layout planning

That sector plate

I am planning on a sector plate at the end of my layout. Primarily, I would like to use this to complete the runaround loop but I have a bit of a vision of using it as a place from which trains could enter and exit from the scene.

In the three photos above (from the left):

  1. I’ve outlined the space for the sector plate in red marker on the plan. I did this as much to define it with respect to the rest of the plan as to help me visualise the room around it for scenic development.
  2. I built a very short staging “cassette” back when I built my N scale Bush Terminals micro layout. I used it in this photo to help visually reinforce the sector plate and its location.
  3. For reference, the plan.

There are so many great ideas that others have used on their layouts. From my list of Youtube bookmarks, here are a pair of my favourites.

I consider John Birkitt-Smith’s Ashburton to be a perfect example of everything an N scale layout could be. It’s beautifully scenicked, supports realistic operations…I could go on. The above video was produced by British Railway Modelling magazine and it’s superb. I watched the whole thing again while preparing this blog post but in terms of sector plates, fast forward to around 5:50 to see John’s great idea. Where traditionally we’d hide the sector plate behind a backdrop he’s actually left it out in the open. Sure the line disappears through the ubiquitous bridge but it doesn’t go through a backdrop, it simply heads into a cutting. The brilliance here is that the cutting is the sector plate. Once inside, the whole lot swings back to line up with the storage roads. As with Ashburton, my layout leaves the sector plate in a very exposed location and I can’t help but think that a similar approach might work for me too. I don’t plan a cutting but might try mocking something up.

Where Ashburton proved how attractive we could manage the humble sector plate, the approach used above for Brewery Pit, I think, is equally elegant. He’s using simple aluminum angle to act as the running rails. Of course, the beauty of using the angle is that it provides a higher side to make handling the whole assembly just that much easier and without accidentally knocking the trains over.

In both examples, the challenge is in powering the sector plate. In a scenicked Ashburton-style sector place I’d be awfully tempted to use a headphone jack as the fulcrum and also to conduct power. I’ve used this for turntables and liked it. In the Brewery Pit approach I’ve seen examples where modellers simply included a short length of the same angle fixed to the layout itself. When the sector plate was aligned with the appropriate departure road, simple bulldog clips from the office are clipped across the angle, at the joint and this simple mechanical connection keeps the plate aligned and bridges power across the joint.

Moving forward I’m leaning more heavily toward a scenicked plate. Ashburton uses a lever to move the plate itself and I’m leaning in that direction to. I plan a ridge of trees between the sector plate and the scene in front. If I can avoid reaching into this scene, that sounds like something worth designing around.

Lots to think about and that’s great. More tiny steps in a forward direction. Seems like I’m still heading forward. So far. So good.

Design. Edit. Design. Repeat.

A lot of my focus to date has been on refining my design scope for this layout. I know I’m not done yet but I’m also far enough along that I can distinguish those elements that are questions on layout design and those that are track planning. The main plan hasn’t deviated far from my first mock operating session (click here to read about that) to now but I feel like it has been qualified by each photo, story, and conversation I’ve been having. For the next few paragraphs I’m going to let go of the layout design elements and focus just on how well the track plan has been coming together.

Approximately 1-1/2" = 12"

Approximately 1-1/2″ = 12″

I shared the above sketch before. I brought that sketch into Templot so I could start laying out actual track locations to test for siding lengths. I find it easy to incorrectly guess where a siding is or how long a car is when it’s just individual paper templates or models on cardboard and less so when it’s actual track sections arranged into a plan.


Though a draft preceded the above plan, this really is the first proper interpretation of my track plan in Templot.

The layout is asymmetrical in design where the main track pushes out to the front of the stage at about the position where I think I’ll most often stand to operate the layout. This provides two great, classic railfan three-quarter views of the train arriving and departing. You’ll notice there are a lot  of subtle “S” curves in the track. I’d normally preach against such arrangements but the minimum radius here is thirty-six inches and none of these curves are in locations where I’ll be pushing or pulling long strings of cars through them.

