NS&T Layout Design: Head vs Heart

NS&T Line Car 31 at Thorold

(NS&T Line Car 31 at Thorold, Ontario.)

I’m currently considering tearing out my Port Rowan layout and starting over, with a new prototype. There’s nothing wrong with Port Rowan – I like the design, I like how it operates, and I love how it looks. But Port Rowan was always an intellectual exercise for me: It was my first layout in S scale, and it was as much about learning about the scale – what could and could not be achieved – as it was about the layout.

I picked Port Rowan as a subject to model for purely rational reasons: it was simple enough, and small enough, that I could fit it in my space. I could also find all the locomotives and rolling stock necessary to populate the layout with the prototype equipment that ran to Port Rowan.

But I have no emotional attachment to the place. Port Rowan is a lovely small town on the north shore of Lake Erie. But I’ve never lived there. I have no memories of the place.

Many of the best layouts – the most satisfying – are those that speak to us on that personal level. Port Rowan speaks to me about Canadian branchline railroading in the 1950s, but it doesn’t speak to me about anything I’ve experienced first-hand. But if Port Rowan doesn’t… what does?

When I was a teenager, I lived in St. Catharines – the largest city in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Just up the street from our house was a General Motors component plant that was served by a Canadian National spur.

This line was interesting because the trip to GM included a lot of street running – with good reason: the line was built as part of the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, and electric operation that ran throughout the eastern part of the peninsula (with boat connection across Lake Ontario to Toronto). At one time, the GM plant was served by the NS&T, under wire:

NS&T 14 - McKinnons, 1951

(NS&T 14 – a classic GE steeple cab – switches a tank car on Ontario Street, with McKinnon Industries – part of General Motors – in the background)

The NS&T was a remarkable railway – part city streetcar service, part interurban, part industrial switching operation. It was owned by the CNR and ran passenger service until 1959. Electric freight service lasted until 1960, when the wires finally came down and CNR diesels took over.

While I did not experience the NS&T under wire for myself, I did haunt the places where it used to run. I find that the combination of what I remember from my teenaged years, coupled with a lifelong fascination with streetcars and interurbans, is very appealing. It’s much more meaningful to me.

Today, I have an opportunity to model the NS&T in S scale – thanks to the generosity of someone who is already doing that, but at a time in his life when he needs to downsize. I’ve started a blog about this venture – Niagara Electrics in 1:64 – on which I’m currently exploring the railway through images in my collection, with an eye to picking places to model.

The line past the GM plant is an obvious choice for its relevance to my life. But it’s primarily an emotional choice, and I am struggling with the practicality of it as a modelling subject.

McKinnons - Aerial photo 1955

(1955 aerial photo of McKinnons (GM) on Ontario Street in St. Catharines. The main track entered the scene from the east via street running on Louisa. It angled through Woodruffs siding onto Ontario Street. It then ran north to Carleton, turned east to Haig, and ran south on Haig. Spurs also ran behind the portion of the plant on the west side of Ontario Street. Photo from the Brock University online collection.)

There are a number of challenges with modelling this portion of the NS&T:

1 – This would be almost a single-industry layout, with limited car types. I’ve already built a layout where my rolling stock selection is limited – and it would be nice to build something where a larger variety could be justified.

2 – GM was at the end of a spur line, with limited opportunities for other trains to make an appearance. Passenger runs worked through to Woodruffs siding and then skirted behind the GM plant to reach Port Dalhousie – but on a layout, they would make only a brief appearance between two staging areas. Otherwise, Ontario Street would be a one-train layout similar to what I’ve done with Port Rowan.

NS&T at Woodruffs

(NS&T passenger trans at Woodruffs siding. On a layout, this would be the only place where one saw more than one train.)

3 – The prototype track arrangements are awkwardly shaped – the main track curls about a few city blocks, much like a backwards number “6”, with spurs radiating out from it at 90 degrees. This would make it difficult to design into the typical, linear layout space (including mine). At the same time, I am so familiar with the prototype that it will be more difficult to introduce compression and compromise into a layout design in order to make things fit.

