MQR Design – Revised Again

I continue to tweak and adjust the plans for the MQR, more recently focusing on the benchwork. A recent post in the Model Railroad Hobbyist forums that led me to a pdf put together by Richard Smith back in the late 2000’s: “Evolution of the Port Orford Coast Railroad: An Experiment in Raised Platform Garden Railroading“. Looking through my hard drive, I found I had downloaded a copy of it back in 2009 but had forgotten about it.

The design keeps the track layout of Version 5 (Piko R3 radius curves with a single passing track) but replaces the deck construction with a simpler 2×4 frame covered with hardware cloth and landscape cloth. The frame is then edged with a 2×4 “fascia”. Roadbed is formed from splines cut from cedar 2×6’s. I am thinking of using foundation screws to anchor the legs in the ground rather than digging holes and using concrete.

What I like about this benchwork method is that it is more more scenic than a deck and it is possible to grow some small plants on the layout proper.

The MQR at a Glance

Scale: 7/8″ or 1:13.7 (45 mm gauge track as 2-foot gauge)
Prototypes: Penrhyn Quarry Railway & Talyllyn Railway
Locale: Wales
Time Period: late 1950’s
Size: 10 x 14 feet
Layout Style: Loop
Layout Height: 48″
Benchwork: Raised Platform (pressure-treated wood) 
Roadbed: Cedar splines
Track: Peco
Minimum Radius: 6′
Maximum Grade: none

Here’s a rough visualization of what it would look like:

MQR Design – Simplified

Since I wrote the post “MQR Design by Vignettes” back in 2019, I’ve given a lot of thought of the time investment needed to make these designs a success. And I’ve come to the realization that the complexity of construction would mean a year or two of building before I was able to run trains.

So I’ve decided to pivot to a more simple design that I can complete rather quickly while still working full time.

The concept of the layout construction comes from the Family Garden Trains website: Building a Raised Platform Garden Railroad. The final design is based around using Piko R3 radius curves (6′ in diameter), requiring an 8’x13′ raised platform:

It is a simple loop with one passing siding which would allow one train to run while another train is being prepped. This allows me to run a couple of trains or to host some small steam-ups in the future.

I’ve ordered the track I need and will lay it out to test-fit things before designing the final details of the deck.

MQR Design by Vignettes

After approaching layout design from a theoretical point of view, I started doodling around with some basic shapes. Taking Rich Chiodo’s railway design as a basis, I created a basic dogbone-shaped loop with a wye coming off one of the the loops in 3rd PlanIt. The basic footprint is 36 foot square. Every curve has a minimum radius of 60″ (5 feet) with spiral easements and all turnouts are #6’s.

The MQR at a Glance

Scale: 7/8″ or 1:13.7 (45 mm gauge track as 2-foot gauge)
Prototypes: Penrhyn Quarry Railway & Talyllyn Railway
Locale: Wales
Time Period: late 1950’s
Size: 36 x 36 feet
Layout Style: Point to loop
Layout Height: 24″
Benchwork: Retaining wall (Celtik system for example) 
Roadbed: Trex splines
Track: Handlaid Code 215 on cedar ties
Turnouts: #6 stub turnouts with 60″ radius curves
Minimum Radius: 60″ with spiral easements
Maximum Grade: none

With the basic design in place, I then started to think about what scenes for the two prototype railways would fit the design.

MQR using PQR Vignettes

MQR in the style of the Penrhyn Quarry Railway
MQR in the style of the Penrhyn Quarry Railway

Overlaying the PQR on the basic design, I found that, outside of Felin Fawr, there weren’t as many well-known scenes to model.

MQR using Talyllyn Vignettes

MQR in the style of Talyllyn Railway
MQR in the style of Talyllyn Railway

The Talyllyn key scenes are a much better fit for this design and I can easily see how things would work here. At the moment, this would be the design I would build.

MQR Minimum Viable Design – Part 1

There is a concept in the software development world called the “minimum viable product“. From its Wikipedia entry, a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is “one with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development.”[1][2]

I thought I would extend the concept to model railroad layout design to determine what would be the simplest design that met my goals for the MQR. A Minimum Viable Design is largely concerned about how trackage is connected to each other; concepts like the the geometry and length of the mainline, the minimum radius of curves, easements, siding length, etc will not be finalized until the final layout design.

