Sunday, January 10, 2016

Early 2016 Update: Ready To Move Out of Staging

With the dawn of a new year upon us, I figured it is time to update this blog with some content about the layout progress I've made over the past few years.  My previous posts have focused on the prototype I am modeling, and how that translates to the layout plan.  Here is a simple status update for the progress I have made to the lower level portion of the layout.  To reference the lower level plan, click here to view an earlier post.

The Metaline Falls/CDA lower level staging is complete.  With the track level 25 inches above the floor (seriously), the 4-track lower level staging yard is complete.  This yard represents staging for Metaline Falls and Coeur D'Alene, both of which are accessed by leaving the UP mainline - in yard limits - at Dishman.  As a refresher, the Metaline Falls train was a tri-weekly train operating up one day and back the next.  This train will utilize two tracks in the staging yard - one for the inbound train, and one for the outbound train. The power and caboose will be fiddled between tracks to represent the out one day and back the next day nature of the train.  In a similar manner, the other two tracks will be utilized by the Coeur D'Alene local, with one track for the inbound train, and one track for the outbound train.  This train will also need to be fiddled between operating sessions, since I intend to operate a morning shift on one session and an afternoon shift the next.  While Tony Koester of Model Railroad Planning magazine and has espoused you should always have twice as much staging as you think you need.  I disagree in this instance, and this is the benefit of strictly adhering to a prototype; Milwaukee did not operate any other trains on this branchline, so I do not need more staging.  And if for some unforeseen reason I would, the CDA local runs will run with fewer than 10 cars and can be doubled up on the same track since it will be fiddled between sessions.  In sum, each operating session will see 2 train moves in and out of this lower level "branchline" staging yard.

Metaline Falls/CDA lower level staging specifics.  The staging yard plywood base was built on a plywood base, built with a transition incline at the end so the track can transition to the 2+% grade of the helix.  The track lengths for each of the staging tracks are about 15 feet long, which is sufficient for the "branchline" trains expected (the Metaline Falls train might be 20 cars, but at least half of the train will be 70 ton cement hoppers).  The alignment of the tracks is away from the aisle side (the aisle is seen at left in the image below) since originally I had intended staging access to be from the Dishman side of the peninsula.  I had to change that because Dishman benchwork had to be significantly lower to accomodate the underpass for Sprague Street as well as the fact the UP ROW is elevated a bit from the neighboring streets.  I decided not to rip out all of the track and move it to the left since this really only will impact me and my fiddling of equipment between sessions.

The three switches on the lead are powered up with tortoise switch motors, and are controlled from a panel that my son and I made together.  Yes, that is a 1980's Tech 2 for power.  Looking forward to upgrading to DCC!

The frogs are isolated and powered up with polarity reversing provided through the tortoises,  The turnout points are powered as well.  Additionally, every stick of rail in the staging yard has leads that attach to the bus, with all wiring complete and thoroughly tested.  All of these steps are necessary for reliable and annoyance-free operations on any layout, especially one where there are SW1200s operating like this.  Thanks to John Bauer and Matt Sugerman for pushing me to power the frogs.  Honestly, I was scared to since I had never done it, but it was simple for an electronics neophyte (that's me).

The helix is rising.  I should talk about this first, since I built the helix before the staging yard.  The 30" radius curve helix has roughly 1.75 turns complete at this point, including cork roadbed and track that has been glued down.  This has been good to test run equipment on, especially the long trailer flats that might have to traverse it and the resulting opportunity for vertical coupler bypasses.  So far there are no uncoupling issues.  The stackable method of construction using 5/8 inch plywood for 1/4 turns, with 3 and 3/8 inch tall 1X spacers, is working really well and I can envision building more helix down the road without issue.  It's like stacking legos at this point.  Here's a shot with my old BN coal train, my test train of long, short, and high cars, and some random power - including my son's Walthers F40PH.  Stand-in power you could say....

The lower level benchwork is in.  In 2014, I built about 50 feet of lower level benchwork from the helix to the hot water heater (again, reference this link for the plan), but not the Lake Street Spur since I am a bit space-challenged at this point and want to leave as much room as possible for storage and construction.  Most of the completed benchwork is built tabletop style with 3/4 inch plywood installed on top since the Spokane industries and the yard have little elevation change other than track profile and mild water runoff.  I will use roadbed to raise the track appropriate amounts from the tabletop. The Dishman scene is mostly built with risers however because that UP prototype alignment is on an embankment for most of that stretch of railroad.  The exception is the Dishman wye scene, which I built from a large Y-shaped piece of plywood so that it could bend properly with the transition in and out of the helix.

The Dishman wye scene is temporarily laid out.  I have taken some Atlas flextrack and tacked the track in place to see how the Dishman wye scene lays out.  You can see it here. The 2x4 represents the footprint of the UP Dishman depot.

I have decided on roadbed.  Thanks to my friend Matt Sugerman who recommended going with thin 1/4 inch luan plywood for roadbed, based on some of his experiences at other layouts.  It is sandable and you can handlay track into it with ease.  I think I would have used some of the commercial homosote roadbed from the gentleman in Washington state (name escapes me but not California Roadbed), but I had already bought the luan before I knew about him as a reliable source.  I have cut an entire sheet of luan at this point, and I have kerfed it with a simple jig I constructed, so I am ready to lay roadbed.  I will report back on this once I start Dishman.  Again, the helix has cork roadbed.

