Ride the Crescent Lines
by Mike Mule and Jeff Junker
Freelancing a railroad from the fictitious city of Crescent City to Kansas City, the Crescent City Model Railroad Club models only the about last 180 miles of mainline on what they call the River Division. (The northern terminus of this division is around Natchez.) Located just outside of New Orleans – in Metarie – the club has been around since the early 1970s.
Switch List Ballet
The Crescent Lines Railroad views itself as part of a larger transportation system; its goal is to transport goods across the country, in a mostly north to south direction. This is reflected in how an operating session is run. Types of trains running during an operating session include wayfreights, switching, passenger trains, manifest freights, coal drags, intermodal trains and grain trains, and these depend upon the period being modeled.
To this end, the club operates by advancing time periods from about 1940 to modern. In January of each year, they begin in 1940, and each month they operate, the model calendar is advanced by about 5 years, until late November. This includes not only changing out equipment, but also changing the operating “style” as time progresses (i.e.: train orders in 1940, to dispatcher controlled in the modern times). In November, all attention is turned to preparing the club for its annual Christmas Show, which is open to the public for viewing.
On average, it takes about six hours to stage the trains – this includes checking the last sessions waybills, etc., and locating the cars positions on the track and then routing them according to what type of car they are. This is done the week before the operating session. They run the session on a “fast clock”, which are digital type clocks running at a 6 to 1 ratio; all timetables are gauged accordingly.
During more modern times, “the members use radios to communicate with the dispatcher, who gives the go ahead for the trains to move and enter or leave stations,” according the Michael Poche, the chief dispatcher. “They have a printed timetable which to follow and manifests of what actions each engineer has to perform – like picking up extra cars or dropping them off. They have 7 main-line cabs and use walk-around throttles which the operator unplugs after leaving one section and plugs back in when moving into the next area.”
Most passenger trains on the layout, particularly the First Class ones, have little or no switching to do. These trains are Nos. 1 & 2 (the all-Pullman Crescent Limited), # 3 & 4 (the accommodation trains), and # 5 & 6 (the all coach trains.) Their only action is to pick-up or drop off cars on a one time special movement, for instance when a division Superintendent’s private car, an extra mail car or express car needs to be dropped off which may happen only in particular times of the year.
The second class trains do more work, but are still mainline through runs. Third class trains are locals, traveling over only a portion of the layout. The first of these second class trains are Nos. 27 & 28, the fast mail & express. Southbound, # 27 switches at Turner City and Frog Bayou. Since it is a mail train, it may slow down or stop at almost every major town in the division. As # 27, also sets out cars at Turner City for the third class train # 206 (the local from Crescent City to Hattiesburg/Brookhaven branch.) Usually, a box express car and a mail/baggage car are dropped off here, with shipments for the area originating from northern points to be off loaded, and then local area shipments for the branch are loaded aboard.
At this same time, # 27 picks up a car that had dropped off by yesterday’s # 27 at Frog Bayou – this will be explained in a minute. As the third class train, # 206 upon arrival in Turner City, switches the two cars dropped off by # 27 into her train and then heads up the branch. Upon return, as # 205, which is the southbound equivalent of this train, stops briefly at Turner City to drop off local originating mail and express, and then continues onto Crescent City. Upon #205’s arrival, one of her two Baggage/mail cars is quickly turned and is placed in the consist of the northbound # 28. Back to the fast mail(s): after leaving Turner City soutbound, # 27 will also drop a sealed baggage or express car at Frog Bayou, which is unloaded with northern-shipped materiel for that area, re-loaded there with shipments for the Turner City area and points in between, as well as any mail and express due for Crescent City (that either missed # 27 or was too much to load as she came through on her tight schedule).
This car is then returned to Turner City as part of the TCFB’s local switch job. This is the car that is then picked-up by the next day’s #27, as she drops off the Baggage/Mail and Box Express cars for # 206,as noted before. She then again heads south to Crescent City, except for a drop-off in Frog Bayou. All of this is planned in advance when making up the switch lists, including the connecting cars.
This all takes planning. The member in charge of planning the switch-list(s) looks at the trains to see what would be coming down, logically, from northern cities that the Crescent Lines serves, and adjusts the consists accordingly. The freight trains are a lot tougher to plan, though. There are a couple of dedicated freights, particularly, numbers 31 and 32. These are fast freights, using passenger times and schedules. They carry perishables, usually in refers. The consists reflect cars that would have been used in this area due to local commodities, i.e.: strawberries, crawfish, shrimp, satsumas.
