Juice Jacks at the Train Show

Earlier this month I spent a Saturday with my good friends Chris Abbott and Mark Zagrodney at the annual Greater Toronto Train Show. This show has grown over the past several years to take over three buildings at a fairgrounds north of the city. There’s always something interesting to see – and an opportunity to catch up with fellow modellers from around southern Ontario. (I was so engrossed with the show, I forgot to take pictures – if only there was a handy camera that I could fit in my pocket – but my friends Stephen Gardiner and David Woodhead came through with photos for me: Thanks guys!)

SN 650 - Train Show Test Run
Test-running one of my two Proto:48 Sacramento Northern steeple cabs.

A highlight for me was spending a bit of time (not enough time!) with David Higgott and Mark Hill – two talented modellers I’ve known since we were all in the Canada Southern Free-Mo group about a decade ago. Dave and Mark decided to work on an exhibition layout in Proto:48 (finescale O) and now have a classic “through station to double-ended staging yard” display measuring (at a guess) 20×50 feet. There’s still a lot of work to be done on this layout but the potential is huge, and it was great fun to run some 1:48 trains.

Proto48 - Toronto Train Show 2019
Dave Higgott – at right – talks with another Proto:48 enthusiast, Robin Talukdar. Mark Hill is third from right talking with another show visitor.

Dave and Mark even let me bring along and test my Proto:48 Sacramento Northern steeple cabs. At home, I have only three feet of test track in Proto:48 – not really enough to put these lovely models to work – so it was wonderful to let them stretch their legs. The layout is about four feet off the floor, so these O scale models were right up at eye level, where I could appreciate their mass and their detail.

(I wrote about this Proto:48 layout when Dave and Mark debuted it two years ago.)

While the layout is large, the plan is simple enough that two guys (with some help) are able to build it and exhibit it. They’ve focussed the details, such as their hand-laid track with tie plates, on the visible front section – and have used flex track (yes, in Proto:48) for the staging areas to speed construction.

Another highlight was seeing a small 7mm scale (British O – 1:43.5) layout based on the narrow gauge railways of India. The exhibitor – Lloyd Pierce – had a Darjeeling Himalayan Railways steam engine built from an EDM Kit, plus a wonderful collection of scratch-built diesel locomotives, passenger carriages, freight wagons, and other goodies – even a rail bus.

Darj layout - Toronto Train Show 2019

Darj layout - Toronto Train Show 2019

This layout was quite small, but obviously very satisfying for the owner – and is an excellent layout for showing off his exquisite models of a prototype that really stands out from the crowd at a Canadian train show. Lloyd and I talked about the challenges of modelling a prototype that’s so far away, about how he gets his information and about the state of railway preservation in India. I learned a lot in a very short time.

Both layouts on display are still works in progress, but more progress is evident each time I see them. I can’t wait to see what’s new next time!

About those Juice Jacks…

I’ve been going through old projects that are half-finished, and finishing them. It feels good.

I recently wrote about updating my O scale model of the 1921 Mack Switcher. Here’s another project I’ve been working on: two O scale Sacramento Northern steeple cabs. I now have DCC+Sound in the first one:

(You can also watch this video directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

These are important models to me. I have a lifelong fascination with traction and interurbans, heavily influenced by the writings and photos of Robert Hegge. I’ve written about that on this website before – see California Juice Jacks for more.

Given that history, it feels really good to be working on these…

About that Mack…

Mack 33T - Painted

Back in November – I can’t believe it was that long ago – I posted about an O scale model I own of a Mack 33 Ton switcher. I then put the model – still in lifetime brass – on a shelf in my workshop and forgot about it.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I happened to spot the model and my inner Imp of the Perverse whispered, “You really ought to paint that, you know…”

So I stripped it down, primed it and painted it:

Mack 33T - Components
(The Mack switcher, separated into three components. The cab interior is still in primer at this stage)

I’m sure the prototype was basic black, but I sprayed my model with Tamiya Dark Iron. This is a colour I love – it has a whole lot going on in it, and it really brings out details. As the lead photo shows, I used an emery board to carefully remove the paint from the “MACK” sign and from the emblems on each hood. The couplers – from Protocraft – are finished with Neo-Lube. I need to give them another coat.

