Introducing the Lassen & North Coast Railroad

While experimenting with model railroad uses for Arduino over the last few months, I’ve been working away in Cadrail 9.5 developing a track plan for my quirky space. Layout SpaceAs you may recall, I’m going to take over a vintage 70’s bar space in a finished utility/storage room.  The surface is a generous 82″ x 66″ L, 27.5″ wide all around. Its almost completely walk-around. The counter is about 40″ off the floor, making it a good starting height for a layout. The soffits (hiding HVAC ducts) impose a height limit of around 28″. Lighting is nonexistent; I have a solution in the works for that.

The other critical design imperative is portability, so the layout can be freely moved; light weight, solid construction and  the ability to fit modules through doors and into the back of the Subaru is a must. It’s taken 13 iterations to come up with a satisfactory and (I hope) buildable plan.

The Lassen & North Coast Railroad.

Lassen & North Coast Railroad

Set in the late transition era (sort of), the 1950’s to early 60’s, The Lassen & North Coast Railroad is a hitherto unknown short line running between Six Rivers City ( a Pacific coastal harbor city) and logging and lumber mills in the mountains, with service to the inland empire. The L&NC of this period had track sharing and equipment deals with the Union Pacific Railroad, allowing UP passenger service to Six Rivers City and giving the L&NC a right to buy at below market prices any equipment UP wants to retire or otherwise discard. This arrangement was very much in keeping with the founder’s frugal nature.

The L&NC was founded in 1893 by the emigrant son of an Austrian dairy farmer, one Otto Von Heifer, whose only asset at the time was a deed to 10 million acres of timber forest in the Lassen / Shasta region. Broke and with few prospects, Otto had acquired the deed from a wizened old Indian, going by the odd name of Chief Truckee, in exchange for a crate of rock-gut whiskey. Sadly, the deed was no better than the whiskey.  It didn’t matter since there were no competing claims anyway.

It occurred to Otto that he’d best be getting that timber out of there and it wasn’t going to do so on its own. Thinking about it he decided that, well, he should just build himself a railroad to transport his timber to market.  If only he had the money. He couldn’t sell the timber, yet.  So what could he sell to raise the money?

In a eureka moment, while slapping back some shots with Lucy Felinatta, his favorite “professional lady” in—as it happens—Eureka, Otto came upon the idea of selling the right to buy his timber in the future. Not the timber itself, just the theoretical right to buy it in the future at an agreed price.

Actually, it was Lucy who suggested it.  Apparently, she’d been selling the rights to make appointments at particular days and times for stiff fees, and making good money without actually removing a stitch of clothing. She figured the guys were getting some value even if they didn’t exercise their “option,” though she wouldn’t say exactly what the value was.

“Surely nobody would give me money without getting something back,” said Otto, unconvinced that his situation was at all similar. But Lucy persuaded him to give it a try and in short order he’d sold enough “timber options” to build a Railroad.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The Plan.

Benchwork will be modular open box frames designed to fit the bar top (or any suitable tabletop/support system), allowing the layout to be broken down into three sections.

L&NC  Benchwork

L&NC Benchwork

I’m going to take advantage of the open frame construction to create a two level layout. The lower level includes the Red Bluff Yard and engine service facility, providing storage and staging to support the layout.

L&NC Lower Level

L&NC Lower Level

The space will be tight—about 6″ vertical clear space (excluding equipment space for the main level); but I think it will work. The 5 stall roundhouse (being rebuilt from an old 6 stall kit damaged in a past move; more on that in a future post) is represented by two 2-stall roundhouses from the Cadrail drawings collection. It wasn’t worth the effort to render the roundhouse exactly as it will be; however, the track arrangement is correct (with a spare maintenance track adjacent to the roundhouse). The West Helix rises 8″ to the main level.

Most of the action is on the main level.

L&NC Main Level

L&NC Main Level

The main level features a double track mainline in a classic figure-eight, over-under configuration, with a branch to serve Six Rivers City and its port, and a branch to serve the Hat Creek Lumber Mill. Two routes to the West Helix create a main level wye, providing additional reversing capabilities without going all the way to the lower level yard. The various rectangles and squares represent building sites; the small rectangles represent generic 4″ x 2″ building lots that can be used singly or in combination with others; after studying the footprint of a lot of N scale model buildings, I concluded that most buildings will fit that (one or more 4″ x 2″ lots) envelope. Gray track shows where track is hidden by scenery; the light blue track is a double track truss bridge. The City/Port side is considered “west,” and the lumber mill side is “east.”

