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Charter Street Track Plan

Minimalist Model Railroading Case Study #20

Charter Street Steam

Capturing the Essence of Switching an Industry on a Micro Layout

Track Plan At A Glance

Layout Theme: Industry
Layout Type: Portable Layout
Size: 8"x15'
Scale: HO Scale
Era: 2000s
Track: Code 83
Turnouts: No. 6
Min. Radius: 30"

Article by: Jim Spavins
Posted: November 1, 2016
Published: December 31, 2012

So what if you don't have space to build the model railroads shown in the other chapters of this book? Should you just throw in the towel and find something else to do? No! There is always room to build a layout - even if it is small in size. In the worst case scenario, what if you have no place to set up a permanent model railroad? This is where minimalist design can be of great help.

Let's start with the premise that you enjoy switching freight cars. One possible theme is to capture the essence of switching a single industry along the line. For the sake of discussion, let's make some assumptions about our design constraints.

Space: As stated, there is no place to permanently set up a model railroad. However, maybe there are places where a layout could be set up for few hours or maybe over a weekend. Maybe the layout could be setup in the living room. Or maybe it could be setup on the dining room table. How about on a kitchen counter or on a set of bookshelves in the office? It is possible to find a place to set up a layout temporarily. The constraint would be finding a place to store a layout away which could be set up and taken down. How about finding room under a bed or on a shelf in a closet? How about hanging from a wall or the ceiling in a basement? There are plenty of places to put away a model railroad if you think creatively.

Skills: A small compact railroad can be enjoyable for everyone from a beginner to an advanced builder. Some basic carpentry skills would be required to build a suitable base but otherwise a beginner could build a small layout. Even a skilled model builder could find lots of projects from super detailing railroad equipment to track.

Time: The time constraint for this railroad is that the layout can only be set up on a temporary basis. Since a micro layout is generally simple to construct, the amount of time spent building the railroad isn't much of a factor in the design. The important consideration would be to only have a few pieces which can be quickly assembled to get trains up and running - and just as importantly to be put away in a hurry.

Money: A layout this small probably wouldn't break the bank if you are considering starting in the hobby. On the high end, assuming you bought the best of the best commercial components, you could probably have this layout finished for less than $500 - including the cost of a control system and rolling stock.

With these constraints in mind, it would be possible to build an interesting model of capturing the essence of a crew switching an industry. For inspiration, we will look at the operations of the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad's switching of the Charter Street Heating Plant in downtown Madison, WI.

Usually, three to four days a week, the railroad would bring a cut of 6-10 coal cars in the afternoon from its yard in downtown Madison to the Charter Street Heating Plant. The plant itself generates steam which is used to heat buildings on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. The railroad would switch the empties in and out as well as rearrange any cars waiting to be unloaded. In all, the crew would be at the plant switching for an hour or so before heading back to the downtown Madison yard with the empties. This operation would make a perfect small layout design as can be seen above.

Wisconsin Southern at the Charter St. Steam Plant

A Wisoncsin Southern locomotive switches out the Charter Street Heating Plant in Madison, WI. | Photo by Jim Spavins.


The layout is designed in three pieces - two parts which have scenery and buildings and a third staging track section. In all, only a 8-10" wide railroad would need to be constructed and the length of the sections could vary depending upon the storage space you have available as well as the space to set up the railroad. This particular design assumes the finished portion of the railroad is comprised of two 8" x 6' sections and one four foot staging section. This would create a railroad 15' long and 8" wide. When taken down, we would have two pieces 8" x 6' which could be placed under a bed, on a shelf in a closet, or even hung on a wall. The staging track could fit almost anywhere as it only needs to be 3" wide to accommodate the one track.

Operating the Railroad

As designed, we would assume that a four car train would start the session in the staging yard. A set of five cars in various states of processing would be located on the plant track. A switch list could be generated which shows which cars need to be removed from the plant, which cars need to be re-spotted, and which cars need to be delivered. The session would then start by running the train out of the staging and switching the plant. Once the switch list was complete, you'd shove the train back to the staging track.

While the track plan looks simple, these moves may not be. For example, the real crew doesn't store cars on the railroad crossings while they make other moves. The plant is surrounded by the roadway grid of the downtown city and two of these streets are modeled on the railroad. In addition, the switching lead into the plant can only accommodate three cars and a locomotive so you will have to make several moves in and out of the plant to accomplish the day's work.

To keep things interesting, you might want to add removable coal loads (maybe even have a partial load to show a car in process of being unloaded in the plant). This way in between operating sessions, you can change up the order of the cars and how they will need to be re-arranged at the plant.

Constructing the Railroad

Even though the layout looks simple and doesn't take up much room, there could be quite a bit of modeling done. For example, the area around the plant is filled with multistory apartment buildings. These all have small decks and the college students can be creative with their decorations. The streets, sidewalks, and crossings could all be modeled very accurately. With the layout only 8" of width, there is still 10 square feet of scenery to build - about the equivalent of a third of the ubiquitous 4'x8' model railroad. It is possible to spend lots of time carefully crafting scenery on a railroad like this. In addition, a fair amount of time could be spent detailing all of the freight cars and locomotives used on the railroad since the total fleet needed for the layout would be fairly small.  This type of layout could easily provide several years of enjoyment and maybe when a bigger space became available, this small layout could be incorporated in a larger model railroad.

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'