Videos & Photos Videos Layouts Layout Visits Modeling the Sierra RR in Japan

Modeling the Sierra RR in Japan

By Steven Otte | August 15, 2023

An HO scale Wild West logging railroad in the Far East

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

By Toyoji Sekine / Photos by Kaori Komatsu

A manifest freight snakes past a cluster of logging cabins while a log train descends a steep grade on a cliff above
Pickering Lumber Corp. 2-6-6-2 Mallet No. 40, pulling a manifest freight upgrade, passes the lumber camp cabins while a loaded log train eases downgrade on the cliff above on Toyoji Sekine’s HO scale Pickering & Sierra RR. Toyoji Sekine is modeling the Sierra RR in Japan. All photos by Kaori Komatsu

In the 1950s, when I was a small child, an O gauge train ran around the pond in my yard. It was a Japanese-style train made of tinplate, as nothing more realistic was available after the war. But I fell in love with American railroads, particularly the Sierra RR. I grew up watching Western movies and the TV show “Casey Jones,” about the legendary American locomotive engineer. I focused on the Sierra RR, which was used to film many of those movies.

A sawmill is front and center in this long view over a model railroad layout
In this overall view, the Pickering Lumber complex with its long lumber mill is in the foreground, with the town of Jamestown ahead and the Sierra RR locomotive servicing complex to the right.

A logging line

When I got interested in logging locomotives, I discovered a Japanese company called PFM United Inc., known in the United States as Pacific Fast Mail. This company made a Shay, Climax, Heisler, and the Sierra RR 2-6-6-2 Mallet that John Allen had. I decided I wanted to model a logging line.

For those who like American logging lines, the most famous is West Side Lumber Co. However, the West Side is narrow gauge, and I wanted to model standard gauge. Both the West Side and the Pickering Lumber Corp. connected to the Sierra, so I chose the standard gauge Pickering Lumber as my prototype. I named my layout the Pickering & Sierra RR.

One time, I bought a cheap PFM Benson Shay from the U.S., but it was broken when I received it. So I visited United’s factory in Japan and asked Shuzo Minari to fix it. After a while, I received a call, and went in to receive my Shay, it had been fixed beautifully. At that time, Benson’s Shay was a crown gear, but Minari changed it to a bevel gear.

I bought about 100 blank decal sheets from Microscale and asked a friend of mine to print Pickering & Sierra decals for me. This was before home computers and printers were plentiful, so the Pickering & Sierra heralds were hand-drawn and printed by a professional.

Steam-powered trains are seen in front of a yellow two-story station building
A manifest freight passes Jamestown Station while a short passenger local waits at the platform to load passengers. Toyoji scratchbuilt the station building from photos and plans of the original, which burned down in 1978.

Memories preserved

My HO scale Pickering & Sierra RR layout is closely tied to memories of the past. I used to attend National Model Railroad Association conventions in the United States. I had always wanted to visit Yosemite National Park, so I asked my friend Joe, who lives in San Francisco, to help me do so on my way home from one of these trips.

He picked us up at the airport and took me, my wife, sister-in-law, and a friend of ours to Yosemite. On the way, he asked me if I also wanted to visit a preserved railroad. We did, and to my surprise, it was the Jamestown depot of the Sierra RR.

I was just about to build the Jamestown depot and its roundhouse on my layout, so I took pictures of the actual turntable from various angles to build the roundhouse.

Thanks to those pictures, I was able to scratchbuild the roundhouse. The doors and other parts of the roundhouse look exactly like the real ones.

I used my drawings and photos of the interior and exterior of the Jamestown depot to make my own kit. The actual depot burned down in 1978. I saw a picture of the depot that was taken in 1948 and placed my figures around the station based on that photo.

We ate lunch on a bench in the park behind the roundhouse, then took a ride behind a preserved Shay locomotive. The conductor, who became a good friend of mine, looked out the window and told me that there used to be Native Americans in this area.

Next, we went to Yosemite for an overnight stay. Joe guided us to the top of the mountain, and I took pictures of the park from there. A photographer I know enlarged the photo, which became the backdrop for my Sierra RR in Japan. The Half Dome and El Capitan are also in the backdrop.

A black steam locomotive and a green one pull a log train across a wooden deck truss bridge
A pair of 2-6-6-2 Mallets double-head a log train across a wooden bridge spanning one of the layout’s two valleys. Toyoji scratchbuilt the bridge. The backdrop features photos of Yosemite that Toyoji shot during a trip to the landmark.

Building on the past

In the 1960s, my mother bought me four structures, several figures, and cars for the layout. She bought me five boxcars and a stock car at Tenshodo Model Store in Tokyo. The boxcars were made of aluminum-like material and have “JAPAN” stamped on the inside of the door.

I made a smaller layout prior to building my Sierra RR in Japan. Based on the lessons I learned building it, this time I built it so that the legs of the table would be absolutely stable. The layout table is so sturdy that you can stand on top of it. The tabletop is 3/4” plywood topped with Homasote sheet.

I wanted to create a layout with steep cliffs, so I made two valleys. The first is spanned by three wooden bridges, which were scratchbuilt from prototype drawings. Two bridges were made from drawings in Model Railroader Magazine Bridge & Mountain Railroad Model Handbook No. 33 (now out of print). The other is built from Worldwide Designs Timber Deck Bridge No. 802. The wire parts of the bridges are made of 0.02” piano wire.

I am planning four mountains on the layout. Access hatches will allow me to remove the mountains. I’m now working on the third mountain and the second valley. In the second valley, I’m planning to build a steel bridge instead of a wooden one. I bought the steel bridge parts from the United States.

