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Posted in Articles by Rob Chant. (Last activity on Wednesday, August 11, 2021 at 20:55:45 ADT.)

ARTICLE: Designing the HO-Scale Pennsylvania Shortline Terminal for Robert (Robin) Mountenay

Introduction by Robert (Robin) Mountenay

As a Lutheran pastor I've lived my adult life in parsonages-church-owned homes. When I retire in the near future, I'll suddenly be responsible for my own housing. In anticipation of that day, my wife and I recently bought a house in south-central Pennsylvania, a three hour drive from our current home in North Jersey.

One of the many attractions in our new house is a large finished basement. We've longed for an area in which both of us can pursue our hobbies-trains and ukuleles for me; sewing and weaving for her. Although there are several back rooms that will accommodate a work bench, paint booth, tool storage, and the various accoutrements belonging to Debbie, I'm planning to build a new layout along two walls of the family room. The layout will share space with a fireplace, living area, bar (we Lutherans are not necessarily teetotalers; besides, it came with the house!), book shelves, and even a second dining area. Because I love both my wife's company and small layouts, I'm happy to share the space.

This won't be the first time I'll build a layout in a living area: my original (nearly) 4'x6' Merkiomen Branch sat proudly in the living room of our Greensburg, PA parsonage back in the 1990s and my Very Short Shortline has lived in the family room of our current home for at least five years. When a layout is nicely finished-backdrops, fascia, furniture quality benchwork, and unobtrusive but adequate lighting-it can blend in well with its surroundings.

While my much-loved 4'x8'+ Merkiomen Valley Branch, might have been shoe-horned into our new digs, I've made the painful decision to either scrap or sell it. The Merk is nearly 15 years old, and, although I've continued to revise, rebuild, and improve it even in recent months, I'm ready for something new. I won't be without a layout during the transition; in fact, I'll have two or three, depending on how you count. The HO standard gauge Very Short Shortline, and the HOn30 siblings, Rock of Ages Aggregates, and Rock Hill Roundy (which are designed to connect to one another), should easily make the trip to PA. That's one of the beauties of small and micro layouts!

The new layout has been designed by my Facebook friend and our resident track planning guru, Rob Chant. I'd like once more to follow a branchline or shortline theme in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but this time I'd like to build a point-to-point layout with plenty of operational possibilities. I gave Rob the measurements of my space, we discussed my "givens and druthers," and my favorite Canadian letter carrier quickly came up with yet another masterpiece.

Track Plan for Pennsylvania Shortline Terminal:

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I've always been fascinated with wyes, so Rob gave me one. Last year he designed a beautiful layout based on Pennsylvania's diminutive Stewartstown Railroad in its eponymous borough. A wye still figures prominently in the Stewartstown's operations. Since last year's plan was too big for my new space, Rob developed a similar plan that I like even more.

A wye is nestled in the corner, providing an opportunity to turn locomotives and single ended rolling stock (i.e.: an old fashioned automobile carrying boxcar with an end door). The trackage has a nice organic sweep to it, and there are plenty of car spots for the local freight to serve. Rob was nice enough to work in several structures I've built over the years, as well as some new projects for me to tackle in retirement (structures are one of my favorite aspects of the hobby). The industries are all typical of what was found in small town Pennsylvania in the 1950s.

Rob was also aware of my torn allegiances and continuing indecision. I'm a fan of the Reading Company, as well as the Pennsylvania Railroad, and I have equipment from both lines. With that in mind, Rob also devised a very clever scheme that enables me to model both the RDG and the PRR. I'm also a big fan of shortlines, especially farmer's railroads like Pennsylvania's Stewartstown and the Strasburg before it began hauling tourists.

The enginehouse is reminiscent of the one that still protects equipment on the Stewartstown, and as I mentioned earlier, the trackplan, especially the prominent wye, recalls that shortline's hometown terminal. Unlike the prototype, however, Rob included a passing siding or runaround track. The Stewartstown uses its wye as a runaround, but Mr. Chant wisely established a much longer two-ended siding, making for longer trains and smoother operations.

Retirement's never looked better than it does now: I can't wait for Rob's plan to start taking shape!

