By Dan Munson/photos by the author
One of Mike McLain’s favorite childhood railroad memories is visiting his grandfather at work. Mike’s grandfather was a yardmaster for the Kansas City Southern at Knoche Yard in the East Bottoms of Kansas City, Mo. He remembers riding with a switch crew on a steam engine during one of those visits — one of the pivotal events that hooked Mike on trains. Even with that strong KCS influence and family ties, it was Missouri-Kansas-Texas’ John Deere green-and-yellow diesels that caught Mike’s eye as he watched Katy trains working south out of Kansas City. Those experiences cemented Mike’s decision to build the MKT in the basement of his suburban Kansas City home.
Mike has always enjoyed model railroading — a hobby he shared with his father — but hadn’t thought about operations until he met Robert Snare around 2002 at a local club. Robert, a fellow model railroader, had an operations-oriented railroad based on the Frisco. After operating on Robert’s railroad, Mike was hooked.
Mike started on his HO-scale railroad in 2008. He worked with a professional designer to create the track plan. After starting the benchwork, however, the railroad design and benchwork construction were not going the way he envisioned. It was around this time Mike was introduced to several other local operations-based modelers. After a few get-togethers and detailed discussions, the design for the Katy changed. Benchwork and construction changed as well, and his approach started heading in the direction he had hoped. In the spring of 2009, with help from a team of fellow modelers, the construction phase of the redesign began and proceeded quickly. His first operating session was held on July 1, 2010, and the layout just celebrated its 50th operating session in May 2017.
Katy Train 103 pulls through Paola, Kansas, with a trio of GP40s, as a northbound Burlington Northern train hits the diamond over the MoPac. Train 103 is easy to spot with its head-end of piggyback and auto racks.
Mike’s operations-based MKT railroad is set in 1981 between Kansas City and Parsons, Kansas, and includes a branch to Chanute, Kansas, as well as main line east to St. Louis from Cross, Kansas, just north of Parsons. Staging to the north is the Kansas City terminal, located at the north end of Glen Park Yard. It consists of eight tracks. The south end is Muskogee, Oklahoma, just south of Parsons, hosting 11 tracks. Three of these tracks are long enough to hold 32-car trains. This arrangement allows Parsons to run bigger trains southward. St. Louis staging has three tracks, which enters the main line at Cross just north of Parsons. MKT used trackage rights over the SLSF-Frisco, later BN-Burlington Northern in 1981 between Kansas City and Paola, Kansas. Mike models the diamonds and connections at Paola but does not run any SLSF-Frisco/ BN trains. The main line measures 220 feet in length, and the branch from Parsons to Muskogee is an additional 43 feet.
Like many operations-oriented railroads, Mike built his layout based, in part, on experiences gleaned from other operationsbased layouts, applying what he enjoyed and engineering out what he didn’t.
The original design for the layout specified helixes and narrower aisles. Shortly after starting construction, Mike discovered that his track plan suffered from narrow aisles and operators would not be able to walk uninterrupted with their train all the way around the layout. The redesign eliminated both the smaller aisles and helixes. Mike believed the new plan was a better fit for his basement, as well as truer to the prototype. The benchwork L-girder connected to the stud walls, supported by 1×2 cantilevers, making for easy access to the underside of the layout. Mike also painted the cantilevers and walls under the layout the same tan color to create a neat and clean appearance. Both ½-inch and ¾-inch plywood was used for sub-roadbed and is supported by 1×4 risers.
The railroad uses Code 83 track for the main line runs, as well as in the yards. Mike used Shinohara switches in Glen Park Yard and Atlas switches on the rest of the railroad. The Chanute branch is all Code 70 track. All main line curves have a minimum 36-inch radius. Mike used Arizona Rock & Mineral products for ballast and then airbrushed trackage using different paint colors based on location and type of track. He obtained ballast from Frisco modeler Ron White for his main line between Kansas City and Paola. Ron sources the rock from the actual quarry that supplied the Frisco. Thus, the former Frisco line, indeed, has “Frisco” ballast.
