Jim Dufour’s layout on TrainMasters TV

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My friend Jim Dufour is building one of the greatest layouts that you’ve probably never heard of. But now you can see it for yourself.

Jim is faithfully modelling scenes and operations along the Boston and Maine Railroad’s Cheshire Branch in New Hampshire in the late 1940s. He’s doing it in HO scale, in a modest-sized basement. And he’s doing a terrific job of it.

Jim lives in Massachusetts, and earlier this year he hosted an open house in conjunction with the annual Railroad Hobby Show in Springfield MA.

I was not able to attend this year, but I suggested to TrainMasters TV producer Barry Silverthorn that he pay a visit. I’m really glad I did, because the result of that visit is a terrific TrainMasters TV episode showcasing Jim’s layout and his preparations for the open house.

That episode is now online*.

Jim’s layout is one of my favorites on the planet. In my opinion, it has all the elements that make for the best type of layout – and it encompasses many of the concepts that I write about on this blog. Here are some of the things to look for in this episode:

– It has a clearly defined prototype, era and location (something that can also be applied to a freelance railroad). This automatically creates interesting challenges for the layout builder, and it helps make the resulting layout unique from other efforts.

– The layout design is achievable. There were a couple of larger yards on the Cheshire Branch, but Jim instead chose to model the smaller towns in between, with yards represented by staging. The area chosen is possible to model well in an average-sized layout space – with a simple, uncrowded, and realistic track plan that provides plenty of challenge for operators without becoming overwhelming or stressful.

– Instead of going for “more”, Jim is going for “better”. It’s clear that Jim is challenging himself to exhibit craftsmanship and excellence in all aspects of this terrific hobby. These include research… scratch-building structures… accurately modelling locomotives, rolling stock, consists, track arrangements and operations… building believable scenery, including signature scenes… and more.

– There are many things for Jim to build for this layout – things that will provide years of hobby enjoyment. Yet the layout is also manageable enough that he will be able to keep on top of the maintenance that all layouts demand of us. This means his trains run well and his scenery and structures will never look neglected.

– The layout doesn’t need a large crew to bring it to life. It provides opportunities for Jim to enjoy running trains by himself without disrupting the next formal operating session. Yet it can also keep several friends busy during those get-togethers.

It’s great to see Jim’s Boston and Maine Cheshire Branch get this public recognition. I’d love to see more layouts like this featured on TrainMasters TV.

*TrainMasters TV is a subscription service, so you need to be a member to view the episode. But here’s the thing: You can pay by the month, and the first month will cost you just 99 cents. I am confident that the tour of Jim’s layout – which has never been covered in a hobby magazine – is worth 99 cents. Give it a try.

If you like what you see, you can then take a multi-month subscription for as little as $2.99 per month.

New look for Lance’s website

This is good news…

Like many of my readers, I’m a big fan of the work that Lance Mindheim has been doing to encourage hobbyists to build what I call “achievable layouts”. I’ve always been frustrated, though, that Lance’s website and it’s always thought-provoking blog 1) was not searchable and 2) did not support RSS or other means of automatically notifying me when he’d posted a new entry.

Apparently, I’m not alone: As Lance notes in a post from last week, he’s in the process of addressing these by migrating this website engine over to something that includes a WordPress blog (the same blogging engine I use here).

The RSS feed does not yet appear to be active. But I will post an update as part of this post when it is.

I know Lance will be pleased by the change, particularly the ability for readers to follow his blog. I have two following options on this blog and I’m flattered by the number of people who use it to keep tabs on what I’m doing.

Ontario Southland in Feb 2015 Railfan & Railroad

The Ontario Southland Railway is a short line company operating in several locations from Guelph to St. Thomas, Ontario – with a mix of classic short line hauling and industrial park or large industry switching. I was reminded of this when I spotted the February, 2015 issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine:

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Photographer Marcus W. Stevens has written a great feature on snow-plow operations on the OSR. (You can see more photographs by Marcus W. Stevens – including more of the OSR – on the Railpictures site.)