Overview of the layout by Robert (Rob) Chant - Part I


After listening to Robin's goals for his layout, it was obvious that he wanted a design that tried to capture the look and feel of an end-of-line branchline station. So, I felt his aim leaned more towards a relaxed operating session, than a complex switching puzzle that filled the shelves with track.

Anyone that really knows the way I design a layout, will realize that I prefer to keep track to a minimum and leave a lot of room for scenery. This preference comes from my love of the Maine two-footers, where the stations along these narrow gauge lines usually only had just enough track to get the job done, and no more.

After studying some of the track schematics for these lines, it took a great deal of thinking to understand how the switching moves were accomplished. Sometimes, it even seemed that there was just not enough track available, but eventually I determined how it was done with the minimum track that was available to the train crew.

I always keep this in mind when designing a new layout, then work out an operating scheme to ensure I included the bare minimum of track needed to served the online customers. Then by using my CAD software, I can "virtual" run an op-session to know that the design would work as planned.


The operating requirements for Robin's layout fall in the intermediate category, and there are a few switching "wrinkles" built-in that are meant to lengthen an op-session. By using a few simple tricks, we can slow down the pace of switching cars between the passing track, and the various industries.

The first "wrinkle" is the use of multiple companies on a single track, which I am going to label the "Merchant Row" track to make it easier to identify. While I show three small industries on this track, Robin may opt for two slightly larger structures, or may choose to add a single big customer. Whatever Robin decides, this track should have multiple switching spots along its length, and each car spot should be used for a single type of car or commodity.

Doing so, requires that our switch crew now has to sort incoming cars in proper order before they are delivered to Merchant Row. And if a railcar is not ready for pick-up on that track, the switch crew might have to move the car before it can spot another one further down the spur, then re-spot it. This adds another "wrinkle" to the op-session, and slows the switching crew down.

You may also have noticed that another complication interferes with the Merchant Row track because the supply company (housed in an abandoned station on the old mainline) is positioned on the lead to this track. If there is a car being unloaded at this industry that cannot be moved even temporarily, it will reduce the length of the cut we can deliver to Merchant Row. This will slow things down because there may only be room on the switch lead for just the loco and a single car.

Even if the car spotted at the supply company can be moved, the crew will have to find a place so it can be stored temporarily off-spot. Then once the switching is completed on Merchant Row, the car will have to be retrieved then re-spotted at the supply company.

I also have the scrap yard on a switch-back which will require both a run-around move, and an extra backing up move to complete the switching. While there has been some chatter (even from real railroaders) on the removal of such "switch-back" moves from layout design because switch crews hated them, I was never one to promote that idea.

First off, switch-backs were, and still are used on the prototype. (How could a prototype switch crew hate them if they never existed?) And yes, they are probably considered an annoyance because they slowed down prototype switching, but that's exactly why we should not eliminate them. The whole point of these "wrinkles" is to do exactly that; slow down your op-session. So, while I will say that switch-backs should be used in moderation, they shouldn't be abolished entirely.

Another "wrinkle" is actually just a scenery feature, and it is something I use in many of my designs to slow down the pace, and add some extra moves. You will see that a roadway (Railroad Avenue) intersects the passing track, which will require that a standing cut of cars must be split so the crossing is not blocked for an extended period of time.

This is a everyday "wrinkle" that crops up even on the prototype. Sometimes it becomes such of an annoyance the prototype railway will even block the road with barriers, and abandon the level crossing. And if Robin decides that the modeled crossing is causing too many headaches, he can also opt to abandon the crossing as well, or just pass some city by-law that allows the crossing to be blocked for longer periods of time.

While not really an added "wrinkle," the number of incoming cars to switch will have the biggest impact on the length of the op-session. I have virtually worked an op-sessions on the layout using 3rd PlanIt with trains lengths from five to nine cars, plus the loco and a caboose. Five cars are relatively easy to switch, but nine incoming cars is quite a challenge. So I would suggest a normal op-session deal with six or seven incoming cars.

There is one other "wrinkle" that I always try to add, and it is something that happens daily on the prototype railroads, but it seems many operators try to avoid it when planning operations on a layout. Many times, online industries have more incoming carloads than can be stored on their premises until the cars can be unloaded. When an industry is over-capacity, these incoming cars must be stored somewhere nearby until a suitable spot for either loading or unloading becomes free on the customer's track.

When this happens, the car is said to be stored "off-spot" and the switch crew makes a note of where the car is stored, and the customer where it must go. It is not necessarily the same switch crew that will make the final moved from the "off-spot" location, to the proper spot at the industry.

Some traffic generating methods will either restrict or prevent new movements of traffic when there is not enough track capacity on the customers track, so cars never have to be stored off-spot. Since our small layouts have so little extra capacity, this may not be a bad thing, since finding a place to temporarily store a car can sometimes be frustrating.

However, I always liked the extra challenge of dealing with off-spot cars, so I like to include that option in any traffic generating method I decide to use on a layout. Since Robin is planning to use a "Car Card" system to generate traffic, he will no doubt also have to deal with "off-spot" cars as well. Car Card systems deal with that "wrinkle" quite easily, but Robin may have to fine-tune to ensure there is a correct balance of when the "off-spot" situation occurs, if it becomes too overwhelming.

Overall 3D Renderings:

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Close-Up 3D Renderings:

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Overview of the layout by Robert (Rob) Chant - Part 2


Now that I have covered the basic design of Robin's layout, in this second part I will concentrate on the prep work needed for an operating session. I will also cover the industries included on the layout, the typical shipments that could be model, and touch on how Robin plans to generate traffic for his model industries. A typical day on the railroad will also be covered, along with presenting the backstory that ties all this together so Robin can run both the Reading Company and the Pennsylvania Railroad on his layout.


The first thing that must be determined for any traffic generating system is what each industry on the layout normally receives and ships, and the most common type of car used for the shipment. The biggest shipper in town is the furniture factory which receives lumber in box cars and on flat cars, and may receive more than one lumber load per day. It also receives pallets in box cars and gondolas. Equipment, supplies, cardboard boxes, and metal banding also comes in occasionally via box cars. The company also receives coal for its steam generators that is unloaded at the site using a conveyor system. Finished furniture is shipped out in box cars, and scrap wood is shipped out in either box cars or gondolas.

Since the team track serves all off-line industries in town, it can pretty much ship or receive any type of product. I like the idea of a local lumber company receiving lumber, bagged cement, supplies and equipment in box cars. Additional lumber and bigger equipment would also come in on flat cars. Occasional loads of pipes and structural steel could arrive on flat cars, or in gondolas. Damaged equipment being shipped out for repair could go out on flat cars. As I mentioned, the variety and types of shipment to and from this track is pretty much endless.

The scrap yard could receive up to three empty gondolas per day to ship out scrap iron and steel. The freight house both ships and receives less-than-car-load (LCL) freight in box cars, and may also receive equipment on flat cars via its loading dock. The feed mill receives bulk grain and bagged feed in box cars, and also equipment and supplies the same way.

The cannery receives tin cans and cardboard boxes in box cars, and ships out canned goods in both box cars and the occasional reefer when the product needs refrigeration. The produce company receives produce (fruits and vegetables) in reefer cars, and cardboard boxes and packaging material in box cars. Pallets are also received in box cars and gondolas. During the harvest season, the company also ships out locally grown fruits, such as apples.

The supply company receives small equipment in box cars, and bigger equipment on flat cars. It also receives both electrical and building supplies in box cars. The oil depot receives fuel oil in tank cars, and packaged grease, boxed oil, and equipment and supplies in box cars. The coal trestle receives coal in hopper cars.


Now that we have a general idea of the traffic that could ply the rails, we have to have a way to make sense of it all. There are many simple methods of traffic generation that could be used on the layout, from rolling dice, scenario cards, car cards and waybills, or some sort of computer generated switch list. Most are very easy to set-up, and all will have the same results: a means to randomly generate traffic which is a worthy goal on any layout, even a small one.

As I mentioned, Robin is thinking about using a Car Card & Waybill system for his layout, and I think that is a very good choice for him. Of course with my computer background, I always lean more towards computerized swicthlists, and one of my favorite traffic generators for small layouts is a spreadsheet originally created by Mike Rosenberg with additions from Dave Husman.

I have used car cards and waybills in the past, and it is a very flexible system that is relatively easy to set-up, but more importantly, it is easy to maintain once the initial preparation work is done. A big bonus is that it is pretty much self-correcting if something gets out of whack on a layout.

