A journal following the history, design, construction and operation of Bernard Kempinski's O Scale model railroad depicting the U. S. Military Railroad (USMRR) Aquia-Falmouth line in 1863, and other model railroad projects.
©Bernard Kempinski All text and images, except as noted, on this blog are copyrighted by the author and may not be used without permission.

February 27, 2021

LDSIG Panel Discussion - What would you do differently?

 I was a panelist on a Layout Design Special Interest Group (LDSIG) on the subject of "What would you do differently." There were six of us on the panel. We each had a chance to do a short presentation on our layouts with respect to the above question. 

I structured my brief presentation as a summary of how I got where I am and what I would do differently.  The image at the left, with apologies to the Talking Heads, is a rough outline that I followed. 

I described the layout space I had available, the layouts I tried to build before the Aquia line, and how the Aquia Line evolved and grew. 

I presented a short list of things I would do differently if I was starting over, all from a layout design perspective. I post the list here without elaboration. 

  • Build an integrated design. The iterative/phased process resulted in sub-optimal design
  • 36” Minimum radius with 30” only in alcove
  • Longer sidings and longer trains
  • Prototype length bridge at Potomac Creek
  • Track elevation in accordance with prototype terrain
  • Master switch for the layout lighting
  • Buy a different house

Finally, I showed a quick sketch track plan of how I would redesign the Aquia Line RR if I were starting from scratch. This was the LDSIG after all. The main difference is that I flipped the railroad. Aquia Landing is in the crew lounge while Falmouth passes the current location of Burnside's Wharf and extends into the home office. Putting Aquia Landing in the crew lounge area allows the track to climb after it leaves the river, just as it does in the prototype. 

In this redesign, about 25% of the railroad would require only minor changes from the current plan, but the rest would have extensive rebuilding. This railroad satisfies all the items I listed above.  Will I do this? I highly doubt it. But it was a fun exercise.

The LDSIG will make the recorded talk available on line for viewing. I will update this blog with the link when it is available. 

Meanwhile, the spackle is drying on the new coved corner by Stares Tunnel. I should be able to start painting backdrops tomorrow.

February 24, 2021

Revised Artist Concept for Mueller's Creek Bridge


This is my revised concept for the new section. The scene will entail one long trestle that spans the bend in the creek with a small raised section of land and some trees in the center of the bend.   

 I am calling the area Mueller's Creek in honor of a friend from the ACWRRHS who passed away two years ago and his wife who also passed away after an accident on the stairs at her church.  Al and his wife were great supporters of the ACWRRHS. Al was an accomplished modeler who did wonders in rebuilding  HO Mantua locomotives into fine running models. 

Note to self - yes you have to actually build the layout. You can't just draw it in photoshop. 

February 22, 2021

All Mocked Up and No Place to Go

 Thanks to everyone that commented on the previous post. Here are some more of my thoughts on the scene. I hope to install the water level plywood soon, so I need to sort out the design.

I cut some cardboard to mock up the fascia. The exercise proved illuminating.

First, I determined that I should add some more lateral distance between the fascia and the track, i.e. make the layout benchwork wider. This is mostly so that when I take photos or shoot video, I have a little more terrain to work into the scene. But it also improves the scenery to the track ratio, making the layout more realistic and visually pleasing.  This goes against some currently fashionable layout philosophy to have minimal bench width so one can maximize run. But in this case, I have plenty of room to grow the width of the scenery since I already have maxed out my linear run. The extra width will be infringing on a generously sized crew lounge where a few less inches of space is not critical. 

Second, the mock up shows that the vertical bump in the fascia isn't really that effective as a scene divider. Plus, I surveyed the rest of my layout and determined than I have eight other locations where I have terrain higher that the track between the fascia and the track. But, I have only four places where the terrain at the  fascia is lower than the track.  So I need more below grade terrain. Below grade areas also make better photo opportunities. 

The desire to break up the scene to make the run feel longer is not as imperative here as elsewhere because the run from Stoneman's Station to Falmouth is the longest I have on the layout -  about about 50 feet with 16 feet in the Stares Tunnel. It takes about 3 minutes of run time at track speed.  It's true that in model railroads, the length of run can never be long enough, but this is getting close, or at least as close as I can get in this basement without going to a double deck layout design.

The only image of Accokeek bridge I have.
Third, one of the common features of civil war era railroad construction is the use of trestles over undulating land versus excavation of cuts and fill. Before bulldozers and dump trucks, cuts and fills were more expensive, at least in the short term, than wooden trestles.  And ante-bellum railroad builders aimed for fast and cheap. The USMRR followed this philosophy even more on lines they built.

