Modular railroading retrospect and lessons learned

A look back at the St. Louis based Midwest Valley Modelers and their influences from Modutrak. What aspects would apply to a modern incarnation of the MWVM layout if it could be done over with the latest advancements within the hobby over the past 20 years? Ken Patterson, Christopher Palomarez, Dave Davis, Dirk Reynolds

Anderson Powerpole Connectors

After a long drafting process and a voting period, it was decided in June of 2015 to convert to Anderson Powerpole connectors. The Anderson Powerpole connector are replacing the Cinch Jones plugs for Track Bus and the trailer plugs for the Accessory Bus. A new bus, the "Booster Common" connection, was added which also uses Anderson Powerpole connectors.

The new standard went into effect July 1, 2015. All existing modules at that time had until July 1, 2016 to be converted to Anderson Powerpole connectors. Events held during the transition period had to ensure conversion cables were available where needed. Since this transition deadline now has passed, all Free-mo modules must use the Anderson Powerpole connectors for Track Bus and the Accessory Bus; and have the new "Booster Common" connection installed.

Build a Shoofly Scene

Shoofly module by M.C. Fujiwara

For those not aware, M.C. Fujiwara of Silicon Valley Free-moN wrote a marvelous article on how to build a shoofly scene in the November 2013 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist. I great read no matter what scale you model in.

Article and discussion available on the Model Railroad Hobbyist website and here on their discussion forum.

From the looks of it...more to come from Northern California!

DCC Friendly Turnouts

Modifying Walthers turnouts is an investment in time but worth the security it brings for operation with DCC. I have to confess that I wrecked the first Walthers turnout I tried to do the DCC friendly conversion to. After learning how to (and how not to) do it, I did OK with all the rest. It takes time and patience, but I liked the result including the fact that I could spread the points farther apart. I also filled the frog with epoxy so that narrower wheels didn't drop so much.

I'll undoubtedly continue doing the conversion in the future. It seems like it would be easy for Walthers/Shinohara to update their design. I suppose they have big money invested in the tooling for the present design, and probably not that many people really care.

I followed the directions at the web site

Detailing Track

Mike Cougill's excellent book, Detailing TrackOST Publications.

One thing you run into with the attainable layouts that I advocate is that they are...well....they're attainable.  Sooner rather than later you'll have them up and running.  I'm seeing abundant proof of that from the photos I receive on a weekly basis.  Once you do have a layout that runs reliably, the next step is to pick small sections that catch your fancy and upgrade them, and your modeling skills at the same time.   One avenue you can go down, and one I find relaxing is detailing your track.  I'm assuming that most of you are using Walthers, Peco, or Atlas flex track to start.

I don't advocate removing massive sections of existing rail at a time.  What I do suggest is pulling up eighteen inches or so of tangent track somewhere, perhaps at the end of a spur,  and play around with super detailing.  Abandoned rail is a common (and seldom modeled) aspect of the rail scene.

The Mental Health Benefits of Pushing Your Hobby Limits


I’ve known Trevor Marshall for many years.  He’s always been a good modeler.  As good as he was when I first saw his work, he’s an even better modeler now.  He’s always pushing his own personal limits.  Case in point are the photos to the right and below.  One of the most difficult skills to master (and most dramatic if you do) is effective ground cover.  Note the impact of his newly acquired skills in the images of his recent work.   My point is that it’s not so much this latest addition to his skill set but rather his lifelong attitude of always improving that is key.  Trevor's latest venture is his new blog, "Achievable Layouts".

Rethinking Furgeson Yard

There has been more mental growth within Free-mo to better define tolerances and adhere to them. I am no exception when it comes to finding modules that have areas of track that are hard for finer scale and detailed models to compensate. Some nasty track is pretty intentional as I was after depicting FRA accepted track on a team track. For the most part, that area was very successful. Unfortunately, areas of the Main Line on Furgeson Yard are falling below standard. All this has started the process of how I should fix it or if I should start over fresh and clean, do the job right from the very start. I have gained much more knowledge about working with tighter tolerances and feel much more comfortable with experimenting with materials that were unheard of to me a few months ago. Beyond reliability I started wondering if my yard design in general was what I envisioned or if it falls short.

