Modelling what might have been in southeast BC and northwest Wasington



Welcome to my HO scale representation of what the Spokane and British Columbia Railway (S&BC) might have looked like in 1955, if it had survived until then. The railway was a precursor to the famed Kettle Valley Railway in southern British Columbia, and ran between Grand Forks, BC and Republic, Washington, but was abandoned by 1920. The layout is a work of “historical fiction” in that, while the locations are real and the railway did exist, I am using my modeller’s license to pretend that it survived until at least 1955, and was extended both north of Grand Forks and south of Republic as the prototype railway had planned to do.

Prototype History

The line ran south from Grand Forks, BC to Republic, WA plus a short extension north from Grand Forks up to a mine. This section lasted until 1933 as a part of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

Grand Forks is located in the southeast corner of BC, just north of the United States border. It is in a fertile valley that has produced a wide range of crops, and is just to the east of the famous Phoenix mining area. Republic is in northeast Washington state.

Grand Forks was served by three railways in its heyday, the CPR, the Great Northern (GN), and the S&BC, but now there is only one short line that services a sawmill and one or two other small industries. These loads are hauled down to Spokane via Cascade to the east, and then Colville, WA, over the old GN line. None of the tracks of either the S&BC or the GN remain across the US border and down to Republic. Much of the old S&BC right of way was used for various roads, while much of the GN line has been turned into a hiking and cycling trail. Of the three original stations in Grand Forks, only the original Columbia and Western (CPR) one remains, having been turned into a restaurant and pub.

The primary purpose of the S&BC was to haul ore from a number of mines around Republic up to the large Grandby smelter just north of Grand Forks. A combination of the smelter closing after World War I and the intrusion of the GN into the valley put it out of business in 1919.

In 1908 there were expansion plans to extend the S&BC further south to Spokane, WA, and north to Nicola, BC, however neither came to pass. A 1908 Washington railroad map shows a dotted line of the proposed route from Republic to Spokane, but it is gone in the 1910 edition.

The competing GN line from Spokane up through Grand Forks and down to Republic did survive until 2007 when it was abandoned from Republic to Grand Forks. It is now the Ferry Country Rail Trail.

Assumptions for Operations in 1955

With the above historic facts as a basis, the layout can be considered a work of “historical fiction” set in 1955 that explores what the expanded railway might have become if it had survived and prospered.

It is assumed that the railway was bought by one of the larger railways in Spokane as the S&BC had wanted, and in the absence of any historic details, that is the Union Pacific (UP). This gives a nice parallel to the Spokane International (SI, bought by the UP) which runs between Spokane and the CPR in BC.

Like many model railroads, the line is portrayed as far more prosperous that it would have ever been in reality, in order to generate enough operational interest to make its construction worth while. The real railway was quite short, and only hauled ore and passengers, but we assume that the expanded route provided greater traffic. Further, the closing of the smelter at Grand Forks did not spell the end of the line, but just meant that some ore was now transferred at Grand Forks to the CPR and shipped to the existing smelter at Trail, BC, while other ore went south through Spokane and over to Tacoma, WA.

Another piece of fiction is that the GN retreated all the way back to Grand Forks when it abandoned its line from Midway, BC, to Curlew in 1935. This allowed the S&BC to take over the GN right of way south from Curlew to Republic. It is an easier route with fewer hills to overcome, and has a better alignment through Curlew, as per the Sanborn insurance maps. Getting photographs of the GN right of way is easier, as almost all traces of the S&BC route in the hills above Republic have vanished to time. This actually makes some historical sense because if the S&BC line south to Spokane had been built as announced, it would have been a better route instead of the GN one that had to travel north and through Canada to get to Spokane.

Overall Concept and Layout Arrangement

The layout currently focuses on Grand Forks and Curlew, WA, but will include a number of other towns heading south through Republic and eventually ending at a rendition of Spokane plus a staging yard.

The CPR west and east of Grand Forks are represented by two staging yards, as is the S&BC north of town. The CPR makes cameo appearances with east and west bound trains that originate in staging, pass through Grand Forks to exchange cars, do switching, and return to staging. The main focus is the north – south S&BC line that runs from north staging, through Grand Forks, and south towards Spokane.

The towns of Carson, BC, and Curlew were recently completed and incorporated into operations. These added over 20 additional car spots for switching by the S&BC trains.

At the south end of the layout is a module called Darestof, (as in “Da – Rest – Of” the layout), which is a fictional town with some industries and a single staging track inside of a return loop. Darestof will keep moving ahead of construction so that there is always a convenient turn-back for operations.

All trains are operated as way freights that switch industries in towns along their routes, and also exchange cars for the other railroads when they pass through Grand Forks. A passenger train each way helps keep things interesting, plus a couple of small mine turns complete the assignments.


The layout currently occupies only a portion of its 12′ x 40′ basement layout room. The design for the remainder of the layout has not yet been finalized, but will be a traditional around the room style with an upper deck above part of it. The details of how it will reach Spokane have yet to be decided, but there has been lots of enthusiastic discussion. 


The layout has been built with typical “L” girder construction with the track sub roadbed made of two layers of 3/8″ plywood laminated together. This results in a continuous length of constant thickness material that is very easy to work with, and produces a uniform surface for the track work. The roadbed is traditional cork, with code 83 and 70 commercial track and switches. Code 100 is used in staging.

My philosophy is to have a full spectrum of stages under construction at all times. This will range from the mostly completed Grand Forks area right around to areas that do not even have benchwork yet. The layout will eventually fill the entire room, but it is being built and operated in distinct stages. This approach provides numerous benefits as the design can evolve with more experience (and more history is unearthed!), and it avoids the monotony of construction stages that involve only one task. 

