Model railroad combats coronavirus blues

Not only has COVID-19 shut down my near-term travels plans to Tampa, Minneapolis, and New Orleans, but the tedium of being cooped up at home wears thin. I like to stay on the move. To keep myself busy, I am spending time operating and maintaining my large model railroad layout.

When I was a kid, I loved trains and railroads, and I still do.  I’ve done a good deal of consulting in the rail industry with both railroad companies and shippers.  Like most mid-twentieth century boys, I had a Lionel train—several, in fact.

My interest in model railroading waned in my teen and college years, and I didn’t come back to it until I was past 50 years old. When did, I was delighted to discover that model railroading had evolved into a complex hobby that appealed to adults more than children.

Model railroading offers many scales.  Mine is 3-rail O-gauge, meaning tracks have a middle (3rd) rail to conduct AC electricity, just like original Lionel trains, and “O” is quarter-inch scale, again the same as the Lionel trains of my youth.  So far, just like the 1950s and 60s.

The difference now is that model steam locomotives, diesel engines, and rolling stock (freight and passenger cars) are much more finely detailed and realistic than ever before, and the engines are computer-controlled and emit prototypical sounds when running.  Engines and locomotives are chock-a-block full of electronics.

That makes digital operation of model trains these days a lot like driving real trains. The fun and challenge of running a model railroad is tantamount to a 3-D computer game. It is endlessly variable and never dull.

Over a decade ago I converted our carport and other space into a thousand square foot “train room” to indulge my hobby.  I used up a lot of good will with my long-suffering wife when I did, but so far my key still works in the lock.

I soon found myself writing articles for magazines like O-Gauge Railroading (OGR). I call my layout the Duckunder Terminal Railway. Here is a much-abridged recent cover piece I did for OGR:


Finally complete after six years of nonstop construction, the Duckunder Terminal Railway in Raleigh, North Carolina, occupies 1,000 square feet in a purpose-built train room attached to my house. It is finished just as I planned it.  It is my design, but it was master craftsman and good friend George Lasley who detailed scenes in ways I could only imagine.

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My strengths in model railroading are track design, electrical wiring, and electronic operation. I can install and make track systems work, but I have limited ability when it comes to screwing together basic bench work, and no expertise whatsoever in scale modeling and detailing. George, however, excels in those fields. His creative spark literally brought every scene to life.

For example, every telephone and electrical pole is wired accurately for the era, and every building on the Duckunder is wired to the prototypical electric grid with accurate service connections. Even the pole transformers are right for single-phase or three-phase service. George’s railroad buildings, trackside structures, telephone-telegraph poles, and scale wiring are in keeping with the pre-1960 era of my design.

When we set out to build and detail the Duckunder Terminal Railway, George was skeptical that the layout could attain a truly high level of realism. However, his doubts vanished as the Duckunder came alive with prototypical detail. George has succeeded in pushing that realism to perfection, with scenes that invite visitors to lose themselves in.

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The Duckunder is an Appalachian coal railroad modeled principally on the Norfolk & Western Railway and Virginian Railway up to 1960. Point-to-point operation is achieved by a track plan with Norfolk at the eastern terminus; Portsmouth and Columbus, Ohio, at the west end; and nine coal mines with tipples in the middle (West Virginia coal country). Each of the nine coal tipples has a distinctive and prototypical style.

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Naturally, coal isn’t the Duckunder’s sole commodity. Tank cars for oil and water, gondolas of many sizes, several variations of flatcars, boxcars of wood and steel, both wood and steel reefers, and short covered hoppers for sand are examples of just some of the other Duckunder rolling stock.

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Norfolk Terminal includes a prototypically flawless union station model and a huge coal pier and yard, complete with a coal dumper and ship.

