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Modeling Gaffe 3 Abuse of Retaining Walls

February 12, 2009

Ever since I was a small child, looking wide-eyed at the photos in modeling magazines, I always cringed when I saw an impossibly tall and long retaining wall. They just aren’t realistic. Yes, there’s the Reno & Alameda Corridor “Trenches”, Yes there are extensive retaining walls in MODERN transit systems, but on a mainline in the middle of nowhere? Certianly not!

 Insane retaining walls

Retaining walls are meant to hold dirt, loose rock and other debris back from buildings, rail lines and roads. Well designed retaining walls also reduce erosion or landslides. What most modelers don’t know is that most retaining walls are usually overbuilt. I’m not sure where the modeler’s cliche of a rickety old retaining wall barely supporting the earth behind it comes from. It’s all too common though, perhaps unwillingness to study something so ordinary as a retaining wall leads many modelers to freelance it?

Click here for a detailed diagram showing the wide variety of retaining wall construction methods.

Of course there’s always the “colorado” excuse for sheer, 15 story rock faces with the Transcon-style 4 track mainline snaking it’s way along a ledge, sure it looks spectacular, but where else but Colorado, Switzerland, or Canada are you going to find such a place? Well for starters, on a model Railroad I guess!

Even in colorado, the retaining walls look rickety and somewhat tall, but they aren’t. Look closer here.

The abuse is atrocious. On one HO model railroad there was a field stone retaining wall 12 inches tall (86 scale feet!) suppposedly to “keep the bottom track visually open to viewers”. Think of that, an 8 story building, holding back millions of yards of dirt, and all with fieldstone?! I think NOT. Even a reinforced concrete retaining wall would have to be built like a dam to hold back those forces!

stair step modeling

A favorite use by modelers of retaining walls is the “stair step” railroad look. It’s in no way realistic, yet we see it time and again on our model railroads? WHY? Model Railroader Magazine had an article a decade back showing various ways to avoid this unfortunate design trend effectively. They suggested snaking the higher mainline over the lower, creating a series of “honeymoon” tunnels and somewhat steep hillsides, which looked more natural and visually appealing.

(Photographer Unknown)

Model railroaders love to use retaining walls at junctions, and here they (finally) have a place. They can range in height, the lower the better, as long as the embankment isn’t too steep and it looks like it could hold the embankment back and take the intense vibrations experienced by a heavy freight train rolling atop the embankment.

So, remember that when in doubt, don’t install any old retaining wall, install the right one for the job OR just skip the needs for them entirely and wisely plan your railroad’s grade to avoid the use of them wherever possible. You railroad foreman will be very happy if he doesn’t have to maintain another huge, 12 story fieldstone wall liable to cumble into bits any second.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2009 12:42 pm

    I am really enjoying these “Modeling Cliche” posts, they crack me up because every time I go to a train show anywhere this “style of modeling is always prevalent, and sub-par passes for good. The last show I went to I served as a NMRA judge for the AP competition and some of the stuff made me want to go crazy cause it was so bad.

  2. Phil permalink
    February 12, 2009 2:24 pm

    I too am enjoying these posts as well and it gives me some things to think about as I design my layout.

  3. Phil permalink
    February 12, 2009 2:25 pm

    Ok, I take that back on the design, something must not have loaded but when I submitted the comment, it looks great now. Sorry about that.

  4. February 22, 2009 6:55 am

    I’ve been thinking about this idea for a few days now. It’s bugging me because its causing me to reconsider one of the core principles of my model.

    Since I’m building in 30″ x 60″, I have zero room to handle track that changes elevations. But, in order to avoid a “flat land” look, I’m feigning a city over some of the tracks. The question is, how do I transition from the elevated city to the level of the rest of the layout (i.e. track level). It’s an elevation difference of about 22 scale feet. My original plan was a mix of a steep hill and a retaining wall. Back to the drawing board…

  5. August 30, 2015 9:53 am

    Both this link “Click here for a detailed diagram showing the wide variety of retaining wall construction methods.” (wikipedia) and the Geocities links are 404s now.

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