Image of the C&O for Progress monogram A graphic image of the words C&O Piedmont Subdivision

Friends, one of the questions that I’ve asked myself over the years is why I and many others build models. A few years ago it occurred to me that, as a research psychologist, I know how to go about answering that question. If you’d be willing to help me out, I have a survey online at If you, too are a model builder and could spare about 30 minutes to complete the survey, I’d really appreciate it.

Modeling the C&O

My Piedmont Sub Layout



I began my first layout based on the Piedmont Subdivision back in the fall of 2000. When I finalized my original track plan, I was pretty happy with it. The only major change that I made (and one that I had contemplated even as I started construction) was to pierce the backdrop in Gordonsville and add staging tracks. For the most part, things worked out the way that I planned and I started adding scenery (you can take a tour of that layout as of the summer of 2010 here). As I was working on the scenery, I started trying to operate the layout. That’s when I ran into issues that I just wasn’t able to resolve. Here’s a list of the major ones:

In 2011 I became the sole owner of my home. The whole basement was now mine to do with as I pleased. I almost immmediately began drawing track plans that took most (or all) of the space. They usually involved moving Louisa and Gordonsville farther apart, adding staging in a way that trains entered the layout at the appropriate points, and often involved the addition of a siding between Louisa and Melton so that I could model the lumberyard in Trevilian. None of them really caught my fancy, however, so my model railroad languished for about 5 years; I was loathe to put effort into something that I planned to tear down. The only real change made was that I removed the staging tracks in order to replace my water heater. I took the opportunity to have the heater moved to a place where it would be out of the way of a redesign.

In early 2016, though, I had a number of important insights about why I wasn’t able to make any progress on a new track plan. The first concerned my home office, which is also in the basement. Most of my plans devoted my office space to the new layout. My first important insight was that I really didn’t want to do that. My office is a nice space where I spend a lot of time. Further, a big feature of the room is a set of floor-to-ceiling bookcases (which are stuffed) that were gifts from my Dad and sized to fit where they are. There’s nowhere else in the house that they would fit.

The second insight was that most of my plans also involved a duckunder to reach my laundry facilities or they potentially blocked access to the circuit breakers for the house. At 57 I don’t want to have to duck under the layout carrying a basket full of laundry. The final insight came after reading the 2016 issue of Model Railroad Planning. I had been trying to include enough staging for all of the trains that I wanted to run in an operating session: locals each way between Richmond and Charlottesville, locals each way between Potomac Yard and Charlottesville, a manifest freight each way, and sections of the George Washington each way between Richmond and Charlottesville and between Washington and Charlottesville. To do that, I had to give up the possibility of continuous running (which I will admit that I enjoy - it’s fun to sometimes sit back and just watch the trains go by) and staging was taking up a huge amount of the space that I had available. The insight from MRP was that maybe I didn’t need to provide all that staging. Maybe what would work would be a fiddle yard. And, with that, I was on my way.

The Design

As with my earlier layout, there were certain things that I wanted in my new layout — my givens and druthers in John Armstrong’s terms. Those included:

The plan above represents what I’ve come up with so far (click the image to see a higher res version). This plan allows me to keep my office and access to the laundry facilities and electrical stuff on the left-hand wall of the basement. The fiddle yard beside the stairs allows me to stage two trains in each direction at the same time and trains enter the modeled section of the layout in the correct places. I had to give up the possibility of modeling the Pot Yard locals and the Washington sections of the George, but I think I can live with that (and I might eventually find a way to add removable staging that would allow running those trains during an operating session).

In addition, I had resources available this time that I didn’t back in 2000. One of the most important was an aerial photo of the wye in Gordonsville. It was detailed enough that I could work out the scale and the radius of the curves through the wye. In 2000 I guessed 53". Using the photo I found that I was close, but off by a bit. What I came out with this time was 56.25". I was also able to space some of the turnouts a little closer to the prototype and include both of the sidings across the mainline from the freight house, so my when I begin to add scenery everything should look right. The current plan also includes a short siding near Louisa to represent the Purcell lumberyard in Bibb. The idea was that including the lumberyard would go a little way toward making up for losing the vermiculite loader. I did, however, include the siding that eventually served the vermiculite loader. It was there in 1970 (it used to serve an auto loading ramp) and I might just decide in the future to include a small bit of 1978 on the layout.

I did receive some very thoughtful suggestions from Jerry Simonoff. One was to reorient Louisa so that it was consistent with Gordonsville and Melton. I think I’ve addressed my reasons for not doing so above. He also suggested double ending the fiddleyard tracks and using some of them to represent some of the trackage in Lindsay. I’m giving both of those serious consideration and trying to figure out how I could do that without making the benchwork at the apex of the turnback between Gordonsville and the fiddle yard too deep. There is obviously going to have to be a duckunder somewhere and that seems to be the best location. I also have to be careful of the space between the fiddle yards and the heat pump. I need access there to change the filters.

I’m still in the planning stages, a great idea could still be incorporated. I’d like to hear your thoughts. Feel free to email me at the address below.


