Rick Wright’s CONUS Lines

John Sethian’s PRR Nassau Division

December 17th, 2016

Rick Wright’s CONUS Lines, Burke, VA, Pictures by Elizabeth Boisvert

John Sethian’s PRR Nassau Division, Pictures by Elizabeth Boisvert


I’d like to think that there are still a few of us around who remember the late Doug Jones, a well-known local musician (timpanist) as well as an O scale modeler. He provided one of my first experiences with O scale in the 1970’s shortly after we moved here, and I’ve been impressed (and intimidated) by it ever since. So when the opportunity arises to visit one, (and on the 17th of December 2016 we had scheduled visits for two of them), I try to take advantage of it.

    I started at John Sethian’s PRR Nassau Division for logistical convenience - a less than ideal day for riding around Fairfax County, and experience - I’d been there for the previous tour in 2014 and it’s always big plus if you know what to look for in advance. It also allows you to use some of your original observations in the new write-up as well. There were sure to be changes and additions during the interim between the tours when one is as ambitious as John Sethian (yes, he still is up and working on his layout early in the morning while I’m ensconced in bed), but rather than reinvent the wheel trying to find them, I took the easy way out and just asked him. He had added some new buildings – models based on Edward Hopper paintings - with a small copy of the painting close-by for confirmation. There were also Woodland ‘Scenics’ - full sized buildings (the backs of them, anyway) in a corner area because he felt that flats just didn’t look right, and a clock tower adjoining one of his factories with operating clocks. He has installed more four-foot LED lighting strips to replace his original fluorescents because they’re equally bright, but also dimmable to enhance the illumination in his street lighting, signals, and layout structures; including a paraphrased “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” sign on the landmark Whitford Bridge. Unfortunately, those LED strips are not easy to find and fairly expensive. John bases his operations on the PRR Nassau Division through the New Jersey countryside in the mid 1950’s, and has placed models of vehicles he had personally owned around the layout with 1956 NJ license plates. On this day, he had two P5 electrics and a set of ABBA Baldwin Sharks on freight trains, a complete Aero Train, and a Tuscan Red GG1 with seven Sunset stainless steel cars (The Congressional?), each lighted and with full interiors. Rapido makes similar cars in HO, but the interior details are a whole lot easier to see in O Scale, as is everything else which is why I find O Scale both impressive and intimidating. He also had some M class 4-8-2s and other steam locomotives on the layout. He uses equipment from MTH, Lionel, Atlas, and anyone else that looks like it belongs, all controlled by the MTH Digital Control System. Finally, a really interesting highlight is a scenery elevator powered by a lifting device nominally used to raise large flat-screen TVs from behind furniture into viewing position. He uses it to raise a large completed section of scenery to access the area behind it, but when it’s returned to its usual position the separation points disappear. John’s railroad is a beautifully done work of art, and it was too bad that the unfortunate weather conditions (that early morning ice storm) held down the number of visitors, even though the sun had come out by the time we left. 

    Moving on to Richard Wright’s layout. Richard, a Retired Naval Line Officer, took the name of his O gauge Three-rail ‘Conus Lines’ from the Navy’s acronym for the Continental United States; and it takes up most of his 24’ by 35’ basement. Based on a John Armstrong track plan (John’s forte was utilizing every bit of space that was available and, if necessary, encroaching into space that really wasn’t), Richard runs a variety of equipment from several different railroads and periodically changes the era and region; on this day he was operating Union Pacific equipment that featured twin E8s pulling an eight car Armour Yellow streamlined “City of St. Louis,” three CGW F units running in the opposite direction, and a long freight hauled by a Big Boy that was eventually swapped for a Challenger that had been parked in the extensive engine facilities on a large peninsula along with a round house and turntable.  There were also two FEF-3s in greyhound décor parked there, some yellow F units, and a 9000 series 4-12-2 sitting on the turntable itself. There were three-light signals for the UP, but there were position light signals as well and some catenary for the electrics, no doubt for Pennsy day; and he has been known to run VGN and Milwaukee electrics from time to time as well.  And if that isn’t enough, he has NS, CSX, SRR, B&M, NYC L-3 and L-4 Mohawks, J class Hudsons, an RS 1, a B&A A1a Berkshire, and even some New Haven electrics - an EP-3, an EF-3, which looks like an EP-4, and a set of Alco FAs (how did I miss that day?). New England is duly represented on the Conus Lines. With respect to motive power, Richard, like John, uses whatever looks good and runs well. His locomotives are mainly MTH, but also Lionel, Athearn, Atlas, brass, or any other manufacturer that makes what he wants. All run with MTH’s proprietary DCS. The scenery is completed, with most of the structures and surroundings illuminated for a very nice visual effect. One of the big advantages of O scale is the weight of both the locomotives and the rolling stock. Standard sized freight cars run about a pound apiece. Full length passenger cars weigh considerably more; and with regard to some of the locomotives, try really hard not to drop one on your foot. All this additional weight makes it nearly impossible to derail something and makes the tendency to run trains at too high a speed much less of a problem.

    Those of us that were able to make it to the division home tours that day had the opportunity to see two first-class model railroads in virtually crowd free settings, inasmuch as the local media weather reports had spooked most everyone else into staying at home. In all fairness to the rest of the division however, we should try to reschedule them both for a future date, maybe in the summer when ice and snow are much less of a problem. 

                                    Bob Rosenberg