I like how the passing siding (runs along the back of the main) and the team track (to the right) both use the diverging route of the turnout instead of a more fluid crossover arrangement. To my eyes this reinforces the “siding” nature of these tracks. The tightest curve on the layout leads to the “branch” (siding on left-front edge of the layout). I wanted that strong curve to really indicate that this line was leaving the main track. Again, relying on the theatre metaphor, trains on the branch are encouraged to get a little closer to the audience, almost to the point of inter-mingling with them, before moving off to the wings. Since the staging area is moved toward the centre of the layout the scene at the end of the branch can use the full depth of the layout and distracts from the sense that both these tracks are parallel and terminate in about the same place.

There would be no good without bad and this is as good a time as any to discuss some of my concerns.

I said I liked the effect the staging yard’s location had on the scene. It is aimed at centre stage and trains all run straight out to the audience. Of course that meant that the yard itself sat in about a foot from the end of the layout. This left only about three feet for the run-around loop and the tail track. My train length for this layout is four cars and one caboose. A quick bit of math backed up by placing the actual models on this plan shows that it only barely fits. I’m trying to depict a railway built for more traffic than it now hosts and think that if the train is shorter than the siding it looks like how that story sounds.

The final concern regarding the staging location is how I’m actually going to “hide” it or otherwise deal with it in the middle of a finished scene. Some quick measurements on the plan show that the area at the entrance to the staging yard and the branch track is barely two inches across. I have trouble imagining a subtle scenic treatment that would distract the viewers eyes from staring at that sector plate all the time.

The only way to give more space to this trouble area, at the entrance to the sector plate, was to shift the whole sector plate to the left. The narrow left end of the layout is angled and at the end of the branch track is barely four inches wide. I was worried that by trying to cram in the sector plate as well, the ground I’d literally gained at the head of the sector plate would be lost in the depth of the scene surrounding the branch.

As the original plan illustrates, I can place the end of the sector plate the full depth of the layout away from the front edge. Naturally, from this location I can aim the departure roads right at centre stage. Moving the sector plate to the narrow end of the layout means that either the departure roads are parallel to the front edge or face the back. Parallel would just further divide an already narrow scene in a way that would only serve to highlight how small things are. I’m adamant that I’m not using a curve tighter than thirty-six inches on this or any future layout and some quick sketches made me concerned that the first curve out of the staging yard dictated a centre stage a bit too far to the right of where I wanted it to land. Where the parallel lines divided the scene and made it look smaller, to me, I felt that this might have the same effect along the layout’s length effectively breaking the overall scene down into three, tiny, sections. Even to my eyes, it didn’t look at like the long lazy scene I was after.

The more I played around with different plans and the more I formalized them in Templot the more convinced I was starting to become that the original was the best way. In small layout planning design can be a culmination of individual changes, each one small in nature, such as moving tracks one inch or a few degrees at a time.


Fast forward through a lot of anxiety that could be the basis for a fantastic, angst-filled, teenage romance story and I’ve arrived at this. The sector plate has been moved and while doesn’t aim directly at the back of the layout isn’t parallel to the front either. I’m quite pleased with a lot of other details. I was so impressed with how well this looks that I printed out a full sized copy of the plan, taped it all together, and placed some stock on it.

DSC01421This is the end of the branch. I was concerned that it wouldn’t be deep enough. Frankly, it is too narrow. Where I originally hoped I could develop the scene behind these cars I think I’ll think about ways to imply industry or like elements in that extremely narrow band in the front. This scene is truncated and was always supposed to be. It is “on layout” staging representing the end of an almost abandoned branch. It exists to provide contrast to the slightly less deceased balance of track on the layout and trains here use the track to go but not necessarily arrive somewhere.

In each iteration of the plan this area, at the entry to the sector plate, is the focus of most of my concern. I plan on using a continuous backdrop along the back of the layout. Instead of bringing the backdrop down the middle of the scene here, I wanted a band of thick trees or similar “soft” scenery to distract the viewer’s eyes here. If it works, these trees will draw from those on the backdrop. Moving the sector plate didn’t provide acres of new room but enough that I feel like I could do something and that something would be “just enough”. What do you think?