For my former garden railway (pictured above), I could argue that the minimum viable design was in fact a circle of track. At that time, I really wanted no more than a loop of track to run my one train. The layout had two switches on it but I hardly used them at all.

Givens for the MQR

  • The design must support continuous as well as point-to-point operation, representing both ends of the line (Coed-y-Parc and Port Penrhyn)
  • Steaming-up of engines must be done off of the mainline track.
  • For the point-to-point option, it must be possible to prepare the train for its return trip without having to physically pick up any rolling stock or locomotives. This requires a runaround track at every end of the line. Turning of locomotives either by a turntable or wye is not required; the prototype Penrhyn Quarry Railway did not turn their locomotives.

Minimum Viable Design for Single Train Operation

It was reviewing Rob Bennett’s Weston Railway design that gave me the idea of the Minimum Viable Design concept: I liked the way Rob put the two “ends” of his railway beside and parallel to each other (lower right corner) but was concerned about the number of switches it took to implement.

Rob Bennett’s Weston Railway

Things clicked when I doodled out a design where the runaround trackage was shared by both ends of the line. To make this work, I felt it would be necessary to create some sort of visual separation between the two ends of the line.  The prototype Penrhyn Quarry Railway helped out here with the long slate wall on the south side of Coed-y-Parc.  Such a wall would not look out of place in Port Penrhyn either. This insight led to the MQR MVD #1a:

Marchlyn Quarry Railway Minimum Viable Design #1a

This design requires just 5 switches to meet the givens listed above for single train operation; the trade-offs are that: 1) for the runaround move, a locomotive must make use of the track at the other end of the line; 2) physically the two ends of the line must lie together and some means of scenically separating them must be devised. On the advantage side, this arrangement creates a working wye so that locomotive direction could be reversed if desired.

Typical operation would go like this:

  1. A train can be steamed up on either side but let’s assume the train is built up and steamed up on track B.
  2. It proceeds on track C towards the mainline.
  3. Entering the mainline on track D, it can extend its run using track E.
  4. To complete its run, the train enters track F and stops on track G. The locomotive is uncoupled from the rolling stock.
  5. The locomotive moves to track A, then backs up through tracks B and H until it reaches track F.
  6. The locomotive then pulls forward and recouples to the rolling stock on track G, ready to return.

Adding one switch removes the need for sharing the runaround trackage between the two ends and allows Coed-y-Parc and Port Penrhyn to be physically separated. This represents the MQR MVD #1b design:

Marchlyn Quarry Railway Minimum Viable Design #1b

This fundamentally is Rob Bennett’s Weston Railway design stripped back to its basics. Typical operation would go like this:

  1. The train is built up and steamed up on track B.
  2. It proceeds on track C towards the mainline.
  3. Entering the mainline on track D, it can extend its run using track E.
  4. To complete its run, the train enters track F and stops on track G. The locomotive is uncoupled from the rolling stock.
  5. The locomotive moves to track I, then backs up through track J until it reaches track F.
  6. The locomotive then pulls forward and recouples to the rolling stock on track G, ready to return.

Here I think the addition of one switch would substantially improve the overall operation of the layout, despite losing the wye.  In addition, it will make it much easier to scenic as Coed-y-Parc and Port Penrhyn no longer need to be co-located. In the next post, I will review the design in the context of operating two trains.

Inspirational 7/8″ Scale Railways

My previous garden railway (pictured above) provided me a lot of enjoyment over its four-year life. It was simple in design, quick to construct, easy to maintain and quick to dismantle when we finally moved. It was a great first outdoor layout for me but as I look to design and build the MQR, I am planning on setting my sights higher.

I’ve been a member of the 7/8″ scale forum, The SE Lounge, since 2007. Over the years, members have documented the creation and development of their layouts.  Here are three that have captured my imagination and will provide inspiration for the MQR design.

Rich Chiodo’s Isle of Shoals Tramway

If you are not familiar with Rich’s layout, I strongly encourage to go through all 23 pages of the post linked above. The IST is a wonderfully executed garden railway that fully captures British narrow gauge.

Things I like about the IST:

  1. The brick tub supporting and surrounding the IST is just gorgeous; it creates a nice edge which photographs well. However, Rich mentioned that it took a long time to construct. 30″ feels about the right amount of elevation to design for.
  2. Rich’s design allows access to all parts of the layout.
  3. Low track-to-scenery ratio.
  4. Very simple track work: wide curves, little straight track, 5 switches in total.

Things I’d do differently:

  1. I would like to have the option to run both point-to-point and continuously.
  2. I am on the fence when it comes to the “pit”. It is a sunken area in the middle of the layout where people can sit and enjoy the layout from a different angle.

Chris Bird’s Summerlands Light Railway

Chris has documented his layout extensively on YouTube.

Things I like about the SLR:

  1. Once again, a very simple track work: wide curves, little straight track, 6 switches in total.
  2. Many small scenes that photograph or video well and make the layout seem much bigger than it is.
  3. Because Chris has included a reserve loop, he can run the SLR in an out-and-back configuration.
  4. The layout is elevated along the main operating side; looking at photographs, I would estimate the elevation difference to be about 15-18″.

Things I’d do differently:

  1. I’m unlikely to have tunnels on the MQR.
  2. No passing loop on the mainline.

Rob Bennett’s Weston Railway

Rob Bennett is another well-known 7/8″ scale modeler from the UK. As I understand it, his Weston Railway was originally at ground level but was elevated in the late 2000’s. I mostly seen Rob’s layout through the various YouTube videos he has made.

Things I like about the Weston:

  1. The two sets of spurs running off to the lower right give Rob the option of running point-to-point. They also serve as steam-up bays.

Things I’d do differently:

  1. The Weston is quite a bit more complicated in track design compared to the IST and SLR: I count 16 switches in Rob’s diagram. I expect the MQR design to come in around 10 switches maximum.

How To: Google Maps and 3rdPlanIt

The availability of digital satellite photos through services like Google Maps and Bing have yielded a wealth of information for the modern age modeler. One of the challenges though is how to leverage satellite photos inside powerful layout design tools like 3rdPlanIt. I’ve been working through this over the past few days and feel I’ve arrived at a good efficient process.

Let’s see how this works in practice. I’ve selected the Ingredion siding (formerly CASCO) in Port Colborne, Ontario on the Trillium Railway as an example. The Google Map is available here.

The first step is to get a screen capture from Google Maps of the area you want to model. It almost always pays to make the screen capture as big as possible. I use the Snipping Tool that comes with Windows with the Window Snip option to get the whole browser window. Go to Google Maps in satellite mode and zoom into the area you want to capture. I try to get down to a consistent zoom level which makes the next steps a little easier. The most important thing to remember is to get the little scale that Google puts on every map into the screen capture (using the Window Snip option should ensure this happens). On the screen capture below, the scale shows 20 meters since I did the screen capture in Europe:

Step 1: Get Screen Capture from Google Click to Enlarge
Step 1: Get a Screen Capture from Google
Click to Enlarge

Using the Save option in the Windows Snipping Tool, save the screen capture as a jpg and note the size of the jpg; on my system, the size of my monitor gives 1920 x 1168 pixel screen captures.

Next, open 3rdPlanIt and start with a fresh file working in feet and inches. The 20’x20′ default room is a good one to start with. It is also good practice to add a new layer to hold the aerial photograph:

Step 2: Set up an Aerial Photo Layer Click to Enlarge
Step 2: Set up an Aerial Photo Layer
Click to Enlarge

The next step is to convert the dimensions in the 3rdPlanIt file to model scale units. There is a checkbox on the File/Settings/Units that you must click. This converts the dimensions in the 3rdPlanIt file to real-world units. For an HO scale drawing, every dimension gets multiplied by 87.

Step 3 Convert to Model Scale Click to Enlarge
Step 3 Convert to Model Scale
Click to Enlarge

Now with the Aerial Photo layer active, select the “Place Image” tool. Starting at the (0,0) corner (the lower left), click and drag your cursor until the size of the photo is about 19200″ by 11680″. This is the proportion of the jpg file multiplied by 10 and should just about fill the 20′ dimension. It is critical to keep the proportion of the jpg when drawing the object; once the image is placed in the right proportion, we can drag the upper right corner to bring the image to the final dimensions. Working in HO scale here and with the level of zoom I typically work, I find that I need to make the jpg image about 22 feet wide:

Step 4 Resize Photo Click to Enlarge
Step 4 Resize Photo
Click to Enlarge

Once I’m at this point, I switch the units to meters to align with the Google Map scale and switch the layer to the Main Layer. Now, zoom into the Google scale section and the bottom right. Select the Draw Track and draw a piece of track from one end of the scale to the either. Now check the length of this track segment in the track detail box in the top right. If the two are close (say 21 meters compared to Google Maps’ 20 meter scale), then you are done. If they are significantly different, select the placed image again and grabbing the same upper right corner, increase or decrease the size of the image accordingly and redraw the check track segment again:

Step 5 Check Scale Click to Enlarge
Step 5 Check Scale
Click to Enlarge

Now you can return to the Main Layer and start drawing track right over the Google map. I usually start by putting turnouts down first. Next to be drawn are the end of the various spurs. I then use the SoftTrack connect tool to tie them together. If the Google Map satellite photo has railcars on the spurs, I’ll often add a couple of them from the Rolling Stock library to confirm I’ve got the scale right:

6 Draw on the Aerial Photo Click to Enlarge
Step 6 Draw on the Aerial Photo
Click to Enlarge

From here, you can just group the trackage in the Main Layer together, copy it and paste it into your layout design file as a Layout Design Element.

What’s nice about this approach is that it gives you a good feel of the track arrangements on the prototype and how much space would be required to model things faithfully. For the Ingredion spur, the prototype would take about 12 feet to model faithfully, a luxury many of us would not have. However, from here, we can build up our strategies to selectively compress scenes like this one for modeling.

Layout Design for the LHR

We have only a small area in the back yard for a garden railroad: basically about 8′ by 32′. Robin and I did a detailed survey of the space so we would have an accurate idea where things were: sprinkler heads, fences, trees and other unmovable objects.

I then used 3rd PlanIt to design the layout. It was very easy to recreate the Aristocraft sectional track in 3rd PlanIt and duplicate as many times as needed. I played around with a lot of different ideas before settling on the following. It’s very simple but scenic at the east (“top”) end. The ruling diameter with the curves is 5 feet (2.5 foot radius) so the layout is for small engines and rolling stock only.

The other big feature was building elevation changes into the design. This appears to be a no-no for live steam engines, but my preliminary tests indicate that the 1.2% grade I planned should cause no major problems. And the layout definitely looks better with the vertical separation between the front and back.

Lost Hollow Railway

While building the layout, I decided to add a bridge at each end to drain the loops. They add visual interest as well.

Layout Design Considerations for the Mark I Layout

Pakesley Mill and Timber Company LogoThe prototype Key Valley Railway was a simple railway, and the model PM&TCo. is as well. I am a fan of David Barrow’s linear design philosophy for model railroads (Model Railroader June 1995), and feel that it is entirely appropriate for the PM&TCo. design. Why? I believe it produces a ‘sincere’ type of layout where the model trains pass through each scene just once the way trains do in real life. There were two main issues that needed to worked into the PM&TCo design:

  1. How to handle open-top loads, here, logs and lumber.
  2. How to handle small equipment rosters.

Handling Open-Top Loads

The biggest challenge of the PMT&Co. layout design was the fact that the vast majority of the traffic will be open-top lumber and log loads.

There are four main approaches to ensure that, during operating sessions, that the logs move east and the lumber moves west at all times:

  1. Use removable loads on the equipment that can be fiddled on and off at the appropriate places. I do not think that this is a viable option, since the wear and tear on all my detailed and scratch-built rolling stock would be rather high.
  2. A second approach would be to fiddle loaded and empty cars on and off the layout during breaks in the operation.
  3. A third approach would be use John Armstrong’s loads-in-empties-out track layout, but these are difficult to include on a linear layout design without a lot of hidden track, which poses its own problems.
  4. Finally, you could run all the cars back to their required starting positions in between operating sessions. Many people do this with coal loads; Tony Koester’s Allegheny Midland being a typical example. This method works well if the load/empty is only moved once per session.

I’m leaning towards the second option for my final design, although I haven’t worked out the details yet.

Handling Small Rosters

Another important issue is the fact that the prototype Key Valley Railway only had a small number of locomotives. Therefore, anyone standing trackside for a full day would see the same engines traveling back and forth between Pakesley and Lost Channel.

Given that multiple copies of the same engine is not a viable option, the layout design will have to have a way of quickly turning locomotives in staging, so that they can reappear quickly. Bill and Mary Miller’s staging yards (Model Railroad Planning 1995 and Model Railroad Planning 1999) present one workable design: a turntable is placed at the far end of the staging yard.

Another approach is the trackless staging cassettes approach described by Paul Dolkos in Model Railroad Planning 1996. The trackless staging design has the advantage of not requiring lengthy yard ladders or space-consuming turntables and has almost an unlimited capacity for storage.

A third approach uses a full train turntable, also described by Paul Dolkos in Model Railroad Planning 1996. In this approach, the entire staging yard is on a pivot so it can be swung around 180 degrees. The advantage here is that none of the equipment needs to be handled while restaging.

I was originally leaning towards using trackless staging cassettes but have heard of a few problems with their use. So I’m planning on using either the full train turntable or the turntable in staging approaches now.

A Linked Up Lost Channel

As I was preparing the layout room, I came across the bane of the all layout builders: a potential change in jobs and cities. In the end, nothing came of it, but it was a harsh reminder that I’m still in that time in my career where a job change and a move are distinct possibilities.

This made me look at my previous designs for movability. I really didn’t like what I saw: any layout built on my previous three designs would have to be completely scrapped if I moved.

Iain Rice in his book ‘Small, Smart and Practical Track Plans’ discusses the movability issue in quite a lot of detail and suggests building small portable modules that can be linked together to form a full layout. The ultimate extension of this approach is Iain’s “Linked Up Logger” design which consists of three small modules linked together with short, almost disposable, trackage. The modules are designed so that they are completely self-contained and can moved by one or two people. Each module is designed so that it is a vignette with a fully wrapped backdrop and lighting.


From reviewing the aerial photos of Lost Channel (see below), there were three obvious vignette scenes within Lost Channel:

  1. The sawmill and log dump area.
  2. The dock siding.
  3. The yard area.

Lost Channel Vignettes

Note that each of the real areas of interest are separated by lengths of rather uninteresting main line trackage. These can easily be replaced by the simple linking trackage with no real loss of interest.

Module Design

Rice recommends building modules no larger than about 2′ by 4′ for ease of car transportation. I relaxed this restriction a little to minimize the number of joints within the modules. In fact, all three modules have been designed to be one-piece modules with a surface area of about 10-15 square feet. The sawmill module is approximately 3′ by 6′; the dock siding 4′ by 5′ and the yard 2′ by 7′. I’ll use a movable train table with turntable staging at the end of the yard module to move cars on and off the layout and to turn engines. Rice describes this type of staging in the February 2001 Model Railroader.

I also spent some more time examining the aerial photographs in detail and discovered that I probably over estimated the amount of trackage in Lost Channel. For example, I no longer think that there was a separate log dump track; I believe that the mainline was used. The following diagram shows the actual versus modeled trackage:

PMT&Co Mark I Trackplan Schematic

I’ve also flipped the orientation of the plan when compared the previous designs: the operator is now always on the north side of track looking south. This allowed me to fit the sawmill module onto the short wall. The following track plan highlights the position of each of the modules. The designs of the dock and the sawmill modules are pretty well set:

PMT&Co Mark I Trackplan


I used Rice’s lightweight plywood and foam roadbed design. The modules are supported on the walls using a conventional track shelving system (double-slotted for strength). This will allow me to use the area below the layout for shelves, etc. I started with the Dock Siding module since it is the easiest to build from a track point of view (I need practice in handlaying switches!).

The Layout at A Glance

Pakesley Mill and Timber Company LogoThe Pakesley Mill & Timber Company (Mark I Version)

Scale: On3 (1:48 3-foot gauge)
Prototype: A narrow gauge interpretation of the prototype Key Valley Railway
Locale: District of Parry Sound, Ontario
Period: July 1925
Size: 9 x 15 feet
Layout Style: Linked Up Vignette Modules based on an Iain Rice concept
Layout Height: 54″
Benchwork: 3/8″ wood open grid on shelving units
Roadbed: Homasote on 3/8″ plywood
Track: Handlaid Code 70
Turnouts: #4 and #6
Minimum Radius: 30″
Maximum Grade: none
Scenery: foam, plaster
Backdrop: 0.060″ styrene
Control: DCC