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Narrow Gauge Fever

October 3, 2010

Something about being in the mountains of Italy for four months must have connected with Colorado somewhere deep in my mind, and the narrow gauge trains that populate  its valleys and canyons, because the first thing I’ve done model-railroading-wise is begin building HOn30 narrow gauge trains out of my N-scale equipment.

A 3ft. gauge train of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic RR winds its way toward Antonito, Colorado.

HOn30 consists of modeling narrow gauge trains in HO scale using N scale track, which gauges out to 30″ in the larger scale, instead of standard gauge 4′ 8 1/2″. The gauge being 2 1/2 feet means that the majority of modelers in HOn30 follow the Maine 2-foot narrow gauge railroads as their prototype, but the difference is 6″ either way between 2′ and 3′ from 30″. With the Denver and Rio Grande Western being my favorite of all the once-numerous American railroads, I naturally used it’s extensive roster of 3′ gauge trains as my prototype. Many models that run on exact 3′ gauge track (HOn3) are made of the Rio Grande’s famous narrow gauge trains, but are far above the capabilities of my modeling budget, with a widely available locomotive model costing around $250. HOn30 provides an inexpensive alternative, since a standard N-scale locomotive used for kitbashing costs around $50 or less (if you know where to look). More info about HOn30 can be found at

The First Locomotive

The first “victim” of my transformations was my old Bachmann GP-50. I decided to convert it to a cobbled-together “critter” type diesel locomotive, the kind a logging or mining railroad would have had.

A Bachmann GP-50, awaiting metamorphosis.

I started by making a cab from basswood, carefully fitting it over the original cab. I decided against cutting away any of the original body shell, as it would help keep dust out of the mechanism. The next step was pulling useful detail parts from my trio of dead Tyco diesels, including air tanks from the top of an SD-24.

Cab and details fitted, awaiting the paint shop.

After a coat of matte black acrylic, a flatcar was quickly made from a boxcar chassis and a piece of scribed basswood. I kept the original Norfolk Southern stripes and rearing horse, with the idea of eventually lettering it for the “Mustang Railroad”

The finished loco with a quickly made flatcar out of a boxcar underbody and some scribed basswood.

I also felt a comparison shot was in order after the loco received its number, to show just how small the new motive power was compared with standard gauge equipment.

As the sun sets on the Silverado Shops, the boss lines up a comparison publicity shot.

Steam Comes to the Mustang RR

After running diesel #42 for a while, I was bitten with the narrow gauge bug in full force. I feverishly bought an N scale Life-Like 0-6-0 and a heavyweight truck from the junk bin that had seen better days to turn into a diminutive puffer for the rapidly expanding narrow gauge feeder line. This time, instead of just going “all in” and making up the design as I went along, I sketched out a rough outline to go for.

A concept sketch helps guide the process of 'bashing.

Soon I had the cab built and running boards in place. A glue applicator tip became the stack, an eraser cap off an old mechanical pencil the dome, and a bit of the interior mechanics of the pencil the headlight. Another dead Tyco diesel lost its bell for the little engine, as well.

With the original cab removed, the new one rises in its place, along with random bits for stack, dome, and headlight.

Almost done, save paint.

With the paint done and the number 7 applied, it was off to be tested and photographed.

The engineer tips his hat to the designer.

The fireman shovels on a little more coal.

Comparison with the original #42. Almost as long, plus the tiny tender!

Closeout Lends a Hand

I was content with such an even ratio of steam to diesel, puttering around with an increasing number of narrow gauge cars (which I’ll cover in the future as a photo how-to). However, the local Hobby Lobby was clearing out all their train merchandise, leaving a normally $75+ Bachmann 2-6-2 at only $26. I couldn’t resist the opportunity for larger steam power.

Forgot to take a "before" shot, so we join this project in-progress.

I used many of the same random materials for details as on the little #7, but with a finer detailed headlight and cab windows.

Individual frames were assembled for the front windows.

The original tender shell was riding too close to the rear of the cab, so I chopped it back to prevent binding and to give the fireman a place to stand.

The modified tender.

This time only the roof of the cab would be cardstock, so the structure would be less flimsy than #7’s cab overall.

Coming along, with the dome added.

Finally, with a cab roof, paint and the #10 applied, it was off to freight service.

Pulling the scratchbuilt boxcar.

The bell is the weakest detail, as it’s simply a brass piece from that mechanical pencil’s innards smashed into the general shape of a bell. An actual swinging type will replace it at some point, and both locomotives will get whistles of one kind or another when I can procure some detail parts.

Three HOn30 locomotives in less than three months for under $100 isn’t too bad a piece of work in this college-student model railroader’s eyes. Focusing on building more rolling stock is the next challenge, since three engines and four cars doesn’t make for a very profitable railroad!

Next time on Narrow Gauge Fever: the Mustang Mining Corporation layout!

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