That’s the OSR’s 1907-vintage plow on the cover – yes, more than a century old! – and still wearing its Canadian Pacific black and red paint.

Like many short lines, the OSR has an eclectic collection of equipment (and they list the roster on their website), many of it still in the paint schemes of a previous owner. The article, for example, documents the work of a plow train consisting of an ex-Chessie System GP9 and an FP-9 from the Waterloo & St. Jacobs Railway. Other locomotives wear the OSR’s maroon and cream scheme inspired by the scheme used on the diesels of the Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway (which was absorbed by CP Rail in 1987)

But I digress…

The OSR offers several potential subjects for an achievable layout. Browse through the company’s list of operations and you’ll discover everything from modern rural railroading on the St. Thomas Sub … to in-plant switching (about 100 auto racks per day!) at CAMI Automotive (itself along the St. Thomas Sub)… to industrial park switching in Guelph (with a branch to Campbellville). Depending on location, the OSR has connections with the Canadian National, CP Rail, or both.

(Some portions of the St. Thomas Sub operation are featured on the Branchlines in Tradition DVD which I wrote about elsewhere on this blog.)

Whether one is looking for ideas for a single-industry layout or a modern branch line… and whether one wants to model an urban or rural setting… there’s a lot of possibility in the Ontario Southland, with interesting operations and a model-railroad-ready variety of equipment.

When people ask me for ideas, I’ll certainly suggest the OSR as the subject for an achievable layout. I’d love to see some maps of track arrangements and suchlike, too…

Branchlines in Transition

I recently picked up a copy of a DVD by this name at my local hobby shop. The video was shot by Steve Bradley, whom I’ve met a few times while operating trains at a mutual friend’s place. It’s a fairly short video – at just 42 minutes – but it provides plenty of inspiration for someone looking for ideas for an achievable layout in a modern (1990s) setting. Green Frog Productions, which markets the video, has a teaser video online:


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

Here’s the video description from the Green Frog website:

Take a look at the operation of 5 Southern Ontario branchlines. Shot in the late 1990’s just prior to many branches being taken over by shortlines or having sections partially abandoned, you’ll join the crews, be trackside, aboard the trains, and even ride a plow extra. A great look at how it was, not that long ago.

I found a number of things interesting about the subject presented here.

First, with the exception of one segment – the snow plough run north of Orangeville – the subjects presented are all strong candidates for an achievable layout. (Don’t get me wrong: The snow plough run – the last chapter of the program – is excellent, but for different reasons.)

These were not high-traffic branches and many of the trains featured are quite short, which would lend themselves to modelling in a larger scale such as S or O. And – as I hope I have proven on my own layout – a lightly-trafficked prototype does not have to result in a layout that is boring to operate: It just changes where one must put the focus. And a couple of the prototypes featured here did (or still do) serve auto plants, significant carload generators that also require the railway to switch to a clock. One – the Goderich and Exeter Railway – did a roaring trade road salt as suggested by this photo.

The above photo is appropriate because my second observation is that all five operations featured were shot in winter. I was struck by how this changed the way I viewed the railways in their environments. Snow adds a uniform wash to the scenes, which tones down the colours of structures, scenery and details. The result is a real focus on the railway equipment, which – by virtue of the fact that it moves – tends to be relatively clear of snow. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean – photos I took during a December 2005 trip to Saskatoon:

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(To see more of Canadian railways in winter, search on the word “winter” at the Railpictures.ca database)

I was particularly struck by segments featuring CP Rail diesels in their “Action Red” paint, which positively leap out of the grey surroundings. A layout given this treatment would be the polar (pun intended) opposite of a layout set in the height of autumn, in which railway subjects would be forced to compete with a riot of leaf colours.

That’s not to say the railway equipment is completely clear. Snow has drifted quite deeply onto locomotive walkways and pilots, which would be an interesting modelling project. It’s also caked onto trucks, brake rigging and other details below the frame, which would wonders for highlighting these traditionally dark areas on a model. Things I knew existed below the walkways, but had never really noticed in photos of clean locomotives, are readily apparent with a dusting of the white stuff.

