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Modeling Gaffe 7- Industrial Afterthoughts

March 21, 2009

How many times have you seen, or attempted to do the following:
“well there’s this oddly shaped space on my layout, what should I do with it?….That’s IT! I’ll fill it with an industry, I’ll add a siding…PERFECT.”

Industrial Afterthought

How could you possibly go wrong? Well, if you’re like the person who placed their industry out in the middle of nowhere, straddled by four track mainlines on either side, you’ve gone wrong.

Perhaps it’s a smarter idea to think of industry placement like a player of Sim City…you can’t make tax money if you cover the entire map with roads and railroad tracks. You need an acceptable ratio of buildings to track on your layout, especially those that are NOT served by the railroad.

Large industries, even stip mining operations have small, medium or large towns where the workers live. They may be as clearly defined and spectacular as The Companeria Minera de Pinoles mining town in Penoles Mexico , they may be as blended into the residental and commercial areas as some US cities, with homes and businesses right next to the tracks.
Living Close to Industry (Photo by Jack Delano,

Only rarely did the people of the early 20th century live far away from their place of employment. If this was the case, the railroad probably provided some safe and relatively fast means of conveyance, like a employee’s special passenger train, or sometimes the company hired buses if the roads were ok. Only after 1945 did people consider the idea of suburbs where work was placed in the middle of a long commute in either direction. Sure, large cities had some nearby small towns that had commuter or mixed freight rail connections, but it wasn’t a staple of every major, medium and even small sized city like it is today with vast tracts of isolated homes in a desert of suburban sprawl.

Major industries were often placed near rivers for a cheap, reliable source of water to use in their factories, for barge or ship transporation, to provide hydroelectric power (like Northeastern US mills) or just as a place to dump toxic waste in pre-EPA days. You will probably find the oldest industrial buildings along a river.

If they couldn’t be near water, they tried to pick a large, flat piece of cheap land that featured minimal vegetation. This would allow road and rail access to be easy. Automobile, Aircraft, and other large manufacturing plants follow this patter wherever they can. Some industries, like stamp mills and ore refineries took advantage of steep hillsides, but they were just as at home on level ground as on a hillside.

The only other factor that large industries considered was the location of raw materials or parts for manufacture. I noticed when looking at a map of Birmingham, AL it was uncanny that the steel mills were geographically equidistant between the ore deposits in Iron Mountain to the south and the coal fields to the north! Grain silos are centralized industries too. They need only a railroad mainline and grain fields surrounding the silo to prosper. Lumber mills are another obvious example. Placed near a river or railroad connection was preferrable, but they always had to be near the trees. They were often dismantled and moved as loggers slashed and burned the forests of the West, East, North ad Southern US.

What does this mean for your model railroad you may ask? A LOT actually.
-Space your raw material harvesting industries (mines, oil fields, grain silos, logging camps, vegetable or fruit packing houses) enough distance from the mills to warrant freight car traffic.
-Place your (grain, ore, lumber, steel, aluminium or oil) mill/refinery as the main industry of a town, and build the town around the industry.
-Make your manufacturing plants the centerpiece of another town altogether, so you can also have a reason to haul your refined product (metal, petroleum products, lumber, or food products) from mills to the manufacturing plant to the warehouses.
-You never see an important, but usually ignored industry THE PRODUCT DISTRIBUTORS take those freight cars full of manufactured goods and transfer them to a warehouse (either by truck or by rail again)
-Finally, the product will reach a warehouse, freight house or cold storage company. The rail-based journey of goods is complete, and look! You needed about 3-6 different types of freight cars to handle the demands of each stage of bringing a specific product to market. The possibilites for realistic railroad operation are endless and with plenty of modelgenic industries out there give it a try!

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 30, 2015 4:15 am

    Wow, that link to the photo of the Mexico mining town is crazy!! ( Thanks so much for sharing that. I can’t imagine living in such an environment.

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