So here are photos of the whole layout. Staged in the run-around loop are the “four cars and a van” train length I was after. You can see there’s lots of room for a few more cars. Of course, when I stick with four cars I’ve got room to lazily drift into this track. I see trains here running on the eight to ten mile an hour slow orders that are such a defining characteristic of this type of railroading. I can only imagine that as much as I enjoy watching trains at this speed it must be mind-numbing to crew. By the time our train makes it here, it’s not dropping the cars anywhere as much as “there, that’s good enough” before giving yourself a well-deserved chance to stretch your legs after having nursed that Alco up the line for the last four hours.

I already like the way cars look placed on the public siding here. This siding can hold five or six cars but is expected to really only ever receive one or two. In real life this siding is another double-ended loop but like so many from the Island is bisected by a road crossing. My layout starts at that road crossing and I’m only modelling the cars placed on this end. At Island locations like Milton and Morrell, the siding would be divided into two halves: one half being a public siding for loading cars and the balance for storing cars. I’m not modelling the storage half.

Just some randoms from this end of the layout. I’m standing in about the location where I’ll most often be stood to operate the layout. I’m watching a runaround move and pretending I’m trackside. In the centre shot (aerial of the caboose) you can see the effect of the turnout placement. Using the opposite hand for both turnouts would create a much more fluid and traditional crossover but I wanted it to look like sidings off the main and not, to my mind, sidings that were themselves part of the main track.

Where I’ve been investing time in testing the track plan, now that it’s at a place where I’m really starting to like (and I mean “really, really like”) it I want to spend some time mocking up scenic elements now to test the placement of tracks. I have a vision here of rural railroading and this scene needs to work in that respect as well as it does operationally.

The power of cardboard: Layout Thoughts and Cardboard Planning

Last week I read a blog post over on 78 MIles to Yosemite that just impressed the heck out of me. I meant to immediately post a link to it here in case other folks might not have seen it. Here’s the premise:

When planning a layout, I find it immensely helpful to have a go at some idea design in 1:1 ratio, so I can stand next to it, fiddle with heights, with depths, with overhang and clearances and the like.  This is incredibly difficult to fiddle with in wood and final product, but in cardboard, it’s hardly more involved than grabbing a new box and spending a minute or two with a straight edge and box knife to make some changes.

He couldn’t be more correct. Through the course of the post he provides some great examples of how he’s using basic materials from around the house. Brilliant!

I feel like I tend to launch into a planning exercise today in much the same way I’ve done for most of my life: how much room and what can I fit into it? I’ve started evolving that basic premise into something that pays more time to the story I’m trying to tell using model trains as my medium and I’m thinking a lot more about my anticipated experience with the finished product. In Layout Thoughts and Cardboard Planning he goes even further and provides some truly superb examples of how we could experiment with various layout heights and similar dimensions. A couple of weeks ago I had a lot of fun simply tacking corrugated cardboard over my layout’s frame so I could mock up an operating session to test if what I was considering reflected the story I wanted to be immersed in and it’s a process I look forward to leveraging more often.

Anyway, time for me to stop writing and send folks to read something really good:

The track plan

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about an idea for my space and described it in terms of a mock operating session. I should have included something of a sketch to accompany that post and thought I’d make up for that now.

Approximately 1-1/2" = 12"

Approximately 1-1/2″ = 12″

In the layout, I saw it as an excerpt of a larger junction station. Though I didn’t realise it when I first started moving lengths of track and stuff around I’m essentially revisitng an idea I’d written about before (see A Little From A Lot). Though I described the plan in terms of a favourite Vermont shortline the plan itself draws heavily on observations of Prince Edward Island railroading. As the expanded sketch illustrates, I’m selecting track to support particular movements and trying to focus on the inter-relationship between the activity on each type of track.

In the sketch I included a length of track running along the backdrop. I had been thinking it would be useful as a place to feed cars into the scene from. Otherwise I’m relying on easy access to a sector plate buried at one end of the line.

I won’t ramble on too much about this, I meant to include the sketch with the previous post and didn’t. Here it is. Since creating that first mock operating session I’ve been reflecting on a few alternatives for this space and I’m looking forward to exploring those over the coming days and weeks.

