A tour of the layout

I will take you on a tour of the bottom deck of the layout via a series of sequenced images to show you how everything currently looks. The upper deck is still to be constructed although I have all the baseboards and have trialled track in place to test the planning. The image below shows the town and the photo locations but no track diagrams. It is not to scale (although the building dimensions are correct). The main focus is really the relative position of everything in accordance with the sequencing of the photos. Looking at the diagram in image 1, we start the photo sequencing at image 2 and then keep moving to the left (which is east on my layout). You will see in some of the photos the methods used to hold up the second deck. They range from metal supports to wooden cross members on uprights attached to the bottom deck baseboard. Personally, I prefer the solidity of the wooden cross members and their ease of affixing scenic boards. That said, I know there are many great layouts out there using shelf brackets and metal supports. I guess it is up to personal preference.

Image 1: The locations and photo spots on tour

Image 2: For the DME, these are the western staging tracks which for operational purposes are called Brookings, SD. Please remember that my layout has west to the right and east to the left as you stand in front of it. The east staging yards which will be above these tracks are called Sleepy Eye, MN. You can see the supports for the second deck which are not yet permanently affixed.

The western staging yard comprises five stub ended sidings and four short loco sidings. The central run-through track allows continuous running on the bottom deck for DME trains and also links another four track staging yard underneath Piersen (behind the garage doors). There are three tracks on the left (the black coal hoppers are in the middle track) that represent Lake Marshall where there is a (fictional) coal-fired power plant and a Central Soya facility (to be confirmed) that are both off-scene industries.

Image 3: This is the lift out section in front of the door entrance. At the bottom is the single track that allows for both DME and BN/BNSF trains to run across the gap. The track that continues closest to the baseboard edge is the DME and enters the first modelled town, Ivanhoe, SD. The angled track from the turnout is for BN/BNSF trains entering/leaving the bottom deck into hidden storage (and continuous run). The turnouts in the top right allow arriving trains in Lake Marshall to uncouple their locomotives and cross the lift out, reversing into a clear section into loco storage (the three stub-ended sidings in the middle right).

Image 4: This is Ivanhoe, SD, showing two industry sidings. Behind here is hidden storage for four BN/BNSF tracks plus another two tracks for continuous run and linking to another set of storage tracks on the other side. You can also see the second deck supports – wooden cross members and supports. The deck separation here is eight inches (200mm). The location above the storage sidings will be Wabasso, MN. Because I am relying on an incline to get to the upper deck and didn’t have a lot of available space for alternatives, I chose to minimise the height between decks but step out the scenic portion of the layout and use the space underneath the upper deck for staging. You can see how Ivanhoe is “stepped out” from the staging tracks and upper deck. I saw this method many years ago on a couple of layouts in Adelaide, South Australia, and operations were not compromised by having this benchwork arrangement.

Image 5: The rear end of the garage showing the curve between Ivanhoe, SD, on the right (west) and Ronald, MN on the left (east). Whilst Ivanhoe is a real location, Ronald is made up and named after my father. My big mistake from this shot is not having insulated and gyprocked (wallboarded) the brick garage wall at his end.

Image 6: Ronald is a significant town and has a number of industries for switching purposes. Being fictional, I have been able to add operational interest with a number of industries. The DME main line goes through the middle with sidings and spurs on either side. You can see the second deck supports – wooden uprights and cross-members. Initially, I used shelving brackets here but was not happy with them so went to my favoured wooden supports. The height here is still eight inches (200mm). The storage sidings to the right (and thus hidden staging) are for the BN/BNSF trains. In staging, there are four stub ended sidings on the right, a central through running track, and two double-ended sidings on the left (with the coal hoppers on one and the yellow Railbox car on the other). The blue underlay beneath the tracks in staging was originally a couple of yoga mats that I bought cheap from a two-dollar store (my wife would claim this was sacrilege!).

Image 7: The end of the peninsula. On the right you can see the diamond where the BN/BNSF trains come out of hidden staging and cross over the DME main line. The lower deck curve has the BN/BNSF on the outside rails and the DME is on the inside. On the upper deck, which will be hidden on the curve by a scenic board, the layout rises another two inches for the remainder of the route to Sleepy Eye. Inside the curve will be the dispatcher. The track curvature here is 36 inches.

