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added: 10/16 (Part 1, 2, 3)  /  updated: 2/19 (Part 4 & 5)  /  updated: 1/20 (Part 6)  /  Updated: 6/21 (Part 7)

From a Diorama to a complete Layout - step by step !
HO Scale: Sullivan's Curve by Bernard Frontanau (France)
This outstanding Sullivan's Curve Diorama was built back in 1992. The radius in the curve is 110 cm.
It reflects the good old days before 1966 as Southern Pacific built their Colton - Palmdale cutoff. In other words, it is single track around the curve of Santa Fe with trackage rights of Union Pacific.
Please read additional information at the end of this page - just scroll down!
Part 1 = finished Diorama  /  Part 2 = construction of the Diorama  /  Part 3 = the real Curve as it looks today
Through the extensions of my Sullivan's Curve Diorama on the West Side (Part 4) and on the East Side (Part 5), the time has come to find a matching name to my expanding layout. Since it's a fictitious ATSF (now BNSF) line situated somewhere in the southwest, I decided to name it: the "BNSF DESERT AND SIERRA SUB", also known as the "Southwest Scenic Route".
A "could have been" Santa Fe subdivision that is also used by the Union Pacific which has trackage rights over the line.
So I'll be able to run a variety of companies I like, Which are ATSF, BNSF, UP, SP, SSW, D&RGW, BN, and so on. It will be an "extended" modern period with interesting and colourfull lashups.
Now I just have to name the different points of interest the trains will encounter on the BNSF DESERT AND SIERRA SUB.
New 2/19: Part 4 = West side extension of Sullivan's Curve  /  Part 5 = East side extension of Sullivan's Curve
New 1/20: Part 6 = Construction of the lower level  /  New 6/21: Part 7 = Extending the upper level to the west

 (for bigger size photos please click on 3- or 4-digit number under each photo)

Part 1 = the finished diorama in 2016
Overview of famous rock formations named after photographer, Herb Sullivan - 7658
a Santa Fe EB train is passing the curve - 7561 very realistic landscaping (real or scale) - 7564
dirt road for access to tracks -  5519 7540
7136 5514
7809 7771
7573 6931
7736 7765
7763 7532
8285 7734

 Photos copyright by Bernard Frontanau

HO Scale: Sullivan's Curve by Bernard Frontanau (France)
Convention presentations
This outstanding Sullivan's Curve Diorama was presented at the 8th Convention for American Railroadfans in Switzerland in October 1994. We were pleased as Bernard Frontanau presented his "one of a kind" masterpiece again at the 10th Jubilee Convention in 1998. Within these 4 years, it was completly detailed as you can see above.


Part 2 - HO Scale: Sullivan's Curve by Bernard Frontanau (France) - Part 2
The construction - how to do
It all started with Herb Sullivan, and others' photos in the late Chard Walker book, "Cajon, rail passage to the pacific".
That led me to draw plans and sketches for my diorama. The original 10° curve translated to 195 cm radius in HO ! Using selective compression, I found a radius of 110 cm to be impressive enough. I built 4 portable modules to compose the diorama.
My first drawing of the curve. The center module holds the famous rock formations - 8310 The foundation is an "open grid" of 2 x 4 cm. On top glued layers of styrofoam are roughly shaped to build the terrain contours. This is the main module. - 8312
Plaster carving is on its way. - 8313 Plaster work done. - 8314
Adding ground cover . . . . - 8316 . . . . and vegetation. - 8319
The main module is completed, still to come: track and ballast. - 8337 The wooden grid for the module west (left) of the main one.
 - 8323
Track support (18 mm plywood) and contours (10 mm plywood) added. - 8326 Again the terrain is built with styrofoam and shaped with a wood rasp to match the wooden contours. In this case I used tough cardboard for the slopes, it could be made with styrofoam.  - 8327
Ground cover (different sizes of sifted sand)  . . . - 8329 . . . . and vegetation added. - 8332
At the foreground the east (right) module is on its way. On the left the start of the small module that will support a rock formation is visible - 8333 The small module almost done. - 8334
Styrofoam stage of right module. - 8339 Installing code 83 flextrack with progressive superelevation. - 8340

