The CSX Pittsburgh Subdivision in HO Scale
Locale: CSX Pittsburgh Subdivision between Sinns and Braddock
Era: current (relatively speaking, which means probably 3-5 years back)
Size: 6.5m x 7.5m (roughly 19 x 21 feet), L-shaped
Style: walkaround along the wall, with a free-standing center peninsula
Benchwork: shelf-type self-supporting 38mm Resopal (kitchen counter top material),
styrofoam scenery base
Track: Custom Trax code 83 (mainline) and code 70 (side tracks)
handlaid track; #8 (mainline) and #6 (side tracks) turnouts with servo drive
Operation: point to point with one combined staging yard for both ends
Control system: Digitrax Loconet-based DCC; turnouts
controlled via DCC stationary decoders; walkaround throttles with Loconet
outlets along aisle.
The layout has been a long time in coming. Like most model railroaders I have far too many, far
too diverse interests - in fact, just deciding what I would like to do (or, rather, what I could live
without doing) took seemingly forever.
The Stone Age
As a kid I had a couple typical 4x8-style layouts, none
of which was truly satisfying. On the second and last of them, I made modifications I had read
about in Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman, specifically to hide the round-and-round
loop style, trying to fit several industries, and hiding the enormous yard that filled the inside of
the triple-track loop effectively turning it into a staging yard. What made the greatest difference and served as a real wakeup
call was the 1984 article series by Malcom Furlow on his HOn3 San Juan Central, specifically the installment
about car-card operation. I tried that out and was immediately hooked. All other shortcomings brushed aside,
all of a sudden I had a layout that could be operated in a meaningful way! Even though only 1/3 of the total layout
size was devoted to industries and switching, I was never bored again. From those days on, operation was
what the hobby was all about for me.
A while later I dismantled the loop monster and in its place started another project that turned out to be
a personal milestone, my first layout actually constructed to follow a prototype. It was patterned after the
Chattahoochee Industrial RR at Cedar Springs, GA and featured their engine house. It was a modest affair,
more like a module, about 2m long and 40cm deep, which meant I was able to actually finish it to the point of
satisfaction within a fairly short time. I even modified and kitbashed several engines and cars to follow specific
prototypes, thus understanding how satisfying equipment modeling can be.
These two layouts and of course study of magazines taught me several valuable
things to add to my list of learning points:
- Less is more. Less track means more realism. Trying to cram more stuff into less space is a certain recipe for
- Analyse what you want and plan carefully. Use the "Givens & Druthers" principle explained e.g.
by the Layout Design SIG
to formalize the process and as a help to stay focussed.
- The advantages of freelancing vs. prototype modeling. I realized I feel much more comfortable trying to
recreate a real scene in model form than I do just making things up. It also keeps me from the pitfall of
trying to excuse everything with the "it's freelanced after all" argument. This is also a form of "less is more".
- Styrofoam scenery is great! The whole layout was built on a slab of styrofoam and it was great! Mind you, this
was 1986 and almost nobody thought of styrofoam back then.
- Track as a model. At the time I was still using plastic flextrack, but it was code 83 track and #8 turnouts
that made a terrific difference between the CIRR module and my previous layout. Track was a model, too, and if
going to wide radii and long turnouts meant less track would fit, so be it. Again, in 1986 people were still
wondering if code 100 was a viable alternative...
- Mass is a model feature, too. I had dabbled a bit in N scale, even constructed a small switching layout
in the space of what later became the CIRR module, but never got the hang of it. After reflecting for weeks
on why this was so and coming up empty handed, at some point I pulled out a couple HO cars and looked at them. What struck
me as I held them in my hands and pushed them around on a piece of track on the table was their apparent weight!
Even just pushing them around you could feel some inertia. When traveling through a turnout, the trucks equalized
across the frog like the real thing where N scale models just bounced around. From there on it was clear to me
that I didn't want to go smaller than HO. O scale was for rich freaks back then - had the Bachmann On30 stuff been
out in those days, I would be in O scale now...
- Operating nights are payday for model railroaders. Granted this doesn't go for all of them, but for me
the entire effort of building a layout is being able to operate it like the real thing. I don't like running
a train forever in a loop, I want to simulate a real railroad as much as possible, and even more so than equipment and
scenery, what this comes down to is operations.
- Interpreting plans can be difficult. When I started out with the planning process, I was leary of using
tools that provided advanced graphical 3D views and such. I view this differently now, and I recommend you use a CAD package
that does allow you to view the entire layout as a virtual "world". This way you will be able to easily visualize
things that aren't readily apparent on a 2D plan; like aisle widths as they relate to real persons, track lengths
and how trains will fit, and the general appearance of the layout in a real room. Some people advocate against such
a detailed plan, preferring to work with real bits of track on the benchwork, but I feel good solid planning is
absolutely necessary to prevent to paint yourself into a corner later on.
The Era of Procrastination
Armed with this knowledge and a growing understanding of different aspects of US railroading, I entered a period of
armchair modeling starting in 1990. I drew plans and developed grand schemes for the time I would have the space and means to build
a layout. Several relocations halfway across the country didn't help the matter. A false start at making an attic habitable
in our last apartment building led to nothing. Eventually in 2004, fully 14 years later, we bought our
current house and obviously that included a good-sized basement. In the interim period I had done a lot of railfanning
and research creating a decent foundation for understanding what a railroad is and what it does. Now
everything that was left was to decide on a concept and a plan.
And that was a problem. My interests were too varied to be able to even decide on a scale, let alone a concept.
