The Story of My Model Railroad,
The HO scale Utopia Northern

My previous model railroad was the latest reincarnation of the HO layout  I named the Utopia Northern Railroad. It was loosely based on the Rock Point and Coast RR that appeared in print in 1981 in Track Planning Ideas from Model Railroader (Model Railroad Handbook No. 15).

I posted a photo record of the layout at UNRR photos 

Here's a video of Train 19 as an introduction to the description of my model railroad, the UNRR.

Here is a schematic of the layout (December, 2009). This was drawn by Martin Alborough, one of my Wednesday night operators and a fellow member of the Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club (NMR).

UNRR track diagram.
The narrow gauge switchback from
Collings Woods towards North Point is not shown.
HO track diagram

The original layout was designed by a Robert J. Lutz. It was a point-to-point layout with a common turntable serving both ends of the system. The two major towns are separated by a central divider. I kept his convention by naming my two cities South Point and North Point.

model railroad city north pointThe city at North Point
model railroad yardSouth Point yard and city centre
model train yard south pointThe industrial side of South Point

My model railroad had the other end of the run terminating at South Point. 

North Point and South Point shared a common backdrop divider. The cities shared a common turntable that was located in South Point and was accessed by a track passing through Five Star Manufacturing.

model railroad wilson turntableWilson turntable at South Point

Here is a photo of Five Star Manufacturing at North Point with the siding that passes through the backdrop to the turntable at South Point. It is not used during operating sessions except in an emergency to pass locomotives to the other terminal.

freelanced model railroad factoryFreelanced Five Star Manufacturing

Lots of action in a 30' x 20' layout room

model railroad city modellingSouth Point Downtown

The Utopia Northern also loops around the walls and has a central peninsula for the two cities to back onto each other. A major difference from the original design was that the Utopia Northern had a level underneath the cities that I call Underhill South and Underhill North. The hidden staging yard was in the center of the run between the two cities at Underhill North. There was also a return loop that took trains from Underhill North to Fort Eerie and back to Underhill North.

model railroad hidden staging yardHidden staging at Underhill
model railroad swing gate entrance2-level swing gate entrance

The entrance to the layout was through a swinging gate. Tracks crossed the gap on two levels. A slow order kept trains at a crawl. There ere operating signals at both ends but no electrical cut-out to warn if the tracks were not aligned. This was on the "to do" list when the layout was dismantled. Operators needed to be careful to inspect the alignment before crossing. Nothing ever hit the floor!

Utopia was the major division point 

Past the swing gate, between Underhill North and South Point, was another major town called Utopia. This connected to East Utopia which was the interchange yard for all cars moving back and forth between Canada. 

East Utopia had been designed to free-mo standards and was on castors to faciliate access to a storage closet.  Cars for Canadian Pacific went to the front side, cars for Canadian National connections went to the rear tracks. The centre tracks were for interchange.

There was a wye between East Utopia and Mintwood.  All classification and blocking was done at Utopia.  The yard at Utopia was revised in November, 2009 to accommodate this.

Cars for South Point from Endaline had to go to Utopia to be back-hauled on other trains. Cars from North Point and Underhill South and North also had to go to Utopia and be back-hauled to Mintwood and Port Feron. There was no runaround track at Mintwood. Port Feron was a small dual-guage yard HO and HON3). While there was a runaround track it could only accommodate one car or locomotive. 

This all made for some challenging action. We operated all freights as extras. In December, 2009 we introduced several passenger trains, a coal drag and a through freight on schedules. The fast clock ran at 4:1 ratio (one hour of scale time to 15 minutes of real time). The operators had to clear the main at specific times so as not to delay the higher class trains.

Here's a video of East Utopia to Utopia Yard as we follow a CN transfer run from the CN interchange tracks at East Utopia. 

atlas rs3 models at utopiaAtlas RS-3s idle at Utopia

Parts of these bolted together semi-modules are 30 years old. They contained everything but the kitchen sink. Codes 100, 83, 70 and 55. Brass and nickel silver rail. Shinohara, Peco, Atlas and handmade turnouts, manual throws, snap-action twin coil switch machines of various vintage, and a collection of buildings from scratchbuilt to kits and kitbashes.

This was a favorite industrial switching area that could keep operators busy all evening. Plus mainline trains had to pass through in both directions because Utopia was the centerpiece of the railroad. 

