Layout redesign – Cranbrook to Creston

An operator at a session last year unintentionally unleashed a demon on my layout.

When are you going to put in Creston?”

When…when am I….well, first I have to figure out the track plan and proper operations, which have an impact on Nelson and Cranbrook. Looking into those, I realized I had a problem – the east siding switch of Creston was only about 400 feet from the west siding switch of Cranbrook. That was going to cause some problems! I decided to solve that as well as another problem at once by adding some run. But there’s no more room to expand the layout! Unless you think…. UP!

Here’s my Cranbrook, ca. 2017. It was in this configuration for less than a year! I had roughed in a middle level for stub ended storage tracks, approx. 2400′ long, for whatever I wanted to shove in from the non-existent helix that I had intended to connect the east and west ends of the layout with but never built or needed.

Here’s the old plan:

You can see the issue – this is compounded because operators have to walk around a fair distance to get from Creston to Cranbrook due to the furnace and water heater being in the way.

In real life, east of Creston, the line climbs up a maximum 1.25% grade up the Goat river to a summit at Goatfell before descending a short downhill to Yahk. There’s not too much on the way, the small town of Kitchener (station name McConnel to avoid confusion with Kitchener, ON, as the CP didn’t allow duplicate names on its system), but what really catches my eye are two features. First, east of Erickson (a stone’s throw from Creston) the railway crosses the Goat river’s box canyon at the town of Canyon (Original!) on a pretty darn nice bridge.

Canyon-Lister road also passes over the river and under the rail line, as you can see.

Up past McConnel, the line goes around a pretty nifty horseshoe curve that’s hidden by trees. I’ve never seen a photo of a train on it, but it’s plainly visible on google maps.

I realized that I had plenty of space to incorporate both of these, but I felt like I needed something more in the wide scene. I chose to add a 15′ wooden trestle that exists up at Goatfell. It should be a culvert, but instead, it’s a great project!


I drew up plans to move Cranbrook from its current elevation at 0.5″ to 12.5″.  After some experimentation, I decided this was the minimum deck separation from the lower deck that would allow it to be scenically workable. This also left enough room to access Cranbrook under Midway. Here’s the new plan:

You can see the Canyon bridge on the original alignment (which was dictated by the furnace and studs) leading up to the horseshoe curve before going through a 2 turn helix to bring it to Cranbrook’s new height. The grade is 1.25% from Creston onto the bridge, going up to 2.0% about the midpoint of the room through the horseshoe – more on that later.

Up in Cranbrook, I originally designed it with 6 run-through tracks and 1 shorter stub track. I guess I wasn’t paying attention when everyone said that you need to design more staging than you think you need! I added 1 long and 3 shorter run-through tracks (800-1000′) and removed the stub track. I moved the reverse loop to the right side of the room, keeping it on the east end of the line, as the tracks in Cranbrook were now reversed east to west.

Building a wedding cake helix:

I wanted the grade in the helix itself to be as mild as possible. My other helix continues with the 2.65% ruling grade of the Boundary sub, but I didn’t want to have such a prominent grade be an obstacle to operations. (The other one is so on purpose)

The grade is 2.0% coming through the horseshoe curve, but lessens to 1.75% through the helix. Why? Two reasons. The ruling grade is in the curve, which means that if a train either can’t make the hill you’ll know right away, and worse, if it stringlines, it’s going to do it where you can easily get it back on the rails without screwing around in a well-designed and accessible helix.

With the grade being 1.75% throughout the helix, but that meant that the separation between levels was going to be 2.1″ railhead to railhead. That’s not a whole lot! I decided to make the helix out of a 1/4″ plywood base supported every 6-8″ and 1/8″ hardboard on top of that to join the plywood together. Take away another 1/8″ for the ties and rails, and that leaves 1-5/8″ clearance above the rail. Note that this is slightly more than the NMRA recommended 1-9/16″, but that doesn’t allow for fingers. I cut them in arcs from smaller pieces I had kicking around. I designed it as an upside down wedding cake style so that you can reach in from above as well as the side, making access much easier. The radius expands by 1″ every level, giving (as you’d expect) a 1″ offset from one level to the next.

I basically laminated the two layers together with wood glue and a ton of clamps.

Here’s an overview before I wrapped the outside in hardboard.

Moving the Cranbrook Staging Yard:

So I’m adding a couple tracks, does that mean I want to rip out the whole yard? No – and it’s designed sectionally, as is the rest of my layout. So why not take it apart and put it back together? Sounds easy! Of course it’s not. Coming apart went well. I used my ultra thin dremel cutoff wheel to gap all the rails first.

Took out all the screws, and she’s free!

I disconnected the wires from their terminal strips at the section joins and carefully pulled everything apart, making sure none of my additions were looped or stuck, removing the occasional piece of benchwork to free some wire or another until the section was free.

Then things started to get weird.

This just felt wrong! Anyway, those stayed like that for the next couple weeks while I tore out the old benchwork and put in new. Things were very messy during this time. I was able to reuse about half of what was there before, but other changes were too big and I had to add new L girders and joists.

One complication: My wider helix was closer to the wall than the original curve into the yard, so I have to shave a couple inches off that section, in a straight line. I clamped a 1×3 in precisely the right spot to keep the blade of my circular saw where it should be, and prayed that I wouldn’t destroy my track.

In the end, I only messed up the flex a little bit and broke one PCB tie on the turnout. Not too bad!

I added in 2 additional turnouts to this ladder as well as a small extension on the table to accommodate the 2 extra tracks. I put the turnouts in while the section was still loose, it was the easiest way to work and didn’t have me hunched into the corner for hours.

I also cut a new ladder of  3#8 turnouts in at the back. I chose 8s because the angle more closely matched how the yard came away from the wall.

Moving the yard over by those few inches also left me with a choice – do I move the whole yard over, or make it slightly longer? Might as well make it longer! It was easier on a few tracks to replace the flextrack to the next join rather than splice in a 4″ section. I added the other new tracks later in order to get the layout running faster.

Out by the furnace, I had to replace the dispatcher’s panel as it was soaked by a leak from the furnace humidifier that I didn’t realize was even on, so I built a sort of box to support both the Cranbrook reverse loop, the line up from Creston, and the new DS panel. At the same time, I realized this wall isn’t load bearing, so I removed a couple of studs. Hehehe.

Down the Hill to Creston

Let’s jump back a bit. Since the staging yard was gone and accessibility was at an all-time high, it was time to build the grade down to Creston. As I’ve done before, I used xTrackCAD to make the best use of my plywood for the cookie cutter roadbed. I don’t have that file anymore, but here’s one from earlier construction:

That jigsaw was a damn good investment.

Put them all up on risers, as I’ve done a hundred times before – I use shims and levels to make sure the height difference is correct between the risers, as well as to check the risers are level on top.

I left this gap for my tiny trestle. I hadn’t decided if it was going to be as small as in real life (it will be) so I left a bit of extra length and height just in case.

I didn’t use cork roadbed inside the helix, but I did transition to it before the visible run. I’m superelevating the curves using the masking tape method I’ve been using forever. Superelevation looks SO GOOD, GUYS.

I’ve made a change to the way I designed this part from the rest of the layout. Most of the curves on the rest are 18″. Here, I tried some variation, as well as adding a few longer straight sections. There’s an 18″ curve, a 24″ curve, even a 30″ curve! Believe me when I say it looks FANTASTIC.

I mentioned this was all because of Creston, right? While I haven’t yet finalized my design for it, I decided where the mainline was going to go – which isn’t where it was previously. I wanted it to be on a ridiculously wide curve. How was I going to manage that? Well, I decided to grab a piece of 1/4″ hardboard, clamp it to 2 pieces of lumber where the ends were, and let it decide the rest.

Mmmm. If I managed to get it close, that’s about a 110″ radius – a 4° curve!

It was at this point I took a 2 week break from trains to get married. (Sorry, not sorry.)

With that checked off my life goals list, I went back to lay track up from the Kootenay Landing bridge to Cranbrook as well as add in the 4 new staging tracks and reverse loop, put the feeders on, and ran 2 extras back into staging where they belonged!

See what I mean? These curves look fantastic.

Gee, seems empty up there…

You can see the Midway panel kicking around where it shouldn’t be – that’s because it was too tall and interfered with Cranbrook once it was moved. I decided to make a new panel for Midway and make fascia for the staging in order to make it look a bit nice. I also had to make a new panel for Cranbrook. I reused the old bits from both to save myself from a ton of soldering, which constrained me somewhat size-wise.

I combined the Midway panel with the tiny panel that controls the switch into Midway but is on the far side of the backdrop, and made everything tiny and compact.

Cranbrook’s panel was a bit more complicated to move, what with the changes in track configuration and all.

A lot of my electrical looks really good. Here, I was just tired of it all. I stopped caring. I still don’t care.

Time to put the dispatcher panel back! I made a new one that was larger and had room to put random bits of information on.

Then I had an op session. The end. For now.


Kootenay Division video series launch – A conversation through time!

Hey, everyone. I’ve been working on this huge project all year and will continue to for the upcoming year. I’d love it if you would all subscribe to it! The premise is that every Wednesday I upload a video taken a year ago and every Saturday I upload a video taken that week, and converse with myself about all manner of things.

It’s called Past Matt/Future Matt.

First Past Matt:

First Future Matt:


Thanks in advance, please enjoy this 104-video long series!

Kootenay Kwickie – How to mess up your fascia in two easy steps!