Some of the building spaces are based on kits I have. The lumber mill is “Little’s Lumber Mill,” a discontinued N Scale Architect kit I bought many years ago; I have Kibri and Walthers kits for the industrial area, and a few built urban buildings from years ago.  Other site reservations, such as the station and the lighthouse, are based on kits I intend to acquire down the road. In some cases, such as the Cannery, I have to wade through a bunch of kit choices to decide what to do—there are quite a few available craftsman kits that would do the job.

Here are the relative elevations on the main level:

L&NC RR Main Level Elevations

L&NC RR Main Level Elevations

Space and height limitations constrain how high I can build. The clearances are sufficient to run trains; hopefully the level contrasts will make for effective scenery. The apparently empty space in the east module will include mountainous terrain with a stream cascading down to the front of the east module, logging and other scenes.  The city required a lot of thinking about the relationship between track and scenery, forcing me to do a little “zoning” and create a city plan.  The other terrain will evolve more organically.

There you have it. No lack of ambition here! Next step is to build the box frames and start in on the lower level.

Using Cadrail.

I have a lot of experience with desktop graphics software like Photoshop and Illustrator, but no previous CAD experience, so I had a significant learning curve. I have not reached the level of proficiency necessary to construct scenery within Cadrail, but the track laying process I have down cold. My guess is that other similar CAD-style planning software involves similar issues of proficiency and functional quirks as I found in Cadrail.

Overall, I would rate the product as good (version 9.53), with a few caveats to new users:

  • The tutorial is pretty good for getting your feet wet. However, it leaves you in a place where you haven’t dealt yet with more complexity than a figure-eight, over-under track. The manual (both printed and electronic) has sections outside the tutorial on dealing with other common elements like yards and helixes; you’ll need to refer to those additional sections, and the early going can be slow.
  • The best strategy to developing a layout is to start with generic shapes, like circles, curves and lines, and use Cadrail’s tools to join them together. I now always start a new drawing or a new revision by constructing and placing major curves first, both to ensure correct radii and to determine how to fit them in. Then I place connecting track and go from there.
  • Cadrail includes specialized tools for turnouts and yards.  Learn to use them because they make things a lot easier.
  • One of Cadrail’s quirks is inconsistent handling of elevation when using the auto align feature.  In many cases it ignores elevation differences when you connect two pieces of track. Only in the 3D view can you see that the pieces are not vertically aligned. At other times it will fail to see the connection point you are pointing to and auto-align with a different piece of track, often at a different elevation too! Manually correcting the elevation on one or both pieces usually solves the problem.
  • Some auto-alignment problems appear to be related to the current zoom level in your layout view.  If a piece refuses to auto-align in the way you expect, zooming in at the connection point may solve the problem.
  • Helix’s turn out to be fairly easy, once you get command of the auto-align feature—because you can’t possible draw a helix without auto-align. Helixes are composed of multiple curve segments, joined together and changing elevation from bottom to top. The manual advises you to create curve segments in an asymmetrical length (measured in degrees) so that the end/connection points don’t stack on top of each other. What the manual does not say is that helixes should be built from the bottom up. It can be done from the top down, but let me tell you its a lot harder that way.
  • The track libraries are OK, though not necessarily complete. The Peco N library has all turnout types in right-hand versions only; to get the left-hand turnout, you have to flip the object and change the figure name to reflect the correct part number (not required, but useful for building a shopping list). Some parts are not represented at all in the libraries; for those you can construct a custom part for your layout drawing so long as you have the relevant specifications.
  • My pet peeve with Cadrail is that it does not include a nudge feature, such as found in nearly all industry-standard graphics programs.  I should be able to select any object and move it one minimum unit in any direction, usually be using the cursor keys. I suspect auto-align is intended to cover the need, but I had several situations where auto-align would not produce the right result and what I needed was the ability to nudge.

A new version 10 was released in November.

Building A Test Loop

Since the test loop project is a dry run for a couple of key methods I expect to use on the new layout, I decided to start with a little formal planning using CadRail from Sandia Software. Years ago I tried an earlier version of their product and found it difficult to use. This time I did much better. The current version, for all its CAD power, is really pretty easy to use for basic planning. I downloaded the demo, spent a few hours doing the tutorial, and was able to produce this simple plan for a 2′ x 3′ test module in short order.


Track Plan for the Test Loop.

Not much to it: a loop, a turnout and a spur. I had not purchased the product yet so I didn’t have track and structure libraries to work with; everything was done with the general features, tools and components. The color coding is to indicate wiring blocks; essential to using the test loop to work out block detection and other technical issues.

When I then laid the track I was able to replicate the plan exactly, down to the too-close clearance (to the edge of the module) at the turnout. I could have shifted the whole thing during build to improve the clearance but on this occasion the point was to reproduce track plan exactly as drawn without significant adjustments; and to see how it turned out. No surprises.

