Saturday, January 16, 2010

Overview of the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision

In December, 2009, Railroad Model Craftsman published an article about the CP Rail M & M Sub. Find that article below.

You can find a trackplan here.

Photo tours can be found here (lower level): And here (upper level). 

Note: Since this article was published, I have made some changes to the layout (took down the centre penninsula). You can read about the changes by using the following links:

Getting (re)started in model railroading
Going, going, gone
Laying Track
More progress
Layout progress
Layout progress: Done, sort of
Hiding the hole
Hiding the Hole, Part 2
Before and After on the layout (old and new photos of the revised peninsula)
More Progress (Turing from Blue to Green)
New Bridges on the M & M Sub.
Getting Closed to Finished


It’s the early-1990s. Rail traffic between the U.S. and Canada is booming. A lightly-used single-track, unsignalled line from Winnipeg to the U.S. Midwest suddenly finds itself deluged by a steady stream of unit coal, intermodal, forest products, grain and mixed freight trains travelling between the two countries.

For Railway Traffic Controllers, it’s a headache—too many trains trying to use too little track. But for railfans, it’s a delight to see train after train make its way across the prairies and through the rugged Canadian shield.

That’s the scenario on my HO scale CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision, a freelanced layout inspired by two real-life north-south lines: The CN line (ex-Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific) between Winnipeg, Manitoba and Duluth, Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario, via the Ontario border town of Fort Frances, and CP Rail’s Weyburn Sub. from near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Portal, North Dakota.

The layout

The double-deck layout occupies a 17 by 20 foot basement room; an adjacent 5 by 11 foot storage room contains two 12-track staging yards and part of the trackage that lifts trains between the two levels. The benchwork is L-girder construction on the lower level, with 3/8ths plywood and inverted ceiling tile for the subroadbed.

Two inch thick Styrofoam is used for subroadbed for the upper level. Roadbed for the mainline is 1/8th inch thick sheet cork, cut to width. Layout heights vary from 61 to 64 inches for the upper level; the lower level is 43 inches off the floor. Space between the decks is 14 to 16 inches.

The point-to-point mainline is about 230 feet in length; a connecting track between the mainline and the staging yard creates a loop on the lower level. Track is all Atlas code 100, and the maximum grade is 1.5 percent.

All but one curve is 30 inches in radius or larger. The maximum siding length is 20 cars, plus two locomotives. Conventional DC is used to power the layout; the mainline is controlled by a dispatcher in the storage room while the yardmaster controls all the trackage in Fort Frances and the yard approaches.

Era & Operations

By setting the layout in the mid-1990s, I am able to run my favourite units—SD40-2s. That time period also means I can run a wide variety CP Rail schemes: Multimark, no Multimark, twin flags and SOO units in the classic white and red or candy apple red liveries.

I lightly “Canadianize” the units by adding headlights to the nose and putting the bell above the cab. Most of my locomotives are blue box Athearn, along with some newer Athearn, Kato, Atlas and Proto 2000.

Modelling that period means no cabooses. But that doesn’t mean you won’t t find any on the layout—they occasionally appear in the middle of freight trains, on their way to off-line scrap yards. The big “D” (for Derelict) on the side leaves no question about their ultimate destination. (Click here to read more about new uses for old cabooses.)

Modelling the modern era also means large industries and graffiti. The largest industry on the layout is the Peace River paper mill, at about 10 feet in length, with five tracks for spotting cars and a two-track yard. Several other industries are 24 to 30 inches long. For graffiti I use gel pens, creating various words and patterns on the sides of freight cars.

Although set in the modern era, evidence of the past can still be seen in filled-in turntable pit in the engine terminal. I made the pit by gluing cardstock in a circle to represent the old concrete edge, then using grass to fill in the old pit area.

As for operations, I settled on the line between Winnipeg, Duluth and Thunder Bay because it offered the “Y” pattern I was looking for. This allows trains to drop off and pick up cars headed for either line in Fort Frances, and the base of the “Y,” as well as for the Peace River Railroad shortline and local industries.

Train movements on the layout are governed by a sequence schedule; since I mostly operate alone, it can take me a week or a month or more to run through the sequence. Each train has a list that indicates which cars need to be dropped off and picked up in the Fort Frances yard for forwarding to various on and off-line destinations. The yard switcher serves industries in Fort Frances, while the Peace River paper mill has its own switcher.


The scenery on the layout is made from extruded Styrofoam. In addition to being able to make realistic-looking hills, extruded Styrofoam also makes it easy to model below-grade effects such as gullies, ditches and undulating ground. Planting trees is a snap; just poke a hole with a nail and insert the tree. For ground cover, I just paint the Styrofoam with a mix of brown, grey and black latex paint, then add ground foam.

Most of the rocks are made from tree bark, which I gathered along the banks of Winnipeg’s Red River after spring runoff. Tree bark is great for rocks because a) it’s pre-coloured; b) no two pieces of bark look alike; c) there’s no mess or clean-up; and d) it’s free. That’s a hard combination to beat!

I affix the bark to the Styrofoam with white glue, using nails to hold it in place until the bark dries. Once dry, I remove the nails and fill in the gaps with joint compound. Then I paint the area around the rock and add ground cover.

The trees are made from a variety of local weeds and plants, including Sedum and Spirea. I spray paint them black and brown; when dry, I use hairspray and ground foam to make the leaves. The water is made from Ceramcoat black/green and deep green paints, with a final coat of Gloss Medium.


The layout is mostly rural, so I use photos of real trees for most of my backgrounds. After printing the photos, I enlarge them on a colour photocopier. Using a sharp hobby knife, I cut around the trees and affix the copy to the wall. In urban areas, I use photos of real buildings, or copies of buildings—both model and prototype—taken from magazines like Model Railroader. This includes photos of buildings from advertisements, but also from the layouts of others; someone who knows where to look can see a building from John Allen’s Gorre & Daphetid Port area on my layout.


Over my years in the hobby I have met a lot of people who think they can never build a layout. I am living proof that it is possible—I was as unskilled as any when it came to carpentry, wiring, track laying and scenery. With time, patience, good how-to books and help from other members of the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club, I have been able to create a layout that has given me almost 16 years of enjoyment so far, and which promises to provide many more years of future satisfaction.

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