An Imagineering Project: “Slow Train down South”

Several people have sent me comments asking do I or did I ever build a model railroad, do I ever do anything except change my mind, and what the heck is model railroad imagineering. All good questions and each deserving of an answer. Yes, I did build model railroads in HO, HOn3, and HOn30. I have also built a module in On2 in the past as well. Do I change my mind, yes a lot. Too many interests and not enough commitment to settling on one idea. What is model railroad imagineering. A good question, and no it is not me imagining I have a working model railroad.

For me, model railroad imagineering is imagining and building a functional model railroad. My interests are primarily narrow gauge in just about any setting. My favorite type of prototypical train is the mixed train, and my favorite operations are very slow paced laid back switching. That said, I have decided to build one of my imagineered railroads from some time ago a southern narrow gauge railway. Mixed trains are my favorite train to run. Recently, had the chance to finally obtain a copy of mixed train daily. Lots of interesting mixed trains from around the United States. Most of the photographs are standard gauge trains, but it still gives me a lot of material and ideas to consider.

The “imagining” part of “Slow Trains” centers around the great narrow gauge debate of “What if”. What if narrow gauge had remained viable and became popular to use for non trunk lines. Now combine that with the multiple shortlines in the southern US during the steam era. Several little towns, forgotten by the standard gauge trunk lines, connected by a narrow gauge  railroad. Now throw in a painting by Don Coker, “Slow Train Down South”, the book “Mixed Trains Daily”, several Library of Congress photographs, and the ET&WNC ten wheelers among the list of inspirations for my version of “Slow Train.” I want to build a model railroad that captures the feel of a small town, perhaps the county seat with several important local businesses, a warehouse or two and several busy team tracks. A muddy river with some young boys out fishing by a pile trestle, a dirt road crossing in the pine trees.

Slow Train Down South by Don Coker
Slow Train Down South by Don Coker

For this project, there were several “engineering” items that I wanted to accomplish, primarily building an modular O finescale narrow gauge railroad in an uncommon USA gauge of 30 inches. Why On30, it has become popular and one goal is to show others it is possible to build a nice O scale layout in a small place. Taking a model railroad to a train show is not a common thing to do, but this was a big “given”. That said, learning to build a durable modular railroad was going to be a must.

For my modeling skills, I wanted to challenge myself to design and build a very prototypical trackplan. This is a railroad on a serious income diet and maintaining anything is hard to do year to year, maintaining a lot of extra track and real estate is not feasible. Also, the use of large switch sizes, number 7 or 8 built to P48 standards is another given. To have the track work be a centerpiece instead of a support player is a must as well. For motive power and revenue equipment, initially want to use available ready to run/operate equipment, then include several kits, then several scratch-built cars. I want to operate the railroad very prototypical, so I will have to hook up air hoses, as well as unlock and re-lock switches after I throw them.

Lets travel back in time to the years immediately after World War I and ride on our shortline narrow gauge railroad. We will start in Jefferson, a small but busy agricultural town somewhere down south. Two team tracks and several small businesses provide the railroad with plenty of daily work, at least for one train daily except Sundays. Let’s take a ride back in time and ride the down train as the fireman today!

We arrive at the engine house on the outskirts of town at 6am one hot  summer morning to get our steam engine ready for the day’s mixed train down to the “junction” to meet with the standard gauge. One set of doors to the two stall roundhouse is already open so we walk over and go into the engine house. The engine house smells of coal smoke and lubricating oil, the pumps on the engine are working and our faithful ten-wheeler is hissing and steam is in the air. We swing up into the cab of our ten wheeler, throw a few shovel loads of coal into the firebox and dress the fire to build up steam so we can move. The overnight watchman has kept a nicely dressed fire so it should not take too long this morning. The engineer is oiling around the engine in preparation for the day’s work. Once the engine’s steam is up we release the brakes and back the ten wheeler slowly onto the turntable. With the overnight watchman’s help we get the manual turntable moving and spin the engine around. Slowly, the engineer gets the engine off the table and stops above the ashpit so we can dump ashes and clean the ash pan. We move forward to the sand house to fill the sand dome. Can never have enough sand with the weeds along the right of way. Then we chuff a few more yards to water and coal. After another 10 minutes the engine is finally ready to pick up the morning “down” train. We pull out of the engine house lead and throw the switch to back into the “yard” to pick up our train. The yard at Jefferson is minimal at best with the “RIP track, yard track, and the varnish track.

There are no freight cars on the yard track this morning so we couple to the old baggage car used to haul milk cans and the trusty combine from the “varnish” track. We build up air pressure and do an air test. The conductor and rear brakeman have swept the dust from the combine and checked to make sure the milk can brackets are ready in the baggage car. At around 7am the conductor gives us the all clear to go “downtown” to the station to load passengers, mail, and what few express packages are in the station for our 7:30am departure.

At 7:28 our conductor yells “all aboard” and at 7:30 blows the whistle on the rear platform of the combine giving us the all clear to depart. The engineer release the brakes and we start on our 22 mile journey to the “junction”. As we leave town we cross an old timber pile trestle and wave to two kids fishing along the creek this morning. We cross a dirt road and disappear into pine trees on the way to our first stop. Took us a whole 90 minutes to get to this point. “Slow Trains” has come to an end as we roll into the staging section. The goal of creating a slow pace in a small space with a narrow gauge is complete.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Slow Train down South is a link to a slower time when trains were more a part of communities than they are now. Wagons drawn by mules still can be found on the streets and the right of way is sometimes lost in the weeds. The railroad does it best to bring the outside world to Jefferson and the other small towns along the way.

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