Gandy Dancing: Turnouts


There’s something cathartic about the sound of a UPS Truck idling in front of your home, followed closely by the resounding THUMP of a heavily-loaded parcel landing on your front porch. Especially when you’ve been anticipating its arrival.

After several months of room prep, benchwork construction, backdrop painting, and fascia installation, it’s finally time to install track and turn the large green shelves in our basement into an approximation of The Hills Line. But despite the burning desire to slap it all together just to see something run, I do have a few preparatory steps I need to accomplish to ensure long-term success.

As on the IAIS Grimes Line, I’m using Micro Engineering Code 70 flextrack and turnouts exclusively on The Hills Line. ME remains, in my opinion, the most realistic commercially-available track on the market. But like all mass-produced products, there are some steps you can take to fine tune the track.


The two obvious areas of concern on any commercial turnout are the frog and the points. For the latter, a few swipes from a file adds a knife edge to the rails to prevent car wheels from picking the switch.


For the former, a quick pass over a honing stone makes fast work of the milling down a sometimes too-high frog. Once complete, even finicky cars glide through the turnout.


My long-term plan is to add Frog Juicers for all the active turnouts on The Hills Line, but that’s still several months down the road. I do take the time to prewire the frog for the eventuality.


On ME turnouts, power is fed to the points by the hinge connection to the closure rail. Over time, and following painting, weathering, and ballasting, that connection can fail. Adding a pair of loose feeders ensures that the points stay powered in perpetutity.


Each path out of the turnout get feeders as well. This ensures that every piece of rail is being powered directly from the bus, instead of relying on rail joiners or other internal wiring connections. Is seven feeder wires per turnout overkill? Absolutely not.


The last addition is the brass tube under the throwbar and through the roadbed, which will support the switch lock mechanism. More on that later.


The feeders are run into holes in the foam roadbed and attached to the bus using 3M Scotchlok Connectors.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately on several model train forums between the benefits and disadvantages of commercial track components. Opponents point to the lack of consistent manufacturing standards versus the precision of handlaid track. I believe a few simple adjustments make commercial track just as reliable as handlaid with twice the detail. For me, that’s a win-win proposition.


Prepping for Track

If it feels like I’m taking forever to get to tracklaying, you’d be correct. But the extended effort now should benefit down the road when the rubber meets the road… or the ties meet the foam.


First off, the deck and bridge ties for the Iowa River bridge are complete and installed. The bridge is being kitbashed from a Central Valley Truss Bridge kit, modified to fit the space and altered to a lattice truss. Since I’m looking at a heavy lift to get the bridge complete, I wanted to at least be at a point where I could lay rails and run trains.


Same thing goes for the I-Beam Bridge over Ralston Creek. The bridge was kitbashed from leftover parts of a Walthers Trestle kit. The ties are first painted a flat gray, then covered with a wash of burnt umber. The end result is a wood feel with grains just peeking out of each tie.


I also took the time to lay out both the track centerlines and roads. Consider this a last sanity check on clearances and spatial relationships between objects, especially since grade crossings will play a heavy role on this layout.


That sanity check discovered I had carved too much away from the slope to the Iowa River on the north end of the layout, which wouldn’t give me enough support for the track. Filling the space with flexible spackle works well. Once dry, I’ll sand and paint the area with Behr’s Wild Rice, using the same method mentioned in my last entry.


It’s also a quick (and sometimes sobering) way to ensure correct lengths for industrial spurs before you starting cutting track. You can sketch and plan and dream all you want; nothing beats a physical mockup to confirm that what you think will work will actually work. Both Stutsman and Maiden Lane are designed for five 60-foot cars plus a single Geep, which to my eye makes a good looking train on The Hills Line.


Green Means We’re Growing


My hometown of Charleston has the unofficial motto of “Too Poor to Paint; Too Proud to Whitewash”. Having lived in Iowa longer than I lived in the Lowcountry, I am no longer burdened with such limitations. The fascia and roadbed for The Hills Line are now painted and presented in their finished hue.

For the IAIS Grimes Line, I went with the infamous CTC Green for the fascia and valance, based on Devoe’s Upland Green and first revealed on David Barrow’s Cat Mountain and Santa Fe. However, Devoe has long since discontinued Upland Green. There is a formula for converting the tint into Sherwin Williams paint but the stores in Central Iowa have issues replicating the color.

Rather than fuss with mixing a custom color and getting inconsistent results if and when I need more of the paint, I chose Behr’s Wild Rice interior semi-gloss on a recommendation from Lance Mindheim. Wild Rice is a bit more green and less brown than Upland Green, but the overall effect is the same.


Absolutely every square inch of roadbed and fascia is slathered with the color. This provides an earthen base underneath the track and scenery and prevents bits of pink foam from sticking out. Plus I have the advantage of not having to mask the edge between the fascia and the roadbed to get a clean line of separation.

Unfortunately, extruded foam can suck up a lot of paint and take time to properly cover. Enter the whitewash painting process. Instead of applying the paint at full strength to the foam, I add a little water to the brush…


…which helps the paint cover the foam easier.


Again, since the foam roadbed will eventually be covered with track and scenery, it doesn’t need to be the full pigment. Save that effort for the fascia.


The exception to this rule (and there always is one) is for any waterways. Rivers, streams, ponds, etc. get the paint at full strength. That way the base properly simulates a midwestern river bottom once the water is applied… but I’ll get to that.

For now, I’m enjoying the green monster in our basement.


