NEB&W Guide Planning & Decision Making

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Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents

This is some basic stuff intended to provide background for readers not familiar with our layout (it seems sort of redundant to put it here), but I originally wrote it for one of our books so here is.

The following is a discussion of how our club is governed, how decisions are reached and implemented, and what has worked and not worked for us. Since so much of what a club decides is related to their layout, I will also be including part of the planning process that we use. I've chosen to present this material chronologically in this chapter, and then analyze some conclusions we have reached, at the end.

The Rensselaer Model Railroad Society is a student club at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. The Society is run under the auspices of the Rensselaer Student Union. The Union is run by the RPI student body, electing student officers and an executive board to oversee the operation of the Union building (owned by the students, not the school) and some 140 student clubs. Clubs at RPI don't normally don't have facility advisors, and in most cases such as our club, facility who do join are technically associate members like any other nonstudent.

Although anyone may join the Society, either as a donor or a member, only the Rensselaer students can vote and hold office. Nonstudent members are considered guests of the Society and the Rensselaer Union, and are expected to support the overall goals and objectives of the Society.


The Society began in 1947, and built its first layout in the basement of the Pittsburgh Building. In 1962, we were asked to move to the basement of the University Building (formerly St. Joseph's Seminary, and now the site of the current Folsom Library). In 1968, another move resulted in a third layout being built in Building "B" of the People's Avenue Complex (the former St. Vincent's Guardian Angel Home for Wayward Girls, of which only H and J Buildings still stand). The first prototype influences were introduced into the design of this layout.

Like the two previous layouts, this third layout was a traditional one, where the tracks crisscross the scene at several elevations, so it wasn't possible to model scenes literally. For example, the city of Berkshire, which was supposed to represent Troy in a generalized sense, had the station squeezed between the freight yard in front and several lines that were eighteen inches higher, directly behind. This could only have been scenicked as a long rock wall or retaining wall, as the only way to treat such a vertical surface. This is such a drastic compromise to a model of Troy

Finally, when demolition threatened once again, in the fall of 1971, the Society began to examine other rooms for potential locations. For each location, we drew up a layout plan. At first we wanted to move the old layout intact. With each new design, we made greater changes, salvaging less of the old layout. At that time, master track planner John Armstrong published a plan of his layout in Model Railroader. His layout used a novel principle. It was designed for walk-around operation, with only a single mainline in each scene, and a backdrop to block the view of other scenes. This linear concept allows each scene to be modeled as accurately as possible, because you only have to deal with one mainline.

Rails Through Sage Falls

During this last year of the third layout (1971-'72), we tried several new things. Use of a display cabinet in the lobby of the Sage lecture hall allowed us to build a small diorama, "The Continuing Saga of Rails Through Sage Falls." Each week, we changed the display, showing the steps in construction. (To add humor to it, the HO scale figures were posed as if they were building it, using what would be to them, giant-sized tools.)

This module allowed us to attempt new scenery techniques.
See this section.

Change in Overall Philosophy

The third layout had been designed for overhead cab control, so that the mainline engineers would be seated up high so they could see their train during its entire run. Realizing we weren't going to get a chance to build the overhead cabs, we experimented with walk-around control. Everyone immediately decided this was the only way to run a railroad.

Finally, we attempted to bring more democracy into the club, by holding a formal weekly business meeting every Friday night. This proved to be a disaster. In any club there is a spectrum of involvement. Those members who could only participate an hour or two a week found their entire hobby time spent at politics rather than in modeling. Those who hated meetings felt compelled to attend because otherwise they would be left out of the decision-making.

The big changes in layout design threatened some members, yet at the same time, the impending move to an unknown location halted construction on a layout soon to be cannibalized. The club's energy became directed into infighting, and the club became polarized. This further led to pressure for all partisans to attend the hated Friday night meetings, less the other side would get the upper hand. Eventually the club split into two. One side wished for a more modest layout, of no standards of modeling whatsoever, "where freedom and spontaneity would reign." The other side wished to see a better layout, with even higher standards, to come out of the move.