I could just as readily have built a coal RR in the 1920s, a narrow gauge logger in On30, a rail-marine operation,
a modern copy of Cumberland, an interurban, a rural shortline, or an industrial switching road serving a steel mill.
Every new magazine article, every new product introduction by some company, and especially every new article or
book on prototype railroading increased the uncertainty. In short, I was staring at a blank sheet of paper and
had no idea where to lower the pencil for the first stroke.
Enter the Drug Counsel
During this time of back-and-forth I met my friend Carsten on the Internet through a mutual
interest for railfanning the US and especially West Virginia
and Pennsylvania. Having lived there and knowing the rail scene he provided a definitive nudge
towards modeling modern-day Pittsburgh. The more I looked at the concept
and the more I learned, the better I liked it. It doesn't have everything, but it has what I believe characterizes a
good prototype for a model: varied traffic, local switching action, CTC signals, a physical plant that requires the
dispatcher to run a veritable chess game to keep trains moving, and all that in an inspiring heavy-industry setting. In
addition it is close enough to my beloved Cumberland so I "feel at home".
The givens & druthers for the design were as follows:
- support train lengths around 4.5m (13 feet)
- offer a recognizable representation of the Pittsburgh Sub
- fully functioning software-based CTC system able to be run via the Internet by a remote dispatcher (my friend Carsten)
- minimum radius 26 inches, turnouts #8 on the main, #6 all others
- reasonable balance between switching operations and realistic, interesting mainline movements (versus just running in a loop)
- large and sophisticated enough to be interesting, yet manageable enough to be built and run by myself
- conversely, enough space for 2-3 operators but aisle space needn't accomodate a dozen operators
There aren't many US-prototype model railroaders in my general area so the last two points are rather important.
What followed was an 18 month-long planning phase which culminated in the plan seen above. As it turns out many
things work while a few don't work. One example is the second staging yard above the clothes drier and washing
machine. I wasn't able to gain enough height to clear everything so I had to replan that and feed the line into the
east staging yard underneath Demmler. I should have an updated plan on the web soonish.
What I ended up with is a walk-around design as shown in the plan. At this stage it's still too early to say if the
design is a success or not, but I feel comnfortable with everything so far, which is definitely a good sign.
Frustration at this stage of construction would mean there's very little chance of pulling it through, and if
that were the case I'd abandon construction right now and go back to the drawing board. But that's not the
case. Do I have second thoughts? Yes, but mostly because I'm entering a lot of new territory all the time. I
sometimes think "what-ifs", like "what if I had decided to build an On30 logger in the same space". But
so far I've always come back to the plan seeing it probably is the best option for the space I have available
and my interests at this time. We'll see how well it ages...
More Learning Points
A few new learning points have emerged during the work on my current layout:
- A layout can be a huge project. Especially if you go it alone. Don't overdo it, don't let the fact that
you can afford a big basement and all the building materials fog up your view of the fact that with every square
foot, with every additional foot of mainline, not only do the costs increase, but so does the work. Your own
work, time, and motivation will eventually determine how far you can go. If you overdo it, if you overexpand
your basement empire, it may all come crashing down on you as you lose interest and turn to other activities.
- Make use of shortcuts! Building and maintaining a layout means there's more work than you will reasonably
get done unless it is your only hobby and you have a lot of time and energy. If you do, more power to you! If you are
like the rest of us, make use of time and effort savers if you can. Use building mockups to create built-up
areas in a hurry. Buy "almost-correct" cars if the real ones aren't (yet) available or you plan on kitbashing them.
Put some basic scenery in to kill the Plywood Pacific look until you get the real thing built.
- Trade money for time if you can. Goes together with the above point. If you have the possibility,
you might be better off buying things and making use of them than taking forever to make things. Case in point:
my making use of Custom Trax trackwork because I want handlaid track, but it would take me forever to do it all
myself. Of course, the opposite is also true: if you lack the financial ressources but have a lot of time that
you can spend on your layout, there are hundreds of things that you can build yourself for next to nothing. What I'm
saying is: make an informed decision about what your time allotments and financial ressources are before
embarking on the project, then use the one to substitute for the other to achieve your goal.
- Big problems usually aren't big - they are just a series of small problems. If you feel overwhelmed
by a looming problem, try to segregate it into small problems and tackle them one after the other.
- Don't force things. If stuff doesn't work, there's probably a reason. For example tracklaying: if
the track sections you cut don't fit, fiddle around with them until they literally fall into place. Don't be too
lazy to break out the Dremel again and again, shaving a tenth off. Conversely, if
you cut things too short, don't try to cover up. Save the bit for somewhere else and fabricate a new one that fits.
Be especially careful in hard to reach places - Murphy is watching!
- Start with the basics. While you're taking your time planning the layout, go ahead and get the layout
room as finished as possible. Run power lines as required. If you have to relocate pipes, walls, support columns,
etc., do it now. Finish walls, floor, and ceiling to make it a nice and
comfortable environment. If you already have a good idea of the benchwork put the ceiling lights and valance in
and install the backdrop as well. In short, do all the "heavy lifting" while you still have all the room available
to move around in and while dirty work is not a problem and easy to clean up afterwards. If you don't want to do
this work yourself and you want to bring a contractor in, it's definitely a good idea to do it before you start
filling the room with a model railroad...
So, that's it for my modeling "career" so far. If you want to follow my progress, feel free to check out the
model RR blog linked below where I'm posting updates as things happen.
Find more info on DCC parameters and other digital details on the DCC page.
Model Railroad Blog
You can follow the layout construction progress and anything else that is happening on
my workbench in this weblog.
I am located in eastern Belgium, close to Aachen. Feel free to drop me a line at