Middletown as a Concept
From the beginning I wanted at least one continuous loop of track. I just want to watch trains go by. For me, at the end of a long day or during those times when I just need to slow down and not have to think about anything, watching trains go by is pure relaxation. I am far more interested in that aspect of a model railway than in operations.
Middletown would have to have a passenger station. I was not interested in a town that did not offer passenger service. Having said that, with a maximum loop size being somewhere in the 28" by 52" range, it was obvious that running 85' passenger cars was going to look awkward at best.
The answer was immediately obvious. I would run one RDC unit. Okay, it is an 85' unit but it is only one car. That would be much more reasonable, especially given the small town nature of the layout.
I have fond memories of RDC units. Back when I was a teen CN was running RDC units on a few lines in Nova Scotia. The Halifax to Sydney (and return) run used a few RDC units coupled and it was called the Dayliner. In fact, in 1969 when I left Cape Breton to make my way in the world I left Sydney aboard the Dayliner and I used it various times over the next few years to travel about.
I also wanted to be able to create the effect of having the train leave town ... to have times when the train would not be visible on the layout. I know I could just pick it up and take it away but that was not what I had in mind. The question became, "How does one hide a train?" and if I was going to have a small freight train as well the hiding was going to be even more challenging.
Most layouts deal with that question by creating a mountain, with a tunnel through it or track running in behind it and it becomes very easy in that situation to hide a train. If you are going to run a second train however, then you need at the very least a siding big enough to hold one train or a second loop. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of a second loop. Then of course there would be the necessary turnouts to create the crossovers so that trains could switch from one loop to the other, preferably in both directions. I was okay with that. I had room for it.
Getting back to the question of mountains or no mountains on the other hand, I had a specific idea of what my town would look like and I could not lose precious real estate to a mountain. And I am not fond of mountains to begin with. If I was going to have a tunnel it would have to be under a relatively low, flat hill so that it could double as a place to put a part of the town.
The Underground Loop
Somewhere along the way I decided that the hill could occupy a smaller portion of the layout and I could still hide a reasonable freight train if I made an underground loop on the outside track. (The shape of the table will be described in detail in Town Plan.)
The idea was to have the train enter the tunnel and immediately start a decline, reaching the lowest point at about the 4 o'clock position and then climbing to cross over itself as it exited the tunnel at the other end. I thought the grade might be a little steep but the guys who know much more about this than I do had told me the only way to make the grade work was to extend the underground loop all the way to the right end of the table. This would mess up the idea of having the control panel slide in and out of a position about center of the long front side. The more we discussed it the more complex it became so I abandoned the idea.
The plan also had the outer loop rising to cross over two spurs coming off the right end of the inner loop and the main road. Again endless discussion saw the whole idea becoming more and more complex so I scrapped that idea as well. After much rethinking, more discussion and more revision the plan became more like this:
The passenger station was still at (A), the warehouse was at (B), Main Street and the downtown shops (C), and at (D) sat the residential area along a street following the latest addition to the plan - the river.
Where the idea came from that Middletown had to have a river is something I can not recall. All I do recall is that somewhere in the midst of trying to sort out the underground loop and eventually abandoning that in frustration, a river entered the picture. Make sense? Of course not. But that's what I tend to do sometimes - jump from one bad idea to the next bad idea.
Through the spring of 2010 I continued to buy track, structures, an RDC-3, a few vehicles, a GP-30 locomotive, and other necessary items but it felt like I was not getting any closer to actually building a layout. I was definitely not happy with the plan as it existed but at the same time I could not figure out what bothered me so much about it. It was all wrong but I had no idea how to fix it. By mid-April I was seriously thinking about not building at all.
I decided I needed to set up my station, a piece of track , the RDC-3, the GP-30, a box car, a semi trailer and a couple of autos. I had thought the drawing software was making everything look far too cramped but I had no other software that I could quickly learn to use. Setting everything up on a table showed me two things. First, I was right about the software. The space I actually had was not nearly as cramped as the plan showed.
It was obvious that if I was going to draw a plan for Middletown I was going to have to do it the old tried and true method - paper and pencil. The second thing I learned was that not all items sold as N scale are accurate. More accurately stated, there are three scales known as "N scale": 1:144 - mostly British, European and Australian; 1:150 - Japanese; and 1:160 - the North American norm as well as Germany and Skandenavian countries. There is a long, complex explantion for this but simply stated it has to do with the differences in track guage.
In any case, much to my disappointment the first structure I ever built, a Model Power passenger station, was too big. It turned out to be 1:144 scale. I decided it was my first twenty dollar lesson and I scrapped it.
Once I started to draw the whole layout on paper I realized I had a little more room than I thought and I started to see possibilities for correcting all the things I had not liked about the first two plans. Again with a lot of help and encouragement from the folks at nScale.net the plan started to quickly take shape into something I was much happier with. I took the freight warehouse away from Main street and put it at the back on its own lot. This would later become the woodworking factory.
I redesigned the entire downtown area to become a project that incorporated much of the business core into one large complex that would eventually become Acadia Square. The river was down-sized and moved to the right. I added a few spurs to service the warehouse/factory, a newly added feed mill and a museum. I realigned the streets, added a park and moved the residential area to the hilltop. Doing so increased the overal footprint of the hill and two spurs were dropped from the back rail yard.
Finally I was getting somewhere! Only one thorn in my side left to deal with ...
The Sector Plate
There were three major challenges that had to be overcome in the making of a perfect little town. I had wrestled with the underground loop and gave it up for a bad idea. The river was presenting another set of sticky issues but for now, with the help of Mark Underwood of N-Scale.net, I at least down-sized it, and now would have to move on to resolving the third item on the hit list.
It had bugged me almost from the beginning that there was no way to turn a locomotive around. Most of the layout plans that addressed that issue included a reversing loop. I did not want that. I drew it in but it made other things harder to work out. I didn't like it.
I looked at the possibility of adding a wye in theback right corner but there was clearly not enough room. A turntable was the next obvious solution but there was not enough room for that either. Then one night the idea came to me that it didn't need to be a full turntable. I could build a unit shaped like a wedge and it would serve one simple purpose - to turn a locomotive around.
I began searching, not really knowing what something like that would be called, or even if it existed at all in the 1:1 world. I discussed it with the guys in nScale.net and subsequently found a few British sites which showed a similar device being used in micro-layouts called a "sector-plate". It did not take me long to draw it. Problem solved. The sector-plate yard would take up about half of the back right corner. A detailed tutorial on how that was built resides in the Structures section.
So, back to the river. After a bit more frustration, Mark Underwood suggested a few more changes which resulted in having it come from the back, out from under a culvert. That was it! Now the plan was something I could not only live with but something I was pretty darn happy with. More about that in the Town Plan.