The Val Ease Central Railroad

Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)

Last Spike: The Animated Railroad

Portable, modular and permanent home layouts take on a whole new dimension once they move beyond tracklaying and we start to add scenery. We have now stepped into the realm of reflecting the world beyond the rails and wires of our tiny trains. The world we create may be inspired by real places or be the product of our imaginations or a fusion of both. With scenery, we are filling in the blanks with an impressionistic depiction of our life experiences. Scenery adds colour to our miniature world but add animation, and our layouts come to life.

On a very broad scale, animation can be considered to be any technique of layout design that gives the impression of human or natural "activity". This may involve static as well as active scenes. Animated scenes also draw attention to places that visitors might not explore otherwise. Let's consider various animation techniques used in Z model railroading and the Val Ease Central Railroad.

Train movements

This is the most basic and obvious means of animation. In fact, as soon as there is a train running somewhere on the railroad, we have added motion to the scene. For most modellers and visitors, train movement is an important visual element. At shows, the VEC always has at least one train running at all times. Since the VEC is designed for 3 train operation, another train may be doing switching while the second takes on water or fuel and the third glides slowly over the rails. This is the scenario with only one operator. With two operators, it is possible to enjoy switching maneuvers from two control cabs while one of the three trains runs continuously. Occasionally the switching crew or crews have to wait to let the "through" train pass.

The key to a pleasing visual scene with train movement is "realistic" speed. Slower is better, in my opinion. Trains racing around a layout appear toylike and actually detract from our goal of a life like impression. Fortunately, recent Z locomotives are made better than ever and others, with mechanical upgrades, can operate at close to prototypical speeds.

Mechanized accessories

Many modellers like to include movement off-line. I have had the pleasure of seeing many imaginative techniques used by fellow Z scalers. Rob Allbritton has a chair lift moving skiers up the mountain on his Swiss Z-Bend Track layout. Dieter Nolte's Red Rock, Texas layout provides several moving elements such as rotating wind mill and helicopter blades and a series of realistically rocking oil pumps. Other layouts have animated circus rides and automatic crossing gates. Although I have not seen them myself, I have even heard of a layout with automated roadways with vehicles cruising along them. You can probably think of many other possibilities.

Unfortunately there is no room on the VEC for the mechanisms for these kinds of animated scenes (a rotating wind mill would really look good on Val Ease West behind the barn). However, the VEC makes use of another technique in our animation arsenal...

Simulated activity

The VEC suggests human activity using lights, smoke, sound and depth of detail. These visual and auditory clues to activity are presented in a layered fashion, that is, visitors notice the simulated rotating lighthouse beacon from a large distance (10 - 20 feet), then as they move closer to within 3 feet, their attention is drawn to smaller, more intimate scenes. The flashing red Christmas tree beacon on the top of VEE Station draws the eye to the details at the rear of the left-most module. The blue-white flash of a weldering torch gets visitors even closer, to within inches of the front edge of the layout, as they bend down to peer inside the VEC car shop. If they look closely, and most kids at shows do, they will notice 3 workers standing around the welder. Interior details can be made out during the short welding flash sequence.

Use vignettes to tell stories

Now that the visitor has gotten close to the layout, they begin to look for more details and small scenes or vignettes. They usually spy a young couple enjoying a romantic moment seated at a flickering camp fire. As they look further back up the trail they then see a hunter and his dog making his way toward the secret meeting place. This is when I share with my guests that the owner of Val Ease Summit Lodge, the man with the shotgun and dog, does not approve of his daughter's choice in boyfriend. The young man is not likely to get caught this time, though. He came by motor boat which is tied up nearby on the river bank, just under the railroad bridge.

Other vignettes on the VEC are based on my real-life adventures during several summers as a lineman for the Canadian National Railways. Next time you get a chance, look for me stuck up a telegraph pole being yelled at by my foreman. Or find me sitting on top of a signal box while mamma bear rounds up her cubs a short distance away. And be careful backing that boxcar onto the Val Ease Port Authority yard lead because you certainly don't want to knock me off the trencher I'm operating. (really did happen!). There are more vignettes that are still waiting to be added to the VEC. I'll tell you all about them as they come to "life".

Somethin's burnin'...

Although not visible from a long way off, the thin wisps of smoke rising from smoke stacks in VEE and CVE clearly signal to visitors that something's happening on the layout. The wafting and curling smoke adds movement and dynamic energy to the scenes. I use small capacity Seuth smoke generators which don't require much voltage to operate. I power them using inexpensive selectable voltage wall transformers. Larger units can be installed on your own layout or module to produce as much smoke as wanted. But I feel that less is more. I guess that's why Z appeals to me.

Depth of detail

Lighted and fully detailed interiors are also important elements that add interest and please many visitors to the VEC. People are often surprised that I have gone to the trouble of placing furniture, figures and lighting inside the miniscule open areas that are only visible from less than a foot away. Then again, the whole point of bringing people in close is so that they can discover the vignettes and the stories being told on the layout. Most show layouts in the larger scales have lots of detail but visitors are almost always kept back from the layout by crowd barriers. This is an understandable precaution on long modular layouts where it is impractical to keep a close eye on every linear foot of the installation. However, visitors can approach the VEC under the watchful eyes of two crewmembers, one stationed at each end of the layout. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions and even operate the trains.

Life is noisy

A train show it is often a difficult place to effectively use sound to add the unseen elements of a lively countryside, town or industrial area. One must compete with the horn and whistle blowing of other displays as well as the contribution of crowd noises to the general din. However, sound can and should be used to create the illusion of activity and movement. Each module of the VEC is equipped with a small tape player running a 60 second endless telephone message cassette tape. The background sound effects vary depending on the module. In VEE, the sounds I have mixed onto the tape include a jackhammer, an electric motor revving up to speed and the thump of a hydraulic press along with a sprinkling of traffic noise. Played at a low volume, the sounds can be heard from a distance of a few feet and provide proof that we're in the vicinity of an industrial area where unseen labourers are hard at work. Centre Val Ease offers the sounds of screeching sea gulls along the dock of Val Ease Port Authority. And it should come as no surprise to visitors to Val Ease West to hear the various farm animals that can be spotted both inside and roaming outside their pastures. A compact FM radio tuned between stations provides the "sound" of water rushing under the old trestle bridge and between the boulders along the creek. The speakers for these sound sources are hidden inside structures or embedded in the foam base board, always pointed to project the sound toward the listener.


Bringing life to a layout is the goal of most modellers who reach the final stages of scenery and layout construction. It is important for a miniature country or cityscape to come alive even when the trains are not running. The presence of human activity can be recreated on our layouts through the use of modelling techniques that include mechanical motion, animated lighting, smoke, sound and depth of detail. Bringing your layout to life using any or all of these animation techniques is all part of the FUN of model railroading, and remember, "don't look for perfection, perfect the look".