There are plants on the South end of the layout that would generate these shipments for northern markets. # 31 & 32’s trains connect with the locals # 102 & 103(on the p.m. shift & 100 & 101 on a.m.). These third class trains, running from Crescent City to Spanish Fort and back, actually perform four primary jobs. Its is the switcher for Spanish Fort’s industries, and makes sure that, in its late night p.m. shift, that loaded crawfish reefers, from Horsehoe Seafood Co., are set out for an early a.m. pick-up by # 32.
On its way north to Spanish Fort, earlier that evening, she also served as the commuter train, dropping riders at every stop possible. In the a.m., shift, # 100, on its way north, also serves as the paper train. She drops off newspapers at every community she passes. After also switching any milk cars out, she then returns as # 101, the early morning commuter train, making sure that all Crescent Lines patrons arrive at their jobs on time. One day, the club hopes to employ a system of cards randomly picked to determine the number of cars needed for a train, or to find a computer program that can handle such a multi-period as they have.
Now, onto the freights. Again, the planner researches what might have run during the designated time period. The manifests are usually the basic bread and butter of such a modeled transportation system. These trains make connections with other freights shuffling cars to and from the main, on the branches, and also take cars from other railroads, offline, through use of the several interchanges located on the layout. Basically, they are the so-called “mop-up” trains in that they pick up whatever is not carried by another train. In their makeup, or planning, members use books to tell help decide what the industries modeled on their layout would need in terms of raw materials, where they would probably come from, and what type of products would ship from each industry.
For those doing the switching it helps to give the feel of realism. An operating session is analogous to a movie: some appreciate the musical score, and others just care about what gets blown up. But like a movie without music, without all this planning, something might be missing from operations.
Making the Scene
The visual aspect of the Crescent Lines is just as important as the operational side. The scenery and structures makes it feel like a real railroad. Weathering and scenery have a different feel to it at a club layout than that of a home pike. At a club, many different members through the years have contributed their talents in the building process. Each one brings their own unique style and technique to the landscape. It evolves into a city scape much like a real city, with different architects, contractors, styles and design.
Since a home pike usually involves just one or two modelers, the weathering is usually quite similar from building to building. In real railroads, not every car weathers the same: they’re run through different climates, different terrain, and are maintained differently.
The Crescent Lines operates across a mixture of rural and urban areas. The structures look like you would expect in Mississippi and Louisiana. Some of the billboards and buildings have signs that are old newspaper and magazine advertisements from local companies, some of which are long out of business.
The old Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, which was designed by a then apprentice architect named Frank Lloyd Wright, is duplicated in miniature on the Crescent Lines as their southern most passenger terminal.
Any member can build the buildings, but whether their efforts result in the building going on the layout, or where on the layout, is up to members of both the operations committee and scenery committee. (You wouldn’t stick a concrete plant in the middle of a refinery – or do you?),
One of the landscape designers is Lenny DiMartino. He gets his inspiration and ideas by observing the effect nature has on city-scapes and wide open areas. “I’m constantly looking at real life with an eye on how to model, what products to use, what to include and what may be omitted without sacrificing the overall impression of the scene,” he says.
The process for deciding what goes where is the same as when new trackage is added or altered: discussions. Dimartino explains: “After numerous mistakes were made through the years we now approach scenery building methodically. This starts with, and continually includes, having an overall plan for the railroad; what it does, why it’s there, and how it came to be where it is today.”
“Good scenery building is a result of faithfulness to representations of real life, with all it’s quirks and oddities. Having a game plan for the railroad dictates what it should look like. Model railroads based on existing lines or fallen flags easily have the advantage of specific scenes. Then you just model them using all the typical tools including selective compression and forced perspective. Fictitious railroads run the risk of ‘anything goes’ and real life oxymorons easily develop if not careful.”
“Adhering to all of the above, Mike Poche’ and I will discuss in depth an area the club members have expressed a desire to develop (sometimes with other members’ input) often over spans of time. We try to exhaust all possible (and frequently impossible) situations, agree on many points, disagree on some, often reverse opinions after consideration on the points we disagree. We also take into account limitations (financial, logistical, space constraints, modeling skills) and eventually build something. Quite often plans are adapted or developed as building begins and something takes shape. We let ‘natural’ evolutions express themselves. Rarely (if ever) does something get built to the model square inch from plans.”
