O-Scale Model Railroad Techniques

A visit to the Detroit Model Railroad Club in Holly, Michigan, is always an opportunity to learn something about model railroading. The giant O-scale railroad fills what was once the Holly Theater. I think the most fascinating part about this model railroad is that every inch of the thousands of feet of track is hand-laid.

Anyone interested in trains can immediately see the artwork and skill that has been invested in the trackwork at the Detroit Model Railroad Club. Each of the ties is precisely the same size, stained and glued in place at exactly the same intervals. Each tie has four hand-placed O-scale spikes holding the rail in place, just like the real thing.

There are common techniques for building a model railroad, whether the layout is 4 x 8 feet, or a 24 inch deep shelf-type model, or a huge empire like the Detroit Model Railroad Club. No matter large or small, the delight in the imagination and heart of the model railroader is the same. From the first cut in the timber that will eventually support the benchwork, to the risers, the roadbed, and the ballast, each step is a treasure in the adventure that is model railroading.

In the more than thirty years I have been attending the Detroit Model Railroad open houses, I have only gone into the “basement” one time. Visitors are allowed to go under the layout during open houses, accompanied by a club member, and the view is incredible. As impressive as it is, the benchwork construction that holds the beautiful DMRRC layout in place is much the same as it would be for any open-grid layout in your home. Open-grid simply means the layout is not on a table-top. The benchwork, or the foundation of the layout, is built of girders, joists, and risers that hold the roadbed underlayment in place.

In the case of the DMRRC, the track underlayment is 3/4″ plywood. For a layout in your home, 3/8″ plywood works well. Over the plywood, 1/4 inch homosote is placed following the track plan line. On my own layout, I used cork roadbed, as many model railroaders do, instead of homosote as it is already prepared with beveled edges. On the DMRRC, 3/16 inch basswood is cut into 2 1/4 inch strips for ties. The ties are stained and glued in place. The steel rail is spiked to the ties. Ballast, or “rock,” is placed and glued. The resulting track is amazing. I have never tried hand-laying track, but many skilled model railroaders do it. I choose to use HO-scale “flex track” which makes laying three-feet sections of track at a time quite easy.

On my most recent visit to the DMRRC, I paid particular attention to the brass bell on display just inside the front door. As you can see in the description, the bell came from a steam locomotive that was going to be scrapped. It was donated to the DMRRC by the New York Central Railroad in 1953. It is fascinating to see this bell that once clearly announced the arrival and departure of passenger trains.

As you can see in these photos, the scenery detail on the DMRRC is difficult to describe. I remember several visits many years ago when I noticed a pair of legs lying along the rails, as if some unfortunate bystander had gotten too close to a passing train. I think they’ve been removed. The key to exquisite detail is the resultant impression that a viewer could easily step into the scene. I was particularly impressed with the cabin built on the side of the mountain. I would love to sit on the porch and watch the trains roll by.

Operation of individual trains on the DMRRC is a combination of work between the dispatcher and the engineer, just as it is on a real train. With Digital Command Control, or DCC, each locomotive on the layout receives a signal from the engineer giving movement commands. The power in the rails is constant, as provided by the dispatcher, and the engineer moves his or her trains individually. It’s amazing. While several trains were already moving along the layout, I watched an engineer moving a single locomotive into place on a siding.

Looking at the photos, it’s easy to imagine the scenes are real. Model railroading is constantly evolving with new technology providing opportunities for detail the old-timers, like me, could have only dreamed of when we were getting started with our first “train set.”

I was excited to notice the milk delivery truck from Twin Pines Dairy in Detroit. My uncle, now in his eighties, has always been my inspiration in model railroading. We still talk on the phone about our layouts. When I was six years old, I visited Twin Pines Dairy with my uncle. He was proud to show me where he worked. I think I’m going to hunt for a HO-scale Twin Pines Dairy truck for my Maple Valley Short Line Railroad.

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