Step 1: Build your benchwork

Step 2: Put your fascia on it poorly.

Okay, here’s the dealio. I tried to use 1/4″ hardboard for my fascia as it would be stronger, probably wouldn’t crack as easily, and curve more smoothly…but long story short, I tried to curve it too sharply. Don’t try to bend 1/4″ any sharper than an 18″ radius, and even then, only if you’re sure it’s nice and smooth.

Your inside corners might look okay…

20131226 1

Outside corners? Most certainly not.

20131226 2

So that was my attempt at finishing off the lower deck. Whoops. Learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourselves, lovely people!


Kootenay Division in Run 6

I would never claim to be in run 8, but progress is being made! Lots and LOTS of it.

If you take a look, you’ll see my last post, September 23, I had just finished the upper deck’s benchwork. In that time, I’m not doing as well as I could be, but I did a lot.

Firstly, I built the hell out of the lower deck. In 10 days, I built the benchwork for Nelson to Kootenay Lake. I don’t have any photos without piles of stuff on it, though. Enjoy.

20131117 1

Next up, as you can see, I ran a shelf below everything. This won’t really be used by me. The price of air rights.

After that, I needed some space fo’ my thangz. I removed a shelving unit from the room to make room for lumber storage that was previously used to house my random crap, so I built a random crap-inet. See this post.

How to build above layout storage


After that I popped in all the risers for Nelson. I wanted to get that big table out of the way. It took me quite some time to draw out all the track lines, mind you…but I ended up using plywood 1x2s again, since it’s SO easy to crack cheap pine 1x2s!

20131105 1

Now, with the plywood base and masonite top cut and ready to put in, the fun begins. The usual, kick myself in the face type of fun where my past self is an idiot, or something.

That yard lead I installed last year? With the really nice embankment I was so proud of? This one? Well, guess what…it was 2 inches too long. Don’t ask me how I messed that up. So I had to CUT THE THING OFF AND MOVE IT ALL WHILE CRYING TEARS, SPILLING THEM ALL OVER MY HARD WORK.

20131105 2

It’s getting easier to get over such things.

At this point, I make sure everything mates up and aligns properly. Looks good!

20131112 1

Mmm. Take a closer look. Turns out SOMEWHERE along the road I changed the track centres by an eigth of an inch. WoopdeedooodiehoohoohoohoooDAMN.





20131112 2

*ahem* Anyway…with the plywood base secured down…

20131113 1

…I realized it wasn’t supported enough, so I added a joist, as is the beauty of L girder benchwork of this type.

20131113 2

Hooray! My river’s no longer wobbly! And yes, that’s how I keep track of where my receptacles are.

That being done, I was ready to glue down the masonite. Ooh.

20131113 3

That’s a lot of glue.

Let’s put it down.

20131113 4

Oh yeah. You have to weight that down. OH NO. I DON’T HAVE ANYTHING READY.


At least it turned out fairly well. Here’s the finished product, ready for track!

West yard ladder (roundhouse is the bulge on the left):

20131208 2

East end of yard, KFP lumber mill in foreground with the diesel shops just beyond:

20131208 1

A curious thing about Nelson Yard is that it’s built on the alluvial fan of Cottonwood Creek, the only large expanse of flat land in the area. This, coupled with the silver deposits discovered on the mountains around, made Nelson the division point it remains today. The curious thing about that is that the creek runs through the middle of the yard, between the classification yard and the diesel shops, with a series of bridges under several roadways and a dozen tracks! Duh, I’m modeling it! It’s a narrow concrete channel, so I just took the 12′ real life channel and widened it by a foot. Simple construction, though. You can also see the mid-yard sectional join on the left-hand side of this shot, and the disel shops are just beyond that.

20131208 3

Oh yeah, and it’s mad strong, too.

20131208 4

It’s hard to tell if it’s even flexing while I do that!

So, I’m moving eastward, Kootenay Lake is next on the list – once everything is nice and finished in terms of wood over to Kootenay Landing, I’m moving on up to the upper deck from Paulson to Grand Forks!

Oh crap. I had better go make sure GF is planned out completely.

A little bit about upper deck benchwork

I took video of the whole thing, so if you learn more by watching me do things, I’ll cross-post them to here once they’re up.

To start with: The plan. The whole thing’s just made of sturdy fun.

upper deck peninsula benchwork 1

If it looks like a big ol’ bunch of truss bridges, that’s on purpose. It’s an incredibly sturdy shelf. Now, the whole thing is on a grade from the helix (where that weird little tail piece is) to the sort-of-one-turn-helix that’s in the bottom left corner – and I don’t mean the track is on a grade, the BENCHWORK is. The track’s on a 2.6% grade all the way from the pulp mill to the summit, gaining 30 inches, and for some of that run the clearance is extremely precious. For this reason, the benchwork is also sloped.

