The Shintahara Story - The Genesis of a Prototype
by Dan MacKellar

The Beginning
For me, a model railroad always has to have a reason for being. Whether it's a fictional prototype, or a model of a real line. Even the most fundamental loop of track can have a purpose. What intrigues me most about a particular railway line is its history. When I develop a layout or an idea for myself, I often spend a lot of time researching and placing the line in a reasonably accurate place in the world. There has been some talk in the model railroad press about creating an identity for a layout and fictional company, and I believe this is important. I've noticed that North Americans tend to do this a lot more than other regions. Model railroads like the Ohio Southern, the Virginian and Ohio, and the Allegheny Midland, to name but a few, have extensive back stories that tell of the railroad's reason for being, their choices in motive power, rolling stock, operating practices, etc. Those are things that go through my mind when I think about starting to plan a new layout.

This brings me to my current fictional prototype, the Shintahara Railway. This line's history started when I was beginning a T-Gauge layout. One of the first T-Gauge items I got was a KiHa 40 railcar. Used mainly in branch line service, the KiHa inspired me to model a Japanese branch line. The initial layout plan was a modular design that had a dual track mainline oval and a branch line ducking under and running off perpendicular to the main layout. The basic idea of a Japanese mountain branch line was born, but the specifics hadn't been fleshed out. The geographic region wasn't set yet, but I began researching Japanese branch lines, and came up with a basic history. I enjoy research almost as much as I enjoy building the actual layout, sometimes even more so. The more I researched and looked into the history of the various Japanese rail lines, the more my design and track plan evolved.

Tabletop Trials
The modular design evolved into a 24" X 36" tabletop layout. The dual track main with branch line idea stayed, and was developed further. The layout design I was going to use had a loop to gain elevation, and that became a feature of the initial prototype.

It was around this time that I started thinking of a name for the layout and for the line itself. I wanted something that sounded Japanese, but wasn't the name of an actual place. After some thought, the name "Shintahara" came to mind. It was generic, and a quick search showed that it was rather unique as well. I then started piecing together the line using railway symbols from Wikipedia. I initially had a junction on the branch, so I added an abandoned spur line to my evolving map. It was about this time that I learned about "Third Sector" or privately owned lines, and there are many of these in Japan. A lot of these lines were created when unprofitable branch lines were spun off in the 1980's after the privatization of the Japanese National Railways. This was an interesting prospect, and so the Shintahara Story evolved further.

  Click image to enlarge

The basic premise, which I've kept, was that the Shintahara was a coal-hauling mountain line. As I delved into the history of the Japanese coal industry, I determined that the line would need to be located in either Hokkaido or Kyushu. The history has a bit of adversity and drama, always an essential part of a good story. Coal mining began to decline by the late 1970's, early 80's, so I closed one of the coal mines on the line in the 1970's. A landslide or cave-in cut the line in half around 1980, and the second and last coal mine closed in the mid 1980's. A move necessitated the abandonment of my original 2' X 3' loop layout, and Shintahara was back into design limbo.

Shelf Style
By developing the history, I was able to design a basic shelf layout based on the line in the mid to late 1980's. Next was to finalize the track layout for each station along the line. I found a track diagram online of the Kominato railway, a line similar to the Shintahara in scope and size near Tokyo. I noticed on the track diagram a lot of abandoned and disused track. Each station had an abandoned freight siding, and a couple had disused passing tracks. These indicators of more prosperous times were something that I wanted to incorporate into my layout design. I still didn't have an actual location for the line though. The more I thought about it, the more I determined that the Shintahara would be a good fit in Hokkaido. Always a fan of the underdog, placing the Shintahara on Hokkaido would make it the only third sector railway on the island. Once covered with a web of private railways and branch lines, Hokkaido's rail network has been reduced to a few core lines.

Back to the Beginning
After seeing Ulrich Abramowski's micro module layout and the modules that inspired him, I became convinced that this was the best option for me at this point in time. The modular approach lets me work on an individual piece in a small area, and hone my skills in this fledgling scale. The small size also allows me to keep costs down. In the interests of keeping costs down, I decided to try building my mini modules out of foamcore, and this has so far worked very well.

Construction details will be in the next article




all materials ©2005-2009 Japan Rail Modelers unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved