Touring the Lehigh Valley Model Railroad
I recently had a wonderful opportunity to get a personal tour of Chuck Davis' HO Lehigh Valley Model Railroad - Wyoming Division - and was seriously impressed by the perfection and professionalism that went into constructing this layout, which is based on the prototype in northeastern Pennsylvania, circa 1947. The scenery, design and trackwork are nothing less than fantastic, but the operation and electronics really blew me away.
It all started in 1998 in a rebuilt detached garage, containing a space measuring 17'x19', where Chuck Davis, now a Master Model Railroader, designed and built this prototypical empire based on childhood memories of where he grew up in Pennsylvania. As a boy, he was able to watch the workings of the railroad, which was close to his home, the coal mine just 3 blocks away. He would spend hours on summer afternoons watching the coal come up from the mine elevator, being sorted into larger and smaller pieces in the larger building and watching coal cars coming in empty and leaving loaded. His grandfather was a car inspector for the Lehigh Valley and was also a great inspiration to him in his younger years.
The building of the layout actually began with modules, since that was the focus of the Tidewater Division of the NMRA at the time. Modules were built by the individual members and were transported to train shows where they would be put together temporarily to form a very large layout. Chuck built several of these modules. After a while, he decided to connect his modules together permanently in his train room. He then added more sections, and over a period of several years, the layout has grown to its current spectacular state.
The lighting in the room is provided mostly by several rows of track lights. The ability to dim the lights and add blue light for night scenes adds to the mood and atmosphere. (He sometimes likes to gradually dim the lights more and more during the end of a 3-4 hour operating session as a signal to the operators that it's time to wind down and go home :)
As a boy, living in the Lehigh Valley, all he could see around him were the mountains and he often found himself wondering what was beyond those hugh, rounded, green-covered peaks. The scenery and the backdrop on the layout depict the awe that he felt back then. Some have criticized that the mountains on his backdrop are too high, but I thought they were just right, because that's how he saw them at that time. Most of the backdrop was painted - starting with a graduated bluer to whiter color from top to bottom for the sky, and using a dark green color as a base-paint for the distant mountains, lighter green for the nearer mountains, then splotching it with even lighter green color to give the appearance of forests. The tops of the nearest mountains are spickled to look like trees. I also noted that his entire ceiling in the train room was painted a sky blue color.
Pictures were often blown up to the proper scale to add to the backdrop especially in the area of the coal mine to show the typical small white hillside houses where mine workers lived.
Partial buildings/facades were placed on the backdrop in some areas to depict major industry without taking up too much space. Labels and decals for some of the buildings were cut out from magazines and some were photographed and then resized in the computer to fit the spot where it was ultimately placed.
Forced perspective was also used in some scenes to give them greater depth. I would not have noticed that had I not known about the technique. This is where the modeler uses a lower scale, in this case N scale buildings and railcars in the background and HO scale in the foreground. The smaller items in the back appear as if they are farther away and gives the illusion of a much deeper scene than it really is.
There are many scenes and details on the layout that were made from memories of his childhood, including scratchbuilt and kitbashed scale models of many of the buildings around the area, for which he has won modeling awards. One scene shows children in their soapbox cars racing down an asphalt road, which was a common activity in those days. He remembers being one of those boys, which is why he added it to the layout.
The buildings, locos and railcars are all weathered expertly and all look very realistic, as does the scenery, forests, rocks and overall landscaping. It all definitely serves to recreate the atmosphere and environment of the locale and the era.
The electronics and operation of the layout are superb, and to my amazement, everything actually works as it's supposed to! He says there are the usual troubleshooting problems that always come up with any layout operation. They, of course, usually occur at operating sessions, during which there are about 9 operators working the layout for about 3 hours. There is a dispatcher that can look at a control board and "see" where the trains are in the under-the-layout storage/staging areas (based on the presence of infrared detectors) and dispatch them when needed. (There is also a video monitor so he can actually see the hidden trains as well.) It takes 3 people to run the main freight yard; others are working the smaller yards and still others are operating the trains bringing them to the yards and interchanges and ultimately to where they are supposed to end up - dropping off empties and picking up loaded cars.
