Dismantling Model Railroads,
(and building a better one)

or what goes up must come down!

South Point before
South Point before dismantling
South Point after
South Point after dismantling

My previous model railroad was the current 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). You can read all about the layout and see photos and videos at History of the UNRR.

UNRR Abandonment, 2014

I dismantled the Utopia Northern in April, 2014. I thought it fitting that the first scene I dismantled was Memorial Cemetery. The first item one removes from the layout is the most difficult. It gets easier the more one rips out. This is the furthest I've ever gone in building a model railroad. I've been working at it for 10 years and several sections are more than 40 years old. There were probably a few more things I could have done to improve it, but some health issues and 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. 

I am certainly not retiring from the hobby but I would like to play more golf and spend some winter time in warmer climes. This past winter was a tough one, although it was good basement weather for working on the layout and playing with trains. However, I am at an age when one has to think about the future and I do not want my wife or children to contend with tearing down a large and substantial model railroad. They wouldn't know where to begin. Friends in the hobby would step up to help, but just the same, it wouldn't be fair. I also have to admit that there are lots of things I would do differently the next time. I have made my share of mistakes. Also techniques have changed, new products have appeared and interests have evolved. So let's begin by listing some of the considerations.

  • More planning and note keeping 

I still think I will do a freelance layout. I have kept East Utopia and that rail yard could become the central section of a new model railroad. I have also kept the harbor scene. It could become one end of a small point-to-point switching layout.

  • Never install screws from the top again!

I always knew better, but I took short cuts. Digging them out of the scenery or from beneath the track was a chore. It slows down dismantling model railroads considerably. I will also use the same type of screws in future. I had to keep a Phillips head in a drill and keep changing Robertson heads in an electric screw driver.  Stupid. I saved most of the screws. Sometimes different sizes are needed. My preference is to use Robertson screws. It is quick to change heads.

  • Stick to color-coded wire and keep notes

I used what I had on hand because wire is expensive. I spliced /soldered wire together when the wire I had was too short. I started off lettering the wires and kept a book of notes, but here again I didn't always follow my own advice. When you're crawling around underneath the benchwork it is easier to keep ploughing ahead without keeping the notes up to date. Relying on memory and tracing wires when something goes wrong is no way to build a railroad.

  • Plan for access

  It is amazing how aisles shrink over time. Next time I will stick with 30 inches as a maximum width. I will probably build to the free-mo standard height because that is how East Utopia was originally designed. I am also considering putting hinges on each section in order to lift them up for access to wiring and for other under-the-layout requirements.

  • Build modular

      Our club travelling layout is modular. Free-mo is modular. Dismantling or transporting a modular layout on wheels is easier. See the information about our Nottawasaga Model Railway club HO layout. Unfortunately, we lost our club space and had to vacate by May 31, 2014. Fortunately the entire layout, including the sections that didn't go to train shows, slip into the portable carriers. They can be stored in our trailer while we hunted for a new home. (See the new NMR layout).  I had started out sort-of modular on the previous UNRR but became sloppy and built over the joints. I also ran wires between sections. This time, when tearing down the layout I didn't try to save all the wire, only the main buses. Most of the "Bell" telephone wire went into the garbage. The UNRR had begun as a DC layout and the DCC wiring was superimposed on the old wiring so it was all a mess even though it worked. I had also added signalling so there was a ton of wire underneath the layout. I had also installed relays to handle frog wiring and trackside dwarf signals. Plus the wiring for building lights. You can imagine what it looked like underneath the layout. Dismantlng model railroads is no fun. Ten years of many hours of work gone in less than a month. Heartbreaking.

  • Use new electronics

Tam Valley frog juicers are wonderful. I don't need all those 24v relays. I also love the servo controls John Houghton has installed on his layout to power his turnouts.

 I haven't decided if I will use them on every turnout. I still have lots of Caboose Industry hand-throws and micro switches salvaged during the tear down. Needs further thought. I need to recycle what I can to stretch my budget. As anyone who has dismantled model railroads or changed scales knows, you don't get much when you try to sell your stuff.  I certainly will not have room for all 400+ freight cars and the many buildings. I will have to sell it off as best I can. 

  •  Review track laying technique

East Utopia was built using weathered Code 83 on hand-laid wooden ties. All turnouts were made with Fast Track jigs. I have a few other Code 83 turnouts left over, principally the #5 slip switches. My preference is to rebuild in Code 83. However, I have a lot of Code 100 turnouts. I will have to think long and hard about what I will do. If I stick to a small point-to-point industrial switching ralroad I may have nearly enough Code 83 turnouts or I can make specialized turnouts to fit the building sites based on the buildings I have. I would like to find a place for my better buildings. I will need to rebuild Campbell's Schramm building. I destroyed much of the sub-floor bracing on the kit when removing it from the layout. Another reason to build all structures on removeable pads. Track planning will have to wait until I know what space I have to work with (or what I can negotiate for with my wife).

So here we go again. From dismantling model railroads to starting all over again from the beginning. 

Here we go again!

Good news. We found a new home and moved in at the end of October. There's room for a 16 X 16 foot model railroad indoors and a big backyard that will be ideal for a garden railroad. The basement room needs to be finished before starting to rebuild. I can spend the winter planning the railroad and the construction technique. I won't be able to do anything about the garden railroad until next Spring and I have a lot of research to do first. An exciting time to muse while the snow blows!

It's now mid-November and we're in the our new home. The "train room" is drywalled, taped and mudded. I still needed to sand and paint. I have measured the space for a layout and it is approximately 16 feet by 15 feet, about half the size of my previous model railroad. I'd switch to N-scale except I have too much HO train stuff. At least I can begin to plan. I think I can manage an 'E' style point-to-point with the harbour at one end and a turntable at the other end. Time to start noodling! Meanwhile I must content myself with the G scale train under the Christmas tree. Our train club has also found a new home at Bygone Days in Collingwood so the winter will be busy as we plan for a historical layout about the Collingwood region. Lots to do. Also just back from Trainfest in Milwaukee with our NMRA NFR gang where we ran our Craftsman Corner again. Fortunately we beat the snpwstorms back to Ontario in the nick of time. Watch for photos and videos after I unpack a few more boxes and catch up with the honey-do list of jobs

2016 and a new layout is operational

Trains are starting to run. No real scenery in place except for backdrops and buildings. Still lots of maintenance and wiring to complete. Have I followed my own advice? Well, yes and no. My intentions have been good but I must admit the layout did not turn out to be modular and I have one access hole that's pretty tight! But it is running and operations can begin. It's all about just having fun. Agree?

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