The Amherst Belt Lines (ABEL) was organized in November of 1978 as a cooperative venture between several New England regional railroads and short lines in order to compete in an ever tightening rail market.
The owners of these railroads had observed the rise and fall of many railroad giants over the years, from the formation of Penn Central out of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads in 1968, Conrail from Penn Central and others in 1976, and more recently the organization of Guilford Transportation Industries in 1977 from four prominent New England railroads.
Realizing that their ability to survive in this time of mega-mergers would be to work together rather than compete against one another, an agreement was drafted among these smaller lines that would permit them to retain their independence, yet consolidate their business operations to offer customers a viable alternative to Conrail and Guilford.
The success of this umbrella corporation resulted in the connection of the various short lines through the acquisition of abandoned rights of way and trackage rights on other New England lines, in a roughly east-west route through Massachusetts with branches into Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
The east-west trunk formed a belt that tied the lines together, and thus the Amherst Belt Lines came to be.
Each of the associated railroads contributed to the motive power and rolling stock pool and were granted rights to use the Amherst Belt Lines name and logo. As the cooperative became more profitable, new motive power was purchased for ‘pool’ use to replace the ever aging fleet.
The headquarters for the Belt Lines became the new Conn River Yard, constructed in Hadley, MA along the former Boston and Maine Wheelwright Branch. The Belt Lines interchanges with Guilford (now Pan Am Railways) in East Deerfield Yard through trackage rights along Guilford’s Connecticut River Line. The railroad continues east toward Lowell passing through its namesake town of Amherst.
The success of the Belt Lines concept has generated interest from short lines outside of New England, with many short lines and regional carriers in the mid-west and southeast joining the cooperative, permitting the Belt Lines to originate and terminate traffic from the larger North American rail network.
The Amherst Belt Lines was organized on November 25, 1978 as a Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Amherst Railway Society. The original specifications were based on those of the NMRA Mount Clare Division and have been further revised over the years.
Twelve Amherst members built the first 12 modules, including a three module yard set, to assemble the first 11’ x 19’ layout. The original layout was displayed on February 18, 1979 at what was then the Amherst Railway Society’s Big Railroad Hobby Show in the Student Union Ballroom at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
The Mount Clare Division specifications were based on a standard 2’ x 4’ module for both straight and corner pieces. The corner had a 1’ x 2’ extension giving it a 3’ x 4’ ‘L’ shape. Two mainline tracks were placed 5” and 9” from the front of the module to the centerline of the track and the top of the railhead was to be 36” from the floor.
The original specifications were modified as construction began, to move the mainline tracks closer together to a then more typical 2-1/2” between centerlines with the tracks 5” and 7-1/2” from the front edge of the module. The wiring standards were changed to use readily available Cinch-Jones plugs and sockets. Each mainline was a single independent DC block capable of operating only one train at a time.
The standard specifications have evolved over the past 30 years. First the corners were changed to a more symmetrical 4’ square footprint in the elongated hexagon shape used today. Variations in module length soon followed with a minimum module length of 2’, increasing in size in two foot increments. For a short time a 3’ narrow gauge line (HOn3) was added at the back of the module, elevated above the standard gauge mainlines.
To bring the specification in line with NMRA recommendations for HO scale modules, the railhead height was raised to 40” from the floor and the mainline track centers were changed to 2” with the mainlines 5” and 7” from the front edge of the module.
The Belt Lines group was quick to jump on the Command Control bandwagon in the mid-1980’s by investing in Power System’s DYNATROL. Command Control permitted the operation of multiple trains with independent control on the same mainline, even in opposite directions, without the need for extensive block wiring.
The club worked closely with the developer of the system to work out the bugs of using Command Control on a large portable, and variable, layout that by this time was composed of 70 to 80 modules and several scale miles of mainlines. Modifications were made to the wiring specifications in particular, so that the delicate wiring of the locomotives and internal receivers would be protected from the higher currents of the Command Control system.
In 1996, wireless operation was introduced through the use of the DYNATROL IR (infra-red) system and Leap Frog radio transmitters. In 2000 the move was made to Digital Command Control (DCC) after testing North Coast Engineering’s system on some local home layouts. The club continues to use the NCE DCC system today.
The Amherst Belt Lines is a modular layout, not a sectional layout. The difference is that a sectional layout has a common theme that holds it together – scenery, era, purpose – and gives it the look of a completed layout. A sectional layout almost always goes together the same way all the time, with exceptions only for pieces that are missing or added during the life of the layout.
A modular layout can have a common theme, but relies solely on a standard interface between different modules for assembly. This means that a modular layout can be assembled in any sequence to present a new layout at different shows – the Belt Lines has rarely, if ever, assembled a layout the same way twice. It also means that if a piece is missing or added, there is little planning required to make the piece fit with other modules.
The Amherst Belt Lines has no specifications or requirements for scenery, era or track arrangement other than where the modules meet, permitting the module owner to exercise his or her own creativity and modeling interests. Some of the modules in the layout represent real locations in New England or the United States; other modules are the creation of the module owner. This allows the layout to take on a unique look, while still allowing it to operate as a miniature railroad system.
The modular format has also permitted the Belt Lines to host other modular clubs as long as the track and wiring standards are similar or adaptable between the Belt Lines and other modular groups. Individual modules or another whole layout can be incorporated into an Amherst Belt Lines display. Over the years the Belt Lines has played host to modules or layouts from the Pepperell Siding Model Railroad Club, the Bedford Boomers, the Dry Hill Model Railroad Club, the Cape Cod Model Railroad Club, Valley HO Trak and others.
Many of these modular clubs participate in the Amherst Railway Society’s annual Railroad Hobby Show.