Austin and Buffalo Railroad: The Journey Starts

Written by Charles Bartel

One of the features of garden railroading that I have experienced is the wide group of people that you become associated with throughout the country.  Because of a friend in Austin Texas, I have been very busy planning the Austin and Buffalo Railroad.  This is a fictions railroad connecting Buffalo, New York, with Austin, Texas.  This railroad will have one “yard” in Austin, TX, and one in Buffalo, NY.  When they are both up and running, the idea would be to send cars back and forth for maximum enjoyment of a “transcontentinal” railroad.  The planning on the Buffalo end has gone from the paper design to the hardware design.  It will consist of two large outer loops running parallel with a 6 inch distance for a total of 406 feet of track of mainline track.  There will be two other loops with about 200 feet of track and a trolley line with about 40 foot of track.  There will be a 28 foot “yard” where all of the loops are interconnected including a connection to the trolley track so that freight can be delivered to the town at night when the streetcars are not running.  I have become a huge far of the railroad design program purchased by the club a couple of years back and am using that as my primary design tool.

If you are an old hand at garden railroading, enjoy this saga of my efforts.  Chuckle at my efforts if I am off base, poke if you see I am doing something wrong.  If you are like I have been, an armchair modeler and collector “for the future railroad”, and are deciding to get out of the chair and into the yard, I hope this may help you understand that there is no good or really bad way to get started.  Decide what interest you first.  Freight traffic, passenger traffic, trolley, etc.  Do you want to run trains that have a mix of 1900 to 2014 equipment or stay with a slice of time.  I have heard a lot of rumblings about rivet counters recently.  At the 2014 National G Scale convention in Tampa Florida, I spent an afternoon at the Fine Scale Museum.  It’s a wonderful layout, with every nut and bolt modeled.  Inside a building, protected from the wind, rain, dust, etc. it looks great and runs fine.  And of course the equipment does not get handled each day, that is, taken off the track and stored for the night or until the next operating session.  I have made the decision that I will not be a rivet counter!  Cars and engines running outside take a lot of abuse, both from the owners, visitors, and from the weather.  They are missing a ladder here, a brake wheel there, the house has a broken widow, etc.  But to the visitor seeing it for the first time, he/she does not see these little things.  It’s a train!  And for me, watching that train go around the layout, by the buildings, through the tunnels, behind and through the plants, well I could sit there all day and be carried to another time, another place.

I have picked a general time period between modern steam and early diesel as the primary time period.  I like passenger cars and the unique requirements of military and circus trains, so that will be my priority.  The next thing on my design agenda was track.  My wife says she knows “we missed the train cause she can see the tracks it left”.  And looking through the magazines Trains, Garden Railroading, BTO newsletter, etc., you see lots of tracks that the trains have left!  Tracks that cross other tracks, tracks going over bridges, through tunnels, tracks running in parallel on two and three track mainlines and my favorite, complex switching arrangements into and out of yards and sidings.  Sunset on the rails, sun rise on the rails.  Industrial tracks with switchbacks to reach that warehouse in the back corner of the Industrial Park.  You could have a massive switch yard and spend all your time switching trains in and out.

And the options keep mounting.  Are you going to use analog train control or DCC?  Are you going to use track power or battery power?  And if DCC, which one?

And are you going to use knuckle couplers or hook and loop?  If knuckle couplers, which brand?

Are you going to have public open houses, club open house, or just keep it in the family?  Depending on your goal, you must consider viewing options.  And most importantly, access to all the tracks to put things back on the track when that train goes off the track. 

I have discovered that you are not going to get all of your answer from one source, nor are you going to get everyone to agree on what you are asking about.  So, the first recommendation is to go to as many open houses as you can in your area.  Attend one of the G scale conventions.  And if you do the second, I heartily recommend signing up for the bus tours.  The bus driver has one thing you don’t have, a general knowledge of the area and how to get from one layout to another.  And you don’t have to fight the traffic or the parking issues.  The other aspect of taking the bus was the opportunity to discuss these layouts with other garden railroaders who either had a layout like the last one, or had seen one similar, or was in the process of making one like it.  You just can’t get this interaction any other way.