So, while there’s a lot of emotional pull to such a layout, it scores poorly on the practical front.

By contrast, a layout based on the NS&T’s operations in Thorold – immediately to the south of St. Catharines – is a lot more logical.

Freight at Thorold depot.
(An NS&T freight motor switches a boxcar near the Thorold depot. The small freight yard can be seen in the distance.)

Thorold has many things going for it as the basis for a layout:

1 – The NS&T’s operations in Thorold were quite compact, and tended to be linear – so easier to fit into a layout space.

Map of the NS&T in Thorold

(Map of the NS&T in Thorold. With an aisle up the middle of the Old Welland Canal, it would nicely fit around three sides of a layout room. Staging would be required in three directions – lower right to St. Catharines, lower left to Niagara Falls, upper left to Welland and Port Colborne. Right click and open in a new window for a larger view…)

2 – Thorold was on the main line – in fact, it was the location of an important junction.

3 – There’s a variety of interesting NS&T facilities to model in Thorold – including a depot, a freight shed, a power substation, a railroad track scale, a section house/speeder shed, and a small yard.

Freight crew with motor 16 working in Thorold yard.

(An NS&T crew switches a car over the scale track in Thorold’s small yard.)

4 – There are interesting scenic features to model – including a portion of an old canal used as a mill race, bridges, some in-street running, and a portion of the main track elevated on trestles behind the downtown.

5 – There are a couple of major industries to generate traffic including a paper mill, plus smaller customers like coal dealers and lumber yards.

6 – I have excellent information about the NS&T in the area – better than I do about its operations elsewhere.

So, Thorold is the practical, logical choice – much like Port Rowan was. And it suffers from the same problem: I have no personal connection to the town. As a teenager growing up in St. Catharines, I never visited Thorold. So if I’m looking to build a layout that speaks to me emotionally, Thorold isn’t it.

The best option, of course, would be to build both places, perhaps on separate decks. Given that St. Catharines and Thorold were separated by the 300-foot rise of the Niagara Escarpment, there’s prototype justification for a (hidden) helix to connect them. But I’m not sure I’ll go that route.

Meantime, I’ll keep Port Rowan where it is, and continue to explore the massive collection of images and other data that I’ve acquired on the NS&T to determine my path ahead. I’ll do that on the NS&T blog mentioned above: If you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll join me there.

From Wabash conveyor belt to SP peddler freights

This is a story about changing track – in pursuit of an Achievable Layout:

I’ve written on this blog before about the Southern Pacific Clovis branch from Fresno to Friant. I thought at one time that I’d build a layout inspired by this branch in Proto:48 – it’s one of my favourite lines. But it just didn’t fit my layout space – and then I discovered S scale, and the CNR line to Port Rowan.

But a friend was unhappy with his layout, and a recent trip to the La Mesa Model Railroad Club in San Diego convinced him of two things:

1 – He didn’t have enough space or regular crew to model Time Table and Train Order operations effectively.

2 – He really liked California railroading.

And then I told him that in addition to my collection of Proto:48 Southern Pacific steam I had three SP moguls, in HO scale – plus kits for cabooses, a station and an engine house.

Well, I don’t have those anymore – and Pierre Oliver has a new project.

“Well, my work here is done…”
– The Model Railroad Enabler

(I’ve turned off commenting on this post. I encourage you to join the conversation on Pierre’s blog!)

Roweham 2018

GWR Logo on Roweham

Once again this year, my friend Brian Dickey exhibited his 7mm (British O scale / 1:43) layout “Roweham” at a train show hosted by the Burlington (Ontario) Model Railway Club. And it’s a measure of the man that for a four-turnout layout, he had four friends come out to help.

