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Building a model railroad for realistic operations

Much has been written about designing and building a model railroad that represents realistic operations of a prototype, including several recent articles in Model Railroader. And Iíve seen many great layouts that presented a realistic scene and some that even realistically represented the operation of the prototype. But a recent experience really brought home the benefits of this process, and I would like to share my experience.

Several months ago, members of the Norfolk and Western Historical Society and the Southern Railway Historical Association gathered in Lynchburg, Va. for a day of modeling activity (I know, Virginia is not in the SER, but the editor said it would be alright if I talked about something relevant, even though it was not on SERís turf.) This was the first time these two organizations have collaborated on an event like this. Hopefully they will do it again, as many of us belong to both groups.

While main program was a day of interesting clinics, an added feature was an opportunity to visit Bill Coxís Virginia Blue Ridge and Southern layout on Friday night, and for a fortunate few, an opportunity to participate in an operating session on Saturday night. I was one of those fortunate enough to be invited to stay and play.

Throttle Display Bill Cox has created a splendid HO-scale model railroad that fills a 24 by 36 foot building behind his home. When I asked about the design, he said that he started with an idea for operating sessions, then designed a layout that would accommodate this idea, and finally designed and built a building to a house the layout. What a radical idea! I usually get it backwards: I start with a space, design a layout that fits, using proven design criteria, and then try to operate something that approaches the prototype. I have to admit, his idea is a lot better.

Cox has taken about a 50-mile stretch of the Southern Railroad that ran near his home in Lynchburg and replicated it in HO scale. He has a double track mainline with appropriate sidings, branch lines, and similar features that were, for the most part, really there. The center point of the layout is the yard at Monroe, Virginia, just north of Lynchburg. One end of his mainline terminates near Charlottesville, and the other end ends near Roanoke. Neither of these distant points is actually shown on the layout - the line ends just short of these cities. In reality, the tracks are continuous and disappear into a holding yard at each end where trains are turned and stored on hidden reverse loops until needed again. There are interchange points for both N&W and C&O, just as they really existed. The basis for all of this trackage is quite authentic and much of it is still in service. If you have a current Railroad Atlas or NS route map, you can find this trackage in NSís Virginia Division.

As we have already noted, even though Charlottesville and Roanoke are well-known railroad cities, they donít exist here. The focal point of the action on Billís layout is the yard at Monroe, Virginia. Bill told me that as a boy he used to go watch the trains at Monroe and was fascinated with what he saw. Now, fifty years later, he can recreate that scene. Just as it was fifty years ago, freight trains pass through, most with cars that have to be set off or picked up. Likewise there are passenger trains that stop for passengers, Sometimes a car, such as a dinner, must be added, or taken out of a train. And on some trains, Southern diesels are swapped for a Norfolk and Western J-class steam engine (or vice versa). All of this keeps a yard master, a hostler and a switch-engine crew quite busy.

The scene is set.

It is July 19, 1956. This session ran on a four-to-one fast clock. Bill set the clocks for 0540. (It was actually about 7:00 p.m.) Our first train was due out at about 0600, so we had about five minutes to get our assignments, get a Digitrax throttle, find our trains, and get ready for the dayís operation. Bill served as the dispatcher, keeping us pretty much on time for the three hours that followed.

I started the session working as an engineer on the switch engines in the yard at Monroe, shown below. Fortunately our Yardmaster, Steve Robbins, is an old hand at this, and got us off to an early start sorting cars to make work easier later on. It was a good thing that he did, for indeed, the yard became a buy place. Steve has an advantage over several of us: He worked for SP, MP and UP.

Yard Display
During the next three hours we were seldom idle. The yard crew stayed busy preparing for the next train, or dealing with a new arrival. About six others were engineers, taking nearly 20 trains over the layout. These included through freights, locals, and of course the Southernís famous passenger trains. All of the equipment on the layout is appropriate to the time. Beautiful EMD E and F units dominated the motive power, the rolling stock is appropriate for the time, and of course there were cabooses in those days. On Billís layout they are very realistic looking Southern cabs from WrightTrak. Once the yard work was caught up, I asked to be relieved so that I could take several trains over the line.

It was quite an evening. I got the feeling we were really back in the summer of 1956. Iíve spent about half my life in Virginia and know what itís like at dawn on July. I love that time of day in the summer. Of course, as the day wore on, one might have gotten a feeling that it was a long and hot day. Actually we were very comfortable. We stayed busy and had fun, and the time went by very quickly. Bill is a pretty cool guy to let strangers come in and as Rob would say, play with his trains .

My impression Ėit was quite an evening and he has quite a layout. Thanks to Bill and Steve and a few others for a wonderful evening. I hope that we can do it again some day. Meanwhile, I may have to start another layout, one based on my own experiences as a young rail fan that would allow me to relive some of those memories. Iíve got a coupe of ideas........

These words and photos by Clint Smoke. For more information and for more pictures of Bill Coxís Virginia Blue Ridge and Southern go to