Scale Speed

17 04 2013

How fast should you run your trains? It’s one of those questions of personal opinion that can erupt into heated debate in some modeling circles. We’ll leave your idea of appropriate speeds up to you. There are certainly no posted speed limits on our model trains, but for those who are interested in reproducing a more accurate scale speed, this post should help.


Like the extended exposure on this photo, a model trains scale, our proximity to it, and other factors can create different impressions of speed.

Before you can determine what the appropriate speed is for model trains to be realistic, you need to think about what speeds are realistic for the prototype. And the truth is, that number can be anywhere from 1 to 150 miles per hour.

When switching for example, when switching cars in a yard, anything up to 4 mph is a coupling, 5+ mph is a collision. Geared locomotives like Shays and Heislers had a top speed of around 15 mph. Even a heavy mainline train on a steep grade might struggle to keep its speed above 20. Yet that same train could be rolling at nearly 70 on the level.


For a train like the Acela, full-throttle may not even be fast enough!

For passenger trains, speeds might be as slow as 30 or less on branch lines. Meanwhile, the Limited’s and streamliners might cruise at better than 100 down the mainline.

What’s “right” really depends on what you’re trying to model.

6-11368 Western Maryland

The Shay had a very modest top speed of about 15 mph. But with those three pistons and low gearing, they sounded like they were doing about 90 at that speed.

That being said, we can determine how fast our trains are really going. The numbers on the dial of your transformer or cab can give you some indication, but these rarely equate to the actual scale speed.

Instead, we can figure out our train’s speed in much the same way train crews once did: by timing the run between a fixed set of points. Train crews once used mile posts, or even telegraph poles, to help determine their speed. We’ll apply the same principle.


When 7002’s crew determined they set a record speed on 127.1 mph, they did so by timing the passing mile posts with their watches.

You can use almost anything to mark your speed zone on your railroad: telephone poles, sign posts, even just a dab of paint on a tie. All that matters is that the distance is correct and you and your other operators know where they are.

Next, simply time the train as it passes between the two points. You don’t need to be as accurate as a radar gun – these are just model trains after all – but even a general frame of reference can be helpful.

Now to make it really easy for you! Just use the tables below to determine your trains’ speed. We’ve figured this out for both O and S Scale by reducing miles / kilometers per hour into feet/meters per second. Just set your posts 3 feet or 1 meter apart. The times listed in this table are in seconds.

Print out a copy of this table (or make your own using only the data you need) and post it somewhere near the speed trap for reference. While the times are fairly precise, a good “guestimate” while you’re running should give you a pretty good perspective.

Give it a try – you might be surprised how fast, or how slow, you’re really running those trains.

15 6.55 8.73 15 11.52 15.36
20 4.91 6.55 20 8.64 11.52
25 3.93 5.24 25 6.91 9.21
30 3.27 4.36 30 5.76 7.68
35 2.81 3.74 35 4.94 6.58
40 2.45 3.27 40 4.32 5.76
45 2.18 2.91 45 3.84 5.12
50 1.96 2.62 50 3.46 4.61
55 1.79 2.38 55 3.14 4.19
60 1.64 2.18 60 2.88 3.84
65 1.51 2.01 65 2.66 3.54
70 1.4 1.87 70 2.47 3.29
75 1.31 1.75 75 2.3 3.07
80 1.23 1.64 80 2.16 2.88
85 1.16 1.54 85 2.03 2.71
90 1.09 1.45 90 1.92 2.56
95 1.03 1.38 95 1.82 2.42
100 0.98 1.31 100 1.73 2.3

Planting Fields

20 03 2013

As we usher in Spring, it will soon be time for planting. Fields of crops are an easy way to add a nice detail to any layout. They are also perfect for filling oddly shaped spaces of nearly any size. From backyard gardens to acres of farmland, these tips can be used in many applications, and even in multiple scales.

The fields you see here were completed on a pair of our full-width corner modules for our Lionel / LCCA FasTrack Modular Railroad over the course of two World’s Greatest Hobby shows.