Photos copyright by Bernard Frontanau

Part 3 - Sullivan's Curve - the real thing (2010 to 2014) - Part 3
May 2010 taken from the air already with BNSF third Main Track in service by W. Meer
May 2010 We are standing near the UP Track incl. Canyon siding (below are BNSF tracks) by W. Meer
June 2011 from left: BNSF MT-2, MT-1 and above UP track w/Canyon siding by W. Meer
May 2013 The Rocks rest in piece as there is no train around by E. Hänseler
December 2014 BNSF EB Cristmas Train on BNSF MT-1 going uphill by G. Trüb
May 2013 as seen from the left side. Below BNSF MT-2, MT-1 and above UP track w/Canyon siding by E. Hänseler
May 2012 UP SB on former SP track by M. Frei May 2012 Two BNSF intermodal trains by M. Frei

added: 2/19 (Part 4 & 5)


Hereunder you'll find an introduction about my vision of my layout and informations
about the "how" and "why".
When I decided to install permanently my Sullivan's Curve modules and use them as a starting point for the layout, I knew from the beginning that I had no intention to build an HO model of the famous Cajon Pass where the real Curve can be found. I cannot fill a room with the same kind of scenery, I get bored very fast. I like scenery variety and the challenge to blend everything logically to end up with a believable miniature geology. These are the reasons that led me to build a model railroad with freelance scenery and some "real" settings shamelessly mixed in.

The "BNSF Desert and Sierra Sub" also called "Southwest Scenic Route", is a "could have been" ATSF, now BNSF line situated somewhere in the Southwest. Through trackage rights agreements the line is also used by UP trains. Ultimately it will be a double level layout which will figure the continuous mountain climb of a railroad from a small settlement in the desert, through spectacular canyons and desert scenery, and finally accessing to a high mountain pass in the sierra. The progressive transition from desert to high sierra scenery is my main goal.
Westbound trains will appear at the lower level, will stop to add the necessary helpers, and will highball for the horrendous climb lying ahead. At summit the helpers will come off the trains and either go back downhill for their next assignment, or wait for especially heavy eastbound trains and help them with braking power on their descending run. The westbounds will then disappear from the scene. A hidden helix will connect both ends of the layout to provide continuous running and allowing for example full and empty coal trains to always run in the correct direction. Long trains at very slow speed fighting gravity and snaking through beautiful scenery is for me the ultimate thrill, eventhough there will be (very) little switching possibilities. Amtrak "Desert Chief " will provide both east and westbound passenger trains on the line. With just a few exceptions I add the modules only when they are completed except for the track. I like to work on sawhorses in order to have access from all sides during the building phases.
Following a plan I drew on paper at a scale of 1 meter being 4 cm, I start with a 2 cm x 4 cm open grid, I then add a 10 mm thick plywood fascia cut to the terrain contours I wish to create. I put this fascia only on the aisle side of the modules since the rear isn't visible. I sometimes use 3 mm "Isorel" where a curved fascia is more convenient than an "angled" one. Subroadbed is 18 mm plywood. Minimum visible curve radius is 90 cm.
I then fill up the grid with styrofoam to build up the terrain, and shape it with a rasp to match the fascia contours. I use normal building plaster over the foam to create the rock formations which are carved after the plaster has dried for about 24 h with chisels and other tools to obtain the desired effect. The final rock texture is given with the use of a wire brush. The groundcover is inexpensive sand and stones I sift in various sizes myself. It is spread over a layer of undiluted carpenter glue. After drying I wet everything with water in which I add a few drops of dishwashing detergent as wetting agent, this followed by a mix of 50/50 glue and water plus a few drops of the same detergent. After drying it is as hard as concrete. I color the plaster with watercolors applied with a brush and the groundcover with an airbrush. I use india ink mixed with water to darken some areas, and highlight rock faces and groundcover with drybrushing. Some rock formations are created with slabs of styrofoam I carved and then colored. This is a technique I wanted to try.
I use thyme branches for the trees and different commercial products for grass, bushes, and foliage. Ocotillos are made with very fine copper wire. Yucca "flowers" are finely ground white styrofoam. Lightning is provided by 5 watts LED spots, I choose them with a colour temperature of 4000 kelvin and a 100° light angle. It isn't too white neither too yellow.

Finally I would like to give a tip of the hat at Mr Lucien Wiss my friend and a great artist. He was a great inspiration and I learnt a lot watching him at work.  -   Bernard Frontanau

(for bigger size photos please click on 3-digit number under each photo)
added: 2/19

Part 4: West of Sullivan's Curve by Bernard Frontanau (France) - Part 4
Here are photos of the first diorama West of my Sullivan's curve. Photos of the building steps showing how I handled the scenery transition to be "geologically realistic". The grid is 2 x 4 cm, the track support is 18 mm plywood, and the fascia 10 mm plywood.
West end of sullivans' Curve module 025 On this photo you'll notice the slight winding nature of the track support to get a more interesting effect. 031
new part at left and old part at right 033 Test fitting the module. Later I slightly cut down the highest part of the fascia. 035
Here you can see part of an old diorama I built in the 80s. It was discarded but I saved a few pieces to be inserted in future projects. It is a small drywash with abutments and bridge. I had to cut out a portion of the subroadbed to make it fit.  037 This is the plaster phase for a cut through a rock formation. 038
This photo shows the now inserted dry wash. 043 The expending scenery west of it with some hoodoos also called "the twin mushrooms" by the railroaders. 046
On this photo you see how the lower rock strata matches those found at Sullivan's curve. The angle of the stratas helped me to build a logical scenery transition between the two dioramas. 064 Slowly progressing scenery west of the dry wash. 068
This is the virtually finished scenery at the transition. Fascia isn't painted yet. 072 Here, the swallows nests are visible in the cracks between the stratas 074
 150 096
Guardrails have been installed on the short bridge.  151 I used Peco code 83 American for the mainline and bulk code 75 for the guardrails. 152
154 155
The finished diorama. Pencil traces on the backdrop mark the painted "horizon" I added later on. 220 221
The rock formation at left  is carved styrofoam, a technique I wanted to try.  241 242
244 712

added: 2/19

Temporary placing the next diorama at the open grid stage. When I am sure it fits I put it on sawhorses, it's easier to work on it from all sides.
 105 106
With the fascia installed. 110 Subroadbed with room for a future bridge. 113
115 119
On this one I began a project to test my skills. I chose the widest part of the diorama which correspond with the corner of the room in order to build a road in " forced perspective ". This to give that feeling of wide open range typical of the american west. I knew it would be a great challenge.   121 There you see the beginning of the road full scale at the fascia and slightly narrower at the future RR crossing.
I gave a rollercoaster shape to the road to make it more interesting. You also see the bases of future " mesas " that will restrict the viewing angle to avoid destroying the wanted effect.
 124 carving styrofoam to create the mesas. 127
129 131
134 137
138 A view from the rear looks terrible ! Isn't it ? 143
A closer view of the carving work. 145 The almost finished mesas temporary in place. I left them removable until I can hang the diorama at the wall. They will be easier to install afterwards. 165
167 169
Carved styrofoam in the background, carved plaster in the foreground. 173 The building was built years ago by Lucien who gave it to me. I added a lot of weathering plus an old car kit and some details. 179
182 183
Building a bridge over a dry lake.  212 The abutments are made out of plaster of Paris. 210
After fixing the painted backdrop, the module is in place and the mesas added. 222  Lots of details are still to come. I added a LED strip to the rear for future effects. 223
Slowly taking shape. 225  227
233  Still waiting for the "track layers". 238
Completed scenery with the typical "tourist trap". 359 The forced perspective: There is only 82 cm from the fascia to the sky backdrop. The van in the distance is N scale. I planned everything to have the top of the road slightly below my own eye level.  364
Homemade ocotillos and blooming yuccas. 366 Vestiges of the old narrow gauge trestle, first line to conquer the sierra. 368
 371 On the right my "attempt" to make smoke trees... 375
428  a Santa Fe freight is passing the road crossing 426
Blooming yucca between the cars. 377  The "Tourist trap". 378
Latest acquisition to attract the passing by tourists. 608  609
This is the temporary end of the westbound scenery. 793  713
Perfect illusion of an endless road striking toward the horizon. - 424


