There’s little doubt that steam locomotives have a certain romanticism to them. More than half a century beyond their final days in revenue service, they still remain integral to railroad imagery in popular culture today. If you’ve experienced steam locomotive trains in action, whether at a train museum or in service, you’ll understand why. From the sound of the drivers and iconic lonesome whistle, to the distinctive smell of burning coal, there’s nothing else quite like these trains. Many who work with steam locomotive trains will agree that they are more than just machines – they almost take on a life and personality of their own.
It should be no surprise that the age of steam trains is still a popular choice for modelers today. In fact there’s a far wider and more detailed range of steam locomotive models available now than ever before. Of course locomotives are only part of the steam story. With this in mind, we’re looking at five of the most essential scenic elements to include in a model train layout designed for steam!
Roundhouses & Turntables
One of the most iconic elements of steam era infrastructure is the train roundhouse. While largely obsolete today, roundhouses were essential to the functionality of a major steam operation. As their name suggests, railway roundhouses were (in most cases) semi-circular structures. This was generally due to their position relative to a railway turntable. Whereas a traditional 20-stall locomotive shed would require many train tracks and a massive amount of real estate, a train roundhouse could fit a similar number of stalls and just require one track leading to a turntable. The train turntable would then be able to position locomotives for access to their appropriate stall in the roundhouse without the need for complicated (and expensive) switches.
While typically used for storage, the railway roundhouse was also where most heavy maintenance would take place. The site would function similar to how a diesel locomotive shop functions today, with a foreman, crew and the ability to both repair train equipment and remanufacture certain components. As diesel locomotives began to replace steam locomotives, the need for massive roundhouses and turntables diminished. This was partly due to diesel locomotives being smaller and requiring less heavy maintenance, and partly because they could easily be run in a back-to-back configuration, negating the need for a turntable.
Today only a handful of roundhouses remain in use. Many have been converted into museums, industrial spaces or event venues, while others have been abandoned or demolished. Turntables have been retained in certain larger facilities, but these too are far less common than in the past.
Coaling towers were another iconic element of any steam era locomotive facility. Designed for rapidly replenishing coal in a steam locomotive tender, these towers were an imposing site that could be seen for miles around. Sitting above one or more train tracks, the towers primarily acted as giant silos for coal storage. Their operation was fairly ingenious. Coal would typically be delivered by hopper cars which would empty into a pit below. From here, the coal would be lifted by a pulley system into the silos. Once a locomotive train was ready for refilling, it would simply run underneath, and the silos would empty into the tender.
Although these were a staple of rail yards, they could also be found over certain mainlines. These examples allowed locomotives to be replenished on the fly. In many cases they would also double as sanding towers to allow both the tender and sanders to be filled at the same time.
While coaling towers are now completely obsolete, many are still standing thanks to their cast concrete construction. The reason? It’s simply too expensive (or in some cases too disruptive) for this railroad scenery to be dismantled.
Water towers are perhaps one of the most recognizable features of a steam era railroad. They were also one of the most important. Water is essential for the safe operation of steam locomotives – without a constant supply, a locomotive train could overheat and risk a boiler explosion. In the Pioneer Era water stops were required every few miles. For this reason, just about every small town depot featured a water tower. Some towns even owe their existence to being a water stop! As much as they were necessary, they could also be dangerous. More rural stops were a favorite hangout for train robbers.
As locomotives became larger, their capacity for water also increased. This allowed railroads to reduce the number of maintained water stops, and most trains could travel 100 miles or more without needing to be refilled. Even so, the water tower remained a vital component to the safe operation of steam locomotives until their withdrawal.
Today many water towers remain in place, either abandoned in remote spots, or on display as museum pieces. Some have even been repurposed as buildings!
Ash Pits & Cinder Conveyors
Before heading into the roundhouse for storage or train repair, a steam locomotive would need to be emptied of any ash which had built up. This would occur over a specially designed section of train track. More simple setups typically took the form of small wooden bridges over a hollowed out section of ground. The ash would be released while over the bridge, and would be collected by truck or cart below. More sophisticated setups utilized an automated system. These took the form of concrete bunkers constructed beneath the track, with an open space between the rails to collect the ash. From here, the ash would be loaded into a conveyor and brought above ground again to be deposited into hopper cars.
What would happen to all this ash? Steam era railroads were extremely resourceful, and didn’t waste materials when they could reuse them. Once loaded into hopper cars, the ash would be reused on the railroad as ballast, earth fill, or to create pathways. It was also sometimes sold to third parties.
Towers & Trackside Structures
Before the days of automation, just about every job across the railroad had to be done manually. This meant that wherever something needed to be done, accommodations for railroad workers would have to be provided. Interlocking and switch towers were some of the most common examples of this. Typically found at the lead tracks into busy yards or at important junction points, these towers would house the machinery to control both the signal aspects and track switches. They would usually be raised above ground height to allow for better visibility, and depending on the location, could be manned by a single staff member or an entire team.
Other examples of trackside structures include crossing towers. Before the days of automated crossing gates, any crossing requiring protection had to be staffed with a gatekeeper. Their job would be to look out for trains, and manually close the gates to traffic upon their approach.
Interlocking towers have today been largely replaced by automated systems and centralized control points. Nevertheless many remain in existence, either being used for storage or having been sold off. Crossing towers fell into obsolescence much earlier on and consequentially most are lost to the history books.