Catching Up, Part Three

For the past ten months, I’ve written about The Hills Line at my blog on the Model Railroad Hobbyist website. Rather than completely rehash what I’ve already posted, I want to bring this site up to speed with where the layout stands today in a three-part series highlighting the progress made so far.

Part Two discussed the decision to forgo a valance and why the backdrop is a consistent shade of blue.


Even without a valance, I still wanted to focus more light on the layout than in the room. Advances in LED technology have made lighting cheap, simple, and powerful. Linked-LED strip lights were continuously installed over the layout, providing a lot of even light with no heat build up.


Before covering it up with roadbed, I ran the bus wiring around the benchwork interior. In Part One I mentioned how the modified L-girder created a trough for running cables. This extra clearance should come in handy when I start hooking up feeder wires to the bus.


For the roadbed itself, sheets of two-inch extruded foam board were cut to fit and glued to the benchwork. The fascia was made with 1/4-inch underlayment plywood ripped into 6 inch strips, tacked to the benchwork, and edged with pine outside-corner trim pieces.


While most of the layout will be flat, the foamboard gives me enough material to carve away for the multitude of waterways found on the prototype. The Iowa River drops down to a plywood base to show the depth of that body of water, while the shallower Ralston Creek was carved into the foam directly. Gaps and seams were filled with DAP Alex Flexible Spackle.


And finally, first steps were made on the signature scene of The Hills Line, the Iowa Interstate’s deck-girder bridge over the Iowa River. Abutments from Monroe Models/AIM Products were modified and painted to best match the prototype while two Micro Engineering deck girders span the gap to the aisle. To avoid the bridge to nowhere look common on a lot of layouts, a fascia extension covers the front of the span.

Catching Up, Part Two

For the past ten months, I’ve written about The Hills Line at my blog on the Model Railroad Hobbyist website. Rather than completely rehash what I’ve already posted, I want to bring this site up to speed with where the layout stands today in a three-part series highlighting the progress made so far.

Part One detailed the construction of the benchwork using Ikea’s Ivar shelving units.


With the benchwork in place, I turned to constructing the backdrop. Rolled aluminum flashing was used to create a seamless and continuous surface. Installation was straightforward, but I did have to go slowly and deliberately to avoid creasing the material.


To create the blue skies, I chose Behr’s Nevada Sky for the backdrop color. Rather than try to simulate the naturally-occurring gradient found in our atmosphere, the entire backdrop was painted the same flat color. This provides a consistent hue for photography and makes it easier to mask out the background for later editing purposes.


By far the biggest design difference from the IAIS Grimes Line is the lack of a valance on The Hills Line. While I remain a fan of the shadowbox look that valances provide, the low ceilings in our basement take the effect to the extreme. The result was a dark cave that did nothing to welcome people into the space.


For The Hills Line I eliminated the valance and went with vinyl trim on the edges of the backdrop. Not only did the trim help define the layout in the room, it had the added benefit of covering up my less than precise cuts to the trim coil.

Be sure to return for Part Three when we wrap up this look back by turning foam board into midwest prairie and add electrons and electronics to the space.

Catching Up, Part One

For the past ten months, I’ve written about The Hills Line at my blog on the Model Railroad Hobbyist website. Rather than completely rehash what I’ve already posted, I want to bring this site up to speed with where the layout stands today in a three-part series highlighting the progress made so far.


Following the rebuild of our basement and a few months of noodling on design concepts, construction officially began in August 2018 with the arrival of the Ikea Ivar shelving units. Bernard Kempinski and Marty McGuirk had already used the shelves to great effect on their own layouts, and I felt the product would work well in our space.


When compared to other styles of benchwork, the Ikea components are more expensive when evaluated exclusively by the square-footage covered. However, the Ivar system is considerably more stable, adaptable, and of a higher quality build than comparable dimensional lumber. Besides, how many layout benchwork setups include adjustable shelving underneath?


Each leg piece was painted and the shelves stained. Custom-length units were built out of panel boards to wrap around the literature organizers I already had on hand. No matter the state of the layout, I wanted the shelving to blend into the space and provide a warm and welcoming environment for my family, for my guests, and for me.


On top of the shelves I built a modified L-girder frame to support the layout. This arrangement provides a stable spot to support the foam roadbed, a firm front for the fascia, and has the added advantage of creating a trough to run wiring.


The outcome of these efforts is, in effect, a second family space in our home. The basement will not replace our living room, but does offer an alternate retreat we never knew we had.

Come back for Part Two, when seamless blue skies arrive and we trim out the edges of the layout.

Nothing beside remains

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . .

I’ve gotten several messages recently, all asking variations of the same question.

Why’d you get rid of the Grimes Line?

For the record, I didn’t get to make that decision.


Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Our 100-year-old house resides in an 100-year-old neighborhood. From time to time, we would get water into our basement, as did everyone else on our block. It was never anything significant, easy to clean up, and didn’t affect the rest of the house. We considered it part and parcel of living where we do.

So on the morning that I discovered black water downstairs, it took a moment to realize this was different issue altogether.


Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

Our main sewer line had collapsed, requiring us to have it jackhammered out and replaced. That, in turn, required half the layout to be disassembled, since the main peninsula was exactly on top of the damaged section. Once the extent of the damage was known, the rest of the layout (and most of the basement) went out the door as well.


And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I had eight separate articles published by six separate publications on the IAIS Grimes Line. I had individuals travel from around the country to come to operating sessions. I had been interviewed and featured and videotaped. Someone even designed a virtual version of my layout for use in Auran’s Trainz program.

Pride makes us artificial. Humility makes us real.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818