What's next for 2016?  Here are the things I am working toward in 2016.  The big picture plan is to lay all of the track on the lower level as soon as possible so that I have industries to switch and a yard to operate as soon as possible.  That should get the juices flowing to hold operating sessions.  I am not sure I can finish that this year, but here's how to get there:
  • The lights need to be wired.  In 2015 I installed quite a few T8 light fixtures but they need to be wired by a pro.  These lights are in the ceiling and will eventually light the upper level, but since I have not constructed upper level benchwork yet they will light the lower level.  Provisions have been made for lighting leads though so the lower level lights can be easily wired in the future, attached to the underside of the upper level.  
  • Finish Dishman subroadbed and begin laying track.  The Dishman track risers are installed above the open grid benchwork but the subroadbed has not been constructed yet.  One minor hangup is that I need to engineer the Sprague Street rail overpass, and even though the 2 track UP bridge is a ballast deck bridge, I do not want the 3/4 inch plywood to carry over it since it will be visible from a side profile.  I think I have a plan with thinner plywood.  I also want to begin laying track, and this will include some handlaid turnouts since there is a need for some wonky curved turnouts.  I also will try to figure out how to rebuild commercial turnout throwbars so they look better.
  • Install DCC.  I intend to purchase and install a DCC system - NCE.  
  • Finish switch engines.  The big push will be the three ProtoWalthers MILW SW1200s needed for the yard, industry switching, and CDA local.  Numbers 627, 630, and 645.  I have outside help getting them ready with light, sound, and detailing.  I will weather them.  Here's a Dan Holbrook shot of all three of them 6 months after my modeling period.  

  • Continue with freight cars.  I need to focus on freight cars that are needed for Spokane proper, and that is just about everything.  At this point I don't have a firm plan, but have plenty of models staring me in the face, with a few started that I should finish.  Here's one...

Thank you for reading, and I look forward to seeing what state the layout will be in a year...

Layout Freight Car Updates

In 2015, I managed to finish nine cars for the layout. Most of them are pictured here with an overview of what was done.

ATSF 520529 modeled from Moloco factory-painted ATSF Topeka built BX-97 boxcar. Removed roof from car and replaced with new replacement roof from Moloco, with roofwalk support parts from Tangent Scale Models (from PRR X58 parts) and wire corner grabiron. Lowered ladders. Tangent Scale Models code 88 wheels. Decals from ICG Decals, Microscale, and CBQ Historical Society. Weathered from a prototype photo to represent the car as it appeared in 1973.

NYC 78988 modeled from Moloco factory-painted GATC RBL. This is a stock model weathered with oils to match a prototype photo, which retained its original configuration of ladders and roofwalk in 1973. Added code 88 wheelsets. ACI label decals from ICG Decals.

PRR 112210 Sam Rea Shops built X58 with 7-70 reweigh. This is modeled from the Tangent Scale Models factory-painted PRR X58 boxcar. I renumbered the car, changed the build date, and added return route stencils with ICG Decals. I added chalk marks from ICG Decals and Speedwitch Media, ACI labels from Microscale. The car was fitted with Tangent Scale Models code 88 wheels, and was weathered with artists oils, except the door wear was added to the side posts with acrylic paints, a technique kindly recommended by Jeff Meyer.

UP 126291 is a Kadee PS1 in original paint, with chalk marks and restencils applied, weathered with oils and Tahoe Model Works trucks, and Tangent Scale Models code 88 wheelsets.

GATX 52444 Tangent Scale Models 6000 Gallon 3-compartment tank car, modeled to represent a 1968 repaint in 1973. Tangent factory paint, Tangent code 88 wheels, weathered with oils.

MILW 18685 is an Exactrail "early ribside" factory painted in original MILW paint, but restenciled and detailed for 1973. Model includes trucks from Tahoe Model Works, code 88 wheels from Tangent Scale Models, "plate" ACI labels from Tangent Scale Models, and rubber air hoses from Moloco.

MILW 51580 and 51588 were part of a very large and relevant series of MILW boxcars built by ACF in 1957, although this scheme with the DF2 loaders is rare. This car started life as an Atlas RTR Master series car, formerly Branchline Trains tooling. I removed the running board and filled the holes in the roof, then repainted it. I removed the factory skirt from the side because it was not deep enough, and added a new styrene skirt. Then painted it to match the Atlas factory paint. Then I removed the incorrect Atlas doors and added correct Kadee 9' doors, painted them, and added the mostly-correct DF lettering. I added underbody detail, lowered the ladders on the A end, added B end roof grabirons, and added A-Line stirrup steps. I added Moloco rubber air hoses and scale head short shank Kadee couplers. Finally, reweighs, ACI labels, end reporting marks and numbers, and chalk marks were added. Trucks are Exactrail Barbers which are correct for these cars, with 33" semi-scale wheels from Tangent Scale Models.

My next post will include an update on where I stand with the layout and my goals for 2016.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Layout Plan - An Overview

The layout plan for my Spokane-Plummer Milwaukee Road layout has been carefully thought out to include all of the key operating elements that the prototype has in those two towns.  Only one or two industries are missing due to space limitations; otherwise the layout is very true to the prototype geography, and in turn, my operations can effectively mimic the prototype.  