Northbound MKT Train 106 pounds the diamond at Paola, Kansas, while a northbound Missouri Pacific train waits for its turn. Train 106 has two original MKT GP38s that are outnumbered by secondhand GP38s the Katy purchased over the years.
Mike used two methods for backdrops. He started by using the back side of linoleum flooring, stapling the top and bottom to wall studs. He hid the staples with benchwork and light valances. This method seemed to work well and had limited seams. However, during this process, he used some inexpensive linoleum that showed its embossed pattern after being painted. Because of this, Mike switched to using 4×8 sheets of PVC plastic (Komatex, used in the sign industry) for his backdrop material. He secured it the same way and mudded/sanded the seams. Mike liked working with these sheets because they bent around curves easily and took paint very well.
Lighting on the MKT comes from a valance placed around the railroad. It hangs from the ceiling and houses compact fluorescent bulbs. Mike initially used standard bulbs but replaced them because they generated too much heat and burned out quickly.
Mike used several different techniques for scenery. Balled-up newspaper covered in heavy construction paper created a subbed, which he painted brown and added ground cover. He also used strips of cardboard, which he hotglued to a framework, covered with painted plaster cloth, and finished with ground cover. Some areas used “Structo-Lite,” a plaster mix that was applied to plaster cloth and then detailed. When mixing the Structo-Lite, he experimented with adding color/paint to it, which worked well, saving the need to paint the plaster after it had set. All these techniques have produced good results.
Mike spent a lot of time learning, experimenting, and refining his application of static grass. This practice has paid off with many great-looking grassy scenes on his railroad. Mike is now considered the “go-to guy” when it comes to applying static grass. He finished off these scenes with numerous trees created by Russ Hayden and Dave Acheson. Dave preferred to work with product made by SuperTrees.
Mike took an interesting approach to building his farm scene at Cross. He decided that this lo- cation would be great for a farmstead. He wanted to have the buildings laid out just like a “prototype” farm. Mike reached out to his neighbors, retired farmers, for their thoughts on how the farm should be planned. Mike made some paper mock-ups of the buildings’ locations and invited them over to take a look.
Katy SD40–2 635 leads two of her sisters on an empty northbound coal train, just out of the power plant at Pryor, Oklahoma, as it passes the junction at Cross, Kansas. Cross is just north of Parsons, Kansas, where the lines to Kansas City and St. Louis split. Note the fine-looking farm scene just behind the train.
His neighbors offered several insightful suggestions. They told Mike that the pig barn and its associated odor needed to be much farther away from the house, and the main barn needed to be close to the house. They also warned Mike that it was not a good idea to mix cattle breeds, even if they were just plastic (Mike had Black Angus and Herefords in the same herd). Finally, they let Mike know that he needed to fence off his corn crop if he wanted to keep the cattle out of it. Armed with this information, Mike rearranged the buildings, cleaned up the herd, and fenced in the corn, making the entire scene more prototypical.
Mike has recreated several signature prototype structures on his version of the MKT. The large Bunge elevator still stands today next to the former Glen Park Yard in Kansas City, Kansas. Mike and friends visited the elevator, took measurements, and photographed the facility to refer to as they scratchbuilt this massive structure. The elevator towers above Glen Park Yard on Mike’s railroad, dominating the scene. MKT built and owned the prototype elevator, eventually selling it to Bunge many years ago.
Batliner is another local industry MKT served at Glen Park. Mike recreated this by mounting a photo of the industry on foam board. It wasn’t easy to get a photograph of the industry because freight cars blocked the view. Several of Mike’s friends kept a watchful eye on the industry, waiting for the opportunity for an unobstructed photograph. Success came during a brief period when freight cars had been pulled.
Speaking of elevators, one of the grain elevators at Dunlay was originally part of David Barrow’s Cat Mountain & Santa Fe railroad.
The Ashgrove cement plant structure at Chanute was built after touring the real plant, again using photos and measurements taken to create this structure. The facility was built using modified Walthers cement plant kits and lots of styrene sheets. During the visit to the prototype, Mike learned more about the operation and applied it to his railroad. We will revisit his findings in the operations section of this article.
