Cross at cross spans

I experimented with cross span wires. I very quickly realized I don’t like overhead.

Hobbies are supposed to be enjoyable and relaxing – a refuge from the various stresses of life. I was reminded of that over the past 24 hours.

Yesterday, in a break between work commitments, I installed cross span wires over my S scale models of the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway car barn and yard. These wires would support the trolley wire over each track in this yard area.

As a test goes, the wiring went well – although I did encounter a few issues.

  • I could not get the cross spans tight enough. I got them tight-ish and they’re wonderfully straight, but I can still easily pull/deflect them. That won’t do when adding the trolley wire.
  • Even so, the tension on the cross spans bent the poles inward significantly. I don’t like that look.
  • More worrisome, after adding the cross span wires I ran my freight motors back and forth – including doing some switching with a few cars in the storage yard area. Even with this minimal amount of overhead, I was getting hung up in the wires when uncoupling cars or otherwise reaching into the layout. I did not find this quick experiment enjoyable or relaxing. Your milage may vary.
  • Having hung a few overhead wires, I now cannot imagine repairing a broken throwbar, resoldering a wire, or adjusting a rail that’s gone out of gauge with a spiderweb of cross spans, pull-offs, and trolley wire just 4.5″ or so above railhead.

There are really two issues here: Technical and emotional. The technical ones – tension, bending poles – are things I could overcome with some experimentation and practice. I’m not worried about those. The emotional ones, though, are deal-breakers.

I slept on the issue and realized the hassle of operating under wire coupled with the challenges of maintaining an operating layout in top condition with wire in the way is not worth the extra verisimilitude. Not for me.

As a result, this morning I hauled out the side cutters and clipped out the cross spans that I had installed the afternoon before. I’ll run the NS&T with the poles stowed.

I now have some ugly blobs of solder on the line poles that I’ll have to clean up. But if that’s the price of learning this lesson, I’m happy to pay it.


Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and retired amateur shepherd who trained a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

20 thoughts on “Cross at cross spans

  1. These sorts of realism versus practical decisions are always painful. Setting clear constraints like this is so important to successful layouts, and I suspect that you’ll be happy with your decision. I’m also impressed you could make it overnight!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Riley:
      It helped that I recently read Jonathan Jones’ piece in Model Railroad Planning 2023, in which he shares some of his design decisions for his N scale Newark Branch layout – notably around framing and hierarchy. (Since – like Jonathan – you’re an architect, I suspect you are very familiar with these concepts.)
      I was impressed by his choice to use a simple backdrop of black stretched fabric to focus attention back onto the trains. It reminded me of the plain blue curtain I used behind my Port Rowan layout.
      I also appreciated his decision to build only the key structures/scenes in detail, and purposefully use less detailed models painted a uniform medium grey to represent the elements that play a supporting role. As he put it, “Creating this order allowed each element to show in proportion to its importance within the scene”.
      As I pondered the problem, I approached it with Jonathan’s thoughts – as well as Lance Mindheim’s strategic planning issues (which I wrote about in a previous post). Applying those insights made the choice to eliminate the overhead wire pretty clear to me.


      1. I was also impresses by Jonathon’s black backdrops and greyed out less important scenery. They really make the important elements stand out. I’m an engineer and on construction drawings it is common to grey out either existing items or those items being constructed by others. I assume that architects do the same. You know its there, but its not that important to the main focus.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Trevor…Thank you, thank you, thank you! You have made me feel so much better about chickening out of overhead for my brief bit of LE&N trackage. I could probably have done it, but at what cost to my mental health? If a particular aspect of the hobby is work rather than fun, what’s the point? Trolley and interurban modellers are a gifted breed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jim:
      I think there’s something to be said for “work” as opposed to “fun” in the hobby. Challenges are good and lead to satisfaction. But in this case – having actually started to install wire – I learned that I was going to be forever snagging myself in it when operating, and realized that would be even more of an issue when doing maintenance. Others can – and do – find a way to do this. But having tested it, I decided this wasn’t an avenue I wanted to pursue.


