Model railroad Planning, Survey Using Google Earth

Model railroad Planning, Survey Using Google Earth

Part 1 – Introduction:

Part 2 – Prototype Study:

Part 3 – Designing Layout:

Part 4: Track Planning:

Now so far, I’ve talked about just the layout plan which is sufficient to complete the trackwork and even some scenery for the model builder, but sooner or later there will be a time to start making those custom buildings and structures. Now, a visit in person does help, but unless you specifically plan for a survey targeting the buildings and ready to spend hours in uncovering the details, it becomes difficult to cover all grounds. It also requires special photography equipment to do the job well. Here Google Earth/Google Map comes to rescue again since they have already done this and more, and even for someone who has visited the place and taken plenty of photos and videos, Google Earth/Google Map Street View compliments that information greatly and fills any gap that might still exist. So here I will show some of my photos, but more importantly mention how Google Earth/Google Map Street View can be used to do detail survey of the place. This is particularly helpful for me because during my visit heavy restoration work was going on and many parts were cordoned off and were out of reach, making the use of Google Street View even more important.

Let’s start from the turntable and from here we will head south all the way till the Tower Bridge, evaluating and revealing various details of this wonderful stretch. Picture 2 shows the turntable with the roundhouse in the background. On the left of the turntable you can spot the 2-aspect signal protecting the intersection with the UP track running underneath the I St. Bridge which is also visible in the photo. In Picture 3 you see a slightly different perspective showing the mainline on the left of the turntable more clearly – notice the MOW equipment in the far-left fork and the second spar leading to the turntable. You can also spot the Granite Rock number 10 in front of the turntable getting its fill of water. Picture 4 shows the steam crane and old cargo handling area, you can see the Sacramento History Museum entrance on the left-hand side of the frame. The old water column is also visible in the picture.

Picture-1: A classic 3-way stub switch with twin target switch stand right before the water column. The entrance of the Passenger Station can be seen in the background.
Picture-2: The turntable with the roundhouse in the background. The roundhouse still hosts operable locomotives and is part of CSRM. Notice the 2 aspect signal in the left of the frame that protects the UP/Sacramento Southern intersection diamond crossings.
Picture-3: Another view of the ‘exit’ – I St. Bridge can be seen in the left of the frame. MOW equipment are stored in the spur on the left, and the secondary approach to the turntable. Famous Granite Rock 10 saddle tank engine is getting it’s fill of water in front of the turntable.
Picture-4: The steam crane between the Sacramento History Museum and the CP Passenger Station, beyond the 3-way switch looking East.

Google View 1 shows the background scene right beyond the steam crane and the loading area. This area is not something that will be shown in the layout, but this makes an effective background photo to bring an enhanced level of realism. For those who cannot visit the place and take a background photo themselves, Google Earth solves the problem pretty effectively. Yes, there are a few human figures in the photo that might look oversized in the perspective, but with a little bit of photo editing/photoshop skill, any unwanted or inappropriate elements can be eliminated easily. For those who do not have such skills, by simply placing an N scale object of right size in front of those figures can easily hide them while keeping the feel of the place intact.

Google View 1: 1849 Scene: Looking from West, right after the steam crane, this part of the Old Sacramento district is preserved in it’s 1849 charm. Can be a fantastic backdrop by editing some foreground objects in Photoshop

Picture 5 and 6 show the Central Pacific Passenger Station from two sides, and previously in Picture 1, you see the same building behind the 3-way switch showing the entry to the station. Google View 2 shows the end of CP Passenger Station and the CP Freight Depot at the junction of J street and Front Street, showing some great details about both the buildings which will be helpful while making these structures. Note that during my visit, this entire area was cordoned off due to restoration work, and I never saw this view in person, but Google Earth compensates for that.

Picture-5: View of the Passenger Station from the track-side. The straight tracks all the way till the Tower Bridge provides amazing depth from this point.
Picture-6: Front of the Passenger Station – this magnificent building can surely be a head turner in N Scale form.
Google View 2: Front St / J St. Junction: With the CP Passenger Station in the foreground and the Freight Depot in the background, this scene provides a lot of necessary details to make successful models of both the structures.

You might be wondering why I am showing the far side of the buildings which will never be visible from the front of the layout. I am showing this because a great model is always complete, whether you can see a particular part of it or not. Since the plan accounts for the whole buildings and not convert them into backdrop buildings (definitely a possibility that the builder can evaluate if reducing the depth of the layout is necessary), I am showing what the other side looks like – after all, the Eastside of these buildings are the front sides. Also, the option stays open for those who might want to build a both side open display layout showing all the features of these great structures.

Moving to the other side Google View 3 shows the J street from the side of the dock – you can see the details of the passenger station on the left. Also, this is another view that will make a fantastic backdrop between the Freight Depot and the Passenger Station for those who want to make use of it. Google View 4 shows the canopy right opposite J St. crossing. If you proceed to the canopy, you can see a great deal of details of the waterside structures as well as the Delta King Hotel in Google View 5. Moving towards the Delta King Hotel the dock and the waterfront structures are clearly visible in Google View 6. Notice how wood planks and discarded railroad ties are used to build the waterfront docks.

Google View 3: J St.: Looking from West standing on the quay, this view can be a fantastic backdrop with some easy edits. Notice the details of the Passenger Station which will come handy while building a model.
Google View 4: One of many canopies on the river bank platform along the Sacramento River, right opposite J St. / Front St. junction. Notice the canopies with benches for visitors.
Google View 5: Waterside structure and wharf details as seen from the platform in Google View 4.
Google View 6: More wharf details right opposite the CP Freight Depot. Notice the use of old railroad ties and wood planks in the construction – requires a lot of matchsticks and N Scale wooden ties to replicate in N Scale.

Picture 7 show the Central Pacific Freight Depot taken from the entrance of the Delta King Hotel, right opposite the K St. crossing. Looking on the other side you see the waterfront structures opposite the depot in Google View 7. Notice the Delta King Hotel and 2 old time wooden cranes on the wharf. Google View 8 shows the K St./Front St. junction and the Café complex that hosts multiple establishments. The building originally used to be the office and ticket counter of California Steam Navigation Co. as it says in the board. Also, notice the pure wooden railroad crossing and semi-circular Valet Parking of Delta King Hotel. Looking South, you see the wooden dock and dockside structures in Google View 9. Again, none of these areas were accessible for me during my visit, so even for me Google Street View is a more reliable source of information than my visit.

Picture-7: View of the Freight Depot as seen from the Delta King Hotel entrance.
Google View 7: Main wharf looking from the entrance of the Delta King Hotel
Google View 8: K St. and Front St. junction as seen from the entrance of the Delta King Hotel – Depot on left and California Steam Navigation Co. building on right.
Google View 9: Looking South from Delta King entrance – wharf platform and structure with Tower Bridge in the background.

Getting down to the floating dock in Google Earth you get a good view of the stern of the steamer that is now the floating Delta King Hotel as seen is Google View 10. Looking South from the same spot more details of the waterside structures and docks are revealed in Google View 11, including the Hornblower Cruises and Events dock showing their yacht Capitol Hornblower. An important thing to note is that the water level of the Sacramento River is at least 25 feet below the surface in a normal day (and that’s how I saw it during my visit too), so while building the layout the surface of the water can be comfortably 2 inches below the land surface. Going further South along the floating dock you reach the Riverfront Dock, and from here you not only get a closer look at the details of the dock, but also a get a good view of the Rio City Café’s structure and ambiance as shown in Google View 12. Looking South, you also get a good view at Joe’s Crab Shack as it is seen from the dock in Google View 13.

