to Brookville, Indiana where it terminates. Today the sole operations on this branch consist of hauling covered hoppers of various colors of shingle grit to an Owens Corning shingle plant in Brookville. While this branch used to have a more diverse customer base, I believe there is now only one other customer left a few miles north of VJ that receives rail service but I won’t swear to that assertion. This line and operation was covered in a January 1983 RMC article by Keith Corman, which greatly influenced my decision process.

Valley Junction, Ohio looking east toward Cincinnati.

Valley Junction, Ohio looking east toward Cincinnati. That’s the branch coming in on the left.

My layout is based on Valley Junction, where the branchline breaks off of the former New York Central, Cincinnati to Indianapolis secondary mainline. The trackage arrangement on the layout closely follows the prototype with some proto-freelanced elements brought in, such as the feed mill from Cedar Grove, Indiana. It was included because it’s a signature building on the line and I wanted to model it. It is no longer an active customer on the prototype or on the layout. In sum, it’s eye candy.

I chose to model Valley Junction because I felt it afforded more operational possibilities than the shingle plant in Brookville. The plant is switched by a trackmobile that grabs a covered hopper as needed and shuffles it into place for unloading. I assume this is cheaper than paying switching charges to the railroad.

Looking west toward Lawrenceburg, Indiana

Looking west toward Lawrenceburg, Indiana, there is the junction turnout in the far distance. The remains of a crossover that was once double track in the middle and, in the foreground, the turnout to the setout track.

Valley Junction is where trains are made up prior to their leisurely trip north and where inbound traffic out of Cincinnati is received. While this NYC secondary used to be double track, it is now single track throughout with remnents of the old days still visible, such the double track bridges. I modeled this history on the layout in the form of trackage remnants and empty right-of-way.

Does it even run?
My operating style is deliberately very informal. I’m not a fan of multi-person operating sessions; I just switch cars as the mood strikes. The layout was operational as soon as I had enough track in place to run something. As track progressed it was wired and put in service. So to answer some of the questions posed, yes, the layout actually runs. It isn’t just a scenery diorama for photos.

Where are the trains?
Questions have been raised about why don’t I include rolling stock in my photos. The primary reason is that I give a damn about how my work is presented and my cars aren’t publication ready in terms of their details. Most are straight out of the box with P48 replacement trucks. They’re unweathered, some have couplers, some don’t even have that. They need to have the crude or cast on ladders and grab irons replaced before I’m comfortable showing them in photos. I feel these generic freight cars would create a jarring inconsistency given how detailed the track and scenery is on the layout. My two locos are in the same condition. I’d rather keep them out of sight until they are fully dressed.

The second reason relates to the first. Many of the posts and articles are focused on the track, or a scenery technique or other design principle I want to highlight. Including cars in the photos would be a distraction from the real subject of the piece. All people would do is look at the cars and obsess over some missing detail instead of what I want them to actually consider. Unlike so many of my peers in this scale, I’m not a rolling stock expert or modeler and the condition of my car fleet reflects this. My strongest interests are in track and scenery modeling.

I can’t figure out what your layout is supposed to do.
In part, these questions have arisen because there is only one building on the layout: the mill. The typical visual clues provided by the structures of this or that industry are missing and so people have no reference point for understanding what is supposedly going on.

I limited things in this manner on purpose. The Valley Junction of today is a spare place scenically, only consisting of various tracks and a portable trailer for the yard office. That’s it and it’s what I’m modeling. Obviously, not everyone gets it, which brings me to a closing point.

Valley Junction looking east toward Cincinnati.

Deeper in the yard looking east toward Cincinnati. It happened to be empty on this trip. You can see there isn’t much here to give a clue about what the railroad does.

I’m taking the branchline less traveled
I’ve deliberately chosen a different path from the rest of the hobby: one that embraces a minimalist design for a layout, a high level of detail and craftsmanship, along with a finescale mindset applied to every aspect of the layout. I feel it’s a better path for me after finally understanding what my interests in the hobby truly are. Exploring the discoveries made on this path is what I’m trying to communicate in my writing and in this blog. You don’t have to agree with my views or choices any more than I have to like 4×8 ovals or 3-rail. Neither are bad in and of themselves. I simply have zero interest in them, even though others find both approaches endlessly enjoyable.

If you regularly follow this blog, I, assume it’s because something resonates with you in terms of the modeling or viewpoints or both; and you are the one I’m writing for.



  1. quarryman


    A quiet railroad junction in the woods … in P:48 no less! You could devote untold hours to a few weathered cars and some MOW equipment.

    The subtle nature of the scenes you are modeling are the most challenging I can think of. Normally I assume that level of concentration on the details to be the focus of diorama builders. Over time, I guess I began to think of your layout as a diorama.

    But it is operable. Is that a source of aggravation? I think of all the model railroaders who really started enjoying modeling when they stopped trying to make their trains run.

    I understand not being inclined to host group op sessions. I feel the same way, but I do it anyway. The benefits are worth every bit of the time required to set up and prepare for having a few like minded modelers over a few times a year. It can be an extremely clarifying experience.

    You may not care to pursue any suggestions your guests might make. The op session is an open discussion. Certainly your fine arts background has helped you appreciate the role criticism plays in improvement. There is no substitute for the perspective of someone outside the project looking in.

    Just a thought,


  2. mike

    But it is operable. Is that a source of aggravation?

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for writing in.

    “Are my operations a source of aggravation?”

    Not anymore than for another and, far less when compared to the many who indulge in much more complicated sessions than I do. I understand the appeal and social nature of group sessions. I simply prefer the quiet, contemplative nature of working solo. According to what I’m reading online in the blogs I follow, I’m not alone in this preference either.

    As modelers, we benefit from learning to trust our own sensibilities, instead of just blindly following the crowd. I’ve already written about this extensively, so I won’t repeat those points again.

    Furthermore, there simply isn’t enough “work” to do for anymore than two people at the most. More that that and the others would just be standing around, bored silly, while waiting their “turn.”

    I do indeed understand the role of informed criticism, with informed being the key word. Unless one understands what the creator/builder is trying to accomplish, then the criticism, no matter how well intended, can often be more of a hindrance than a true insight. As an artist one has to learn to trust the vision and set boundaries, otherwise the work becomes diluted and drifts. I think the same applies to the design of a layout.

    Yes, sometimes two heads are better than one, but too often we acquiesce to popular opinion rather than trusting our gut. I’m speaking from experience here.


  3. Dunks

    Many years ago, in the October 1977 Railway Modeller, there was a feature on a simple 0 gauge layout all of 20′ long built by JohnAllison, which consisted of 4 turnouts an no run-round, and was based on a real place, Porth-y-Waen (despite the Welsh name, just inside the border with England). It was, for me as a 12 year old, a seminal influence, and the remark I remember most was about the simplicitly of operation being restful and not boring – rather like the Shropshire countryside in which it was set. Operation had become atbout quality, not quantity, of movement.

    I guess you agree with, and totally understand, that point of view. He used a simple sound system to enhance the realism: with modern DCC systems and background digital sound effects (birds chirping, not a lot else) it would be even better.


  4. mike

    Hi Simon,

    I do agree with the sentiments of the article you mentioned. They express the tone of the I&W perfectly. That layout sounds wonderful.