With the exception of a specially constructed building, basements are generally considered to be the best environment for model railroads. There are many reasons for this and because of them the Lackawanna Terminal Railway construction crews are building the LT under my house. We have one problem, however, that is probably not unique to my basement which has dictated several variants to the normal model railroad construction techniques; my basement tends to flood in the spring and fall. We're not talking about damp walls or trickles of water emanating from a corner somewhere. We are talking embargoed right of ways.

Wife (looking up from her reading):: "How come you're not in the basement playing with your trains?"

Me: "Diane is down there."

Wife: "The Checkout lady from the A&P is in our basement?"

Me: "No, Hurricane Diane. The one that shut down the Lackawanna for twenty eight days in 1955."

Wife: "The checkout lady from the A&P has been in our basement for twenty eight days? She must be starving!"

Me: "Have you seen my hip boots?"

Wife: I think they're in the basement. Call downstairs and ask Diane if she knows where they are…..(goes back to her reading).

Not having a finished basement with carpets, paneling and other niceties, a flooded basement is merely a biannual annoyance, but when I decided to build a basement sized layout several things had to be considered: First, mopping up is a problem with the many wooden legs and cross bracing needed for a large layout (wood also tends to absorb the water and will rot after a time). Second, the parts of the layout along the wall would have to be above the highest point that water enters the room (I have seen water enter through a crack thirty inches above the floor and hit the floor two feet out from the wall…talk about water pressure!).

Most of those water problems have since been solved but lingering doubts about building a railroad in a flood zone and my natural dissatisfaction with island layouts led me to seek alternative construction methods. The most important was the decision to mount the benchwork on the wall with as few legs as possible. The advantages are several:

  • Fewer legs mean easier access to the underside of the layout for running wire, installing switch machines and general maintenance.
  • Storing "stuff' under the layout is easier (everything is stacked on plywood roll-a-rounds with two inch hard rubber wheels for easy access).
  • There is an uncluttered appearance to the room.
  • There is no banging of feet on the legs as you move around the layout.
  • Legs get in the way of cleaning (and mopping).

Since there is always a possibility of water problems in the future, the decision was made by the Lackawanna Terminal carpentry shop not to stud out the wall. Instead, two parallel lines of 2X6 lumber were bolted to the wall, 16" apart, 34 inches above the floor, all the way around the basement. The 16" measurement was used for no other reason than that was close to the 18" separation distance between levels on this multilevel layout. Special one piece frames that would support both levels were cut from ¾" plywood and mounted to the 2X6s. This not only provided an easy way of insuring alignment of both levels but added rigidity to the benchwork. For the peninsula, 2X6 lumber was attached to the ceiling beams with metal hangers and attached to the floor on wooded "feet". "L" girder was screwed to the 2X6s 18" apart vertically and 1X4 crosspieces were attached to the "L" girder to support the trackwork on the peninsula.

Including the six peninsula supports, there are only thirteen legs to support over seven scale miles of track. The base for the helix which connects the two levels was also supported by these frames.

To aid in maintenance I built a personal rollaround out of plywood, put it on 2" casters, added some carpet and a detachable tray. It provides a comfortable means of getting around under the layout.

It was decided that the lower level would be 24" wide for a comfortable reach and the upper level width was set at 18" to help light and view the lower level. We have found this to be a reasonable combination and the only places where we deviated was over the staging yard (the intermodal area) and where the benchwork had to narrow to provide adequate isle width.

A couple of notes about damp basements. I have never had good luck using a Homosote/plywood sandwich. This is especially true for large areas like staging yards. The Homosote seems to absorb moisture and, even when glued to the plywood, will warp. Instead, I use Atlas Cork roadbed glued directly to the plywood.

A dehumidifier is a must. It helps solve some of the problems of expansion and contraction that occur with changes in humidity

Backdrops also are a concern. I was told that Masonite will absorb moisture and eventually will warp. I used Luann plywood for most of my backdrop but find it must be sealed before painting; a step I would rather not take. I tried both regular and tempered Masonite for the curved sections of backdrop and also on both sides of the peninsula and have had no problems after about six years. The Masonite sits on the pennisula crosspieces and helps to stabilize them.

So far we have had good luck with this "off the wall" technique. Mounting the layout on the wall allows for a linear operation. We have given up scenic depth for wider aisles (a major consideration when confronted with the girth of our operators). The room is easier to clean after a work session and there is more than enough storage space under the layout for those boxes of "goodies" model railroaders are always collecting.

In our next article we will discuss adding a DCC control system on the Lackawanna Terminal.

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