New Hampshire and Vermont #405 in 1993

I’ve referred to watching the New Hampshire and Vermont Railroad at St. Johnsbury, Vermont, before. Memories of chasing RSC14’s here on PEI made watching the NHVT’s RS11 in person all that much more meaningful. I’d seen this video posted on Youtube before and thought I’d post a copy here now for those that haven’t seen it already and because the style of railroading here really reflects that which I had in mind for the plan I’ve shared.

I went to St. Johnsbury to chase CP in Vermont and hoping to catch memories of the Lamoille Valley or it’s predecessors. The town never failed to let me down.

Something like this

Building on the thoughts from the last post, I dug out some stock and thought I’d mock up an operating session. In doing so I could test track locations and siding lengths. Beyond running the trains, I can test the various vantage points from which I can watch a train and consider if the various scenes could look appealing and remind me of times and places I’ve been. After all, if I do this right I’ll recall time trackside in these six square feet. Here goes.

We always pretend that every arm of every railroad once had a heyday. Instead, in reality, like so many other rural branchlines this one never saw streamlined passenger trains, never inspired a great railroad song, never did much more than be here and most of the time, just in the way. In common with many similar rural railways, the period since the war has seen a divergence away from the train and even the many farms and towns served in the land it called home. We romanticize about the way communities and businesses depended on the railroad’s service but overlook the way that same railroad quietly forgot that relationship and too many people were left behind. They chose their cars and trucks not because they hated trains but as an act of actually getting product to market and a level of service they couldn’t trust the railroad to provide to them. First it took days to get a car moved from here to there when you could drive the same distance in an afternoon. Then the cars themselves got harder and harder to get. When the railroad finally found you some cars they were of such poor quality part of your crop was wrecked before it even arrived.

I didn’t mean to editorialize so much but behind the wheel of my old Volvo wagon and to the sounds of Oasis on my tape deck I get to think about those questions. Being a model railroader first and someone who came to know railfanning later in life I try to interpret these thoughts in terms of my hobby. In the pages of magazines I’ve seen a lot of people model decrepit modelling but not as often do we discuss what I’m trying to term “emotional modelling”. I wonder how we could attempt to model the sentiment from the period after the way and before the shortline took over with the promise of locally-seeded optimism: how could we model the look of a community that was deservedly critical of the railroad, even suspicious of it? What details would need to appear in our model to contrast to a new railroad in town bent on repairing that relationship? If the great novel was bred in the rich contrast between the hero and the villain could we attempt something on two miniature rails as good?

I really could have done a better job of preparing for this trip and on the seat beside me is a copy of Railfan and Railroad magazine, the particular issue in which described this branch and a map. I studied that article, memorizing every word and every nuance in each black and white photograph. When I left to finally meet my old friend in person I figured like I wouldn’t even need a map but as I discover the land and roads just outside each photo’s frame I discover how grateful I am that I did have that map. Great railfans always talk about some small diner they discovered trackside but I stopped at McDonalds and I’m sipping on a coffee and a pie from there instead. As I sip my coffee it occurs to me that in investing where I did I played in the same change that marks the county every day and the railroad that drew me here in the first place.

Behind the wheel of Garfield (what else do you name a tangerine orange Volvo wagon?) I could move more quickly but I haven’t a clue where I’m going so any advances I can make on road are offset by my lack of familiarity. Luckily for me and likely cursed by the actual train crew, they’re working against ten to fifteen mile an hour track restrictions and various work along the way. This slower pace provides a great many opportunities to get ahead of the train and every so often a change to be in the perfect place when it finally enters the scene. Today’s train is led by a borrowed Sorry Valley RS11 and the line’s newest third-hand acquisition: an ex-GM&O RS1. Pretending I’m like some railfan reincarnation of the mythical tracker my ears are trained to the air for the exhaust bark from their Alco prime movers. So far the air is the sound of cars on the road and the occasional people.

Finally the train arrives. I described an exhaust beat that really wasn’t the train’s introduction today. At this pace it’s a quieter beat almost drowned out by rail and ties stretching under the weight of the train. We’re down to two cars so they must have cut out quite a few on the way here. Lacking proper office facilities they’ve elected to borrow a caboose from parent road, the Sorry Valley, to use as a rolling office on every train. The railroad likens this approach is one more way they’re bringing the railroad to the people. So few lines run cabooses these days and I wonder how long this will continue.

