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The Southern-most Model Railroad
The McMurdo Station model railroad in Antarctica is at the bottom of the world
by James Ross

Antarctica map
Click on the map for a larger view.
Map courtesy of Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica
We believe we have the world’s most southerly model railroad layout. It is at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 77 degrees 53 minutes south.

McMurdo Station was established by the US Navy and National Science Foundation in 1956 to support the International Geophysical Year. It is the largest population center in Antarctica with around 200 people in the winter and over 1,000 people in the summer. Its mission is to support scientific research in Antarctica and act as the air terminus for cargo and passenger flights to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and other camps and stations deep in Antarctica. The majority of supplies arrive in February when the annual tanker and supply ships are offloaded. There are also periodic flights between McMurdo Station and New Zealand during the summer months. The station is isolated from all physical contact with the outside world from early March to late August with the exception of an occasional medical evacuation flight.

Williams Field at McMurdo Station
Amundsen-Scott South Pole, about 900 miles south of McMurdo Station
This past winter (southern hemisphere winter of 2001, March-September) several of the McMurdo Station staff formed a club to build a model railroad layout. The club consisted of four members and no materials. During the winter we scoured dumpsters and scrap piles to obtain 2 by 4s, plywood, and various hardware. One of the members volunteered to have part of an old disassembled layout mailed from home when airlift and mail service resumed in late August. We shared the costs of new cork roadbed, track connectors, minor hardware and postage.

McMurdo Station
McMurdo Station as seen from Observation Hill. Click on the photo for a larger view.
Other than obtaining materials, we faced other obstacles unique to the Antarctic. We had to overcome a shortage of heated space to house the layout, our 54-hour per week work schedules and shifts, and the likelihood that some or all of us would not have our contracts renewed for future seasons to continue the effort. We finally found a place for the layout in an old Quonset hut where it shares space with a sewing club in a room located above a two-lane bowling alley and weight room.

Southern-most model railroad
The Southern-most model railroad is waiting for a new crew to add landscaping and trains
We had several dreams of how the layout should look. At one point we hoped to develop a notional railroad line serving the McMurdo Station and Scott Base area of Ross Island (named by James Clark Ross in the 1840s).  However, when reality caught up we settled on an oval plan based loosely on NMRA modular standards.

We built a basic table using 2 by 4s and plywood (3/4” tongue and groove) with drywall screws throughout.  We built four modules each 3 by 3 feet and four bridge modules each 2 x 6 feet.  These were then bolted together to form a 6 by 12-foot table with two bridge modules in reserve for possible future expansion. The 16 supporting legs are bolted to the end modules.

Our track layout consists of two mainlines and a third interior line to serve as additional access to a switchyard and industrial area. These three areas or lines are electrically isolated to comprise three main operating blocks. All track is on the same level with any gradient the result of the warped or uneven floor of the building.

We have not accomplished any landscaping or other improvements at this point because we have now left McMurdo Station and turned operations over to the summer crew. Hopefully, some of the summer crew will continue the project and keep it alive for any of us who might receive contracts to return to Antarctica in future seasons.