There are also ways that the Car Card & Waybill system can be custom tailored to almost any situation, while computerize traffic generators tend to be a little less flexible. The hobby press has done such a fantastic job of explaining how car cards and waybills system work that there is really nothing more that I can add that hasn't already be said.


Now that we have all that background information, it is time to take a look at a typical day on the layout for our switch crew. Although Robin hasn't decide on any locations or company names yet, I am going to call our little town Highland Junction, and I will also add fictional company and crew names to my story.

Robin was also trying to decide whether he was going to model the Reading or the Pennsylvania Railroad and I designed the layout so he could model either one, or both. My narrative below will outline the concocted backstory that makes the premise possible.


It is 7:58AM on Monday, August 18, 1958, and the early morning quiet of Highland Junction is broken by the distant blast of a diesel horn echoing off the surrounding low, lush hills. The residents of this laid back Pennsylvania hamlet know the first train of the day has just reached the town limits, and is about to cross Sterling Avenue on the outskirts of town. Once on the other side of this level crossing, the crew will encounter the "Yard Limit" sign, and will slow down to just under 10MPH as the train snakes its way through town.

This same scene has played out for many years, in this now sleepy little mill town which was once an important junction and interchange point on two major railroads. Both the Reading Company, and the Pennsylvania Railroad had mainlines through town which saw both mainline passenger and freight trains on an almost hourly basis.

That was only ten short years ago in 1948, but since then traffic levels have dwindled on both railroads, which made the two competing mainlines through town redundant and hard to justify. In 1949, the PRR struck a 99-year deal with the Reading for running rights on its tracks, which by then had been reduced to secondary mainline status.

By 1952, further reductions in traffic and the structural failure of a nearby bridge resulted in the abandonment of a significant portion of the tracks north of Highland Junction. Now that through traffic was no longer possible, the line was further reduced to branch line status. At this time, both the Reading and the PRR were each running daily locals to serve their customers along the line, which now ended less than ten miles north of the junction wye.

By 1955, the Reading Company wanted out of the 99-year deal it made with the PRR, since the circumstances on the line had changed so drastically. After some heated negotiations, a new agreement between the two railroads was signed in 1956. This new deal saw the line being operated as the jointly owned Pennsylvania Shortline Terminal Railroad. Maintenance costs were shared equally between the two companies, and the needed motive power and train crews were provided by both the PRR and RDG.

Over the next few years, traffic levels on the line actually took a slight up swing. There had been a big building boom in the area after Bethlehem Steel opened a new iron mine not far from town. Presently, the town is starting to see an influx of new miners, and new houses along with two new churches are being built to support the expanding population.

A new furniture factory was also built in Highland Junction by the Patterson brothers, and is now operating at almost full capacity. Shipments of scrap iron and steel from Hashem's scrap yard have been on the increase as well. The newest customer for the railroad is the Burns Supply and Equipment Company, which just set up shop in the vacant PRR station only six months ago.

Olson's Lumber Company, which is an off-line customer served via the team track, has also been receiving its fair share of incoming lumber loads as well. Most of the other needed building material, such as bricks, cement, and roofing shingles for the new construction in town is being handled through this family run business located on Centreville Road.

The morning local #302 passes the Patterson Bros. Furniture Company at 8:07AM with RDG Baldwin AS-16 #534 leading a short consist of six cars with engineer Murray Dickson at the throttle. Now running at less than 5MPH, engineer Dickson starts applying the brakes to stop his train just across from the town's two-story brick station. Murray stays on the mainline, and slowly crawls forward until the rear platform of his cabin car just clears Factory Road. The trains comes to a halt with the clanging sound of Janney couplers smashing together.

Even before the train had come to a complete stop, conductor John "Skinny" Skinner drops down from the train to have a chat with Station Agent Arthur "Arty" Squires about work to be done in town that morning. While "Skinny" is at the station, engineer Dickson, and the rest of the crew break the train in two sections so Railroad Ave. won't be blocked while they are performing their switching duties.

After the train is in two sections, engineer Dickson runs his Baldwin down the passing track in front of the station. Once at the rear of the train, he couples onto the caboose, then pushes it down the passing track, to place it on one the tail track of the wye so it is out of the way. Conductor Skinner jumps onboard the locomotive with a handful of waybills, just as the train passes the station.