I describe the sound installations in the DCC section. To see how I installed a sound decoder in an older Atlas RS3, reviewAtlas RS-3 sound installationDecoder installations in older engines with narrow bodies can be quite a challenge.

freemo track junctionWye junction to freemo section

The track from the left took you to Utopia East. I have more photos and an explanation of the free-mo concept on another page. There was a wye junction between Utopia East, Mintwood and Underhill North. This area was wired and connected to the main layout with trailer hitch plugs. Two 1" dowels were used to line it up. Ballasting, buildings and scenery followed later.

model railroad fishing harbourBlueshores harbour

Traveling in the opposite direction, Utopia West continued past Blueshores harbour and on through Valleyview to Youngstown and Endaline.Norm's Landing and the associated buildings are Campbell kits I built in the 70s. So is Tuckahoe Produce on the nearside of the double-tracked mainline here. I enjoy building wood kits and there are many Campbell buildings and half a dozen Finescale kits. I lead you through the construction of a wood and paper kit on my kit building page where I tackle CP Station #9 by Kanamodel Products.

alexander coaling tower kitValleyview coaling tower

The coaling tower and water tank saw limited service at Valleyview now that diesels rule the road. At least until Paul Bailey, one of my Wednesday night operators and another member of our NMR club, started bringing in his now sound-equipped steamers.  Paul's conversions and decoder installations can be found on my electrical pages for DCC. He has encouraged me to get my Proto 2000 0-8-0s out of the box. These are now equipped with Lok-Sound decoders. I slowly upgraded all my steam engines (though not all got good sound) and the coaling towers and water plugs are back in use. The coal track at Valleyview doubled for switching the ferry lead. 

model railroad ferry trackFerry track at Valleyview ends at the layout edge

The ferry was never built. The idea was to build it as a cabinet on rollers. Cars would be "fiddled" into storage drawers. Another project on the never-ending list! NMR member Bill Payne has done so for his layout. There are photos on another page. The tracks at the edge of the benchwork were  buried in pavement and a road was installed to the pier at Blueshores.

From Youngstown there was a loop that went down to Underhill South at Big Hill Junction. There ere some maintenance-of-way sheds just before the intersection. The Big Hill was the helix that climbed to the higher level. The helix track was partially open, ie, tracks didn't climb directly above each other at all times. This permitted some scenicking so trains popped in and out of tunnels.The helix sub roadbed were sections saved from an earlier layout and spliced together.


model railroad modelled junctionBig Hill Jct to the scenicked helix
model railroad open track storageUnderhill South was open storage for unmodelled industries

Underhill South was a semi-fiddle destination. Imaginary industries resided here but there was no room for them. Because the tracks entered a tunnel, cars were spotted on the open tracks on the assumption that the industries were just out of sight. Underhill South was directly below South Point. Underhill North was directly below North Point. The hidden staging had 4 tracks and the hidden yard had 5 stub-ended sidings for storage.

model railroad mountain sceneryMainline climbing from Valleyview to South Point

Here a Canadian National (CN) local is climbing the 2% cliff-hugging grade from Valleyview to South Point. The local has just exited Tunnel 5 after crossing the Trout River on a deck girder bridge (the one in the middle of the picture below). The high steel trestle is beyond Buffalo Peak.  

model railroad bridges and steel trestleBridges and trestles over Trout River

Trout River at Milepost 27 had some excellent fishing. Local fishermen hung out below the rapids.

ho scale fishermenFishing in the Trout River

As I mentioned above, the "big hill" started at Underhill South and climbed via a helix to Buffalo Peak. The helix was not a true helix in that tracks were not always directly above each other. Stretches of the helix were exposed. Trains appeared briefly between tunnels. LogicRail signal circuits controlled access. At the top of the Big Hill helix was Buffalo Peak Station. 

scenicked helixTunnel 2 on the helix

Buffalo peak was a flag stop during the week with a short siding for an RDC and a boxcar from time to time. On the weekend tourists came here for recreation: hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter. At least, that's what the Operating Schedule was set up for. The backdrop and surrounding scenery at Buffalo Peak never were finished.

buffalo peak station kitBuffalo Peak station

Past Buffalo Peak, trains continued to Summit Siding, the only passing track between Underhill South and High Bridge Jct.  At the junction trains either continued on to North Point or descended to Shaneville Jct which was at the top of the grade down to Underhill North. To further complicate operations, the remnants of my HON3 dual gauge layout ran as a switchback between Port Feron, Shaneville and High Bridge Jct.  The junction was just to the left of the swinging gate to the layout shown earlier. 

