Track Plans With a Little Virtual Help

I recently completed most of the remaining track work on the Old Main at the north end of Circleville. All of the industries along that stretch have their track, turnouts, and associated wiring in place, excepting Container Corporation’s shipping and receiving yards. Most recently, I added all of the turnout controls, making the north end fully operational. More on those details in another post.

That milestone got me thinking about extending the track work further to the east, along Huston Street. The major industry here was Purina Mills, which I wrote about in a previous post. The trackage around the area is relatively complex due to the nearby interchange between the N&W and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Reproducing that in model form is going to be difficult due to the prototype’s track layout and the relatively confined space I have to squeeze the reproduction into.

I kicked around some ideas, but decided I needed feedback from people who regularly operate model railroads – folks that could tell me whether my proposed plan would work or not. The problem was, how do you do that when having visitors in the layout room is difficult?

The solution was to use what everyone has become familiar with in the past nine months – video conferencing. Several modelers with operations experience volunteered to help, so it was up to me to work out a way to present the prototype and model situations in a way that made sense on a video screen.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Zoom Video Conference application
  • Google Maps
  • Three cameras;
    • iPhone 11 (my current phone)
    • iPhone 7 (my previous phone) with a Joby Gorillapod tripod
    • An iPad
  • Laptop to manage the call and which camera views were visible.


I suspended the iPhone 7 above the layout using the Gorilla-pod. This was the first time I’ve tried using this tripod in a hanging position, and it worked really well. The iPad setup was simpler; I propped it up at track level, on the opposite side of the scene from the iPhone.

Before the call, I built a Google Map (learn how here) to show the actual track layout in Circleville in order to provide context. In the screenshot below, the N&W is indicated with red lines and the PRR with green. The fatter/brighter lines indicate where the model’s track would have to deviate from the prototype to avoid the basement wall.


I started the call by sharing my desktop with the Google Map displayed. I described the railroad’s route Circleville, followed by zooming into the specific area I needed help with – the Purina Mills complex. The reason for showing the entire map initially was to give the viewers a better sense of how trains would approach the area in question.

Following the map overview, I stopped the screen share and went to the video displays – the ground-level iPad, the aerial iPhone 7 and the iPhone 11. The latter I used temporarily to walk around the basement in order to connect the map overview with what I had built in model form, and how it led into the area I needed help with.

Making more than one video feed usable requires using a more advanced feature in Zoom called “Spotlight”. By default, Zoom will show the video of the person speaking (or their name if their camera is turned off). This is fine for a normal conversation, but isn’t helpful when everyone needs to talk and see a particular video feed!

To solve this, the host adds one (or more) videos to a list of spotlighted views, which keeps those views on everyone’s screens, even during back and forth conversation.

The image below shows what everyone saw during the discussion. For a short time, I had the third, walk around, camera on the screen as well. I turned that camera’s video off as soon as the walk around was complete to keep things simple.

The final track arrangement for Purina Mill and the N&W/PRR Transfer Track is pictured below. The major differences, compared to the prototype arrangement are:

  • Purina Mill will have one warehouse track instead of the prototype’s two. In the photo, the warehouse track is next to the brick building, with three boxcars
  • There is no second track (running track) parallel to the PRR main. Compare to the Google map screenshot above.
  • The warehouse and transfer track (marked with green tape) will both connect directly to the PRR main, instead of a separate running track
  • The transfer track is straight and the PRR main is curved, the opposite of the prototype

My goals were to retain the general feel of the area and reproduce the three diamonds created by the crossing of the PRR over the N&W’s double track main line, and single track Old Main industrial track. My concern was whether those two goals would impact operability – my main concern was the relatively short PRR main to the right of Purina, which would have to serve as a tail track to switch the industry.

The general agreement was that it was long enough (three 40′ cars and a locomotive), and was right-sized for the transfer track (three cars) and warehouse track (also three cars). The end of the track is a long reach, but the coupling area is within reasonable reach.


Overall, the virtual brainstorming was successful, from my point of view. I got some good feedback on my track arrangement and had a chance to test video-conferencing in a “hands on demonstration” capacity. I am the Superintendent of my local NMRA Division, and wanted to test this use case before suggesting it to the members in my Division for similar training and/or educational purposes.