When I took the locomotive apart, I discovered this nice little tag installed by the builder – the late Lee Snover:

Mack 33T - 52 of 54

For now, the model is finished. But already I plan to do more. I’ve ordered four 30″ wheels from Jay Criswell at Right-o’-Way so I can convert this model to Proto:48. This will allow me to run it with other 1/4″ scale models in my collection, and run it on the layouts of a few friends in the area.

I also plan to add DCC with an electronic flywheel (capacitor), additional pick-up wires, and sound. And, of course, install an engineer and window glass.

I’ll return to this project when I have collected the rest of the materials I require. But already, I’m glad I’ve made progress – and it has me looking around the workshop at other “someday projects” that it’s past time to tackle…

SP 1010 at work in California

I’ve written a feature about modelling an HO scale Southern Pacific SW1 for Railroad Model Craftsman magazine:

SP 1010 switches Clovis
(Not a photo for the article: note the derailed truck on the PFE refrigerator car. Oops.)

This is my contribution to operating sessions on the SP Clovis Branch being built by my friend Pierre Oliver. As part of preparing the materials for this feature, I needed a photo of the finished locomotive doing its thing – and it seemed only appropriate that I do that on the layout for which I modelled the engine. So yesterday I descended on Pierre’s basement with SP 1010 and piles of camera gear.

It has been a long time since I’ve taken photos for a magazine, and my skills are rusty. There’s a process I go through when shooting a photo – for example, checking the four corners of the viewfinder for undesirable elements such as shadows that may have crept into the background, and checking that all wheels are on the track. Obviously, I forgot about this – a number of images I took, including the one above, had derailed equipment in them.

Unfortunately, derailed equipment is always the first thing I see when a photo is in print in a magazine, and it’s usually hard to fix derailments in PhotoShop. To further complicate matters, Pierre lives 2.5 hours down the highway from me, so it’s not like I could just shoot replacement pictures – not without another full day of travel.

Lesson learned: remember my mental check lists. I’ll do better next time. The good news is, I did manage to get a shot that will work for the article, so the day’s objective was achieved.

The feature is scheduled to appear in the June, 2019 issue of RMC:

RMC June 2019 Cover

While at Pierre’s we did some other stuff too. We discussed the location of the scale track in Friant – something that has been bothering us both pretty much since I drew the layout plan for his California adventure. We also decided on locations for throttle plug-in panels, and discussed what sorts of structures should line Tulare Avenue in East Fresno – a place where the Clovis branch went down the middle of the street.

Before leaving, I wandered about the layout room, admiring Pierre’s progress. I can tell that he’s really enjoying this layout – more, I think, than his previous effort (The Wabash through Southern Ontario) – because every time I visit, there’s more done. A lot more.

Pierre has almost finished the two-stall engine house for Fresno (a visible staging area). In reality, the Fresno engine house was a huge affair, but this laser cut kit for the SP’s engine house at Port Costa, California is just too nice to not have on an SP layout, and it will nicely keep the dust off Pierre’s modest fleet of 2-6-0s:

Fresno engine house - front

Fresno engine house - rear

At the other end of the line, Pierre has installed a lovely water tank and SP standard station at Friant:

Friant - Water Tank

Friant - Station

And that scale track? Based on descriptions and photos in Serving the Golden Empire – Branch Line Style, the Joe Dale Morris book that inspired this layout, we’re almost certain that it was located to the left, on the track closest to the station. At least, we’re certain enough that that’s where we’ll put it. And a scale track – or two – will be my next project for Pierre. Stay tuned…

One of Pierre’s cats loves to hang out when we’re working on the layout, which reminds me of another rule of layout photography: always close your cases when you’re not using them:

The Cat in the Case

Minimum Space Mack

Mack 33T switcher

What do you do if you like large scales but don’t have lots of space? Adjusting your goals to embrace large models of small prototypes is one approach.

