The Roundhouse Podcast

Building a Virtual Train Layout

A PRR coal drag crosses the creek at Marsh Hill, PA. The S&NY used the PRR’s Elmira Branch from Williamsport to Marsh Hill.

The world of railroading is full of interesting operations. Industrial railroads, tourist railroads, Class I mainlines, and shortline freight haulers are among the many that we love to watch, photograph, and in some cases, replicate through model railroading. The challenge becomes that most of us only have one basement that we can dedicate to the hobby.

If you’ve followed me since the days of “At The Railyard“, you know that I’m a huge proponent of virtual railroading with train simulators. Most of my time with them has been behind the throttle operating trains on routes recreated from actual locations. Earlier this year, however, I had an experience that shifted my present focus.

What I enjoy most about model railroading is participating in operating sessions, where multiple people meet at one layout and run the railroad as if it were the real thing. I was invited to be an engineer on Mike Hauk’s Susquehanna & New York Railroad. In real life, The Susquehanna & New York Railroad was a short-line railroad connecting the Lehigh Valley Railroad at Towanda, Pennsylvania with the Pennsylvania Railroad at Marsh Hill Junction. The railroad carried freight and passengers between Williamsport and Towanda. Mike has extensively researched the prototype and found methods of compressing it to fit within his basement.

Any day that I receive an email in my inbox announcing a new operating session here is a good day. An operating session lasts for three hours and provides a highly interactive environment for glorious steam railroading!

The first session was a remarkable experience. In fact, it was so enjoyable that I wanted to take Mike’s layout home with me… so that is what I did.

This screenshot was taken on the first day of route construction. Note how the track is initially floating in midair in the upper right corner. The landscape must be adjusted to meet the track height, as seen in the lower right.

I used Mike’s track plan and imported it into Trainz: A New Era. This simulator is the one that I find easiest to work with when it comes to building routes, especially a model railroad with its tight bends.

This scene of Marsh Hill shows the progression of terrain painting and scenery placement.

Once I had laid the track, it was then a matter of forming the terrain, painting the terrain textures, and placing buildings and scenery items. While the program does have items to make your route look like a train layout (walls, floor, fascia, etc), my goal was to create each scene as realistically as possible. Eliminating the aisles provided additional room, and carefully placed trees and hills ensured that each scene was naturally separated from one another.

A train of refrigerator cars passes south through Laquin, PA. In the 1920s this town contained the Barclay Wood Chemical Plant. Today it is only a ghost town. Compare this to the “before” view from above.

In two months, Mike’s layout was recreated in the train simulator. It is now available for download on the Trainz Download Station.

It was fun to try route building, and having the unlimited space that a digital environment offers is a treat. Mike’s help throughout the route building was invaluable, and I encourage you to visit his website that covers both the real Susquehanna & New York and his layout.

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