In the case of the Aquia Line, the USMRR built over an existing roadbed, so the grading was largely complete. But, there was a long low trestle over Accokeek Creek. Haupt says it was about 150 feet long and 30 feet high. I only have one image of this bridge and it is a quick artist's sketch, not a good photo.  Not much help there. I don't have room for a scale 30 feet  of height, which would be 7 inches, so I need to aim for a lower style bridge. 

Bridge Number 2 City Point and Army Line
Fortunately, the USMRR built many bridges like that and we have photos of several of them. The USMRR City Point and Army line has several examples of low trestle bridges like this.  Bridge number 2 was a modest one, while the bridge over Hatcher's Run was much longer.  The USMRR built extensive trestle work at Aquia Landing to connect Burnside's Wharf to the mine line. So there is ample prototype precedent. 

Fourth, I think a long low trestle would look really cool.   Gary Hoover has an impressive low trestle on his new N&W layout. Paul Dolkos has one with a swing bridge on his new layout.

In conclusion, a long low trestle is a typical USMRR construction feature, it would amplify the narrative of mid-century railroad construction and  it would look cool.  I will use some foreground trees to help break up the scene, but the trestle will be uninterrupted by a cut and fill. 

February 21, 2021

One Versus Two Bridges?

I installed the benchwork and roadbed for the expansion as the track departs Stares Tunnel. The curves are 36 inch radius minimum, though the curve just as the track departs the tunnel is mostly eased to a much greater radius. The flow is nice and smooth. Turns out the grade in the tunnel is greater than in this visible section, so there isn't that much more to worry about. 
Now I need to decide if I want one long trestle or two smaller bridges separated by a short section of cut through a hill. 

I did two concept sketches using Photoshop to show how both might look. The comparison photos are below. Which do you like better- one long trestle, or two short bridges with a short cut in between?How about both, that is have the long trestle, but have some trees in the marsh in the middle foreground. The trees would help break up the scene, but still allow the long vista.

The compromise solution - long trestle with a slight rise in the middle with some trees.

February 20, 2021

Random Events for Op Sessions


I want to add a new feature to my op sessions when we start running the Aquia Line again after this latest construction and COVID is under control. This feature will be pre-scripted events that will occur at random during the session. My intent is to add a bit more period flavor to my op sessions.

I haven't figured out how exactly I will implement it yet, but the general idea is to have an event like the ones listed below happen at various points during a session.  Right now I am thinking, I will have a series of cards. Each card will have a random event. The cards will be propositioned at various locations in boxes around the layout. That way events can be tailored to a location. As the crew passes the random event box they must draw a card and react as the event dictates. 

Often the card will be "No Event" so they continue on their way. But if they do draw a random event, then they have to follow what the card says. The mix of cards will be tailored for the location. So not all events will have the same likelihood of occurring. The events will be distributed in each box with many  "No event" cards so that actionable random events will be somewhat rare. This will avoid them becoming too cliche. 

Here are some random events I have come up with so far. They are based on actual incidents from the Civil War or other period railroading.  If you have any ideas for additional events, please comment below or drop me an email. I prefer events that are based on historical incidents. They should be minor and not catastrophic, i.e. no low water causes your boiler to explode, or rebel raiders capture your train. I won't have any events that caused derailments as we have enough of those on our own.  The events could also just be for color and have no effect on the operation. 