Years ago I picked up this delightful O scale model. It’s a 1921 Mack 33-Ton switcher, produced in brass by Lee Town Models. As the Canadian two-dollar coin shows, it’s tiny – less than 4.5″ over the footboards. Despite its diminutive stature, the model has a can motor between the frames and runs beautifully, while the brass construction gives it plenty of weight. And while I haven’t yet attempted it, I suspect there’s plenty of room belowdecks to squirrel away a LokSound Select Micro, a pair of ESU sugar cube speakers, and a TCS Keep-Alive module – my favourite configuration for DCC and sound these days.

But what does this have to do with layout design? Obviously, a 4.5″ long locomotive doesn’t need a lot of room to manoeuvre. More importantly, the prototype – featuring chain drive and a pair of 40 HP engines – wouldn’t be expected to pull a whole lot or conquer grades: It’ll look right at home trundling about with one or two cars in tow.

While it’s not necessary to build a small layout for a one-car or two-car train, such an endeavour can become a showcase for fine model-building. It also provides the opportunity to think outside the box. Over on his Prince Street blog, my friend Chris Mears has been developing some ideas for small layouts that do just that, using innovative benchwork configurations. Examples include The Broken View / The Overlap and The Matchbox.

Finally, the Mack switcher is not the sort of unit one expects to find in wide open spaces: Critters like this would’ve worked in mills or factories as in-plant switchers. That suggests a layout built around such a locomotive would feature vertical scenery – brick canyons and concrete silos – which would trade real estate for air rights. An example of “going tall” – in O scale no less – is 13th and North E, an urban cameo by Mike Cougill. The Mack 33-Ton switcher would look right at home in Mike’s warehouse-dominated environment.

Hôpital St. Jean de Dieu Railway

In September, I hopped a train to Ottawa with some friends to explore the Andrew Merrilees Collection at Library and Archives Canada and came back with a number of photographs that could inspire models – or, even, achievable layouts. There were many oddities to be found in the collection, including the one shown in these two photos:

Saint-Rahael Tram

Saint-Rahael Tram

As the name on the front implies, this is Saint-Raphael – a tram engine that operated on the Hôpital St. Jean de Dieu Railway – a hospital and asylum in the Montréal area. The hospital also had a standard gauge electric railway that connected the facility to the outside world.

Some searching online turned up a brief article about the railway on the Old Time Trains website. It includes a couple more photos of the tramway and is worth a look. Googling the hospital will also turn up some other sources.

Tramway-Wiki
(Postcard of the tramway: “Having a great time – wish you were here” doesn’t seem appropriate somehow…)

Plan of the hospital
(A drawing of the hospital, showing the electric railway that connected it to the rest of the world. The sprawling nature of the complex makes apparent the need for the narrow gauge tramway, which would’ve run up the corridors of the two wings of wards along the top of the map. I suspect it also ran down the middle row of buildings to connect with at least one of the standard gauge electric lines: it would make sense that it would service as much of the hospital as possible…)

It would be an interesting challenge to model such a line – given that it operated inside the buildings. From my days as a co-host on The Model Railway Show, I know of at least one person who has done something similar: John Landis built a 7/8″ scale layout based on the Illinois Tunnel Company Railway that ran under the streets of Chicago at one time. (You can still listen to our interview with John: check out the guide to Episode 42 for more.)

Whether you want to model a hospital/asylum railway is entirely up to you…

The Electric Snowplow and other goodies

I recently explored the Andrew Merrilees Collection at Library and Archives Canada* and came back with a number of photographs that could inspire models – or, even, achievable layouts. Here’s are a couple of examples, from the Toronto & York Radial Railway – an electric line that became an integral part of what is today’s Toronto Transit Commission:

Toronto York Plow 5

This plow begs to be modelled, using one of the classic Ambroid wooden kits that are available in various scales as a starting point. In fact, I’ve already used one of these Ambroid kits to model a CNR plow in S scale, which I’ve detailed on my Port Rowan in 1:64 blog. (I enjoyed that experience, so I’m seriously considering acquiring another of these kits to build this plow – because it’s just so darned neat.)

I’m fascinated by the trolley poles. I suspect they were required to activate signals. But they could also be there to power an onboard air compressor to lift the flanger blades at crossings. On a non-electric line, that air is supplied by a locomotive – which would also supply propulsion. But this is an electric line, so maybe they took advantage of that? Fortunately, one doesn’t need to know the answer to model The Electric Snowplow and have a wicked conversation piece.

The Toronto & York has a lot to offer a modeller looking for a layout subject under wire – including a plethora of interesting equipment. Here’s another piece of arresting snow-fighting equipment from the line – again, via the Andrew Merrilees Collection.

Toronto York Radial Railway rotary plow

Wow – a Toronto & York Radial Railway (Metropolitan Division) double-ended rotary snow plow, under wire. And with no protection across the blades. Can you image the potential for mayhem on city streets? An unknown photographer shot this image in 1905. According to notes on the back of the photo, the plow was built by J. Coghlan Company and T&Y purchased it secondhand in 1904. The photo was taken on Yonge Street, at the GTR Belt Line Subway, outside the old T&YR Mount Pleasant shop in what is now north Toronto. The gentleman is identified as Joseph Middlebrook.

The Toronto electric lines rostered fascinating equipment for use in the warmer months, too:

T&Y Weedkiller

T&Y 1

These two pictures were taken at the TTC’s Hillcrest shops at Bathurst Street and Davenport Road in Toronto. Note the weed killer spraying arms on the front (left) end of the flat car, and the hose or air line emerging from the side of the hood on the locomotive and connecting to the flat car.

I don’t have details on the steeple cab photo, but the image of it with the weed-killing car was taken on June 6, 1928. Notes on the back of that photo say this car was used on the Lake Simcoe Radial Line between 1928 and 1930.

WK-921 was originally a Toronto & York Radial Railway car of the same number, and was scrapped in November 1931 at the Schomberg Junction Wye. Locomotive number 1 was renumbered LM-1 on February 7, 1931 and sold to Noranda Mines Limited in February 1938.

*Earlier this month, I joined my friends Jeff Young and Peter Foley on a visit to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa to do a dive into the astonishing Andrew Merrilees Collection. (Thanks to both gentlemen for helping to make my first visit to the archives a successful and enjoyable journey of discovery.)

Drawing on a finding aid compiled by Ottawa-area railway historian Colin Churcher, I was searching primarily for images of the Niagara St. Catharines and Toronto Railway and its predecessor lines. As part of the Merrilees collection at LAC, these are free to distribute with proper attribution, so I’ll be sharing my findings on my NS&T blog as time permits. But there were a number of wonderful photos that I couldn’t resist capturing while I was at the archives, and I’ll share those here. To that end, I’ve created the Andrew Merrilees Collection category, so readers may find all posts related to this incredible archive of railway history.

Breaking ground on Liberty Village

Doug, Ryan and Stephen building benchwork.
(Doug Currie, Ryan Mendell and Stephen Gardiner assembling some of the trickier bits of the benchwork)

On Saturday, some friends and I collected tools and paid a visit to our friend Stephen Gardiner to get a start on benchwork for Stephen’s new project – an HO scale layout based on the Liberty Village area of downtown Toronto.

Rather than duplicate the report here, I’ll direct you to Stephen’s excellent blog, Musings on My Model Railroading Addiction. You can read his report – and contribute to the conversation – by clicking on the image below:

Circular Saw Society

A great time was had by all – and it was wonderful to take part in the first steps to a new, achievable layout. I’m glad I could help!

Full Circle!

My friend Trevor Hodges in Australia models in O scale, and has reached an important milestone on his layout with the completion of the mainline:


(You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy larger formats)

I know he’s been working on this layout for quite a while now and getting the mainline up and running is always an achievement. Congrats, my friend!

