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ann arbor railroad system

The Ann Arbor Railroad is my N Scale passion. This page contains a summary of my previous website postings and a number of new features to chronicle my efforts to model this classic Midwestern shortline, dating back to the late 1990s, when a limited quantity of Ann Arbor equipment was available.

On this main AA page, you will find numerous photos and links for "how-to" stories that show how I have researched and tackled various projects to capture the essence of the Ann Arbor in N Scale. The images and text provided herein also include some basic historical background and notes that I have collected over the years.

custom crafted ann arbor equipment

Ann Arbor caboose N Scale
Ann Arbor cement hopper N Scale
Ann Arbor FA2 N Scale
Ann Arbor RS1 N Scale
Ann Arbor Boat Coaling Hopper N Scale

With the above models, and other than the pending acquisition or fabrication of an N Scale car ferry, my Ann Arbor roster is basically complete. The bulk of my equipment represents rolling stock and motive power that was in service as of 1980, but I do have a few back-dated models and paint schemes as well. I will continue to update this page as I develop new projects, so please bookmark this page and keep visiting!

n-scale manufacturers of ann arbor rolling stock 

When I started modeling the Ann Arbor Railroad back in the late 1990s, there was a very limited selection of N Scale equipment. Kadee/Micro-Trains had released a 40' steel box car and an outside-frame wood box car, Bev-Bel had a 50' pennant-scheme box car, Roundhouse had a 50' Ferry-in-Fog schemed box car, and Life-Like produced an Alco FA2. 

I am pleased to report that as the years have gone by, the Ann Arbor has become more popular, and there is now a much better variety of equipment being produced for the every-day hobbyist. I won't declare a conspiracy, but it's pretty ironic that almost every time I finished a special project, it seems like Atlas would release a RTR version the next week! The following is list of cars and locomotives available today:


RS1 in blue/gray Wabash scheme, circa 1951-1970

GP35 in orange/black DT&I billboard scheme, circa 1963-1982

GP38 in orange/black new Ann Arbor scheme, circa 1984-2000

PS-2 hopper, two-bay sand/cement, gray/black DT&I billboard scheme

4750 Thrall hopper, three-bay grain, orange Ferry-in-Fog scheme

Box cars, 40', steel and wood, boxcar red pennant scheme

Caboose (non-prototypical), red pennant scheme

Snow plow, red, pennant logo

Bev-Bel (old stock)

Box car, 50' boxcar red pennant scheme

Bluford Shops

Box cars, 89' Hi-Cube Auto Parts, orange Ferry-in-Fog scheme

Composite panel hoppers, black/white letter scheme


Box cars, 40' steel side kits, boxcar red pennant scheme

JnJ (old stock)

PS-2 hopper, three bay malt/grain, DT&I billboard scheme


Box cars, 40' steel and wood variety, boxcar red pennant schemes

Hoppers, two-bay steel and wood, black/white letter schemes

Roundhouse/Fox Valley

Box cars, 50' orange Ferry-in-Fog scheme

Ann Arbor N Scale boxcar

layout planning and room design

I have designed and built a number of layouts over the years, so I have lots of experience with the pros and cons of various construction methods, space constraints, and the wide variety of considerations that must be addressed when planning a dream layout. Lucky for me, I also have a large finished basement with dedicated space for my trains. So I basically have carte blanche with an obstruction-free 18' x 25' x 26' room at my disposal, which you would think would be a blessing... but reality has demonstrated that when you do end up with a lot of space for a layout, the endless combination of options can result in a lot of internalized debate over exactly how to best use that space! 

I knew from the beginning that I wanted a point-to-point layout with Frankfort/Elberta on one end and Ann Arbor on the other, but I didn't want to be in a position where I could see both at the same time. I also wanted to model downtown Beulah; the unique depot in Clare where the Annie crossed the C&O; sand operations in Yuma; the three-span girder/deck bridge just west of Mesick; open countryside near Mt. Pleasant; lineside industries near Whitmore Lake; and representations of Alma and Owosso.


That was a steep wish-list, and part of the challenge was fitting it all in so that each scene could be recognizable and appreciated. The drawing on the right side shows the overall space and my first draft, and the larger track plan shown below is a revision that I thought was going to be the  final master design. However, the more I thought through the ultimate execution, I ended up with an even better plan...

After exploring multiple designs and many different ways of fitting in all of the scenes I wanted to have as shown to the right and below, I decided that the most important thing was to really capture the essence of several significant places on the railroad, and that less is actually more. So I am subdividing the space and making a smaller layout footprint - but in doing so, I have been able to create multiple vignettes that really stand alone as unique locations along the Ann Arbor. And by dividing the space, I will also create visual separation and distance within the layout.

N Scale Ann Arbor GP35 crossing Main Street

Ann Arbor Railroad GP35 #389 crosses Main Street on the author's layout

background research and history

Founded by James Ashley in the 1880's, with pioneering cross-lake car ferry service that lasted for 90 years between Frankfort (Elberta) and multiple ports in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Railroad has a host of features that just beg to be modeled. I started the process by compiling as much information as possible about the route and the locations served.

Ann Arbor Railroad map

The above map was borrowed with permission from an expired historical website, and I marked it up with the highlighted areas I chose to model. Growing up in mid-Michigan and visiting my grandparents in the Beulah/Frankfort area frequently throughout the 1970s, I have great memories of watching the magical car ferry/train operations in Elberta, so that was a must-have location for my layout. I have equally indelible recollections of driving north along M-37 and seeing the tracks near Yuma and Mesick - which will be two more featured locations on my layout.  

Ann Arbor N Scale layout

Attending Band Day at Michigan Stadium in 1980 as a freshman in high school, we parked near the Ann Arbor rail yard and walked past strings of brown Conrail boxcars and cuts of orange Ann Arbor Hi-Cubes. Four years later as a freshman in the University of Michigan Marching Band, there was still switching activity in the yard, which was located right behind Revelli Hall - more than once I confess to having one eye on my music, and one eye on the GP35 working the yard lead! Therefore, Ferry Yard is another scene that had to be captured on my layout.

I am also fortunate that my journey through life and the state of Michigan has allowed me to get up-close and personal with many other spots along the Ann Arbor, so Whitmore Lake, Alma, Clare, and Owosso are also sites of modeling interest that were targeted for inclusion on my layout.

With these locations and notes in mind, and several smaller layouts under my belt, I began the design phase for my basement Ann Arbor empire.

Ann Arbor N Scale layout track plan
Ann Arbor N Scale layout track plan

revising the dream

Looking back at my design from November 2001, it still looks pretty good!  I got all of the signature elements and I managed to have decent scene separation. But there were a handful of things that bothered me: Frankfort/Elberta was along a 15' wall and I wasn't happy with the selective compression that was required for the yard and the ferry slips; Yuma and the sand facility worked, but it fed into Mesick in such a way that I wasn't able to capture the classic bridge over the Manistee River in quite the right way; Clare looked right, but it was operationally reversed; Alma was nice, and so was Whitmore Lake, but Whitmore Lake was too close to Ann Arbor; the basement egress window put a distinct break in the flow of my 1:160 City of Ann Arbor; and the resulting shorter wall space beyond the egress window put a crimp in the size of my Ferry Yard.

So I reflected on these matters for 15+ years while I learned how to be a better builder, painter, electrician, DCC-installer, and a host of other skillsets needed to do this dream the right way. As I built up my fleet of Ann Arbor equipment and added the relevant blend of foreign road rolling stock, I kept thinking through these design issues. I also continued my research on the prototype to better understand some of the places and operations I wanted to capture.