  1. Hot journal box - stop for 10 minutes to let it cool
  2. Sparks from locomotive set hay on fire. If your train has a forage car, stop to fight the fire. Delay 15 minutes.
  3. The superintendent wants you to stop at some designated point to pick up a valise for a general to deliver to Aquia Landing. Stop at designated point for 5 minutes.
  4. Brakeman falls off train. Roll a die to see how severe his injury is. The more severe the injury, the longer the delay.
  5. Sparks from train set bridge on fire - stop to fight fire delay for random time 5-15 minutes.
  6. Your train hits a handcar left on track without flagman - roll die to determine damage and delay to fix 0-15 minutes
  7. Your train hit a cow - roll die to determine damage and delay to fix 0-15 minutes
  8. Boiler low on water - stop at next water tower or creek to fill engine using bucket. Delay 5 minutes.
  9. Pick up officers at flag stop at Camp Prichard or other designated stop. Delay 3 minutes.
  10. Rain has limited visibility reduce speed to 5 miles per hour for the next 15 minutes.
  11. Snow has limited visibility reduce speed to 5 miles per hour for the next 30 minutes.
  12. Agents report broken rail ahead of you. Wait at your next station for 15 minutes so the crews can repair it. 
  13. A drunken colonel has received a dear John letter from his fiancé and stops your train and demands that you take him to Aquia Landing immediately. Wait 10 minutes until the Provost Marshall can arrive to arrest the officer.
  14. Telegraph system is having trouble. Delay at next station for 15 minutes before departing.
  15. An aide de camp of a general flags down your train. You stop to see what the problem is. He says a  wife of a general wishes transportation on your train. Explain that he is not authorized to do that.  Roll die for delay 3-5 minutes.
  16. Heavy rain has caused the creeks to overflow. Before crossing the next bridge, stop for 3 minutes to inspect the sills and footers.
  17. One of your brakemen found a bottle of brandy and drank it. Delay 5 minutes while you drop him off at the next station and write a message to the superintendent.
  18. Soldiers on your train get unruly and start vandalizing their car and set the brakes.   If you are carrying passengers, stop for 5 minutes to restore the situation with their chain of command. 
  19. Superintendent sends you a message to pick up a cask of whiskey at Brooke to deliver to Camp Pritchard. Stop at Camp Prichard for 5 minutes to drop off the cask.
  20. One of your cars has a broken axle, determine by random die roll. Set it off at the next siding.
  21. You receive a message to pick up ten barrels of flour, bacon or other appropriate supply at the next stop. No other effect on your operation.
  22. There is a regiment of 2 year-men waiting at Potomac Creek for transportation to Aquia Landing. Their enlistments have run out and  they are returning home. When you are returning to Aquia Landing, wait 10 minutes at Potomac Creek to load men on your train. They will ride on the tops of the cars or anywhere else they can find. 
  23. At your next stop you encounter a new colonel that insists you drop off commissary stores for his unit. Delay ten minutes while you argue with the officer and get a message to the superintendent to clear up the matter. 

February 18, 2021

The Next Layout? Stay a While and Listen

The LDSIG will be hosting a panel discussion on 27 February called, “What Would You Do Differently?” They asked me to be a participant. This got me thinking. Readers of this blog will know that my layout has undergone, and is still undergoing, major changes. So not only would I do a lot of things differently, some of them I already did.   But, this is a good opportunity to think about all the  changes and codify them.

Thinking about layout designs of course causes my thoughts to turn to the next layout.  What would it be? As I thought about some possibilities, I realized that I probably wouldn't like any of them more than what I have now. So the Aquia Line will stay, for now. 

I consider myself a model builder. What can I build if not a new layout?  Well, lots of things. I can make a smaller portable layout or module. Then there is my model kit stash. Even though I like to scratch build I seem to have a large stash of model kits waiting to be built. These range from figures, ships, armor, airplanes and even a hot air balloon. The latter is for the layout, but I'll probably not use it  and scratch build it instead. That kit is pretty poor.

As an example of non-layout projects, I recently built this large scale (1/10th) diorama of a scene inspired by the game Diablo 2.  I've talked about this game a few times on  the blog. My kids and I have been playing it on and off for over 15 years. The diorama utilizes .stl files that I down loaded as well as some traditional scratch building. In case you don't know,  the fantasy genre seems to dominate the hobby side of 3D printing. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, comic books, and Dungeons and Dragons are very popular. Historical modeling takes a back seat, but the number of historical 3D models is growing quickly. Soon you'll be able to find whatever you want to 3D print.

I tried using Photoshop to show the glowing light on the staff. Turning off the room lights, I held a small LED light held by the staff to illuminate the scene and create the shadows. Then I edited out my hand and replaced the background with a scene of a rock wall and ruin textures.

I am not a big fantasy fan. The only  books in that genre I ever read were Lord of the Rings and Hobbit. I never played Dungeons and Dragons. But I have played a lot of Diablo as well as some other computer games. So, when it came time to pick a subject, a diorama inspired by that game was obvious and a lot of fun.  The man in blue is Deckard Cain and the women is an Amazon fighter armed with crossbow and sword. They are characters from the game. 

The diorama is large scale, so the painting techniques were somewhat different, I used acrylics, oils and ink washes. I ended up using my airbrush a lot, spraying the tiniest of patterns to apply the shading on the figures.  I really like Tamiya acrylic thinned with alcohol for this kind of work.  I used a .5mm tip with 15 psi in my Grex Tritium airbrush.

I did a bit of conversion of the figures. I changed the weapons on the Amazon and added a beard and hair to Deckard using Miliput.  I added a few other details like a weapon belt made with sheet pewter and a small scorpion.