You can follow Trevor’s progress on his Morpeth in O Scale blog. Enjoy if you visit.

ProtoThrottle: A game-changer

ProtoTrottle and box

Layout designs are influenced by many choices. Typical ones include favourite scale, favourite era, favourite prototype and favourite theme. Sometimes, layouts are designed and built because a manufacturer has produced a piece of favourite equipment – some examples include the many O scale railroads inspired by the Maine two-foot gauge lines, but built in On30 to take advantage of Bachmann’s 2-4-4T Forney locomotive.

I expect that we can now add to those influences, a favourite DCC throttle.

Scott Thornton, Michael Petersen and Nathan Holmes have teamed up to create the ProtoThrottle, which is manufactured and sold through Iowa Scaled Engineering, co-owned by Michael and Nathan.

This is a wireless DCC throttle that replicates common functions on a diesel control stand in a realistic manner. Instead of a speed knob, there’s a throttle handle that provides eight notches plus idle. Instead of a toggle or push button, there’s a three position reverser handle. Instead of assigning a function button to the brake, there’s a progressive brake handle with built-in resistance. Instead of a button for the horn, there’s a spring-loaded handle. And so on. The controls are mounted on an aluminum anodized faceplate with clearly engraved markings, as shown in the lead photo.

These throttles started shipping in early July and mine arrived this week. To connect to a DCC system, it requires one of two types of receiver – one for NCE and Lenz systems, and one for Digitrax, ESU and JMRI installations. (I ordered one of each since I own both an ESU system and a Lenz system.)

What does this have to do with layout design? A lot.

The ProtoThrottle team started taking pre-orders in April, for a run of 150 throttles. (I suspect those sold out quickly. If so, I suspect another run will be done, soon.) Now, people who placed pre-orders are receiving their throttles and hooking them up to their layouts. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

For such a sophisticated piece of equipment, set-up is relatively straightforward. It’s not completely plug and play: depending on your DCC system, you may have to adjust some configurations on the receiver, but the instructions walk the user through that.

And if you’re still having trouble, there’s an excellent online user group. Based on the posts to the ProtoThrottle IO group, there have been a few teething issues – some involving set-up and the tweaks one must make to the receiver to interface it with one’s DCC system, others involving tuning DCC decoders from various manufacturers to optimize how they respond to the ProtoThrottle.

But Scott, Michael and Nathan are part of the user community. They have been wonderful about sharing progress on the development of these, and are now doing an amazing job of helping customers get up and running. They are assisted by the many customers who have successfully set up their throttles – and are now doing a terrific job helping others get onboard. They’re not just answering questions: They’re shooting and sharing videos showing how to set up the throttle or configure various brands of decoders.

The best part is, those who are now running trains using their ProtoThrottle are sharing glowing reviews. As expected, it’s changing the way they run their layouts – for the better.

And this is where layout design comes in.

The combination of this control stand and today’s DCC decoders – which deliver exceptional motor control and impressive sound – kind of screams out for a shelf-style switching layout in one of the larger scales, such as O.

A four-axle road switcher – a GP-9, RS-11, or RS-3, for example – would have plenty of space for a large speaker, and in O scale it would be large enough to really convey the mass of the real thing.

A shelf-style configuration, mounted high on the wall, would ensure that viewers are always up close to the action.

And the use of hand-thrown turnouts (perhaps controlled by garden scale switch stands) and prototype-action couplers (such as these ones offered by Protocraft) would put the operator right in the scene.

What better way to run such a layout than with a miniature control stand?

Proto Throttle - Port Rowan

Even a small locomotive – such as this S scale GE 44-Tonner on my Port Rowan layout – will be more fun with this control stand. While my home layout is definitely set in the steam era, I do have a couple of pieces of motive power run by internal combustion engines – and I think they’ll be seeing a lot more track time once I set up the ProtoThrottle. I’m looking forward to it!