HO model railroading has been my favorite pastime for a number of years now but I will always remember my first experiences. It all began when I built a small layout for my grandson in Prince Edward Island Canada. It was a challenge because there are very few hobby shops on the island that carry HO train supplies and a good layout requires access to unlimited accessories including tracks, switches, power supplies and decorative scenery not to mention the train engines and other cars. With an unlimited budget and lots of space, there would be no end to the parts and accessories that you could buy and add to a layout.
Our first layout was a DC system where a single power supply powers a loop of track with one engine and up to eight or nine cars. This can be fun for a while but limits the engineer to one and the layout size to not much more that a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood.
It is not uncommon to be limited to the smaller layout though as anything larger is difficult to fit in to small homes or apartments where extra rooms are used for living spare. Many layouts are relegated to space under a bed or standing up in a closet when not in use. My grandson and I were a bit luckier than that as we were able to set up our layout in the laundry room at my cottage resort and even devised a way to winch the layout up to the ceiling when the laundry was being done. But it wasn’t long before we were dreaming of bigger layouts and places to build.
The opportunity came when my wife and I decided to build a new check-in and working office for Sandpiper Cottages and Suites. My wife suggested at that time that we should consider building a shelf layout for the trains, similar to one we had seen on our travels south the previous winter. Aside from being great for us, it would also serve as an interesting attraction for our guests arriving in the summer. The only restrictions she gave me were that her office and work area needed to stay in tact and that included the four drawer filing cabinets.
After a lot of research and planning, we decided on a height of 55” and chose the 16” prefinished shelving available at Home Depot as the base. As I was building the office from scratch I was able to plan for cutting holes for tunnels thru the walls and even when my wife added a request for a small washroom for guests use, we weren’t deterred. The train could easily go through the washroom!
In each corner of the large room I was able to fabricate a 24” shelf which allows space for an industry or town, including buildings, roads, railroad crossing and lots of other accessories from Walthers cornerstone. I have built some of the dioramas using kits and scenery from Woodland Scenics and it continues to be an ongoing work in progress. I am always amazed at the realistic looks you can achieve with a little bit of time and diligence.
As my interest grew, I started attending train shows, rallies and meets as often as I could and received many suggestions from modelers who had done similar versions of what I had undertaken. Some suggested getting a subscription to Model Railroader magazine and finding a source for some of the older issues and publications as well. They are a terrific source of information and there is no end to helpful hints and examples of projects that others have undertaken available.
After installing the shelf all the way around the room on L brackets, my first step was to glue a piece of 1 ½ “ Styrofoam on it as a bed for the layout. This provides the flexibility needed for the design work and it is easy to cut grooves for river beds and culverts to pass under the tracks. I bought ship-lap Styrofoam in sheets 24” x 96” long from our local building store and the installation went very smoothly using construction glue to hold the Styrofoam down. I had a general plan in mind and left glue free areas where I planned (and am still planning on) putting in river beds and lakes. Realistic Water is can be used to simulate a river or lake beds complete with rocks and sand . It is a good idea to keep the extra Styrofoam that is cut off as it comes in handy for making mountains and tunnels later on in your layout.
The next important step was to lay out the tracks and wiring. I wanted to make sure on the new layout that both my grandson and I could operate the trains together and the best way to accomplish that was to convert to a DCC system. It allows for up to 99 engines to run at the same time if you have 99 controllers and the layout to accommodate the engines…..ah…some day!!
My research led me to Tony’s Trains as they appear to be the industry experts in DCC systems and accessories. I placed an order on line for the most inexpensive MRC command control that I could find, the Prodigy Express and asked several questions about the setup. I was surprised and very pleased that Tony himself took the time to give me a call directly. He questioned me on the use of the controller I was purchasing and my future plans for expansion. His suggestion was that I move up to the Prodigy Advanced 2 which would allow extra hand held Cabs or controllers to be added to the system. I thought this was a very good idea since my grandson had already expressed the need for his own controller. That didn’t surprise me at all – we were creating another dedicated model railroader.
Because the planned layout would cover over 75 linear feet of track and 4 sidings, I used a main or buss cable made up of a 75 foot 14/3 outdoor extension cord . After strapping it to the underside of the shelf, I cut it at regular intervals about 10 feet apart and spliced a 22/4 gauge phone cable with screw terminal connectors. I then passed it through to the track bed for future connection to the track circuit. This process allowed for enough power to run many engines at once with no signal or power loss to the decoders in each engine as well as the power for street lights and crossing signals along the layout.