After dampening, corrugated cardboard can be easily turned into the perfect base for farm fields.

Planting Rows

One of the keys to effectively modeling a planted field is maintaining even rows. Fortunately, there is an easy modelers trick that makes this easy. All you’ll need is some corrugated cardboard.

The corrugations will make perfect plant rows once you remove one of the face sheets. These smooth sheets are glued to the corrugated center. Fortunately, the glue is not very strong and is water soluble.  Spray a mist of water on one side of the cardboard. After the top layer is soaked, within a few seconds you should be able to easily pull it off the corrugated center strip. If it sticks and wants to tear, simply spray on a little more water.


Cover the cardboard with dirt to create the look of freshly plowed fields ready for planting.

Now all you need to do is glue the remaining cardboard onto your layout or scenery base. Some of our fields were glued directly to the wood top of the module. To create some subtle changes in elevation, others were propped up on a strip of foam core board that was handy. By softening the cardboard with water again, you can bend it to confirm to slopes and changes in the terrain to break that table-top look.

With the cardboard fields in place, the top is covered with soil first by coating with white glue and sprinkling on the turf. Then the scene is sprayed with alcohol and glued again with thinned white glue (50/50 with water). The alcohol breaks the surface tension and allows the glue to flow evenly.


Crops can be made from a variety of products.

You can begin planting your crops even before the thinned glue has dried, or you can wait. Apply another bead of full strength white glue to the top of a ridge and press on individual clumps of thicker ground foam. When one row is finished, go to the next.

If the foam clusters are loose, you can apply another alcohol / thin glue spread. You can vary the color and size of the foam plants or even use other materials to create a wide variety of crops.



A little drywall compound helps build subtle scenic contours. Don’t worry, it dries white!

Crops don’t grow without water. Even on a “flat” module, you can create the look of irrigation with some simple contours built up on the base. These can be done by raising portions of the terrain as described above, or by creating mounds and contours with a little drywall mud. You can learn more about creating a scenic base with water in mind, as well as mixing and applying this plaster coating in our display diorama pages.

To add a final touch, some simple culverts were made from aluminum foil. This is a great tip to make culverts for a variety of scenes or even pipe loads for your trains. Choose a bolt with a diameter that works for your job (not all pipes are the same size.)


These little drainage pipes are easy to make and add a nice detail.

Cut a rectangular strip of heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap it around the bolt clockwise (this makes it easier to wind and “unscrew” the finished pipe.) The ends should overlap.

Now start at the end of the bolt and press the foil into the threads with your fingernail. When finished, twist the foil pipe off of the bolt just like you were undoing a nut. The resulting pipe has a great texture and scale thickness. You can carefully trim the pipes to smaller lengths with a sharp hobby knife.

The pipes can be pressed into the drywall mud while still wet to secure them into the scenery. You can also attach them to other surfaces with white glue.


Weeds, a dirt road and freshly turned earth are just the beginning of more details that can be added to complete the scene.

Details and Finishing Touches

These modules were finished using the same general scenery application techniques. This included some bare fields, ballast for the FasTrack, and an assortment of weeds and grasses to complete the look. You could easily take the details farther. Add a scarecrow, tractor, some workers in the fields – let your imagination grow!


The finished scene covers two of our full-corner modules. The field on the left has been left unfinished to help show construction techniques.

Freight Car Friday – Barrel and Culvert Cars

15 03 2013

This week we look at some more of our favorite “fictional freight” cars. Both of these variations on the gondola first came into the Lionel line in the 1950s and we’re still producing variations of these and the accessories that go with them today.

The Barrel Car

Barrel Car

The Southern barrel car is a modern version of this operating classic.

The first Operating Barrel Car appeared in 1954. The No. 3562 car was lettered for the Santa Fe. The classic car featured a vibrating ramp which unloaded the wooden barrels by shaking them to the top where a figure waited to push them off the side. Produced from 1954 to 1958, the cars’ colors changed over the years but the basic appearance and operation remained the same. In more recent years, we’ve reproduced some of the older cars as well as new schemes.


