June 30, 2022

Washington Avenue RR branch switching arrangement in Pennsylvania

This template is the inspiration for the Washington Avenue layout. A photo that Eric found in a Facebook group called Old Images of Philadelphia led him to research and build the model. The model was featured in the September 2015 issue of Model Railroader.

When I first moved to Wisconsin to start working for Model Railroader, my family and I were in a two bedroom apartment. I had built a freestanding Pennsylvania RR arrangement in my apartment in Pennsylvania that filled a 7 x 11 foot section of our long apartment living room. It was essentially a donut, with a section built like a shadow box facing the rest of the room.

When we moved here the entertainment center had to go up against the wall, but I still had an area 8 feet long by 16 inches deep in which I could build something. While looking around on Facebook, I came across a group called Old Pictures of Philadelphia. Some of the footage showed railroad scenes, so I joined the group. Some of the railroad scenes were photos shared from PhillyHistory.org, so I went over there and started looking around, and that’s where I discovered Washington Avenue.

Pink extruded foam insulation board layout surface with Atlas code 83 flexible track and plastic buildings for design preservation
Eric started out with a train shed built at the end, but the desire to quickly get something aesthetically pleasing on this living room layout led him to reuse older kits as replacements for some of the buildings. The beige building at the front will be the offices of a coal and oil merchant with a concrete coal quay at the front of the grid. The group of buildings in the background is the John Wanamaker Furniture Factory. The area in front of the freight hall will be a warehouse according to photos pasted on the back of the shadow box.

Washington Avenue was known for its rough surface, even due to the dilapidated standards of large cities in the Northeast. Even in the 1980s, there were four tracks in the middle, and the pavement on either side of those tracks seemed like an afterthought. The tracks branched off to buildings left and right along the road, and in the 1970s, streetcar tracks crossed at semi-regular intervals.

Online inspiration

Photos taken by the Philadelphia Water Department make up the bulk of the PhillyHistory.org photo collection. The photos were taken to document the condition of the sewers and the roads that flow into them, as well as the buildings served by the water service. It is a gold mine of urban landscapes. Most of the photos were taken in the 1910s to 1920s, but there are photos from the early 1960s to document changes to the roads and the infrastructure buried beneath them.

    Atlas code 83 turnouts on the installation surface of the pink extruded foam insulating panel
All switches were welded together and placed in their final positions on the Washington Avenue layout. Now is the time to cut and adjust the sections of flex track between and beyond the turnouts. The staging tapes will extend from the lower left and middle right ends of the layout. The layout slides out of place in the entertainment center for maintenance and work that’s best done outside, or at least not in the living room.

One of the most striking photos I found was the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad train shed on the corner of South Broad Street and Washington Avenue. The PW&B eventually became part of the Pennsy, and its South Broad station was the city’s gateway to the south until PRR built its Broad Street station in the late 19th century. When Broad Street first opened, South Broad Station became a freight house. There must have been a lot of freight traffic because PW&B already had a freight house next to their passenger station.

The huge arched window at the end of the train shed inspired me to model it (see the September 2015 issue of Model Railroader). I knew I couldn’t model the whole building, so I aimed for an apartment that might go against an opening in the entertainment center, which would allow me to spot the cars inside. from the train shed. Because there was only one hole at the left end of the entertainment center at the time, I built a mirror image of the train shed, and after that the entire layout is a mirror image of the prototype.

Entertainment center with illuminated shelving arrangement in upper half, staging cassette attached to left side
Eric built the entertainment center of his home in Pennsylvania with the help of his uncle. When he moved to Wisconsin, he started a new shelving arrangement while he was shopping, then began to prepare a basement for a larger arrangement. Living room layouts can be a way to share modeling with the family. Small layouts can keep you motivated and involved while room prep continues for a larger layout.

In addition to the photos on PhillyHistory.org, I found a cache of Sanborn Fire Insurance cards in the Penn State University Libraries Digital Collection at library.psu.edu/about/collections/digital-map-drawer. There are maps of the whole state. If you’ve never looked at a map of Sanborn, they give an accurate representation of the location of railroad tracks and the buildings that line them. It helped me fill in the rest of the layout with plausible industries. Of course, I didn’t have room for all the companies along the branch, so I chose industries that would create interesting scenes and allow for a good variety of freight cars.

Choose and choose industries

In addition to the freight house, I planned a warehouse that bordered an edge of the freight house’s yard. I also have a two-track team track and a furniture factory complex. These industries are at the back of the grid, behind the two-track main line, which I had room for with my 16 inch depth. The main line tilts past the edge of the entertainment center at the far end of the freight house, to center in a hole I cut in the center of the opposite end after moving from our apartment. The only industry at the front of the network is a coal and oil merchant.

HO scale freight house set up on the layout with reference photos pasted to the backdrop stand behind
Eric finally placed the freight shed in its intended position when he restarted the Washington Avenue project in his home. Photos pasted on the back of the layout area show scenes and planned buildings found on the PhillyHistory.org website.

Other than the freight house, none of the models are an exact replica of the prototype. The differences in space available, as well as the lack of detailed information, made this the path of least (if not least) resistance.

Layout construction

At each end is a 4 foot long staging cassette. On the cargo hall side, the cassette bolts to the layout, but at the opposite end the cassette is hinged so it can fall out. Three drawers are integrated into the grid bench that sits on the surface of the entertainment center. The implantation surface consists of two layers of 2 inch extruded foam insulation board. This brings the surface of the layout to the bottom of the holes at the ends of the entertainment center.

HO scale two-lane main line with siding right in front of brick buildings
To the right is the John Wanamaker Department Store Furniture Factory. To the left is a coal and oil merchant whose name is not yet known. The plywood sections at the ends of the network allow a more secure attachment of the tracks where they cross the end of the network.

The track is all laid and an NCE PowerCab system provides power. Right now, this system is temporarily plugged in so I can swap out a DC power supply for home product testing during the pandemic. The trail is Atlas code 83 which I picked up from my old network, and the switch frogs are powered by Tam Valley Depot Hex Frog Juicers. I have a switch to isolate them when the layout is supplied with DC current.

End view of layout with staging cassette in foreground, opening at end of Cargo Home Entertainment Center
The three tracks of the freight hall extend beyond the end of the route. In the foreground is the two-track staging tape. The relief on the layout surface allowed Eric to place the main line at a slight angle to the leading edge, creating a more dynamic scene.

The next big project is the creation of a coved backdrop. I’m halfway through creating the 0.020 inch styrene backdrop. When this is finished, I plan to use black and white photos from PhillyHistory.org to complete the street scenes where the cross streets retreat into the backdrop. The sky will be gray. No matter what you may have heard, the weather is not always good in Philadelphia!


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