With only two cars in the train and a lone Vermont Railway boxcar placed on the public siding in town there can’t be much work to do today. I know this scene so well from near-obsessively studying photos in train magazines and I can’t describe what it feels like to finally be here, trackside. I didn’t notice the older gentleman walking up beside me. “Yup, that’s the new railroad. The locomotives aren’t their’s but they seem like they’re trying.” He’s smiling and looks just a little proud and I guess he’s been around long enough to remember the big railroad at its prime and the time in between. His remark sounds alot like what you’d say about your kid’s first date.

After placing the cars on the runaround I expected them to just drop the van on the other end and take off out of town. Instead the power is back on the main. Every so often a short-lived grab at the throttle but mostly the sound of heavy engines on light track. The ties are popping under the weight and the rail cries out: “Easy now!”.

What makes this town so unique is that it was once a junction. Between me and the engines in the above photo is the turnout for the spur. The spur itself, as the timetable refers to it, was actually once a complete subdivision. Today it’s barely a few miles long and used only occasionally during harvest season. The power clears the turnout and I’m excited to see the brakeman drop onto the ground the throw the turnout for this very spur. I can’t believe my luck and am already excitedly hoping I’m seeing what I am and some really rare mileage. The power reverses and down the spur line they pause long enough for the brakeman to hop back on. The engineer grabs a notch on the throttle and they head off leaving the two cars on today’s train in town with the van.

I jump back in the car. Engine revved and in gear. I haven’t a clue which road to follow and pray now more than before I can offset lost time with the train’s slow pace. Every minute behind the road is agony while I guess which road goes the right way. I apologize to the car a lot for each rough gear changes and I feel more like the Sprongl brothers piloting their Audi Quattro in a rally at Parry Sound than a kid in a twenty-five year old Volvo station wagon chasing fifty year old Alco’s through the heart of nowhere.

Three cars in town today. This is likely the complete tonnage for the spur this year.

Three cars in town today. This is likely the complete tonnage for the spur this year.

It probably only took minutes but I get in town before the train. I barely have time to question how that happened but just long enough to wonder if I’ve already missed them. Back to the tracker, I scan the sky for a trail of exhaust.

As subtly as they arrived before, the crew appears just after I did. You noticed the condition of the track in town but also the work they’d done upgrading it. Here, you saw and heard how bad things had gotten. This makes for great railfanning but I’m sure lousy railroading. The crew inches their power slowly onto the cars with a care that quietly suggests that with track this bad they’re only going to get one chance at this.

On the way to here I failed to notice any cross roads I could use to catch the train on its return trip. I should be grateful that I sort of remember how to get back.

Back in town the crew moved the Vermont Railway boxcar. The cars from the spur were apparently just a local move from farm to town. In itself, this felt like railroading from a very long time ago. I watched as the crew tied onto the Vermont Railway car on the public siding and placed the three from the spur behind it.

00900 ready to leave

The two CP cars that arrived with the train today were left in the siding. The crew grabbed their van and shoved their two units and the van to the other end of the main, just beside the road crossing. It seemed a little luxurious but saved a few steps bringing them closer to the diner.

Today I shoot digital but then we only had film. Where I’d invested in recording the trip up I wanted to just watch the events unfold on the way back. These are the best photos I grabbed. It was a great chase and I hoped it wouldn’t be too long until I could get back.

Back to reality. I took these photos on the layout. Obviously the top of the layout is just cardboard and I’m relying on loose lengths of flex track to rough in the arrangement of things. Turnouts are just paper templates from Fast Tracks. I’ve placed trains in their locations so likely derailed equipment is as much of this effort as not. There are so many things to work out but I’m pleased with the way things look and the flow of the mock operating session. Siding lengths as estimated here worked very well. As for the story itself it’s my memories of railroading in northern Vermont as well as other’s memories of railroading here on the Island. If I ever find that time machine, among the first stops will be more time behind the wheel of Garfield chasing Alco’s across northern Vermont – hopefully with a little more money in my pocket for a few more photos along the way.

Thanks for following along.

