Tap Creek

The Chicago & North Western Tap Creek Branch


The layout rests on three sections of a 50 inches (125 cm) high IKEA book shelf, and is of the 'ware house' style, as IKEA calls it. This means that it uses an open construction, and by not placing the upper shelves at the very top, the underside of the layout can be reached from beneath.

The benchwork itself is a light-weight construction of girders and plywood, with a layer of extruded foam glued on top.


The backdrop is two sheets of aluminum, attached to the sides and the back of the benchwork. The corners are rounded to give a smoother transition between the sides and the back. The aluminum was painted a light blue, using a roller. I used a cheap wall-paint for this, something I regret, since the paint is easily scratched. The next time I will use a paint better suited for aluminum.

I wanted something more than blue sky on the backdrop. Since the layout was to represent the mid-west there was not be anything high, like mountains, but I thought that at least some fields and an occasional tree-line would give the layout some life. For this purpose I took a number of out-door shots. Yes, I live in Sweden, not the mid-west, but who is to tell the difference? I scanned the photos into my computer, where I cropped, flipped, and rearranged them until I had one long picture nearly 13 feet (4 meters) long, but only about a feet high. To achieve the required length, and the horizon line I wanted, the same photos where used a number of times in different places. This resulted in the same barn appearing at least three times, but I got rid of that by use of a 'scratch removal' utility in the image manipulation program.

The next step was to find someone that could print such a picture. I found a printing shop that could do it, using a laser printer, but at that moment I thought that the cost would be to high. I instead let the computer chop the picture into smaller pieces, each fitting on to a normal printer paper. I then treated myself to my employer's high-quality color printer. I printed the pieces with a slight overlap, to avoid gaps in the scene later.

Back at home, I removed the sky from the pictures using a pair of scissors (a tedious job, guaranteed), and finally glued them to the backdrop, using a spray glue. The joints between the different pieces turned out to be nearly invisible.

To the naked eye, that was!

When I started to take pictures of the layout, the joints suddenly where not that invisible after all. It would have been better to have the complete picture printed on a single long paper, after all.

Building a backdrop

I first transferred Iain's track plan paper, the same size as my shelf, and made rearrangements and modifications to make it all fit. When I was satisfied with the track plan I put the plan on the sub-roadbed (the extruded foam base). The track centers where transferred to the foam by picking holes in the paper, the paper was removed and the center lines filled in.

The next step was to glue the cork roadbed to the foam. I use 'normal' white glue for this, keeping the cork in place with pins while the glue dries.

Since I wanted to use magnetic couplers on my rolling stock (A device I had not yet seen in real life, just read about), I needed un-coupling magnets. After some tests with a magnet especially designed for un-coupling, and having found those magnets far to expensive (its just a magnet!) I thought there must exist a better solution (for my valet, that is). I brought a caboose with Micro-Trains couplers to a suitable store (Clas Ohlson), and tried a number of magnets and magnetic strips, until I found a strip that included strong enough magnets, with the magnetic field in the correct direction. The strip included 6 magnets, which I got for the price of one Micro-Trains magnet. The magnets could then be placed in the desired locations, by cutting away the cork and part of the foam. The top of the magnets should be level with the cork surface.

Now I could finally lay track. I used Peco code 55 flextrack, and Peco medium (no. 6) electrofrog turnouts.

The above is not entirely true. I do not work in such a organized manner. In fact, I laid some track, put in a magnet when required, laid some more track etc. If you go on to reading, you will soon hear about more badly planned work, that lead to even more work.

Laying track

My original plan was to have a return loop and a staging yard on a lower level, connected with the actual layout above via a helix. I thought this was a cool idea. To construct a helix seemed as a fun and challenging project.

I first figured out the smallest possible curve radius, using one of my Swedish passenger cars. They seemed long enough, especially since the Tap Creek was to be a switching layout, with no long cars or engines at all.

Next I sat out to determine the maximum possible grade. I did this with the few engines I had at that time, which was a Swedish electric D-engine, a Swedish T5 switcher and an EMD SW9. In turn,  I hooked up a fair number of cars to an engine and ran them on a piece of flextrack, using different grades.

Equipped with the radius and the maximum grade I went to my computer where I fired up Microsoft Excel. I constructed a spread sheet that calculated the number of runs, depending on the above numbers and the height between the layout levels. Voila! To construct a helix is not that hard after all? Or is it?

To make a long story short - the helix was constructed and installed, and everything seemed to be fine. For a while. Then I happened to stumble over a Kato EMD SD40-2 in C&NW livery and to a bargain price. I could not resist it, although it really did not fit into my planned era and mode of operation. Anyway, I bought it and it managed the helix (almost), but always derailed on the return loop on the lower deck, where the curve was to tight. It did not matter, I told myself. The SD40-2 was not intended for the Tap Creek in the first place.

