B&O West End Cumberland Div, WV track plan N

  • Size: 26′ x 31′
  • Scale: N
  • Minimum Radius: 21″ 
  • Minimum Aisle Width: 30″
  • Designed by Dan Bourque

B&O LogoThe West End of the Baltimore and Ohio’s Cumberland Division was home to some of the most serious mountain railroading in the U.S. The B&O’s crossing of the Appalachians through West Virginia required four long grades of around 2% or more between Keyser, WV to the east and Grafton, WV to the west including 17-Mile Grade, Cranberry Grade, Cheat River Grade and Newburg Grade. To move the heavy traffic and coal through this corridor required a double-track main and helpers gallore. In the steam era, there were multiple helper bases including Hardman, WV near Grafton and M&K Junction, WV at the low spot between Cranberry Grade and Cheat River Grade. In the diesel era, most the helpers on the west end were consolidated at M&K Jct making it a strategic location on the B&O.

The Layout

This layout represents the far west end of the Cumberland Division between M&K Junction and Grafton as it appeared in the diesel era (to backdate to steam, Hardman Yard and engine facilities would need to be added along with a third tunnel at Kingwood Tunnel). Although Grafton was technically part of the Monongah Division, it served as the western terminus for trains on the Cumberland. The focus of the layout is the helper district on the Newburg and Cheat River Grades between Hardman and M&K Jct with the summit at Kingwood Tunnel (near Tunnelton, WV). I chose N scale for this track plan for two main reasons. First, it would allow the area to modeled in a fairly uncompressed fashion. Secondly, it would allow the scenery to be modeled in proportion, particularly along the Cheat River Grade where the mainline climbs up the side of the valley hundreds of feet above the river between Rowlesburg and Blaser. I also wanted to model this area without using a helix to maximize the time trains spend in the daylight (especially useful for helper operations).

B&O 4819 Grafton, WV

GP38s in Grafton, WV, 1976 -Donald Haskel

One tricky thing about designing a layout for this area is the track’s orientation to rivers and hillsides keeps flipping. In Grafton, the river is clearly to south and the hillside to the north, but for most of the grade (including the key scenery of the Cheat River Grade), the hillside is to the south. Because of the length of the mainline, trains are able to climb more than 20 inches from base to summit without a helix which allows at least a portion of the layout to be double-decked. I chose to put Grafton on the lower deck because it’s the lowest point of the modeled area, and it allowed me to get the orientation right. The trade-off for the orientation is that operators must walk around a long peninsula to follow their train between Grafton and Hardman. This additional walk, however, would give the feeling of distance between Grafton and Hardman as the 10 miles between them is not modeled (it’s operationally boring anyway, so no big loss). The way the layout is designed, Grafton can be operated more like a visible staging yard to extend the number of trains that can be run. I chose to include it, though, because it’s a great spot to model with the roundhouse, coaling tower, and palace-like hotel/station duo, and it helps complete the operational experience by allowing operators to begin and terminate trains in the visible area of the layout. Two areas where the orientation is “wrong” are the towns of Newburg and Tunnelton. While their track arrangements are prototypical, most photographs of the prototype in this area are shot from the “backdrop side.”

The grades are modeled prototypically throughout the layout, and the track arrangements on the upper level are close to switch-for-switch. Grafton is truncated a bit in the yard portion, but the station and engine facilities could be modeled rather faithfully. In addition to visible staging in the yard at Grafton, there are two double-ended staging yards. The yard at the east end of the layout (M&K Jct side) represents the large marshaling yard at Keyser, WV. On the west end, a smaller yard represents the yard at Fairmont, WV, and the larger yard is labeled “Parkersburg,” but really represents Parkersburg, Clarksburg and the Tygart Valley line down to Charleston, WV. This larger yard is also the Keyser yard which allows for continuous running and the recycling of trains during an operations session. Both ends of the yard would be visible and accessible, but the Cheat River on the upper deck would make access to the middle of the yard tricky. Even the shortest staging tracks would allow a train of around 50 two-bay hoppers, very close to the prototype’s 70-car trains in this area.

This is a large layout, but construction should be straightforward, and there is space for a 2×4 stud wall down the middle of the peninsulas for added strength. Hidden trackage is also at a minimum, and tracks stay within a couple of feet of the edge of the benchwork so trains should be easily accessible. Due to its size, a large DCC system with several boosters and wireless throttles would be recommended, and because of the need to add and drop helpers during a session, advanced throttles allowing MU assignments would be helpful.

Lower Level

B&O West End Cumberland Div track plan N - lower

Upper Level

B&O West End Cumberland Div track plan N - upper


This layout would require up to a dozen operators to run a full operating session. A handful of crews would be needed to run mainline trains and locals along with at least two helper crews. Additionally, this layout could employ both a yardmaster and hostler in Grafton and a combination yardmaster/hostler in M&K Jct. For non-train crews, a dispatcher would be needed, and if you really wanted to get serious, tower operators at Q Tower (Hardman, WV), WS Tower (West End, WV) and MK Tower (M&K Jct., WV) could be employed to operate the siding switches and crossovers along the main to carry out the dispatcher’s wishes. During the height of the B&O diesel era, three sets of helpers worked out of M&K Jct. In the early diesel years, these were sets of F-units, but in the late ’60s and ’70s, the helper sets were predominantly B&O 6-axle power in the form of 3-4 SD35s and SD40s. On the head end, trains would run with a mix of 4- and 6-axle power, and GP30s, 35s and 40s were plentiful after the F-units were relegated from mainline service. Even into the ’70s, F-units could still be found as mine run power, so there would be an excuse to have a few at Grafton or M&K Jct. Trains would be a mix of coal (mostly coal east empties west) with a healthy number of non-coal freights and a couple of hot freights/piggyback trains each way. Additionally, two passenger trains, the National Limited and the Metropolitan, plied these rails daily.

B&O coal train Grafton, WV

F-unit and geep at Grafton, WV, 1974 -Donald Haskel

With the exception of hot freights and passenger trains, eastbound trains would mostly originate in Grafton Yard. For coal trains, this would simulate trains compiled from mine runs working west of Grafton. Crews would depart Grafton and stop in Hardman where a helper crew (based in M&K Jct.) would be waiting. In reality, trains had a good head of steam by the time they hit Hardman, and helpers often chased them and coupled up on-the-fly as the train slowed down on the Newburg Grade. In N scale, I’m guessing this would be a bit tricky. In fact, I have no experience with helpers in N-scale, so it might only work if helpers are “consisted” with the front end and then released when no longer needed. Once the helpers were ready, the train would begin its ascent on Newburg Grade at something resembling 15-20 scale MPH–at this pace it would take 10-15 real minutes to climb the hill. Once through Kingwood Tunnel, the helpers would either be cut off to return to Hardman or would continue with the train down to M&K Jct. depending on where helpers are needed at the time. The run down Cheat River Grade would be easier than the ascent, but it would still require careful handling to keep 50 cars in check down the 2% grade.

Westbound trains would replicate this pattern but with helpers being added in M&K Jct for the run up to Tunnelton. The difference is coal predominantly moved east, so trains of empties moving west wouldn’t require as much work going west. Still, any loaded freight would need helpers, and passenger trains would already enter the layout with extra motive power on the front end. Helpers might be tacked onto an empty train to move power to Hardman, and even trains of empty hoppers might stall on the grade and require a shove. Additionally, coal and other freight from the Morgantown Branch would be staged in the small yard at M&K Jct., and some of that coal might be headed west and require helpers. Even if the helpers are MU’d to the head end via DCC, a helper crew would still be needed for light moves back over the mountain to redistribute power.

With a double-track main over the entire line, sidings were used to route faster trains around slower trains, especially eastboad coal drags on the Newburg Grade. This is why the majority of the Newburg Grade is three tracked. At least a couple of locals would be required to take care of spurs and interchanges in the area, the most notable being the West Virginia Northern interchange at Tunnelton where bright white and blue hoppers might be staged with strings of loaded hoppers which might be bound for either direction. Other online traffic would consist primarily of pulpwood racks being loaded on various sidings. Photos I’ve seen show pulpwood loading at Rowlesburg and Newburg, but I’m sure any spur would do the trick.

The remaining road jobs would be shuttle runs from Grafton west to either Fairmont or Parkersburg staging–these would be needed to extend the length of a session by recycling trains back into Keyser staging for another trip west over the road. Additionally, some trains might be run from either Fairmont or Parkersburg staging into Grafton with fresh loads to simulate mine runs. These trains would then be switched as necessary by the Grafton yardmaster and hostler to make up mainline trains of eastbound coal ready for another road and helper crew to take over the mountain.

Things I Like About this Plan:

  • Fairly uncompressed and prototypical grades throughout
  • Continuous running
  • Double-deck without a helix
  • Great scenery to trains ratio
  • Allows prototypical operation
  • Little hidden trackage
  • Faithfully captures engine facilities at Grafton and M&K Jct.

Things I Don’t Like About this Plan:

  • Portions of staging yard hidden
  • Orientation of some scenes not optimal
  • Many pinch points in aisles if operating with many people
  • All mainline, little local work and no mine runs

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