Image 8: Having rounded the central peninsula to the other side of the central brick wall, is the entrance to Marshall, MN, the biggest town on the layout. The BN loco is on the BN track and the DME locos are on the DME main line. The siding out front on the left is the program track and will have a propane industry. On the right will be Midwest Railcar Repair and further along another industry. The storage sidings behind are threefold: two tracks for a Twin Cities and Western (TC&W) operation, two tracks for storage of “one off” trains like the DME business car train and a steam tour train, and the fifth track is a yard lead. Above these storage tracks will be the main scenic highlight of the layout – a steel girder bridge crossing a floodplain between the location of Clement and Evan. Prototypically, the floodplain and bridge here are purely fictional. You can see that although the second deck here should be at 10 inches, it is lower and this is to allow for the bridge.

Image 9: This is the curve between Marshall and, well, Marshall (lower deck). Around to the left we continue into another set of tracks in Marshall with more industries and sidings to make up trains. On the upper deck is a narrow link between the bridge scene and Evan, MN. The risers here are testing to see if I need more height for the bridge scene. Again, not putting in insulation and wallboard here at this end of the garage was a mistake.

Image 10: Marshall again, from the garage door end. The curve seen in the previous image is at the top right of this photo. The DME main line is immediately to left of the string of LMX locos. The empty track on the right of the LMX locos is the BN/BNSF main line. TC&W trains also enter here at Marshall (top left of photo) and weave onto the DME main line for the trip to Redwood Falls. The DME loco depot is just out of shot bottom left corner. Just outside of Marshall (beyond the bottom of this photo), there is the incline to the upper deck and also a branch line to Lake Marshall. The BN/BNSF continues around the bottom deck at right while the DME main line will swing around and start the two per cent incline to connect to the upper deck at Wabasso eight inches higher.

Image 11: Ths is the DME loco depot (the BN loco is an interloper and the Rock Island GP9 is waiting for a replacement DME GP9 body). You can see the second deck along this side of the garage uses metal angle brackets screwed into the wall timbers. I am experimenting with how to hide the brackets with a scenic board. I was smart enough to insulate and wallboard this western side of the garage (as the afternoon sun in summer is very hot).

Images 12a and 12b: The photos are taken from outside looking into the garage from the garage door side of the building. You can see my peferred timber arrangement for holding up the second deck baseboard – Piersen is above us here. The fictional town of Piersen is named in memory of Joe Piersen of the Chicago and Northwestern Historical Society (CNWHS) who helped find information for me in the early development of the layout. The incline is on the right and the track just to the left of the incline goes to Lake Marshall and also allows DME trains continuous run on the bottom deck. The DME grain hoppers are on one of the three DME stub-ended hidden storage tracks.

Images 13a and 13b: These views are at the same location but taken inside the garage looking out. This area is the ADM facility in Marshall, MN, serviced by the BN/BNSF. The train with the freight cars out front is on the BN/BNSF passing track while in the distance is a pair of Wisconsin Central diesels heading towards Marshall on the BN/BNSF main line. You can see the upper deck and all the bits and pieces moved recently from all over the bottom deck to a new (temporary) resting place.

In image 13b (above), the Granite Rock ballast hoppers are on the inner edge of hidden staging here. This train will be a Dakota and Iowa Railroad (DAIR) train. Just over two inches lies between hidden staging and what will be the scenic board and the ADM facility (flats and photos) in front of it.

Image 14: Still on the lower deck, at the opposite side to where the previous photos were taken, we see the progression of the incline and the DME storage sidings back at Brookings. You can see the turnout on the right with the switch motor and wires which routes trains to Lake Marshall. Two sets of Woodland Scenics two per cent foam inclines have been used to make the eight inches necessary to reach the upper deck. The five stub-ended tracks in the foreground are DME staging representing Brookings, SD.

In conclusion, I hope these images are sufficient to show how the bottom deck of the layout falls into place, both in terms of the trackwork and construction. There is still much to do of course, but the journey is just as important as the destination….isn’t that right?

Another new year perhaps?

It took an email from a friend in South Dakota to remind me that this blog has largely been inactive for quite a considerable amount of time. Progress on the layout has been marginally better; in particular in recent times with a new bout of enthusiasm.

I promised Eric some photos of the layout over the weekend so I’ll make sure I add them to the blog as well (if I can remember how to do that!). It’s quite opportune really as last weekend I cleared all the junk (jars of nails and screws, soldering equipment, tools and accessories, wire, cardboard, paper, and endless other layout building paraphenalia) off the bottom deck of the layout and now it’s much less an embarassment to photograph.

