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

A Layout Divided

Blame Iain Rice. He taught me how to make a model railroad work in our basement.


Our basement, like so many others, is a less than ideal environment. Low ceilings, exposed pipes, uneven walls, you name it we’ve got it. But by far the biggest impediment to layout design is the need to pass through.

Turns out that the best space for a layout in our house puts it squarely between the laundry/mechanical room and the rest of the house. Therefore my design needed to make sure that home operations continued uninterrupted. It’s one thing to have to negotiate around a model railroad carrying a clothes hamper; it’s quite another to get by hauling a water heater.

Enter Iain Rice.


His book Small, Smart & Practical Track Plans features a design titled “The Linked-Up Logger”. The plan is designed for a bedroom that still needs to function as a bedroom. To overcome this challenge, Iain develops “a number of compact, discrete dioramas” (Rice, 2000, p. 73) connected by “sections of trackage that are purely functional and, in this case, easily removable” (Rice, 2000, p. 73).

Instead of a continuous track plan, The Hills Line functions as a series of interconnected vignettes. Combining them are two lift-out segments that are only in place during op sessions. The first spans the curving gap in front of the electrical panel and water meter. The second crosses the entrance to the laundry and mechanical room.


With the layout divided into three segments, it was a simple matter of dividing up the prototype into similar spaces. The northern most segment covers the Iowa River to Ralston Creek.


The second encompasses Maiden Lane to US Highway 6.


While the final and largest segment is reserved for the town of Hills, Iowa and the Stutsman Ag Products complex.


It’s how I’m able to cram 8.4 miles of railroad into a less-than-stellar space while still keeping the room usable for other functions.

Thanks to Iain Rice.

Rice, I. (2000). Small, smart & practical track plans. Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Books.


What’s in a name?

I had numerous choices when deciding on the name for this new layout.

The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway (the owner of the line) officially uses CIC for its reporting marks. But everyone knows it as the CRANDIC, a simple but catchy combination of the railroad’s namesake cities. Formally, my modeled portion is the CIC Second Subdivision, which is as good a name as any for a prototype-based model railroad.

Informally, the route from Iowa City to Hills is known as the Hills Line. I would have been content in naming the layout the CIC Second Subdivision and referring to it as the CRANDIC’s Hills Line.

But this is a IAIS layout, and I’m an IAIS modeler, so their naming convention has to win out. The Iowa Interstate, who leased and operated my modeled segment from 2012 to 2016, chose to identify their newly-acquired portion as the Hills Industrial Spur.

Still, the CRANDIC’s history plays a significant role in the design and operation of both the prototype and the model. Shouldn’t I honor, or at least acknowledge that history and influence, and choose a name that works for both prototypes?

Welcome to The Hills Line. Note the capital T.