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Pennsylvania RR Washington Avenue Branch switching layout

By Eric White, Senior Editor | June 26, 2021

This 16” x 8’-0” layout offers a compact way to build a model railroad

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HO scale model of arched roof freight house with Pennsylvania Railroad switcher and boxcars
HO scale model of arched roof freight house with Pennsylvania Railroad switcher and boxcars
This model is the inspiration for the Washington Avenue layout. A photo Eric found in a Facebook group called Old Images of Philadelphia led him to research and construct the model. The model was featured in the September 2015 issue of Model Railroader.

When I first moved to Wisconsin to start working for Model Railroader, my family and I were in a two-bedroom apartment. I had built a freelanced Pennsylvania RR layout in my apartment back in Pennsylvania that filled a 7 x 11-foot section of our long apartment living room. It was basically a donut, with a section built as a shadow box facing the rest of the room.

When we moved out here, the entertainment center had to go up against the wall, but I still had an 8-foot-long by 16-inch deep area I could build something in. While looking around Facebook, I came across a group called Old Images of Philadelphia. Some of the images showed railroad scenes, so I joined the group. Some of the railroad scenes were photos shared from PhillyHistory.org, so I went there and started looking around, and that’s where I discovered Washington Avenue.

Pink extruded-foam insulation board layout surface with Atlas code 83 flex track and plastic Design Preservation Models buildings
Eric started with a scratch-built train shed on the far end, but the desire to quickly get something esthetically pleasing on this living room layout led him to repurpose older kits as stand-ins for some of the buildings. The tan building in the front will be the offices of a coal and oil dealer with a concrete coal dock at the front of the layout. The cluster of buildings in the background is the John Wanamaker furniture factory. The area in front of the freight house will be a warehouse flat based on photos taped to the back of the shadow box.

Washington Avenue was notorious for its rough surface, even by decaying Northeastern big city standards. Even into the 1980s, there were four tracks down the middle of it, and the roadway on either side of those tracks seemed to be an afterthought. Tracks branched off into buildings left and right along the road, and into the 1970s, streetcar tracks crossed at semiregular intervals.

Online inspiration

Photos taken by the Philadelphia Water Department make up the bulk of PhillyHistory.org’s photo collection. The photos were taken to document the condition of sewers and the roadways that drained into them, as well as the buildings that were served by the water department. It’s a goldmine of urban landscapes. Most of the photos were taken in the 1910s to 1920s, but there are photos into the early 1960s to document changes made to the roads and the infrastructure buried beneath them.

 Atlas code 83 turnouts on pink extruded-foam insulation board layout surface
All of the turnouts have been soldered together and placed in their final positions on the Washington Avenue layout. Now it’s time to cut and fit the flex track sections between and beyond the turnouts. Staging cassettes will extend from the lower left and center right ends of the layout. The layout slides out of its spot in the entertainment center for maintenance and work that’s best performed outside, or at least not in the living room.

One of the most striking photos I found was the trainshed of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad on the corner of South Broad Street and Washington Avenue. The PW&B eventually became a part of the Pennsy, and its South Broad station was the city’s gateway to the south until PRR built its Broad Street Station at the end of the 19th century. When Broad Street opened, the station on South Broad became a freight house. There must have been lots of freight traffic because the PW&B already had a freight house next to its passenger station.

The huge arched window at the end of the trainshed inspired me to model it (see the September 2015 issue of Model Railroader). I knew I couldn’t model the whole building, so I aimed for a flat that could go against an opening in the entertainment center, which would allow me to spot cars inside the trainshed. Because there was only a hole in the left end of the entertainment center at the time, I built a mirror image of the trainshed, and subsequently, the whole layout is a mirror image of the prototype.

Entertainment center with lighted shelf layout in top half, staging cassette attached to left side
Eric built the entertainment center for his home in Pennsylvania with the help of his uncle. When he moved to Wisconsin, he started a new shelf layout while he shopped for, then began preparing a basement for a larger layout. Living room layouts can be a way to share modeling with family. Small layouts can keep you motivated and involved while room preparation continues for a larger layout.

In addition to the photos on PhillyHistory.org, I found a cache of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps at Penn State University Libraries’ digital collection at libraries.psu.edu/about/collections/digital-map-drawer. There are maps from around the state. If you’ve never looked at a Sanborn map, they give an accurate representation of the location of railroad tracks and the buildings along them. This helped me fill in the rest of the layout with plausible industries. Of course, I didn’t have room for all of the businesses along the branch, so I chose industries that would create interesting scenes and allow for a good variety of freight cars.

Picking and choosing industries

In addition to the freight house, I have planned a warehouse that bordered one edge of the freight house yard. I also have a two-track team track and a furniture factory complex. These industries are along the back of the layout, behind the two-track main line, which was what I had room for with my 16-inch depth. The main line angles from in front of the edge of the entertainment center at the freight house end, to centered in a hole I cut in the center of the opposite end after we moved out of our apartment. The only industry to the front of the layout is a coal and oil dealer.

HO scale freight house set into place on layout with reference photos taped to the backdrop support behind
Eric finally got the freight house in its intended position when he restarted the Washington Avenue project in his home. The photos taped to the back of the layout area show planned scenes and buildings found on the PhillyHistory.org website.

Other than the freight house, none of the models is an exact replica of the prototype. The differences in space available, as well as the lack of detailed information, made this the path of less (if not least) resistance.

Layout construction

Off of each end is a 4-foot-long staging cassette. On the freight house end, the cassette bolts to the layout, but on the opposite end, the cassette is hinged so it can drop down. Three drawers are built into the grid benchwork that sits on the surface of the entertainment center. The layout surface is two layers of 2-inch extruded-foam insulation board. This brings the surface of the layout up to the bottom of the holes in the ends of the entertainment center.

HO scale two track main line with siding on right in front of brick buildings
To the right is the John Wanamaker department store furniture factory. To the left is an as-yet unnamed coal and oil dealer. The plywood sections at the ends of the layout allow for more secure attachment of the tracks where it crosses off the end of the layout.

The track is all laid, and an NCE PowerCab system supplies the power. At present, this system is temporarily attached so I can swap in a DC power pack for at-home product testing during the pandemic. The track is Atlas code 83 I salvaged from my former layout, and the turnout frogs are powered by Tam Valley Depot Hex Frog Juicers. I have a switch to isolate them when the layout is DC powered.

End view of layout with staging cassette in foreground, opening in end of entertainment center for freight house
The three tracks from the freight house extend past the end of the layout. In the foreground is the two-track staging cassette. The bump-out on the layout surface allowed Eric to set the main line at a slight angle from the front edge, making for a more dynamic scene.

The next big project is creating a coved backdrop. I’m halfway through creating the backdrop form .020-inch styrene. When it’s finished, I plan to use black-and-white photos from PhillyHistory.org to finish the street scenes where the cross streets recede into the backdrop. The skies will be gray. No matter what you might have heard, it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia!

6 thoughts on “Pennsylvania RR Washington Avenue Branch switching layout

  1. Very surprised there is no track diagram. Pictures provide an esthetic sense of the layout, but deep evaluation and operating appreciation needs a track plan.

  2. Eric,

    Great to see what you are doing. It’s amazing how much layout can be built in a small space.

  3. Hi Clayton – the furniture factory is probably an old Kibri or Vollmer kit. It was something I found under the Milwaukee, Racine & Troy when we were doing spring cleaning a couple years ago.
    Roger, I hope to have a track plan in a future article. Stay tuned!

  4. I couldn’t find them just now but there were drawings at phillyhistory.org of a proposal by the City to elevate the branch on a concrete structure.

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