December 7, 2016

It's Just Boxes

I recently started a new custom model project for a client. It is due in 3 weeks, so I am cranking on it. I'll post some pictures of it when I get further along. It is a different kind of model that I am used to, so I am curious on how it will come out.

So while the paint and stain on that project are drying, I got to tinkering with track plans for layouts in the rest of my basement. This particular bout of track plan frenzy is due to a discussion I had with Henry Freeman last weekend. He was in town for a symposium at the Newseum, as he is retired, well-known newspaper editor and publisher. He stopped by the house to operate PoLA. Unfortunately, my DCC system decided to act up during the session. Both of my RF1300 throttles died in the middle of the session. I was able to get one of the new T1300 throttles in service, but by then the evening devolved into a layout planning session. Henry is a serious model railroad operator who leans to preferring layouts with heavy ops more than scenery. In his eyes, the Aquia Line is nice to look at, but lacks in play value.

After he left, I toyed with some plans that would increase operation potential in my basement by expanding PoLA into the rest of the unfinished basement, leaving the section of the Aquia Line from Brooke to Falmouth intact.

The first plan I drew included an attempt to model one of the container terminals on PoLA (see upper plan at left). This was really a force as trying to fit in even a small container terminal in the space I have available was tough.  In addition, the need to buy several sets of double stack cars, associated motive power, and containers would add nearly $3,000 to the cost of the layout.

As I discussed this rough idea with some friends, I realized that the container trains add very little play value to the layout, especially  given their expense. Even when we railfan, my friends are wont to say upon seeing a stack train, "Oh, It's just boxes."

The question is, can a layout that omits container traffic be an accurate model of PoLA? I say why not.  Instead of actively modeling container terminals and container trains, the layout depicts them as images on the backdrop. Without container traffic, the layout focuses on the 40,000 non-container cars that PHL handles each year (compared to 1.2 million double stack container cars per year).

That is the next plan you see at the left. This plan includes a compressed rendition of PHL Berth 200 yard, and several industries on Terminal Island that require rail service  but are not container based.

It includes a scrap metal facility, since scrap is one of the largest US export products and there are two scrap piers on Terminal Island. It also includes a second Vopak facility, a Del Monte Foods factory (which may no longer get rail service) and one additional warehouse that is freelanced.

The plan includes a near scale sized model of the Badger Ave Bridge, which was once a pair of rolling lift bascule bridges, but is now a large vertical lift bridge. That would be a signature scene on the plan.

The plan connects the Berth 200 yard to Mormon Island, but from the "wrong" direction.  Not much I can do about that. However, the staging tracks in the closet can now represent the Sen Pedro district thereby creating a transfer run job from Berth 200 yard to San Pedro.  I looked at a escape track through the peninsula backdrop that connected Mormon Island to Berth 200 without crossing the Badger Ave Bridge (see the upper plan), but decided to remove it in the interest of simplicity.

Other jobs out of Berth 200 yard include the Terminal Island Dock Switcher and the Mormon Island Dock Switcher.  The Terminal Island job and the Mormon Island job would be ready to leave Berth 200 at the start of the op session. During the session the Berth 200 yard would get transfer runs from staging. Then the yard crew would make the trains for the next session.

In addition to the two Dock Jobs mentioned above, the yard could create extra jobs that include a slab train for Pasha, and military trains, wind mills and transformer loads for CMT. Right now wind mill and transformer cars have trouble with the tight curve in the under-stairs staging track. Keeping them away from that area would be good.

So what to do? I envision two Options. Option 1 is to build Aquia Landing as planned, keeping the Mormon Island layout as is, at least for a few years. Option 2 is to Expand PoLA into the place where Aquia Landing would have been, leaving USMRR intact from Brooke to Falmouth. To maintain operational capability on the USMRR I would add a simple staging track in the HVAC closet.

Both options appeal to me. To better understand the options I made a G&D Decision Matrix. This is a bit different from previous analyses I have done because now the matrix compares the scores from two pairs of layouts instead of each layout as a standalone.

A couple things pop out from inspecting the matrix.  One, the two options are very close in sum of  scores, with Option 2 just barely edging out Option 1. However, Option 1 wins when considering the sum of scores with weighted priorities. The main discriminating differences  between the two pairs of layouts are the better waterfront area in Option 1, compared to the extra bridge in Option 2.

Interestingly, the enhanced operations of the expanded PoLA layout are somewhat cancelled by the reduced operational options offered by the smaller USMRR.  Option 2 gets extra points for having an interchange with more than one RR, and an engine terminal, but loses a point for awkward staging in the HVAC closet. The rest of the factors wash out as one layout gains what the other loses.

So the analytics don't point to a clear answer. What does emotion say? Alicia says Aquia Landing has more cool factor, but she has no real preference either way.

I suspect that expanded PoLA could be put into service faster than Aquia Landing since one uses commercial track, while the other must be hand laid. The ships on Aquia Landing will also take some time.

Anyway, I'll have plenty of time to cogitate on the course of action as I finish up the custom job before Christmas.


  1. Interesting read. WRT the bridges, can one be backdrop while one be built to operate? Are both up or down at the same time, for marine operations?

    1. On the layout, the highway bridge would be in the aisle. The layout operator gets the view as if they were standing on the highway bridge.

      On the prototype, the highway bridge has more clearance, so it doesn't have to raise as often.

  2. While I can see the value of the PoLA expansion, you know my heart is with the Aquia Line. I think there are probably operations answers for continuing that expansion, particularly with longer runs and more places to switch.