Special light effects (early morning or late evening or night) are getting a very realistic view.
400 401
402 403
405 406
404 415
420 423
411 419
795 797
799 800

 added: 2/19

Part 5: East of Sullivan's Curve by Bernard Frontanau (France) - Part 5
Here are photos of the second diorama East of my Sullivan's curve. Photos of the building steps showing how I handled the scenery transition to be " geologically realistic ". The grid is 2 x 4 cm, the track support is 18 mm plywood, and the fascia 10 mm plywood.
Below, you can see photos of the freelance scenery I built east of the curve. You'll notice the tunnel which is placed stragically between a curve and a countercurve, in order to be fully appreciated from the aisle. The portals are inspired by the ones which once stood at Alray (Cajon).
On this photo the end of the module closest to the camera will be the interface with the Sullivan's curve module. Notice the "stepped" frame to accomodate the 3 % downgrade to the right.. 279
Test fitting the module. 281 282
285 286
311 312
Making molds for the tunnel portals. 314 316
Plaster of Paris portals gently drying. 317 Building the tunnel becomes a challenging puzzle. 318
A piece of track is installed, ballasted and weathered before carrying on. 325 330
331 335
337 The aisle side will be on the right. 342
343 348
Future underpass for a dirt road. The metal culvert is made of aluminium cake container. 435 436
440 441
442 443
450 Module installed, the interface is still visible in the distance. 454
458 Another culvert with "homemade" retaining walls. I love that. 465
Tunnel view from the aisle. Note the scenic curve-counter curve. 511 512
516 517
518 519
520 720


471 is the start of the next module. I used 3 mm isorel (masonite ?) for the fascia instead of the 10 mm plywood.
 471 721
This time I chose to put the styrofoam and cut holes to install the risers and screw them to the grid, . . .  475 . . . instead of filling the foam around the subroadbed.
Result: A WASTE OF STYROFOAM, so no more.
487 491
493 495
496 498
500 719
717 718
501 716
502 505
507 508
752 753
 754 757
This module marks the end of the eastbound scenery progression. In a not too far future I'll show you what's going on at the lower level, with, for example, a replica of the Santa Fe's "spider bridge" in New Mexico. Bernie.

