The space

The basement is pretty much done. Now it's time to start working on the railroad. So I'll soon be posting some plans, but in the meantime here's an outline of the space potentially available, with some of the constraints I'm working with.

The basement is divided in two parts. As you head down the stairs (left to right in the above picture), first is my office. As I work at home much of the time, this is a functional office, with most of the space taken up with my desk & computer. A few extra chairs will be here, as a small crew lounge, and any dispatcher may be located in this space as well.

Along the far wall (top in the photo) will be floor to ceiling shelves, and I am willing to use one (and one only) shelf for railroad access (staging, not operations). Some of the framing in the wall is ready for this, should I choose the option. Other than this incursion, I am not very open to any railroad in the office. I expect to be working from home for years to come, and I need to division of space for personal sanity (fewer distractions while working) as well as home office deduction purposes.

Entering the remainder of the basement (through a sliding pocket door, so no space worries), this space is currently wide open (okay, piles of boxes abound, and some lumber attempting to acclimate to the space, and numerous low shelves along the walls for hobby equipment). But there are no permanent items, except for the utility closet (boiler, water heater, comm. panel, etc.) and the under-stairs closet (construction equipment, tools, coat closet).

A few other planning constraints exist. This space should also serve, to some extent, as a family room. For my family, this is a comfy chair for my wife to sit and stitch, and some play space for my (now) 4 year old daughter. Much of the playstuff storage can live under the layout (I plan to have as few legs as I can get away with). No particular need to support TV viewing space, or anything like that, but leaving some wider open spaces than normal is pretty much essential. I also need to keep a small freezer (about 48" high, 26" deep) downstairs, accessible without any difficulty by my wife. The tentative spot for this is noted above. Note that I do not want to place this in the closet.

The train room is currently finished & painted drywall, with no ceiling (yet). A drop ceiling will be installed before any significant construction begins. Such a ceiling will be at approximately 8 feet in height, with 10 inches remaining for plumbing, wiring, support beams, etc.

A collection of photos from this space, with running commentary, can be viewed.

basement outline
Figure 1. Basement outline. Image is downloadable (click to download).
(I've got a big monitor, so this works best there)

The “prototype”

The “prototype” I'm modelling is the Saint Paul Bridge and Terminal, although not quite as it existed. The SPB&T is a transfer railroad based in the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota. It primarily serves the riverfront area west of downtown, and across the river heading down towards South St. Paul. In addition, a line runs up Short Line Hill towards connections with a variety of Minneapolis railroads near the University/Midway district.

The year is 1952 or 1953. While many of the roads are well into dieselization, there are still quite a number of steam locomotives around. The SPB&T rebuilt much of their fleet in the 1930's, and is only now starting the process of replacing their steamers with internal combustion locomotives, and to date, the folks from La Grange haven't done too well. Locally, the NP continued to use steam until 1957, especially for local jobs.

There is quite a lot of on-line traffic for the SPB&T, with several freight transfer houses, portions of the S. St. Paul stockyards, printing plants, the Ford plant, grain elevators, the Schmidt brewery, and more. These require several daily switch jobs, plus the various transfer runs to/from the other roads in town (such as the Northern Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Rock Island, Chicago,St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha, Chicago Great Western, CB&Q, Minnesota Transfer, & several more).

The model

I'm working in HO scale, with wireless DCC. After everything I've done to this basement, I'm not moving, so I'm not in dire need of portable or movable benchwork. I'm also interested in using a minimum of legs, to maximize my storage and other uses of the other layout space.

For working yards and such, I'd like to use a track height of about 45-47 inches. For other switching areas, I'm willing to go as high as 52"-53", but only with suitably narrower benchwork, and handy step benches for the times I don't want to stretch as much (I'm 5'3").

I am very interested in switching, as are most of the crew pool. Working one or more complex switch jobs during a session is vastly preferable to running a number of through trains.

Although in reality this area saw a number of passenger trains (St. Paul Union Depot would be just one track away), I'm not interested in them enough to make the trackwork support them. As such, I can work with smaller switch sizes (6 instead of 8), sharper curves, and other clearances in order to support (maximum) 50' boxcars, not 85' passenger cars).

What's next?

One possible benchwork plan is online.

I'm also working on getting a map of the area online, to help put this whole layout in perspective.

I have a set of outstanding questions that I'm trying to find answers for.


I'm always interested in commentary about these plans. Please send me some email to