By Joe Faletti
Photos by Chris Lane and Randy Lee
This is the story of my Coal Valley Burlington Northern Santa Fe and how it came to be. My love for trains began when Santa Claus brought me my first train set when I was about seven years old; it was an American Flyer set. From that time on I have had a passion for trains, which my father shared with me.
Years later, after I had become an adult, my Dad mentioned that he had always wanted a train layout. That was all it took... from that moment on we were two men on a mission. We planned and built our first layout in the basement of my parents house. It was an O27 layout that we modeled for several years. But because O27 was becoming more and more expensive and it took up more room and was not as realistic as we wanted, we made the decision to sell all of our equipment and start a new HO layout, which we called the Coal Valley Santa Fe (CVSF).
My Dad and I worked on the CVSF layout and had many memorable and irreplaceable times together until a few years ago when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away after a courageous battle. Right before he became ill we had both started to acquire a taste for the new BNSF scheme and had started modeling more BNSF. My wife and I made the decision to add on to our home so that we could move the layout to our house after my Dad's death. We could only go as big as a 28' x 23' L-shaped room, which made it impossible to move the entire benchwork over from the basement, but I was able to bring the staging yard along with all the scenery and buildings. Although it was emotionally difficult to disassemble the layout that we had built together, I knew that my Dad would want me to continue on with the hobby that he loved so much. I ended up having to do a triple-decker, since I had much less square footage to work with in the addition. It took me about a year to complete the present Coal Valley Burlington Northern Santa Fe layout from the benchwork on up.
The layout uses SoundTraxx Diesel Sound System infrared throttles and an MRC Control Master 20. With the help of Atlas selectors I can use either the SoundTraxx or MRC for the yard. If I have trains on the mainline I can use the SoundTraxx System. I also used the selectors for blocks on the mainline. I did not block the mains until the track was completely laid. I cut gaps in the rails using a Dremel tool with a cutting disc. When I started the layout I was seriously thinking about going DCC, but I have so many engines that the cost would have been very high so I decided to just go conventional. I am saving my money and someday hope to switch to DCC.
The track is Atlas code 100 flextrack with all of the joints soldered. A 40-watt pencil soldering iron was used with nickel silver solder (lead free) from Radio Shack. To prevent the ties from melting while soldering, cotton balls were submerged in a glass of water and placed on each side of joint. Minimum radius is 32" and the maximum is 39". All turnouts are hand thrown because my layout is completely linear and everything is within arms reach. It was less expensive and required a lot less wiring. Peco #8s are used on the mainline and #6s in the staging yard. The switches and track were mostly weathered with MODELflex Rail Brown applied with an airbrush. Before the switches were airbrushed I sprayed some WD40 into a cup, dipped a micro brush into it, and then applied a little WD40 on all of the electrical contact points to keep the paint from sticking. When I was done I just went back and wiped the WD40 off.
The framework is built from 2x4s and 2x2s, with inexpensive " plywood. Screws were used rather than nails, which makes the framework much sturdier and tighter. After the layout was completed I decided that I needed additional storage space. Since I had a lot of wasted space underneath the layout I built pullout shelving with track on top of it so I can store equipment. I also built a drawer that holds all of my containers for the intermodal yard. This has worked out so well that I am now in the process of planning additional pullout shelving. I chose to base my scenery on the West. I have always been fascinated by the steep grades found in many places out west, especially Raton Pass, Cajon and Tehachapi. I like to see engines wind through the mountains, putting out all that they have, and still needing the assistance of helpers to make the grade. Some of my second level is 1" Styrofoam trimmed out with hot wire. I used Woodland Scenic inclines and 1" risers in spots, with instant roadbed on top of the cork. Instant Roadbed works great when laying track down around a curve. When Instant Roadbed is laid on top of the cork it recreates the contour of prototypical ballasted track quite nicely. The mountains were formed with screen wire, rolled up newspapers and Woodland Scenics Papier Machw; this was then covered with latex paint, ground foam, and real rock and dirt from Colorado.
"Rope lighting" was used throughout the layout. To install the rope lighting on the lower levels it was necessary to drill holes underneath the first and second levels before the plywood was added to the framework. If you wait until later you wont be able to get the holes close enough to the top of the 2x4s. After the holes were drilled and the plywood sheets were added, the rope lighting was strung through the holes and stapled to the underside of the plywood. For the top level I used a 4" valance with rope lighting behind it. The outside of the valance is painted sky blue to match the walls while inside is painted white to reflect the light down onto the layout. It is all wired into a dimmer switch and gives a very even effect throughout. The number of feet of rope lighting that is used will determine the size of the dimmer switch. I purchased my rope lighting at Menards Home Improvement Center. It is usually only found in short lengths in the store, but it can be special ordered in 100'-150' rolls. It's very simple to splice together, and if one section burns out you can purchase patch kits to replace a foot at a time. Make sure you read the directions before installing. I have had my rope lighting for about two years now and still have not had any burn out.
