Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Layout design: locale

As I mentioned in responding to Robert Simpson’s comment about my post entitled “Modeling freight traffic: Coast Line, 1953-Part 3,” my layout is an imaginary SP branch line, set along the central California coast. To be specific, it is located in the Guadalupe Subdivision of the Coast Division, between San Luis Obispo and Guadalupe. Part of the reason for this choice is the fertile Nipomo Mesa area, then and now a diverse and productive agricultural area, which generates one part of my freight traffic.
     The town names on my layout are not those of real places in this area, and are chosen to represent a Chumash (Indian) place name and a Spanish place name, together with a typical settler-named town. These are, respectively, Shumala, Santa Rosalia, and Ballard. (As I noted, there is a small, unincorporated town named Ballard in the Santa Ynez Valley, but none of its features are represented on my layout.) These names are part of capturing the flavor of this part of California.
     The branch is envisioned to diverge from the SP main line between Oceano and Callender, at the junction I’ve named Shumala, and extends to Santa Rosalia at the mouth of the Santa Maria River. Here’s a sketch map, adapted from the SP division map:

     My response to Robert Simpson included the comment that I originally got this idea from the common practice in England of making small layouts to be imaginary branches of well-known railroads (the Great Western, the London & North Eastern, etc.), so that locomotives, structures and other prominent characteristics have a familiar look. (I will, for example, build a model of SP’s iconic CS-22 depot for Santa Rosalia.) Then, if the typical scenic characteristics of the chosen area are also reproduced, an impression of realism is created, even though the specifics of the track layout and building locations are not those of any real town.
     Another part of capturing the regional flavor is the selection of shippers and consignees for the layout. On my layout, agriculture is represented by four packing houses, dominated by vegetable production, along with a stock pen and a sugar beet loader at Shumala, and a winery at Ballard. Each town has at least one bulk oil dealer, all chosen to represent western oil companies of 1953 (Union Oil, Associated, Standard of California, and Richfield). Planned for Santa Rosalia are a small fish cannery and a kelp products company. Other representative businesses are a dried bean warehouse, a wholesale grocer, and a district garage for the California Division of Highways (a predecessor of today’s CalTrans).
     Whether one considers this to be “proto-freelancing” or devises some other term, I think its main feature is the desire to model operations of a particular railroad, and a particular geographic area, rather than to model a specific place or town. As in all model railroading, I think the primary requirement is to use typical and plausible model components, avoiding the surprising and unusual, to create the impression of a believable place and time. I think time is as important as place, though I won’t explore here the problems of era identity, but obviously consistent choices of motor vehicles, advertising signs, and company names all help to create a sense of the time modeled. 
Tony Thompson


  1. Hi Tony and Listers,

    Thanks for your description of your layout and your approach toward a very interesting method of “proto-freelancing”. I honestly was on that same path for many of my modeling years; I wanted to model the SP and the ATSF in the Redwoods so I envisioned that the SP never took “control” of the NWP. So I dreamed that the SP operated the NWP from Willits southward and the ATSF operated the railroad north of Willits (remember those early photos of the Eureka Station with the ATSF emblem on the tower? Looked like a swastika when I first saw that photo!). I then “imagineered” an extension of the “ATSF” to connect with the SP again at Grants Pass, OR, on the Siskyiou Line. Wow what an imagination!

    If you really look at the mountain ranges between Arcata and Grants Pass you will see that construction cost and operating expenses would forever preclude such a dream. I actually had fun looking at the “practicality” of such a line when I took an undergraduate course in Transportation 301 at Cal Poly and proposed that to my instructor as a lab project. I can also remember such continued nonsense that crossed my fertile imagination at the time such as a “Redwood Daylight” and “Redwood Chief”. Too much redwood and good grief!

    It was my exposure to Jack Burgess (another civil engineer) and his Yosemite Valley that got me back on track in the ‘80’s focused on strict prototype modeling. Like Jack has said in his articles he cannot envision trying to “make up something” about the YV, just like I could not justify SP dome lounges along the Eel River. Once you get the proto approach in your blood, it is really much easier than what you are creating Tony, so I take my hat off to you. I respect the amount of time and imagination that you have put into your branch line particularly in light of your operational goals and traffic expectations.

    I am years away from a layout possibility but I am in a big “motive power and rolling stock” phase. But I eventually envision a series of modules and one of the first is Oceano, just to the north of your branch. I am going to do the “insurance maps” research and proportion the track layout and structures to “fit” a 10 to 12 foot by 42 inch wide “module”. I do not intend to go Free-Mo mobile as model photography and display/”operation” of my rolling stock are my pre-layout goals (not that you can call watching a train going around an oval “operation” but that is what attracted me to the toy train hobby as a one year old). I will have a reverse loop at each end of the module and will be happy to watch my 1939 Coast Daylight activate the block signals and wig-wags during the day and the Overnight cut a path through the darkness with a GS-4’s Mars light at the head of the train and the warm glow of a lantern inside and the red markers of the C-30-1 caboose outside fade into the “night”.

    I really look forward to your continued posts on your layout and to learn so much more about Coast Line operations in my area of interest than I would have ever done otherwise.

    Continued thanks,


  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Paul. Some of the buildings along the track in Oceano from the 1950s are still there, including Phelan & Taylor's packing house (though it is vacant and probably doomed). I will have a branch P&T packing house at Shumala. The Oceano depot has been moved a short way from its original location but is restored and worth a visit. Your module could certainly host several of the actual packing houses and have lots of reefer action if you want to go that way.
    Tony Thompson

  3. Tony and Folks,
    I like your use of the feel of a region with the discipline of the time era and the railroad for your layout. I have chosen to go with a railroad in an much earlier era, but in my research I have found that the SP/CP had a much greater impact on the railroad, the Colorado Midland, than I ever expected. In the T&NO book, the section on car tracers provided a link that the Midland Family never realized, the owners of the Midland were direct friends with CP Huntington (JB Wheeler was his neighbor in Onenota NY) and Huntington had his car tracking force out looking for the cars loaded with the Midland's Maroon Creek Bridge that Gould' railroads were able to re-waybill and send to the far corners of the US so the CM was sure to loose the race into Aspen with Gould's D&RG in 1887.
    The other key link is the amount of traffic I have been able to document from the SP/CP coming from the Ogden gateway, once Huntington had an option that wasn't the UP. The SP is the leading 2nd Tier Interchange road for the Midland in 1891-93. With Silver Crash Car Works producing SP/CP 1880 and 90 car kits in great variety, the California Fast Freight Line and the citrus reefers are now a major part of the car fleet on my model just as they were on the Midland at the time.

    Thanks for all the ideas,

    Tom VanWormer
    Monument CO