Mike uses Easy DCC from CVP for his control system. His CTC system is run from an authentic CTC machine built to match his railroad, using CTC software created by Dr. Bruce Chubb. Signals are Tomar search lights.
Parsons, Kansas, is a major shop on the MKT railroad. The large brick structure on Mike McLain’s Katy is a great representation of the real shop. A variety of MKT power rests outside the shop awaiting their next assignment.
Mike’s motive power fleet is a great reflection of MKT’s roster in the early 1980s. GP40s and GP38s abound, handling most of the road trains and locals. He has several SD40–2s for road and coal trains. These locomotives were first delivered to the Katy in the late 1970s with the last of them arriving in the very early 1980s. MKT ordered the SD40–2s to address its then-new coal business. Many believe that the coal traffic kept the railroad strong enough to fend off mergers until the Union Pacific took it over in 1988.
You will find pairs of SW9s and RS-3m’s (Alcos re-engined with EMD power plants) in yard service at Kansas City and Parsons. Holding true to the prototype, one will see all combinations of SW9, GP7, RS-3m, and MP15AC units switching cars as well. Most all of these model locomotives are sound equipped to boot.
Mike plans to add several leased Conrail GP38–2s to his fleet that MKT received in the early 1980s. These units helped alleviate power shortages caused when the railroad took over former Rock Island trackage in Texas and Oklahoma under the OKT flag.
Operating sessions on the Katy use a 3:1 fast clock. Mike tried a 4:1 fast clock but found the 3:1 worked best. Key operating positions on the MKT include two yard jobs at both Glen Park and Parsons. One of the jobs acts as a yardmaster, coordinating all movements. The dispatcher, who runs the CTC machine, works in close collaboration with the yardmasters and road crews. There’s a Chanute local, a North/South local between Kansas City and Parsons, a Santa Fe local that works Chanute, and finally, an Ashgrove cement job at Chanute.
The three Chanute jobs are interesting operations. During their visit to the Ashgrove plant, Mike and friends found out that both MKT and ATSF served the plant but at different times of the day. This plan prevents both roads from having to fight over track space in the small Ashgrove yard. This practice is fairly common for dual-served customers. Based on the prototype, the ATSF serves Ashgrove in the morning, and MKT switches them in the afternoon.
The Santa Fe local starts out at Ottawa staging and comes into Chanute where it crosses the MKT at a gated diamond. It also serves the other big customer in town, Mid-America Refining. MKT doesn’t have access to the refinery, so these cars are handled through the interchange track next to the diamond. After pulling and spotting cars in the small four-track yard at Ashgrove, the Santa Fe job heads back into Ottawa staging.
The MKT Chanute local originates and terminates at Parsons, pulling and spotting the Ashgrove yard and working the ATSF interchange track. The Ashgrove job uses little GE 45-tonner No. 4 modeled after the prototype. It is kept pretty busy switching the plant, blocking cars for the two railroads, and delivering and pulling from their yard. This operation is a stand-alone job on Mike’s railroad.
Glen Park Yard keeps its two jobs busy switching local industries, building outbounds, and breaking apart inbounds. Glen Park also gets regular transfers from most all railroads in Kansas City. The yard has three arrival/departure tracks and six yard tracks, plus the mediumsized engine facility.
Mike has done a fine job recreating the large back shop and locomotive serving tracks at Parsons. Parsons Yard has three arrival/departure tracks plus a main and bypass, and eight yard tracks. With the three extra-long staging tracks at Muskogee, Parsons can build longer southbound trains.
Mike has completed about 90 percent of the scenery on his MKT railroad. He is working on the backdrop at Parsons, as well as scenery between Parsons and Chanute, including the town of Chanute. He enjoys weathering all his equipment and has more cars and locomotives to add to his fleet. However, Mike wants to complete the weathering before placing them on the railroad.
Mike McLain’s MKT is a beautiful railroad and is a must-see if you’re visiting Kansas City for the 2018 NMRA National Convention. His layout is scheduled to be on tour during this event. Please come by for a visit.
This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman