A Thought-Ramble on (my) Reality

What follows is a long discussion and train of thought.  It starts with some review of where I’ve been as a modeler recently, and concludes with some difficult decisions being made and a change of direction that I’m taking.  I hope you’ll give it a read, and I would enjoy hearing from you about your thoughts, and your own experiences.


When I set out to convert from HO scale to O scale, the world looked quite different than it does now.  My own reality was different.  In the last 12 months, not only has the world changed with the onset of the COVID19 pandemic, but my own reality and the need to care for an elderly parent, has changed the available time I have for modeling.

What will layouts look like in the post-pandemic world?  Likely not a ton different than they are now in most cases.  The layouts that require large crews of 20-30 to gather for an effective operating session will likely be a little different in the future.  It will take longer for the existing layouts of that size to come back to operation, and people considering those layouts in the future may reconsider and change their modeling approaches.  I think we’re likely to see, to some degree at least, a little adjustment toward a smaller “bubble” of operators needed for some years.  

Our homes are different now as well.  Many people who, like me, hold what was considered an “office” job are now working from their homes, meaning we need dedicated work spaces for our day jobs, and the footprint of layout space, already at a premium in smaller townhome and apartment spaces, is even further restricted.  

My personal modeling time and energy has also been greatly reduced, as I’m sure this also applies to others, as I now have to factor in time to care for elderly parents who have suffered health crisis and need more attention.  This makes the time to model less, the energy to complete projects less, and affects what projects are chosen to take on.

Nope, not giving up.  However, things may need to change. 

Trevor Marshall’s post-mortem on his Port Rowan S scale layout provides some interesting food for thought (https://themodelrailwaydotshow.wordpress.com/2020/12/06/port-rowan-post-mortem/).  Starting from the top, Trevor discusses his previous layout building in On2 with Maine narrow gauge railroads, and his shift to modeling the CNR and how that changed accessibility for other railroaders.  This is an interesting line of thought to me.  It’s definitely something to consider moving forward.  If I tie that to some statements that I attribute to MRH interviews and writings from Mike Confalone about his Woodville Terminal and how being a historian of and fan of certain railroads doesn’t mean they are good subjects to model (I’m paraphrasing) and how that lead him to create his famous Allagash layout, it starts turning into something that drives my thoughts in a direction, that may be somewhat uncomfortable at the moment for me.

The above prompts a question:  Is the Yosemite Valley Railroad a VIABLE modeling subject in Prot48?  Is it accessible to others?  Are the social group(s) I am part of and connected to able to relate and access my chosen railroad or is it, as Trevor Marshall put it about his Maine On2 railroad, a “lonely pursuit”?

Going from HO to O, the natural choice for me when switching scale was to stick it out with the Yosemite Valley.  In HO, there’s a small but committed group of modelers, though they are spread around the globe.  One thing you start to really realize when you get to building the O scale equipment, though, is just how big real railroads are.  Selective compression in HO scale leads to multiple towns being compressed into many layouts, and going from point A to point B becomes just a matter of a few steps while the trains work multiple industries in those towns.  The larger scale of O, and less possible compression of overall size, means that what may have been a two town layout is suddenly less than one town, and likely heavily focused.  It’s almost required just by the size of what you’re dealing with in the models to focus more on another of Trevor’s points from his blog post, and that is modeling “the job”.  Unless you are blessed with massive amounts of space, railroading becomes more focused by requirement of volume.  

Let me illustrate this with some YV perspective.  In the garage of their home, my friend Jack Burgess has modeled the Yosemite Valley Railroad.  He has the yard and shops in Merced, a good distance of travel to Merced Falls, Bagby, Emory, Incline, Moss Canyon, and El Portal on essentially two decks of layout.  When drawing in O scale with allowances for equipment clearances and appropriate curve radius, I managed, in the same space that Jack has the whole railroad, to draw about 1/2 of the YV yard at Merced, and didn’t have room for the roundhouse.  That’s the size difference in a nutshell.  

Once again, I come back to the thought that real railroads are BIG things.  Big things do not compress well into 4 walls of a box in most cases.

I’ve recently run across some fascinating videos on YouTube of several shorelines in Eastern Indiana and Western Ohio.  These little lines, the Wabash Central Railroad, the Connersville & New Castle, and the Napoleon, Defiance, & Western Railroad (primarily) are little lines making their way with huge (space-wise) customers in rural settings.  

This link is to a video of the Wabash Central working at the Weaver Popcorn plant in Van Buren, IN.

Here is a video of the ND&W working, at Napoleon, Ohio.

There are other videos on the same channel, by Scott Taipale, that I suggest watching.  His use of a drone for overhead views is incredible tor those of us who view model railroads from a track plan in our heads, or who look down on layouts to observe the lay of the land.  Watching these videos, you get a real sense of how big even “small time” short line railroads are.  For me, these videos make real railroads accessible.  I can share these links with you, or with other friends, and we can then discuss how to model those things we see.

Railroads are hugs. This is a screen capture from “Sierra Shortlines volume 2”, showing the dry lumber loading shed at Merced Falls on the YV. There are at least 7 boxcars there, which in O scale is massive, and would amount to over 7′ of not only structure but trackage.

But real railroads are HUGE.  Having worked around them as volunteer in 2019 at the Illinois Railway Museum, they’re really big.  Modeling railroads is, and always will be, a compromise.  Our railroads have to fit in manageable spaces, have to take turns for corners of rooms that are not realistic, and are limited by the realities of the locations they are built in.

Let’s leave the accessibility of the YV aside for a moment, we’ll come back.  This is a ramble after all.

Let’s look at another point pair from Trevor Marshall’s post.  Let’s think for a little about modeling a variety of operations and crew size along with a lack of variety at a far flung terminus of a line.  Trevor is coming at the last bit there with his Port Rowan layout having, in his words, lacked variety because of the one train a day nature of the end of the line.  He had set out to model Port Rowan initially with the idea that he alone would be doing about 90% of the operating on the layout himself, which in the end turned out to be false as he wound up seeing a need due to the number of interested operators for additional trains which didn’t fit the Port Rowan model.  

On the YV this could also apply.  One freight a day from Merced and one from El Portal, a log train, and a passenger train in either direction (morning and evening) would be appropriate even for 1928.  Picking the wrong spot to model on the line would eliminate multiple trains, and picking the wrong spot also would require the construction of massive amounts of staging to accommodate proper operation.  Have I mentioned that trains are BIG?  I thought you’d remember that from above.  Staging in O scale is a massive endeavor that eats space.  Building a helix to reach a staging deck of a layout almost requires a separate room to fit that in.  Creating a layout design that offers a variety of opportunity for multiple crews, or an opportunity for a single crew (me) to operate is a key balance point that is quite a challenge to reach.

I’ve been working on my 3’x18” layout, and have come to a couple of conclusions already from that small project.  The layout is set at a rail height of 48”, which is just right for me.  I could go up a little, into the 50-52” range, but I don’t want to go higher, and lower is bad for viewing when standing.  Multi-deck is likely something I should avoid in the future, it’s difficult for me to see already, and making things harder by putting things at uncomfortable heights is not something I want to introduce to my model building.  

This photo from:http://www.narrowperspective.com/the-conventions/2012—seattlebellevue-wa/layout-tours/paul-scoles-pelican-bay-/paul-scoles—pelican-bay-7.html#previous-photo is of the late Paul Scoles Sn3 layout. Mr Scoles in some of his articles and videos was a proponent of single deck layouts when possible.

Let’s start then to try and resolve some of the conflicts I have tried to present here.

Is the YV in 1928 accessible to a wide variety of people?  Difficult question, but the honest answer is a no, it is not.  Pursuing the YV as a prototype will be a lonely prospect as a modeler.  Does the YV offer operational variety for multiple crews and/or one crew?  Again, the difficult answer is, no, it does not in O scale, offer the same operational prospects as HO scale, and thus I have to come down as a no here too.


My friends who model the depression and pre-depression years will understand that when you start talking about the modeling of that period, most people have no reference, maybe a grandparent or parent lived through or was born then, but we’re 100+ years in the future now.  My modeling date for the YV of 1928 is 92 years ago.  My grandparents were alive, but they’ve long passed.  My parents were not yet born.   My modeling interest is in the equipment of the railroad, but I have no direct time, can’t go see or experience that.  Then too, if I have little connection to the time period I am modeling, how do I get others to connect?  Most of my pre-depression modeling friends are modeling Eastern railroads where the lines were dense, or they’re freelancing railroads based on the operation of the time and the equipment.  It is difficult to connect people to things they can’t experience.  

As for operation, consolidating thinking to one spot on the railroad, the YV being a string of small towns and somewhat concentrated industry in a limited number of spots, just doesn’t provide operational interest at one spot where there would have been logging, mining, ice, etc… all together.  It’s all spread out along the whole line.  Even adjusting backward toward the dam building in the 20’s, the hauling of rock to the dam site is more than one location, and compressing it into a reasonable modeling space in O scale isn’t feasible. 

Where does this take me?

My idea of operational variety might be different than what someone else might consider, so let me talk it though.  Operational variety to me is not super complex track work where the operator needs to run through a myriad of turnouts and switchbacks to reach an end point.  That, to me, is a toy.  While toy’s a great, railroads do not do things like that unless they are forced into that situation.  Railroads, modern and historic, keep things as simple as they possibly can because there is a cost to laying track, and a cost to laying a turnout, and a cost to maintaining all of that infrastructure.  As modelers, we too have costs in these things, but they tend to be forgotten in the pursuit occasionally of one more industry to cram in.

Operational variety is having more than one customer on a line, where more than one train might be able to work.  It’s that ND&W video with the GP20 pulling a string of cars from the cold storage warehouse while another crew might also be in the same town working a nearby grain elevator, and if there are multiple crews working the layout, having to communicate about where they are going, or where they are spotting a caboose, etc….  It can be as simple as two industries , or as complex as you like, but the variety comes from the movements required to do the operating, the communication necessary, and the inclusion of “modeling the job” with brake tests and pumping air and inspecting cars, moving blue flags, spotting cars at the correct doors of an industry.  

Accessibility of subject is another item that needs to be thought through.  If the YV isn’t accessible to a visitor, what is, and how can I marry accessibility and my own interests together?

This is a massive question to explore answering, but I’m going to give it a go.  

Accessibility involves ability to connect.  Perhaps this is why there are more freelance layouts, more layouts that use kit structures instead of prototype structures, more “transition era” layouts and later, as people model what they see or understand in the world.  A setting-appropriate industry that is accessible would be an ethanol plant, or a popcorn plant, or a grain elevator today, where a feed mill or grain elevator of the wood variety might be appropriate to an earlier time, but would still be accessible.  This question, to me, does not involve giving up on modeling 1928, but involves creating a layout that includes things that people would grasp.  The box factory and lumber loading at Merced Falls on the YV…. That would be inaccessible.  Few people know what baryte is or what it’s used for.  If I was to have a gold mine, like the Mountain King, loading ore, that would be accessible.  People know what that’s for.  This again is likely why we see so many coal hauling model railroads. The modeler is creating something that people understand.

This again is likely why we see lots of narrow gauge railroads depicting Colorado, and fewer of them depicting parts of Pennsylvania, and fewer of them depicting the ones that existed in the Midwest.  There is a base understanding of the fact that those things existed in their locations, and when you’re outside those base locations, you get less accessibility, less interest, to the point where modeling narrow gauge on Nantucket Island is likely to be a lonely pursuit of the nth degree.

This is where I go back to the statements I’ve made in the past about my modeling preferences.  I enjoy building boxcars.  That’s one.  I am interested in the logging, that’s two.  

What does an accessible, operationally interesting, layout look like?  For my other restrictions, it’s likely to include one town, or part of a town.  It may include a handful of customers, with possible multiple-spots at those customers.  It’s likely to be something that can be operated by one crew running one train at a time, or two crews with two trains in the same town at the same time having to worry about getting out of each other’s way.

Is it 1928?  Is it California?

It’s really tempting to say “no” to both.  The temptation is there to model something like one of those Eastern Indiana short lines.  Adjust from 1928 to 2010 or even just “present day” and build.  However, I’m well into getting to YV29 built, have YV15, and haver plans to build another wood caboose.  Likely, it’s not the modern day.  However, keeping accessibility in mind, there are some options.  I have other ways to “scratch” the more modern itch and a small portable HO modern switching layout to do that on.

Built from “leftovers” from some HO scale projects that never came together, a small switching layout, set in the modern day, in HO scale, sprung up here over the summer. The structures will wind up being kit bashes, the track is Atlas code 83, the DCC system is a left-over Digitrax starter, locomotives are left-over from an abandoned run at a FreMo group a few years back. Rules for everything are simple. Weathering of equipment, no customization kind of stuff, but something fun to run in 18″ x 6′ with a small extension to allow access to one spur off the right hand side. This I could add that GP10 or GP11 or GP35 to and be really happy with it.

I’ve written previously about the first issue of Model Railroader that I purchased in 1988, featuring the Auburn, Coloma, & Placerville Ry of Alan Phillips.  This kind of situation is most likely the “accessible” layout and railroad that I could move toward.  When my HO scale YV equipment was dropped by movers almost a decade ago, I nearly modeled the “Merced Eastern”, so what if that was the option?

Part of my favorite shot from the Model Railroader article on Mr Phillips aCP shows a 2-6-2T working a warf with a consolidation moving through town in through town in the background. I wanted one of those engines like #7 here for a long, long, time.

Freelancing this time around I would likely take a slightly different path.  Between about 2000 and the present, I’ve learned a great deal about other railroads in California and elsewhere, including some in Texas and some in the Deep South, that will likely influence what I’m doing.  I can envision a small railroad in California, hauling ore and lumber as the primary commodities, connecting to a narrow gauge line, similar to something like the Nevada County, with several trains moving at once, so lots of traffic.  Mix in elements of the Sierra, the California Western, the Virginia & Truckee, the Modesto & Empire, and likely there’s a fictional railroad in there, with some YV equipment and other equipment, that sort of “fits”.

Is this really fitting the criteria of “accessible”?  I would argue that the answer is yes.  I would put forward that more people can access an operation that is the artwork creation of the modeler than the prototype based layout simply because the suspension of belief that we all experience when we enter a movie theater takes over, and there isn’t a “right way” or “right look” for something, that the proper look is what they are seeing on the layout, 

I’ve said before that it’s hard to push forward projects that don’t have a spot to go on a layout.  That’s still very true for me.  The next task then is to design a layout that works and incorporates as much of what I’ve come to believe is important in layout building and my interests as possible.  

One spot I’m going to differ with Trevor Marshall about is that the terminus of a line can limit operation.  That, I would argue, greatly depends on what is located along the line and at the terminus.  On the YV, I could easily break the line into a railroad West of Bagby and a different railroad to the East of Bagby.  In reality, the crews shaped trains at this location, with the crew coming from El Portal taking the train heading East and the crew coming from Merced returning West with the other.  At El Portal you find the largest grouping of industry past Merced, and maybe on the whole railroad, so it just depends on how the line develops.  

As I think about layouts I have operated on, and the jobs I liked considerably, I land on Ed Petry’s Sierra RR, and the operation there to Angels Camp.  The terminus of that branch at Angels Camp has lots of switching to do, including a number of loading docks, warehouses, ore bins, and other customers.  Figuring out how to model something like Angels Camp, in Proto48, would provide a lot of opportunity fo switching.  It doesn’t necessarily warrant a second crew, though, so bringing along something line an On3 logging line hauling supplies and lumber for transfer to the standard gauge might add that element.

