Phoenix, Turnbow & Apache Layout History


The Thunderbird Model Railroad Club is the oldest organized HO scale model railroad club in Arizona, having been chartered on August 2, 1949 with 41 members. The membership has remained relatively stable in the ensuing years and currently numbers about 30 members.


Current layout under constructionThe present layout is the club’s fifth. The first two were constructed in an upstairs portion of the Phoenix Union Station which was serving the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads at the time. The last three layouts have been constructed at various buildings on the Arizona State Fairgrounds. This layout was constructed in 1975 in its present location and is operated as a permanent fair exhibit.


The standard gauge portion (4’ 8.5” between the rails) of the club’s layout is the “Phoenix, Turnbow & Apache” railroad while the narrow gauge portion (3’ between the rails) in the northwest corner is the “Mogollon & Western”.


Train Control and Electrical

NCE Command Station and Boosters

The direct current (DC) system for controlling trains was removed in 2004 and replaced with a Digital Command Control (DCC) system manufactured by North Coast Engineering (NCE). Over 2 miles of electrical wiring was removed and replaced with about 800 feet of wire for the DCC. There are 36 isolated blocks protected by individual circuit breakers. Turnout controls added about 3,000 feet of Cat 5 cable to control the slow motion operation of the turnouts. Many of the turnouts are “Auto-Throw” eliminating derailments caused by running through the back of closed turnouts. The layout is broken into districts powered by boosters and protected by circuit breakers and auto taillight bulbs. Reverse loops use auto reversers and circuit breakers for protection.


The NCE DCC system is easy to use and has performed reliably for several years, including State Fair operation where continuous operation for 12 hours at a time is needed for 21 straight days. The DCC system allows individual locomotive control. The track is powered at all times and a decoder in each locomotive enables speed, lighting and sounds to be independently controlled. Multiple locomotives can be consisted to pull longer trains or be distributed within the train for realistic operation.

Turnouts are controlled by Tortoise Switch machines, Hare II controllers and a club designed driver for LED indications. Many of the yard switches are hand throw type. This provides the capability to control turnouts through the DCC system as well as through 10 control panels.

Control Panel

Control panels are located at various locations around the layout, an upper mezzanine, and the south extension of the layout into the meeting room.

Several electrical devices have been added to the layout for the overall enjoyment. These include:

  • Operating crossing gates with lights. Optical sensors determine a train is approaching and activate the lights and gates. Additional sensors raise the gates and turn off the lights when the train has passed.
  • Flashing “gumball” on a police car is visible near the windows where a motorist has been pulled over for committing an infraction.
  • Lighted signs within the town of Turnbow



Club Equipment (locomotives and cars)

Club equipment that is lettered for the PT&A is in a standardized paint scheme described in the members handbook. The club owns several locomotives though most members operate their own locomotives. Club cars lettered for the PT&A or M&W reflect the railroad’s individual standards.


All equipment operated on the club layout must meet certain minimum requirements. These are:

  • Meet NMRA weight, wheel and coupler requirements
  • Be painted appropriately
  • Use operating knuckle compatable couplers. This has been established as a club standard. Several companies make compatible couplers.



Ponds and streams use casting resin tinted to add depth or with cotton fibers to add rapids. Clear acrylic (Future floor polish) has been used to keep the water looking shiny over the years.


Trees are a mix of commercial and hand made. Deciduous trees use commercial or natural armatures with ground foam “leaves” with lighter or darker highlights. Pine trees use a twisted wire trunk, sisal rope branches and ground foam needles. Bushes are ground foam in various green shades. Grass is hydrostatic grass on a clear glue base. Small rocks and dirt are natural to the local area.




Scenery is supported by wood and cardboard formers and nylon window screening material for the contours. “Structolite” stucco base was applied over the screen for the final shape. Outcroppings and rocks are made from molds or carved into casting plaster. The scenery is colored with various shades of tan, red, and yellow acrylic paint washes.


Backdrops were painted by a club member with most mountains painted on a thin board and the distant mountains, sky and clouds painted directly on the wall.


Structures are a mix of scratchbuilt and commercially available kits constructed by club members. The recent move has been away from wood structure kits due to layout room flooding several times in the current location. New structures are evaluated and placed on the layout after passing an NMRA style grading process.