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Virtual Railroader

Transforming a Model Railroad into a Virtual Railroad
By Brian Eckard

The joy of model railroading is different for everyone involved. Some like the layout planning aspects; others find the building of a layout challenging. Some like train operations, while others find the model building to be their outlet for creativity. 

For me, I enjoy train operations. When I had an operating model railroad layout I was always looking for ways to improve my train operations experience. It simply was not enough for me to watch a train make laps around a loop of track. I find the challenge in shunting cars, keeping schedules, and entertaining a sense of going someplace. 

These challenges caused me to start designing layouts that were point to point so that the trains actually went somewhere—just like the real thing! However, distance was always the main challenge with my model railroads. How do I increase the travel time and still maintain a point to point layout?

The physical space required in any of the modeling gauges was simply not available to me, so I was resigned to accept things as they were, and look into other modeling techniques such as compression and making use of selective scenes to represent a railroad. Those techniques combined with a fast clock can reasonably simulate realistic train operations on most model railroads.

In the 1970s, after Marklin released their new scale called, “Marklin Mini Club” or Z-gauge, I was excited! Finally, somebody had developed a gauge small enough where you could create a large layout with longer travel time, but without all of the space requirements of the larger scales. Back then, the only draw back was that the trains were German, and there was practically no American rolling stock available. Even with that, I started collecting Z-gauge equipment and began to build a European flavored layout.

During the 1980s, when I was living on my own and going to college I went back to N-gauge. On my student’s budget I found that I could no longer afford Z-scale, so I packed it all up and headed for the local hobby shop. There, the owner traded with me and I was able to get enough N-gauge equipment to start my next layout. Unfortunately, that next layout never materialized. 

Time flew by. I graduated, found a job and started my career, and married. There just didn’t seem to be the time or the space to build that next layout. 

In 2001, train simulators entered the market. My first simulator was the Mechanik simulator, which was a DOS-based program. Next, I moved on to BVE, which ran in the Windows environment. In 2001, I moved on to MSTS. 

It wasn’t until MSTS when I returned to creating another layout. My first route for MSTS was the Bath and Hammondsport railroad. I had so much fun with that small route, and it brought back a flood of memories of my model railroading days. I had finally found the medium that worked well with a point to point layout. And, space was no longer an issue. I could create an entire railroad and perform train operations in real time! 

In 2002 I discovered the Trainz railroad simulator. I was really impressed with Trainz. It was easy to use, and its route editor, Surveyor, was a dream to use for creating layouts. The only draw back for me was that there was no way to put DEM data into it, and then accurately place track work and towns in their proper locations since it did not support latitude and longitude coordinates like MSTS.

Those concerns were soon erased when a program named “HOG” was released. Playing around with a mapping software tool used to create topographical maps for HOG (MicroDem) resulted in discovering how to plot town locations on a Trainz map. HOG even supports using Tiger data to place an image on top of the terrain so that you know where towns are located, and where to lay the track. Trainz rapidly became my simulator of choice for creating my layouts.

The Utah and Rocky Mountain Railroad

My favorite layout was one that I modeled in HO gauge. It was called the Utah and Rocky Mountain Railroad. This railroad ran through the fictional towns of Grand Junction, Easton, and Weston. It was located in Utah and went into the mountains. In 2003 while working on a project for my magazine I thought that it would be fun to build a version of the URM as a virtual railroad using the actual DEM based terrain.

The Utah and Rocky Mountain Railroad is a virtual railroad that is based in Salt Lake City. This fictional line runs north from Utah, across Idaho and ends at Spokane, Washington where the U&RM has a terminus with connections to the Seattle, Portland, and Spokane Railroad and the Great Northern providing connections to the Pacific Northwest, and California. The line also runs southeast across Utah into Colorado, terminating at Grand Junction. The railroad’s eastern terminus at Grand Junction connects with the Rio Grande, which provides a connection in Denver to points east.

In 2005, I plotted out on a map where this fictional railroad would run, and downloaded the DEM data to build the line from Salt Lake to Grand Junction. I have decided to build this layout after I finish my Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes project. In my next article, we will take a look at the industries that this fictional railroad will serve. We will also determine the time frame that the layout will model. Stay tuned.

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