  3. I learned something from this post. Not about modeling; that’s all incomprehensible to me. About blogging. A short, personal post can be effective and interesting. I tend to only write longer research pieces, and then, like now, it can be a long time between posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. For example, I could set this whole project aside and work on something else while I ponder it further. If that’s what I felt was needed.
      And I can’t really call it painful. It was an experiment – I always approached it as such – and I came to a quick conclusion. Better than building a basement’s worth of wire and then discovering the shortfalls.


    1. In the past, I have posed models with a piece of piano wire supported on two wooden blocks, positioned out of the photograph. It works quite well.


    1. I’m not sure the good citizens of downtown St. Catharines would, though! Street running would sure be “interesting”.
      I’m actually pretty content to mount the line poles and leave off the wires for the time being.


  4. Hi Trevor, perhaps you have considered this or maybe not…

    The complexity of the trolley wire and all the associated rigging is due to the yard/engine terminal trackage. What if this were simplified?

    – What if only a single track on a narrow shelf were modelled? The accessibility for maintenance would be much improved (especially if the track were slightly below eye level).

    -The engine terminal could still be modelled, but only as a slice – the slice might go right through the barn, too, and allow for an interesting interior view.

    -Alternatively, an NS&T layout with a single track running to industries that could be switched might satisfy you.

    -Or, and I don’t know how prototypical this would be, was there an NS&T single track that interchanged with a Class 1 steam/diesel railroad where you could exchange traffic? You can still have the NS&T operation, but simplified for construction and operating practicality. And you already have CNR steam and rolling stock to supply the other end.

    -The NS&T staging as a sector plate or a sliding drawer of tracks would be considered off-stage and trolley wire would not be needed to be carried over it.

    Somehow I don’t think you will be pleased running an electric railway without trolley wire.

    I have always admired Roger’s patience in doing this in HO. Wire/catenary would not be for me – I’m too clumsy and would spend an inordinate amount of time making repairs 🙂

    Good Luck

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve operated Roger Chrysler’s layout. Wayfreight switching in a yard, under all that overhead. I call it the security fence. Move forward, carefully move the pole around. Can’t just swing it around with the wires and cross spans, it takes several steps. Move backwards. Carefully move the pole around, again, under the spans, pulloffs and the main wire. I enjoyed operating his layout but decided, if I went electric, I’d model something with pantographs. Of course, L&PS came into the St. Thomas NYC station…

    Seriously, great to see you modelling the NS&T. The guys at the museum will want to see this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed a session on Roger’s layout as well – but wasn’t switching in the yard.
      The museum? I assume a museum in the Niagara Region. It could be difficult – I’m in Saskatchewan!


      1. Halton County Radial Railway, electrics in 1:1 scale. I’ve been volunteering for 12 years, now roadmaster and machine shop foreman. Yes, I see you’ve moved out west, but you’re doing a great job of documenting the NS&T.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks! I grew up around the lines but after the CNR took down the wires and converted them to diesel, so modelling them is really meaningful to me.


  6. Bravo for failing early and gracefully—and it’s actually not failure, because you ultimately learned and profited from the experience. And shared it with us, which further makes it the gift of insight.
    Speaking as an insufferable fanboy of electric railroads and models of them, overhead wire sure is compelling and pretty. The Märklin Christmas display in Marshall Fields, complete with catenary, sucked me in 50 years ago.
    I’ve modeled catenary, and can attest that its juice might not be worth the squeeze. It’s hard to build, and requires near constant maintenance and vigilance—an errant pantograph or solder joint can wipe out hundreds of hours of painstaking work within seconds. Furthermore, catenary wire and poles confound track cleaning, car railing/re-railing, scenery, and photography.
    My last go at catenary (in N scale) emphasized the vertical structures—poles, mostly—and skipped the wire in an approach not unlike what you are opting for on your NS&T. Your rationale seems similar to mine: it’s about the trains and their environment, not the wire.
    I had to be brought around to this idea, and one of my key moments of realization was that at least two famously admirable US-prototype heavy electric layouts featured in major model railroad magazines in recent years have catenary but do not operate with pantographs on wire. Further reading of overseas modeling magazines reveals that successful, inspirational electric railroad modeling often skips the wire.
    I am as excited and inspired as ever by your NS&T project, and look forward to seeing it develop, with or without wire.

    Liked by 1 person

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