added: 1/20

Part 6: Construction of Lower Level by Bernard Frontanau (France) - Part 6
In order to extend the layout into the second half of the room, I had to complete the lower level in the first half, so long I had easy access. Eventhough the two levels are not connected yet I had no other choice. The connection will occur in the second half of the room.  Bernie
I started with the biggest module to be placed below the Sullivan's curve diorama. It would have been impossible to put it in place later. Concerning scenery and track laying I had to forget working on sawhorses, so I had to be ready to challenge my back while bending over and under for hours... Painful.
523 - Here the frame is partially built . . . . . . and ready to be hung to the wall. - 527
West end of the module with room for a bridge over a dry riverbed. - 552 Scenery on its way. - 557
Bridge abudments are already in place - 561 Bridge installed with a piece of track and guard rails. - 568
some vegetation has been added as well - 569 see text below - 574
574: This is the future site of a small desert settlement where trains will stop for crew changes, and where helpers will be added to westbounds for the climb to the top of the pass. The challenge is again to give the feeling of wide open desert landscape in a very limited space.
Forced perspective is used with ground cover and bushes decreasing in size toward the backdrop. - 582 West end taking shape. - 588
727 729
landscaping completed - 747 The east end under construction. - 759
A turnout complex is taking shape, the plywood board to the left will support a local highway. - 762 West end of the three tracks, two number 8 turnouts have been installed. This is the beginning of single track territory for westbound trains. - 764
East side taking shape. - 768 769
775 The local diner ready for, among others, truckers and train crews. - 782
There is room by the stop sign for the local water tank - 783 Test fitting the different buildings. - 791
Below: Scratchbuilding an old adobe style building. Inspiration came from an article and photos of a real place in a model railroad magazine.
801 802
An area fully completed. - 810 An area fully completed. - 811
815 822
Below: The now finished adobe building. For many years it was home of the local "cantina" and city hall office. There was also room to park a fire truck. Now abandoned it was saved by the inhabitants who did'nt want the heritage of a mexican past to be destroyed. The local streets and highway are a mix of asphalt and concrete slabs.
The now finished adobe building. - 831 Behind the tracks lays the endless desert... - 832
835 837
very realistic scene - 838 Empty spaces between the different buildings contribute to the illusion of wide open western scenery. - 839
840 841
The three tractor trucks and the pick-ups have been modified and detailed by Lucien Wiss who, kindly, gave them to me.
Below: Extending west this is the frame for the next module that will show off a famous ATSF scenic landmark in New Mexico: the "Spider Bridge".
New site of the "Spider Bridge" - 556 Test fitting the module. - 578
The "spider bridge" under construction. - 580 The "spider bridge" under construction. - 583
a unique construction - 585 Future abutments (scribed styrofoam). - 590
Building the terrain. - 596 601
The real bridge is located in Apache Canyon, New Mexico and spans Galisteo Creek. I paid attention to respect the bridge look and placement and also the path and configuration of the creek beneath it. The surrounding landscape is made of some kind of loose rocks and stones. Instead I chose to represent terraced hills.
603 606
611 613
615 617
623 630
Aerial view of the completed module, since there is no guard rails on the prototype I did'nt put any on the model. On my layout west is always to the left, since I wanted the bridge to be on the aisle side, the placement and configuration are correct, but on the prototype East is to the left.
631 860
one foot (post) is much longer - 864 the other one is just mounted on the rock - 866
Continuing west I wanted trains to gain altitude while climbing on a narrow rock shelf nestled against a canyon wall and hung over a deep chasm. The scenery will expand all the way down to the floor. Train crews will hold their breath while negociating the trackage at restricted speed ...Vertigo forbidden !
Temporary placing the track support to check the height.
Track support attached to the wall and fascia installed.
I managed to leave enough room in between for a chair so I could first complete the scenery behind the track, and then, carry on toward the aisle. - 637 Additional supports added. - 643
Additional supports added. - 644 Adding styrofoam slabs. - 646
Plaster work starting at the transition with the previous module. - 648 Working on the "rock wall" behind the track. - 649
Plaster added and carved. - 656 Progressing west. It is obvious that the backdrop was installed too low, I managed to place, later on, a second one in front of it. It is visible on future photos. - 657
Working on a future rock shed. - 659 It is already painted and weathered. - 662
A piece of ballasted and weathered track waiting for the rock shed. - 664 Rock shed at home (mounted). - 667
Scenery behind the track well on its way. - 668 Scenery behind the track well on its way. - 670
A rock formation with its "balancing rock" is definitively installed on its wood support. - 672 With the track ballasted, I started building further toward the aisle. - 682
The scenery is going down to the floor. - 684 The completed canyon, I still have to add some sparse vegetation. At the rock shed the track is 102 cm above the floor. - 690
A lone ATSF geep helps to visualize the size of the cliff. The now higher backdrop is visible. - 694 Closer view of the Santa Fe Diesel Loco - 695
Getting closer to the short tunnel. - 701 realistic rock formations - 703
 - 698  - 699
A railfan's dream: a fantastic view point to watch trains climbing along the canyon walls. - 705 In the meantime, some landscaping has been added - 738
 - 936  - 937
This is the temporary west end of the lower level. - 926 Moving back to the east end. Pretty soon this area will find idling helpers waiting to help heavy westbounds. - 842
Wooden frame ready for expansion east. - 845A Wooden frame ready for expansion east. - 845B
Track support ready (cork roadbed). - 850 Here is where westbounds will appear and eastbounds will disappear. - 851
A close-up view of the now installed turnouts with switch stands. - 872 All mainline turnouts are equiped with "cosmetic" electric motors. Others receive "manual" high target switch stands, or low target like the turnout leading to the spur in the distance.  - 875
Dealing with desert scenery, I realized that the only answer to hide the eastern end of the layout, was to build an overpass. - 887 Cork roadbed is ready for track laying - 889
More crossovers have to be installed. The turnout on the left will lead to another spur. - 892 Some sparse vegetation will be added. Curved turnouts are no. 7, others are no. 8 and 6. No. 6 is my minimum. - 893
The turnouts configuration allows trains access to and from any of the three tracks. - 938 The turnouts configuration allows trains access to and from any of the three tracks.  - 939
A panoramic view of the small desert settlement. - 928 A panoramic view of the small desert settlement. - 929
Details with siding and 2 of the 3 tracks going under the overpass as seen on the next photo.  - 933 An aerial view of the eastern limit of the scenicked part of the layout. Two tracks will lead to a couple of return loops. One track will connect to a helix for continuous run. - 935
Below: An eastbound with full dynamic braking is gliding down the 3% grade above the deep chasm.
 - 940  - 941
The train is about to cross Spider Bridge. - 942 An eastbound freight has just stopped for a crew change.
 - 927

