Designing a Rail Empire
by Jeff Junker
Creating a conceptual plan for designing a rail empire of your own requires a lot of thought. You wind up constantly talking to yourself, saying things like “would my imaginary road could exist in the real world. Diesel, steam, or transition era? Mountains, deserts, or plains? North-South, East-West? Mainline, short line, or branch line? What is the catalyst that sparks your fiction to the realm of reality?” The approach one takes is likely to be unique; one’s personal interests are one’s guide; the algorithm is different for everyone. There are probably as many ways as there are model railroaders. With that in mind, here are some thoughts of some very creative modelers.
Jack Priller created the Clark’s Creek and Eastern Electric:
“For me the process went something like this: My personal ‘love’ of the billboard-reefer era put me into the 1920/1930 time frame. And as I have long thought that the old interurbans with one car being a train made as much if not more sense when it came to not ‘over-crowding’ the layout than a Class 1 railroad in the limited space available, that’s where I went. The concept of a short-line, or possibly bridge route, keeps down the number of home road units that require special paint or lettering, as well as giving me lots of switching problems to solve, something I have enjoyed doing since back in the mid-1950s with my first Marx [Christmas] trainset. Heeding some advice I read years ago about realistic naming of layouts and I came up with the “Clark’s Creek & Eastern Electric Railway” or the “Old Creaky” as she is known to her crew.
The Pine Valley is the railroad that Ryan Harris designed:
“I started with one element (setting) and went from there. I tried to keep the rationale for the railroad consistent with neighboring lines, the history of the area, the local and national economies, and particularly with good engineering practice. To justify the presence of a railroad in my chosen setting, I “deposited” a sizable lode of ore that remained undiscovered until the time I chose to begin construction of my railroad.”
“Since setting is such an important consideration for me.” Ryan continues, ” I wanted the physical railroad to have been designed and built in a manner consistentwith thearea. In fact, I’ve had to gather as many details as I can about the area and industries I’m modeling to make my design fit better. I admit that I’m not an expert on anything I’m doing, but I have enough knowledge to be dangerous! So for me, everything grows from setting.” (Above photo is from the Crescent City Model Railroad Club in New Orleans from an area outside of Spanish Fort. Photo by Phil Novak)
Ryan goes on to say “I didn’t really formulate a method when I started fabricating this whole thing, but it’s become clear since. I began with the “catalyst:” my motivation for protolancing (I wanted to model standard gauge railroading in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado), then came up with the “reason” for it (discovering a huge deposit of ore and needing a way to get it down from the mountains). From there I used actual industries and corporations who could have been involved in the construction and operation of the railroad. For me, the most important thing is to keep the “proto” in protolance and to follow established practice whenever possible. If every facet of the protolanced railroad is rooted in reality (excepting the catalyst of course), realism will follow.”
Don Dellmann took another approach by selecting a real railroad and projecting it past the time it went out of business. He did this with the Milwaukee Northern, and explains “In my case, I took an interurban line that once actually existed, The ‘Milwaukee Northern’, and assumed that it survived, when in actuality the prototype was abandoned before WW II. I projected that sometime in the 1940’s/50’s they took down the wire and dieselized.” (A shot of a trolley on Don Dellmann’s Layout. Photo by Don Dellmann)
Clay Dulaney’s family history provided the inspiration for his railroad, the Boondoggle ‘N Offschedule.
“The concept for my railroad has evolved over 15 or so years and several layouts,” according to Dulaney. “I came up with the concept of a shortcut through the mountains for the B&O on the previous version, which used a John Armstrong MR track plan. That one ran pretty well, but had some shortcomings which grew as I learned more about prototypical operation.”
“Then my father passed on, and I discovered a rich history of my great grandfather among the stuff buried in the attic. Great grandpa was once Secretary of the B&O, and later a real financial ‘wheeler-dealer’ [read inside trader by today’s standards, but this was 100 years ago in the age of the robber barons – he fit right in]. There were a bunch of old stocks and documents of long gone companies that he had dealings with. Suddenly, I had the industrial base for the fanciful BNO to become a real, operating, financially viable railroad.
