My COVID-19 Emergency Railroad

I do nearly all my operating at train shows. There have been no train shows since February. There won’t be any train shows until November. There might not be any then, either. How to satisfy my burning desire to watch a train travel around in circles for an extended period of time?

If I’m in the mood for switching activities, it’s easy enough to set up Susquehannock Industrial Park, or Windlenook, and I have done so in recent months. This time, I just wanted to crank the throttle and watch trains run. We all do now and then. Sure, we pay lip service to the concept of prototypical operation, but deep down, sometimes we just want to be that eight-year-old in front of the Christmas tree again.

I do, in fact, have a small N scale railroad sitting in my living room right now. It’s a cute little twice-around oval, straight out of 101 Track Plans. I have merely to clean the track and plug it in. Alas, it has tight curves and sharp grades, so it won’t accommodate a train made up of more than a few 40-foot cars. In the years since its construction, I’ve acquired a taste for long trains, especially long passenger trains.

I have an extensive collection of T-Trak modules, but nowhere to set them up. Every conceivable venue with big tables available—church, school, library, makerspace—is locked up until further notice. At my house, table space, even floor space, is at a premium, and my wife has made it clear that she doesn’t like to tiptoe around my hobby things.

After all this rumination, my Kato V11 track set was looking like my best bet. I purchased it used at a show a few years ago, and it’s proven useful as an instant test track at club gatherings. The one place where it would fit without needing to be tiptoed around was the driveway. For that, I’d need some kind of roadbed.

Back in late May, the lockdown loosened up enough for my employer to reopen, and my co-workers and I went back to work. We’ve been working our way through the spring’s backlog, getting product out the door. With the boss in a good mood, I obtained permission to mill up some scraps of medium-density fiberboard on the CNC table, after hours. This required a fair amount of pre-planning, and creating drawings for the necessary parts. I didn’t mind that at all—overthinking the geometry of sectional track has been a favorite pastime of mine since early childhood.

There are five types of parts, each no longer than 21 inches. Twelve parts assemble into a roadbed that fits the full V11 dogbone. The 45° curves have short tangents on one end, the other, or both. The 67.5° curves do not. The straights are exactly the length of two Kato 20-004 straight track sections. Joints between parts do not correspond with track-section joints, which is quite liberating. The roadbed is wide enough to allow a two-inch buffer zone on either side of the track, which will shield all but the most determined N scale trains from a suicidal leap. At the ends of each part, semi-circular grooves in the underside are milled to fit the rim of a coffee can, which supports each joint. I had a dozen cans saved up, and filled them with gravel for stability. I had originally hoped to just lay the roadbed parts loose over the cans, but it was soon apparent that there would be stability problems. Instead, I drilled pocket holes in the ends with a Kreg jig, and screwed them all together. It’s not an ideal solution. MDF is prone to splitting when screws are driven into it edgewise, but I did it gently, with a low torque setting on the driver’s clutch, and it’s sufficient. Assembled, the roadbed measures about 38″ x 98″.

Sure, it’s blocking the car, but why go anywhere when the trains are right here?

I placed the layout right at the head of the driveway, in front of the car. During assembly, I shimmed the cans on the low spots so that they’d properly support the roadbed, but made little attempt to level it. There might have been a 1-2% grade in spots, but nothing to be concerned about. Once everything was assembled, the track was laid out and snapped together, and a PowerCab attached to the feeders. (For simplicity’s sake, I suppressed my urge to rig multiple electrical feeders.) A folding chair, a small plastic table, and a citronella lantern completed the setup.

Putting not one, but two, Kato passenger sets on the rails just two feet away from a public sidewalk was a bit of a risk, I suppose. These things are kind of expensive, after all, and I’m not made of money. Fortunately, it was a quiet evening, and no potential trouble manifested itself. The neighborhood cat, who regards our driveway as a personal leisure space, seemed apprehensive and kept his distance. One dog who was being walked showed no interest at all. Neither did most of the people who happened by.

I got things going about a half-hour before sunset, and kept running through twilight, until the moon was well into the sky. It’s a joy to just sit and watch trains glide around the V11 set’s broad, superelevated curves. Both the Broadway Limited and the California Zephyr had light kits in all cars, which showed up beautifully in the gathering dusk. The lead unit on the Zephyr had a working Mars light, too, and it looked great. Even though an illuminated passenger train has a fairly heavy current draw, there was little if any voltage drop evident. The roadbed proved more than smooth and stable enough to provide an enjoyable, derailment-free evening.

Packing up the trains, track, and PowerCab at the end of the evening took about twenty minutes. As it was a clear night, I left the roadbed in place for dismantling the next day.