Once the caboose is safely stored, engineer Dickson with his conductor onboard, runs the AS-16 down the old PRR mainline to the Burns Supply & Equipment Company that is now located in the abandoned PRR one-story station. There is a box car still being unloaded, but the train crew has to move it temporarily to make it easier to switch the merchant row track. There is just enough room on the Southside Coal & Oil Company spur to store the box car in the clear.

Once completed, Conductor Skinner informs his crew what cars are ready for pick-up on the merchant row track, and which cars will stay. It takes the switch crew about 30 minutes to remove an out bound loaded reefer from Jenkins Canning Company, and an empty box car from Wayne's Feed & Seed. There was another reefer still being unloaded at the H&H Produce Company, so that was left on the merchant row track, but it was not re-spotted at its proper place quite yet.

Engineer Murray Dickson runs the Baldwin up the mainline, pushing the loaded reefer and empty box car in front of him. He pushes the two cars up the east leg of the wye and couples them to the caboose still sitting there. The crew then uncouples the diesel, and Murray heads back down the wye.

Engineer Dickson then heads back to the front of the train and starts sorting out the in-bound cars going to the merchant row track. Today, there is only one box car of bulk grain billed to Wayne's Feed & Seed Company. It isn't long before the train crew has the grain car spotted at Wayne's Feed, and the reefer re-spotted at the produce company.

Now that the merchant row track has been worked, Engineer Dickson and his crew re-spot the box car at Burns Supply, so unloading can continue there as well. The crew also checks with the foreman at the Southside Coal & Oil Company. They are informed that there was no work to be done, so that company doesn't have to be switched this morning. There is a tank car that is almost unloaded, but that work will probably be performed by the afternoon local which arrives in town any time after 4:00PM today.

Engineer Dickson then runs the Baldwin back up the mainline to the train, knowing the next industries to switch are the team track and Hashem's Scrap yard. Both the team track and the scrap yard were once spurs off the track that used to be PRR's mainline headed west out of town, which now just serves as an industry lead.

Conductor Skinner informs his crew that there is an incoming box car load of lumber billed to Olson's Lumber Company headed for the team track, and there is also an empty gondola going to Hashem's. "Skinny" also tells the crew that there are two loaded gondolas at Hashem's Scrap yard, and an empty box car on the team track that must be picked-up.

The crew sorts through the train to get the loaded box car of lumber and the empty gondola. Since Hashem's Scrap is on a switchback, the crew must also perform a run around move to get the gondola on the correct end of the locomotive for spotting.
The crew then heads down the old mainline towards the supply company again with the diesel in the middle of the box car of lumber and the empty gondola. When the train is clear of the switch to the team track, Engineer Dickson reverses direction and heads up the old PRR mainline.

Once at the team track, Engineer Dickson couples to the outbound empty box car and drags it back to just past the switch for the engine house. The crew stores the empty box car on the unused lead to the old engine house, since the crew knows that Patterson Bros. Furniture Company will be looking for empties for out-going shipments soon enough.

The crew then pushes the loaded box car back to the team track where it is set-out. It takes about another 20 minutes for the crew to pick-up the two loads of scrap metal, and spot the empty gondola at Hashem's Scrap Yard.

Once completed, the crew backs down to the mainline with the locomotive pushing the two loaded gondolas. The crew drops the two loaded gondolas on the mainline just before Burns Supply Company, then Engineer Dickson runs the Baldwin back up the mainline towards the station.

The only two companies left to switch this morning are the freight house and the furniture factory. There is one box car of LCL freight headed to the freight house, where there is an empty flat car that must be pick-up from the loading dock. There are two box car loads of lumber headed to the furniture factory this morning. The factory also has a box car load of finished furniture and a gondola load of scrap wood being shipped out. It takes almost an hour for the crew to make all the necessary moves to switch both the furniture factory and the freight house.

Since it is now time start thinking about building the outbound train, the three outgoing cars from the factory and freight house are set-out on the passing track. Once in place, the crew backs down the mainline and grabs the two loaded gondolas and takes them pass the furniture factory on the mainline, then tacks them on the west end of the cut of cars.