I envy those modellers who keep such clean and neat layout benchtops during the construction phase. Hats off to you. I also admire those modellers who make continuing progress on their layouts and keep up their blogging as well.

I can’t promise anything but I’ll certainly try to get those layout photos up on the blog this weekend. It’s still baseboard central, but at least you can recognise it as such.

Could 2019 be the year?

It is self evident to say that my blogging on this site was almost non-existent in 2018. Even so, progress was made on the layout with the incline to the second deck completed at a more conservative 2% ruling grade than the planned 4% grade which didn’t work.

The lower deck received a number of track modifications (many in fact over several months as I experimented with a range of scenarios) and some extra storage sidings. I even managed a few industry mock-ups to pretend the railway has some customers.

The trains have been running on the layout’s lower deck. Both the DME and BN/BNSF trains are running loops at the moment. However, when the second deck is completed, DME trains will run point-to-point.

I have had a couple of informal operating sessions where we have tested a number of options, from train sequencing to the most suitable number of freight cars per train. The average train length comprises two diesel locomotives and 12 freight cars but there is some flexibility for longer trains. I run a 20 car coal train on the BN/BNSF portion of the layout which looks terrific, even without scenery!

Most importantly, the ideas have kept coming. This has meant that the plans for the second deck are greatly improved. One hopes that the second deck trackwork is finished come this time next year.

In May 2018 I managed to attend the NMRA Thousand Lakes Region (TLR) convention in Sioux Falls (SD). I caught up with lots of friends from past TLR conventions. I also spent time at the convention with my good friend Alan from Kansas City which was great.

In 2019 I want to finish all the trackwork on the second deck. I would like to have some model structures in place, or at the very least, placeholder mock-ups for every lineside industry. It would be good if some scenery was in place too. But most importantly, I’d like to have some op. sessions to further test out the layout and the paperwork….and also to have some fun running trains!

Lastly, I want to make better use of this blog in 2019 to record some milestones and generate further ideas for the layout. Stay tuned…




While lamenting on my past twelve months in the model railroad hobby over at sister blog, Armchair Modeller Down Under, I thought I should focus on the coming year in this particular blog.

If I have any readers left, you will know that blog posts have been few and far between over the past couple of years. I will spare you the excuses and explanations. Suffice to say, any improvement in the number of blog postings in 2018 should not be too difficult to achieve. That’s now on the record and, like an economist’s annual forecast, can be assessed for accuracy at the same time next year. I expect a better outcome for my blog posting forecast than an economist’s forecast by the way.

The lower deck has all the trackwork completed. All the track is wired up – feeders to each piece of track and connected to the bus wires incorporating four power districts. The trains run pretty well given that the location for the layout is less than dustproof, albeit I do have some problem locos and/or problem track that need further work.

The incline to the second deck has been an issue that has delayed things. Initially, I was happy with a 4% grade using the Woodland Scenics incline product. Upon testing, there were some locomotives and/or trains that found the going too tough. I decided that a long 2% grade was possible and this is where I am currently up to. I have 2/3 of the incline down with just 1/3 to go. This necessitated some changes to the upper deck plan but that’s ok – it has been a procrastinator’s raison d’etre for the past twelve months really. I am happy with the current plan (version 4599 most likely).

Despite the naysaying of my good friend David L., I do intend to go ahead with the second deck. This work will be done this year (get back to me in a year’s time). What this also means is that a set of priorities might be worthwhile to ensure that I don’t simply forget about ballasting, scenery, buildings (not just mock-ups), and scenic backboards. Just get me to the operating session ASAP please!!!

In conclusion, I love the start to a New Year as it truly represents hope over reality. That said, let’s hope 2018 sees a little more reality and lots of hope exercised in the coming months.


W. Fairview Road, Marshall

At Marshall (MN) there is a cluster of small industries along W. Fairview Road that represent good options for inclusion on my DME model railroad. All but one are rail-served.

The largest of the industries in this cluster is the grain elevator (now ADM but I think may have been something else several years ago). This is not the giant ADM processing facility that used to be Minnesota Soy Co-operative (MSC).

Reinhart Food Services is situated on the other side of the tracks to the grain elevator and is not rail-served. Nevertheless, it is a nice looking industrial building and I am likely to include it on the layout.

Across the road from Reinhart is Alter Metal Recycling with a rail-served spur for loading scrap metal into gondolas. This is a great industry for the model railroad.