John, Brian, Me ready for the punters
(John, Brian and me looking splendid in our white shirts and waistcoats. I normally don’t wear train-boy apparel – but I make an exception for the always stylish Brian. Note the clip-on ‘safety ties’: John has obviously lost his in an incident but he seems okay with that…)

John Mellow, Pierre Oliver, Ross Oddi and I spent a most enjoyable day running several month’s worth of passenger and goods traffic to this branch line terminal. As always, the three-link couplings were a special treat that slowed operations and forced us to think about what we were doing in ways that semi-automatic couplers such as Kadees do not. Brian is constantly adding details and equipment to the layout, and it was nice to see his progress over the past year, too.

Here’s a sampling of photos from the day…

Brian - auto train
(Brian has an auto train in hand)

John and Pierre at Roweham
(John shunts cattle wagons while Pierre looks on)

Me working Roweham
(I’m working a goods train at Roweham, while Brian prepares the next train up line)

Auto train

Auto train

Auto train
(Three views of the passenger train – a 14xx 0-4-2T sandwiched between two auto trailers. This is the first time we’ve run the passenger train in this configuration)

2-6-2T and goods train
(A 2-6-2 tank engine arrives with a short goods train)

Cattle wagon
(A cattle wagon heads up a string of goods stock)

GWR Toad
(A GWR Toad – brake van)

Crane
(The crane in the goods yard, as seen from the rear. This shot was taken after we removed the backdrop while packing up)

Fire buckets
(The fire buckets are a recent addition to the platform. This shot was taken as we were striking the layout at the end of the day – looking through the space normally occupied by the station)

It was great to see so many friends at the show, too. Some had made a trek that would’ve been more than an hour in nice weather – and I hate to think how long in the snow that fell all day. Thanks for coming out, guys – very much appreciated! I was thinking of you as I cleared snow off my truck for the trip home…

FJ Cruiser in the snow

Brian’s next show is Copetown, in just a couple of weeks. I can’t make that one, but I will join the team again in April for the Great British Train Show in Brampton. Maybe I’ll see you there!

From Paris, to Perris: Philippe Cousyn’s San Jacinto – in 1:64

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my all-time favourite layout designs is the AT&SF San Jacinto District. (If you’re not familiar with it, scroll through the filtered posts under this category link.)

I recently learned that Phillipe Cousyn – a talented hobbyist in the Paris (France) area, is modelling the San J – and he’s doing it in 1:64.

Click on the image, below, to visit his blog and enjoy his modelling:

Philippe Cousyn - San J

(And thanks to my friend Jim Martin for the heads up!)

Scott Thornton’s Milan Branch

This is rapidly turning into one of my favourite examples of an Achievable Layout. Scott Thornton is modelling the 12-mile Milan Branch of the Iowa Interstate in HO scale. It’s a modern branch, with a nice variety of customers, and Scott is taking a thoughtful approach to bringing it to life.

Click on the image, below, to visit his website. You’ll find a menu dropdown in the upper right of Scott’s site, where you can access his blog…

Scott Thornton's Milan Branch

Enjoy if you visit!

Wayne Slaughter’s Dominion and New England Railway

It appears to be the season for Achievable Layouts in Proto:48.

I recently attended a local model railway show at which a couple of friends displayed their work-in-progress Proto:48 exhibition layout… and now I learn via Gene Deimling‘s Proto:48 blog of the Dominion and New England Railway. Wayne Slaughter is building what he calls an Achievable Layout in Proto:48.

Click on the image, below, to visit Wayne’s blog:

Dominion and New England

Those working in finescale O have, perhaps, an advantage when it comes to layout design. The desire to model everything accurately – right down to the nuts, bolts, washers, spikes and so on – naturally skews one’s ambitions towards more modest, achievable, layout designs. Wayne’s work is a perfect example. When you visit his blog, you’ll find a carefully conceived layout plan that offers an opportunity for realistic operation and some interesting scenes. You’ll also find many in-progress photos, showing that he’s quickly moving from an idea to a layout.

Thanks, Gene, for bringing this one to my attention – and thanks, Wayne, for sharing your work online: I look forward to following your progress!