20130921 5

The most challenging aspects of the design were the creeks – Shields Creek and Farr Creek. For Shields, I had a bit of room to play because the backdrop could be quite far forward at McCormack Creek, directly below.

20130921 2

Farr Creek wasn’t quite so lucky, and the valley bottom will have a rather large lip at the lower end to accommodate the benchwork without having the benchwork foul the lower deck. My original plan called for it to be 3″ above the pulp mill, whoops!

The basic construction, as you can see pretty well in the last photo, is L girders on the back and front with joists in between. It’s all made from lumber ripped from 3/4″ plywood cut as precisely as possible in terms of angles.  The whole thing is hung on 1x4s (nominal) from these special L girders on the ceiling:

20130729 2

When they run perpendicular to the joists, they’re screwed directly into them, but otherwise they’re attached to 19″ wide sheets of plywood. Nice and solid.

The vertical members that hold the layout up have another purpose: At the corners, they but together and are screwed every 5″ or so. This gives a huge amount of rigidity. Speaking of rigidity, the 1x4s do have a certain amount of flex, so I added some steel U channels that happens to be 3/4″ wide to the sides of the 1x4s for extra sturdyness. You could use whatever is rigid and suits you best, I originally planned to use steel bar, but it was about $8 for a 6′ piece, and the U channel was free!

For the creeks, I simply made sure that everything had a bracing piece going in every applicable direction. Make sure you colour-code your plan! In mine, reds are the vertical supports, yellow is the regular height deck, blue is the extra-low front girder, and greens go from regular height to the extra-low height.


The bigger red one is a 2×4 that I connected down to the lower deck for added stability. I would have put it all the way to the floor, but it would have blocked access to the helix. Couldn’t have that!

To visualize all of this, here you go. It will eventually have a sheet of 1/4″ plywood to stop all movement dead, dead, DEAD.

20130921 4

The rest was much more simply framed. For everything, it was made from plywood ripped into strips of nominal lumber, 1x2s, 1x3s, and 1x4s (.75×1.5, 2.5, and 3.5″ respectively.)  The outer members are L girders made of 1x3s with a 1×2 flange, screwed and glued. Make sure you do this right! Take advice from my video here. The bracing members in between are all 1x3s. I cut them at the proper angle after using a program called Cutmaster 2D to plan out all my cuts. It doesn’t take into account angled or beveled cuts so you have to do your own little trig calculations and bear with the extra little bit of waste for this type of benchwork, but with somewhere around 100 pieces of lumber it helped me make the most of my lumber. When planning, avoid any angled or beveled cut at a greater angle than 45°. Trust me.

To assemble it, make sure all your cuts are as precise as possible in terms of length, angle, and bevel. I put the 1×2 flange of the rear girder on top, and the front girder on the bottom. You only have to do this if it’s sloped front to back. A little trick to make it all snug is to turn your lumber until it lies along the back of your mitre saw (which is set at 0’) and cut off just the right amount to squeeze under the flange of the girder (so the cut is 3/4″ long)

To get them in place, smother them with glue, then hold them firmly in place while screwing them in. I’m working on getting videos done as a visual tutorial, so if all that is confusing to you, you won’t have to wait too long!

Under the helix I decided to just a simple grid of 1x4s.

20130921 6

The next section has Porcupine Creek in it, and had to be fairly deep as a result. The section after that has to be close in elevation to the duckunder, so I decided to have them 4″ apart vertically with a joining plate of 3/4″ plywood in between the two.

20130921 7

Anyway, that’s where I’ve gotten to. Check out the video tutorials, they’ll probably be more cohesive and coherent.  Time to get loads of work done!

Hard a Starboard, Kootenay Division!

This week I had a realization.

I was on the wrong tack.

My plan was taking on water.

I had to stop making naval references.

Upon my completion of the benchwork from Castlegar to the east switch of the summit siding of Farron, I began looking toward the next section – the 11 foot pair of sections encompassing Farron siding and a delightful little pond on McRae Creek. then it hit me – If I built that, how would I get lumber from the saw to the rest of the layout? For you see, though it’s fairly high off the ground, I also realized that I could add some house-like framing made of 2x4s to give a huge amount of stability to it. Can’t fit lumber through THOSE openings! So even though I already had the rest of the lumber cut and was maybe 2 months from having a fully operational grade to the summit and a place to turn my trains…

…I decided to build the rest of the benchwork first. ‘Cause then I could use my saw easily and stuff.

This meant a big ol’ pile of lumber. What you can’t see are the 40 or so members already cut and hiding under the layout.

20130921 9

The lower deck will be standard L girder, the same as under Castlegar. The upper deck will continue the design that I’ll outline in the next post. I already managed to get all the lower deck done save for legs and braces. Quick, huh?