Across the rail line from the scrapyard is a nice looking wooden dock. I don’t know the name of the business that used this dock so I plan on creating a small industry that would receive loads in box cars. Alternatively, I could possibly use it as a team track.

Lastly, just around the corner from these industries is the iconic Marshall water tower which I will look at fitting on the layout. Water towers are great signposts for towns on model railroads.

W. Fairview Road with this little quadrant of industries offers a great variety of operational interest for the model railroad.

Marshall and New Ulm

My trip has moved westward to Marshall and New Ulm, Minnesota. Only one day has been sunny which is a shame but this did not stop me taking photos.

Marshall is a key location on my model railroad with key industries such as the ADM plant, Schwann Foods, Reinhardt Food Services, scrap dealer, propane dealer, and more.

Whilst New Ulm is not represented on the layout, it is a good place to check out industries. It is also well worth a visit to the Schell Brewery for some beer tasting and tour of the facilities.

I will head north to Minneapolis today and hope to get to a model shop or two. I have pencilled in Scale Model Supplies and Becker’s Hobbies.

Tomorrow I fly out of Minneapolis to Los Angeles and then back to Australia.


My US trip has focused largely on model railroading. However, today was my day to see some prototype train action. Once again, Waseca was the place where I saw some main line and switching action. First up was AC4400 locomotive CEFX 1025 and Canadian Pacific ES44AC locomotive number 8708. They were initially setting out a grain car at the western end of Waseca beyond the grade crossing. They were later to take a very long train, comprising mainly covered hoppers, out east.  In town was DME 4005 sporting it’s DME blue and gold livery switching on the branch just near the Waseca station building.

As the morning was surprisingly sunny, I also took the opportunity to take some building photos. These photos will form the inspiration for several industries on the model railroad. First up was the Birds Eye factory with it’s terrific assortment of building structures almost the length of a street. I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of guys from the plant who explained that some product still comes in and goes out by rail. In my time period of 1995-96 there was even greater rail traffic with the plant. I also took photos of various grain elevators and feed mills. I noticed that Brown Printing is now Quad Graphics and this remains an interesting building, albeit hard to photograph well.

I drove west to Mankato and had a scout around before ending up at Applebees. I took a few photos of the building as a possible structure to model, although by this time it was overcast. I met a couple of guys there who were surprised that Applebees were not in Australia.

I continued west and decided to spend overnight at New Ulm at my usual hotel chain. There is an Applebees restaurant close by but I decided that I would save the experience until later in the week, perhaps in Marshall (MN). I might go to the Schell Brewery if a tour is available.

Tomorrow I will go back to Waseca to catch up with a chap who hopefully will introduce me to a former DME engineer. I hope this can happen because I need to get a better understanding of prototype operation in the mid-1990s.

The rest of the week is forecast to be overcast with some rain. This is not ideal but I just have to deal with the weather as it plays out.


Another trip to the DME

There are lots of reasons, both good and bad, as to why this blog is not as active as it should be. I’d like to say it was because of all the time I pour into the layout that prevents me from blogging. Alas, this is not the case.

What I can say is that the layout (lower deck) is operational. I have had a few small operating sessions where trains have been run and some problems identified and corrected. It is still very much “plywood junction” but that’s ok for now. The upper deck remains unfinished and the incline is still without power. One of my friends is always lobbying me to forget the upper deck all together!

At the same time, there is some uncertainty in our household whether to move house or make some substantial renovations to the current house. This is not model railroad related but one of the key renovations could mean moving the model railroad from its current location in the double garage. A decision on all of this is yet to be made.

However, the really exciting news is that I am off to the US again in just over a week’s time. I will be visiting a friend in Kansas City before heading over to Ames, Iowa for the Thousand Lakes Region/Mid-Continent Region NMRA convention. It has been a few years now since I last went to a TLR Convention. I have made many friends from these convention visits and I hope to catch up with people this year in Ames.

After the convention I am getting a lift with a friend to Minneapolis. From here, I will hire a car for ten days to drive around DME/CP territory in southwest Minnesota. Although this will be my third visit to the prototype DME, I have more time this trip. More time means not rushing around and driving hundreds of miles each day. I intend to spend some time in Waseca as this location never disappoints for seeing DME trains. I anticipate going as far west as Brookings (SD) and east as far as Rochester.

If you’re out and about in Ames, or in DME territory, I hope to say g’day!

Do you see what I see?

One of the issues I have been wrestling with recently is determining the most effective method of track occupancy detection.  I have four stub-ended staging yards that will be hidden from the operators.  Operators will need to know what tracks have trains and those that do not.

There are a number of options that are available for consideration:

Track occupancy determined by current draw – this type of detection on a DCC layout uses the additional current draw from a DCC locomotive to indicate if a section is occupied or not. The NCE BD20 is an example of a device that registers this current draw and indicates occupancy with a coloured LED on a control panel.

Track occupancy by infrared light detection – this type of detection is where an infrared beam, or pulse, of light is broken by a stationary or passing train. The beam of light can either come from between the rails or from the side. Examples include irdots from Heathcote Electronics, the reflective proximity sensor from Iowa Scaled Engineering, and infrared model train detection units from Azatrax.

Track occupancy is made visible via a camera and screen – this is where a small camera is set up to view the yard throat or yard of a set of hidden staging tracks. Vision is displayed to the operator on a screen attached to a control panel or on the fascia of the layout. I have read of layouts using this method with very satisfactory results. That said, I am experimenting with one such set-up using a car reversing camera and screen I bought cheap off eBay. More sophisticated (and expensive) options are available using home security cameras and screens.

Track occupancy determined by human eye. You might wonder how this is going to work if all the staging tracks are hidden!  Well, two of the stub-ended staging areas are easily visible by the dispatcher who sits inside the turnback loop (peninsula) of the layout. As for the other staging track areas, I am considering a viewing slit between the top of the 3mm MDF scenic backdrop and the bottom of the upper deck so that operators can see all the tracks by eye (the hidden staging tracks would be illuminated by strip LEDs). This method is possibly the cheapest and the most assuring to operators, but it is less visually appealing in terms of the scenic backdrop.

I understand one can also do something with reed switches and magnets but this is not part of my considerations.

In the recent NMRA Magazine (October 2016) there is a very favourable review (pp:40-41) of Azatrax track occupancy detection. The review covered two methods – current draw and infrared detection. Since I am using dead sections at the end of each staging track to kill power to the locomotives, and therefore stop them running over the edge, I don’t see how track detection by current draw will work for me in that situation. The infrared method is the more effective solution, albeit I would need to ensure that the detector was at a suitable midway point along the stub-ended staging track to incorporate trains coming in and going out of staging. I wonder how often the gap between rollingstock plays havoc with the accuracy of the infrared detection!

As an operator, I must say that I prefer being able to physically see the staging tracks as I don’t trust technology to be 100% accurate all the time! This option can be accommodated by the camera/screen method, or via the gap between the top of the backscene board on the lower deck and the bottom of the upper deck. The latter method may not be too bad for me. My scenic areas on the lower deck are not directly under the top deck – they are stepped out so that the top of the scenic backboard reaches the front of the upper deck.

While I wrestle with the options and permutations, I can just continue with the current “method” which is the easiest of all – have no backscenes on the lower deck at all. Hidden staging is now well and truly visible!

The tethered throttle dance

Over the past couple of months I have had some operating sessions with 2-4 operators to test out the layout. These operating sessions are pretty primitive in that there is no formal scheduling of trains, no switch lists, and no waybills. We operate on the DME and BN lines on the lower deck which means we run out of staging and through Ivanhoe, Rosa Park and Marshall (or vice versa) for DME trains and from staging through Marshall for the BN.  A DME train may do some switching in Marshall or Rosa Park. The photo below shows DME GP9 (#1471), a Proto 2000 model, switching one of the “industries” in Marshall.


The purpose of these informal sessions is really to test the trackwork, circuit breakers, and DCC system (NCE in my case). I have three throttles at the moment, all of which are tethered. I purchased the two tethered CAB06 throttles for the purpose of switching the two main freight yards at Marshall and Rosa Park. I will use radio throttles for the train crews, but I am still to buy these throttles.

With three operators running trains at the same time with three tethered throttles it became quite a dance around the layout as we followed our trains around. With more operators and tethered throttles, the dancing would have been much more complex.

While I am sure that we can manage with tethered throttles, even with a couple more operators, I think radio throttles will definitely be the way to go. The tethered throttles can definitely be used by the yardmasters, and for staging. But the convenience of radio throttles for train crews is clear-cut.

The informal sessions so far have highlighted a couple of problems with the track in places, and the drop-down bridge track connections to the layout need some adjustment. Nevertheless, we have had fun running trains and dancing in the aisles with our tethered throttles.