Things I like about Furgeson:

Has DCC Failed Us?

Digging around in the multitude of electronic gadgetry I take to setups the other day, I rediscovered a few things I forgot I had. Perhaps I'm alone in this, or perhaps...? An elderly DT100 with a broken knob, and a Buddy Throttle, woah remember those? At this point both Digitrax misfits, gone the way of VHS. I found my LocoBuffer still in translucent project box and 25 pin serial connector. The DCS100 and DB150 I have are still going strong although the DCS100 had to be repaired a few years ago. Going through what some may classify as e-trash, I started to wonder, "has DCC fulfilled it's promise for BETTER control of our trains?" With the word "better" meaning also more enjoyment in our niche of modular railroading.

Now What? Following Up on a Successful Launch

By far the biggest obstacle facing the entry level modeler is overcoming inertia, getting that first layout off the launching pad, and operating reliably.   Doing so is an enormous achievement.  Things flow much easier after hitting that first milestone.  The primary reason I’m an advocate for smaller, simpler layouts going in is that it stacks that odds of success in your favor.

Over the past year I’ve gotten more and more emails and photos of well done first attempts that are up and running.  The sense of satisfaction obtained by these modelers is very evident.

So,  you’ve got that modest switching layout up and running smoothly.  Now what?  What’s the next step?  How do you maintain that positive momentum?  This is a hobby and the only measure of success is how much satisfaction you extract from it.  My experience is that satisfaction is generally tied to a relaxed but generally upward trending level of skills and knowledge.   By relaxed I mean really relaxed.  That said, if you there is no upward movement at all, stagnation tends to set in.   Here are a few ideas for that next step: 

A rural New Jersey interchange for Freemo

An excellent Railroad Model Craftsman Magazine article on how Otto M. Vondrak approached designing a Free-mo module set for modeling Hampton Jct. on the DL&W/CNJ. A great read no matter what railroad you model!

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman.

May 11, 2013 Free-mo Setup in San Luis Obispo, CA

A group in San Luis Obispo, CA. has been working on establishing a Railroad Museum ( for the last 5 or 10 years. The museum is due to open in the Frieghthouse in San Luis Obispo in October of 2013. They have been working on restoring the freighthouse that was built in 1894. As part of the National Train Day celebration the museum sponsored an event at the freighthouse. Free-mo SLO organized a layout in the freighthouse. We had participants from San Luis, Norcal and LA Free-mo groups. The main room in the freighthouse is about 31 feet by 75 feet. Our layout used a space about 25 feet by 53 feet.

A St. Louis Style Junkyard on a Free-mo

Mike Budde of St. Louis, MO, was featured in the November 2007 issue of (the now defunct) Railmodel Journal. For a simple trackplan, this module is really an outstanding example of the principles of Free-mo. Sometimes the mundane details can be overlooked. Mike really accomplishes modeling the out of service spur beautifully. The VW Junkyard demonstrates Mike's incredible eye for detail, and his modeling skill to replicate it.

A thought that this module set gave, and it mirrors what Lance Mindheim discusses in his blog; not every industry needs to have an active spur and currently being serviced by rail.  Having a remnant of rail service, foundation of a buisiness now gone, rusty rails burried into dirt, etc. develop a sense of history.

One Turnout Layout

Lance Mindheim presents the "One Turnout Layout". Very informative and presents a simplified approach to the hobby. Best part is...that layout plan looks like it could easily be a Free-mo! We gotta get Lance to plan some modules. What do you guys think?



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Paso Robles Setup 1995

Lance's manifest power rolls over the Piru bridge.

