PENNSYRR.COM by Jerry Britton

Jerry Britton's PRR Middle Division in HO Scale

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Members of the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) are likely familiar with the Achievement Program (AP). The program is kind of like earning Boy Scout badges... you complete a number of tasks in a category and the reward is a certificate. At first look it can seem daunting, but when you really think about it, you are going to accomplish most of the tasks anyway just by building your own model railroad. What follows is my strategy towards gaining the MMR status.


Why gain the MMR? Okay, so here I am going to offend some folks, so take it with a grain of salt. Most importantly, I consider it a challenge; that's my main driver. Second, I have always felt that the NMRA, above the local division level, is one of the most politically charged organizations I have ever dealt with. I find most of the officers at the regional and national level to be "snooty" and they have their cliques. I've noted articles and convention presentations labeled with the presenter's name and "MMR" boldly indicated after their name. I personally find this offensive. Am I not "good enough"? Why can't they just be listed as "one of us"? So my second personal goal is to achieve the MMR and then not flaunt it. I'll get off my soap box now and reiterate, my main goal is the challenge. 

The Golden Spike

To wet your appetite for the AP program, a Golden Spike award is offered. It requires completion of a small number of tasks across several discipline. While this is intended as a starting point for the AP program, I found it to be a distraction. The requirements, summarized, are:

  • Display six (6) units of rolling stock (Scratchbuilt, craftsman, or detailed commercial kits).
  • Construct a minimum of eight (8) square feet of layout.
  • Construct five (5) structures (scratchbuilt, craftsman, or detailed and commercial kits).
  • Three (3) types of trackage are required (turnout, crossing, etc.). All must be properly ballasted and installed on proper roadbed. Commercial trackage may be used.
  • All installed trackage must be properly wired so that two trains can be operated simultaneously (Double-track main, single-track main with sidings, block or command control, etc.).
  • Provide one additional electrical feature such as powered turnouts, signaling, turnout indication, lighted buildings, etc.

Now here was the rub... I've got a large model railroad, and at the time I was focused on benchwork, laying track, electrical, etc. I wasn't ready for the sideshow of building structures, scenery, and specific track features. But I knew by the time I was "done", I'd have all these pieces. So I went forward with my normal course of construction.

I earned my Golden Spike after I had completed four AP disciplines!


The AP program offers 11 discipline certificates across four categories. To achieve the status of MMR, one must achieve seven of the 11 awards, including at least one in each category. I'm not going to get into the minutia of the requirements for each of the 11 awards, but I will offer advice on completing many of them.

The 11 disciplines in four categories are:

Here's where the "divide and conquer" approach begins...

Setting aside the "difficulty" perceived for many of the awards, I identified those that I felt I would never accomplish. Remember, only seven of the 11 are required. I didn't see myself every accomplishing the scratchbuilding of locomotives, so Master Builder - Motive Power was out. However, since one of every category is required, that meant Master Builder - Cars was in. I didn't see that as an issue, being a Pennsy modeler, as I have around a hundred resin car kits to construct.

The other award I did not see myself accomplishing was Association Official. This is where my second paragraph comes into play -- politics. I have no desire to act as an officer in the politically-charged atmosphere of the NMRA. 

The above said, the remaining nine were "potentially" achievable. Several of these will just "happen" over time, while others have mutually compatible objectives.

Association Volunteer

This award requires one to volunteer for 60 Time Units (TU's) to the organization. So start a log!

The easiest method is open houses. If you hold an open house for an NMRA event, you get points. Perhaps more importantly, if you "run trains" for another NMRA member's open house, you also get points. The number of points awarded per event varies depending upon whether the event is at the divisional, regional, or national level. 

Another quick acrual can be through volunteering on a local division committee. You are awarded credits for the number of months you are active on the committee. My division hosted a regional convention in 2017 and the planning committee started two years earlier. This bolstered my open house credit accumulation and put me "over the top" about a year ahead of the convention!

Model Railroad Author

Here's another one that requires little effort. You must earn 42 credits across numerous sub-categories. Start another log!

The easiest is writing articles. Local divisions are often yearning for articles for their newsletters. They don't have to be feature length nor nearly as polished as what would be required for Model Railroader. At the division level, your peers are not professional writers and they do not expect you to be. Share your railroad's design or operating schema, share a technique for weathering or scenery, etc.

Another bucket is giving presentations, whether they be at division meets, regional conventions, etc. Like Association Volunteer, the credits awarded vary depending upon whether the event is at the divisional, regional, or national level.

For many, electronic publishing can fulfill up to half of the requirements. Are you a model railroad blogger? Do you have a web site? I have a very large PRR site and that got me 21 credits right off the bat.

This is another award where you can be somewhat passive and you will eventually meet the requirements.

Chief Dispatcher

Half of this award comes from participating in operating sessions (50 hours). Same song, another verse... start a log!

The other half requires some work. You have to design and document the operational schema for a model railroad. A key here is, it doesn't have to be your railroad. It can be the railroad you earned most of your operating credits on, or it can be one that you totally make up for this exercise!

Knowing that I needed to create an operating schema for my own model railroad, I back-burnered this exercise while I continued with construction. I completed my operational hours several years prior to completing the documentational exercise.

Most of my documentation resides in the Orientation section of my model railroad's web site.

Master Builder - Scenery

This was actually my first AP award. A corner of my two-level layout consists of a heavily sceniced upper level, with mountains, rock faces, and a stream. Due to access challenges, I wanted to complete the scenery before I constructed the benchwork on the lower level. As luck would have it, it met the 32 square foot requirement for the award. Note also that the same section meets the eight square foot requirement of the Golden Spike award.

Whether your model railroad has a 4'x8' section, or a 2'x16' section, you can attain the 32 feet over time.

Model Railroad Engineer - Electrical

In approaching the requirements for the Electrical award, I recognized the commonality across the requirements of Golden Spike, Electrical, and Civil. That said, I developed "the grid" in a spreadsheet to better identify the commonalities where I could complete one item that would satisfy the requirement across the awards.

Enough of the required elements were already in my design, so I just kept a checklist as I constructed and made each one operational. This allowed me to complete parts A and B of the award, with those selected in "the grid" indicated in green below.


Feature: Golden Spike Electrical Civil
  Three required. A: All required. B: Three required.  Six required.

Three scratchbuilt
and merit judged required.

Turnout X Passing Siding  X Passing Siding X
Facilities for the storing of at least two unused motive power units    Spur
One yard with a minimum of three tracks and a switching lead independent of the main line.    Simple Ladder
  Compound Ladder
One reversing loop, wye, turntable, or transfer table.   Reversing Loop
Turntable     X  
Transfer Table     X  
Crossing X    X   X
Crossover X    X X X
Double Crossover X    X   X
Slip Switch X    X   X
Gauge Separation Turnout X    X    
Double Junction Turnout X    X    
Three Way Turnout X     X
Gauntlet Turnout X   X  Scale Track X
Gauntlet Track       X
Spring Switch X    X   X

Operating Switch in Overhead Wire

     X   X
Super Elevation       X  
Simple Overhead Wire       X  
Compound Overhead Wire       X  

Cog Railway Track

Coal Dump Track       X  
Ash Pit       X  
Service Pit Track       X  
Grade Elevation       X  


In these days of DCC, the requirements of Section C were pretty straightforward. Three elements from a list of 23 were required. Some thoughts...

  • Electrical turnout position indication on a control panel or at trackside for a minimum of four turnouts -- My branch line features powered turnouts controlled from the fascia using Berrett Hill Touch Toggles, which include a position indicator for closed or thrown.
  • Engine terminal, including an electrically powered turntable or transfer table, a minimum of three stall tracks, and at least two blocked storage sections for parking locomotives outside the stall area -- I have a turntable with nine tracks.
  • Installation of an advanced electronic and/or computer control for the model railroad -- Easy... Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI).
  • Design, installation, and operation of mechanical and/or electrical layout lighting displays -- I've added track lighting above the layout and also have implemented LED tube lighting in staging.
  • Installation of a command control throttle buss line around a layout capable of handling at least two throttles at three or more separate locations -- LocoNet.
  • Development and installation of a CTC system -- Computer Automated Traffic System (CATS), which rides on JMRI.
  • Computer generated block detection information -- Also CATS and JMRI.