Coffee, cardboard, and Youtube

I thought I’d put together a post today that shares an idea I have for my space. While still little more than a track plan I am starting to think about it now in terms of time and place and find myself really becoming more and more satisfied with it.

Enter stage right and exit stage right.

On the previous layout I enjoyed the feeling of switching cars but missed the sense of how the line I was working related to the outside world; I missed the implication of a connection to the rest of the world that staging can provide. All three of the micro layouts that preceded it used a variation on the removable cassette idea for staging as a means to introduce stock to the layout and carry away cars leaving centre stage. While my cassettes worked very well on the HO layout, their design made it difficult to plug them into the N scale layouts and I was constantly compensating for issues of vertical alignment and electrical continuity. With those regrets still fresh in my mind, I committed that the new layout would avoid the issue altogether and the “fiddling” normally done off-stage would just be done directly on the layout. It’s been rewarding to provide an opportunity to experience each alternative and, having done so, I understand the value of this off-stage connection. With this new venture I want some form of staging (or fiddle yard). Before starting construction, I’ll need to explore the design and construction approaches I could use for this small yard to resolve the shortcomings of previous attempts.

“I could build a layout that wasn’t much more than a plain length of flex track and spend hours just running up and down that line and never get bored”

I’m lucky enough to be part of a regular operating group. As if that wasn’t fortune enough, I’m a yard guy and on the layouts that comprise that group’s I get to spend my evenings in their yards. On one of the lines my regular yard power is one of the new, sound-equipped, Rapido Trains GMD1 diesels. I really enjoy the quality of sound from that model and on more than one occasion have found myself remarking as I did above. The unit is such a joy to run and listen to while operating, I could just spend an evening running it up and down a single yard of track. It’s not just the sound but how running this model has reminded me of how important an aspect of model railfanning is to me. In that yard, at the throttle of that GMD1, I probably spend as much time working the yard as I do just enjoying how good it feels to watch that engine going about its work. I’d like a layout on which I can watch trains doing what trains do and not just moving models.

This layout should support model railfanning during the operating session. In addition to time happily spent sketching ideas on paper, I should invest more time in arranging the scene using mocked up elements. Sheathing the frame with cardboard as I mentioned earlier is a step in this direction. A further investment in this thought is to spend some time and mock up operating sessions on the plan using stock, buildings, and track I have on hand. If I like the way the layout feels when just placing things by hand crudely that might serve as a better indicator of how good it could look when a more formal installation is attempted. “Design. Edit. Design.” I’ll chant to myself quietly when I need to remind myself to check my own work.

Today. Here I am.

I thought I’d share some thoughts on the direction my design work is headed in and some of the thoughts on “how” and “why”.

I mentioned staging above. In my one by six foot shelf I doubt I should sacrifice an entire end to a fiddle yard for off-layout staging. I anticipate a train length of two feet and this off-layout approach would then demand a full third of what’s available. I could try something that hinges on either free end but in a room I share with other people they may soon tire of having to navigate around an overhanging fiddle yard on train night. Luckily I know that I’m a very big fan of a British approach to incorporating this fiddle yard within the scene. A personal favourite illustration of this approach is show in Maurice Hopper’s Stroudley Green. The S Scale Society has a nice web page showing the layout plan and some photos of the layout itself. I like how a smaller, narrower, fiddle yard is placed in the scene with the layout wrapping around and in front. This can fit in my space and if I do this, I still get to take advantage of the full six feet for scenic elements. In this small space I’ll need to explore how to hide this space and the entry to it.

Mike Confalone models a style of railroading that is very close to my heart and my railfanning past. In this Youtube video we see a short section on his layout at Andover. This scene, in HO scale, approximately the same area as I have available in N and shows a variation on the British approach introduced above. I like this a lot and think there are some design ideas in her to carry forward into my own work.

I took some time and put together a mock-up showing one possible arrangement that summarizes the above. Here are some photos.

I like the general arrangement of elements in the space. With the narrow shelf, the area at the entry to the fiddle yard is tight. In this plan the fiddle yard is a sector plate and forms the opposite end of the runaround loop.

I dug out some cars and locomotives and mocked up an operating session. I’ll post photos from that next.