The plan effectively includes two (2) "and a half" levels of railroad with scenery.  The staging that feeds those levels are on different levels of their own - two "additional" levels, to be specific; I am space-challenged so the staging is effectively above and below the visible portion of the layout.

The layout design is built around two "visible" levels (plus a helix bump-out).  From top to bottom:

  • Worley ID on the herniated helix "bump out" halfway down the helix.
  • Spokane WA (Milwaukee only) on the lower level.

There are two staging yards that represent the Milwaukee Road transcontinental mainline located on both ends of the Plummer scene on the upper level.  There is one more staging yard underneath the lower level for the two branchlines that connects to the layout at Dishman.  A "shared" helix footprint provides the linkages to and from staging yards, as well as the linkage between the two levels.

The visible lower level has 4 key design elements, all at 34 inches above the floor.  They center around the Milwaukee Yard in Spokane.  Here is an overview of the prototype:

Here is how all of the above prototype elements lay out (on the lower level) in my roughly 27 X 15 space:
Click to enlarge

Here are descriptions of the 4 key design elements and how they lay out geographically in my basement: 

  • Spokane West Industries - This is the industrial park on the west side of the UP and MILW yards in Spokane, and home to some fairly significant local industry switching on the layout.  On the layout, these industries are split between two locations: one is on the East side of my basement, and the other portion is on the North wall.  Between the two locations will be a drop bridge or swing gate or lift out to link the two sections together.  Additionally, the East wall part of the layout includes the BN interchange tracks hidden behind a backdrop which forms the "end of track" for Milwaukee operations.  It requires a reverse move to access it, just like the prototype.  Finally, note that this part of the layout is along the aisle with access to the washer and dryer.  Also, these industries share the same real estate with Dishman, which is located on the opposite side of the backdrop.  Here is how it looks in the plan:
    Click to enlarge
Here are the West Industries located on the other side of the lift out, on the North wall of the basement:

Click to enlarge
  • Spokane MILW Yard - This is the "large" 10 track yard that was covered in the blog you can view by clicking here.  This yard is the class yard that supports all of the locals and industry jobs in Spokane, and links blocks of cars to and from the Milwaukee Road mainline at Plummer (which is on the upper level).  This yard is on the West wall. 
    Click to enlarge
  • Spokane "Lake Street Spur" - This is an industrial spur that is attached to the yard in real life and in my plan; it serves several key industries to the North of the yard.  The spur is notable and necessary because two of the industries are my primary local grain hopper shippers/receivers.  This spur is modeled on a very narrow peninsula that protrudes into the center of the room, which mimics the prototype being segregated geographically from the yard area.
    Click to enlarge
  • Dishman WA industrial area - This is located on the same real estate as the East wall Spokane industries, but on the other side of a backdrop / scene divider.  In real life, the track here is UP's and MILW has trackage rights over it.  Additionally, BN has trackage rights over it as well to pass through, and there was one active BN shipper called "Appleway Fuel" on the former GN/SIE interurban line.  I will include that industry for operating interest of BN interference, and because it is a fuel oil dealer.  You can never have too many tank cars!  Switching at Dishman for the remaining industries is reciprocal UP/MILW and in my operating scheme MILW will switch for UP.  There are several industries on this wall, as well as the wye where the UP/MILW line enters the helix to spiral upward toward Worley and Plummer.  This is the line that the Plummer turn operates on, which is the key train that links the two primary levels together - it links the Spokane-based operations on the lower level to the mainline operations at Plummer.  The other leg of the wye at Dishman heads down the same helix to lower level staging.  This route is for two Milwaukee locals: the Metaline Falls job and the Coeur D' Alene turn.  You can learn more about these trains by clicking here.  Here is the layout design for Dishman: 
    Click to enlarge

Layout Height: The lower level will be at 34" track height.  This allows the lower level operator to relax on a "roll" office chair.  I have operated at a few layouts where you can sit on various roll chairs and I believe it is a good way to operate, especially on a level that includes a significant amount of yard or industry switching.  This also allows a roughly 22 inch gap from lower level rail height to the bottom of the upper level support structure, which will work well for my lower level grain and cement elevators.

The next "level" is really not a level but a herniated "bump out" in the helix located midway between the lower and upper levels - probably at 42" height.  This herniated level includes one layout design element:
  • Worley, ID.  Worley has a double-ended industry support track that has a series of country Palouse grain elevators on it.  These country elevators found all over the region of Washington state just beg to be modeled, and it is fortuitous that this scene "fits" nicely in a herniated "bump out".  The scene is not overly large so it fits nicely here, and it is a great design feature since it is located on the railroad at a point that is midway up the helix between Dishman and Plummer.  It is especially relevant since it is effectively the only location between Spokane and Plummer that the Plummer Turn worked on its trip.  The local job spotted and pulled grain hoppers at these elevators, which is a car type you can never have too many of, in my opinion.  Here is the layout design for Worley as a herniated part of the helix:
    Click to enlarge
The upper level is focused on Plummer ID.  Plummer ID is where the UP/MILW line from Spokane has a physical connection to the Milwaukee transcontinental mainline.  It is where the Spokane "branch" traffic connected to the Milwaukee mainline - where the cars from Spokane area could go either east or west on mainline trains. On the layout, Plummer includes two key LDEs: the signature "wye" scene where the lines interchange, with the wye wrapping around the helix.  The other LDE is the small yard and industry area of Plummer, featuring industries of both UP and MILW, located on the long wall above the Spokane Yard on the lower level.  Here is the upper level plan:
Click to enlarge

To learn more about my plan for Plummer on the upper level, please revisit the upper level plan here (click).

So, there you have it.  The layout plan in one post.  During the past six months, I have constructed all of the lower level benchwork except for the Spokane West Industries on the East wall. That is because the staging yard underneath it (representing Metaline Falls and Coeur D'Alene) is not completely wired yet, so I am not ready to cover it.  I am now working to patch the broken floor and then paint it.  I should have done it sooner, but I wanted to build something!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Upper Level: The Plan for Plummer

In the most recent blog, I outlined the plan to build Spokane's MILW yard in my basement, along a 26 foot wall.  The yard will be a significant part of the lower level and a key operational focus area for the layout.  The lower level will also include several industry spurs around the yard, as well as the junction point of Dishman where both routes will enter the helix to go to different places.  The helix and the lower level concept will be covered in more detail in a future installment. 

That leaves this question open: what will be on the upper level?

A Key Location on the MILW Transcon
The upper level will be focused on one key scene: Plummer ID.  Located on the famed MILW Pacific Extension, Plummer was one of a few operational points on the long mainline to the West coast.  Plummer is the junction point between the mainline and a "branch" to Spokane.  Operationally, it was the place where road trains setout and picked up cars bound for Spokane industries, the branches radiating from Spokane, and interchange cars.  Plummer was also site for a small group of sorting tracks, and also home to a few industries on both MILW and UP.  Recall that UP ran a daily local from Spokane to Kellogg ID, passing through Plummer.  You can learn more about how Plummer fits into the other towns by clicking here.  Most interestingly, Plummer is located on a wye between the branch to Spokane and the transcontinental mainline, while at the same time is the location where the UP branchline to Wallace splits away.  This makes Plummer a confluence of four different physical lines (in 1973), plus it is home to a yard, passing siding, and several industries.  Plummer was also an active train order station for the MILW, so it was home to an agent-operator 24-7.

What I find most fascinating about Plummer is how MILW handled car movements to Spokane.  The cars that the road trains setout had to somehow get to Spokane.  The mechanism to move these cars to Spokane was a daily local train, number 63/64, nicknamed the "Plummer Turn."  Although this train was in the timetable, on most days it appears that this train ran extra from Spokane to Plummer and return, typically at night.   A few more details, and an image of the turn on the road between Plummer and Spokane can be seen by clicking here.  The Plummer Turn arrived at Plummer with cars destined to the mainline.  These cars were blocked before the train departure from Spokane, and the local had to setout the blocks at predetermined places in Plummer, which in classic MILW fashion meant "anyplace where they fit."  Then, the local picked up all of the mainline train setouts so the cars could be brought to Spokane in a mine-run style where they were later switched. 

At the same time, the MILW turn local also had a few industries to work in town.  Moves had to be planned out due to limited real estate.  Due to the somewhat complex track arrangement at the location of the wye, turning the train around and performing the air test, all the while potentially needing to keep the mainline track clear, meant that the layout potential "play value" for the local at Plummer is fairly high.

As if that is not enough, the large UP local train from Spokane to Kellogg ID ran through Plummer before re-entering UP Wallace Branch rails there (simulated by staging parallel to the MILW East staging in my plan).  The UP local train also served an active lumber mill customer and a fuel distributor in Plummer proper along its former line toward Tekoa.  This line was abandoned in 1957 and the rail was torn up to the West of the aforementioned lumber mill.  So, for operational interest, the UP train also occupied MILW's rail real estate in the vicinity of the Plummer wye when it was in town.  Interestingly, the MILW had a telephone pole shipper located right on the UP line - not on a spur - which meant that if the MILW had a car spotted there, UP needed to move the car to access the lumber mill and/or the fuel distributor.

To familiarize yourself with the region, here are the relevant lines for the layout:

Click to enlarge
Here is an aerial view of the Plummer wye area from 1967, available from Ted Schnepf of Rails Unlimited - click here for a link to his store full of MILW images, and books and models from various roads.  I have added notes to this image to identify ownership.
Click to enlarge
Here is an aerial view of the Plummer yard area from 1967, available from Ted Schnepf of Rails Unlimited - click here for a link to his store full of MILW images, and books and models from various roads.  I have added notes to this image to identify ownership.  Note the UP trackage at right. 
Click to enlarge

A Peek at Plummer Operations
The wye at Plummer is one of the most iconic locations on the entire Pacific extension.  While it was in "the gap" between the two electrified districts of the west, it was a place where most trains stopped to work, which meant that many railfans stopped there as well to shoot the trains.  One of the coolest photographic stories told at Plummer is available in Fred Hyde's "The Milwaukee Road," published by Hyrail Productions (Dale Sanders of CTCBoard fame) in 1990.  On pages 140-141, photographer Ed Austin recorded a 3 train meet at Plummer in 1973.  The sequence went like this:
1.  Transcontinental train #266 arrives in Plummer
2.  Train #266 sets out and picks up cars to/from Spokane in the siding
3.  At some point during this operation, the Plummer turn arrives from Spokane and waits on the wye
4.  Train #266 departs Plummer (and the Plummer turn provides a roll-by)
Click to enlarge

