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Diesel. Freight. Pacific Electric?

Engaging HO shelf switching layout of the "Orphan Branch"

I first learned about this Pacific Electric operation from John Signor's Spring 2001 (#67) article in Trainline, the magazine of the Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society. My HO shelf layout version of the PE "Orphan Branch" was originally designed to help illustrate a clinic on small switching layouts that go beyond the basic Timesaver. While the Timesaver is a tried-and-true switching puzzle, I find the very tight-quarters versions extremely tedious to switch -- there's just not enough room to work prototypically and it becomes a shuffle of the empty slot.


Having said that, the pattern of spurs in both directions near a central run-around is a typical prototype configuration (as can be seen in the map below). It's just that, in general, the prototype usually has a bit more space with which to work. Adding this working room turns a mere puzzle into more of a railroad simulation. That's what I've tried to do in my version of the Orphan Branch.


Readers may refer to the map of the PE branch above for the prototype references. My version is designed to fit on two sections or shelves, each roughly 6' long by 18" wide. Placing these in an "L" yields an overall dimension of 7.5' X 6'.


While they are quite compressed, the main industries of the prototype are represented. Hidden trackage extends behind the Cannery flat and backdrop, representing the interchange with parent Southern Pacific. Also in this area we make space for the scenic element of the used car lot beside which the PE switcher was seen parked between shifts in many photos.


Continuing along the branch, we encounter the runaround that was a remnant of the PE's former electrified double-track through the area. This short runaround allows crews to work the nearby industry spots. Although most of the industries are represented by flats of varying depths, there is room for a fair-sized orange packing plant. These relatively large industries help add realism and purpose to a small layout.

Runarounds and the team/tail track are short, so this would not be a layout where every spot would be switched during every session. Reflecting the seasonality of the prototype, the various citrus industries would see their peak traffic at different times of the year. This would allow for some interesting variety from session to session. This variety helps keep operating sessions fresh and interesting.


In later years, these industries were switched by a 44-tonner (Bachmann's upgraded model would be a fine choice). At times, the Orphan Branch also hosted some interesting small "critters", and even a cut-down gas-electric once owned by the Northern Pacific. Railcars would of course be those typical of parent SP, including a large proportion of Pacific Fruit Express reefers for the citrus packing and frozen orange juice business.


Although it requires a bit more space than the typical plunked-onto-a-plank Timesaver, this layout would offer a chance for more interesting scenery treatments while still allowing for operating interest. I originally designed it with the intention that the layout might separate into two sections (along the broken line) for transport to exhibitions and the like, perhaps simply supported on folding banquet tables. Note that only one track crosses the boundary between baseboard sections for simplicity in construction and set-up alignment. At home, these sections might rest on shelf brackets or on top of cabinets.


I think this shelf switching layout shows that even a very simple prototype element offers lots of opportunity for individual creative expression, modeling challenge, and operating enjoyment. And even small layouts can offer scenic interest and engaging operations. Much better than just a puzzle, and not in much more room!


This article was featured in Model Trains International magazine, issue #63 . In addition, Bruce Petty wrote a fine article on the same prototype in MTI #60 which included a different approach to designing a small switching layout based on the same area. Either layout would be fun to build and operate. And they offer an interesting look into the history of a small, sunny corner of Southern California.

Looking for engaging operations in limited space? Often a small corner of a real-life railroad can provide plenty of inspiration – let’s discuss your next layout design.

San Fernando Valley packing house label
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