Back in the spring of 2021, a pandemic induced midlife crisis led me to dig out some of my N scale collection from my storage unit. “It’s now or never” I murmured to myself. I started with N Scale around 2003 when I graduated high school and I had built two small, incomplete layouts up to about 2009, so I had a decent collection. At that point, I had to place everything into storage due to the space constraints of living in New York City.
About 4 bins of N Scale stuff sat in my storage unit for more than a decade and I collected 2-3 more bins from my mom’s house. It really wasn’t more than a handful of incomplete buildings, around 50 pieces of rolling stock, a handful of Maine Central loco’s and more scenery material than I’d ever need.
Initially my intention was just to sort out my collection and throw a few sections of track onto a small spare shelf I had in my office to do a little switching. I didn’t really intend to build a full blown layout. But as I said, the “midlife crisis” I was dealing with kept nagging me to “do more, do more!” So after a week or two of fiddling with the shelf switching set up I came across a micro track plan for the New York Cross Harbor in Mid-Size Track Plans for Realistic Layouts by Model Railroader magazine.
The track plan was for a small switching layout that could fit onto two bookshelves. It measured 36” deep by about 11” wide, with a 24” or so extension for the car float. I became fixated on this track plan knowing it would fit exactly into the limited space I had available in my office. Once I got permission from the wife, I spent a day building the bench work exactly to the
dimensions in the book, but then I realized the IKEA Kallax bookshelves I was planning to put the
layout on actually afforded me a bit more real estate. The IKEA bookshelves allowed me to build the layout 57-7/8” wide by 15-3/8” deep with a 30 and 3/8ths inch extension for the car float. So I scrapped the benchwork I just built and began building new benchwork to fit the IKEA
Since the layout is already an ultra-compressed representation of the prototype, the additional real estate afforded to me from the larger Kallax bookshelves allowed me to expand the layout slightly. I was able to lengthen the yard tracks by a few inches, widen First Avenue to allow for traffic on either side of the street track plus parking and a sidewalk on one side, and build larger structures for the warehouses. I also gained an additional yard track for storage which made all the difference when operating on this tiny layout. I also didn’t realize it at the time, but the Sylvan car barge I was intending to use would never have fit on the original, smaller benchwork as it barely fits on the larger footprint I ended up with.
Once I revised the trackplan to fit the larger space, I began laying the track. My goal with any model railroad is to build with a high degree of fidelity to the prototype. I’m a big fan of recreating the real thing as closely as possible in N Scale, so I wanted to use Atlas Code 55 for my track. I had a fair amount left over from my previous layout which allowed me to begin laying track pretty quickly. I busted up most of the ties, weathered them one by one and weathered the rail as I began laying out the track. Track was laid and fairly operational within a few days of the benchwork being complete. I made a lot of mistakes laying the track that I’m still dealing with today and I learned a lot that I’ll be taking with me for my next layout. I’ll go over all of that in detail in another post focused on the track.
By the summer of ‘21 all of the track was laid, painted and ballasted. I began work on the structures next so I’d have a better idea of their footprint. The buildings along the backdrop along First Avenue are all Walthers Hardwood Furniture kits that I kitbashed and built as flats. It took 6 kits to build 4 buildings due to how I bashed them together. At this point I didn’t spend much time detailing the structures, I simply wanted to see how they’d fit onto the layout so I could begin paving the roads. I was pretty thorough planning the kitbash so all my measurements were pretty much spot on.
Once I was happy with their locations, I began work on the roadways. I used Woodland Scenics Smooth It system for my roads with a lot of success. I really like the way this stuff takes paint and has many small imperfections just like the real thing. On the prototype, a lot of the surrounding roadways are a mix of asphalt, cobblestone and asphalt covered cobblestone. I didn’t even attempt to try to recreate the cobblestone on this build but I’m definitely going to take a stab at it when I get around to building a bigger version of the layout. Embedding N Scale track into pavement isn’t easy to get right while still looking good. I think I did a decent job creating functional street running that still looks good but I’m still working out the best way to keep the rails clean without damaging the road surface.
Progress slowed over the summer but I picked things up again in the fall/winter. I came down with a bad case of Covid around Christmas of ‘21 and was out of work of the better part of a month or so. Fortunately, my sickness only lasted a few days so the additional time off gave me the chance to get a lot done on the layout. It was at this time I began work on the car barge and tug boat, both by Sylvan models. The models are resin cast which was my first time building such a kit. Initially I wanted to modify the car barge to be a 3 track design like on the prototype but once I realized I didn’t have the skills yet to do such a thing I decide to stick with the 2 track design it was made for. (That ended up working out in the end since a 3 track barge would hold around 9 cars instead of the 6 the two track one does. A layout this size couldn't handle the additional 3 cars.) The barge went together pretty quickly. I had it build, painted and weathered in one day. The tug boat on the other hand was extremely challenging to build. The biggest issue I faced with it was that the directions spoke as if I was an avid maritime modeler. I didn’t understand 90% of the terminology so I mostly focused on the diagram provided along with some photos from the internet. The model also appeared to be designed for a larger scale and simply shrunk down to N Scale proportions. As such, a lot of the parts were too small to actually assemble so I had to take some liberties here and there. Overall, I spent probably 30 hours building the tug and I’m still not sure I’m done with it.
By the spring of ‘22, I began to focus my attention to the scenery that needed to be completed. Since the layout is so small and mostly covered by track, it didn’t take long for me to cover all the foam with scenery material. At the time of this writing in December ‘22, scenery is around 90% complete. The only areas remaining to be fully sceniced are around the last two building structures I need to complete. Hopefully I’ll get around to that this winter. I also intend on doing a lot of super detailing around the layout which I’ll go over in future posts as well.
As for operations, I have yet to implement anything formal but I plan on using a car card and waybill system I purchased from Micro-Mark along with switch lists in the future. For now an operating session usually involves pulling 6 cars from the loaded car barge, sorting them in the yard, loading any outbound cars onto the empty barge, and switching any of the 3 industries to be switched. This usually takes me around 2-4 hours to complete due to the limited space on the layout and the many runaround moves required to get cars into the yard from the float. It can be a real challenge to do all of this with a full yard as it can only hold about 13 freight cars total on the 4 yard tracks. Because of this a lot of the moves tend not to be entirely prototypical but it’s still a ton of fun to operate.
In the future I’d like to build a larger version of the layout. The New York Cross Harbor is a very model-able prototype since it’s already fairly compact. With N scale it might be possible to model it nearly track for track if given a decent enough space and that’ll be my plan for the next iteration when I *hopefully* have more space to build in.
Over the coming posts I’ll detail other aspects of the layout including additional details on the benchwork, track, structures, the water feature, history of the prototype and more. If there’s something you’d like a more detailed explanation of please let me know down below!