There are a couple of caveats to doing this. I was using a “Pro” account which allows longer calls with multiple members. You could also do this with a free account, but the call would be limited to 40 minutes – and the “Spotlight” feature may not be available. It also is worth mentioning that this entire presentation could have been accomplished with one camera – it just would have been a more limited view.

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Middle Switch Complex

This past week I’ve been working on three additional right-hand turnouts that are key to laying another twelve feet of track on the old mainline. As a reminder, the old main is used to service industries in Circleville (the modern mainline was constructed in 1911). In a future post, I’ll reflect on the five turnouts (constructed two months ago) that lead to these three.

Some folks are able to build turnouts on a fixture in an hour or two. I cannot, even though I’ve built at least a dozen. Likely the problem is that I figure out all of the tricks for speedy assembly during a building session, then forget those hard-learned tricks before I build another set!

I cut the rail I needed for the eight turnouts along this stretch (four righthand, four left) last autumn, along with doing the filing needed for the frog and switch points. That left only locating and filing the stock rail bases where the point rail would sit, some bending operations, cleaning the rail, and cutting the PC board ties before I started soldering.

Turnout construction tools

After completing that work and assembling the turnouts, I spent a good deal of time tuning the points to allow smooth operation on both routes. I tried some new ideas on the shaping the points that seemed to work well (my growing collection of files came in handy here) – though the real test will be running trains over them.

Arranging the turnouts on the layout was mostly completed last summer, using Fast Tracks paper templates as stand-ins. I spent several hours experimenting with different arrangements, trying to find the best balance of usability and aesthetics. The tracks competing for turnout space along the old main were:

  • The west end of Esmeralda Canning’s siding
  • The east end of a runaround on the old main
  • A spur to Pickaway Grain and Maizo Mills
  • A spur to Enderlin Coal

A fourth turnout is in the immediate vicinity, but as it was on the runaround track (not the old main), it had no impact on the arrangement.

Referring to the gallery of photos above, I decided against Arrangement 1 primarily because it would require a switchback to get to Enderlin Coal. In reality, there was a switchback in this location that led to Pickaway Grain’s own coal yard. That made a turnout here defensible, but I wanted to avoid the complexity.

Arrangement 2 solved the switchback issue, but cramped Pickaway Grain’s loading area and crowded Enderlin Coal and Esmeralda too closely, which went against my aesthetic interest in creating breathing room between industries. These first two arrangments also made Esmeralda’s siding shorter than I wanted (only 2.5-3 cars) due to it’s west end turnout placement.

To lengthen Esmeralda’s siding, I tried Arrangement 3. This involved moving its turnout to the right, displacing Enderlin’s turnout back to the switchback. This was better for Esmeralda, but… the switchback.

The biggest change with Arrangement 4 was the removal of Enderlin Coal. This is the arrangement I decided on, for a couple of reasons. In my last post about the industries I selected, I mentioned eliminating Enderlin Coal to “mitigate problems elsewhere” – this switch complex was that “elsewhere”. Removing Enderlin and its turnout provided breathing room and simplified this area as well as giving space back to the rest of the layout. See the previous post for more information.

Fast forward back to this past week. After getting the turnouts built and placed on the layout, I tweaked them a bit more to account for track spacing and the already-installed Pickaway Grain/Maizo turnout.

Final Arrangement

In the photo above, the left turnout leads from the old main to the east end of the runaround, the center-left turnout (on the runaround) leads to a short 1-car stub-end spur, the center-right turnout is the west end of Esmeralda Canning’s siding and the rightmost turnout leads to Pickaway Grain and Maizo Mills.

The final photo below is looking railroad west (compass north) to illustrate the nicely-developing industrial area along the old main. Complete with captions!

Circleville’s west-side industrial stretch, progressing nicely

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Container Corporation Site Arrangement

Container Corporation, ca late forties

Container Corporation’s strawboard mill was the largest industry in the section of Circleville I’m modeling in 1938, and will also be the busiest industry on my model railroad. Since deciding that Circleville would be a focus of the railroad, I’ve gone through many design ideas for the mill’s site, structure, and track layout to best suit my goals.