Some parts of the layout, have been steadily built (and rebuilt over these past thirty some odd years), upgraded, but not completely overhauled. Because this large layout has been built at different times with different types of supporting wood, it is essentially “alive.”
Depending on the time of the year the roadbed moves slightly and changes profile even though the building is kept air-conditioned. Humidity and temperature affect it more than would occur on a smaller pike. Thus, one of the biggest helps to keeping things running is the tension placed on the trucks through the kingpin bolster (screw). Most smaller cars do fine with the three point suspension system; the larger ones need even more flexibility. Having several dozen different modelers operating their own equipment on a group layout that sometimes has up to 300 cars under way at a time requires that each car functions properly. The Crescent Lines has a Standards Committee that ensures that this happens.
“The job of the Standards Committee is to make sure that all of the equipment is up to NMRA standards,” said Phil Tiller, chairman of that committee. My job is to certify all the rolling stock. I have to check that the wheels are in gauge, the couplers are at the right height and are Kadee couplers, and that the car is at the proper weight. Generally speaking, I have to make sure everything works.”
Each car has its own history; each “type” of car its own numbering system. For instance flat car numbering begins with “44” through “48” depending on the length of the car. (44 is less than 40 feet; 45 is for 40 footers; 46 is for 56 footers; 47 is for 60 footers; and 48 is for 70 footers). Reporting marks, sometimes the modelers’ initials, indicate who the car belongs to.
In addition, they also run a lot of equipment based on prototype from real railroads. The layout is housed in a 100 by 24 foot building, most of which is taken up by the track. The track winds in a serpentine fashion throughout, winding its way around each peninsula. (It’s sectioned off similar to what museums do with special exhibits). It’s built at eye level, has dim lighting where the operators are, and bright lights hidden behind valences to spotlight the track.
This layout has been continually evolving over the years. Originally, when the club was smaller, members would just lay track where they wanted. That led to some problems as the “tracks would go in, the tracks would come out”. People found they could not agree. Since those early days, the club has instituted a system whereby one member (or a group) proposes a track plan and operating scheme for an area. They write up the proposal (after consultation with members of the building, operations and scenery committees), and post it either on the wall or on the fascia of the layout for comments. When all possible ideas have been developed, it is brought up for a vote in front of the membership.
There are also small toggles on both the Martin Shops, and Frog Bayou panels that control lights in buildings. The recently installed panels at Spanish Fort, Ellison, and Faubourg, are pretty standard and all toggles thereon control turnouts. Also, a few are simply on-off switches and are so labeled. In the back, at McNally yard, those denote on-off, as do the ones controlling power on the engine tracks at McNally.
The power packs are hidden out of sight. The seven mainline cabs are a mixture of different types of Hoggers”. Two are 50 watts, two are 100 watts, and three are the Big Blue suckers (their outside appearance is close to a Hogger). As far as the yards are concerned, there are Hoggers under St. Elsewhere, McNally, and the Port. As far as other power packs go, there are some smaller ones used for lighting certain scenes (i.e.: for lights in buildings, the cave) and are mostly MRCs.
The Crescent Lines has 400 feet of mainline, 1 staging yard, 3 major classification yards, passenger terminal operations, 6 intermediate sidings, 7 mainline cabs, 8 local cabs, fast clock and timetable operations.
As the train exits St. Elsewhere loop ( the staging area), it heads into South Natchez, which is where we pick it up on the timetable. From there it is a very short trip to Traeger, where the division headquarters building is, as well as a major classification yard. If a manifest freight, it stops here to drop off, or pick up cars, as per its waybills. Traeger is also the head of the branch to Nickolson which serves several industries, including the Nicholson Passenger station (which is also reached by mainline trains), and the heavy industries of Evergreen Toxic Waste and Disposal Co., Superior Plastics Co., and Houston Oil, a bulk oil facility specializing in providing petroleum products, most of which originate in the on-line refinery. Back to the mainline: A train heading toward the Nickolson branch also can switch to Traeger’s engine facility (Martin Shops), and the engine rip track.
From here, the trains (passenger mostly) can also service the Nickolson Station, and continue onto CrossTimbers. Cross Timbers is famous for having the largest timber trestle in this part of the country. The grade is steadily climbing at about .5%, to a point where the tracks, after passing through several hill cuts, arrive at the town of Summit. From here there is a branchline that goes to the logging town of Pemme De Terre. It is here that another branch off the main (a logging branch), goes off through a series of tunnels until reaching the local logging camps in the area.
