Articles Dioramas Models Layouts My Club Links N.G.D.U. Exhibitions HOME



on the Rio Grande Southern

This layout was featured in the April 2009 issue of  'NARROW GAUGE DOWNUNDER'

On the prototype “Rio Grande Southern”, a three foot narrow gauge railroad, located in the rugged San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado, “SAN MIGUEL” was located at milepost 43.7 and at an altitude of approximately 8500 feet, and was on the branch to Telluride. Located only a mile and a half before Telluride, it was only a passing siding with a 25 car capacity. The mining town of San Miguel City was established near here in 1878, but disappeared early in the railroads history*.

 Now to my version of the “Rio Grande Southern” or how to re-write history. When I was researching stations along the ‘Southern’ with the aim of designing my new switching layout, none were suitable as most R.G.S. stations were through stations with a small amount of switching. In reality, the R.G.S. was a feeder line that carried ore and precious metals, mining equipment, livestock to and from the “Denver & Rio Grande Western” railroad.  

And I was looking for a station design that had very intensive switching, as my layout was to be displayed at model railroad exhibitions where myself and other operators would switch the layout for up to eight hours each day for two or three days in a row.  As none of the prototype was suitable I decided to design a generic Rio Grande Southern station, probably at the end of a branch where switching would have been more active.


Before putting pen to paper, or in these days of computerization, fingers to keyboard and ‘Computer Aided Design’ programs, I needed to list my design criteria for the layout. This enables me to know the restrictions that I face and what requirements of must haves and would like to haves. Some of these I have listed opposite: 

Name:                San Miguel on the RIO GRANDE SOUTHERN

Scale:                  On3  (¼” to the foot with a 3’ gauge track)

Track;                  Hand laid code 70 on wooden ties

Control system: Lenz DDC with DC back up

Min. Radius:       48 inches (1220 mm)

Turnout Size:     No. 7 stub

Layout Size:       Must fit in my transporting trailer whose dimensions are 82” long (2080mm) by 44” wide (1120mm) by 30” high (750mm)

Height to Track:  45”  (1150 mm)  



RGS style depot, tank and out buildings.

Excellent running qualities

Minimum of one passing siding 

Minimum of x switching locations                    

At least two sidings in each direction

Switching card system to simulate prototype switching.

An efficient off scene but in view storage area for full trains.  



A second passing loop

An area that represents the town of San Miguel (in 3D & 2D)

The ability to incorporate the layout into a future home layout.



We never have enough space for our layouts, but with an exhibition style layout we are severely restricted by the transporting capabilities. In my case I have a trailer with a box on it that measures 82” x 44” x 30” high. And it is desirable that all the layout bits including the back scene boards lights and brackets, curtain, power leads etc. fit into this space. I expect to carry my locomotives and rolling stock in the car where it is safer and less prone to damage.


The length of the layout is probably the most critical dimension as it determines what we can fit in to our design. As a starting point, I decided to have two levels in the trailer and divide each level in half long ways. That meant I could have three baseboards 82 inches long by 22” wide. A total length of 20 feet 9 inches, as well as an area 82” x 22” for the back scene boards, lights, brackets, curtain and other odds and sods.


The length seemed enough but the width seemed a bit narrow, especially in the middle of the layout where the passing loops would be. This is where an old trick is useful. Divide the space slightly angled so the left end of one baseboard and right hand end of the other is say 18” which makes the other ends 26” wide. This forms a very shallow pointed arrow type shape, that can be curved to make the shape more pleasing. The track plan on the following page illustrates this shape.




I’m not going to describe a screw by screw description of how the baseboards were built, but just touch on some of the important details that go with building an exhibition layout, and especially the baseboard joins where 75% of all problems occur. This is doubly complicated when you are also using code 70 hand laid track. With this rail size and fine scale wheels and flanges there is absolutely no room for error.


The two major problems with track and baseboard joins is the alignment in both the vertical and horizontal planes and keeping the baseboard tops from warping.


To eliminate these problems, and make the baseboards strong enough to withstand the rigour of exhibition work, the frame work is a vertical piece of 3”x 1” pine  with a 3” x 1” pine placed horizontally and glued and screwed together to form an upside down L. On top of this is glued and screwed 10mm thick high grade 5 ply, which had been sealed with 2 coats of paint. The vertical piece of the frame on the right hand end of each baseboard has two short lengths of ¾” dowel, protruding ¾”. These align with ¾” holes in the left end of the baseboards. Pump action clamps are used to pull and hold the baseboards together. Cross struts are positioned every 12”, depending on the location of the slow motion turnout motors and are made with a vertical 2” x !” and a horizontal 2”x 1” pine. See the diagram  below.


The curved front of the two main baseboards are each made with four pieces of 3mm MDF (Medium Density Fibre) board, 82 inches long and 4 inches high. Each piece is painted with wood glue and placed in a curved jig to form a 4 ply. They are then clamped and allowed to dry overnight


A final layer of 3mm MDF is added on all 4 sides of each baseboard, and protrudes 3 mm above the baseboard top. This lip helps contain the scenery material.