Friday, July 6, 2012

Auzerais St. and Unloved Towns

I'd mentioned a couple years back how my Los Gatos scene has always been a bit of an afterthought that I've never known what to do with.

Los Gatos isn't the only town on my layout like that. The Auzerais St. scene, near the Del Monte cannery, also has been stuck in limbo for years. I could just argue I haven't gotten around to adding scenery there yet; it's true I've been working more on the upper decks, and haven't gotten around to Auzerais St.

It's a symbolic thing, though. Auzerais St. holds the scene has the last bit of unfinished track on the layout. At one end of the scene, the WP branch line crosses the Vasona Branch's mainline and then runs behind the backdrop to a hidden track. The WP track supposed to have a switch right at the backdrop so the WP trains could block the mainline, or pick up cars at the interchange track. That track's always been an unknown for me; for a few years, the interchange track has just run behind the backdrop, and the WP mainline just ended unrealistically just before connecting. That track's always worried me; I wasn't sure I'd be able to make the tight curves needed to fit a switch in the space. The switch is also at the back of the scene, underneath the upper deck of the layout, so laying track would involve lots of contortions.

Don't ask me why I'm offended at the absence of that switch; it's not like this track is really critical to operations. The WP crossing in West San Jose wasn't much of a crossing. It wasn't the crossroads of transcontinental trade, but instead the crossing of SP's moderately busy branch line with the mostly-quiet WP branch. Ahead, the WP still had a mile to go, wandering between industries, before they'd get to their little freight house on The Alameda at the end of the line. When the WP built their branch line in 1922 to serve the local caneries, they had to cross the tracks of the long-dominant SP. As traditional, the new railroad could get crossings added, but had to pay for the improvements, so the crossing of the old mainline on 4th Street at Valbrick (south of downtown San Jose) and crossing of the Los Gatos branch in West San Jose both got towers, paid for by the WP.

Although I model an interchange track here, there really wasn't one in real life. Both the WP track diagrams (reprinted in Asay's "Track and Time: An Operational History of the Western Pacific Railroad") and Southern Pacific SPINS booklet show joint trackage shared between the railroads serving Cheim Lumber and Standard Oil, but no explicit interchange here. Any trading of cars happened out behind 7th and Alma at the official interchange track.

But from a model railroad view, the crossing was a keeper, appearing early on my first track plans. Crossings are rare in the west, so showing the WP crossing let me remind visitors of the "other" railroad in San Jose as well as give a sense of what happened when railroads collided. I also liked the idea of an interchange track that could get a wider variety of cars. That hasn't actually happened; the WP interchange track mostly gets occasional non-WP cars coming out, but mostly serves as a place to pick up and drop off the rare boxcars and refrigerator cars going to one of the nearby industries.

I've also had grand plans for some sound effects and signals to model the interruptions caused by an SP train coming by. I'd set up a circuit to randomly turns signals protecting the crossing to green, then play a recorded sound of a train in the distance, then play the sound of a train going past the crossing, then turn the signals green again. I'd assume the threat of WP trains barreling through a cut of boxcars straddling the crossing ought to keep crews from blocking the track.

But all those great plans hadn't really gotten very far. The switch between the interchange and WP main blocked all the rest of the work - better scenery in the area, more plans for operation, working signals, and details. Worse, the uncertainty of the WP crossing kept me from thinking about how the Del Monte cannery scene ought to be finished.

So thanks to the 4th of July holiday, I had the day off, and we didn't have anything planned til a barbeque later in the day, and *something* made me say "hey, I ought to finish that track." I had the supplies - a spare switch, a spare Tortoise switch motor, I was feeling brave enough to cut up a Shinohara switch to try to shorten it enough to make the curves work out, and (most importantly) I was in the right mood to see about finishing the scene.

Four hours later, I had the track in - not great track, but it'll do for a sliver of track that might see an occasional SP switcher.

Now, I've got all sorts of ideas for that crossing. I pulled out my references and started thinking about the WP tower that protected that crossing. There's not many pictures available; the best I'd seen in the past was a picture *from* the tower in the 1930's printed in Prune County Railroading. Luckily, Asay's WP book did have a picture of the tower, and shows that it's a smaller cousin to the Niles Junction tower seen where the WP and SP crossed in Fremont. Asay notes that Tower 17 (as it was known to the signal maintainers) was built in 1922, and had a mechanical interlocking system. I suspect it was a smaller physical machine than Niles Canyon, so the tower was smaller with three windows across each side instead of four as seen in the photos.

And in a nice reminder of how removing one annoying and blocking problem can really speed up model making, I've been going great guns on the tower ever since. A couple hours of thought and some drawing in SketchUp gave me a rough model for the tower, and a couple more hours with sheet styrene gave me the beginnings of a model for the tower.

Here's the WP crossing scene as it now appears, with a WP switcher sorting cars at the interchange, and the new tower being tested on location.

Now, I could need to figure out what roadblock keeps me from progress on Los Gatos, and I might have the same kind of burst of work to finish that scene!

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