Jim Spavins Track Plan Logo
MBTA Rockport Branch Track Plan.

Rockport Branch

HO Scale Commuter Line

Track Plan At A Glance

Layout Theme: Commuter Railroad
Layout Type: Permanent Layout
Size: 25'x39' (12'x21' Staging)
Scale: HO Scale
Era: 1990s
Track: Code 83
Turnouts: No. 6
Min. Radius: 36"

Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: November 24, 2015

One of the under modeled railroad operations are commuter passenger trains.  I've always been a fan of passenger operations and this basement size layout is based on one of the MBTA's commuter lines north of Boston.  The Rockport Branch runs along the north shore from North Station in Boston, MA, to Rockport, MA, through towns like Beverly, Salem, and Gloucester, MA.  In the present day, the line is mostly limited to passenger traffic with an occasional freight move on the southern end of the line.  In an earlier era, the line also included freight traffic - mostly back in the Boston & Maine days.

The layout is designed to capture the feel of the passenger operations along this line with a point to point layout with trains starting in staging (Boston) and heading to Rockport.  The line has been compressed to include five stations to allow a decent run between each town.  One of the idiosyncrasies of this branch is that for most of its length, the mainline is double tracked.  However, in two short segments - through the tunnel in Salem and just before Rockport - the line narrows down to single track.  This can add to the operational challenge of the layout when attempting to keep all traffic on schedule.

Another interesting quirk to this particular line along the coast are the drawbridges.  There are a total of five drawbridges on the MBTA system and trains traveling on the Rockport Branch pass over all five.  These drawbridges include:

While these structures not only provide a reference point to the railroads location along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, these drawbridges add a few more operator roles as well.

Operating Sessions

This layout would operate with a crew of between four and eight people.  The roles would include:

The basic operations would include a set of three engineers operating the commuter trains per a timetable - which would have to be modified from the prototype timetable to suit the distances on the layout.  On the railroad, the commuter trains operate in push-pull fashion with a consist of a locomotive and between four and eight coaches.  Based on MBTA practices, the locomotive should always be on the north end of the train with the cab car facing south.  While most of the trains would feel similar, the consist could be changed depending upon the time of day. For example, trains during rush hour might be longer (or include bi-level coaches) while trains during off-peak hours may be shorter.  Either separate trains could be built for the schedule, or a staging yard operator could assemble the trains based on a limited equipment roster. 

Besides just operating the trains, if you had the people, each drawbridge could be staffed by an operator.  In general, there is a schedule to when the drawbridges must be opened and closed to allow boat traffic to pass.  This would keep the engineers and dispatcher on their toes.

As a final challenge, a MOW crew could be dispatched to various places on the railroad to do work.  This would challenge the dispatcher to keep the line moving and trains on schedule. In addition, this would add some variety to the potential rolling stock collection for the railroad.


Through the years, a number of Kalmbach publications covered portions of the line.  If you are interested in learning a little more about the railroad during its B&M days, when freight still operated and RDC's carried passengers, you can check out the out of print "More Railroads You Can Model" or the updated "Classic Railroads You Can Model." One of the chapters covered the line and has a few prototype photos.  In addition, Model Railroader published drawings of the Gloucester Drawbridge back in the 1980s.

If you want to see some of the action on the line, a number of railfan videos from YouTube are below.

For Track Plan Tuesday's, I am digitizing all of my old track planning notebooks and sharing the designs here on the website.  To see all the plans, visit the track plan home page at: jimspavins.com/jimstrackplans.