The major reason why most men join a model railroad club is to obtain the space needed for a model railroad and, perhaps, the assistance of enough other s to make the building building of a really large layout practical for all. The Thunderbird Model Railroad Club in Phoenix, Arizona, is no exception to this rule; most of its members are there to see that they accomplish more as a group than any of them could do as isolated individuals. The Thunderbirds have succeeded in producing a model railroad that is not only larger than most individuals could ever dream of but the railroad has an operating and viewing quality that is unique even among model railroad clubs. Most groups, given a barn-like area, cannot help but succumb to the temptation to put a giant layout in the center of the space with aisles all around the edges. The Phoenix group has constructed their layout like most home railroads of today; the railroad's tables are placed around the wall of the room with the major operating areas in the center of the room. One wall of the layout is backed with glass so the spectators can see the railroad with out walking inside to interfere with the members work. It's one of the very best club layouts we've ever seen.
The around-the-wall table concept keeps the viewer's eyes from seeing the entire railroad in one piece - you must follow the miniature landscape and the trains around the room much like you would if all were lifesize. The trains really do seem to travel from one town to another rather than around and around a giant table. If a train starts in a town on one wall it usually travels at least to an adjoining wall, if not halfway around the room or to the backside of a partition. The engineers that operate the trains have a choice of operating positions for most runs; they can run the layout from a heaven-like perch some six feet above the layout where they watch their trains travel the entire length of the trackage with out more than a move of their head. Those who operate the trains that duplicate the switching and car handling moves of the real thing can operate the locomotive's controls from panels located beside the track so that they are never more than a few feet from their locomotives and cars.
Electrical "block" switches allow two or three engines to be operated, each with its own speed control, from the same panel. As the engine travels along the railroad its "engineer" simply walks from one panel to the next one nearest his locomotive. This closes up viewing and operating results in a feeling of really being inside the miniature scenes of the railroad rather than being outside looking in. The smallest details of operation like the locomotive's churning wheels, the action of the automatic knuckle couplers, and the snap of the track switch points as they are thrown from m ainline to siding are all taking place right before your eyes rather than twenty or thirty feet away. It's a most enjoyable way to operate a model railroad and, like we said, one that is rare on a large club layout.
The around-the-wall type of construction has yet another advantage that the Thunderbird club has experienced; the layout can be taken apart into "modules" of roughly 4 x 8 feet or less and transported to the new location. The original club layout was begun in 1949 at the Phoenix Union Station. One of the photos shows a 1" to the foot scale model of the original layout. In 1968 the nearly completed layout was moved to its present site at the Arizona State Fairgrounds. The new site had a considerably different shape but the group was able to combine the sections of the original layout, complete with, scenery, with short new sections of benchwork, track , and scenery so that all of the original work could be salvaged and encorporated into the new location. The present layout has over 1600 feet of track with nearly 100 switches. Most of the track is hand-laid code 100 nickel silver rail on individual wood ties to HO scale and track gauge. A lengthy branch line has its rail laid to a scale three-foot spacing (HOn3 gauge) to match the real railroads that ran in the Colorado and Pennsylvania mountains. The line is completely sceniced with dozens of bridges scratchbuilt by the members. The track plan is basically "point-to point;" running from one engine and car yard through a half dozen towns and sidings to another without passing over the same rail twice. In the process the track winds around the walls and layout benches from one side of the access aisle's entranceway to the opposite side. There are turntables at each end of the run and a third at the terminal of the HOn3 branchline. The electrical wizards of the group, led by Ed Smedley, wired the railroad with electrical gaps in the track and special power supply wires so that each town and terminal has its own control panel (called "Cab control") allowing the "engineers" to stay close to their trains while they operate. On-off switches on each panel and track "block" are flipped on by the engineer so his train can travel over the mainline and sidings he selects. He turns the switches off behind the passing train so the track will be ready for the next engineer's train. A large master control panel above one corner of the lay out has additional on-off switches for the mainline so the through freight and passenger express trains can be operated from that elevated "tower."
The years and years of operation on the layout require a fairly rigid degree of maintenance to keep things operating smoothly and the members are continually finding a "better" route for parts of the trackage so that the club's layout, like most model railroads, is never really considered complete. In the sense that the layout has every element we consider the best for a large home or club model railroad the Thunderbird Club's Phoenix, Turnbow and Apache Railroad is complete indeed.