Track Plan At A Glance
Layout Theme: Test Track
Layout Type: Module
Scale: HO Scale
Track: Code 100 (Mainlines), Code 55-83 (Sidings)
Turnouts: No. 4
Min. Radius: 18"
Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: December 22, 2015
Out in the desert of Colorado, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) maintains a testing facility for railroad equipment and products (check out the website here). This sprawling complex, called the Transportation Technology Institute, has the ability to test a wide variety of railroad products from equipment like locomotives and rolling stock as well as track components and signaling systems. The idea is that the closed environment allows new materials, components, and techniques to be analyzed before being deployed out in the real world. This helps to ensure that by the time the item being tested enters regular service, everything is up to safety standards and potential problems are minimized.
While there are huge incentives for real railroads to test their equipment, one of the constant issues I have seen operating modular layouts for 20 years is rolling stock and locomotives not properly calibrated to operate on the layout. Whether it is low couplers, or underweight cars, dragging equipment, improperly programmed decoder, or a variety of defects - operations of the layout can come to halt as operators are forced to shut down the mainline as faulty rolling stock is re-railed or taken out of service. This is time consuming and doesn't make the layout look good when operating for the general public.
As a module, the above 4'x8' track plan of a test track serves a similar purpose to the prototype in Colorado. Before any equipment is taken for a spin out on the mainline, it can be tested on this module. Trains can be routed through the loop where the ability of the equipment to navigate tight curves and complex trackwork can be tested. In the yard area, some practical tools could be built into the module like a programming track, coupler height gauge, and, if you are feeling ambitious, a working scale to check each car for the correct weight. In addition, several types of track could be installed on the loop - everything from Code 100 to 83 to 70 and maybe even Code 55 track to see how well equipment tracks through these obstacles. These tools should be designed to be efficient so it is possible for a large quantity of equipment to be checked quickly.
While the minimum 18" radius in the plan will preclude testing some of the longest equipment - like 89' passenger cars or autoracks - many piece of equipment will operate around this radius (even if it doesn't visually look good). The idea is that if a piece of equipment can pass muster on this module, it will easily survive a trip around the modular layout's mainlines which - at my club - start at a minimum 35" radius curve and include Code 100 and 83 mainline tracks.
Even though the layout serves a very practical purpose, it can still be made to look nice. For example, lots of simulated sensors and relay boxes could be installed around the loop of track and maybe both wood tie and concrete tie track could be installed on the loop. Lots of signals could be added to the front of the module as well as in the loop to give feedback to engineers testing their equipment. As shown on the plan, a testing building could be constructed near the small yard. Most likely, since lots of people will be touching the layout placing and taking equipment off this module, durable scenery should be constructed around the layout. Chances are, there will be a lot of derailments and fine details probably won't last too long.
Depending upon your skill level as a carpenter, this module could also include a few drawers with a small work surface to fix defects on the spot as well as keep some spare equipment - like couplers, washers, and screws - so that minor repairs can be handled during a show.
For Track Plan Tuesday's, I am digitizing all of my old track planning notebooks and sharing the designs here on the website. To see all the plans, visit the track plan home page at: jimspavins.com/jimstrackplans.