At about the same time I was scouting around for some engines that would be appropriate for the Tap Creek. A GP-30 or SD-7 perhaps. The supply of American N scale is not very large here in Sweden (understatement), so I mostly consulted various American web sites. One day I was in luck and managed to order two Life-Like EMD SD-7s, in different C&NW road numbers. When they arrived I put them on a test run, on the staging yard and the helix, which was all the track that were at that time.

Have another guess! Was this test-run a success or not? Of course not(why would I otherwise tell you all this). The roof of the SD-7s hit the roadbed of the track above in the helix. They even managed to got stuck on the motor mountings of the old Trix switches I re-used in the staging yard. I could not take any more, and it was 'bye, bye helix' the very same afternoon.

I re-planned the left portion of the layout, and simply let the main-line track curve around until it hit the front of the layout. There I plan to eventually have a removable staging or 'fiddle' yard.

The story of a helix

For some time now, the original part of the layout has been more or less complete. I have added some more details and structures ,and added a removable glass front and plywood top to protect the layout from cats and dust.

I have also switched to Micro-Trains couplers on all the rolling stock, and am in a continuous process of weathering and general upgrade of the roster.

Additional work

The 'fiddle' yard never came about. Instead I built an additional layout section. This section, the “Junction”, features hand-laid code 40 track and turnouts, Tortoise switch machines and other goodies. You can see this section, and the rest of the layout, starting at the Photos page.

The layout has also been converted to DCC. No big problems with that. I have included some decoder installation tips on the Projects page.

The only real problem was a Peco crossing that was not DCC friendly. It caused a short whenever an engine tried to run through it. I fixed this by cutting the rails in some places, electrically isolating the crossing from the rest of the track. I then installed a toggle switch that switches the power between the two possible routes. The electrical switching could have been automated I guess, but since one of the routes is seldom used, I found the manual toggle a more cost and labor effective solution.

Upgrades as of January 2008

The Story of a Layout

This layout really came about thanks to an article in the Model Railroader February 2001 issue. In that article Iain Rice suggests modeling a C&NW branch line, and also offers a potential track plan. The 'Lac qui Parle' part of that track plan is essentially the same as what became my Tap Creek layout.

I invented the name Tap Creek from the name of the community where I live, which is Tappström, Sweden. 'Ström' is Swedish and means stream or creek. I don't know what 'Tapp' means in this context. It sure does not mean 'tap' as in water tap, but Tap Creek sounded as a decent enough name, so Tap Creek it had to be.

But of course, it all started earlier. As a toddler I played 'train' with my teddy bear and doll, and I was very fascinated by the Stockholm underground that passed outside our home in the suburb of Vällingby. The underground was (and is) actually 'overground' out in the suburbs, and was visible from our windows. I have collected a few pictures from this period, which you can view if you on the “Memories” page.

When I became a little older I played with model trains (Fleischmann stuff), but the trains, which eventually ended up in a poor condition, stayed at my parents when I left home. Then nothing happened on the model railroad scene for many years, but some 20 years ago I started to build a shelf layout. The layout had a Swedish theme, and featured a loop and a mountain line. It was built in four sections, and one of the modules was more or less complete when it was time for a move. The layout was dismantled and stored on the attic, where it started to collect dust and finally fall apart. A couple of moves, and many years later, it was finally thrown away.

At about the same time I understood that my brother had started to build small diorama style layouts and had gotten himself a Model Railroader (MR) subscription. I immediately decided to do the same thing, and managed to finalize two dioramas, still with a Swedish theme. But I wanted to build something larger, and the American influence from MR was beginning to show.

The next two major events that eventually led to the Tap Creek branch was the above mentioned article, and another move. I persuaded my sweet wife that a specific 120 inches (3 meter) long wall would be a great place for a book shelf, and if we kept the shelf sufficiently low, I could have a layout on top of it. I was on my way! This was late spring or early summer 2001, I really don't remember exactly when construction started.

How it all started

The days of  Tap Creek are counted. It has served its purpose and has provided a lot of fun. But it is time to move ahead, and since I have no other space to use than the one now occupied by Tap Creek, it has to come down. I am still in the “ideas” stage for the new layout, and it will probably take some time before things have settled. In the mean time, Tap Creek will of course remain. Once the new layout is on its way, this site will probably also be reorganized, or at least have a new section for the new layout.

The Future, as seen during spring 2008

Tap Creek has been dismantled. Instead I have begun the construction of a new layout. This time I am trying to model an interpretation of the Southern Pacific. There is still no separate section on this site for that layout, but you can follow the progress in my blog. Please follow this link: Summit layout.

End of Life, summer 2008, and a New Beginning