The Student Union told us to reconcile our differences. When the space in Davison became available, it was decided that there would be two layouts. The second one, for those who wished one without constraints, was to have been built in what is now the lounge. This second one was never even started, as the entire membership became swept up in the excitement of the new grandiose layout.

We moved to the basement of Davison Hall in 1972. When we moved this last time, we essentially started over; a few buildings and bridges of the last layout are the only items reused on this layout. The old layout had been built with hand-laid Code 100 rail on eighth-inch (scale foot) wide balsa ties, so only the branch line trackage was considered salvageable, since this was Code 70 on narrower scale width ties. The branch line was moved, but this too was discarded only a few years later.

There were several decisions that were made for the new layout. Using scale rail precluded the use of the Rivarossi steam engines, with their oversized non-NMRA standard flanges. The turntable in the old Berkshire yard had been designed to be able to turn the largest of engines, including the Union Pacific "Big Boy" locomotives. On the new layout, the turntables were only long enough to handle reasonable-length locomotives likely to be seen in this area. In both cases, for the sake of visual realism, the ability of a member to run any piece of equipment was being curtailed.

On the old layout, we had several coal mines located on the branch line. This is a hobby cliché. After some research, we found a definite statement in a geography book that there was NO coal at all mined in New York or New England, so it became impossible to justify these mines. This was the first use of prototype information to curtail the random selection of industries.

Whenever higher standards are mentioned, whether it be in terms of construction or of prototype fidelity, it is important to realize that this means ruling out some things, elements that don't meet these standards. Enforcing modeling standards in a club means that some people will be upset, especially if it's their items that are being ruled out. Raising standards is the hardest thing to do, as members justifiably feel that in effect there was an unwritten contract between them and the other members that is being breached.

Even in the above cases, no one had a Big Boy that was being ruled out, no one had built the coal mines that were being eliminated from the plan, yet hard feelings were created nonetheless. It would seem the ideal situation would be to start a club with the most rigid standards and then relax them as needed. Later on I'll discuss the approach we took with our "Green Dot/Tan Dot" operating session.

On planning the third and fourth layouts, we were often at a loss as to what industries to include. Many hours were spent thumbing through back issues of the hobby magazines to get ideas. One member, Jeff Otto, time and again encouraged us to research the prototype as the prime source of information. I remember there was a question about what ballast to use. The hobby magazines were saying choose a lighter color, as it reflects light along the running gear of the locomotive. Otto's answer was FIRST to find out what color our prototypes used, and THEN use the magazine advice to modify the color, but not to rely on the color choice solely in a vacuum. It took a long time for his philosophy to sink in, but eventually it became our creed.

The new layout was to be set in 1945. What this meant to the members at the time was that we would model such steam facilities as water towers and coaling towers as still intact, and more modern changes, such as piggyback ramps, would be as unobtrusive as possible. (Remember that in 1972, we were less than two decades from the steam-era world. Some of the graduate student members could even recall seeing steam in regular service. Today, many of the parents of our student members don't even remember those days, while for the students, the formation of Penn Central or Amtrak was before their time.)

Basic construction of the new layout occupied the full attention of the club for the first decade, and little attention was given to rolling stock. In order to have enough equipment to run the operating sessions in those days, anything that had wheels and Kadee couplers were allowed. There were no steam locos deemed suitable at the time, especially as one thing affecting the choice was cost. (In other words, brass was out of the question.)

The diesel roster included almost every unit except for the most outlandish, and even with that, the NEB&W roster had to be supplemented with units from other roads. We still hadn't settled on a steam-era paint scheme, as we were too cheap to buy custom decals, so we used a combination of Champ's O scale and HO scale assorted names. Freight cars lettered for our home road were a motley collection of junker cars acquired at train meets. (For example, at one point I think we have every make and model of 40 foot steel gons, with no rhyme or reason.)