The steadfast worker was aided by a vibrating ramp on the car.

By railroad standards, no company would have devoted this much engineering and weight for a car with such limited carrying capacity (6 wood barrels.) And of course you had to feel for that poor worker has he clung to his post while the train raced around the platform between stops. Regardless of these minor liberties, the car offered a ton of play value, especially when combined with the barrel loader accessory.

CN Barrel Car

The Canadian National car featured barrels of “maple syrup.”

A more modern variation on the car features a ramp mounted on a flat car. Gravity, rather than the vibrating ramp, is the primary aid in unloading this new car. Although more “efficient” than the 1950s design, this car would still leave a car builder shaking his head. We’ve also made this car in several roadnames with barrels “filled” with everything from maple syrup to reindeer feed.

The Culvert Car

Culvert Car

The Culvert Car features a more simple design.

Like the Barrel Car, this is another variation on the common gondola. First introduced in 1956, the Culvert Car featured a metal ramp inside a traditional gondola body. Designed to work with the culvert loader and unloader accessories, the car was definitely the most technologically simple element of the set. Although again, there would be no prototypical need for this ramp inside the car, it did make the functioning of the accessories, and hence the play value of the models, much better.

culvert loader

Action accessories make all of these “unprototypical” cars a load of fun!

The early versions of the car came decorated for the New York Central. Our most recent version was lettered for Bethlehem Steel and there have been others in between. Beyond that, there were very few variations in the car’s production.

Like Searchlight and Aquarium cars, all of these models are a stretch of prototype practice. But hey, the rivet counters can’t have all the fun!

Modeling Sand and Surf

13 03 2013

As part of our display at the recent World’s Greatest Hobby shows, we completed the scenery on four corner modules of our Lionel / LCCA FasTrack Modular Railroad. Not only did this help us fill in some of the “bare tables,” it was a great way to introduce new modelers to some very easy yet effective scenery techniques. Over the next three weeks, we’ll provide you with the same step-by-step instructions here.


Life’s a beach when you’re modeling! Learn how to make scenery like this.

All of our modules already have an assigned spot in their shipping containers so scenery had to have a low profile. All of these scenes will work very well with your portable or temporary layouts as well. Taller elements like trees, vehicles or even buildings can be made removable for storage and transport.

Since two of our venues were right on the California coast, it only seemed right to make one of our modules a beach! This scene was completed on one of the full-width corner modules. It features some very basic ground cover and terrain and of course a little water – all useful scenery techniques whether you’re adding a quite beach like this, or modeling other locales.

Creating the Beach

Beaches aren’t typically associated with radical changes in elevation, but any scene looks a little better if it’s not completely flat. To give our sand a little contour and to keep the beach a little higher than the water, a low base was built from cardboard. These cardboard sheets were simply recycled from packaging for our trade show shipping.

With the track already fastened to the module, all I had to do was lay the cardboard over top and cut along the profile of the FasTrack ballast with a utility knife. Hold the knife at a 45° angle to accommodate the profile of the ballast. An exact fit is not critical.

The sides were then cut to match the edges of the module and the ocean-side of the beach was cut freehand, again on an angle to provide an easy slope to the sand. Additional “dunes” were built up from smaller pieces of cardboard stacked on top.

Glue the cardboard to the module and to subsequent layers with white glue. Place tools, books or anything else flat, heavy and handy on top for a few hours until everything is dry.

Painting the Base

With the base for our scenery in place, it’s time to paint. I selected two colors of paint, one sandy the other a deep ocean blue, from the cards at the local home center. Since you won’t need much for this project, just purchase the small sample sizes of each. The cans cost about $2.00 each and provided more than enough material for this module.


After a coat of paint, the beach begins to take shape.

Since this project is small, you can get away with latex paint. If you are working with a larger canvas, you may want to use oil paints so you have more working time to blend the colors. I opted for a flat finish on the sand and a semi-gloss on the water. We’ll be increasing the gloss later. Note that the exact colors aren’t critical here. Get something that looks right to you.