ho model of truss bridgeWooden truss bridge at Shaneville

Shaneville was a transfer point between the Utopia Northern standard gauge railroad and its narrow gauge division. The right-of-way was dual-gauge track down to Port Feron. The HON3 narrow gauge also climbed a switchback to High Bridge Jct., then part way to North Point. It split off just past the wooden Warren truss bridge. This section has survived three moves. The scene can be broken in the middle, unfortunately through a river. The river has to be redone. The overall length of this section was 16 feet. There were relays wired to all the frogs and the turnouts were hand-thown. Everytime I move I have to reconnect all the wiring. I swore I will never move again. (But I have! This section is gone forever.) 

beebee station ho modelModel of Beebee station

This section was based on a plan from an old track planning book by Kalmbach Books. It was designed as a shelf-style switchback plan, the Port Ogden and Northern RR, that appeared in 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders, by Linn Westcott, Kalmbach Books, 1956. Originally narrow gauge loops continued from both ends to form a dog bone layout. Now they didn't go anywhere. I had some room at the left end to do something and a wonderful station waiting for a home. I built this station years ago. I believe it is based on a station on the East Broad Top or Rangeley Lakes. The track runs through the station so passengers can board in inclement weather. I called it Beebe after a town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec province. It is one of my favourite models but no longer has a home. I built it for use on some modular sections while a member of the Alouette Division of the NMRA (NER). The modules are being used now by friend Bill Payne so he may end up with them as a gift.

What projects need to be finished?

The engineering department hadn't decided how to extricate itself from the mess that has been created by keeping the previous parts of the layout. I'd held onto the Shaneville section because I really liked it. Which brings me to another key point. Because parts of my model railroad were more than 4o years old, there were all kinds of track.

  • I started with Code 100 so a lot of it was still that way
  • Shaneville was all Code 70 dual gauge with some bits of HON3 wandering off to Port Feron and elsewhere
  • Utopia was a mixture of Code 100, 83, 70 and 55Utopia East, the free-mo section, was all Code 83 handlaid with FastTrack turnouts, as was the extension being built at Underhill North (the free-mo section has survived)
  • Turnouts included Shinohara, many of which have been reworked to be DCC-compatible, PECO, Atlas and now Fast Tracks

When I dismantled the layout in 2014, scenery was about 85-90% complete. It was mostly detail work that needed to be done and some of the scenery needed to be freshened and improved. South Point city was almost completed. The streets had been paved! I hadn't finalized building placement or completed all buildings. Most of the lighting had been hooked up. This lighting work started before Christmas, 2009. I was using an old power supply that I built for DC use. I think I got the design from one of Mallery's electrical books. It was built around a Variac AC controller instead of a rheostat. The 110 AC current is dropped to 16VAC and is converted to DC by a diode bridge rectifier after passing through the Variac. Still a great method for DC. This gives smoother control than a rheostat. I think the idea is to avoid the back emf problem that one encounters on grades, especially going down hill.  Anyway, I stripped out the direction switches and use the raw power to drive the city lights. These were already soaking up more than 2 amps.

After installing a power supply from an old PC computer to power the signal circuits I was working on, I tapped into the 12 volt lines to power other lights in buildings and dwarf signals operated from the relays attached to turnout auxiliary contacts.

All the turnouts at Underhill South had dwarf signals and several of the turnouts at South Point had been hooked up to make it easier for operators to see how the track alignment was set at some of the more distant turnouts. I discuss these lighting projects on my  lighting effects page.   

Trackwork was undergoing some renovations and upgrading. Open staging was built during the summer of 2009 at Fort Eerie using Fast Track templates for the #6 and curved turnouts.Utopia Yard was also redone in the autumn to improve operations. The work on the signals continued in 2012 along with scenery work around Mintwood. I also installed a backdrop at Ft. Eerie to dress up the open staging.  A model railroad is seldom finished!