The room is illuminated using 5000K “full spectrum” LED tubes. These replaced the original fluorescent tubes which were producing some fading, even with UV filters. The full spectrum tubes provide even lighting without producing a lot of heat, and the colour balance is good enough for photos.


The layout was designed for command control and uses a Digitrax DCC system with mostly duplex radio throttles. There are no control panels of any kind except for two very small sets of power isolation switches for the staging tracks. All track turnouts are controlled by simple push-pull mechanisms embedded in the fascia directly in line with the turnouts. Switch point movement is always the same direction as the manual controls.

Car Forwarding Software and Switch Lists

One major goal of mine was to eliminate almost all the paperwork from operating sessions so that everyone can focus on actually running the trains and switching cars. To that end I have written a custom computer program that simulates car forwarding and generates switch lists. It is based on prototypical shipments and car handling rules, and has as few non-prototypical concepts as possible. It has been working well for a few years now through many successful operating sessions.

The notion of a “session” does not exist in the program. Time is considered to be continuous and trains run according to schedules that usually repeat daily, but do not have to. There is no manual effort required to “restage” the layout, so an “operating session”, when people operate trains, is therefore as long or short as we want it to be, and can start at any point in a daily cycle of trains. The only time constraint on the program is that it must start and end when there are no trains active and all cars are at rest.

The second major goal of the software was to be able to act as a layout design planning tool by running simulation studies over multiple days to see how the cars move around and find any places that are congested. Diagnostic files are generated to give insight and to help identify problems, so that adjustments can be made. Many model railroads operate with a much higher car density in yards and at industries than the prototype, so it is very common for layouts to get plugged up during a session. By using the program to simulate many days in a row, these “bottlenecks” can be quickly identified. Charts of track occupancy can be plotted to show undesirable trends that are hard to see over a shorter period of time. This provides valuable planning insight, as unbuilt portions of a layout can be simulated and tested. Different studies can be run against one starting layout state and the results compared, because each study produces its own output files. For example, various numbers of cars can be tested to see how they are absorbed by the layout, or different schedules of trains can be tested.

Layout Operation Scheme

The original design of the train schedules was based on a CPR Employee Timetable from 1955. It showed three scheduled through freights both westbound and eastbound through Grand Forks every day, plus the passenger trains 67/68 every day. There was no indication of how the local industries were serviced. Having six CPR freight trains plus some number of S&BC trains proved very quickly to be too much traffic for the Grand Forks yard to handle. Much experimentation has resulted in having just one freight train each way per day, plus one passenger train for interest. These trains travel between upper staging (West and North), lower staging (East), and down to Darestof (South), the current end of track. Each train stops in Grand Forks to exchange cars. 

We tried having a local dedicated switcher at Grand Forks to classify all arriving cars for interchange, and to service the local industries, but there proved to be too many cars for the limited space available in the Grand Forks yard. With trains running only between staging and Grand Forks the yard was a serious bottleneck. Now with the addition of the extra industries at Carson, Curlew, and Darestof, the volume of cars exceeds the capacity of the yard and the ability of a crew to classify them. When even more cars are in play in the future as the layout grows, this will obviously only get worse, so a shift was made to a simpler style of way freights for all through trains, eliminating the Grand Forks switcher position. This has proven to be a big improvement with a much better work balance between the CPR and S&BC trains. 

The current operating scheme has trains from all four directions passing through Grand Forks and stopping to interchange cars for the other railways. The two CPR trains from west and east also switch the industries at Archibald, Carson and Grand Forks. The two S&BC trains from north and south also switch the industries at Curlew and Darestof.

Great Northern trains to and from Grand Forks were annulled due to the congestion in the yard. They may return if an additional track can be added later to handle them.

The operating scheme has evolved to maximize the activity of guests, rather than follow strict historical accuracy. The train timetables are arranged so that there is activity in different parts of the layout at the same time and everyone is kept as fully occupied as possible. Car dwell times at industries were reduced to zero because of the small number of industries in play. This means that a car that waas delivered by one train may be picked up soon after by a different train. While this may not be very prototypical, it increases switching activity and is not noticeable so long as the car is picked up by a different crew than the one that delivered it. The same applies to trains that go into staging. The same cars can return soon after, so long as a different crew handles their return to the layout.

There is currently no Dispatcher, nor station operators. A fast clock running at 5:1 is used to maintain the rhythm during an operating session. The times shown on the switch lists and timetables were developed from average measurements of how long it took crews to do each operation. The fast clock can be slowed or paused if problems arise during a session.

Crew Jobs

Each day consists of two distinct halves that allow for a convenient break at the half way point and an exchange of jobs for variety. Each half has three jobs: one CPR way freight; one S&BC way freight; and one passenger train and mine turn.

The eastbound CPR way freight travels from West Staging, switches Archibald, Grand Forks, and Carson, and ends in East Staging. The westbound version simply reverses these stops.

The northbound S&BC way freight starts in South Staging beside Darestof, switches Darestof and Curlew, exchanges cars in Grand Forks, and ends in North Staging. The southbound again just reverses these stops.

The third job runs a northbound or southbound passenger train that stops at all stations, plus a mine turn out of Curlew that services two small mines.

First Half

  • Eastbound CPR Way Freight
  • Northbound S&BC way freight
  • Southbound passenger plus Morning Star mine turn

Second Half

  • Southbound S&BC way freight
  • Westbound CPR Way Freight
  • Northbound passenger plus Belcher Mountain mine turn

This normally takes close to three hours to complete, but if all of these trains are run quicker than expected, it is simple to start the cycle over again with the next day’s trains and switch lists, after another rotation of the crews.

Last updated November 28, 2019