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Steve Mann’s Chicago & North Western model railroad

The C&NW locomotive facility is a hub of activity on Steve Mann's layout.

When I was visiting the Colorado Model Railroad Museum I met one of the friendly volunteers, Thomas that was operating the layout. We struck up a conversation about his home layout and operating on model railroads in the area. He mentioned that one of his friends, Steve Mann has an amazing layout and would be hosting an operating session in a couple of days. He asked if I wanted to attend and I jumped at the opportunity to see and operate on the layout. He contacted Steve and checked if it would be okay for me to attend. Steve graciously agreed that I could visit and operate with their normal crew.

An overview of the layout room with TJ Yard on the lower right.

This bridge scene is based on a prototype location on the C&NW.

The double deck hidden staging yard in an adjacent room with the dispatchers location (not shown) just to the right of the A/C unit.

On arriving at Steve’s house, I got a quick familiarization tour of the layout. The layout models the Chicago & North Western Railroad in the 1990’s from Chicago through Iowa. The layout room size is approximately 25’ X45’ with a portion of the layout in a hidden staging area. The layout is double decked with a single track helix connecting the two levels. Car cards and way bills are used to handle car movements. Train movements are dispatcher controlled using a CTC panel located in the staging room and prototypical signals on the main line. While I have operated on many layouts, this was the first time I had operated on a CTC layout following the prototype signal indications. The layout operates with a Digitrax DCC system and all locomotives have sound decoders installed.

After a short briefing where I met the rest of the operating crew, we drew playing cards to determine which job each of the operators wanted to do for the ops session. I was lucky and got first pick so I chose one of the local trains that began in TJ Yard, worked a few industries at the end of the line, and then returned to the yard. It turned out to be the perfect train for me as I got to travel the entire length of the layout, from the yard on the lower deck, up the helix, and to the area at the end of the layout where the industries were located. The switch job was very enjoyable and it was a great way for me to see and appreciate the entire layout.

The coal mining facility with the flood loader located in the blue and white structure on the right.

Steve’s layout has a couple of unique features. The first one being an operating flood coal loader that loads coal cars with “live loads” as they are shoved under the loader by a locomotive. The operator uses a toggle switch to open the discharge gate on the coal loader while the hopper cars are slowly moved through the loader, then the operator must stop the filling action just as the car is completely loaded. A grate is located under the loading area to catch any overflow.

A residential neighborhood backs up to the tracks. Each house was built by a member of Steve's operating and layout construction crew.

Another distinctive area in Steve’s layout is a residential area where each house was built by one of Steve’s friends and operators. Steve had each person build a model of a house, and they had the freedom to build and paint the house however they wanted. Once Steve received the completed models, they were placed on the layout and combined into a residential neighborhood scene. Steve added mail boxes in front of each house with the builder’s last name, as a fitting tribute to those who contributed the models to the layout and honoring some that have since passed away.

I really enjoyed meeting Steve and all the operating crew members, they made me feel very welcomed even though I had never met them before. I hope to be back someday soon and operate again on Steve’s fantastic C&NW layout.

Until next time, stay safe and keep model railroading.

295 views4 comments


I really like the coal strip mining scene. I'd like to see more modelers concentrate on such things, as a coal mining operation scene. I love the animation of the coal loading live loads as described! One thing I've never seen, but I'm sure some modelers out in model railroad land has done it no doubt; possibly remaining unknown to the whole of the modeling society; is a complete layout of a large coal fired electric power plant, with all the fixings! I'm meaning that the layout is dedicated to that industry alone because it's so massive! How could this become you might ask? Well, I live in Ft. Gibson Ok.. About fifteen minutes west of my town, on the…


That looks like a nice layout to operate on. Thanks for the photos and write-up.


Great looking layout! Thank you, Tom, for sharing the story and photos of Steve’s C&NW-based model railroad.


Beautiful layout. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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