In the cage

“Body stretching, feel the wrenching / In the cage / Get me out of the cage” – Genesis

I’m grateful for all the feedback prompted by my previous post on overhead wire for my Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway car barn project. It has all been very thought-provoking. Thank you.

My friend Steve Lee has done his fair share of modelling and thinking under wire. In an offline conversation he observed, “From a certain viewpoint, overhead and poles are a cage around the train models”. That nicely sums up my concerns from both a visual and practical perspective.

Inspired by Steve’s observation, I thought I’d illustrate the problem graphically – hence the above picture. I’ve propped a baking rack on some styrofoam blocks set 4.5″ above railhead. (That represents 24 feet in S scale. Trolley wire is 18-22 feet above railhead so that’s actually a bit generous.) I’ve then added a set of pliers to represent re-spiking an errant rail, and a soldering iron to represent re-connecting a broken drop feeder wire. The problem is easy to see.

Does the baking rack represent too many overhead wires? I don’t think so. Overhead wire isn’t just the trolley wire – the part the trolley pole runs along. There are span wires, backbones, and pull-offs – lots of pull-offs around curves and track switches. And while the rods of the baking rack are far larger than the wires I’d use, I’d argue that the fineness of the wire (0.010″ diameter – smaller than a #80 drill bit) makes it even more likely that I’ll get tangled in it.

Or as Steve put it, “Lots of opportunities for what Plastic Model Mojo podcaster David Knight calls ‘negative modelling’.” (A phrase that’s new to me, and one that’s perfect. Thanks for this!)

Obviously, people manage to do build and maintain layouts under wire. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But I’ve thought about it, and it’s not something I, personally, want to do.

I think it’s important to test ideas before dismissing them. But having done my tests, I’ve decided I’ll abandon full-on overhead in favour of better access to the track beneath. For me, it’s the better option for maintenance. As a bonus, it also opens up more opportunities to take photos that would be impossible with wire in the way – like these:

Four NS&T freight motors await their assignments at the Welland Avenue car barn in St. Catharines, circa 1959.
NS&T 15 and 19.
The three sisters: NS&T 8, 19, and 15.

I think that’s an excellent choice.

(By the way: Steve writes two terrific websites: Up Dunes Junction covers his model railway activities – mostly under wire – while Sprue Pie with Frets is his home for building all manner of plastic models. If you don’t follow them, you really should.)

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.

13 thoughts on “In the cage

  1. Yes, I meant the support brackets. I realize not all poles used the brackets as there are places that span between poles where you have the turnout pans (I honestly don’t remember all the correct terminology) and other spots where the wire is supported with different hardware.

    I never gave a thought to how much trouble operating under wire might be. There was a time many moons ago when I dreamed of building a small section of the Texas Electric. Never happened, f course. Thanks for sharing your reasoning. It makes complete sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The car barn yard was long and narrow with several parallel tracks. It had basically three types of supports.
      The most common was simple poles along the south side of the yard, which supported cross span wires over the tracks. There were a few of these plain poles in the middle and I’ve modelled those as well. The ones in the middle might have wires headed in several directions – but nothing hung on brackets.
      The second was supports mounted on the walls of the car barn itself. I’ve modelled a few of these on the walls of the western extension. I made them robust enough to hang wire – I could make them more delicate but won’t bother at this point.
      The third was a line of ironwork towers that ran along the north edge of the yard. They had a square profile and had cross braces – like a component in a through truss bridge. I did not model these as I assumed photoetched towers would not stand up to the strain of overhead wire. Instead, I added poles along Welland Avenue. These poles have bracket arms on them over Welland Avenue because I planned to run a track up the street (not on the prototype) and would need a way to suspend the wire. If I’m not hanging wire, I could replace this row of poles with iron towers. Model Memories makes some that would be suitable stand-ins. I have not yet decided if this is something I want to pursue.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, early days O scale used outside 3rd rails copied, no doubt, from observing NY&NH and NYC practices. Of course that means contact shoes and a whole “nuther” level of complications, unless you are running a combination of overhead and rail conductors in which case you can “finesse” the shoes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an excellent suggestion and one of my hobby heroes, Bob Hegge, employed some 3rd rail on his Crooked Mountain Lines layout.
      However, the NS&T did not use 3d rail. Since I’m modelling a specific prototype – which included street running – that’s not an option.


    2. I just re-read Bob Hegge’s article on building third rail (In the June 1978 issue of Model Railroader). Interestingly, his choice was a response to the same issues I realized I was going to have with the wire over the Welland Avenue yard.
      He added third rail to only one section of his layout – the island section, which included the yard/car barn at Gina. In the article he writes:

      “A few years passed and maintaining the overhead became a chore in the yards. (The mountain lines gave little trouble, for a single trolley wire causes few problems other than getting your hands tangled in it now and then.) I was really getting bugged by resoldering this and resoldering that as the catenary hangers took leave of the messenger or contact wire.”

      I suspect the problem was exacerbated by constantly reaching into the scene to maintain track or couple/uncouple.
      As I noted earlier, my prototype didn’t use third rail. I think that adding third rail instead of overhead wire would take me even further away from my prototype than simply modelling the line poles and leaving the overhead wire to the imagination.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s why I asked if you were using two rail power pickup with or without the overhead. It will look great either way as your modeling is excellent. Maybe just the poles and the transverse carriers (sic technical term)?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Chris:
        Thanks for the kind words. And thanks for prompting me to re-read the Hegge article – always enjoyable!
        The cross spans (transverse carriers) are what made me realize I didn’t want overhead. I will model poles only – with bracket arms as required.


  3. Trevor, another thought provoking post. You’ve really demonstrated the value in testing ideas out and some pragmatism in balancing what we would like versus what is actually important to us as modellers. Glad to see this isn’t the end of the N&SC journey!


    Liked by 1 person

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