Introducing Pine Bluffs

Whilst considering which articles to use in the FEBEX 2021 virtual exhibition I started to draft one on an element of the Group’s HO American layout, Pine Bluffs and Ceda Falls Railroad. As this article got longer and longer it became obvious it was too cumbersome to include as a single article (most readers probably having lost the will to live by the time they were half-way through). I could of course have reduced the size of the article, but brevity has never been my strong point and what would be the fun in that, it is not as if I have much else to do in the current circumstances.

So, a rolling series of articles that will be added to the website over the ensuing months and of which this is the first. For those who are readers of Continental Modeller you may well have read some elements of the following, extracts from which were printed in the February 2015 edition of that magazine.


It was in 1993 that the embryonic American Section of Alton Model Railway Group first discussed the possibility of building a ‘sectional’ HO layout. Over a period of months, the baseline requirements and outline constructional concepts were developed and can be summarised as follows:

  • Based in Colorado in the mid-1950s
  • Have a fictitious location but hold close to the prototype
  • Employ single track main line working
  • Be based on ‘standard’ modules that could be added to in the future
  • Start with end-to-end operation but be capable of growth into a round and round arrangement
  • Be transportable for storage and exhibitions

The section then set about creating a ‘standards’ document that defined baseboard sizes, track transition points between boards and module inter-connection.

In parallel the section developed a fictitious location with an associated storyline. All members of the section strongly felt that an important element of any layout is its ‘believability’ and that this can be significantly influenced by a strong storyline that everyone, both spectators and operators, can ‘buy into’ (see Pine Bluffs the Story).

Bench-work and Track

One of the first tasks undertaken in the creation of the Pine Bluffs modular standards was defining the size and style of layout bench-work. The primary requirement was that each element should be dimensioned for ease of storage and transportation. We looked at the interiors of a range of vehicles and concluded that the ‘standard’ 4ft board was too long to fit cross ways in many cars. This caused us to settle on 1mtr x ½mtr which so far has been found ideal for transportation and acceptable for storage. We set on a dimension of 1mtr for the track height above the floor. and chose 160mm for the distance between the main line track centre and the front of the board.

When it came to planning the corner boards that would enable continuous operation, we considered many arrangements but, in the end, chose a shape that whilst unusual seems to solve the problem if being somewhat wider than the ½mtr limit. If we were to start again we would employ curved boards as this would prevent angular joints in the backscene which are impossible to hide (see the later article on the building of the Fort Baxter section).

Construction of all boards uses 6mm plywood for the solid tops and 6mm sandwich construction for the fronts and backs. Board ends utilise 12mm plywood to provide a greater thickness of material for inter-board joints. The alignment of inter-board joints is achieved by our own design of ‘pattern makers dowels’ that were produced for us by a friendly engineering company, the boards being finally secured by 6mm bolts and wing nuts. We chose to use solid board tops as this provides a more rigid structure that will stand up to extensive handling; in fact, the Pine Bluffs Depot boards have travelled the exhibition circuit for 20 years with no measurable deterioration in rigidity or alignment.

When the layout was started in 1995 Peco had not introduced their Code 83 track so having had good experience with Code 75 track on a previous Group British outline layout this was adopted for Pine Bluffs. For the new Red Dot Mine section and any future sections we have moved to Code 83. Turnouts are all Peco with a mix of large and medium radius. The first boards built featured hand operated points using bicycle wheel spokes to operate the tie bar. A homemade aluminium frame houses the end of the actuation rod (wheel spoke) which is connected to the tie bar and a slider switch for frog polarity changing via a chocolate block connector. This method has been used on other Group layouts and is cost effective and reliable.

As the layout has grown (and the members grew older) it became more difficult for the operators to move around to get access to the actuation rods so it was decided to move to PECO point motors for operation of the ‘main line’ and storage siding turnouts. These are driven by Digitrax stationary decoders (see more about DCC in a later article). For the turnouts in the switching areas we have decided to stay with rod actuation as the switching engineer has to be in the vicinity of the turnouts in order to effectively position his locomotive.