David and Mark build a Proto:48 exhibition layout

My friend Pierre Oliver got in touch the other day, and said, “Are you going to the Brampton Model Railway Show on Sunday? Dave and Mark are exhibiting their Proto:48 layout for the first time…”

Well, I hadn’t planned on attending – I’d just been away for a long weekend, doing train things in California – but I wasn’t going to miss this!

Proto48 layout - overview
(An overview of the Proto:48 layout – still very much under construction – at the show)

I met David Higgott and Mark Hill when the three of us – and several others, including Pierre – were part of a group that modelled the Canada Southern Railway as an HO scale exhibition layout using the double-track Free-mo standard. David and Mark had each tackled a portion of Waterford, Ontario – Mark had built the yard, while David did the unique-to-the-CASO-in-Canada track pans for refilling locomotive tenders at speed. I knew they were talking about Proto:48, but I didn’t know they were ready to exhibit. This I had to see.

Mark and David have built a whopping 40 feet of Proto:48 exhibition layout. This is still very much a work in progress – the track has not yet been ballasted, many of the structures are simply mock-ups of printed paper on foam core, the trees need shaping, and so on. But it’s already very impressive!

Handlaid track.
(The track is hand laid, with tie plates and spikes on each tie.)

Proto48 - mocked up industry
(A mocked-up placeholder for a future customer of the railway. Looking at this photo, it’s hard to appreciate that the boxcar is O scale. That building is huge – as it should be!)

Another view of the big building.
(Another view of the big industry at the left end of the layout)

I particularly enjoy the amount of open space they’ve planned into the layout. They decided to put the main track to one edge instead of up the middle (which is more common on today’s Free-mo style modular layouts) to maximize the space for large structures. But then, rather than fill all of that space, they intend to leave much of it as open field, with trees and grass. It’s going to be very realistic, and give the eye places to rest between the vignettes of activity.

Proto48 - open spaces
(An open space to rest the eye. Those are Scale Trees – no longer made – which Dave and Mark found at a local hobby shop at fire sale prices. They’ll get worked on to be made more realistic.)

Another industry.
(Another railroad customer, at the right end of the exhibit. This is also a mock-up.)

I’m very glad I made the trek to the show. This was a highlight for me. While I’m not ready to build 20 feet of module – I’m already overcommitted to the exhibition circuit with my 20+ feet of modules for the S Scale Workshop – I do have some Proto:48 equipment, including steam engines, that may get an opportunity to turn a wheel at a future show. Meantime, David and Mark have plans to expand their layout – including the addition of staging. And maybe they’ll find some more people to join their effort: I saw at least one other person from our CASO days who spent a lot of time running trains with them…

Thanks for exhibiting, David and Mark – it was great to see you both, and you’re onto something big here! I look forward to seeing your progress at future shows…

Train time.
(Train time – Proto:48 style. An RDC makes for a manageable passenger train in O.)

We’ll always have Perris

Perris CA depot - track side

In September, I was fortunate to attend an NMRA regional convention in Ontario, California. After the convention, I had a couple of days to do some sightseeing – and since it was close by, my friend Michael Gross and I visited the restored ATSF train station at Perris, California.

This is a special place for me – and for other students of layout design. That’s because Perris was the signature scene on the ATSF San Jacinto District – a ground-breaking layout plan by the late Andy Sperandeo, published in the February 1980 issue of Model Railroader.

Byron Henderson has written about this design on his blog as part of his Inspirational Layouts series. Click on the layout plan, below, to read what Byron has to say about the San J:

And I’ve contributed my own thoughts on this plan in a post on this blog about how it would work in 1:64. Click on the image below to read more:

We visited the depot on a Sunday afternoon – unfortunately, the museum inside had closed its doors about five minutes before we arrived. That’s okay – it was a busy day, filled with other activities, and it was enough to see the depot in person and take a few photos before moving onto our next stop.

