Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Bridge (Route) too Far?

One of the interesting things about working with people on custom model railroad track plans is seeing the hobby from others' viewpoints. Sometimes it's a window back in time. A fellow has been conversing with me about a layout he'd like to set in the desert West, basically from Las Vegas to Reno. A look at a railroad atlas shows no railroad on that route – and a look at a highway atlas shows why.

This is pretty sparsely populated territory, to put it charitably. In fact, Darius Ogden Mills, one of the backers of the real life narrow gauge Carson and Colorado (which eventually became the SP's famous last remaining narrow gauge in the area) remarked that they had built their railroad "… three hundred miles too far or three hundred years too soon". And my prospective client's proposed survey seems just as remote, seeing as it mostly follows Route 95, called by some the loneliest road in America. (Nevada's connecting Route 50 vies for the same dubious honor).

OK, there would probably be some mineral and military business along the way (maybe the odd classified shipment of parts from downed UFOs to Area 51), but hardly enough to justify a four- or five-hundred mile rail investment in real life. When I met with the prospective client at the NMRA Convention in Anaheim in July, I asked, "So what were you thinking of as traffic generators on this layout?"

He looked at me as if I could not possibly have asked a dumber question. (For some reason, this happens to me a lot, so I am familiar with the expression). "Why, it's a bridge route, of course," he replied. "It connects the Union Pacific in Las Vegas to the Southern Pacific in Reno." Then he went on to name a number of well-known layouts based on the premise of connecting two Class 1s, noting that he could justify dozens of trains a day across the high desert based on the size of the two connecting roads.

Ah, yes, the pure bridge route. Famed in model railroading lore and relatively rare in real life. As I thought back, I remembered that when I was reading model magazines in the 1970s and 1980s, the bridge route concept came up a lot. Sometimes as an excuse for trackage rights (which is not the same thing as a bridge route, strictly speaking), sometimes as justification for heavy through traffic in an area otherwise lacking in on-line sources. And it's certainly true that this has been used as the basis for many layouts over the years.

Nowadays, many people recognize that the Class 1 railroads would rather keep traffic on their own rails as much as possible, so cars will be hauled hundreds of "extra" miles in a roundabout fashion to where the Class 1s have an existing connection and interchange. While there are a few true bridge routes that existed over the years due to accidents of ownership history or geography, they are pretty rare. Shortlines and smaller railroads are much more likely to exist as feeders to one or more Class 1s than as an alternate routing between them. I've mentioned Central California Traction and the Modesto and Empire Traction in the blog in the past. These railroads have connections to multiple Class 1s, but don't typically bridge traffic from one of those large railroads to the other. Instead, they connect their on-line industries to multiple Class 1s through interchange at multiple points.

This realistic pattern makes for a more interesting justification and concept to me than straining credibility with a bridge route, as well as creating more of the industry switching and interchange activity I enjoy. But hey, that's just me. And my client? Well, he's still itchin' for that dry and dusty bridge route, so we'll see how it all comes out. (And he's good-natured about seeing these musings on the blog) It will be a little time-travel for me back to the layout concepts of the '70s. Just hope I don't have to wear the clothes -- again.