added: 6/21

Part 7: Extending the upper level to the west by Bernard Frontanau (France)
This extension starts at the location seen in Part 4 photo 793.
Sticking with the 3% grade, the track will enter the 2nd half of the room by way of a tunnel, then will make a big loop in the room center in order to gain enough altitude to reach, first, the geographical summit, then, slightly lower, the railroad summit where helpers will be cut off from the trains. The tunnel and a double sided backdrop will divide two different type of scenery. But what will be beyond the tunnel will be a future subject for a part 8.  -  Bernie
I started
911 - Here is the very beginning, the wooden . . . . . . frames are still at the workbench. - 912
967 - 969 -
As you notice in the background a partially built portion of the future part of the layout is installed. The reason was to make sure the track height above the floor would be correct, and all the different grades would match my original planning.
974  -  The view from below shows the location of a future "duck under" or maybe "nod under", it all depends how tall you are ... 975  -  Clearance is 155 cm. This passage will connect both halves of the room.
976 - no scenery existing yet. 981 - Scenery is well on its way, track isn't installed yet.
985 Installing track. I should never have put some scenery before laying track, it just made things harder, oh well.. 987
988  -  Future location of the east portal. The big saguaro was made many years ago by my friend Lucien Wiss and was part of his legacy. 989  -  Future area for the west portal.
990  -  wooden frame waiting for west portal and scenery 991  -  Scenery completed on the east side
1008  -  East portal completed. 1108  -  East portal completed.
1107  -  East side overview. 1012  -  Building the west side.
1013  -  West side of the backdrop taking shape. 1014  -  West side of the backdrop taking shape.
1016 - West portal almost finished 1019 - West portal with retaining wall
1020 - Tunnel portal was mounted 1103 - West portal is finished
The photo 1103 shows the west portal and its surrounding completed. The westbound trains popping out of the tunnel will encounter a very different scenery typical of higher altitudes, conifers, aspens, and other trees are the rule. I chose to model fall colors for their visual impact, especially the golden aspens. The trains will struggle the 3% grade, negotiating a big turnback loop in the middle of the room to gain altitude and reach, first, the geographical summit, and then, slightly lower, the railroad summit where helpers will be cut off from their trains. Out of the tunnel trains will seem to run in the wrong direction, then negotiate the big loop and pass over the west portal before reaching the railroad summit.
But this is another story.
1104  -  Scenery around the west portal. 1026  -  Scenery near the west portal.


More photos of the BNSF DESERT AND SIERRA SUB will be shown in the future - just check back !

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