“Now I have a number of lineside industries that have real stock shares hanging on the wall. Many are related – – chemicals, metals, oil, mining, – – and all are wonderful candidates for rail traffic.”
Then there is the question of what classification to model: shortline, branchline, or mainline.
Ryan Harris’ Pine Valley Railroad went the shortline route:
“I’ve tried the freelancing of a mainline railroad, but I never could feel justified in making a prototypical Class I a weaker company to make mine exist even just slightly. It may be because I put my railroad right in the middle of the country where UP, CNW, and BN own the traffic. Maybe some success could be had where an existing railroad doesn’t dominate, but where would the traffic originate?” (Photo of Chasey yard, named after a passed on charter member of the St Joseph Valley Railroad Club in Indiana. The yard has 5 double ended arrival/departure tracks, a run-around track, and 6 flat classification tracks. The closet end will have diesel facilities; the further end, steam. (Photo by Jason Ciastko. )
“Certainly at some point the fictitious Class I would duplicate an existing railroad’s routes. This is where I had the hard time justifying what I was doing. The same considerations that led me to abandon my Class I concept led me to create my shortline. A source of traffic had to be found to justify the railroad, so I created that source. Both the originating point and terminating point of almost all the traffic exist on my fictitious line. My railroad has only one connection to the outside world and almost none of the rolling stock ever leaves the home rails. I don’t have to think about my cars interchanging with other roads, but some foreign cars find their way to my line.”
Donald Kinney notes that “With a shortline you can add anything to it you want. You can pick what industries to have and what type of locomotives to use. With a mainline, a lot of people will say that such and such never had this or that equipment.”
Jack Priller gives another reason why he feels that creating a shortline has an advantage over creating a mainline:
“Operations tend to be a mite on the ‘take care of the customer’ rather that ‘the rules say…’ type attitude, giving you a bit of leeway on many small details. Mainlines, even if ‘no specific prototype’, HAVE to be run ‘by the book’. Even though you can write the book yourself, it should follow big-railroad practice for your chosen era. Somewhere betwixt and between is the big railroad’s branch line operations, which should work if you like the easier operating atmosphere on the shortline, but like the motive power/paint scheme of a larger company.”
Offering both pros and cons is Aidrian Bridgeman-Sutton:
“There’s a possible downside to the mainline approach – if you are concerned with reasons and justifications you probably need to justify the presence of another, albeit fictional, main line in a given state area or region. In some areas you may end up with an obvious route, other locations could make it difficult to spin a convincing tale. Then you’ve got the fun of developing a rule book if operations are your thing. That might be where the shortline has an advantage – just one major
fictional industry can make such a projection entirely believable. All you need to do is think ‘What if the paper mill at Boondocks hadn’t closed?’ or ‘What if they still made steel at Slagville?’ The rule book might tend to be treated more flexibly as well.”
“Now the steam era may be more difficult for the mainline enthusiast. The real problem here is maintaining the style, image or look which many roads had in steam days. Two obvious examples are the Pennsylvania and Santa Fe, which both had a distinctive style that made the lettering on the tender almost redundant. IC, UP, SP were equally distinctive, especially on their later power. What this does is tend to limit the freedom you have to mix and match different locomotives, unless you are prepared to add details or change things such as cabs, stacks domes and tenders.” (Photo of a lumber mill on the Crescent City layout by Phil Novak)
“On the other hand, shortlines made much use of cast off equipment – the mixing and matching of used decapods and USRA mikes is far more credible in this environment. Take a look at roads like the Interstate or Gainesville Midland for inspiration.
The downside to a shortline in any shape – freelanced, protolanced or prototype, steam or diesel – might be limited operational interest over time. “Mixed Train Daily” might be found to lack variety and interest after a while. The upside is that a small layout is practical and the level of detail per square foot can be increased if that’s your thing.”