Switchlists and color-coded waybills correlating to certain tracks in the classification yard are used to determine where cars need to be placed so that they all get to the right destination. Locomotive switchers are used to maneuver and sort the railcars onto the appropriate tracks. The switches and buttons on the control panel are used to throw the proper selection of turnouts in the yard ladder so the loco can push the railcars onto the correct track.
All the railcars and locos use Kadee magnetic couplers. Magnetic double uncouplers (small cylindrical magnets purchased from K&J Magnetics) are placed in strategic locations (one near the inside rail on each side of the track) and are marked at trackside with a touch of white paint (as seen in the photo), so the location of the uncouplers are readily apparent to facilitate dropping off cars in the sorting process. The nice thing about these cylindrical magnets is that they can be inserted after the track has already been laid and ballasted.
It's all done in prototypical fashion and operates the same way a true-to-life railroad does. All the plastic wheels on the railcars have been replaced with metal ones which allows for much smoother operation and fewer derailments.
The Lehigh Valley layout is powered by both DC and DCC (It can be done!). At any given time, certain tracks can be converted from one to the other, just by throwing a switch on the control board. There are 2 Digitrax command control centers- one is a DCS-100 and the other is a DB-150 booster - and each one of those sections is protected by a PM42 Quad power manager . This allows quick and easy location of any short circuits that may occur - at least most of the time. Chuck told me about one short circuit that took several months to figure out. This ultimately turned out to be due to a defect in the auto-reverse function of one of the power stations. After Digitrax replaced it, there were no further problems.
There are several control boards located in strategic areas close to the yards that they operate, except for the dispatcher's control board which is operated remotely. The control boards are neatly arranged with toggle and color-coded rotary switches and LED lights all of which allow for easier operation than you might think. Details of how they work can be seen in the videos shown below or on the mylvrr website.
Lots of other electronics are used to enhance the layout including an operating NJ international signal system that prevents the engineers from running the trains into each other, operating crossing gates, train sounds, mine whistles depicting starting and closing time, sounds of chickens on a farm, luminescent and neon signs for buildings and billboards, lighted fire engines and police cars, lighted structures, street lamps, arc welding, campfires for hobos, etc. The scenes are well populated with workers in the mine, children at play, animals in the forests, engineers in every train window and lots of passengers in the train stations. These little details really can make a layout come alive.
Most of the trackwork is Atlas, but there are some sections that are handlaid, again attesting to the ability of the modeler. The precision that went into laying the track was obvious in that it worked flawlessly. Trains ran very smoothly across joints and turnouts without any problems. He keeps his tracks clean using an CMX tank car√ with a pad on the bottom. He fills it with 90% alcohol and runs it around all the tracks about once a month and before operating sessions.
The turnouts are Atlas, Walthers and Tortoise and most are controlled with DCC, but there is one section that uses push button switches which made the most sense for that area since it has to be operated locally rather than remotely. A diode matrix (a specially made series of diodes) is used on each end of all the yards, such that the operator only has to push one button to line up all the turnouts properly to get the switcher and railcar to the right place.
The layout contains a double-tracked mainline including 2 interchanges and 3 branches, 2 reversing loops, a 10-track double-ended yard, a 7-track stub-ended storage yard, turntable with a 6 stall roundhouse and another 5-track staging yard located in the adjoining garage.
Tracks are shared by other local railroads running through the area including the PRR, CNJ, L&WV, and by DL&W and NYO&W at the interchanges.
All of the details regarding this amazing layout are outlined in the mylvrr website that was authored by Chuck. There are many informational descriptions, pictures and videos to see on the website. I particularly like the ones that are shown from the engineer's viewpoint in the cab as shown in the Video section below.
Take some time to read the information on the mylvrr website about the construction and operation of the Lehigh Valley Model Railroad layout and look at the pictures and videos closely. It will give you many ideas and details that you could use for your own layout projects. If you are a beginner, it will inspire you to want to build your own model railroad, or if you already have one, you will be highly motivated to make it even better. If you want to learn more about how a layout like this operates, be sure to view the videos shown below the photos.
Tour of the Lehigh Valley Model Railroad from the Engineer's Cab:
Uncoupling Video on the LVRR:
Video Showing How the Control Panel and Diode Matrix Work for the Coxton Yard:
Operating the LVRR - Multiple Videos Here Detail the Operation of the Layout: