About the layout

Every change is an improvement (I like to think…)

Modelling the Maine Central Rockland Branch

Model plan

He’s a brave soul who lives on the east coast and models the Union Pacific!

This is a quote by Paul Dolkos from Model Railroader Magazine.

I live in Basel, Switzerland – and model the Maine Central Railroad. I guess this makes me a “brave soul” too. What Dolkos meant: How can you (halfway) accurately model something that is very, very far away?

Well. Probably the fellow modeler underestimated the possibilities of the World Wide Web, or was not farsighted enough to see its potential, because this quote is quite old—I guess I read it in the mid 90s. Nowadays you can check out almost every corner of the world thanks to Google Maps and such. And day by day more information is uploaded so eventually you’ll find exactly what you are looking for: Where exactly was that freight house and what did it look like? How many tracks were in that yard in 1947?

And then I cheated, too. In 1994 I bought a house in Maine, relatively close to the tracks of the old Rockland Branch of the MEC. Once in a while I still hear a train whistle when I’m there. (To assume I bought the house there because of my model railroad is preposterous…)

How it started

When I started out with my current layout it looked much different than it does today. I took a very slow approach to my “Rockland Branch” as it presents itself today, with many wrong turns, bad ideas, and lessons learned. But it all happened in the same room and I’ll try to explain what I changed and why.

I rented the room in downtown Basel on the 4th subfloor of a commercial building in 1996. It measures 23 x 17 feet. Since this room originally was devised as an atomic bomb shelter all the walls and the ceiling are massive, steel reinforced concrete. Not ideal for drilling holes, I can tell you…

The original layout was a mishmash. I had moved segments from my former layout to my new “empire”. At least I knew what I wanted: The Rockland Branch. But I thought I’d improvise. Meaning: I’d combine existing pieces with new ones. There were a few key scenes I wanted to include: The long bridge over the George River at Thomaston, the yard in Rockland, maybe Bath. I aimed for a mushroom design inspired by Joe Fugate articles about his Siskiyou Line layout.

I failed. What bothered me first was the discrepancy between “true” scenes – in the sense of prototypical – and fantasy arrangements. Mainly the yard in Rockland and the buildings there looked off. What the heck was the “Flour Mill” from Walthers doing there???

The first problems

Radical changes came soon enough. The mushroom was crushed. Most of the old layout elements had to go. In the meantime I had gathered new information about the track arrangements at Rockland Harbor in the early decades of the 20th century.
Which lead to the following concept. Three distinctive scenes at eye level:

  • The railroad near Thomaston
  • Rockland Yard
  • Rockland Harbor

The clue was: I would model Rockland Harbor by night! With blue light, lots of water and by assuming that the MEC still served industries there in the late 60s.

On top of that I came up with the brilliant idea, to try not only night-modelling but winter as well. Again I failed. Winter modelling in a busy area where a lot of switching and maneuvers are daily business is a no-go. I gave up on this soon after. He’s a brave soul who…

The scenic area around Thomaston disappeared next. I moved this part of the layout into the room because it was too close to a wall.

Eventually I had found the final footprint of the layout – so I thought. And I included a small scene – Bath, Maine – into the lower level. This lower part of the layout was connected by an 8-tier helix to the upper one.

Up to this point I had opted for a specific time period: The late 60s, early 70s. Then Bachmann came out with the 2-8-0 and Life-Like with the 0-6-0, both suitable for the MEC and the Rockland Branch.

For the first time it was the hobby industry which influenced my concept and my railroad. I decided to backdate to the transition era. The harvest yellow diesels were shelved. The too-modern box cars as well. But no other major changes were necessary, except for the addition of a coaling station and a water tower.

Then came September 2013. One sunny morning while in Maine I decided to go train chasing. I followed a Maine Eastern tourist train from Wiscasset to Rockland. At the Rockland Station – now a fine restaurant and pub – I discovered several photos on the wall. Two caught my close attention. They showed the area around Rockland Station in 1937. Till then, I had only modelled Rockland Yard and Rockland Harbor.

It took me almost a year to finally understand that time had come to make big changes again:

  • The Harbor area had to go
  • “Bath” too
  • No more helix – instead two separate railroads
  • Where the harbor had been Rockland Station would go

By separating the upper and the lower level I could also have the best of two worlds era-wise. The upper level now represents Rockland in 1954. With steam. With passenger trains. With a track configuration very similar to the real one.

The lower level now is an almost reduced to the max switching layout. It represents in its core Yard 8 of the Portland Terminal Company (a joint business by MEC and B&M). The former staging tracks now function as different destinations served by the PTC (Rigby, Yard 7, Westbrook). No scenery, no frills, no automatic switch machines. Peco track, no ballast. Nothing. Except for one scene: Commercial Street in Portland 1968: Street running, beautiful old brick buildings and an interesting exchange between PTC and the Canadian National (Grand Trunk, to be more precise.) And the harvest yellow GP 7 are back in business!!

Will this be it for this layout and this modeler?

He’s a brave soul who makes such promises.