Plant Siting

One thing that was never in doubt was the location of the plant on my model railroad. In the real world, the mill was located alongside the N&W Railroad and Canal Street at a point where the railroad makes a ninety-degree bend. This curve made a room corner the logical location to model this part of the railroad, which in turn made the same corner the ideal location for this plant.

So the general siting of the plant was easy. Sizing it turned out to be more difficult, with each attempt teaching me something that led to another attempt. In the end, the effort made me happier with the result.

Arrangement 1

When I first designed the layout using CAD, the Container Corporation’s footprint – in fact, all of Circleville – was relatively compact. The plant was tucked close to the room corner, with the remainder of Circleville’s industries extending down the wall to the right (north). As I learned more about the plant, I gradually stretched it’s footprint and moved it further from the corner. However, these changes were limited by the other industries in this stretch – the space available was finite.

After the benchwork was built, dad and I laid out the entire industrial stretch on tracing paper – this is dad’s preferred technique, adapted from his day job. Each industry was sized to fit the space, in proportion to one another.

Following the pencil-and-pen planning, I set about building a mockup of the plant. This raised the question of compression. I ultimately decided to size the whole plant using the coal shed/boiler room as the point of reference. The prototype shed was about 105 feet – or about long enough to house three coal hoppers. I shortened it to two hopper-lengths and applied the resulting 60-65% compression to the rest of the plant buildings.

Even with this compression, the full plant was bigger than I expected. It’s one thing to see a two-dimensional footprint, another to have a physical object as a hard reference. This more-imposing-than-expected building forced the rest of Circleville a bit north.

With the mock-up in place, I also realized that the close-to-the-corner siting would make it difficult to get track into the receiving yard without concessions in curve radius, track length and turnout locations. It would also have scenic impacts as it would leave no room for contextual buildings – specifically straw ricks and a small residential area on the south (left) end of the plant.

Over a couple of months, I started moving the plant to the right to address those concerns, which compressed the rest of the industries like a slinky.

Arrangement 2 and 3

After fussing with the compressed industrial stretch for several months, I decided to do a more comprehensive re-think of the entire Circleville industrial stretch, from Ohio Street (in the left corner) to Hargus Creek (right), in order to loosen things up.

After considering what was important to me – namely, operationally interesting or personally relevant structures – I decided to remove an entire block between Main Street and Hargus Creek on the right end. There were no rail-served industries at that end so there was no downside, other than the loss of a cool canal-era building. The upside was gaining an additional 31″ that the rest of Circleville could “grow” into. All of the industries gained more elbow room; CCA (at the opposite end) got a good chunk of that newfound space.

The additional breathing room more-or-less addressed the left-end track work concerns. There was now reasonable room to get trains in and out of the plant’s receiving yard. Details on that layout will be in a future post.

Plant Revision

During this same timeframe, I decided to revise the plant mock-up. The first mock-up was based on 1920’s dimensions and aerial photo, which I thought would be appropriate for my 1938-39 modeling time frame. Additional research unearthed information and photos showing that assumption was incorrect. The entire left end of the plant changed in 1936-1937.

I’d been itching to revise the mockup anyway, since the original had been constructed hastily to make the layout presentable for a neighborhood open house. This new information was just the trigger to get it started.

While building the new mock-up, I updated the dimensions of all of the buildings including shorter vertical dimensions and a more generous horizontal compression (70 vs. 60%). These changes made the overall proportions more pleasing and provided more room for the shipping trackwork at the right end of the plant. It also extended the left end of the building back toward the corner, though that did not impact the receiving yard’s usability.

There was one final move. For a variety of reasons, I decided to remove one industry (Enderlin Coal) altogether, freeing up more space. Again, everyone got more elbow room, and CCA got two inches of that.

That final move wrapped up CCA’s siting. It’s time to start some track work on on the Old Main.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.

Finalized List of Modeled Industries

Almost since the moment I decided to model Circleville, I was certain I would include three specific sites on my railroad; Circleville’s Interlocking Tower (VI Tower, the namesake of this website), Container Corporation’s strawboard mill, and Pickaway Grain’s elevator.

