Monday, September 12, 2022

Why model a branch line?

 I have touched on this topic a bunch of times in the course of writing this blog over the years, but not long ago I had an email essentially asking the title question. 

There are several strands to the answer, and I will take up each in turn. First and foremost, I believe that trying to model a heavily trafficked main line, whether it’s Horseshoe Curve on the Pennsylvania or Donner Pass on the Southern Pacific, is asking for trouble. Our model layouts necessarily are limited in size, and running 75-car trains in prototype frequency is just an overwhelming challenge, both in layout design and in equipment management.

Second, I’ve adopted (with enthusiasm) the idea of the imaginary branch line. As I described in a very early post, more than ten years ago (you can see it at: ), the concept of modeling an imaginary branch line of a familiar and well-known railroad was something I encountered the year I lived in England. 

During that year, I quickly discovered that on practically any weekend, there would be a model railroad exhibition within reasonable driving distance, and I went to a lot of them. Many were superb examples of modeling, were relatively small, and in many cases modeled (naturally) fairly small segments of reality.

( One product of living in England was a column I wrote for the NMRA Bulletin, from October 1983 to April 1984, entitled “The View From . . . England.” Older modelers might conceivably still have a stash of those magazines — otherwise the only way you might find them is via the NMRA’s own digital archive, at — but I haven’t explored my columns that way yet.)

The typical exhibition layout, small enough to be readily portable, is an imaginary branch line of the Great Western, or London and North Eastern, or whichever railway was chosen. There was an excellent example of this type of layout in the 2011 issue of Model Railroad Planning, an article by John Flann (though his layout isn’t portable). Below is one of John’s photos, illustrating roughly half of his layout.

The gray stone structure toward the left end of the photo is the depot, with the goods shed (freight house) behind it. John has set the scene in the imaginary Dorsetshire town of Hintock Magna, and sure enough, it’s an imaginary Great Western Railway (GWR) branch.

(I should mention in passing that for British modelers, there are two watershed dates to consider in modeling: 1923, when “The Grouping” occurred, uniting dozens of large and small railways into four major regional ones, including GWR, and 1948, when all railways were nationalized into British Railways. Hintock Magna is set in the 1930s.)

What I liked most about this approach is that it incorporates a familiar railroad. That means that viewers readily understand the context of what they are seeing. The locomotives and rolling stock (in U.S. modeling, especially cabooses), the signaling and structures, and even the operating details, are all things you already know. In John Flann’s example, the railway is the GWR; for my layout, it’s the SP.

I also have had the goal, as I’ve mentioned a number of times in this blog, of modeling the railroading, not the specific railroad places. For that reason, modeling free-lance towns is simply a way to produce the railroading I want to operate. Rolling stock, from locomotives to freight and passenger cars, to cabooses, is pretty strictly prototype (with an occasional excursion beyond: ).

But of course even an imaginary town ought to have realistic appearance, which is what I have tried to do. In fact, I think imaginary towns call for even more effort to have a credible appearance and to be visually pleasing. An example is the scene below at the intersection of Alder Street and Pismo Dunes Road in my layout town of Shumala. 

And of course the real pay-off is the switching, the life blood of a branch line anyway. Just as a single example, below Consolidation 2752 is spotting a two-compartment tank car at the Associated Oil dealer in Shumala, just behind the engine servicing tracks in the foreground. Multiply this by thirty or so other industries, and you have an operating session.

My choice of a branch line to model has continued to satisfy the goals I have arrived at in my model railroading, and I commend it to anyone with goals of the same kind.

Tony Thompson

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