Begin by painting the ocean. Here paint was applied directly to the wood platform. (You could add texture with plaster or drywall compound if desired, but since I was keeping it simple and working in an open public space, I kept the steps and the mess to a minimum.) Paint up to within about 3/4 inch from the beach.

Next, before the blue paint dries, begin painting the sandy beach. Start away from the water and cover all of that ground first.


Blending the sand and blue colors yields a smooth transition to “deeper” water.

Now comes the fun part. Don’t try to paint a smooth, crisp line between the sand and the water. Instead, simply keep painting the sand right into the ocean. You’ll begin to see the paints mix right on the module. Keep working, feathering the two colors together for as sharp or gradual a transition as you’d like. It doesn’t have to be even all the way around, and in fact it will look better with irregularities.

The only important thing is to mix these colors while both colors are still wet. If you think you’ve feathered too much, pick up another drop of blue. Too little, grab another drop of sand. You’re friends will be amazed by your painting skills, but you really can’t screw this up!

It helped that our hall in San Diego was quite humid, providing a little extra working time. Again, if you are covering a larger area, or if you just like a longer working time, go with oil paints. You’ll have all the time you need – just remember you’ll have to wait at least a day or two before moving on to the next step.

Sand and Ground Cover


Sand and other ground cover add texture.

You can begin adding sand to the beach while the paint is still wet if desired. (Just be careful to keep it out of the water.) You can use real sand, or choose a commercial ground foam product of similar color. I ended up doing the latter since the local sand appeared too dark when applied inside.

Once you’ve covered your beach, simply adhere the sand with some diluted white glue (50% glue / 50% water). Spray the area first with isopropyl alcohol to break the surface tension of the glue. For more detailed instructions on this simple ground cover technique, see our blog pages on scenery and ballasting. While you’re doing the sand, you can add other ground cover and ballast around the tracks as well.


You’ve already applied the base for the water, now it’s time to make it “wet.” There are lots of methods for making realistic water. Again, because these scenes were completed in a public setting, the easiest, least-messy, least-smelly option was the way to go.


Several coats of clear gloss bring up the shine. You can also add some swells with partial coats.

Start by applying a coat of clear gloss finish. Again, I found a small jar of latex clear coat at the home center for a few dollars. Get the most glossy finish you can find.

Apply several coats of this clear finish until you’ve built up a smooth, even shine. Allow each coat to dry before adding the next. By the time I was finished, I think there were at least five coats on the base. Because I was using latex, each coat was dry enough to paint over within an hour or two. (Probably sooner, but after a while it is hard to tell when it is still wet vs. just looking wet – which is of course the whole idea!)


Apply water effects in beads and stipple with a brush.

This will give you a nice, calm ocean or lake. If you don’t want to go any further, you can stop right here. But I wanted a few waves for our ocean. None of these are going to make the surfers very happy, but the effects to give the water some life.

I used Woodland Scenics Water Effects to create the waves. Simply squirt a bead of the compound in a line where you want your wave. Then feather the wave back using a stippling motion with your paint brush.


The finished water has both texture and shine, all with little mess or work.

Repeat this process over and over to create the water surface. For taller waves, you can come back with additional coats after the first dries overnight. Note that the effects look like white glue when they go on. But like glue, they dry clear.

When you are happy with the results, you can give the scene one or two more coats of gloss to bring up the shine. Then, if you’ve created some good waves, dry brush a little white paint on their crests to provide a highlight.

Final Details


Palms and grasses help complete the scene.

Our beach still looked a little barren, so I added a few more simple details to bring it to life. Tall grasses and reeds are made from commercial grass products. Simply cut the fibers to length and glue them to the scenery.

For some taller trees, two palms from JTT Enterprises were added. Simply drill a hole in the beach and insert the palms. You could glue these in place, or leave them as a tight dry fit so they can be removed for transport like ours.

You could of course go further. This scene would be a natural for more details like swimmers, sun bathers, a sand castle – let your imagination run wild!