Choosing a Prototype:
When I set out to build my last layout, The Cherokee Foothills Railroad (Link), I had a whole laundry list of wants and ideas on how it was going to be perfect. When I finished it, it was indeed perfect. It looked good and ran well. But, as usual, I got bored with it in pretty short order. At the time, I derived most of my enjoyment from building as opposed to operating.
I toyed around with planning a few layouts including an uban-themed "Bright Lights, Big City" layout and a "Big Coal" themed layout.Ultimately I couldn't come up with anything. The CFRR was pretty much the best layout I could come up with for the space I had at my disposal. So the CFRR stuck around from a while and I continued to tweak it. Slowly it evolved from just a layout to its own fictional railroad company.
When I bought my house and finally acquired enough space to build that really big layout I'd always wanted, I thought I would simply build a bigger, better version of the CFRR. But over time my tastes changed and I realized that freelancing simply wasn't doing it for me any more. I wanted my next layout to be an actual model railroad, ie a miniature recreation of something that exists in real life.
I also came to the realization that I was tired of modeling South Carolina. Yes, the Palmetto State has been home since 2007. But I'm from New York and I've been enamored with the Pennsylvania Railroad since I first visited Horseshoe Curve with my dad in 1996. Initially I resisted modeling the Pennsy because of the lack of steam available in N Scale. But then I bought Kato's magnificent Broadway Limited model and that was it. I decided to model the Pennsy. And why not? I had ample space to do it justice. Even better, being the Pennsy, the layout would includ some urban "Bright Lights, Big City" and "Big Coal."
I'm modeling the Pennsy main line from Aloona, PA to Johnstown, PA. This includes the famous Horseshoe Curve and Galitzin Tunnels. I also wanted to include the area around Casandra, PA since it's a favorite railfan spot. I chose to model the PRR in 1956, the last year of steam operations. I figured I would buy the few steam engines that were available and acquire new ones as they come out if they come out. I could use diesels to round out the fleet.
One Layout, Two Eras:
In 1968, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with rival New York Central to form the Penn Central Transportation Company. The merger wasn't successful to put it mildly and the PC was merged with several other bankrupt northeastern railroads to form Conrail in 1976. When I first visited Horseshoe Curve in 1996 Conrail was running the show.
My 1996 visit to HSC was my first exposure to big-time freight railroading. I grew up on Long Island, NY and my idea of railroading consisted of the Long Island Railroad's diesel push-pull and electric MU commuter trains. Seeing those big blue locomotives haul mile-long freights up those grades left and impression on me. So I decided to also acquire a fleet of Conrail locomotives and modern rolling stock to represent Conrail in the mid 1990s. However, when I switched to DCC, I discovered most of my Conrail fleet would be both costly and difficult to convert. I ended up selling it all in 2017.
In 1999, Conrail's assets were purchased and divided by two other railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern. The former PRR line passed to Norfolk Southern. I figured since I was already including Conrail I might as well include NS around the mid-2000s (the date of two subsequent trips) as well. I will also include Amtrak in the mix as well.
I wanted a track plan that incorporated as many of the scenic highlights along the line between Altoona and Johnstown but also included plenty of opportunities for switching and operation. I used Xtrackcad software to come up with the above plan. I was able to include the famous Horseshoe Curve and Gallitzin Tunnels. I've also included the small town of Cassandra, PA, which is a favorite railfanning spot of mine. The towns of Cresson, Lily and Portage have been omitted as some selective compression is necessary in order to include everything I want. The layout does deviate somewhat form the plan above.
In order to reduce the weight of the benchwork, I used 2x2s for the legs and 1x3s or the horizontal beams. The benchwork was then covered with luan plywood and a layer of 2" pink closed-cell Styrofoam. The foam makes it possible to dig out rivers, lakes and other depressions fairly easily. The table top is 48 inches off the ground. To gain elevation, I used Woodland Scenics flexible foam risers. These raise the track at a steady 2% grade to four inches above the table top
I used Peco code 55 flex track with electrofrog turnouts. I originally intended to use Atlas, however opted against it due to continuing availability issues and since I own several old engines from the deep-flange days that can run on Peco without modification.
The minimum mainline curve radius is 20 inches and the minimum mainline turnout is #6. This allows me to run pretty much anything.
Wiring and Train Control:
The layout is wired for DCC and uses a Digitrax DB150 command station and booster. The system is interfaced with my PC using JMRI software. The later grants me the ability to use any smart phone or tablet as a throttle using the Withrottle app. JMRI also allows me to program decoders from my PC. Currently the system is set up for teathered walk around.
The layout was previously set up for DC cab control. However, the limitations of this system soon made themselves known and the decision was made to swtich to DCC. The cab control infrastucture still exists however. Cab B is set up for DCC and Cab A is hooked up to an MRC Tech 6 power supply. This allows me to run locomotives not easily converted to DCC.
I used solid 14-gauge wire for the buses and 22-gauge for the feeder wires. Feeders are hoked up at alternate track joints, roughly every six feet. All wiring is color-coded with soldered joints.
I've used structure kits from a number of manufacturers including Walthers, Model Power, American Model Builders, Branchline Trains and Atlas.