“The idea of building a small shortline setup has considerable appeal – fewer, but more detailed pieces in a completely detailed layout might be the way forward. So we are back to an old chestnut in British modelling – it’s essentially a US version of the branchline terminus, a theme that has been done to death over here, but is the only practical solution for most houses.”
Roger Kujawa thinks big and created a 24,000 mile Class One railroad, although he only models about 100 miles of it. He explains: “In my case, I wanted a railroad that could compete with the mega-merger roads of today This allows me to have all sorts of big power, big trains and a variety of traffic. Not too many shortlines operate SD-70’s or Dash 9-44c’s.” (Photo by Roger Kujawa of one of his yards)
“It is probably more of a personal decision depending on the power and operation you are looking for.” Roger continues. “Developing a shortline and acquiring power at a swap meet one at a time seems like fun. It would be like going to a used loco market. Get the best deal, run it in the existing scheme, then reletter it, and finally repaint it into your scheme. There is an appeal to acquire a diverse collection of power as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.”
“You could go the Rail America route and be part of a larger system. This would allow you to borrow engines from one of the other partners when business had an upswing. You could also go the Montana or I&M Raillink and be a regional line with some pool power or trains from a part owner.”
(RailAmerica, Genessee and Wyoming, and Raillink are examples of groupings of shortlines owned/operated as a single but discontiguous corporation. These groups each own several medium- and small-sized railroads, and typically used a common paint scheme for all of them, but each line having its name on their locos. The Gennessee has an orange and black striped scheme common to all its lines, but each has its own name on the hood. The first two photos are of G&W units. The third is of a Buffalo & Pittsburgh SD45, sharing the common scheme of the corporate parent.
Kujawa continues, “The Camas Prairie was owned by the UP and BN and used their power. Kind of a neat concept. How about Alton and Southern set in an urban environment as a prototype? A&S used the colors of the MP and CNW which were part owners and even combined the heralds. How about the Colorado and Southern? Basically BN but with sub-lettering. Maybe you could take it where the BN never went. (Camas Prairie was sold or merged into BN or UP. Part may have been spun off as a shortline. The Alton and Southern still exits. Colorado and Southern was merged into the BN about 1980.)”
Christian Tucker is in the process of formulating his next layout. “The concept for myprevious railroad was what if Wabash had a Western Illinois narrow gauge relationship analogous to the East Broad Topand Pennsylvania in 1940. My current project railroad is still at the coin toss stage. Same location, but 1984. One side of the coin is a continuation of that narrow gauge, but matured into a regional bridge line. The other side of the coin is that Wabash took over the struggling Norfolk Western and later joined with the Southern to become the super power – Wabash & Southern. I’ve been busy modeling connecting road equipment which has stalled the final decision. I have designed livery (paint scheme) and rosters for either choice. (Photo of Crescent City Club’s entrance to main yard by Phil Novak. The large building at the right was the original Passenger Terminal in New Orleans. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.)
Craig Zeni offers his thoughts on creating a rail empire. “To me, it’s a way to mix things that did not exist in reality, but that could have very easily done so if events had zigged instead of zagged. But the key is to take the time to have the protolanceded road make sense, both geographically and economically, that is not have a granger road running in the Blue Ridge. My railroad will actually be intermixed with actual prototype…mine will be primarily shortline HOn3, mostly diesel powered but some steam, running across southside VA/northern NC. From there, we’ll see exactly what happens.” (Photo of a yet to be named industry at Muddy River Flats in the wharf area at the terminus of a branchline of the C&O of the St Joseph Valley club by Jason Ciastko.)
In all of the cases, the idea germinated from either picking a piece of real estate to run through or a style/time period in which to operate. Observing how real railroad operate and serve their areas all add to the realism that can be created on a home pike. It’s not always easy. And a lot of trial and error seeing what works and what doesn’t is a part of owning your own rail empire.