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Suffolk, Virginia, the first burg of any size west of Norfolk, is a very extensive scene that includes Planters Peanuts and Lipton Tea–the two largest industries there–along with a Smithfield-type ham company, an Outer Banks cold seafood shipper, an Esso fuel oil business, a Dismal Swamp cedar works, a large building supply company, an industrial supply shipper (W.A. Allen & Son), and a steam engine coal, water, and cinder facility modeled after one on the Virginian. The Lipton Tea plant was reproduced to its 1955 look when new. Suffolk passenger station is a prototypical Virginian Railway design.

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Roanoke, Virginia, once N&W headquarters in the real world, is also a major scene, with a remarkable scratch-built passenger station modeled on the classic N&W station at Max Meadows, Virginia. George Lasley made that one from more than 1,800 individual pieces.

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Portsmouth, Ohio is a six-track yard with two additional industry tracks (another branch of W.A. Allen & Son, plus a Gulf Oil distributor). The Columbus, Ohio scene features a nine-track yard, two icing platform tracks, two dairy reefer tracks, an elevated coal yard delivery track, and a local industry track.

The Quack Island Engine Terminal scene features a prototypically accurate N&W water treatment plant, sand facilities, coaling systems, and cinder pit for firebox dump and cinder removal, as well as a turntable that accesses a six-stall roundhouse and 10 other tracks. The engine terminal includes fine details such as a fire-fighting system to suppress the inevitable conflagrations that bedeviled steam engine terminals.

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All trains and engines on the Duckunder are controlled by the Lionel Legacy/TMCC system. The signal is augmented by a Hawking Wi-Fi booster attached to two antennae, one near each end of the 40’ room. Where necessary due to considerable over-and-under track complexity, ground planes have been installed to clarify the Legacy signal. The Legacy base and handset software are version 1.6.

The railway currently rosters 43 engines, including 16 steam locomotives and 27 diesels. Being a sound freak, I have engines with whistle, horn, bell, chuff, and diesel sounds that tickle my fancy.

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Layout height on the Duckunder is built up high (50” minimum, 73” maximum). This provides an improved, more realistic viewing perspective for visitors, and it is easier to duck under than the usual 40-42” layout height.

Some of the scenes on the new Duckunder can only be seen and operated when standing on stepstools, short ladders, or painters’ platforms scattered around the train room. The layout boasts lots of railings and door handles installed everywhere on the benchwork, especially where ladders and stepstools are required. This inexpensive measure ensures safety, but also keeps hands from unintentionally grasping for holds on the layout scenes.

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Despite the impressive God’s-eye spectacle of a thousand square feet seen when entering the train room, I didn’t like being able to see the entire layout at once. To prevent that, contoured and painted wood dividers look like mountains to visually separate scenes. Foam and plaster were added and detailed near the bottom of dividers to add dimension to the backdrops.

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Different scale trees were “planted” in each scene, with large ones near the front edge and small trees placed into the ascending dimension of foam and plaster overlay in order to add perspective to each scene. Overall, this has the effect of focusing visitor attention to a single part of the layout. The compartmentalization also tends to minimize operator distractions.

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Construction on the Duckunder Terminal Railway is complete, showcasing George Lasley’s modeling skills and the astonishing operational realism made possible by computer control. Visitors always comment on the dazzling craftsmanship, lifelike scenes, and how much it feels and sounds like a real railroad. If you get to Raleigh, I  welcome you to stop by.


My big model train layout offers infinite operational variables to keep my mind and body busy.  I’m thankful it keeps me so happily engaged during this period of home-bound isolation.

3 thoughts on “Model railroad combats coronavirus blues

  1. Thank you for sharing your story and your pictures. It is quite an amazing set up. It is really well done and elaborate – although the pictures are wonderful, I don’t think they can do it justice.

  2. It looks pretty amazing. Your future might align with some history here in western NJ. A man and a few friends has a similar setup. Every year in December they would open to the public for a donation to the local fire company. That evolved into Northlandz(.com), 16 acres with 8 miles of track!

  3. Next time you are in Hamburg, Germany, be sure to visit Miniatur Wunderland (unfortunately closed through April 30th right now.) It’s a must-see for train lovers!

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