The inspiration for VI Interlocking Tower is twofold. Firstly, dad spent a lot of time hanging around the tower as a kid, getting to know one of the operators very well (Wink Wellington), feeding his interest in the railroad – and indirectly, mine. Secondly, interlocking towers are an iconic railroad structure – known by railroaders for their function, and by the public as a landmark.

Container Corporation was the largest industry in Circleville during the time I am modeling and produced an unusual product, making it an operationally busy and functionally interesting addition to my railroad. In addition, I remember the plant (albeit in a more modern form than my modeled period) and my uncle Gene worked there as a chemical engineer in the fifties. Both make it personally relevant to me.

Pickaway Grain was astride one of the doorways to Circleville (Main Street / Rt 22), making it a landmark to local citizens and travelers. It represents an industry that was (and is) ubiquitous in grain-growing areas – during my modeled time period, smaller elevators were a common sight along every railroad. Pickaway Grain is another personally relevant industry as I remember passing it every time we left Circleville for home.

Those three obviously weren’t the only three rail-served industries in Circleville. Dad suggested three more from his memory for modeling consideration. Esmeralda Canning Company was on Canal Street immediately north of Container Corporation (CCA). Esmeralda was probably still operating during my (early) lifetime but would have been long out of business by the time the building was torn down in 1996. Enderlin Coal (later VanCamp), north of Esmeralda, was once a very busy retail coal yard with an unloading trestle spanning a concrete pit. It’s not clear when it stopped selling coal – I suspect shortly after VanCamp bought the property since that company’s focus was road work. Maizo Mills was on the north side of Main Street, across from Pickaway Grain. It burned down spectacularly in the 1950’s.

Beyond these initial six, I learned about additional sites/industries of the period from a variety of sources (mainly period Sanborn Fire Insurance and N&W Right of Way maps) that I also considered including. They were (from south to north):

  • Purina Feeds on S. Court and W. Huston.
  • Two canal-era houses on Canal street between the CCA and Esmeralda properties.
  • N.T. Weldon Coal and Building Supply at the corner of W. Mound and Canal streets, between Enderlin Coal and Pickaway Grain
  • A bulk oil company owned (I think) by Weldon at the same location as above
  • The Ohio and Erie Canal warehouse (re-used by a host of other industries later) on the site of today’s Pickaway County Health District building.
  • N&W’s Freight House at the corner of North Western Avenue and Water Street
  • Highway Department site north of Ted Lewis Park (at the same location as today’s ODOT facility).
  • Sturm and Dillard sand and gravel’s spur on the west side of the N&W, across from the north end of Forest Cemetery

Ultimately I had to make some choices since I don’t have space for the entire city. After a year or so of planning, building mock-ups to check for fit, research trips to the Pickaway County Historical and Genealogical Library, advice from friends in the hobby and lobbying by dad – with my list growing, shrinking and changing from month to month – I finally decided on the following list. From north to south this time, the champions are:

  • N&W Freighthouse
  • Maizo Mills
  • Pickaway Grain
  • Esmeralda Canning
  • Container Corporation
  • Purina
  • VI Tower

I chose these based on relevance to my family (i.e., what we remember), interest from a visual, train operations or historical standpoint, recognizability and (very importantly), space available.

I tried very hard to work Enderlin/VanCamp in. It checked the interesting (coal trestle) and relevant boxes and dad lobbied hard for it. In the end, I couldn’t make the track layout work in the space available and removing it freed up enough space to mitigate problems elsewhere. If I can fit it in a different (incorrect) location, it will be back.

The Ohio & Erie Canal warehouse is certainly interesting, but since it wasn’t rail-served, it missed the “operationally relevant” check. I pulled N.T. Weldon because of redundancies with Pickaway Grain (both sold coal and building supplies, and in fact, Weldon was later purchased by Pickaway Grain). It also presented some track layout issues.

I will most likely add Sturm and Dillard to the list in the future, though more design work is required before committing to it. Also possible (though less likely) is the Highway Department. There may also be a few items added east of South Court Street, once I get to planning that area.

Over time I will add new posts about each of these industries, and for those that have enough information, a stand-alone web page.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.