Google View 10: Delta King Hotel from the floating dock. Notice the tall guide poles/legs – some of them have an additional diagonal support.
Google View 11: More wharf details revealed looking South standing on the floating dock.
Google View 12: Observing Rio City Café standing on the Riverfront Dock.
Google View 13: Observing Joe’s Crab Shack standing on the Riverfront Dock.

Coming back up to the track level between Rio City Café and Joe’s Crab, looking south you reveal the intricate structure of the Rio City Café in Google View 14. You can also see the south side of the California Steam Navigation Co/Café block building in the frame. Going South a few tens of feet you reveal the beautiful Joe’s Crab Shack building in it’s bright red and white color scheme in Google View 15. Notice those inexpensive lamp shades that can be easily scratch-built. Moving further South you see the Tower Bridge Garage behind Front Street in Google View 16 – a sharp contrast of a classic masonry building amidst all the wooden structures. Looking left, you also see the beautiful Schoolhouse Museum which used to be a church back in the day. Also notice the simple wood-stump and rope barrier, and the wooden light poles – easy to make in model form that will bring superb character to the layout.

Google View 14: Rio City Café – looking North.
Google View 15: Joe’s Crab Shack looking South. Notice the wooden pole mounted lamps – easy to build details that can add a lot of character to the layout.
Google View 16: Tower Bridge Garage – a classic masonry building that brings striking contrast amidst the abundance of wooden structures.
Google View 17: A beautiful little church which is now the Schoolhouse Museum. Notice the wood-stump and rope barrier and pole mounted lamps. Fantastic details that can be included in the layout.

Finally arriving at the Tower Bridge crossing you reveal the Tower Bridge Garage entrance and the side of the Capitol Mall which will basically be a background low-relief building in the layout (Google View 18). Looking right it reveals the Embassy Suites building – the building itself will not be there in the layout, just the hint of the entrance, but one can definitely consider using this building in the backdrop. Finally, in Google View 20 you see the details of the Tower Bridge’s beautiful, golden truss details. Note that the lifting tower itself will not be modeled and in the model the cross section of the bridge will end right before the abutment, but these truss details will add a great deal of authenticity in the model. Getting down to the floating dock provides great views of the section of the bridge, including the underside of the bridge, the abutment and more details on the truss, as seen in Google View 21. Now to complete the street view section, here is a beautiful photo of the waterfront that I took from the Tower Bridge as seen in Picture 8. Notice that I was lucky to capture a small 2-masted schooner moored on the dock – another fantastic detail that can be added to the layout scene.

Google View 18: Entrance of the Tower Bridge Garage with Capitol Mall building in front of it. The side of the Capitol Mall building will become a low relief backdrop building in the layout, so only the details of this view is important.
Google View 19: The Embassy Suites building opposite the Capitol Mall. This building will just be a backdrop in the layout if 3 side backdrop is used, else this will be ‘off-the-stage’ with just a hint of it’s entrance included in the layout.
Google View 20: The beautiful Tower Bridge and it’s golden truss. The lift tower itself will not be included in the model since the edge of the layout will cut the cross section of the bridge before the abutment.
Google View 21: Underside details of the truss bridge. Given the cross section of the bridge is in the front of the layout, the modeler might want to model this area as well for added realism. The decision to model this area depends on the height of the layout and viewing angle.
Picture-8: Old Sacramento wharf and waterside details as seen from the Tower Bridge.

What we saw in this section is simply the overview of the buildings and structures. For someone who is keen to replicate the authenticity and feel of the region will definitely have to spend more time in Google Street View examining each element thoroughly to arrive at the final scale model design. The trick is simple enough, it is just time consuming; and depending on the ambition of the modeler can take weeks to complete the planning process. But for someone taking a more ‘impressionist’ approach the content of this article should suffice.

The planning of this layout is done, however, there is still a few lose strings to tie. So join me in the next post for some final words, plus… a bonus design for a possible extension if you have space.

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