The crew then retrieves the loaded reefer, the empty box car, and the cabin car from the east leg of the wye. After a bit of shuffling, the crew first tacks the reefer and box car onto the east end of the cut, then the caboose. While Conductor Skinner hops on board the cabin car to catch up on his paper work, Engineer Dickson turns the Baldwin on the wye then runs to the front of the train on the mainline.

It's now just before lunch time, so the crew decides to "go for beans" before proceeding with their return trip. Before they go to Janie's dinner, which has been a favorite for many years, the crew separates the train again so Railroad Ave. is not blocked. After a short meal, the crew reassembles the train, and the air is pumped up.

After about 15 minutes, the train is ready for the westbound trip now as #303. Once the brakes are checked and released, Murray Dickson whistles off with two shorts blasts of the horn, then slowly the train proceeds westward out of town. The clanging of the bell can be heard echoing off the wooded hills of the narrow valley, and the ringing continues until the train is safely over Factory Road. As #303 heads out of town, a peace settles over Highland Junction once again.

In less than four hours the silence that just settled over the valley will once again be shattered by the sound of a distant horn, as afternoon local #306 rolls into town. This time it could be powered by a Pennsy Baldwin DS 4-4-1000 (BS10) or DS 4-4-660 (BS6), or an EMD GP-7 or a GP-9, or an Alco RS-3s.

Final Word by Robert (Robin) Mountenay

As you can imagine, I'm thrilled that Rob's plan is not only aesthetically pleasing but operational satisfying. He very thoughtfully incorporated structures that are typical of southeastern Pennsylvania, some of which I've already constructed. It's also nice to be able to operate with equipment I've built or collected over the years.

It's been almost forty years since I built my first "serious" layout (I built some stuff as a kid that doesn't count), but the theme - Pennsylvania branchline railroading - remains the same. However, after nearly 15 years of operating a continuous-running pike (it was often too easy to resort to caboose-chasing), a well-designed switching layout will be a welcome change.

It will very likely be a year or more before I'll start building the layout, but preparations have already begun. In addition to some structures and filling stock, we've begun preparing the space while on brief but productive visits to our future home. Undoubtedly, I'll make some minor changes to Rob's exquisite design (perhaps to my peril), but, as contractors have said about our "new" old (1967) house - the bones are great. I'm grateful to Rob for carefully listening to my givens and druthers and coming up with this masterpiece. I look forward to attempting to do the plan justice.

TAGS: Staging Options: Cassette Staging, Layout Size: Compact Layouts, Theme: End of Line Station, Theme: Single Station / Town, USA (States): Pennsylvania, American Railways: Pennsylvania Railroad, American Railways: Reading Company

User Comments:

Posted by Ryan P Sabo on Wednesday, March 04, 2020 at 12:02:49 PM.

This is so much beyond a track plan. This is a layout design. The track plan and industries are just the stage for trains... and Rob and Robin have created something special. The backstory, the operations plan, the play-by-play. It's rare that something comes all tied up with a nice bow. And while I really love the similar Stewartstown-based layout, I feel that this design is better in many ways. I especially like the 'clean' wye.

If Robin has room for one, I'd highly suggest a 3- or 4- track traverser with a turntable (or at least an escape track) on the far end. You could continuously run the morning and afternoon trains without much reset.

I hope this layout comes to life and has an online presence so that I can follow along!

Well done, both of yas!

(...who loves all things Pennsylvania...)

Posted by Dennis Cox on Thursday, March 05, 2020 at 5:03:54 PM.

I have read through the article twice and it is possible I missed it but what is the depth of the shelves? Looks to be less than 24 inches.

Posted by Robert Chant on Thursday, March 05, 2020 at 8:32:12 PM.

@Ryan ... thanks for the wonderful comments ... I also like how the backstory adds so much depth to the layout and offers insight on how I see it being operated. Since this was Robin's first attempt at a formal operating scheme I wanted to start him off on the right foot. After reading my narrative he told me that he could easily see how "a-day-on-the-railway" should work. As for staging ... Robin had room for a short staging cassette at the west end of town by the furniture factory ... IIRC it could be up to 24 inches in length.

Posted by Robert Chant on Thursday, March 05, 2020 at 8:58:44 PM.

@Dennis ... the shelves are 18" wide ... I really should have mentioned that in the write-up.

Posted by Rob Chant on Wednesday, August 11, 2021 at 8:55:45 PM.

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