 5.  As train #266's caboose departs, the UP Kellogg-Spokane local returning to Spokane arrives on the UP Wallace branch, and holds clear of the crossover (the MILW train is occupying the route to Spokane so it could not physically proceed)
Click to enlarge

6.  The Plummer Turn pulls onto the MILW mainline (slowly following train 266's caboose)
7.  The Plummer Turn backs into the siding to setout cars from Spokane, and pickup cars to Spokane
8.  The UP Kellogg-Spokane Local leaves its train on the wye and with the road power goes around the other leg of the wye to retrieve local cars at one of the industries.  At this point all three legs of the wye are being utilized!
Click to enlarge

9.  The UP Kellogg-Spokane Local finishes its work in Plummer, does an air test, and leaves
10.  The MILW job finishes its block swapping and any switching, and leaves town.  Most UP-MILW interchange occurred in Spokane.

Thanks to this sort of interesting operations that can consume 2-3 operators on a proposed layout, Plummer seems to me to be a natural place to model even as a standalone layout design element.  It has many sweeping curves which make it fit well into a basement of any size, including mine.  Because of its popularity with MILW fans, it might offer more of a modeling challenge if it does not lay out in a physically accurate way, but after months of design this plan does it justice.

Plummer's operation is very believable; MILW operated it almost like a freelance or proto-freelance model railroad would operate it.  After all, most railroads, even in the 1970s and prior, would have engineered a train(s) to run directly to and from Spokane yard from another yard at a nearby crew change point, such as Avery and/or Othello.  Instead, MILW road crews left cars in the small yard at Plummer, as well as right in the passing siding.  This of course has its pluses and minuses for the layout plan.  On the minus side, transcontinental trains do not meet here.  This could be interesting operationally, but two trains meeting on a train order railroad that hosts approximately eight total through trains per day is not nearly as interesting to me as road trains working, a local switching cars and making car connections to another yard, and maximizing the play value of the cars.  After all, cars and their movement between trains holds a strong interest for me thanks to my backgound at a Class 1 trying to remove such "inefficiencies."  

The fact that MILW used the siding for car storage has been deemed operationally interesting to me, but these operations are compounded by another physical reality: the MILW mainline and siding are on a 1.0% continuous grade through Plummer!  This must have meant that alot of handbrakes were set on cars and switching was a bit tricky, especially with slow loading GE U25/28Bs that were common on road trains in the gap in 1973, as well as on the Plummer Turn.  I need to confirm my hunch with Randy and anyone else who operated it.  Guys?

Translating the Prototype to My Basement
After several months of iterations, the design for Plummer now lays out pretty nicely on the upper level of my basement space.  To get to Plummer from the lower level, trains will arrive via the helix which originates at Dishman.  As you come out of the helix, you enter the visible part of the railroad: the Plummer wye area, with the depot in the middle.  From there, the route from Dishman sweeps around the large curve at Plummer, just like the prototype.  It will wrap around the outside of the helix, which makes great use of the helix space (and coincidentally a similar subject was discussed in the 2013 issue of Model Railroad Planning after Matt Sugerman and I hashed out this concept).  The crossover is in place to the MILW mainline headed East.  The other track is the UP branch to Kellogg, just like in the prototype.  These two tracks go to staging right away at roughly 56 inches.

Going around the other leg of the wye, the MILW Plummer siding track starts, and there is a connection from the MILW wye tracks to the UP industry lead as mentioned above.  The entire wye lays out just like the prototype, as you can see.

Click to enlarge

From there, the siding and mainline wrap to the North wall in a directionally-correct curve.  Then, situated above the Spokane yard (on the lower level) will be the yard and industry tracks of Plummer.  My plan is to construct a hollow wall behind the Plummer upper level yard and industry tracks since that scene does not need to be more than 22 or so inches deep, and frankly with the layout height it will not be reachable if it is that deep.  But in order to make standing at the fascia practical, I have to bring it out from the wall since the Spokane yard below is at 30 inches wide.  This footprint means that the upper level benchwork needs to be that wide as well.

After all of the Plummer industry tracks, heading railroad west, the MILW mainline will disappear naturally behind the highway 95 overpass.  The Sorrento tunnel is on the other side of that overpass in real life and would make a great ending point for the scenery of the upper level and the transition to staging, but in order to make the model curve broader and the Plummer yard longer, I am foregoing that detail.  This was a compromise I felt worth making.

The entire upper level of Plummer will be built on a constant 1% grade as it wraps around the room in a counter-clockwise fashion.  This allows the layout to emulate the ruling grade of the prototype.  It also allows me to stack the mainline staging which is important because I want the train lengths to be up to 24 feet or so.  With open autoracks, Vert-a-pacs, and trailer flats as key players in my through road train consists (as well as play value when they transfer to the Plummer Turn for their ride to Spokane), operating behind 3-4 unit sets of power as large as SD40-2s, I want my mainline train sizes to better resemble the ~4500 foot MILW mainline trains from that era.  If I tried to make the upper level a continuous loop, the mainline train size would need to drop to ~16 feet in order to fit into a double-ended staging yard, or I would have to reduce the amount of visible layout because the mainline loop size would be constrained by the basement dimensions.  To me, the win-win combination of train length and following the prototype grade was an easy decision versus the convenience of a continuous-run upper level.

