Rochester Subway layout: Bowser field trip takes us from roundy to railroad.

There will be a postcard today, just a little later than usual. In the meanwhile, an update on my N-Scale interpretation of the Rochester Subway (see previous posts of July 20, July 27 and Sept. 20).

Confined to a 2-by-4-foot table, the project I am working on is what some might call a “micro layout.” Since I am running trolley cars this is less of a constraint than it would be, say, for passenger railroad trains or mainline freight operations. Make no mistake, though, it is a constraint — albeit one which poses some fun challenges.

As this British site points out, most layouts fall into two basic types: Oval and straight. Since a straight (switching or point-to-point) layout wouldn’t be very practical for single-ended trolley cars, I’ve opted for an oval to allow effective single-ended operation and the enjoyment of watching car after car glide through the main station as one might see on a real transit line. Still, a plain circle of track with no switches quickly grows tiresome and offers little variety or possibility for car movements onto and off the main line.

I’ve been meaning to do something about that; on Tuesday I finally did.

Not having much enthusiasm for a mass soldering project or attempting to hack up a plastic table to bury switch motors (‘points’ to the Brits), I’ve opted to build using more expensive — but hopefully more convenient — modular track with molded ballast and (mostly) foolproof non-solder rail joiners. My chosen brand is Kato Unitrack. It is more costly than the U.S. brands of modular track and mostly stocked only by elite hobby shops. Still, the quality is top-notch and it is easier to obtain in North America than the competing Tomix products (which have become the darling of some trolley fans thanks to their tight radius pieces which mimic streetcar trackage). Since I am planning a quasi rapid transit line, tight street trackage isn’t necessary. I also don’t want to have to rely on Japanese mail order for key components. Still, take a look the layouts some trolley modelers have created with Tomix track in what has become a promising traction niche.

Picturesque PA: Headed home to Scranton on Interstate 80 eastbound in southern Luzerne County.

With Kato track unavailable at my local shops, and since Tuesday was a picture-perfect October day well suited to a road trip, I went shopping for a Kato expansion set on my own rather than buying online. Destination? Montoursville, Pennsylvania: Home of the famous English’s Model Railroad Supply, the factory shop connected with popular model railroad manufacturer Bowser Trains. Bowser is well known to generations of trolley fans for its HO models, ranging from its classic, indestructible metal models to the more recent (and amazingly realistic) San Francisco F-Line PCCs. Among my own HO collection is this metal Bowser PCC, which I purchased in 2007 for finishing as a SEPTA GOH car. Bowser’s hearty 1999-model updated mechanisms have gained international popularity as motive power for a diverse spectrum of traction models. Individuals and even other companies have created body shells expressly designed for use with Bowser’s motors, trucks and various chassis types. That, however, is in the HO world; my current project is in N scale, and so Tuesday’s trip was about visiting a well-stocked model railroad shop that just happens to be an important player in HO traction.

It was worth the 100-plus mile trip through eastern Pennsylvania hills beginning to blaze with fall color. The factory and shop are found in unassuming industrial buildings on a back street at the edge of this Williamsport suburb. Interestingly, the neighborhood around Bowser has more of a country feel than suburban, with characteristic Pennsylvania hills rising up at the town’s edge, looming over industrial and agricultural businesses a few blocks off the main road. Yet all of this is a few minutes’ drive from the regional airport, a huge shopping mall and big box plazas. It was a quintessential slice of our changing rural America. 

The shop was well stocked and the staff very helpful, though I didn’t stay too long — my wallet was constantly reminding me that this was a focused mission with specific N scale products as the objective, not spending an entire paycheck on dream items in two scales! I must say, though, it was (amazingly) the first time I’ve seen Bowser’s F-Line PCCs in person, and they are impressive indeed. 

Besides, after a quick lunch I wanted to rush home to start laying out the components of my new Kato V3 Rail Yard Switching Track Set. My tidy oval and orderly shells of buildings in progress are now, temporarily, a mess amid trolleys, wire and all the other debris of a railway under construction.

It's a bit of a mess at the moment, but my N scale Rochester Subway micro layout has now gained switches to permit more interesting and complex operation. The OO scale London Routemaster bus at upper right is temporarily in use to carry wires over the layout's main line.

The good news? A three-car layout plan which will allow something that feels like realistic operation. While I won’t have to dig into the plastic to install switch motors, I will, of course, have to drill a few strategic holes to thread the wiring for the Kato switches. Hmm. I think I’m going to have to borrow a drill.

This is going to be fun!

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