Pine Bluffs and Ceda Falls are respectively the southern and northern limits of Campbell County which itself is situated between Denver and Colorado Springs in the US State of Colorado (see map). In creating the geographic locale for the layout scope was included for further growth and the potential for additional scenic elements.  

The County sitting at the beginning of the Rocky Mountain foothills boasts some impressive scenery especially the Pacamac river valley.

The Railroad

The PBCFRR was constructed in the late 19th century to serve the lumber and mining interests in the region, providing them with a connection to the growing cities of Denver and Colorado Springs both with onward connections west to California and south to Texas and Arizona. The major industry of the region remains lumber however a number of ‘new technology’ companies are opening up in the region maintaining the freight traffic on the PBCFRR. This is fortunate as passenger traffic has been steadily declining since the 1930s and an ‘all passenger train’ is now the exception rather than the norm.

The railroad still operates steam locomotives but increasingly these are giving way to the greater efficiency of diesel electric. Being a small line the PBCFRR operates a number of leased locos in addition to its own limited stable of GP7s, Fairbanks Morse H series and F3s.

The Mid 1950s

This period was chosen for two reasons; firstly, being the ‘motive power transition period’ it provides the opportunity for running both steam and first-generation diesels. Secondly this period can be regarded as one of the most dynamic in American history with society across the country undergoing rapid change and modernisation.

The Stories

The believability of a model railroad (or model railway) can be increased by the use of vignettes or mini scenes that are positioned so as to focus the spectator’s attention and lead them through the overall scene. Throughout the layout we have chosen to enhance these scenes with story boards displayed on the layout that are written as articles published in the ‘Pine Bluffs Gazette’, an example of which is included below:

Sheriff Ruff Justice Vows to Clamp Down on Rowdy Young Drivers

The newly appointed Sheriff of Pine Bluffs, Ruff Justice, in an interview with the Gazette’s transport correspondent Gus Breyhound, outlined how he will be cracking down on the behaviour of young drivers in the vicinity of Al’s Diner. These ‘Rowdies’, as described by the Sherriff, have been participating in the new anti-social pastime of drag racing which disturbs the peace of the neighbourhood and causes Al’s dog to bark all night. Until recently the Sherriff and his Deputies have not been able to apprehend the culprits as their police cruisers have not been fast enough. However, the Sherriff explained, this will change with the arrival of a new high-powered police motorcycle, that will reach speeds as high as 50 miles per hour. He sends this message to the drag racers, “Beware, I will be waiting”.

Sherriff Justice shows his powerful new equipment to the Skunketts cheerleaders


A diagram of the current layout is presented below and shows how the overall configuration was developed by the building of a number of sections. Whilst based on 3 baseboard (3metre) sections it was obviously necessary to ‘turn’ the layout through 360 degrees to achieve the continuous run we desired. This was accomplished by making one 180 degree turn with the freight yard section whilst building the storage sidings at the opposite end to complete the circle. This makes the layout more suited to being located at the end of an exhibition ‘island’ but has not presented managers with a significant issue.

Pine Bluffs Depot

The first element to be built was Pine Bluffs Depot, this was completed in 1997 and exhibited first in a terminal configuration with a single fiddle yard and then modified to an ‘end-to-end’ arrangement with cassette-based 1metre fiddle yards at either end. Whilst compact to take to exhibitions and interesting to operate it did not satisfy the desire to run more realistic length trains. This inevitably led to the plan to extend the layout to a continuous run configuration (more on operation later).

The section represents the edge of the town of Pine Bluffs with several industries providing operating and visual interest, these comprise: the railroad passenger depot, a flour mill, oil fuel depot, lumber yard, and scrap yard. The industries and other structures were produced by a number of current and former members using both kit bashed and scratch built techniques; these are roughly an equal mix of plastic and wood based models.