I struggled with what part of this layout to build first, but I have been cautioned by many accomplished layout pros to construct the helix first so I can build it somewhat freely and not be forced into having the track enter and exit the various previously-built levels at a precise height.  So I have heeded that advice and have started at the "lowest" point of the layout plan, which is the lowest level staging yard (representing the Metaline Falls and Couer D'Alene branches - more on that in another post).  I have also completed the transition to the helix, and am now building the helix.  As of Thanksgiving my son and I are running our Walthers Amtrak F40PH-led test train up almost one full turn now, and his (and my) excitement is building as the track is glued down at each quarter turn.

Pictures to come soon. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Spokane Yard - And the Value of Aerial Photos for Layout Planning

One of the major focus areas of my Plummer-Spokane layout concept is the MILW yard in Spokane.  Named Fancher Yard, it resides on the East side of Spokane WA.  The modeled yard will likely reside on the lower level of the layout and will become a major focal point for layout operations.  Here a series of MILW jobs will originate and terminate.  It is where trains will be broken down and put together.

In order to first learn about the physical layout of the yard, I noted a 1967 aerial photo shot from an airplane at an oblique angle published in the Milwaukee Railroader in 2003.  This photo did not show the entire yard but was my first look at how it looked at a date close to the 1970s.  I then learned more by looking at the yard in Google Earth.  Google Earth images are usually snapped fairly recently (ie current), but they offer a historical mode by making a selection in the lower left corner.  At present, Google offers a photo of the former MILW yard taken in the 1990s.  At that time, the Milwaukee Road was long gone and the yard had been modified by Union Pacific, who now uses the yard as the primary manifest switching yard in Spokane.  Contrarily, in 1973 UP operated a larger yard that was located just 30 feet South of the MILW yard.

I learned about the MILW yard from three primary sources:
1. Aerial Photos.  Last year, I purchased a series of aerial photos showing various towns in Washington State, focused on the branch to Metaline Falls.  I also bought a few showing Fancher Yard and the industries that surround it.  From these photos, I have learned a great deal about a little-known part of the Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension - especially how tracks were laid out and what tracks were in service at the time the photo was snapped.  They are also useful for seeing what types of cars were spotted at industries, and what railroad-related structures were in place for a designated modeling period.

These aerial photos were purchased from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).  Many states offer these sorts of photos for sale if you dig for them - Google or Bing is your friend so try a search today.  The State of Washington's photos are typical of what I have purchased from other states: high resolution digital scans of old large format images photographed from airplanes flying at approximately 10,000 feet, and shooting straight down.  Usually, the states offer multiple years of images to choose from depending on how frequently they flew photography routes.  I have found that larger cities were surveyed more often than rural areas.  I have also found that photo fidelity - which really means sharpness - usually increases with the age of photos, due to the equipment and film originally used.  Here is a cropped shot of the MILW yard in Spokane from 1972.  Note how empty the yard is of cars.

2.  Photos taken from the yard.  I have uncovered some photos from the yard taken by several different photographers.  Dan Holbrook's yard photo showing 3 SW1200s outside the engine house was in an earlier post.  Friend Brian Rutherford visited Spokane Yard in 1975 as a teen and he, his father, and his brother snapped a half a film roll of equipment in the yard - mostly cars and locomotives - and a few "scenes" including the MILW freight house.  Here is a shot of Brian checking out SW1200 627 while it is switching at the Western end of the yard. 

In the background is the indoor arena structure located by the baseball stadium, both of which are still standing (and judging by Google earth imagery, quite prosperous).  If the photographer turned around 180 degrees and pressed the shutter, he would have photographed freight cars lined up at the carshop at the Union Pacific yard located immediately South of the MILW yard.

I also suggest Jerry Quinn's photo CDs for low resolution scans from his camera and others from the region - his website is and you can buy CDs organized by railroad and/or geography.

3.  First hand accounts.  I have queried many MILW railfans, Spokane railfans, and former employees to learn how MILW operated Spokane, when and what work each job performed, about customers and industries, and about transfer operations.  Randall Felton, who worked the extra board at Malden and was mentioned in my last post, worked in the yard and has provided answers to many of my questions regarding on duty times and job details related to day to day operations.  Jay Lentzner also provided many details about the establishment of the auto unloading ramp and adjacent parking lot, as well as some good information about who switched which mill at Couer D'Alene.  Additionally, Rob Leachman continues to be a great resource for my continuing questions about MILW and UP operations, as well as sounding board for my findings.

After consulting additional sources, I have been able to understand the function of the ancillary yard tracks, and have enlarged and labeled the aerial photos to better explain what was what in the yard.  The images are shown here:

If anyone has any comments or corrections about the above I'd love to hear them. I am especially interested in knowing whether the tracks labeled "B&B" that have boxcars spotted to them are really company materials tracks.