That's seven where only three were required!

Sections D and E are all about documentation.... documentation that you should have anyway! I put all of my documentation into a booklet entitled Electrical Operating Instructions, mimicing the prototype, and posted it on my model railroad's web site.

Model Railroad Engineer - Civil

The Civil award has been my first venture that has required significant work.

Section 1 requires a scale drawing of a model railroad. To be clear, it doesn't have to be a "real" model railroad; you could make one up just for this exercise. However, I always wanted a Model Railroadercaliber drawing of my railroad so I endeavored to do it myself. The challenges: The selection and learning curve of the software to do so; and the time to actually produce the drawing for my multi-level layout.

I had tried a few free/open source model railroad programs over the years, plus 3rd PlanIt many years ago. The learning curve was a killer! Back in the day I worked in the publishing industry and had access to Adobe Illustrator, but no more. Then about 18 months ago, while confering with Tom Jacobs over the design of his Reading Crossline, I learned that his design came from Bob Sprague, a frequently published track planner. I "googled" and found Bob's web site and reached out to him.

Bob shared that he was using Microspot's MacDraft, ironically a product I had sold when I was in computer sales in the late 1980s. I had no idea that it was still around; shame on them for poor marketing! I downloaded the demo, kicked the tires, and purchased the product. Never looked back! No, it is not designed specifically for model railroad design, but its intuitive Macintosh interface makes it real easy to pick up. It has extensive scaling capabilities and allows the use of layers which is a "must have" for multi-deck model railroad design.

I've recently published the first revision of the plans on my railroad's web site.

Section 2 requirements are covered in "the grid" (above) and were already built. All I had to do was the ballasting to meet the Civil requirement.

For Section 3, I had to scratch build three pieces of track. My first was a crossing at Milroy which required one route to be curved. The other was the scale track at Lewistown, which features two gauntlet turnouts and a gauntlet track in between. These require merit judging, which has not occured yet.

To potentially help others, I have published "Follow The Build" blogs for both the Crossing and Scale Track projects.

I recently submitted for the Civil award and have been notified that it was accepted!

Master Builder - Cars

For me, this is the most difficult award, and one which I will endeavor to complete after my railroad is entirely up and running.

The requirement is to build eight pieces of rolling stock, of at least four different types (boxcar, flat car, gondola, hopper, etc.) and at least one must be a passenger car. Further, at least four of the eight must be scratch built. Finally four must be merit-judged with a score of 87-1/2 points or higher (out of 120).

So here's the deal: I have no desire, or skills, to scratch build cars. Neither do I have any interest in learning. That said, I plan to build one simple car as a master and clone it via resin casting. It will meet the requirement and it will be ugly!

That said, that means the remaining four must all be merit judged and be of four different car types, including one passenger car. No wiggle room!

As a modeler of the "Standard Railroad of the World", nothing is standard! A lot of rolling stock must be in resin kit form as they were not used by any other railroads and therefore won't attract the interest of commercial production. I have on my shelves over a hundred resin kits from Westerfield and Funaro & Camerlengo that require building. I do them in batches by type.

I currently have in process class X26 boxcars, F22/F23 flat cars, and Bowser N8 cabin cars. To fulfill the passenger car requirement I have a Branchline 8-1-2 heavyweight car that I am super-detailing.

Eventually I will get the required four with the required scores. And when I do, I will have earned my MMR! 

In summary, here's my score card:

  • Golden Spike (complete)
  • Model Railroad Equipment
    • Master Builder - Motive Power (eliminated)
    • Master Builder - Cars (in progress)
  • Settings
    • Master Builder - Structures
    • Master Builder - Scenery (complete)
    • Master Builder - Prototype Models
  • Engineering & Operation
    • Model Railroad Engineer - Civil (complete)
    • Model Railroad Engineer - Electrical (complete)
    • Chief Dispatcher (complete)
  • Service to the Hobby
    • Association Official (eliminated)
    • Association Volunteer (complete)
    • Model Railroad Author (complete)

So if you endeavor to complete the MMR, I hope sharing my approach helps you "compartmentalize" the requirements. A lot of it is a waiting game as you construct your railroad empire, then everything will come together and you will have it. Best wishes!