Initially wired for DC ‘section’ operation with turnouts being manually operated by rod mechanism the section has been re-wired for DCC operation and all mainline turnouts changed to PECO point motor operation.

Pine Bluffs Freight Yard

Pine Bluffs Freight Yard was designed to be both an extension to the Pine Bluffs Depot module and a stand-alone continuous operation module. In fact, during 2014/2015 the module was exhibited in that stand alone form whilst the Depot module was undergoing renovation and conversion to DCC. In geographical terms the Freight Yard is located to the South of the Depot and southbound trains enter the module from under the Interstate road bridge that acts as a scenic break between the modules. North bound trains pass the corporate offices of the PBCFRR just as they enter the ‘Yard limits’ of the Freight Yard.

The freight yard is the main depot for the region and handles a wide range of traffic. An unloading ramp for piggy-back trailers was installed in 1945 and sees plenty of use from the growing number of small industries in the area. The yard is the ‘dropping off’ location for traffic for the industries located in the vicinity of the depot including the Ewing Oil depot and the flour mill.

In addition, running parallel to the yard limits there is a major passing loop on the route from Denver to Colorado; a necessity for the single track main line. The loop was built in 1943 to handle the increased traffic that was generated by the Second World War and the Fort Baxter complex located further south beyond the Campbell County line.

Just to the north of the yard limits is Al‘s Diner, sited where it can attract engine crews and truckers on their breaks as well as locals. Off the same service road is located the Pine Bluffs Fire Department engine house sited adjacent to the Sullivan Street crossing. On the opposite side of the street is Pine Bluffs Memorial Park which was created by the city in 1950 in remembrance of the citizens lost in the two World Wars.

The freight depot building and gate house are from the Walthers Cornerstone range as is the PBCFRR office building and Al’s Diner. The Pine Bluffs Fire Department engine house is scratch built from plans published in an old Model Railroader using scale lumber and Grandt line windows and doors.

Red Dot Mine and Pacamac River

Having constructed the Depot and Freight yard sections it was felt that it would be good to have some contrasting open scenery. However, we did not want something that had limited visual interest so a river, a mine and a canyon was agreed upon, an opportunity for at least two bridges! Over the years we have found that there is nothing like a large bridge to attract the attention of junior (and senior) visitors.

The bridge over the Pacamac River, complete with workman repainting

Moving south from the Freight yard section the first structure encountered is a through girder bridge over the Pacamac River. The river is wide and slow moving, especially during the summer months when the layout is set. The bridge is a Walthers through truss kit with plywood abutments. The riverbed was sealed with PVA and then painted with dark acrylic paints to create the impression of depth fading out to brown at the edges. The first attempt at the water was with Woodlands Scenics realistic water. In hindsight we tried to pour too thick a layer at one go, which subsequently dried on the surface but not underneath causing a stepped finish to the river surface. Having removed the gooey mess and restored the base of the river it was decided to try a different material, this time GlassCast clear epoxy surface resin. 500ml of the resin was mixed and poured in one go and so far, is giving the desired results with no discolouring.

Red Dot Mine

The next feature south is the Red Dot mine located close to the PBCFRR main line with a single siding for the loading of ore. The mine was abandoned in the early part of the 20th Century when the silver deposits ran out but recently has been reopened with the discovery of uranium. The mine building is from a ‘bashed’ Campbell Red Mountain Mine craftsman kit and is serviced by a ‘well worn’ narrow gauge railroad.

The bridge spanning the canyon of the Sworn Knee river

The last feature in the section is the bridge over the Sworn Knee river. Construction was the reverse of real life taking a Micro Engineering truss bridge and building the expanded polystyrene scenery formers around it. Once we were happy with the overall base contours the bridge was put to one side and the formers were covered in rocks. The main canyon sides employ two sheets of rubber rocks from Cripplebush Valley Models in the US, the precise sheets being Santa Fe Canyon 1 and 3. The rubber sheets were trimmed to match the scenery formers and fixed with heavy duty PVA. The areas not covered by the rubber rocks were filled in using plaster castings made from Woodland Scenics rock moulds. The rubber rock sheets were chosen in preference to an all-plaster solution to reduce the overall weight of the baseboard. Once the whole scenic structure was complete everything was given an overall base coat of buff acrylic paint with an air brush.  A weak black acrylic wash was applied by brush to accent the cracks and fissures in the rocks. The final colour detail was applied using the ’dry brush’ technique with raw umber, burnt umber and burnt sienna artist’s acrylics. The whole was then given two coats of ‘Testors Dullcoat’ clear matt spray.