This link is to a copy of Railmodel Journal from 1999. http://magazine.trainlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/rmj_199906.pdf

In there, you can find an article on Ed’s layout, and I’ve clipped here part of one of the drawings of his version of Angels Camp.

This track plan of Ed Petry’s Angles Camp was my “home” on his layout, running the Angels Branch from Jamestown to this terminus. A couple of mines along the way, and switchbacks aside, the majority of the work on the branch was done here.

Why not model the Sierra?  I think the thing that I’m getting at here right now is that modeling a specific prototype can be rough.  There may be things you would do differently, or things you would select differently, or equipment, or structures, or even location that doesn’t match with your artistic eye, and therefore you have to weigh out modeling the prototype, or modeling close, or freelancing.  I like the equipment of the YV over most equipment of the Sierra, and I like V&T equipment over most Sierra equipment.  I don’t want to model equipment I don’t want to model.  So I pick and choose, bring an element of one, a track layout from another, a connection from here, a business that is appropriate or interesting…… and I create my own railroad.

Written like a small blurb that would appear in the Kalambach book Shoreline Railway Guide that I digested as a young person, my little creation would likely sound something like this:


“In the foothills of the Northern Sierras, a small railroad running from Amador and a connection to the Southern Pacific, through Sutter Creek, Clinton, and terminating at Pioneer, a distance of roughly 43 miles.  The railroad hauls ore from gold mines, copper from several copper mines, general goods, and lumber from the Grizzly Ridge Lumber Company’s narrow gauge railroad that delivers cut lumber to Pioneer for loading.  Typically four freights a day operate on the line.”

From the outset, the ACP is a rod-locomotive line.  Small engines, like a copy of YV29, and maybe either a former SP Mogul or American, possibly a “larger” engine, like a copy of Sierra Consolidation 22 or V&T 4-6-0 might be added.  Four trains a day, that’s one outgoing from Pioneer in the morning and one from Amador as well.  Then an afternoon pair.  I might include either a mixed train or a separate passenger turn on the line for added interest.  It might be fun to run that passenger trip with a gas mechanical car, like a McKeen car.  The YV tried that out in the 20’s, and several other California short lines were known for them, so it would be appropriate. The V&T had a McKeen car that still exists today.

So, my ACP incorporates some lessons from the likes of the Cascade County Narrow Gauge and other Proto-freelance railroads.  Take the inspiration from the things on real railroads that appeal to you, be a historian of at least one, and model the things that you want to operate, not just the things that are there.  This works for me, it may not for others.  This has worked for my friend Guy on his Willoughby Line.

This link will take you to a video of Guy’s layout by TSG Multimedia: https://youtu.be/rhdoKYCAadY

This will take you to Guy’s website about his layout:

From the Sierra, the gist of the track arrangements at Angels Camp because I enjoyed operating that location immensely on layouts I have operated on, and because there are a good number of spots to switch even though the yard is small.  Likely also from the Sierra, 2-8-0 #22.  

From the V&T, likely a McKeen car for passenger service.  It’s possible that a model of one of their 4-6-0’s might be rostered one day too.  

From the YV, obviously locomotive 29, and caboose 15.  A good deal of knowledge about how some of these short lines operated.

From the West Side and other logging lines in Northern California, a small Class A shay and some logging and lumber hauling equipment.

From the world in general, kits for structures where possible.  

I am, by no means, abandoning my love for, study of, or interest in the Yosemite Valley Railroad.  Far from it.  What I am doing, though, is admitting and accepting that I can not do the railroad justice as a model, and it’s better if I protofreelance a similar railroad because of equipment availability and modeling limitations of my own.  My limited time due to caring for an elderly parent, my vision that is never going to get better and limits the window that I perceive existing for me to build a layout and equipment, and space that limits what I can or can not do with the YV.

So, there it is.  It is in some ways freeing to have rambled through this, exciting to think of what is generally ahead, and at the same time, admitting defeat by life to one goal of modeling the YV but accepting that there are viable, enjoyable, embraceable, alternatives that don’t mean giving up modeling some parts of that line I love.  


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