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.

First Things First

The first job was to unpack and survey my models and supplies. I already knew we took a loss a few years ago when a box of stuff got crushed. A couple of locos and a bunch of rolling stock are gone for sure. I hadn’t had the heart to check the rest until now. What is it they used to say in the Army? Three moves are as good as a fire.

Thankfully the good condition of the remaining boxes did not hide a disaster inside. My Kato 2-8-2 Mikado, just purchased, not yet detailed and barely tested when last packed 15 years ago, is in perfect condition.

Kato Mikado

My much abused Trix 0-6-0 is still with me and in need of several repairs which I hope to attempt when some material gets here from Micro Mark. A flea market Bachmann U36B looks like it should run though it won’t fit on a transition era layout.  No matter.

The built structures survived, mostly, and the kit collection is ready to go. I still have some unused track collected 15 years ago for another layout that was never built: 25 pieces of Peco code 80 flextrack and 7 unused Peco Code 80 turnouts, and one wye, are a very good start. I may play with some code 55 for sidings, branch lines and the like, but I think I’ll stick to code 80 otherwise for this go.

It’s been a while since I had any space available. Basements are not all that common in Reno (tough ground to dig for starters), and it seems that carving space out of a bedroom or garage is always impossible. Our current home has a basement; but it is all pretty much in use as living and working space. The utility room is actually a substantial space; finished out as recreation space with a classic 70’s vintage bar area, and cheap wood paneling everywhere. We use the room for storage, and floor space is lacking because of that. A substantial layout is impossible without moving all the storage elsewhere, and as renters that’s probably more layout than we’d want to contend with anyway.

But then, thinking differently, I started looking at the bar as an opportunity:

Layout Space

It’s difficult space for obvious reasons. Low headroom, no light and you can see from the picture that getting light in there will be challenging because I have to take the space as it is. No modifications to the space allowed.

On the other hand, the bar is a perfect table/support for a layout. The surface is a generous 82″ x 66″ L, 27.5″ wide all around. Its almost completely walk-around. This is a doable space for N scale. The counter is 40″ off the floor, which I think is a good height to work from. I won’t need a a leg system for setting up on the bar; setting up the layout in other locations will require portable tables or some other support. I have a concept for separate, portable support loosely based on L-girder design. Perhaps in the future, but for now I’m going to embrace the bar, so to speak.

So this was my first time ordering from Micro-Mark. Remember how I said that I have to be able to get materials locally or online within a week? Well, forget that one with Micro-Mark. It was only after finding some items for the shopping cart that I discovered that their policy is that it takes 2-3 days to prepare a shipment. No 1 business day turnaround here. And the choices for shipping methods leave much to be desired. Hmmm. Having not shopped for hobby supplies via the Internet before, I don’t know what the norms are for this sub-industry. I’ve already received a small order from Digi-Key placed on the same day. I’ll let you know what I think of this experience after the goods arrive.

That prompted me to grab my wife and trot over to our local Michaels in search of quilter’s T Pins (Woodland Scenics markets a version of these as “Foam Nails”) and to conduct a stock survey. Michaels is a quirky place, but they are well set for the basics: glues, art supplies and tools, and a wide range of jewelry making and crafting supplies. Maybe I won’t be as dependent on Micro-Mark as I thought.

I should note that Reno used to have a well-stocked hobby store that was primarily rail oriented. The other stores here focus on other hobbies like R/C and Military modeling. The owner of the rail store was older and looking to retire some years ago and I think he successfully sold it. The store did not survive the Great Recession, however, so specialized model railroad support is lacking here. Having lived in Baltimore MD for a time and worshiped at the shrine of MB Klein while they were downtown, I have very high standards for a Model Railroad shop. For better or worse, I’m largely dependent on the Internet for parts and supplies.

Anyhow, having unpacked and done some basic organization, the first order of business is to create a test loop; well more than that really, a test module where I can do a first test of some intended materials and techniques including eventual turnout and block detection systems. Right now, I need to test the locos and rolling stock and find out what needs to be fixed or replaced.

I’ll tackle that next time.