NEB&W Layout Guide - Introduction

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Layout Guide Table of Contents


The Rensselaer Model Railroad Society is a student club at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. RPI is one of the oldest engineering schools in the country, founded by Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1824. The Society is run under the auspices of the Rensselaer Student Union. Although anyone may join the Society, either as a donor or a member, only the Rensselaer students can vote and hold office. Non-student members are considered guests of the Society and of the Rensselaer Union, and are expected to support the overall goals and objectives of the Society.

Rensselaer Central

The Society traces its roots back to the Rensselaer Central. In 1938, RPI acquired a live-steam loco as a student project. A club was formed, the Rensselaer Central, to build tracks and operate the engine. The tracks were across from the Armory, where the RPI Playhouse is now.

During WWII, the Navy ran students through in a 6-month crash course. The club disbanded, the engine was stored, and eventually buildings were constructed where the tracks had been. After the war, efforts to get the club reactivated never succeeded. (Despite persistent rumors that the engine is still buried somewhere in some sub-basement, apparently it was sold around 1960. We have been unable to trace its fate.)

More detailed information from actual members of the Rensselaer Central.

The Society

Instead of live steam, an HO gauge club was formed in 1947, the Rensselaer Model Railroad Society, and built its first HO 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, now the site of the current Folsom Library). In 1968, another move resulted in a third layout being built in B Building of the Peoples Avenue Complex (the former St. Vincent's Guardian Angel Home for Wayward Girls, of which only H and J Buildings still stand).

Finally, when demolition threatened once again, the Society 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.

For most of its existence, the Society was only open to the public during infrequently-held open houses. In 1988-'89, 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 basis. However, as of 2004, we have come to the realization that there is not the financial support for this, while the constant complaints from the general public has been very disheartening. Therefore we have decided to close the layout to the general public (whether as groups or individuals) and just focus on having fun.

The Rensselaer Railroad Shop was established to help cover the operating and on-going construction costs of the layout. The Shop carried products of interest to HO scale steam-era modelers. Starting with the information gained from working on the layout, (and going far beyond in terms of era and region), in 1995, we began publishing a series of modeling guides on freight cars, scenery, structures, and details, about the real prototypes and the variety of ways to model them. Around 2000, we decided instead to make this information available on line, on this web site, for a fraction of the cost of purchasing all the books. More information on the history of the Society.

Members Photo Gallery

See this section.

Physical Facilities

See this section.

Earlier Layouts

See this section.

The Present Layout

The layout is housed in a space 33 feet wide by 123 feet long. The layout is about 500 feet long, with the mainline over seven scale miles long. (A scale mile is just over 60 feet long.) See Eddie Lau's virtual tour - first draft.

The scale is HO, where one foot equals 87 feet of the real thing (the prototype). This is about half the size of Lionel, which is called O gauge, hence HO means Half-O. HO scale is by far the most popular in the hobby of scale model railroading, representing about 85% of the model railroaders. N scale is about half the size of HO, and is the second most popular scale, at about 10%.

The layout is set in September 1950, during the steam to diesel locomotive transition. (We claim to be fully Y1.95K compliant.) 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. We also refer to this as the "Downtown Century" as it represents the time when the downtown was "the place to be", not the often neglected, semi-abandoned inner city of today. See this section for more on the Downtown Century.

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.

Early Views


We have taken 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 (particularly as featured in club alumni Jim Shaughnessy's book on each road). Each scene is copied as historically accurate as possible, but strung along the mainline of the fictitious New England, Berkshire & Western RR (NEB&W). The NEB&W name dates back to the start of the club in 1947.

We've renamed the Green Mountains to 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 its 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. More information on the fictitious history of the NEB&W and NEB&W Time Line.

With the NEB&W route naturally divided between the steep grades of the Berkshires and the basically water-level grades along Richelieu, at the mid-point a "balancing yard" was built to change motive power and to balance the length of the trains appropriate for each division.

Whenever you face the layout, you are looking west, with south to your left and north to your right. 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 by the rooms. The following descriptions of the various scenes are of the prototype histories, not as they have been changed to fit in the world of the NEB&W. In most cases, it merely means substituting NEB&W for either Rutland or D&H.

Also see A Historical Sketch of the NEB&W R.R. and NEB&W Time Line for a fictional history.


Almost all of our track is hand-laid, using smaller scale- sized rail than is found in HO train sets. We use Code 83 (0.083 inches high) rail for the mainline, which represents 132 lb. rail. Code 70 (100 lb.) and Code 55 (80 lb.) are used for sidings and spurs. We have no idea how much actual track is on the layout although the mainline by itself about 500 feet long.

Lines are drawn on the front panel to represent the trackage, with colors designating primary and secondary track. The push-buttons control the track switches (called "turnouts"). Each turnout is activated underneath by either a snap-action solenoid (old system) or by a slow-action Tortoise switch motor. The turnouts are made up from commercial castings (no longer available) and pieces of rail.

Electrical System

The layout was designed on the walk-around principle, to give the sense of linearity like a real railroad, instead of running in circles like the train set under the Christmas tree. The entire layout can be run from any throttle plug-in, although the engineer normally follows along with the train to maintain visual contact. When a throttle is unplugged, the loco continues to run, but of course, until the throttle is plugged into a new spot, the engineer has no control over the train. In 1998, the club switched to DCC, "digital carrier control", a system rapidly gaining acceptance hobby-wide. (More info on the club's electrical system.)

Construction of the layout has been funded in part by New York State's Urban Cultural Parks Program.