This HO railroad's name is the N&W "Pokey" Division, set in the hills in West Virginia and Virginia, circa 1960. Many new mallet locomotive have been added to the fleet which encompasses the N&W and the Virginian with some help from other southeastern railroads. Fall colors abound with plenty of new trees. The coal operations feature two working loadouts with a rotary dumper at the dock area. The railroad uses the Lenz DCC system with some radio throttles. Train traffic is controlled with verbal track warrants with operators controlling most train movements; the dispatcher controls overall traffic flow.

Report on op session by Mike O'Brien.


We enjoyed an all-day operating session on Mike's layout in Chicago during a convention in April 2006. The layout makes a big first impression, with long aisles, multiple decks, many big articulated steam locomotives (mostly double-headed!), and many large industries. The layout is well lighted with a fluorescent valance. The lower deck is lit with strings of small incandescent lights.

Operations use car cards and waybills for switching. Dispatching is casual, with Mike the owner authorizing train movements, and two tower operators who work interlocking panels controlling operating signals--thus train movement on the main line is by signal indication. Mike's emphasis is on fun and having a good time, so the operating session is loosely structured and unstressful.

The captions for each photo should be self-explanatory. Enjoy the visit! And thank you, Mike, for sharing your layout.


Above -- the main aisle, with the main yard on the left lower level beyond the blue scenic divider. Staging tracks are below the yard, accessed throught this scenic divider. On the upper deck over the yard is a coal loader. To the right of the aisle is a steel mill. Layout owner Mike Ritchdorff is standing in the center of the aisle, in the white shirt.


A pair of Mike's big articulateds are pulling empty coal hoppers under the loading chute at a mine.


This view shows two visible levels. Can you guess where the third level is? No, not underneath. It is up in the lighting valance! That is where the upper staging tracks are located. The packs of car cards clipped up near the ceiling indicate which trains are in which staging tracks.


This area has one of the two tower operators panels, which work like interlockings or manual blocks, so trains move on signal indication. Communications is by telephone to the other operator at the other end of the layout.


Here is one of the two tower operators, Mike Burgett. The knobs on the fascia operate turnouts. White knobs for mainline turnouts, dark knobs for other turnouts. The light engine with the red caboose is at the bottom of the helper grade on this layout, which connects the lower deck with the upper. There is no helix, so the helper grade winds its way around quite a bit to gain elevation.


Mike has excellent car cards, in my opinion. Note how simple they are, with no extraneous information. The colorful RR heralds are helpful as well as decorative.


The helper grade winds it way around this wide part of the layout, on the steel trestle bridge. This area is the "blob" for the main peninsula of the layout.


Two persons are working the main yard. The yard engineer, Jack Ozanich, at the right is following hand signals from the switchman, Bruce Carpenter, on the left.
Theoretically, they should be completely unaware of the upper level.


Yard engineer Jack Ozanich uses a radio throttle, sits on a stool, elbow on a shelf, paperwork at hand, switchman down the track lining switches and coupling and uncoupling cars. Why work harder than you have to? I like it.


This rear aisle leads to some very industry-intensive switching areas of the layout. Note the stairs on the left, with snacks and drinks conveniently located at the bottom. About all you can see on the upper deck is grain elevators! Huge industries.


The coal hoppers on the upper deck are loads and empties for the mine, or coal loader, on the left.
The lower deck is the main yard, which has plenty of empty tracks to work with.
Note the convenient shelf all along the layout.


The brewery is hugely impressive! Great idea with the beer bottles.


Mike's coal mines and loaders dwarf the trains. But get this: they actually load empty cars! See the next picture for details.


Coal from the chute actually loads each hopper car as the train is slowly pulled under the loader.
Mike says real coal did not work well--he now uses black sand sold for use in sandblasting.


Doug Gurin and the second tower operator are working on the upper deck.
Note the fairly thin fascia panel of the upper deck, which maximizes visibility of the lower deck.

The green fascia color helps blend in the fascia with the layout.


It is hard to photograph the signals--I tried using the flash but it washed them out.
Here you can see the color position light signals, which are set by the tower operators.
Note this train has white flags--it is an extra.


The steel mill is a huge scene. Paperwork lying about for the op session.


Crews had a few spare minutes for sightseeing. The camera here is seeing the same picture as the one following, below.


I love seeing locomotives lined up near the edge of the layout, up close and personal!
My favorite things in model railroading are: 1) the people; 2) locomotive models; and 3) operating sessions.


Here's our last look at Mike's HO layout. Dozens of sound-equipped DCC-operated steam locos. Wow! Thanks, Mike.


Email contact: mike at (@) -- Mike O'Brien, Pasadena, CA