The first thing I did was to mount a backrop made of 1/8" hardboard. I just continued the backdrop straight into the corners on my old railroad and forever had to avoid taking photos from angles that would show the corners in the “sky.” This time I curved the backdrop through the corners. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be and it avoids the “corners in the sky” problem.
Most of the layout is going to be anchored to the wall. This bracket — which follows a design from Jeff Wilson’s benchwork book — was fairly simple to build, does a great job of supporting the layout, and leaves more space under the layout. That makes it easier to work under the layout (say, when I need to do wiring) and gives me more room to store back issues of magazines.
In this shot, I’ve mounted the first of the L-girders. I needed to get this one up so that I could construct the first free-standing section of benchwork, which will be anchored to this L-girder.
Before I started building the layout, I had my 22-year-old heat pump replaced. After the installation, I checked the trackplan against the footprint of the new unit. Everything looked fine, so I started construction. Too bad that I wasn’t thinking in three dimensions, though. When I reached this point it was clear that the ductwork was going to interfere with the backdrop. After studying the problem for a few days, I decided to shift the backdrop and the track toward the front edge of the bechwork. Around the same time, my water heater (which is right next to the inside unit of the heat pump) started leaking and I had to have it replaced. It was only 6 years old. The idea that I might have to replace the new one in another 6 years forced to the decision that the track looping around the water heater should be removable to facilitate access to the heater. That plus the backdrop move cost me the ability to include the Purcell lumberyard as I had originally planned.
In this shot, the backdrop has been painted. I don’t plan to add clouds. I try to avoid adding things to the layout that undermine believability. That includes things that should move, but don’t, such as a figure of a man jogging. He might look good in a still photo, but watching him frozen in midstride undermines the illusion when visiting the layout in person. Clouds move and the same ones would not be hanging overhead day after day after day. So, I left them off.
This photo (and the next one, as well) show the layout after all of the L-girders and joists have been assembled.
The risers and plywood subroadbed have been installed and the first of the precut cork switch pads have been glued down.
The cork roadbed went in quickly.
Several tracklaying guides suggested starting with the most complicated track first. For me, that was the west (on the layout) end of Louisa. In this shot, the first couple of switches have been installed. Underneath the layout are the Blue Point switch controllers.
In this shot, the curve leading into Melton can be seen. On my previous layout I had problems maintaining my 30" minimum radius as I laid the track through curves. Fast Tracks SweepSticks (the wooden template between the rails) helped solve that problem.
The wiring for the track is in. I used 14-guage wire for the bus lines and 22-guage wire for the feeders. I used suitcase connectors for most of the connections, so the wiring went pretty quickly.
Finding a place to put my DCC system was a bit of an afterthought on the old layout. This time, I put some thought into the location. It had to be fairly close to an outlet and easily accessible. What I came up with was a shelf below the narrow benchwork near the heatpump. As you can see, I use a Lenz DCC system with LH90 hand controllers. Next up is to install the layout fascia so that I can wire up the ExpressNet plugs.
Rather than proceeding with the fascia, I decided to finish the rest of the benchwork. Here’s the first section of benchwork that is situated in new layout space. Gordonsville will be located in the corner by the door.
The open grid benchwork in the near foreground will support the turnback curve between Gordonsville and the staging tracks. This is the location of the duckunder to enter the layout area and using open grid benchwork bought me a few extra inches of clearance above the ground. That’s a few extra inches that I don’t have to bend down.
I’ve got a coat of primer on the new section of backdrop.
Once the primer dried and I fixed a couple of rough spots, I put on a coat of sky blue. I still have a couple of spots begging for some light sanding and touch up paint.
Laying out the track plan on the plywood subroadbed for the first part of the layout was fairly easy; there were lots of straight lines and curves with radii that could be drawn by drilling holes in a yardstick. The trackwork in Gordonsville, though, was much more complicated and involved 56.25" radius curves. I first thought of drilling holes in a spare tape measure I have, but discovered that even if that would work, I don’t have space to do it. I finally resorted to printing out my trackplan full size using xTrkCad (which involved 22 pieces of paper that I then had to tape together). I taped the trackplan down to the plywood and used pushpins to mark the track center lines. Then I pulled up the paper and joined up the pin marks with pencil.
The subroadbed in Gordonsville is up on risers. Right below the camera’s position is the location of the bridge over Route 15/33. I salvaged the scratchbuilt model of that bridge that I built for my old layout. The trick now is to work out how to fit it in here.
I put my cardboard mockup of the Gordonsville freight station in place to make sure that everything fits as planned. The sharp-eyed will note that the track centerlines here don’t quite match the trackplan shown above. As I laid things out full-sized I realized that I needed to change some things. First, I placed the turnout leading into the siding that served the freighthouse in the wrong place. If I had placed it according to the plan, it would have been right in front of the freighthouse. That was an easy fix; I just moved it a few feet to the “east.” I also eliminated one of the sidings across the main from the freighthouse. I had done that on the old layout, too, and it bugged me. So, I added it into the plan. However, seeing the plan full-sized reminded me of why I’d left it out back in 2000: adding it crowded the scene to the point that it looked cartoonish because that second siding couldn’t be long enough to be reasonable. So, I eliminated it. I now have an extra Atlas Code 83 left-hand turnout on hand.


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