For purposes of layout design, this yard is fairly straightforward.  It is small and relatively modelable.  Since every photo I have seen of this yard shows the long yard tracks at 20% full at most, my thinking is to reduce the number of yard tracks by 2, main tracks by 1, and RIP tracks by 1 for a total of 4.  Operationally, removing one yard sorting track will work fine since the yard is almost always very empty.  In terms of blocking, there were 6 primary blocks made, but the long tracks allow multiple blocks to be made within a track.  The other removed yard track is for auto unloading, but there are two prototypical tracks for that so I compressed to one since I don't lose anything operationally from that decision.  Finally, I removed one of the 3 total mainline "arrival/departure" tracks since two seem sufficient for such a small facility and for the irregular arrivals of the "longer" inbound local trains.  By selectively compressing 4 tracks out of 16, the yard can easily be placed in the basement up against a wall and allow reach in for the average operator's arm without it being uncomfortable.  The current design has the yard approximately 3 feet wide at the widest point.  If I were to model it track for track, the width would get worse, plus, the yard ladder simply would not fit without having to pinwheel the yard lead switches.  

Of course, placing this yard on the longest wall of the basement without a curve in the middle is best for authenticity, and since I have 26 feet of uninterrupted long wall space in my basement, this yard can be placed nicely on that wall.  With this choice, the yard becomes the primary design element for the layout on that given level.  The tricky part is whether to orient it with the engine terminal located on the aisle in the front, or on the wall in the back.  What I learned after several design iterations was that the yard itself works reasonably well either way.  The troubling part is how the industries around the yard lay out and how to make them work, especially the Lake Street spur.   To get the switches designed facing the right directions, Lake Street spur works best as a peninsula in the middle of the room.  Lake Street spur is a industry spur that is located off of the main track and will be better explained in a future update.

At this point, I believe that the yard works best with the engine terminal on the aisle side.  The yard lead will be up against the wall in a corner but I can easily cutaway the fascia here - as shown below - to make reach of these tracks very easy.  With the engine terminal in the aisle, this means North is at the aisle.  Conversely, UP trains will be visibly staged against the wall to the "South" of the MILW yard, and will be oriented like the prototype.  Here, UP trains will be lined up for operating sessions since they are part of the operation, especially the UP Kellogg Local which will switch Plummer, and the UP to MILW transfer, which will deliver autoracks and other interchange traffic to the MILW yard.  I have been told by Jay that MILW probably delivered to the UP, while Randall told me he saw UP delivering autoracks to the MILW.  So the precedent is for delivering cars in both directions.

Here is a brief snapshot of the yard fitted to my space - along the long west wall.  It retains the feel of the prototype well, with only a few tracks removed for compression reasons.

- Click to enlarge -

I have oriented the yard above properly above so that East is right and West is left.  I know that MILW switched the yard from the East side, which is the right hand corner of the plan above and where the cutaway is located for easy aisle access.  The yard lead is on a 30" radius curve and a 90 degree turn, necessary to fit the layout space.  The long car storage track is located in the foreground and is not parallel to the yard lead since the real one is not, but it is angled so that reaching yard tracks to uncouple cars will not be problematic.  The gaps in the yard tracks to the center-left are for the car RIP tracks, and there is a 1 track auto unloading track which you can compare to the prototype aerial images above.  Finally, at the railroad west side of the yard - or left side of the design above - is a pinwheel of the first two lead tracks.  While I did not want to pinwheel any tracks, doing so on this side of the yard is necessary since otherwise the ladder will make the two engine terminal tracks - which are the shortest tracks by the aisle - overly small.  They already are a bit small in length but it is a compromise to maintain the feel and integrity of the real yard.  As always with any layout plan, an extra foot or two of space would be better!

Anyway, that is an overview of the yard as it relates to configuring it for the layout.  More to come in future installments!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Multiple Threads

After work, family, and other life obligations, finding time for model railroad building - and the research required to model things accurately - is really tough.  Luckily, I have carved time for a little of each, and quite a few people have asked what I've been up to.  I appreciate the interest in MILW and related operations in this little part of the vast Pacific Extension, and/or in any layout work that ensues from the research efforts.

This brings me to a short update on the status of three primary "threads":

Thread 1: Research.  Research has continued on many aspects of the MILW (and UP and BN) operations in Eastern Washington and the Panhandle of ID, specifically as it all relates to the MILW in and around Plummer, Spokane, and the lines radiating from Spokane.  First, I have taken a significant detour into Huetter / Post Falls / Couer D'Alene operations.  I have learned alot from a few people who are smart about the area, including Jim Davis and Bruce Kelly.  I have not been able to fully understand how switching was handled in Couer D'Alene during daylight hours, especially since it was served by 3 rail carriers at approximately the same time.  While this will undoubtedly make a cool model rail subject, I am still left with quite a few questions, notably what track was in service in 1973 or so and which railroads physically switched which industries.  Based on documents, it is clear that reciprocal switching rules were in effect, but that does not answer the more layout-oriented question of who did what.

I also researched the principle shipping points on the MILW branch to Metaline Falls.  This was mostly accomplished by using aerial photos procured through the State of Washington.  These photos have been really helpful since you can see which industries were in service at the time the photo was snapped, how many and what type of cars were spotted, and which buildings were standing.  This is especially useful on a more than 100 mile branchline headed into a part of WA that was very infrequently photographed - especially the rail operations there!

I also have researched the industries in and around the MILW yard in Spokane as best I can, and have come up with some great new material that will be covered in a future posting since it deserves more attention and photos.  Understanding these are important for layout planning since these are the sources for cars on the layout, as well as a potential "job" during an operating session if some of the layout is devoted to it.

