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Portable Layout

March 27, 2010

Being an architecture student far from home means not only having to spend time away from loved ones, but also loved pastimes that don’t transport well. Even having a station wagon doesn’t leave much room for model trains once all the architecture studio supplies are packed. I debated while packing for my freshman year which scale to take from my collection, weighing all the pros and cons: N scale would not take up much room in my cargo and set up on a desk, but the trains weren’t very durable for lots of moving back and forth, and my basic-level locomotives had never operated very realistically; my battery-powered G-scale train was the most durable, but wasn’t that fun to operate and would take up far too much space. HO scale once again fit the perfect middle ground it occupies so well. With it comprising the main focus of my collecting over the years, it also contained all my favorite trains.

For the first few months of school, I contented myself with a file-crate of trains in their original boxes, and a shoebox of EZ Track that would set up a good-sized oval. Then I added a switch. Then another pair of switches. Then some broader 22″ radius curves. I got a bigger shoebox. I had enough track now to build a double-track connected oval, running two trains at once (in the same direction, since block wiring isn’t portable and digital control is beyond a college student’s budget). Something was still missing, though. Grass.

More generally, scenery.

So I started thinking about how to build a portable layout that was fun to operate, since limited trackage can get boring quickly without a loop to just “run trains” on. I had already come across the two most helpful websites in planning a small railroad, Adrian Wymann’s Model Railways Shunting Puzzles, and Carl Arendt’s Micro/Small Layouts for Model Railroads. Armed with John Allen’s Timesaver trackplan I set about playing with what Atlas Snap-track I had within a maximum length of 6 feet I’d set for myself. I modified the plan for the station scene I had in mind, and split it across two 2’x3′ pieces of plywood. It was hard to set up with the trackplan leaving a switch over the divide, and the operating possibilities weren’t as great as I thought they would be. Or as challenging as the original Timesaver plan.  The EZ track got used a lot more. So the next year I tried again…this time with a larger concept.

I expanded the railroad into a 12′ shelf layout, on three foam modules sitting on adjustable metal bookshelves. My friend was able to build his own engine-house scene at one end, while I built a river scene in the middle with an S-curve across a bridge to divide the layout, and my own town and yard at the other end. We also wired each module as blocks, with the engine-house tracks and one yard track in the town as blocks for storing engines. We could operate each end separately, or link all three modules to run a train all the way through. I named it the fictitious Silverado Branch of the Denver and Rio Grande Western, and even worked up a timetable for the one passenger train, even though my friend wasn’t much into “operating.” It was beautiful. But it wasn’t very portable.

Scenery like this doesn't travel well.

Not living with my friend the next year forced the breaking up of the layout, and sent me back to the drawing board. I wanted to create something that I could say had been designed, and would look like a piece of furniture. I also wanted to be able to store the trains inside the layout, making it more of a box than a piece of plywood. Due to that, I kept the length around four feet so it wouldn’t take up much space in my car. The trackplan that I knew would work in that space and give me a kind of theatrical flexibility with the scenery was the Inglenook puzzle. The result of these parameters and a semester’s worth of thinking and designing in my spare time resulted in the current form of the “Portable Layout.”

Furniture grade materials results in furniture.

The layout works for Inglenook puzzles with either short British rolling stock, or 40′ American cars. The Woodland Scenics grass mat as the scenery base means there’s no loose-grass mess left wherever the layout has been, and allows buildings and trees and other scenery elements mounted on CD bases to be placed anywhere I like, similar to the way wargamers treat their scenery. Storage of the trains and scenery is in tackle boxes that slide into the box the frame creates from the other side.

The downside to Portable Layout II is that it is heavy due to the thickness of particle board used for the top plane. Portable Layout III is already in the works, with a lighter frame, and a foam scenery base to allow level changes. There will even be a system for packing in wiring to increase operating potential and reliability.  The oak, though somewhat heavy, is staying for its looks in some form, possibly as plywood. Stay tuned!

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