Unity Railways, PA track plan HO

  • Size: 12′ x 14′
  • Scale: HO
  • Minimum Radius: 27″
  • Minimum Aisle Width: 36″
  • Designed by Dan Bourque

B&LE LogoThis plan is perfect for those who want a simple layout and like the railroads around Pittsburgh, PA.  Despite its modest size, there are four railroads represented on this layout along with a yard, an interchange and a large coal loader.  This layout represents a compressed version of the four-mile long Unity Railways Company in its entirety. Dating back to 1915, Unity Railways was constructed to haul coal from the operation at Renton, PA to a connection with the Bessemer & Lake Erie at Unity Jct., PA. Along this short route was a connection with the Pennsylvania Railroad which was used to deliver loads from the PRR’s short branch to Plum Creek, PA to the B&LE and its corporate partner, the Union Railroad, at North Bessemer.

During the early diesel era, the Unity used its own switcher, EMD SW8 number 53, to haul loads from Renton and interchange traffic to Unity Jct. Even after Renton operations shut down in 1962, the Unity still hauled PRR coal from the interchange until the PRR shut down operations on the branch in 1965. When Renton re-opened in 1967, the B&LE served the branch with its mix of F-units and low horsepower 6-axles into the 1990s.

The Layout

This layout is a hybrid of the Unity and B&LE era. The interchange from the Unity era is still represented, but the loader at Renton is patterned after its modern arrangement, an excellent photo of which can be found in the excellent book Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad in Color by Robert Lorenzo and Nathan Clark. It represents the entirety of the Unity, albeit in compressed form. In addition to the Unity, the layout captures the PRR interchange, XB Tower (the dividing point between the B&LE and Union Railroad), and a portion of the large yard at North Bessemer, PA. These features are only included to the extent needed to support the operations of the Unity.

The layout is designed for continuous self-staging operation by connecting the tipple tracks at Renton to four of the yard tracks at North Bessemer. In this way, empty hoppers could be picked up from N. Bessemer, run to Renton, then pushed “above” the tipple (through the backdrop into the yard) once the loads were clear. After running the loads back to N. Bessemer, they could be spotted on yard tracks 2-5 and pushed through the backdrop once the “new” empties were pulled clear, and the whole cycle started again. Because of this, no staging is included, though very short trains could be run from the hidden ends of the PRR and B&LE tracks if desired. By-the-way, the PRR’s tunnel under the N. Bessemer yard ladder is prototypical.

One not-so-great thing about this track plan is there is no mechanism to hide the tracks through the backdrop at N. Bessemer.  To mitigate this, I’ve placed the backdrop at an angle so the transition would only be seen when leaning over the layout–if desired, a road overpass could be added, though none existed on the prototype yard. The layout also includes a duck-under, but it would be easy to make this narrow section a swing-out, and the tracks here would normally be unoccupied by cars making it feasible to use the swing-out even during an operating session. I’ve chosen a base height of 50 inches, but it would be easy to make this higher to utilize the space beneath for a desk or bookshelves and get more use out of the room. Due to its small size and limited number of engines, it would be easy to operate this layout with a simple entry-level DCC system, though walk-around throttles are recommended.

Track Plan Unity Railways HO scaleOperations

Operations on this layout would keep 1-2 operators busy for an hour or two, though with the built-in continuous operation, you could just run mine runs back and forth until you got bored! The gist of operations would be the same for both a Unity-era session or a B&LE-era session with the star player being the mine run between N. Bessemer and Renton.  The siding near Unity Junction was considered the Unity’s “yard,” so our mine run would start there with its power, either the Unity SW8 or a pair of orange and black B&LE units. From there, the B&LE power and cab would proceed through Unity Junction and back down the B&LE main into the Union RR’s North Bessemer Yard to pick up it’s train of empty hoppers and take them to its two-track yard, place a cab, and then proceed slowly to Renton (the speed limit was 15 mph on the line). At Renton, the power would use the long run-around and load tracks to alternately pull loads and place empties, shoving them up under and behind the tipple (back into N. Bessemer Yard).

From there, the crew would reassemble the train and proceed back to Unity Junction where it would back the loads into N. Bessemer and leave them on any empty tracks. During the Unity era, the crew would proceed back up the line to deliver another set of empties to the PRR and deliver PRR loads from the interchange to the Union RR at N. Bessemer. In the meantime, a Union RR crew using a pair of green or blue EMD switchers (or maybe one of their unique “buffalos”) would be needed to do a little switching and classification at N. Bessemer, pulling the empties from the yard tracks shared with the Renton tipple and shoving the freshly delivered loads onto the tracks and through the backdrop (thus restaging Renton with loads).

While the operations might get a little repetitive, there is some variation to be had by running multiple eras, activating and inactivating the interchange (it could be “fudged” to keep it active into the Penn Central or Conrail era), and adding more cars to the Renton mix to make for more switching.  Placing an engine in the appropriate paint scheme (PRR, PC or Conrail) on the short PRR track to Plum Creek, PA running off the front of the layout would help define the era. You could also place a B&LE train on the switching lead behind XB tower to add to the ambiance, and you could even run a B&LE train of PRR loads from N. Bessemer Yard to the B&LE’s single staging track to make room in the yard.  Power would vary a bit in the B&LE era with a ’60s crew using F-units with help from SD7s and 9s and later crews using a mix of SD9s, SD18s and all manner of SD38s.

Things I Like About this Plan:

  • Four railroads in a small space
  • One railroad modeled in its entirety
  • Simple design with no need for a large staging yard
  • Ample aisle space
  • Continuous operation (self-staging empties-in/loads-out at Renton)

Things I Don’t Like About this Plan:

  • Duck-under/swing-out
  • Limited variety in operations
  • Very limited play for three of the four railroads
  • Only one industry on the layout
  • Distances very compressed
  • Awkward transition through backdrop in North Bessemer

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2 Responses to Unity Railways, PA track plan HO

  1. Steve says:

    Nice plan! My brother and I chased and photographed a B+LE train to Renton Mine in the early 1980s. I would like to have seen the action back when the PRR branch still connected as well: interchanges with several different lines, and both online and bridge traffic on such a short railroad, is certainly unusual.

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