Fun with Lighting: Night

Let’s face it. Most of the time it’s daytime on our model railroads. Why? Because you can see better in daylight. Hence, we install lighting to make sure that those painstakingly-applied scenes and details are visible to the observer. And this makes total sense.

However, in the real world roughly half of the time (on average) it’s dark out there. What about night? A keen observer will have noticed that railroads do, in fact, continue to operate in the hours of darkness. Sure, it’s harder to see, but it has a magic all its own. What if there were a simple way to apply that to a model railroad layout?

Turns out, there is. A simple way. And I’m going to show you how I did it.

My method makes one basic assumption: that ambient light at night (what there is of it) is rather blue in tone. (I also need to experiment with moonlight, but that’s a topic for another time.) Enter the brilliant (ahem) idea to simply provide some dim, blue light to the room. Not direct light, just ambient light. And how better to do that than a $5 string of blue LED Christmas lights?

My layout occupies half of the garage. My wife’s car occupies the other half. She doesn’t have to scrape frost in the winter. I get a double-deck model railroad. Fair trade, we think. Anyway, my half also stores boxes and boxes of things, requiring shelving– which happily provides a place to string lights for daytime ops. Night ops are different. In the photo above you can see the string of lights, haphazardly strung on whatever I could hang them from. Why so? Because frankly, nobody ever looks up. Plus, I wanted the ambient blue light to fill in every scene on the La Plata Division.

OK, so we’ve gotten the room lighting. But I seriously suggest you think about installing a few things to light up the landscape at the scale level. In my case I don’t have much urban area, which simplifies things somewhat. However, I have installed area lighting at the Winter Park ski lodge, in the North Yard area, on various structures in Hideaway Park, and eventually at Union Station. Everything else goes on the trains themselves.

I also have one other thing going for me. The upper level is always wintertime, so there’s lots of snow to catch and reflect light. You’ll see that in the photos below.

Here is a Utah Belt train exiting the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel, one winter night.
A moment later the same train is seen making its way down through Winter Park siding. The lights of the ski lodge are visible in the background. I love the way the lights reflect off the railheads, just like in the real world.
Down at Vasquez Road, an eastbound SPL freight with one of the Rio Grande GP60s on the point is rumbling through the still mountain air. Behind it the condos and chapel are decked out for the holidays. (It’s always Christmas on my layout!)
Here a Rio Grande coal train is struggling up the last mile to the tunnel, with a couple of tunnel motors on the point. That’s a Pyle Gyralight in the lower position.
A bit later from a vantage above the tunnel, the same train rounds the final curve by the lodge as it prepares to duck into the tunnel with its lesser grade.

Remember that valance I mentioned earlier? Well, there is a string of multi-colored LEDs installed up there in addition to the daylight lights. These can be adjusted by color and brightness for additional effects, with a convenient remote control.

Underside of the shelf above the layout, showing the “mood lighting” string of LEDs.
Here’s an attempt at a dusk shot, setting the LED lights for an amber hue. Ironically it strongly resembles the photos I used to get when I used film!
Back to night shots. Here’s a look at one of the less-photographed places on the railroad (real or model)– Tunnel 30. In this case an SP SD40M-2 is emerging into the moonlight with a downhill freight.

I played around some with this shot with the iphone image app.
Same train, transiting Tunnel 29 below Pinecliffe. That SD40M-2 is one of those odd ex-Erie Lackawanna units. Behind is a more-conventional SSW SD45T-2 that I kitbashed before the commercial ones were available, then an SP SD40R. Highway 72 is visible on the mountainside above.
Here the SD40M is leading a train out of Tunnel 2, near the bottom of the tunnel district.
In this moonlit shot a Rio Grande freight is climbing up the tunnel district approaching tunnel 29.

The leader is a blue-box Athearn SD40T-2 that I detailed as No. 5390– one of the series that had the boxy low-nose light assembly. I just recently converted it to DCC so it has the Pyle light in that position.
Here’s a twilight view of the Ski Train headed back to Denver. In this case the two SP units are diverting into the siding at Rocky to run around a coal train that the dispatcher has ordered to step aside.

I set up this lighting by setting the “mood lighting” across the room to an orange hue, which is caught by the scenery here.
Here’s the tail end of the Ski Train, rounding the Big 10 curves. The hoppers are parked there permanently as a windbreak.

The Rapido-built cars feature interior lighting as well as working marker lights, which are fun to utilize when the private cars aren’t on the train. They really make a night scene pop!

And the tail-end image is a fitting place to close. Hopefully this will inspire you to try some different lighting things in your environment.

Note: all photos taken with a basic iPhone 7.

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