The logging line has a 17” minimum radius, because the Shay and 2-6-6-2 Mallet run easily on tight curves. The brass Union Pacific Big Boy, Cab-Forward, and Sierra 2-6-6-2 No. 38 run smoothly on the Sierra RR’s broader curves.

The clock hanging in the layout room is designed with the Sierra RR herald. It was an ordinary clock, so I had someone who works at SEIKO clock company in Japan change it to a radio-controlled clock so I can use it as a fast clock.

Logs are hoisted from a mill pond up an incline and into a sawmill
When Toyoji started building the lumber mill kit, he noticed its log-loading mechanism didn’t match his prototype’s, so he scratchbuilt one. The sawmill includes a hidden sound module that plays appropriate sound effects.


The scenery base of my Sierra RR in Japan is made of hardshell supported by a weave of corrugated cardboard. Plaster is poured into a rock mold to form the rock, which is then glued in place. Real rocks are also placed in some areas. Casting powder is used for ground cover. Fine-grit sandpaper is glued down and painted to model asphalt.

When I was foresting the layout, model trees were selling in Japan for about 3,000 yen apiece (about $10 at the time). I built some of my own from a kit I got from tree artist Pete Vassler, who bought them when he went to a logging convention in Washington state. The instructions said it was made with an air filter, so I asked my sister-in-law, who lives in the United States, to send me a household filter.

The result didn’t look right, so I asked my friend Joe for help. He found out the kits were made from industrial air filters, so he sent me some, from which I was able to make several nice trees. I still have some filters left over.

I also used about four failed Japanese bonsai trees on the layout.

A scene of a downtown street surrounded by picturesque storefronts
Jamestown, a small but bustling burg, was built from a variety of wood and plastic kits, many of them from Woodland Scenics. All of Toyoji’s structures are lighted with LEDs and have detailed interiors.


The sawmill and engine house were purchased when we went to an NMRA convention. The kit required gluing the interior and exterior walls together, but at the time, there was no glue available in Japan to do that. I had no choice but to work on other parts of the layout until a suitable adhesive became available in Japan. I bought the glue and a lot of clamps to hold the walls while it cured.

However, the device for hoisting the logs from the mill pond was different from the prototype mill I was modeling. Therefore, I scratchbuilt the log hoist to match the prototype, based on photos in books on West Side Lumber Co. and Pickering Lumber.

The roundhouse, engine shop, car repair shop, engine shed, and Pickering Woodwork are also scratchbuilt.

All the buildings on my Sierra RR in Japan are lit by light-emitting diode lights. Some areas are also equipped with sound modules. You can hear cows on a farm and the sound of logs being cut in the lumber mill.

I also added a turntable to my layout. I recommend that anyone who makes layouts include a turntable. This is because you can fully enjoy switching locomotives by using the turntable.

A small geared steam locomotive and caboose roll down the high line behind a freight yard
A two-truck Climax, running caboose-light, descends the logging line behind the Sierra RR freight yard.

Closing thoughts

We have rebuilt our house, and now I have to move the layout to a new 24 x 31-foot room. We are currently moving 116 steam and diesel locomotives and 164 freight and passenger cars. They are packed in cardboard boxes.

I am cutting the layout into sections to be moved. I have two saws specifically for rail cutting. We got a truck with a crane to move the layout. I’m planning to raise the height between 4 and 6 inches in the new location.

My son-in-law, Hideyuki, will fully support me in the upcoming move. He has helped me with the construction of layouts in the past. I also thank him for driving a 5” gauge Santa Fe diesel in the yard for neighborhood children while wearing the engineer’s overalls and hat that I bought in the United States.

Shozo Furuhashi, a fellow Japanese modeler whose layout was featured in Great Model Railroads 1993, is a friend of mine. I used to visit him every month and have lunch with him while viewing his layouts. Once a year, he would visit Tokyo and stay at my house for two days or so. It was an enjoyable time.

Mr. Furuhashi’s was the only Japanese layout to be featured in Great Model Railroads. He won the locomotive category of the logging convention in Washington state twice. Thanks to him, I got to know Mr. Kenichi Matsumoto, who in my opinion built the best layout in Japan, and Mr. Minari from United.

I am also grateful to my sister-in-law, Misako Kawaguchi, who lives in New Jersey, for translating my writings into English and for sending me modeling materials not available in Japan.

A track plan drawn on paper hanging on a wall
The track plan for Sekine Toyoji’s HO scale Pickering & Sierra RR.

Layout at a glance

Name: Pickering & Sierra RR
Scale: HO (1:87.1), HOn3 (HO scale, 3-foot narrow gauge), HOn2-1/2 (dummy tracks)
Size: 20'-7" x 23'-3"
Prototype: Pickering Lumber Co., Sierra RR
Locale: California’s Sierra Nevadas
Era: 1920s-1940s
Style: walk-in
Mainline run: 220 feet
Minimum radius: 17" (logging)
Minimum turnout: no.4
Maximum grade: 4%
Benchwork: open grid
Height: 36" to 57"
Roadbed: plywood and Homasote
Track: Shinohara code 83 (Sierra), code 70 (Pickering Lumber and dual gauge)
Scenery: plaster hardshell with plaster rocks
Backdrop: Backdrop warehouse, photo & painted
Control: twin DC cabs and Digitrax DCC

Meet Toyoji Sekine

Head-and-shoulders photo of man sitting in front of a model train layout
Toyoji Sekine

Toyoji Sekine lives in Tokyo with his four children and fourteen grandchildren. The grandchildren enjoy pushing the button to blow the train whistle and riding on the 5” gauge Santa Fe diesel set up in the yard. Toyoji started reading Model Railroader magazines in the 1960s. In addition to modeling the Sierra RR in Japan, he also enjoys driving his two-seater sportscar.




You must login to submit a comment