Sunday, June 21, 2015

Layout visit | MKT/MoPac by Steve Nelson

I recently visited Steve Nelson's excellent recreation of his boyhood corner of Missouri in HO scale. The following description is what we use for our annual layout tour materials and gives a good overview of what Steve is creating.

The modeled portion of the railroad is from the Rocheport Tunnel east of Franklin, MO to Parsons, Kansas. The layout will closely follow the MKT prototype track plan and operating practices in the region during the fall of 1966. The layout is linear with double-ended staging yards. The bench work is 100% complete and 240 feet of mainline track and 220 feet of yard track have been laid. Scenery construction is 25% complete including the Rocheport Tunnel, the Missouri River Bluffs covered with 900 trees, a corn field with 4500 individual stalks, and a scratch built model of the pony truss bridge at the east side Franklin, MO. Trains are now running on 240 feet of the main line track which includes crossing the mock-up of the large Booneville Lift Span Bridge over the Missouri River. Recent additions: 1.5 (scale) acres of soybeans and a working drive in theater.

I think this is Steve orienteering in the back woods.

Recreate versus Represent

I hadn't been out to Steve's in several years and there has been a lot of progress. A good amount of scenery is in, and it convinces me that it will be a fantastically crafted and executed landscape for running trains. Steve is a master at trees, which is fortunate because he will have thousands of them, but more so, he is becoming a master at recreating exquisite realistic features in the landscape.

We talked about his approach to modeling scenery, and we mused that usually modelers represent features in the landscape, but Steve's approach is to recreate features, which leads to a more accurate and convincing presentation. I might attribute this approach to Steve's engineering background, which shows a tendency towards attention to detail, intolerance of inaccuracy, and a matter-of-fact approach of modeling exactly the way something is built or looks. I'm very excited by his attention to this difference. As he gave me the grand tour, I saw examples of his methodical modeling in every scene.


The only tunnel on the Katy, which Steve created from topographic maps. He enlarged the map to full (HO) scale and overlaid it on the layout to recreate the cut and tunnel contours.

The main line is made from actual crushed and sifted material from the modeled area. Curves are super elevated, there are sections of code 83, 70 and 55. Steve believes that the difference isn't worth the effort of dealing with transitions. 
Steve uses prototype photos to scratch build his industries. This industry is actually the prototype for a Walthers (?) kit, and Steve can just modify the roof on the kit to have an accurate model on his layout - lucky.
Steve generously admitted that he should have spent some more time designing the layout and not just figuring it out as he went. In this town, there is an operational challenge that didn't become apparent until Steve started thinking about how to operate the town. I think we came up with a good fix that will be fairly easy to implement. It will still be an above average challenge to operate, but once one understands the process of transferring pulls and puts through a short run around and into a forthcoming temporary storage track towards the edge of the layout, it'll be fine. 
Hikers and pockets of wildflowers. Roads are rolled flat just as real roads are, which helps the realism.

Steve and his daughter measured the prototype bridge on a family trip, and he faithfully recreated each rivet.
Photos of the prototype mounted on the fascia above the model further drive home the realism Steve is able to achieve. It also adds context so the viewer can more fully be immersed in the character, flavor and tone of the landscape.

Over thousand stalks of corn (or some large number like that). The scale is impressive.
It is harvest time, which means longer trains filled with covered hoppers.

If I remember correctly, this is an oil loading platform - vegetable oil.

Scratch and bashed models are all over the layout. 
Great work on the road. Steve rolled the pavement and spray painted the striping. The orientation of the buildings and angle in relation to the edge of the layout is very dynamic, and really emphasizes the trackage running through the scene. The lights are 1960s prototypical street lights from Brawa (if I remember correctly). The photometrics produce very believable glow and throw onto the buildings and street under blue rope light night skies.

Steve went out into the world and measured the parking spaces as well as the width of the striping before creating a mask and spray painting the street stripes. 
Steve scratch built the water tower because commercially available products are only a few inches tall. He used EZ Line telephone thread for the tension wires, which makes a huge difference in recreating this tower. He inserted the line through the gusset plates and tied back on itself. Really delicate and realistic.

My camera can't capture it, but the interior of this gas station is replete with equipment and furnishings in a very effective way. Interior lights come on with the room's blue rope light nighttime lighting and allow excellent view of the details inside.

Lots of signage visually populates the scene. The main signs use Miller Engineering scratch building components to light up computer-generated images.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly is always playing at the drive-in.
Two movie goers in a stylish auto.

Steve explains how he researched and constructed the drive-in. A lot of his modeling happens before breaking out an X-acto knife. Research not only gives him an accurate blueprint for building his models, it also provides greater understanding to the cultural, technological and relationship to the larger context of what he models. That research makes building and viewing such models a much richer experience that goes beyond just having a good looking model.
The overpass at Franklin is busy.

The yard is going to be a center of activity for operations.

Photos and maps of the prototype are used to faithfully recreate the track alignments and scenery.
The Katy tank at the Franklin turntable.

The mock-up of the large Booneville Lift Span Bridge over the Missouri River is good enough to call a finished model. People have offered to buy it after Steve is finished with it. Made out of black core foam core, it is a very convincing model. The final version will include a working lift section and will add operational interest to crossing the river. Nicely sited at a15 or so degree angle to the front of the layout. It emphasizes the length of the bridge and provides a very well composed presentation of a signature piece on the layout.
Long crop rows positioned parallel to the layout make the rows look even straighter. Using the relationship of elements to the edge of layout is another tool in the composers toolbox.

Real, chopped up soy beans (if I remember correctly).
The creek bed is very realistic because it is very carefully made to be uneven.

A model of Steve's house and train building are going to be on the layout complete with a model of the model layout. I'm pretty sure this will cause some sort of subspace time warp distortion and the Enterprise will fly through with phasers blasting (in HO scale). 

Aisle No.2 is going to be filled with large industries.
A temporary interlocking tower protects the MoPac - Katy crossing. The final model will be a faithful reproduction of an actual tower.

Rolled road with painted stripes. The road material is from the sands of Iwo Jima.

Stretchy EZ Line on the power poles and sun flowers protected by a guardrail.

I will categorically assert that this is the best cow pasture I have ever seen modeled. The cow patties are coffee grounds, but only because Steve's wife won't let him use actual cow chips. The color of the stock pond is dead on.
A very large plant is being scratch built here. Unit trains will swap out dozens of cars at a time. 
A power plant will go where the trees are temporarily placed. Coal from the mine on the other aisle will swap loads and empties each session.

Mine equipment cleans up waiting for the big mine to be built.
Dual 200' span scratchbuilt bridges over a slightly muddy river complete with cast plaster abutments. 
By the end of my tour, I was completely spoiled by the realism and attention to detail already on Steve's layout. He is about half way done with the scenery, but it already feels like a finished layout because the scenes are so complete. I will poke Steve a little here because he should have been operating already, but he is afraid that will bring his modeling to a halt. There is only so much modeling time to slice up, and I don't blame him for wanting to keep the momentum going. I think he may find, though, that operating is going to beg him to make some track plan changes and force some scenery redoing. Not a problem, though, as Steve routinely will tear out a section of scenery if it isn't good enough. Anything he does tear up for track realignment will quickly be put back together, and I bet it will be even better than what was already there.

I am inspired by Steve's work to recreate and not just to represent the landscape, trains and operating procedures of a very specific place and time in railroading history. His research and attention to detail are very good examples of modeling to engage. The effort and care he expends in trying to understand how things work and relate to each other add another deep layer of modeling that is indicated by visual evidence in great looking models. On Steve's layout, beauty is not truth, but it is often a precursor to it.