Ultimately it all became clear: less was more, and less was better. By reducing the footprint and reorganizing the space, I was able to address almost every single problem that had been bothering me about the original concept. An additional bonus was that I also freed up the entire north wall of the room to serve as a completely separate staging layout. Note that I did not say "staging yard" but instead specifically a staging layout. The final plan actually incorporates a C&O/N&W/Conrail shelf layout on that far left wall, featuring the fictional hybrid port city of Tolewaunac: where trains and boats from Toledo, Kewaunee, and Mackinac will interchange via a ferry slip, large classification yard, and a modest engine/shop facility.

the penultimate final master plan: divide and conquer  

As mentioned above, by subdividing the room and flipping the plan lengthwise, I was able to take advantage of the long walls to gain space for both Ann Arbor and Frankfort/Elberta. The addition of interior walls to create separate divisions also helped solve the challenge at Mesick and created more separation between scenes. The railroad still runs through Clare in the wrong direction, but Clare is now an isolated focal point that really spotlights the classic depot and local switching opportunities - with the added bonus of being physically separated from both Ann Arbor and Frankfort. I am very pleased with the final design and I know that it will provide me with years and years of great operation and enjoyment. Final (almost final) drawing is provided below, however I reserve all rights to make continued edits as I build!!!! Also, look for my staging layout track plan coming soon....

Ann Arbor N Scale layout track plan

The room dimensions shown above are roughly 25' wide and 18' deep, starting from the stairway landing at the bottom right. The layout space was subdivided and re-defined as roughly 20' wide and 15' deep. This provides an entry hallway with a nice long wall for pictures and memorabilia, along with the integrated display cabinet that I built back in 1999. The display cabinet features original Ann Arbor Railroad timetables, ferry schedules, maps, and other collectibles... along with some custom O Scale and G Scale Ann Arbor equipment that I have built. The walls feature framed artwork and articles I have published over the years.


As for the track plan, minimum aisle-width is approximately 30"-36" and most of the shelf design allows for about 12" in depth - however Ann Arbor, Clare, Alma, and Boat Landing are planned to allow for a flexible 18"-20" in depth. I have also intentionally arranged the scenes so that opposite sides of the aisles are operationally different. For example, look at any place that has a yard or switching activities that would tend to have a crew stationed in one place for several minutes: then look across the aisle, and you will see that there is typically a long stretch of mainline and scenery that is dedicated for through moves.


You may also see the  fictional town of "Tuma" north of Mesick: this is really intended to be Harlan, a point on the railroad between Thompsonville and Yuma where there was a Sargent Sand facility. After detailing my fleet of sand hoppers, magnification revealed a typo: what had been originally been commissioned to say "when empty return to AARR, Yuma, MI" actually came out as "when empty return to AARR, Tuma, MI" - so I figured it was actually easier to abandon my planned model of Wexford Sand in Yuma, and instead roll with the punches and have fun with the new town of "Tuma" and model the Sargent Sand facility instead!


The other neat feature is that by using Clare as an isolated station scene at the proximal midpoint of the layout, it creates a north-south dividing line that can serve as a location for exchanging crews and trains. The construction of dividing walls and doorways also helps control sound and allows for the creation of distinct boundaries. This will really help demonstrate the length and geographic latitude of the railroad as well.


As my intention is to model October of 1980, dividing the layout into physically-separated north and south districts enables the use of an autumn blend of foliage. While Ann Arbor and Whitmore Lake may still have lots of greenery in early October, as you head north you'll find hints of color in Shepherd and Clare, and once you get to Mesick and Beulah, Mother Nature tends to break out her palette more vividly. I will be posting updated pictures and progress reports as I move forward with this project in the coming years, but for now (April 2018) I wanted to at least share everything I have done so far and encourage Michigan railroad fans to keep modeling!

Ann Arbor O Scale boxcar

O Scale: Ann Arbor Railroad 50' Boxcar #5135 in display cabinet

Ann Arbor O Scale RS3

O Scale: Ann Arbor Railroad RS3 #302 in display cabinet

AA Pennant Herald black
C&O logo
Conrail logo
Mackinac Mac logo
DTI logo
MLS logo
LSI logo
NW logo
PC logo
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