A&O Cowen Sub track plan N

  • Size: 20′ x 24′
  • Scale: N
  • Minimum Radius: 18″
  • Minimum Aisle Width: 30″
  • Designed by Dan Bourque

aologoThe B&O’s Cowens and Pickens Subs, later the CSX Cowen Sub and most recently the Appalachian & Ohio Railroad, has always been one of the major coal branches in northeastern WV. In its current iteration (2010), the line is about 120 miles long  with 153 miles of track including smaller branches, it serves seven unit train loaders, and it connects with three short lines. While most of the grades on the line are “coal train friendly” (upgrade for empties/downgrade for loads), there is a 1.8%, 17 mile long helper grade in the middle from Burnsville to Frenchton, WV–every loaded coal train on the geographic south end of the line requires helpers.

A&O (leased CEFX) SD90 helper set at Burnsville, WV, 2009 -Eric Miller

A&O (leased CEFX) SD90 helper set at Burnsville, WV, 2009 -Eric Miller

The line’s connections with shortlines give it some additional character. It connects with the mostly idle Elk River Railroad (ELKR) at Gilmer, WV. The ELKR, itself a former CSX branch (Elk River Sub), served a single loader until it closed around 2001–it is unclear whether or not the Elk River will ever run coal trains again. The line also connects with the West Virginia Central at Tygart Jct. The WVC is primarily a tourist line operating classic WM power, but it interchanges a few revenue cars per week. The third shortline is the Beech Mountain Railroad (BEEM) which extends from the town of Alexander on the longest branch remaining on the Cowen Sub. The Beech Mountain ceased operations in 1998 when its sole customer, the loader at Star Bridge, WV, was idled, but in 2004, the road’s black Alco switchers were brought back to life when the loader became active again.

In addition to flood loaders, helper districts and short lines with personality, this line also has some great scenery with curves wrapped around mountains and rivers, several tunnels, a high trestle on stone piers at Pleasant Creek, several small- and medium-sized towns, and even a couple of covered bridges adjacent to the tracks! The line’s terminus, Grafton, WV, is also a great railroad town with engine servicing facilities and a large B&O station. The CSX served the line out of Grafton. The A&O essentially continues this practice but has its offices in Buckhannon, WV near the center of the line.

The Layout

This layout is intended for the modeler who likes long, modern coal trains and major branch line operations. The loaders and industries are most accurate for 2010 A&O operations but could easily be modified to fit a 2000s CSX scheme. Because of the slower pace of the branch, it’s ideal for the guy who wants a big layout but likes to operate trains by himself or with a few friends. The challenge with the design was getting the entire 120-mile line to fit into a reasonable space. While this initially seemed daunting, it was made easier because the line itself is essentially broken into many separated sections. These sections could be strung together into a series of operational and scenic vignettes to recreate the essence of the railroad. Major operational sections include the locations of the loaders, the branch to Alexander, the helper grade, key passing sidings and major towns such as Buckhannon and Grafton. Scenic sections include Philippi (home to one of the covered bridges) and Pleasant Creek (home of the high viaduct).

A down-up-down arrangement allows the helix to be used twice. This effectively “eats up” a lot of the miles not modeled and puts some distance between scenes. Tunnels (all prototypical) and overpasses (most prototypical) allow for view blocks to divide other scenes, separating them visually, if not with distance. I’ve also routed trains under scenes for long stretches to build additional distance between scenes (e.g. Erbacon to Heaters). Because this is a stub-ended branch, there are more trains on the Grafton end and fewer on the Cowen end. I decided to adjust my compression of the plan to give the least compression to the most trains, hence, the Cowen end of the trackplan is compressed significantly while the Grafton end is compressed only moderately. Also, to give more running room, especially for the helper district, I decided to allow trains to run through scenes more than once. This is atypical for my plans, but I feel it is well worth it in this case, especially when the scenes on both sets of tracks are very similar in real life (mountains with trees, streams and tunnels).

The helper district, while cornered into less than 1/4 of the layout’s footprint, is actually quite long, and at least one end of the train remains visible for the entire helper run from Burnsville to Frenchton. The short branches to the loaders are compressed in length and squeezed into scenes along the main to provide realistic operations while keeping the focus on the main. The Alexander Branch, the longest on the sub, includes a much shorter version of the Beech Mountain Railroad including the short interchange tracks at Alexander and the loader at Star Bridge. The Elk River is represented by a single staging track out of Burnsville, and the WVC is represented by a short track off the front of the benchwork (can’t have everything).

The actual CSX yard at Grafton is miles long. I have chosen to model only the most recognizable westernmost portion of it with the engine terminal, station and bridge. A couple of extra tracks were added to allow interchange between the A&O/Cowen Sub and CSX. The double-track CSX main runs from a single, double-ended staging yard representing Clarksburg, WV and Cumberland, MD–this allows for continuous running of two trains going opposite directions. Additionally, a continuous running connection can be made from one of the wye tracks at Cowen to the Elk industrial track at Burnsville for the A&O. You’ll notice this area on the lower deck (between Erbacon and Burnsville) has a 2 foot long gap in the scenery–this is to allow more vertical space for the Pleasant Creek Viaduct on the upper level.

Lower Deck

TP A&O CSX Cowen Sub - Lower Level

Upper Deck

TP A&O CSX Cowen Sub - Upper Level


This layout can easily be run by one person, but it has enough operation to keep 4-5 operators busy for a few hours. The basic concept of operations is for the CSX to bring empty trains into Grafton where the A&O (or Cowen Sub in the CSX era) crews pick them up and take them to the right mine for loading. With eight loaders on the layout, this means up to eight unique trains, though a typical day on the A&O would probably only see 3-4. With multiple operators, one operator would run the CSX bringing empties up from staging, taking loads down to staging, and running a few CSX through trains (these could just be the empties/loads for the A&O running through Grafton since staging is a continuous loop). If representing the early A&O, the CSX power would be swapped for A&O power (armour yellow SD50s, Paducah & Louisville GP40/slug sets, GATX lease GP38s, etc.). A more up-to-date A&O session would leave the CSX power on the train and just swap the crew.

A&O slug set at Grafton, WV, 2006 -Brian Bennett

A&O slug set at Grafton, WV, 2006 -Brian Bennett

Five of the loaders were fast loaders (4-hour loaders): Cowen, Evergreen, Brooks Run, Sawmill Run and Sentinel. These trains could either be staged loaded at the loader and run back to Grafton (recommended for the single stub track at Brooks Run), or the crew could take the empties, load the train and run the loads back to Grafton. In the latter case, the long run to and from the loader and the time spent switching and loading would probably keep an operator busy for 45-60 minutes. Two loaders (Rawhide and Century 102) were 24-hour loaders. These would have to be worked more traditionally with a mine run taking empties up, switching them into the empty tracks and pulling the existing loads. The final loader is Star Bridge on the Beech Mountain. This is also a 24-hour loader, and the Beech Mountain’s little Alco switcher could only haul about 1/3 of a train up and down the branch to the interchange at Alexander. With only a few operators, trains could just be swapped out at the interchange at Alexander. Due to the limited interchange tracks, this would probably require the A&O crew to leave their loads at Sago, run light to Alexander, pick up the loads, drop them at Sago and then take the empties to Alexander. With several operators, one could be dedicated to running the Beech Mountain, shuttling hoppers back and forth and loading small cuts at Star Bridge.

Of course, every train south of Burnsville would require helpers. A pair of leased SD90s would wait at Burnsville to do the honors. While waiting, the helpers could work a “Heaters Turn” serving the large Weyerhauser lumber plant at Heaters–the cars could be tacked to a coal train or a local from Buckhannon. When a train loads at Cowen, Evergreen or Brooks Run, it would stop at the siding between Heaters and Burnsville where the helpers would cut onto the rear. From there, the train would move slowly up the grade to Frenchton where they would cut off and drift back down to Burnsville light. The helper run is nearly 100 linear feet. That equates to about a 7 minute pusher run at a scale 20 mph plus the run back to Burnsville. Since they’re stacked on top of one another, a single operator could probably run both the helpers and the Beech Mountain RR.

While coal is king on the layout, there is still enough industry and interchange to justify a local. Industries include a pair of plastics manufacturers at Philippi, a busy team track at Buckhannon and the Weyerhauser plant at Heaters (already addressed). The local could also interchange a few cars with the West Virginia Central at Tygart Jct., and perhaps take an occasional car or two to the shop at Cowen and drop a covered hopper or two at some of the tipples (ammonium nitrate).

For variety, the Elk Mountain RR could be revived to bring an additional train per day onto the layout, and an occasional Alco FA or other classic WM engine or passenger car from the WVC could be run to Grafton for shopping.

Mine runs, helpers, local industries, classic Alcos and SD90s, nice scenery, a major yard and three continuous running loops–not bad a branch line!

Things I Like About this Plan:

  • Models entire railroad in a reasonable space
  • Long helper run with little hidden track
  • Mostly prototypical grades and track arrangements throughout
  • Includes all loaders
  • Includes scenes with nice scenery value (Philippi, Pleasant Creek)
  • Lots of flexibility in operations (number of trains run, CSX and Beech Mtn operation, etc.)
  • Helix and hidden stretches used to put distance between scenes
  • Little need for staging, most trains originate and terminate on layout (Grafton)
  • Maintains predominantly a “right is east (toward Cumberland), left is west” orientation on both decks
  • Continuous running loops (can leave two CSX trains just running)
  • Transitions through backdrops mostly prototypical (actual tunnels or bridges)

Things I Don’t Like About this Plan:

  • Some severe compression, especially on the Cowen end
  • Lots of hidden track (most easily accessible)
  • Not many passing sidings for people–only a few spots where aisle widens out
  • Branches compressed and scenes doubled
  • Duck-under–even though its high and swings away, it’s still a duck-under

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