In 1982, with the gold spike ceremony approaching, Jeff English kitbashed a brass DL&W 4-8-4 "Pocono" into the queen of the NEB&W fleet, a so-called "Taconic." This was the first time such effort and money had gone into a piece of rolling stock for the club road. It totally changed our attitude toward Berkshire Lines equipment. No longer would the club road get the castoffs and hand-me-down second rate pieces. The club desired the best.

For most of its existence, the Society was only open to the public during infrequently-held open houses. In 1988, the historical and educational value of the layout resulted in a decision reached between the membership and the Executive Board of the Union to open the layout to the public on a regular weekly basis. The Rensselaer Railroad Shop was established to help cover the operating and ongoing construction costs of the layout.

The Layout

The layout is set in September 1950, during the steam to diesel locomotive transition. This era is the twilight of America's great age of railroading, before interstate highways, jet travel, and the collapse of the Northeast smokestack industrial base. Some structures represent ones torn down as early as the 1930's, modeled in lieu of a vacant lot, although all the overall scenes are set in 1950. The engines, freight, passenger and other rolling stock are limited to those still in service as late as January 1, 1950, or built before December 31, 1953, so there is a four-year "window" for the equipment. This allows us to run all steam engines as appropriate for 1950, all diesels per 1953, or some mix representing an intermediate point in this transition.


Like just about every club, a fictitious name for the road was adopted from the start. I have heard a number of stories of how and why the "New England, Berkshire & Western" was chosen, but it dated back to 1947. One story was that there were members in the local area (hence the "New England" and the "Berkshire") and one from Ohio, hence the "Western". This story, and certainly the name itself, suggests an east-west road like the Boston & Maine or the Boston & Albany.

I've only seen a few pictures of the first two layouts, so I don't know all of what they contained. However, the regional influence seemed minimal, especially as this region is known for its dense foliage and photos show NO trees whatsoever. The hobby back then was hard-pressed to model forests. Tony Steele was the designer of the third layout, which clearly had D&H traces. During the short four-year existence of the third layout, Rutland traces crept in, too.

It should be understood that originally the use of these two prototypes was to give some realism to the NEB&W. The use of the NEB&W as a vehicle to model two separate roads was never set up as an ideal, and I wouldn't recommend it to other modelers. If we had to start over, knowing what we know now, would we still have an "NEB&W"? I have thought often of this question, and still don't have an answer. I would hate to give up modeling the features of either the Rutland or the D&H if we decided to model the other. However, since we don't plan on doing away with the NEB&W, the question is only theoretical.

We have wound up taking specific scenes from the Rutland RR in Vermont, and the paralleling Delaware & Hudson RR's line from Troy north and running on the other side of Lake Champlain. Each scene is copied as historically accurate as possible, but strung along the mainline of our fictitious line.

We've renamed the Green Mountains as the Berkshires to fit the nickname of the railroad, "the Berkshire Lines." After leaving Troy and passing through Saratoga, the NEB&W climbs up and over the Berkshires to reach "Lake Richelieu." Lake Champlain is renamed Richelieu, after the river that drains Champlain to the St. Lawrence. If you look at a map of our imaginary world, Lake Richelieu is shaped like Champlain upside-down. Champlain widens and flattens out at it north end, while Lake Richelieu is widest and shallowest at its southern end. The geometry of the layout rooms required us to model the scenes from the north end of Champlain, such as the causeway, at what would be the south end of the lake.

Some of the scenes are turned end-to-end, so that the real compass directions do not match those of our fictitious world. The arrangement of the scenes was partly dictated by the space available within the rooms.


Most clubs vote on many matters. We try to reach a consensus, talking most matters out to where the active members are either satisfied with the decision or at least not caring strongly enough to continue to argue.

There are two strengths that our club has. One is that only Rensselaer students can be officers (and can vote). This means that the members who have been in the club the LEAST amount of time, four years or less, are in charge. This keeps the club from developing longtime powerful members who resist change. The students are all willing to change things, while on the other hand, matters that were considered controversial when first introduced become traditional within a generation of students.

The other strength is the copying of specific scenes and large components of prototypes. The concepts of what we are modeling are two decades old, but we continue to refine how we model it. For example, Port Henry on the layout was only generally based on the real Port Henry until about 1993, when we ripped up what little we had, to build a more accurate version. We are now are well on our way to completion.