The mainline begins its descent, after passing through a long tunnel, site of a siding to boot, until it passes several more logging camps, and ultimately reaches the town of Turner City. The scenery in this area is very hilly (think the bluffs over Vicksburg, MS), and arrives in the aforementioned town. This is the site of Whitewater River. Here is a major division point,and classification yard, with tracks that branch off again and go to Hattiesburg/Brookhaven.
In the town of Turner City, again, there is also a long siding in Turner City, and a switching or interchange (small classification yard), a lower branch (going off to the distant towns of Hattiesburg/ Brookhaven) The towns are actually not modeled, but are represented by a three track loop underneath the bench-work where trains may be stored or staged, a maniline passenger station (with station house tracks and a somewhat large freight house), a separate track out of the yard leads to Seabrook ( where Pelican Sand and Gravel is located), and a branch to the Seabrook Grain elevator (across the tracks ( sort of on the Station’s side)).
Also, out of the yard, the local industries of Rush Limbaugh Spotted Owl Lumber Mill, urner City Concrete works, and small team track off loading track. At the lumber Co., logs brought in from Pemme de Terre are processed, then Flats and Boxcars are loaded with board lumber, pulpwood cars are loaded (for trips to the paper mill (along with woodchip cars)), and occasionally resins pressed from the wood are loaded into a tank car.
From Turner City the main-line trains also pass the small village of Seabrook (only one regularly scheduled train stops there). Next is the town of Frog Bayou.
There are several industries here. On the side of the tracks nearest the aisle (or rather on the aisle side of the main), there are the industries of Frietag paint and supply, the station house tracks, Hyde’s Meats (with corresponding stock pens for loading and unloading of animals), and Rusty’s Scrap Yard. On the other side of the tracks, are several industries, including the large Bull Frog Beer Plant, Wratt Chair Co., Central Transfer, Clinton’s Bull Products, The Rice Co-op, Ronco Manufacturing, a Dairy, the short branch up to the ore processing facility, and the large grain elevator, to name a few. From there the tracks continue south into the along a long aisle-way down the length of the building.
Other than trains stopping to pick-up or drop-off blocks of cars at mainly Turner City, and to a lesser extent Frog Bayou, there is a local that “plies the rails” between those two principle towns. It is known as the Turner City/Frog Bayou Local. The train normally works second, or p.m., shift and begins by assembling its train in the Turner City yard, while at the same time delivering drop-offs to local industries in the area (including to and from the Brookhaven/Hattiesburg loop). The train heads south to Frog Bayou and switches all industries there (on both sides of the main). Upon completion, its last job is to return to Turner City switchyard, placing any pick-ups for the southbound manifests on the interchange track, and for the northbound manifest on to or in to the northbound yard track.
As the main-line trains leave Frog Bayou on their journey south, they pass over a short bridge and dive into a tunnel. Upon exiting, they continue down the long aisle way, for what turns out to be the longest continuous run on the layout. No actual switching occurs here, as just the small towns of River City, Kloppe’s Flats, and the scenic wonder of Ed’s Fault are passed. Upon passing over an open deck trestle and going through a steel bridge, the train turns and comes into the town of Spanish Fort. This was one of the first towns of any size that the original Crescent Lines RR reached on the construction north. Here are located the industries of Sunkist Citrus Co., Thibodeaux & Sons coal co., an electric power plant, Dixie Produce, and Horseshoe Seafood Co. Horseshoe Seafood is the reason the railroad came this way. Its annual production of crawfish, shrimp and fish, greatly exceeds anything in the area. In fact, during the late winter and early spring, trainloads of crawfish are regularly shipped North in cars specifically designed for that purpose. In fact, five distinct classes of refers (of the express type) are needed to handle this heavy shipper. The fast freight, # 32, is given top priority over the system during peak periods.
From here the tracks continue over the spillway, into the town of Ellison. A small mainline station is all that is seen right now. Eventually, this area will be developed further (current plans call for a chemical refinery). After that, the train passes Faubourg, home of a refinery, and continues into UPT (if passenger) after passing Carrolton Station, or, if freight, into Mc Nally yard. A short branch continues east off the main line, on the tracks of the TCRN RR, down to the end of the line. These tracks service wharves, a marine diesel facility, Blue Plate foods, a grain elevator, and Zatarans Fine foods. Also, located here is the giant REA facility (closed during modern times), a milk processor, and Valdeez coffee.
Photos by Phil Novak