I had CadRail show the radius points for each curve on the plan (one of many view options). Locate the radius point exactly on the layout surface and, using a compass, you can draw the correct track centerline exactly where it is supposed to be. You can print a plan with grid lines and dimension measurements to help transfer the plan — if you want to sacrifice a lot of paper to the cause, you can even print in real size. Having struggled to transfer hand drawings with dubious calculations to real world materials in the past, this is a definite improvement. At $79 to download the full software and libraries, it’s a good deal  (for a bit more you can get a printed manual and CD-ROM installation disk, with a few extras to sweeten the deal. I went ahead and purchased the full monte).

Here is a view of the foundation for the loop.

test loop frame

It is a simple box frame, 2′ x 3′ x 8″, made from 1 x 2 and 2 x 2 poplar, with a 1/4″ oak plywood top (all from Lowes). In the past I’ve used common pine for benchwork. I chose hardwoods this time because I suspected they might work better for a modular system than softwoods, especially since I am trying to thin down the structure as much as possible while stiffening it as much as possible. Hardwoods are generally more dimensionally stable than low grade pines, especially in the smaller milled sizes. Furniture grade pine is good, but still not as strong as hardwoods and hard to get in my area. Hardwoods cost more, but for a small layout that extra cost is negligible. Poplar in the two sizes I’m using runs about $1 per linear foot, and is easy to work with. [Some poplar products are marketed as Sustainably Produced. I don’t know that is true with all poplar products.] The payoff is how much easier it is to keep your woodworking thin, straight and strong.

test loop frame detail

Corner Detail

I created a box frame with a top, not a fully enclosed box or box beam.  The joinery is simple lap joints with some mitered joints at the corners; nothing fancy or complicated. Brads held the frame together while the glue set (the classic Norm Abram technique.). I included a reinforcement bar under the plywood top; It is not absolutely necessary on a box this size though it did contribute to getting everything square and flattening the plywood.

I topped the plywood with 1 inch insulating foam. The resulting structure is light and amazingly stiff.  You can’t twist it easily; you’d have to push it past the breaking point to deform it. This is pretty much what I had in mind. I’m hoping that a substantial hunk of foam under the track will help suppress the mechanical sounds of locomotive mechanisms, which are not the sounds I really want to hear.

Finding a source of foam was more complicated than I thought it would be. The insulating foams sold for building purposes have changed over the years. Most are now faced with foil, paper or other additional materials. For my purposes, those extra materials are not useful. Then there is the whole problem of transporting 8′ x 4′ sheets of foam strapped to the top of the car and subject to easy damage.

Turns out that Owens Corning produces an unfaced foam product that is geared to the hobby market. foamular labelIt’s a dense foam that resists compression and holds pins very well. It comes in easy to transport and use 2′ x 2′ x 1″ squares. The only source I’ve found for it so far is The Home Depot, where it costs $5.48 per square as of this writing. I thought that was pricey at first and, compared to a full 8 x 4 sheet of building Styrofoam, is it is. But compared to hobby specialty foam products, it’s very reasonable at less than $1.50 per square foot for 1 inch thick stock; and I can get it locally.

Building with foams presents several new challenges. At the top of the list is finding adhesives that are foam-safe. Many caulks and adhesives will attack foam. Secondly, since I am joining dissimilar materials in many instances, the caulk/adhesive has to work with all materials being joined. Porous materials are usually easy; non-porous materials like most plastics are more difficult. Needless to say, I spent a fair amount of time at both The Home Depot and Lowe’s reading labels.

For adhering foam board to plywood I selected Loctite PL300 Foamboard Adhesive. This product is primarily formulated for adhering foam insulation to basement walls and the like, so once it takes hold it is strong.

Loctite PL300

I used about 2/3 of a tube to adhere two pieces of foam to the plywood; I think I can use less next time. Initial grab is mild, giving plenty of working time, but also requiring some sort of strategy to hold the foam in place until the product sets. I tried both clamping and screws: a few bugle-headed screws proved the best method for anchoring the foam while it set. I had a mild warp in one piece of foam that I easily straightened in the process. The holes can be filled or used for something else later.

roadbed trim and peel

Trim and peel test.

Liquid NailsNext I had to adhere cork roadbed to the foam surface. I bought some Liquid Nails for Projects then did a quick test to compare it to ordinary white glue. White glue will adhere to the foam, but it’s a weak bond easily broken. Liquid Nails provides a much stronger bond. As tight as the bond is, the adhesive does not dig into the foam so I could trim and peel off excess roadbed after the adhesive set without significantly damaging the foam.

Here is a view of the top, with the cork roadbed down.
test loop roadbed

Next up, laying some track, installing feeders and powering up the test loop.