Flinging open the car door and disengaging the seatbelt simultaneously, I hurl myself out of the driver's seat. Giving the modules a quick once over from outside the window looking in "WHEW, nothing was damaged!" Making my way inside the setup hall, I find my cohorts, hand on their chins, holding the layout plan with a worried look on their face. As I walk toward them I overhear murmurs of "Are we going to actually be able to fit this?"  staring at the "L" shape outlined with masking tape on the concrete floor. They pause for a moment to acknowledge my arrival, only for them to discover my T-shirt inscription. "YOUNG FART" it proclaimed very loudly. Apprehension dissolves to loud outbursts of laughter. I think this might actually be a fun setup.

Western Reserve and Southeast Michigan Free-Mo set-up at the Lodi, Ohio Outlet Mall

Here are links to some video clips taken during the Western Reserve and
Southeast Michigan Free-Mo set-up at the Lodi, Ohio Outlet Mall.

An Amtrak train made up of heritage railroads' passenger cars passes
through Wheatland Junction on the Free-Mo layout set up at the Lodi, OH
Outlet Mall, April 21, 2013.

San Bernadino, April 13 & 14 2013

There was a Free-mo setup at the Western Prototype Modelers Meet in San Bernardino, Calif. on April 13 & 14 2013.


Here is a message and link to a video from Gary green.


I uploaded video I took at the WPM/SB Museum Free-mo setup on April 13 & 14.I decided to try out Vimeo to see how well it works. I think that the conversion of my video from 60i to 30 fps made the video look a bit jumpy. Maybe next time I'll record at 30 fps to see if it makes a difference.

Reexamining the Concept

Free-mo has come a very long way since 1995 when I first launched The standard was very much in it's infancy. Just a critical few modules were in an operable state and far from complete. I have taken on an assignment about the history of free-mo for an upcoming project. Having been on a Free-mo sebatical of sorts, as of late, has given me a fresher perspective then one that I had just 5 years ago. Further, reading some of the haphazard articles I wrote when I was a mere 18 (half my life ago) has really been a nostalgic activity. I must say that there certainly is a feeling of excitement again for setting up my modules. I look forward to working on them and enhancing them to a more complete state. Approaching my modules again reminded me of a famous quote "Art is never finished, only abandoned." - Leonardo da Vinci

Realism 101: Scene Composition

A southbound local passes bridge E8, south of Bloomington, IN on my old n scale layout.  I devoted a full thirteen feet to this 'boring' scene.   There were no industries, no turnouts, nothing but the field and stream modeled as they actually appeared.

A southbound local passes bridge E8, south of Bloomington, IN on my old n scale layout.  I devoted a full thirteen feet to this 'boring' scene.   There were no industries, no turnouts, nothing but the field and stream modeled as they actually appeared.

Of all of the factors that contribute to realism, at the top of the list is scene composition.  Scene composition refers to the size, shape, location and distance between elements we put on our layouts.  It also refers to which elements we chose to place in a scene.  Have you ever been riveted by a cleanly executed architectural model?  Even if the model is all white or gray you are drawn in because it is perfectly composed.   Such models drive home the impact of getting it right.  If you don't get it right, it can be hard to compensate regardless of how well you perform the rest of your efforts.

Element Spacing -  Crop, don't compress

At the top of the list is the spacing we place between elements.   This is where modelers typically put themselves behind the eight ball right out of the box.  Given our limited space, obviously there will have to be some compression.  However, if you take compression too far and place your elements too close together, your scene suffers.

Realism 101: Basic Neatness

(Photos and Modeling by Ron Griffin)

Scene composition and color treatment are the two largest contributors to realism.  That said, basic neatness in your modeling efforts does play a significant role as well, and it’s free. Because they are such visual focal points, extra care with structures particularly pays off.  Ron Griffin’s excellent modeling on this engine shed illustrates the point.  Notice the clean tight joints at the corners, the invisible seams where parts meet and the perfectly plumb downspouts.  There are no globs of glue or melted styrene oozing out.  The door frames are flush and squarely aligned.   You can accomplish a lot with respect to being neat simply be being aware of it. 

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