So, let me share the start of this journey with you after deciding to begin the building the Buffalo portion of the A&B Railroad.  My wife (chief partner in crime and FCO) went to Cincinnati and the Tampa National G scale convention.  Cincinnati was important to my planning, as the weather is a bit closer to Buffalo than Tampa.  There were I believe about 27 layouts open for the convention and we saw about 17 of these over three days, plus some additional visits on the way home for those that opened their houses a second time.  I saw flat layouts with lots of long sections of track and limited switches.  Bridges and ponds, wonderful walk ways that accommodated all of us visiting.  In other areas, I saw some wonderful layouts that were built on mild to very step slops (one even had a cog engine to handle the grade!).  Wonderful walkways with great viewing locations.  We also saw some where the viewing areas were very congested.  I found myself stepping very carefully to stay off the tracks.  One house had a very unique layout that was built on a porch.  And the porch was on a second floor level on the side of the house.  You could only see it through the windows in the house.  We hear about how hard it is to work on trains down low as we get older (bad knees and backs!).  This one required a ladder to get to some areas of the layout for working.  Climbing ladders is also an issue getting older (I was a house painter with my father in my teens with no issues for heights.  Today, getting on a ladder to work on the second floor roof scares me!)  There was a service facility for steam engines complete with a working turntable, sand house, etc.

There were some great industries on these layouts, offering a variety of scenic and operating opportunities. 

In Tampa, the land was flat and most of the layouts had little hills to climb.  But what we saw were elevated layouts two to three feet of the ground.  One had a river running through a significant portion of the layout, with the mainline going along both sides.  We saw a mountain that was taller than the first floor of the owner’s house!  He had trains going in and out of tunnels at multiple levels on this mountain.

So the second part of my design process has been finalized.  It will be generally a flat layout with gentle grade as dictated by the drainage slope of the back yard.  There will be a mountain with a mountain lake feeding a water fall into a flowing river of about 20 feet into a larger “log” pond (I have a saw mill for beside the lake).  There will be tracks beside the river, but they will be trolley tracks bringing the town’s people to a garden park to enjoy the water activities.  And of course, a small town with manufacturing facilities and warehouses for switching activity, farms and other wayside requirements for switching activity.  Track will be connected using split jaw connectors (or their equivalent depending on price and availability when I need them).

One more major decision needs to be made.  In both conventions and in our own club I have seen analog control, track DCC (MTH, LGB, Crest) and battery DCC (Trainmaster and Revolution).  Advantages are evident in each.  With over 30 engines, the CFO is not going to approve 30 revolution receivers!  I am not sure I would, given a free reign.  So I will need block control and analog power supplies.  DCC has great advantages for operating horns, bells, etc. and generally gives you the ability to walk around and follow the train.  Battery frees you up from all track electrical issues.  And trains can run instantly without having to turn on power supplies and select cabs.  A battery car that any train can pull address battery cost versus installing battery in each engine (some just don’t have the room).  So, the decision is pretty easy.  I will do all three and have a complicated switch board.

And now the work begins.  My train crew (grandsons with strong backs) have laid down and leveled three rows of 2x4s and then laid on top of these 3x5 foot sheets of cement board.  There is a 2x6 crossing board at each edge to further insure the flatness from board to board.  The area is 3 foot by 25 feet and this is where most of the switching will happen.  See the figure below.  The building in the middle is the main station with the trolley track to the top of the track schematic and the lower three tracks are the two outer loops and one inner loop that also interfaces with a second inner loop.  A total of 4 train loops and one trolley loop if operating a single train on each track (not my intention!).

I believe it is going to be an interesting layout to build and operate.  As I progress, I will issue installments leading up to an open house