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John Rieken’s Transcon Four Layout


This month we’ll take a look at John Rieken’s Transcon Four layout. John’s large double deck layout, approximately 36’ X 53’, and occupies most of his basement. The focus of the layout is around operations and replicating the jobs that are required to move a lot of cars during an ops session. The layout is operated four times a year with a crew of 12 to 18 operators.


John's unique "train elevator" moves trains from the upper level to the lower level without using a helix. Cables attached to an electic winch move the elevator, and any operators must be trained on using it before an ops session.


John stated on his website’ “When completed, this layout will feature a transcontinental network stretching from Philadelphia to Seattle via Chicago. This includes the PRR from Philly to Chicago, the Belt RR of Chicago in Chicago, the Burlington from Chicago to St. Paul, and the Great Northern from Minneapolis to Seattle. This is a double-deck layout with an elevator, approximately 10 feet long, that moves complete trains between levels. I estimate the total final mainline trackage to be about 700 feet.”


The Pennsylvania Railroad's 59th Street Yard is one of six yards on the layout.


The railroad is currently built from Pittsburgh, PA on the Pennsy, through Chicago, and out to Fargo, North Dakota on the Burlington and Great Northern. John estimates he has about 1100 feet of track laid. Over one hundred locomotives power 33 staged trains, and he has over 500 pieces of rolling stock on the layout. All locomotives are DCC equipped and a few have sound decoders. John uses a Digitrax system to control his layout, and operators bring their own throttles. John continues to expand and improve his layout.


John also stated, “The central point of activity is Chicago where trains are yarded, broken-up, cars interchanged, and cars spotted at industries. I have six yards in Chicago: The 12th Street Coach Yard (for passenger trains), Pennsy's 59th Street Yard, Burlington's Cicero Yard, Belt's Clearing Yard (East and West) and Jacob's Yard (RPO's Annex). I have a two-track Union Station which also acts as the room divider in Chicago. There are about 18 industrial spots adjacent to all of the freight yards in Chicago.”


The Brighton Park job switches the industries on the end of the peninsula. The trains and passenger cars in the middle are staged for Union Station and not part of the switch job.


In addition to the yard jobs, there are 2 separate switch jobs, the Ford Plant and Brighton Park that are a work at your own pace type of job and each take about 3 hours to complete. A transfer job moves cars between the yards in Chicago and is very busy most of the operating session. Other operating crew members are assigned to road freights, passenger trains, or other jobs as needed.


John Rieken holds his crew briefing and reviews important information prior to the session.


At John’s most recent operating session the crew was treated to a delicious breakfast made by John’s wife Liz before the operating session began. With everyone’s belly full it was time to head down to the basement for the crew briefing before beginning the ops session. At the end of the briefing Liz had a song prepared that was sung to the tune of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas where she listed what she “thought” each person on the operating crew wanted for Christmas. It was a very pleasant and humorous way to begin the ops session.



I was assigned to Cicero Yard for this ops session. The yard sorts inbound trains and cars in the yard and makes up outbound trains based on a tab on car operating system. Those cars that are not for the Burlington need to be made up into blocks to be transferred to the other yards. One of the most important jobs on the railroad is the “Transfer Job”, who is responsible to move cars between the main freight yards. The Cicero Yard Job is a fun job as you stay busy for the entire operating session.



John uses a tab on car system to route his cars. The tab on top of each car indicates the railroad and the industry destination or train that it needs to be assigned to. Operators do not need to read the car numbers, just simply look at the tab on the top of the car and it will indicate where it goes. A Yard Sheet indicates the number of cars needed for each train. Once the yard operator has that number of cars assembled for a specific train, a Train Information “packet” (TIC) is taken to the dispatcher and a crew called to run the train.


A dispatcher controls the railroad and John has recently added signals to his layout. Communication between the dispatcher and the train crews is done through FRS radios. Tower operators also control portions of the layout prior the yards and make sure crews are operating properly. In addition, a telephone system is used to communicate between the yards and when crews reach a control point and want to enter a yard. As you can imagine, communication is the key with a large railroad to keep everything moving smoothly.


I know how much work it is to set up a layout for an ops session and I appreciate the effort that John puts in to host the sessions. We had an enjoyable time and we all are looking forward to the next ops session. If you want to see and read more about John’s layout check out his website at;


I want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Safe and Happy New Year.

Until next time stay safe and keep model railroading.

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