By showing members photos and maps of the real Port Henry, and educating them as to what they were seeing, they became more and more involved working on the scene. Rather than having to vote on each and every detail of the scene, with continuing arguing and politicking, we took several field trips to Port Henry. Even though so much has been torn down since steam days, members felt as if they were walking on the layout, and these field trips remotivated everyone.

In 1985, we voted to buy 650 "neb+w" modern box cars custom-decorated by Bev-Bel. Six hundred were to be sold, but 50 did not include the reporting mark number. The idea was that by adding numbers and assembling these "shake-the-box" Athearn kits, we could easily get 50 cars lettered for the club. However, although the vote was a large majority, no one person cared strongly enough to actually put together the kits.

A couple of years later, a small group of members wanted to start a specialized steam-era session, at a time when we only had a generic-era session. It was decided to build 20 "Green-Dot" box cars, which required extensive modifications to Athearn box cars. We called this project "The Gang Of 20." This project drew in quite a number of members to the steam-era session, partly because the end results were models to be proud of.

There are two lessons we learned from this experience. First of all, in a volunteer organization, unless at least one person is committed enough to the project to carry it through, even unanimous votes are meaningless. Also, completion of the neb+w cars was not motivating enough, as the end result looked like out-of-the-box cars, while the harder to build kitbashes were a better endpoint.

The hardest thing in any club is to say "no." If a member comes in with a building or piece of rolling stock, it is easy to say it is okay to add it or use it on the layout. It is difficult to say that it isn't appropriate to the layout. We at one time had a diesel roster that included:

  1. Diesels that were used on the Rutland or D&H (Alco units),
  2. Diesels that were available at that time as HO scale plastic models (EMD units),
  3. Diesels that were particular favorites of one or two of the members at the time (Baldwin, Fairbanks-Morse).

Therefore, our roster included just about everything. Narrowing this roster down to just Alco switchers and road switchers created enormous controversy, not because of the idea itself, but what had to be eliminated. Even now there is often pressure to make exceptions. We constantly get requests to add Alco FA's to the roster. After all, the Lehigh & New England was a small road that used these. But you look at from a prototype view, the FA and the RS basically shared the same mechanism, but a unit like an FA was unit-directional and harder to use in switching. Yes, the L&NE was neat, in due in part to their FA's, but that is the point - the use of FA's on the NEB&W would give our road a flavor of the L&NE, and therefore less flavor of what we are trying to capture. And if FA's, why not . . . ?

Bad modeling can drive out good modeling. We originally set up the "Green-Dot" standards because some members felt that their carefully crafted freight car models were being lost among a sea of ready-to-run and shake-the-box cars. By considering cars that are temporary stand-ins as "Tan-Dot" models, we can live with lower standards without threatening higher standards.

In this same vein, we think of a "prototype" NEB&W and our scale layout version as two separate things. In trying to get some steam locos to run during open houses (heavy duty service that is hard on delicate brass models, especially the paint), we temporarily used a Rivarossi USRA heavy Pacific. Now such an engine was pretty much limited to the Erie, but it bares some basic resemblance to the Rutland's heavy 4-6-2's (correct number of wheels and black body color). If we were modeling the Rutland and only the Rutland, we might just as well accepted the Rivarossi model as a stand-in. This doesn't alter the history of the Rutland, itself, as to how it gets modeled. Likewise, we don't alter the roster of the fictitious "prototype" NEB&W by using this model, and even gave it a number not on our roster to make the point clearer to those who worry about such things. Currently, we have an Athearn USRA light Pacific lettered NEB&W, as a stand-in for a model of the Rutland's light Pacific. The Rivarossi engine crapped out, so now we are looking at using their NYC Hudson, with some minor changes (different tender, substituting a two-wheel trailing truck for the four-wheel one to make it a Pacific). This might look too weedy (in which case we have an NYC loco for use in the Troy station area), but even at best, this is just a stand-in.