fast tracks ho track workFast Tracks Trackwork at Fort Eeire

Working with  Fast Track templates and jigs to make your own trackwork is easy and saves money if you have a few to build or if you can share the cost with other modelers. The jigs aren't cheap but they work extremely well. Fast Track Twist Ties are excellent if you're scratchbuilding special turnouts without the jigs. Electrical work was ongoing. The signal system was only partially completed. Bill Payne and I experimented with building some circuits based on plans we found on the Internet. Check out my electrical pages. We began constructing detection cicuits in 2010. We have already made and tested some 3-light circuits. By January, 2010 we had gathered most of the parts we'd need to construct and test DCC-compatible detection circuits that work independently of the track power. We settled on Bill Hudson's circuits (hudsontelcom.com if you're interested). I've been working with these since 2010 and am still feeling my way. See my pages about detection and signals. Some of the turnouts still needed their frogs wired to the relays. The new Fast Track turnouts have dead frogs, but all my engines seem to get across them without additional wiring being added to power the frogs. In November I added Tam Valley hex juicers to all the slip switches. These power a frog with only one wire! Worth checking out. I'll add more once my budget allows it. Most of the attention in 2011 was on initiating car card operations. We started with ShipIt but had reverted to the 4-cycle car cards from Micro Mark. Now we're working with jmri and new signal circuits. See my pages about John Houghton's layout.

Oh yes. After my operators left on Wednesday evening I'd be handed a list of maintenance complaints that needed to be addressed before the next operating session. 

Usually just coupler adjustments, dirty wheels, track repair, and the odd wonky switch machine or broken throwbar. The typical chores all model railroaders face.

 I also have shelves loaded with kits to be built, engines to be repaired or reworked for DCC, and a host of electronic projects and other detailing and weathering jobs.

I hope to get them done before my eyes give out or my hands shake too much. We're having fun, that's the main thing.   

One of the most recent addition to structures is a Campbell kit at Port Feron. Read my summary of building  King's Cannery  including some tips and techniques. I plan to find a place for this structure on the new UNRR.

campbell model of kings canneryKing's Cannery at Port Feron (August, 2009).
There's engine servicing to the left

Other additions included a logging camp scene with handpainted backdrop (February, 2011). I describe building the logging camp  and  backdrop painting on other pages.

You can also check my Product Reviews for more information. Use these links.

The logging camp. logging camp

Maple Leaf Cemetery was added in January, 2012 when I was building roads and working on scenery at Mintwood. The photos and captions give an overview of what had been accomplished by this date. You'll find more pictures of my layout and many others in the train photos gallery.

maple leaf cemetery ho modelMaple Leaf Cemetery
ho model of burial sceneBurial in Maple Leaf Cemetery
ho model of rescue mission buildingRescue Mission in Mintwood

It's fun to model scenes that tell a story. Visitors notice these scenes. While working on urban scenery around Mintwood I added a Rescue Mission building. To finish off the scene I installed an animated sign from Miller Engineering.

Here's a video that Martin Alborough helped me make of a trip across the layout behind CN8333. This was shot in October, 2011.

If you're interested in how we set up my current freight train schedule, here's a pdf of an Excel spreadsheet of the  UNRR train list.  (You need Adobe Reader to download it. It's a free download.)

We had a finite number of freight cars on the layout at any one time.  The schedule was designed to move all cars during a cycle. Train length was limited to 10 cars plus a van (caboose) due to length of passing sidings. It was often necessary to doublehead up the grade from Underhill North to the junction at Collings Woods.  The helper returned downhill to Underhill North yard.

There's more about operations on my page about operations methods. I'm considering moving to jmri switch lists on the new UNRR as fellow modeller John Houghton has done on his n-scale layout.

ho model harbour sceneHarbour at Fort Eerie

A harbour was installed at Ft. Eerie in 2012. It provided "off the layout" destinations for freight cars (i.e., the drawers underneath the layout).  Note the upper level G scale layout that circled the trains room.

After the harbour was completed I added a freelanced, scratchbuilt carfloat.

The completed carfloat in the harbor completed carfloat

To see how I built and installed the harbor go to  building a harbour for a detailed description. I explain how I freelanced the  carfloat using construction foamboard, styrene and some detail parts.

UNRR Abandonment

What? Yes, it's true. In April 2014 I dismantled the Utopia Northern. This is the furthest I've ever gone in building a model railroad. There were probably a few more things I could have done to improve it, but a desire to move to smaller premises prompted me to tear it down. It's not all bad news because I can apply all that I have learned over the years to building a smaller model railroad. See tearing down the Utopia Northern for the next installment about building My model railroad.


Here we go again...

Good news. We found a new home and moved in at the end of October, 2014. There's room for a 16 X 16 foot model railroad indoors and a big backyard that will be ideal for a garden railroad.  Back to the planning stage.

See the story of the new UNRR by clicking on the link in the top Navigation Bar.

You can see a bunch of photos of the former UNRR here.

Return from "My-model-railroad" to my  Home Page .


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