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Modeling Gaffe 9- The Peninsula Metropolis

August 20, 2009

The “Modeling Gaffe” Series Returns!


All too often we resort to placing buildings AFTER the track has been laid, which isn’t quite how you should approach it. Planning before you build is everything, and while nobody sticks to their plan 100%, it can prevent such a visually unappealing disaster like the peninsula metropolis.

Many model railroad cities posses density problems, density being defined in this article for ease of understanding as this: A single family home is low density, a rowhouse is medium density, and an apartment hi-rise is high density. All too often, in as little as two city blocks a model railroad city can go from rural farmhouses to massive skyscrapers. Obviously this is not a realistic way to approach such planning and could easily be remedied with a creative use of backdrops if you must have a city and country scene close together in a layout room.

Sure, cities like San Francisco are built on peninsulas, but those are surrounded by water. (usually the first place where a city develops is near a body of water) Lakes, Rivers, Streams, Seas and Oceans are all interesting things to model and many cities posses such features near their downtowns.

Cities that are rail-served have their railroad lines either on cheap land or flat land, and where was that land usually? Near a body of water. (unless it’s a wealthy area) Railroads usually follow the paths of least resistance and frequently follow riverbanks, canals (like the Erie Canal or the St. Lawerence Seaway) or even lakeshores. These naturally smooth and flat areas of land also lend themselves to large railroad facilities such as yards and engine servicing facilities, but beware of flood hazards and perhaps model some sort of levee or seawall to keep nature at bay.

Returning to the gaffe at hand, the Peninsula Metropolis is rarely, if ever, going to be an easy to maintain or build endeavor. Because you typically have to lay the track before you detail or build any of the major scenery (you know, like actually ENJOY running your trains a bit before doing scenery?) you have a really excellent chance of damaging your trackwork while you lean over your mainline to plop in that aparement block or downtown scene. Maintenence would probably also be a headache, dusting and repairing structures is difficult if you really have to reach to access what you want to fix. This can be avoided by creating a smaller peninsula, but then you run the risk of losing realestate for your metropolis.

Theoretically, you could bury the mainline along the peninsula under the city itself, not unlike the approach into NYC’s Grand Central Station, but what’s the fun in that? (and if built without competent access hatches and bullet-proof trackwork, why bother?) Similarly you could elevate the mainline, but it would look silly with all but the most gentle curvature unless you’re modeling an actual elevated railway, Japan, or Britian.

Most model railroaders aren’t urban planners, however it doesn’t take one to create a believable city. Think of the types of buildings you would typically see next to the right-of-way in most North American Cities….mostly older buildings thanks to the railroad spurring development of major cities and allowing them to grow to their current levels by efficiently moving goods and people, especially in from 1865-1965 and again today. Prime trackside buildings would include spacious brick warehouses, perhaps large department stores or Manufacturing Industry. If you have to model a commercial district you can mix up the buildings a bit, but the more modern buildings probably wouldn’t be built near the tracks without some regard to noise abatement.

If you’re modeling after 1920, most cities were mindful towards grade-separating the major roads from the railroads for safety reasons. You have no doubt seen overpasses on a model railroad, and that’s an interesting and common feature to add to a city scene.

Most of all, the most important thing you can do is spend time with a map of a city you’d like to model on your railroad. Note the characteristics of trackside structures and how they’re laid out both in how the roads are planned to how the railroad snakes through the district. For a HUGE map of Chicago’s Rail system, check out this map at Try to avoid the peninsula metropolis at all costs, please?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg permalink
    August 20, 2009 3:34 pm

    Think about most parts of towns near the tracks…most of those places are the oldest parts of town because they were the first to be built, along with the railroads. As cities grew and moved further from the tracks (thanks to roads)- those places near the tracks were converted to commercial or simply left to rot.

    I think if you do a Part 2 of this topic you would address modelers excessive use of ivy to hide corners on kit bashed buildings. Most cities would never let buildings become overgrown by vegetation. There is a prototype for everything, but unless you are modeling decaying Detroit, most cities would only have vegetation as decoration.

    Simply sanding corners to the correct angle would eliminate most gaps (putty can fill the rest). Imagine using ivy to hide the lack of rivet details on a loco tender.

  2. September 27, 2015 4:15 am

    HERE’S a Gaffe, that I haven’t made YET – but *was* part of my original plans!! 😛
    Thank you! You’ve saved me years of snickers. In the overall design, it just appeared to be the logical spot for a town…
    A 47″ semi-circle of open real estate. A town SHOULD go ther…….. OH CRAP! What was I thinking?

    I know what I was thinking. I’ve seen it on countless layouts over the past 45 years. I’ve seen it in early magazines that I read as a kid, and reread today.
    When I go into many hobby shops, there sits a display layout – with “Peninsula City” in the middle!
    It gets buried deep in our subconscious….
    It HAS to be right – RIGHT??

    I came up with an idea soon after reading this article.
    Don’t cover the WHOLE Mainline, but what about some of the rear section?? (My Layout sits against a wall)
    The town could be about 25-35 feet above the mainline, with the main trackage mostly on low plains area. There could be a cut at the town entrance, then maybe a 300-400 foot tunnel under the town, and then another cut, as the train leaves the town center…

    [My Mainline has a 24″ radius return loop in that area. So, track will curve into and under the town, and curve away from the town… The raised Town will mask all that curve, and maybe look less like a “dogbone end”, which of course, is EXACTLY what it is!]

    I can then slope the terrain down, at various degrees, and in different areas. Maybe even create a natural “shelf”, that the Town was built on, and the Railroad was dug under….
    Hmmmmm…….. The possibilities!
    It would then be more plausible to represent the Town extending beyond the tabletop, instead of confined in an unrealistic circle!!

    I’m thinking out loud here, planning as I write. Comments and/or critiques would be welcomed here!

    Thanks again!
    Carmine A.
    The Pacific Belt RR, in HO Scale, since 1975!

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