Photos by the author
Western railroads have always held a fascination for model railroaders. It must be the wide-open spaces with plenty of breathtaking scenery. Or perhaps its the shear determination of a railroad to penetrate seemingly unconquerable mountains. Then again maybe the variety of landscapes drives many of us to choose a western prototype. Railroads like the Santa Fe, the Great Northern and the Western Pacific are just a few of those favorites. For whatever reasons, however, the Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad, or more commonly known as the D&RGW or Rio Grande, commands an almost religious zeal with modelers. The Rio Grande also had what few other American railroads had narrow gauge. Called "slim rails" by some, those 3-spaced steel ribbons opened up much of Colorado for mining and lumbering. Short trains and steep grades were a hallmark of many narrow gauge routes. And of course, there were several locations that the standard gauge shared with the narrow gauge, creating a network of dual-gauge trackage that created a nightmare for section crews (and modelers, too!).
For Greg Long, modeling the D&RGW has always been a passion. He has combined both the standard and narrow gauges into a very realistic HO scale layout that runs as well as it looks. By specifically not modeling a piece of a high-density mainline, but rather branchlines, Greg has avoided the commuter railroad philosophy that many operations-oriented layouts seem to gravitate toward. His 1954 era reinforces the easy pace during op sessions. Join me now as we explore the Montrose Division of the Denver and Rio Grande Western.
For many years, Greg had visions of modeling Rio Grandes standard gauge Tennessee Pass in Colorado. However, once he became fascinated by operations, it quickly became clear that scenery on such a layout would become the primary interest, not train and car movements. There just wasn't much in the way of industries in that isolated section of the D&RGW. So in 1994, after Greg moved into a new house, his dad, Gerald (who is also an avid model railroader), designed a great trackplan that included the actual Montrose Division of the Rio Grande in western Colorado, along with some freelanced areas. The layout occupies a footprint of 25 x 40 plus another 15 of staging in the large crew lounge area. The basic design is an out-and-back loop connected with a staging yard.
The design is quite unique since the plan models three branchlines as illustrated in the included system map. Grand Junction, the beginning of the Montrose division, uses half of the staging yard. The end of the first branchline is Montrose, which uses the remainder of that same staging yard. Then there are two fictitious branchlines that connect at Olathe, halfway on the Montrose branchline. One is the standard gauge line to Park; the other is an extensive narrow gauge route to Empire and on to the hardrock-mining town of Silver City. The on-line towns of Olathe and Chipeta are real locations on the prototype Montrose branch, but dont follow any actual track arrangements.
There is approximately the same amount of narrow gauge as standard gauge trackage, but the large interchange yard of Olathe has lots of dual-gauge trackage (three rails sharing the same right-of-way). One of the functions of Olathe is to simulate the break-bulk function between rolling stock of both gauges. There are even two passenger trains that need to make their respective schedules so that their HO-size passengers can detrain from one gauge train and board the other. Olathe is also the focal point for the standard gauge freight car classification and marshalling.
Beginning with a solid L-girder underframe, the layout uses many of the tested methods of model railroad construction. The nominal height of the railroad is 44, and the large yard at Olathe measures 48 high. Because of the complexity of the dual gauge turnouts, all the track was scratchbuilt, using code 70 rail hand-spiked on individual wooden ties. Although track laying is not one of Gregs favorite activities, the intricate turnouts work very well. Manual switch throws that incorporate a miniature slide switch route turnout points and power each frog.
The layout was initially wired for DC blocks. After witnessing command control and the benefits therein, e.g., independent control of all locomotives, Greg switched to Railcommand, a DCC predecessor. Recently, he became thrilled on hearing onboard locomotive sounds, so he has converted the Montrose Division to wireless EasyDCC. Installing SoundTraxx sound decoders and speakers in some of those tiny narrow gauge engines was quite a task! All the locomotives, both diesel and steam, now have onboard sound.
Building structures is Gregs strong passion. There are many scratchbuilt buildings on the Montrose Division, plus a few kitbashed ones. Many are patterned after prototypes the Rio Grande Railroad had. He has also had a few of his crew donate a structure or two, but Greg has built 90% of the layout himself.
Scenery was done using ground foam applied over a base of Sculptamold (a plaster-impregnated fiber product) and screen wire. Since the area he models is in western Colorado (south of Grand Junction), that area is typically populated with sagebrush and few trees. The layout simulates this "sagebrush forest" quite well.
The hidden staging yard at Delta (see trackplan) was unworkable during the first few op sessions, so it is now effectively out of service and not used except for the occasional meet. Moving that staging into the crew lounge area proved to be somewhat difficult, but not as bad as having to finish the room after the layout was built.
Running the Montrose Division as prototypically as possible is of prime importance to Greg and his crews. Full operations began in 1999, after about five years of construction. Although the mainline of the D&RGW is not modeled, there is enough traffic and on-line industries to keep a crew of 12 busy for 31/2 hours running a typical 18-hour day using a 5:1 fastclock. There has always been a challenge in model railroading to make narrow gauge trains work well and be integrated into an operating session. The Montrose Division certainly has proved that with some care and maintenance, HOn3 cars and engines can work as reliably as their HO standard gauge cousins.
A party-line telephone system for communication with crews, yardmasters and the dispatcher reinforces the 1954 timeframe on the layout. Trains move via timetable-and-trainorder (TT&TO), while cars are routed based on Old Line Graphics car cards and fourcycle waybills. Only the few passenger trains are on schedules, so most trains run on written orders as extras. The modeled standard gauge Mountaineer even follows the actual schedule set by the D&RGW in 1954! The dispatcher uses a train sheet and a magnetic location board to monitor train movements.
Because the layout is set in an era before good roads and wholesale trucking, stock trains are an important facet of op sessions. During the simulated springtime sessions, standard gauge carloads of livestock arrive in Olathe from Grand Junction and Montrose, are reloaded into narrow gauge stockcars and are delivered to Romely Loop where they are unloaded and allowed to pasture in Colorados high country. The fall sessions reverse the process.
Another interesting twist is the movement of company coal. Since the Rio Grande steam engines were coal burners, having enough coal in the various coal tipples was very important! Otherwise, trains didnt run if there was a lack of fuel. To simulate this, Greg has a company coal mine at Gage Pass (Summit Mine) that loads D&RGW GS-type gondolas with coal for delivery to both narrow and standard gauge tipples (and to locations off the layout). Upon arrival at a tipple, the gondola is unloaded. The operator simply marks a clipboard near the tipple as having received so many tons of company coal. Then as each steam locomotive fills up with coal (five tons for narrow gauge engines and 15 tons for standard gauge), the equivalent "coal amount" is erased from the clipboard. Woe to any yardmaster to run out of coal in their tipple!
Although scenery is in place on 100% of the layout, Greg plans on finishing more of the buildings and of course adding more sagebrush! Hes recently been installing background sounds to the layout, such as water tank and cattle pen noises. And there are also many more detailing projects planned for the future. In time, the rolling stock will become more weathered and get finer details, like individual grabirons and underbody details. With a great trackplan, well-running equipment, and attention to detail, the Montrose Division of the Denver & Rio Grande Western is fun to see and to operate.