John Swanson’s PRR Cresson Branch, Gainesville, VA

March 18th, 2017

Pictures by Elizabeth Boisvert and Mat Thompson


    Groundhog Day is long past (except in the movie, of course, where it goes on ad infinitum) but when John Swanson’s PRR Cresson Branch came up on our March home layout tour schedule the opportunity to check up on Punxsutawney Phil again was irresistible. John is from Punxsutawney and has set his model railroad in the area from Cresson, Pennsylvania, just west of Horseshoe Curve, through Punxsutawney and continuing westward from there. It’s a large layout, weaving through several different rooms and takes up most of the available space in John’s sizeable basement. It was designed using the XTrack CAD program. John uses the standard construction techniques and bench work components going back to Linn Westcott’s original girder construction method, with Atlas code 83 flex track and Shinohara DCC friendly turnouts over cork roadbed, all held together with DAP 230 adhesive – no nails; even his curves are super-elevated by stringing .029 fishing line under one side of the track. The primary DCC control system is Digitrax. The always on Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) configuration running on Raspberry Pi3 that supports the panel images used to control the turnouts works via a Microsoft Desktop connection using any PC. And that concludes our Geek language lesson for today.  

The focus is on operation; he and his fellow modelers have things moving quite nicely ahead of schedule, and possibly even under budget (What exactly does under budget mean? I’ve never heard that expression used around here before) with the goal of instituting operating sessions later this year. John is using hardware and software that will allow for control of trains and turnouts via Android tablets as well as by your standard DCC controllers, a classic example of culture shock to those of us who still have Lambert and Shinohara Twin Coil machines thrown by pushing little spring loaded SPST red and green buttons; he has also installed several Rapido Railcrew uncoupling devices at strategic locations under the track, a new and much sought after technological innovation that makes automatic uncoupling during operating sessions virtually foolproof.  

There’s something about John’s railroad that give you the feeling that you’ve walked into a time warp. Set in the transition era, there was plenty of steam and diesel action. The SW's, Sharks, and EMD’s are from various model manufacturers; the I1s, K4s, and M1 class steam locomotives are all by BLI, and there were groups of N5 series cabooses spotted at various locations on the layout  waiting to be tied on to departing freights. A pair of Baldwin Shark units were running that day with a dozen or so box cars, as was a twelve car Broadway Limited train made up of the new Walther’s cars and pulled by double headed K4’s, a most impressive sight. The whole scene was standard early 1950’s PRR except that they were all controlled by 2017 cutting edge electronic devices such as touch screen tablets, things that you rarely saw in sci-fi movies back in those days. You almost had to step back and think for a minute; in which century are we, exactly? A significant amount of basic construction is already completed, the track is installed, and the trains are running over the branch successfully under these advanced space aged controls. There is very little scenery except for some switch towers, but there is ample room for it when the time comes. The only thing missing was an HO model of Phil himself. There was an unconfirmed rumor that while we were there he was in his hole taking a nap, having finished his work for the year and collected his check. A typical celebrity, he couldn’t be bothered to wake up and crawl out of it just to greet us, his loyal groupies. 

For someone like me, who once had a DC rectifier wired to a Lionel transformer to power up his Varney F3, visiting John’s layout was comparable to visiting the Starship Enterprise. I used to think that DCC was the cat’s pajamas (now there’s an expression perfectly attuned to the Ancient Modeler’s era), but while watching those trains controlled by all those sophisticated electronics, I felt more like the GEICO caveman: a person living in but completely disconnected from the real world around him as it currently exists. And if that weren’t depressing enough, Elizabeth Boisvert was there contributing to the surreal atmosphere by recording the entire 1950’s scene on her state-of-the-art smart phone camera that takes digital pictures as well my Nikon, that is when it’s not communicating with some Martians up in the cloud. My wife keeps suggesting that I join the 21st century with invitations sent, no doubt, from her iPad or one of the other Treckkie type electronic communication devices that she has. Maybe I should take her up on it.  

Bob Rosenberg