The Brown Mesa Railroad in 2007

By Tom Marsh (no, not the Overland guy)

(This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in Scale Rails, the NMRA's monthly magazine.)
BMRR yard scene

The scene at the BMRR yard after the crew has finished for the day.
The lack of scenery doesn't keep the trains from rolling.
Get the trains running!
I urge you armchair railroaders to get busy and get some trains running, even if your situation does not allow you to embark on construction of your dream layout.  N scale is perfect for getting trains running in a small space and short time, and I have taken advantage of this fact. 

For some time now, I have been operating my Brown Mesa Railroad (BMRR), a model railroad with four industrial sidings, a team track, a three-track yard, locomotive servicing facilities, a caboose track, two run-around tracks to facilitate switching, an interchange track, and a continuous running main line.

The entire railroad occupies only eight square feet.  Benchwork is a basic frame constructed of 1 x 4 pine topped with a sheet of plywood.  This two-foot by four-foot empire sits on a five-foot brown folding table (a "brown mesa"), the kind every office supply store sells.  With the table being a foot longer and several inches wider than the railroad, there is room for a powerpack, car storage boxes and other items that I like to keep handy.  The whole thing can be taken down and stored out of the way in a closet in a matter of minutes.

You may have guessed from the “continuous running” reference that the track plan employed is the tried and true loop.  Despite its drawbacks (which are few despite what some will tell you), the loop in its various forms is still the best option for a small railroad if you want to run a train rather than just shove cars in and out of sidings.  The point-to-point purists will shudder, but years ago I learned that sometimes you just want to watch the trains go, even if they are just chasing their own cabooses.

Atlas sectional track is used throughout.  The track is temporarily laid directly on the plywood with minimal securing.  I took this approach to get trains running as quickly as possible until I was satisfied with the track plan.  The BMRR was built in one afternoon, going in that time from a small pile of lumber and track to an operating railroad.  Eventually, I'll need to install roadbed and uncoupling magnets, replace most of the sectional track with flex track, and add some scenery to the layout, but for now I'm having enough fun running the railroad that roadbed, ballast, scenery and structures seem irrelevant.
Operations on the BMRR
The purpose of a railroad is to move freight and passengers from one point to another, however, moving freight is our only concern here, passenger service having ostensibly ended years ago.  That is a good thing:  Since the BMRR is by necessity built with sharp curves, reliable operation depends on using shorter equipment.  This is an industrial branch line servicing small industries, so 85-foot long passenger cars, tri-level autoracks and stack trains pulled by huge, modern locomotives do not appear here.  This is the territory of GP9s and RS11s, 40-foot boxcars and reefers, two bay hoppers and small tank cars.

Cars come and go from the BMRR via a mainline connection “northeast” of the BMRR yard.  The power that drops off and picks up cars from the BMRR is of the “0-5-0” variety.
As currently envisioned, the on-line industries include a produce distributor (loaded reefers in/empties out); a small equipment and/or parts manufacturer (box cars in and out in a combination of loads and empties depending on whether materials are coming in and/or finished goods or empty boxcars are moving out); a two-track bulk transfer facility (covered and open hoppers, tank cars and gondolas in and out); and a team track, where almost anything can come or go.  The team track also doubles as the tail for the switchback into the produce distributor.

The lack of structures actually offers an operational benefit.  Different eras and industries can be represented easily by changing out the equipment on the railroad.  My locomotive and car roster includes early and later diesels and car types lettered for a variety of roads.  One week might see Western Maryland BL2s hauling roofwalk-equipped wood reefers and boxcars and riveted tank cars, while another session might have a Western Pacific GP40 with more modern equipment.

Brown Mesa Railroad track plan
The BMRR, with its three industries, team track and yard, allows a lot of action in just two feet by four feet.  This track plan was drawn with Right Track Freeware from Atlas Model Railroad Co. The software is no longer available.

No matter what era is being portrayed by the equipment, the railroad still functions the same.  A typical day on the BMRR will see the crew called early to assemble their train in the BMRR yard.  On any given day, loaded and/or empty cars will be destined for one or more of the on-line industries or the team track, while loads or empties may need to be picked up from some of those same sidings.  In addition, cars may need to be moved from the yard to the mainline interchange and vice-versa.

The crew first will generally assemble a train in the yard of cars to be moved in and out of the various industries as required.  For now, these moves are arbitrarily assigned at the beginning of the shift, but eventually a simple switch list system will be instituted.  Trains always carry a caboose on the BMRR, because I like cabooses, and handling the caboose adds an additional challenge during switching operations.

Upon returning to the yard after switching the industries, the crew will make up another train consisting of cars that need to move to the interchange track that day for pickup.  The train will then head to the interchange, drop the cars to be moved off the branch and pick up any cars that have been left for the BMRR.  Those cars will be returned to the yard for delivery to the BMRR's online industries on the next shift.

Trains are short and speeds are low on the BMRR.  The length of run between the yard and the industrial area or the interchange can be shortened or lengthened by simply having the train travel around the loop as many times as desired.

Small, simple railroads like the BMRR offer many opportunities to the modeler with limited space and time, and even those with plenty of room and all the time in the world can enjoy this type of operation.  This is the perfect size railroad for practicing the various skills a model railroader will need when he or she decides to build that dream pike, and it offers the added benefit that trains can be running quickly, doing what trains are supposed to do:  delivering your customers’ freight!

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Copyright © 2007 Thomas E. Marsh