An amateur artist, by the name of Brent Moats, painted all of the background. He took the scenery that I had created and painted the background to extend the layout for miles. It was a sure sign that the layout was meant to be when we just happened to be at my daughters pediatrician the same day that Brent was painting a mural on his office wall. I saw how good his work was and got the idea to ask him if he would be interested in looking at my train room. He said that he would love to, and a couple of weeks later he started work on the room. It took him about 4-5 weeks to finish the project since he was doing it in his spare time, but is was definitely worth the wait. We are very lucky to have found him.
Dale Albrecht, a native of Coal City, scratchbuilt my Coal City depot using wood and cardboard. It is an exact replica of how the train depot in our town looked back in 1945. The detail of the building is amazing. He has modeled a lot of other buildings in our town and displays them in our public library. The depot, which still stands here in Coal City, is now used as a maintenance building for the BNSF. The depot has undergone several changes over the years, but having a model of it the way it originally looked adds a nice bit of my towns history to the layout.
When it came to the finishing touches of the train room itself, we had to decide on flooring. We decided to go with a silver/gray carpet and use a red border. The colors looked great, but I was still missing some of the yellow that I needed to complete the Warbonnet color scheme, so I came up with the idea to paint the heat registers in the floor yellow. Even though my wife was somewhat skeptical at first we were both very pleased with the final outcome.
For those of you who are wondering how I talked my wife into adding onto our house to accommodate the layout, I did have to compromise! I also had to add on a country porch for my wife, and extend my daughters bedroom by an additional 10'. So now everyone is happy!
I picked the modern era because I like intermodal and coal traffic. That's why I have such a large intermodal yard. I wanted to accommodate the whole train in the yard. The Flood Yard is large enough to store o ver 200 cars and has a diesel servicing facility. An automobile show has been modeled since car shows are an annual event in the area that I live. I also added a Veterans Memorial, which was on the layout that my Dad and I had in his basement. It is dedicated to the honor of my Dad and all other veterans. (My father was a decorated World War II veteran who received two Purple Hearts.) The town we modeled, which we call Coal City, is actually modeled after Cripple Creek, Colorado. Prior to Cripple Creek becoming a gambling town it was filled with quaint little stores with a beautiful mountain backdrop, and this is what I tried to capture.
I have built quite a few of the buildings and cars and have also detailed a lot of the engines myself, but there have been several other people who have done some for me. I have worked up the confidence to do my own detail work by reading books, magazine articles, watching videotapes, railfanning and listening to other model railroaders. I have also just recently become comfortable with doing my own weathering and plan to do a lot more in the future.
The setting for the Coal Valley Burlington Northern Santa Fe is pretty much from 1999 to 2001. You may see some steam engines on the layout, but they are just from some excursions that I have running through. A few years before my father became ill ATSF 3751, a 4-8-4 steam engine, was scheduled to come through our town, so I took my father and uncle down to the depot to watch it. I will never forget the feeling I had when it roared through. When I looked over and saw the smiles on the faces of my father and uncle, it was priceless. My uncle said that it gave him butterflies in his stomach. That day I felt that I had shared a bit of the past with them. I will always remember it. Although it is called BNSF, you will also see some Union Pacific, which is in the same era. I am actually modeling two major railroads, but BNSF is still my personal favorite. The prototype Santa Fe mainline comes right through the heart of the town where I live. For years I have watched it come though and have done a lot of railfanning, getting to know the equipment and detail. My wife says Im the only person in town that actually looks forward to being stopped by a train. When I first started modeling, detail was not important to me, but through the years it has become something that I pay much attention to. You will also see a few cabooses on my layout. I have always liked cabooses, but now I only use them for work trains and special trains.
The layout is completely operational, but I presently choose just to run the trains. I have three walkie-talkie headphones, so if I ever do decide to operate I can do so and communicate. My Athearn engines that have operating headlights and ditchlights have received can motors so that they will work together smoothly with other Athearn engines without tugging and pulling.
Modeling trains can be a wonderful family hobby. What started as something that my father and I did together has now evolved into something that my wife Pam, daughter Rachael and I can do together. We have all s pent many hours together crumbling up newspapers for the papier mache, taking votes on where to place people and trees, and my daughter has become an expert at making aspen trees...she made over 60 of them on one rainy afternoon.
Even though the layout that I now have at my home is not the original one that my father and I had, I have always felt that he was with me every step of the way. There were times that I doubted whether dismantling and moving our layout from his basement to my home was the right thing to do, but thats when I get some little sign that makes me realize that this is what he would have wanted me to do. To continue on with the hobby that meant so much to him and to share it and pass our love for trains on to my children and their children after them.