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Portable Shortline Track Plan

Minimalist Model Railroading Case Study #19

Portable Shortline Layout

Capturing the Essence of a Local Freight

Track Plan At A Glance

Layout Theme: Shortline
Layout Type: Portable Layout
Size: 9.5'x18'
Scale: HO Scale
Era: Any
Track: Code 83
Turnouts: No. 6
Min. Radius: 30"

Article by: Jim Spavins
Posted: September 20, 2016
Published: March 7, 2014

One of the styles of layouts which I haven't yet covered in the Minimalist Model Railroading series are portable layouts. While there are numerous space advantages to building around the wall style layouts featured in this series, for many of us, a permanent space to affix the layout to the walls doesn't exist. The only viable option is a portable layout of some type which can be removed easily from its current home and moved to the next. So as a bonus, we will explore a portable layout design using the minimalist design philosophy which could be setup in a spare bedroom and easily moved to a new home when needed.

For this case study, let's assume that a standard two car garage is available for temporary use on the weekend to setup and run a railroad. This type of layout would need to be simple enough to setup and breakdown fairly quickly but provide enough operational interest to keep a couple of people occupied for a few hours. This will probably limit the ability to choose some of the more intense themes - like class I mountain railroading (MMR #7 - Boston & Albany Railroad) or busy passenger terminals (MMR #12 - South Station). A good theme for this type of setup is capturing the essence of a local freight. The local freight will provide enough switching to keep a crew busy but not require lots of setup in terms of railroad equipment or portable layout sections.

The design at the beginning of the article offers a possible solution to this challenge. To mimic the operations of a typical local freight or shortline, narrow sections less than a foot wide have been designed to be cut from two sheets of 4'x8' plywood. The flowing design offers three industries large enough to justify rail traffic. Since the layout is so narrow, the scenery and details can be kept fairly basic meaning that the construction time for the layout can also be shortened. If you only had a couple of hours to build and play every weekend, big deep scenes with lots of complex trackwork would take a long time to make operational. It would probably kill any momentum on the project and lead to dissatisfaction. This type of layout would most likely take less than a half hour to setup.  This would leave more time over the weekend while the layout is setup to either have a work blitz building the sections or spent operating the railroad before the layout had to be packed away.

Plywood Diagram

The plywood cutting diagram for the portable shortline layout. | Diagram by Jim Spavins.


Presenting the Railroad

By the nature of the design, this layout would break down to be small enough that taking it to a local train show would be a possibility. Everything could fit into a typical cargo vans which are available from rental car or moving companies. Part of the idea behind the loop style layout was that if the layout is taken to shows, there will be periods of time during the show where you will want to demonstrate switching operations but other times where it would just be nice to let the wheels roll to entertain the crowds. This layout style gives you the option to do both. If going to shows with the layout is part of the intent when constructing the layout, some more attention to the layout's outward appearance should be in order. Think about adding some skirting to hide the legs and electrical connections and keep the fascia neat and clean.

Operating the Railroad

The layout is designed so that a crew would start its day at the enginehouse and prepare the locomotive for its trip out on the road. The crew would then head out to the yard/passing siding to pick up the train which has been staged there. The crew might need to spend some time blocking cars before heading out on the line if they weren't setup properly for delivery. The crew would then proceed down the line and switch the industries as needed. The yard has capacity for a 16 car train (modern equipment) and the sidings have space for up to 22 cars. This will take some time to work around the layout to all the industries if full trains are run and prototype operational practices are followed.

Resource Use on the Railroad

The time for this railroad would really be geared towards making the layout operational quickly and more of the building time skewed towards detailing and building the rolling stock fleet. There isn't much scenery to build or structures to construct. On the financial side of things, this layout could be built fairly inexpensively as only small fleet of rolling stock is needed and the control system can be a fairly basic starter DCC system. This might mean some more money could be spent on quality materials from the benchwork through scenery.

As far as skills go for this railroad, the benchwork construction might be a bit of a challenge if you want to build everything yourself. However, there are some CNC companies that will cut plywood to any shape you'd like. Even a curving design such as the one above could be simplified if this part of the benchwork construction was outsourced. Add some foam to the top of the plywood, a masonite fascia, and a couple of cross braces and you'll be ready to lay track.

Minimalist Model Railroading Case Studies

Capturing the Essence of Railroading

Introduction - Minimalist Model Railroading

Case Study #1 - Claremont Concord Railroad
Scale: O Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #2 - CP Rail's Kicking Horse Pass
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #3 - Trolley Museum
Scale: O Scale        Size: 2'x6'

Case Study #4 - N&W 611 Excursion
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #5 - CS Industries
Scale: O Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #6 - Sono Tower
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #7 - Boston and Albany Railroad
Scale: N Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #8 - Central Yard Engine Terminal
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #9 - Iron Horse Railroad Museum
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #10 - MM&R Timber Co.
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #11 - Springfield Metro
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #12 - South Station, Boston, MA
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #13 - Canaan, CT
Scale: N Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #14 - Chas Chemicals
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #15 - Westerly, RI
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #16 - Connecticut River Drawbridge
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #17 - Valley City Viaduct
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #18 - Wood River Railroad
Scale: O Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #19 - Portable Shortline
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #20 - Charter St. Steam Plant
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 8"x15'

Case Study #21 - Eastern Scenic Railroad
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #22 - West Springfield Yard
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #23 - Good Ol' 4x6
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 4'x6'