Perris CA depot - back

Why is this layout so important to me, and to others like Byron? There are many reasons:

– Typical designs of the era tended to be packed with track for running and switching. This layout is open and relaxed – there’s a more realistic track to scenery ratio.

– It’s also a point to point plan with an easily accessible staging area: It was meant to be left open, or perhaps hidden behind hinged panels, and was intended as an active staging yard where the layout builder could fiddle cars on and off the layout between operating sessions. Devoting an entire wall to easily accessible staging (instead of a yard hidden under the visible deck) was a radical concept in the 1980s. Making it an active fiddle yard even more so – at least in North America.

– The layout was designed with a strong theme and purpose. Many layouts of the era – especially smaller layouts like this 9×12 foot design – seemed to have operations grafted on after the fact. But the San J had a clear concept. Andy even introduced the idea of using the changing seasons to add variety to the operating sessions, by describing how the harvest season would change the operations on the layout.

The layout was definitely ahead of its time – and, in fact, still stands up to today’s thinking on layout design. All it needs is, perhaps, larger curves and turnouts (and a little more room as a result) but the basic concept and the track plan remains an excellent choice for a model railway.

While it had nothing to do with the layout design, the article itself also included a terrific 3D sketch of the layout in full colour – it looked like it was done with coloured pencils – to inspire the modeller. Here’s a suggestion of the sketch – note the Perris depot in the upper left corner:

It’s great to see that the Perris depot – an important piece of inspiration for thoughtful layout designers – has been saved and is in good condition. While our stop was brief, it was one of the highlights of my trip. (Thanks for the detour, Michael!)

Perris CA depot - postcard view

More progress in Scarborough

 photo ReganLayout-InStreetTurnouts-01_zpsezprlo7t.jpg
(Me and Mark hard at work. Not our best sides!)

On Sunday, Mark Zagrodney and I enjoyed a day-long work session on the CP Rail Scarborough Industrial Track that Regan Johnson is building around the walls of his home office.

I’ve written previously about Regan’s layout, but the recap is that he’s building an HO scale layout that I designed for him a couple of years ago. You can read more about it by clicking on the layout plan, below:

 photo CP-SID-Plan-01-Labelled_zpsv3dwuq0e.jpeg

As I noted in the linked post, I built two in-street turnouts – serving the spurs along the left side of the plan. These are not, strictly speaking, prototypical for the spur line that’s inspired Regan. But I thought the street-running and in-street switching would add significant visual and operational interest, and Regan agreed.

Since they were my idea, I felt it unsportsmanlike to force Regan to tackle the in-street turnouts. Plus, I was curious whether I could build them. So I did – well over a year ago.

 photo InStreetTurnouts-Finished_zpslwh5oarr.jpg
(Click on the image to read about the turnouts)

My goal at Sunday’s work session was to finally install these two turnouts and hook them up to mechanical switch machines. Regan, Mark and I worked together on this and by the end of the day, we had two turnouts ready for the paving crews:

 photo ReganLayout-InStreetTurnouts-02_zpsuhqzphjw.jpg
(The results of a few pleasant hours of spiking and soldering. The black lines denote the edges of the road)

Regan has been very patient, waiting for this work session to take place. But he hasn’t been idle. Almost all of the rest of the track has been installed. In fact, we managed to lay the main through the street in both directions, and link it up to the team track area at the bottom of the plan. There’s only about three feet of track to spike in the upper left corner, and the mainline will be finished.

 photo ReganLayout-InStreetTurnouts-03_zpsto2ebpv9.jpg
(The roadway is 4.5″ wide – or approximately 33 feet in HO scale. That’s enough for a lane of traffic on either side of the track. A couple of truck trailers and a covered hopper demonstrate the clearances and hint at the visual for this area of the layout.)

I’m looking forward to operating sessions on this layout. The street section will be particularly fun, with the switch crew having to tread carefully down the middle of the street, bell ringing and crew ever-watchful for cars and trucks driving too closely to the centreline…