Finally, after many long bouts of searching, I finally found someone who worked for MILW in Spokane!  Thanks to Facebook and Rob Leachman, I have been introduced to two brothers who used to work for the MILW, not out of Spokane but out of Malden.  Brothers Randall and Dan Felton worked the extra board at Malden and therefore worked a variety of jobs, making them knowledgeable on the big picture of eastern Washington operations in the gap.  Thanks guys, and Rob, for your help!

Thread 2: Layout design.  After spending a few intense weeks working on layout design, I have a plan that has fleshed out my current interests, while also fitting quite efficiently into the basement with curves going the right way, yard ladders actually fitting in the space, decent aisle space where it is most needed, and no obstructions like duckunders.  The geography is focused on the mainline connection at Plummer, MILW yard in Spokane, and industries near the yard.  By including these geographic landmarks, I get slivers of 4 rail operations I really like: "road trains," blocking and block swaps, yard switching, industry switching, and interchange operations between rail carriers - all without deviating from the prototype, without creating extra or fictional operations, or requiring a gigantic basement.  The plan and further descriptions will be included in a future post since it is still being adjusted and tweaked, but for now the layout design works very nicely for my 14x26 basement with Plummer Jct and Plummer on a mainline loop on the upper level, and a lower level composed of Dishman, Spokane yard, and Spokane industries on the Northeast and West sides of the MILW yard.  Of course, both levels will be connected with the obligatory layout design vehicle - the helix.

During the past few months I have doodled other combinations of real estate.  I had considered flipping Plummer and Spokane so Spokane yard was on the upper level.  That was decided against since the mainline "loop" in an around the walls fashion on a lower level required a duckunder or "bridge." Also, I believe yard operations conducted on a lower level using chairs on rollers makes more sense than a layout at 41 inches, meaning Spokane can successfully reside on the lower level.  I also considered Spokane yard on one level, with Metaline Falls and Usk, plus Couer D'Alene as vignettes on the opposite level, but decided against it for more play value in terms of "jobs" with the Spokane/Plummer concept.  Additionally the current concept better meets another one of my wants which is equipment variety, and having a place for that equipment to go. 

More on this soon.

Thread 3.  Layout room prep.  Even without having a firm plan for the layout, I have been trying hard to prepare for building.  I sold off a handful of models online and to friends to generate cash for lumber.  I have moved the hot water heater to a place that makes more sense for the house and a layout, while also moving water lines away from the layout space and to create shorter runs and faster hot water in the house.  Excess wire and old(!) gas lines were removed from the ceiling that were installed when my home was constructed.

Most importantly, I have studs up on 3 walls and am ready for benchwork on those walls!

Friday, October 5, 2012

(My Version of) the Pacific Extension: 15 Years Ago Today

During the early 1970s, many railfan photographers made pilgrimages to the Milwaukee Road's Pacific extension.  Armed with "new" 35mm SLRs and shades of Kodachrome or Ektachrome or Agfachrome, the goal for most was to shoot the last days of the Milwaukee electrics before they were shut down for good.  For guys like me, I never had a chance to see these awesome operations in person, but fortunately several unbelievable books and magazines - and now online sources - have been published with fabulous photos of these intriguing operations, as well as other diverse and modelable operations as has been noted at this site.

For "younger" guys like me - and Matt Sugerman - our similar pilgrimages in the 1990s were made to other places.  One favorite of Matt's quickly became a favorite of mine.  The Camas Prairie - specifically the Grangeville Line - became my favorite place to flock to when the leaves turned, the weather cooled, and my limited budget allowed a trip out west.  Luckily, with Matt in school in Missoula at the time, I could work a day in Chicago, fly to Spokane on the last flight of the day, and after packing and stocking up on provisions in Missoula, Matt and I could easily be headed across Lolo Pass on Route 12 at 3 in the morning, running on adrenaline, soda and snacks, and talk of layout building (no further comment there..).  We did that at least 3 years in a row, and I still have never driven across Lolo Pass in daylight!

Anyway, this post is celebrating MY version of the MILW Pacific Extension...

15 years ago today I shot my last Camas Prairie train while under combined UP/BNSF ownership.  It was day 3 of 3 days in a row of Grangeville operations, before I (unfortunately, in retrospect) blasted off to shoot some MRL and Great Falls area action.  Friends Matt Sugerman and Garry and Roz Miller were there as well... we setup across Lapwai canyon at roughly 1/4 mile increments to shoot a Craigmont turn with an unusual pair of units (usually BN/UP ops had at least 3 to the prairie) descending toward Lewiston.  I recall waiting after setting up for a long time - and this was the only train we shot that entire day - Lewiston is far from active mainlines especially on days with shorter light windows compared to summer months.  We all spread out on the rim of Lapwai Canyon, and I started with shots of HalfMoon from across the canyon with the tripod mounted tele, and then ran with a second handheld body to shoot a side-on view of the entire train on 4 bridges.

This is one of my strongest memories of a Lapwai Canyon shoot, probably because the light was about as low as it could be before shadowing the canyon.  And the morning was miserably cloudy and the shots of the light power ascending the canyon are equally miserable.  Even so, wish we could do it all over again.

Hope you enjoy.  And I sure wish there was a good Camas Prairie book available...

After a run through brush and trees (and luckily with a high shutter speed):