Scenic material consisting of Woodland Scenics ground foam, Arizona Rocks and Minerals ‘low desert soil’ together with assorted grit and sand was then applied onto wet PVA with a mix of PVA, water and washing up liquid dripped over the material. The small amount of ‘water’ in the bottom of the canyon is Woodlands Scenics Realistic Water with the same company’s talus for small rock detail.



All the layout sections employ expanded polystyrene formers affixed to the baseboard plywood tops with heavy duty PVA. The formers are then shaped using a range of different sized and modified (bent) serrated knives and covered in Plaster-of-Paris bandage before a liberal coating of brown emulsion paint. We chose a paint from a ‘mix to order’ supplier that has enabled us to subsequently purchase further paint of the same shade as the layout sections have grown. We also decided to use the same shade of gloss paint for the front boards of the layout.

Once the emulsion paint was dry a range of scenic material is applied onto a coat of PVA and then spayed with a water/PVA/washing up liquid mix. The material is mostly from the Woodlands Scenics range with a heavy leaning to their burnt grass which most closely resembles the grass tones of a mid-summer Colorado. Details such as rock outcrops and brush are added before the grass areas receive an application of static grass of various lengths. Finally, the whole board receives an overspray of a ‘muddy mix’ from an air brush.


All sections feature telegraph poles strung with EZ Line which has removable sections at the baseboard joints, ensuring a continuous run. A nice finishing touch even if it has cost one of the members his sanity.

Most vehicles used on the layout are from Classic Metal Works with the odd kit-built example, the human population are from Preiser many from their un-painted range with suitable ‘adjustment’ surgery to ring the changes. Detail parts are from many suppliers including Woodlands Scenics, Preiser, Life Like and Walthers with the assistance of much rummaging in scrap boxes.

Things still to complete

As many modellers have said “a layout is never finished” and there are details still to be added to the various sections. Currently the crossing lights at Sullivan Crossing on the Freight Yard are operated continuously by a battery feed; the next task is to operate them from infra-red train sensors. The crossing lights on Depot street are non-functioning and these will also be updated to train sensor operation.

Many of the buildings have been fitted with lighting and these will finally be connected to power supplies during 2021.

For the Future

In 2020 we decided to extend the front of the Pine Bluffs Depot section to add Main Street. This features a number of shops, a car dealership and tyre fitting business; one of the next articles will cover the making of this extension.

Fort Baxter

A completely new section that can be exhibited in place of the Pacamac River/Red Dot Mine section has been in planning for some time. The construction of this section is well underway and will form a series of additions to the Pine Bluffs articles. Work is also progressing on additional baseboards which will mean that Fort Baxter can also be exhibited as a stand-alone layout.

About the author – Roger Joel

Roger, along with Steve Cook, was a founding member of Alton Model Railway Group and has been a member ever since.

Starting off working on the Groups Great Western Railway branch Terminus Welles, Roger shifted to American HO 25 years ago and has helped build the Groups American HO modular layout ‘Pine Bluffs and Ceda Falls’. Roger also added to the personality of the layout with the ‘Pine Bluffs Gazette’, a fictional newspaper for the layout detailing the coming and going of the residents of Pine Bluffs.

Roger is currently building the ‘Fort Baxter’ module for Pine Bluffs, a rail exchange with an Army base on the edge of Pine Bluffs. He also helps with construction on a number of layouts built by son and Group member Paul.