Belt made with pewter sheet, brass wire and
 two O Scale NBWs

The ductile pewter allows the belt to drape realistically

My brother's version of the model with the motorcycle. Note
the can of Veggiemite.

I made the wooden base with two sections of poplar that I edged joined with dominoes. I need very little excuse to use my woodshop.

 In a diorama or vignette on a layout, the figures are the primary way to tell the story. The large scale figures allow one to see expressions on the faces much clearer than smaller scales. Thus, the story telling is much easier and effective. 

The diorama was a lot of fun. This model was a nice diversion from my usual historical modeling. There was no fretting over rivets and other minute concerns of the prototype modeler. Even Alicia got into it making suggestions. She wants me to add a snake to the scene. I also enjoyed playing with the photos of the diorama trying some new lighting effects that Photoshop added. 

The Amazon actually was from a stl file  kit of a cyber-metal-biker gal. She had a assault rifle and two katana swords as well as a crazy motorcycle built partially with bones. I didn't use the motorcycle, but my brother did. He built it as a scene inspired by Mad Max movie. 

Anyway, back to the layout benchwork. I did make runs to Home Depot and Mainline Hobbies last week to prep for the next step of putting up road bed and layout track. 

Alicia suggested the snake. Apparently cobras don't like reanimated skeletons.

February 5, 2021

Layout Expansion - Phase 2 begins - and other news

 After several months of delay due to floods, hip surgery, and my mom's passing, I finally started Phase 2 of the expansion of the Aquia Line. Over the past few days I have been installing the benchwork for the new section. I decided to go with less ambitious plan of adding just Falmouth and not modifying Aquia Landing. This will allow me to get the railroad back in operation sooner. It leaves open the possibility of expanding the railroad later if I still feel the urge to build. I needed to reprioritize the timeline of the expansion over other projects, such as the locomotive build, as I have a dead line for an article coming up and I need to have some of this expansion done. 
Speaking of articles, please check out my latest piece in Model Railroad Planning 2021. In that article I discuss some ideas to designing backdrops for model railroads.

Back to the expansion, as you can see in the photos, the benchwork is very similar to what I built for the POLA layout. I ended up using only 12-inch deep Ikea IVAR shelves  under the layout as opposed to the deeper 19-inch ones I had under parts of POLA.

The second photo shows the expanded area available for new location for Falmouth. This new area is about double the length and wider than the old Falmouth. I wanted the area above the TV to be deep enough so that my operators would not bang their legs against the glass shelf of the TV stand below the benchwork. The wider layout space space also gives me more room for structures and scenery at Falmouth. 

One of my main concerns was the grade of the track coming out from under the stair landing. At a minimum, the tracks need to climb up to the top of the IVAR shelves. That requires an elevation gain of about 1 inch over 13 feet, less than one percent, to an elevation of 49 inches.

I wondered if I should make the height of the track at Falmouth the same as at Burnside Landing, which is 51 inches. The only reasons to do that are, first,  if I wanted to make a continuous run, which I don't, the tracks needed to be at the same level. The second reason is more subtle and relates to the prototype geography. The track at Falmouth should be higher than the track at Aquia Landing since Aquia Landing is at river level and Falmouth is higher on the ridge.  But, if I placed Falmouth 51 or higher inches, it would require climbing at least another 2 inches, resulting in about a 2.5% grade coming out of the closet. I was concerned that my engines would not be able to pull the design length trains up that grade.  So I opted to minimize the grade. Thus Falmouth will be about 2 inches lower than Brunside's Wharf and Aquia Landing.  The difference is hard to detect when you are standing at the layout.  We will have to chalk up this discontinuity in space-time continuum to the effects of traveling under a stair landing. Perhaps we can blame Harry Potter.

I am also reconsidering the scenic treatment of the section behind the couch. I designed a long low trestle in that spot. But I now think I would be better off breaking up that stretch of track into two discrete scenes. I think that might make the distance traveled seem longer if one can not see the whole train at one time. 

So I am looking at some combinations of bridges, cuts and fills in this area. Also, because of the book shelves under the layout, I don't have a lot of depth to exploit. One idea that appeals to me is to install a through truss bridge over a creek in this area (see photo below) . I built one several years ago for the road show layout, but Gerry has that now. I still have the laser drawings for it, so making another one would not be hard. That kind of bridge looks good in a low clearance application.

Today I presented a talk to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University about railroads of the Civil War. The talk seemed to have been well received. We have tentatively scheduled an open house so the OLLI members can visit my railroad and perhaps some other civil war sites in Alexandria.