My own layout is set in August and I’m not about to change that. But I’m sometimes asked by others for inspiration, and this DVD has given me some interesting ideas to ponder…

Pine Street :: Robin made my day

I started this blog, in part, as a way to share some ideas for layouts that I’d love to see built.

They’re all prototypes that are achievable – so they can encourage people to get out of the armchair. And they’re all based on real, interesting places – so they can encourage people to try their hand at prototype modelling, which I think can be so much more challenging and rewarding than freelancing.

There’s something magical about bringing a real place to life in miniature – about being able to show others (in and out of the hobby) a photograph of a real location, and how you’ve modelled it, and see the connection being made.

That said, I also realized I was unlikely to build the achievable layouts I share on this blog. I think they’re great prototypes, or I would not have shared them – but I have my own project underway and I can only really build one layout at a time.

So it’s great to see that Robin Talukdar has started building a portable layout after discovering my post on the Canadian National Railway’s Pine Street spur in Thorold, Ontario. Robin actually plans to model another spur on the CNR, between Kitchener and Elmira. But he was looking for something more along the lines of an Inglenook Sidings to build while he finishes his layout room – and the paper mill on Pine Street fit the bill as a slightly more complex Inglenook project.

Robin has posted about his project on his blog on the Model Railroad Hobbyist forums, as well as on his Waterloo Spur blog. It’s great reading – and really made my day to discover that one of my musings is coming to life.

Thanks Robin! I hope to see your work in person some day…

CNR 10-wheelers in 1:48

While reading the just-published November-December 2014 issue of The O Scale Resource, I scanned the ad from the 3rd Rail Division of Sunset Models, and noticed this:

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(Click on the image to visit the 3rd Rail website)

While Sunset’s die-cast line does not always live up to the more discerning modeller’s expectations, I’m pretty impressed by the CPR 4-6-0s they offered a few years ago. And at US$1299.95 each, the price quoted on the reservation page for these CNR 10-wheelers can’t be beat – not when compared to the going rate for most 1:48 brass steam, and not when one considers that these are the only choice for CNR 10-wheelers in O scale.

Sunset’s CNR 10-wheelers will open up many possibilities for those working in O scale to create a steam-era Achievable Layout. In fact, I’ve written about several possibilities on this blog, including:

CNR – Southampton Sub in S (layout plan)

CNR – The Wiarton Spiral (layout plan)

CNR – Waterloo Sub to Galt (concept sketches)

Enjoy if you (re)visit.

Meantime, if you’re interested in these then get your reservations in – and start saving. The CNR 10-wheelers are scheduled to arrive next year.

The Green Line

Two posts on other blogs caught my attention this week.

To start, Marty McGuirk shares a few of the lessons he’s learned from building four large model railways over the past two decades. Click on the image, below, to read more…

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I suspect Marty’s post is, in part, the result of a conversation he and Bernard Kempinski had recently about how layout size/complexity affects happiness in the hobby. Bernie has created a terrific graph that illustrates the relationship. Again, click on the image, below, to read more…

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I’m definitely on the “green line” on that graph – and I suspect most people in the hobby are too. In North America, many publications (and their advertisers) promote the “bigger is better” (red) or “large and complex is the only approach” (blue) lines of thinking. That can lead the new hobbyist to attempt layouts that are beyond their skill level or too demanding of their time, energy and money. There’s nothing quite as discouraging as spending several hours working on a layout and then realizing that the progress made was insignificant, compared to the whole.

Less complex layouts can be of any size – my home layout occupies 15 by 30 feet and if I had twice the space I’d do the same layout. Yet because they’re less complex, they offer measurable rewards after every work session.

I remember building two turnouts in an evening, and realizing I was 1/4 of the way to having all of my turnouts done. That encouraged me to build the remaining six over the balance of the week. Had I been faced with a project requiring, say, 100 turnouts, I might have defied Marty’s observation that “There’s nothing worth watching on television” and spent my time avoiding the task instead of tackling it with enthusiasm, knowing that there was an end in sight.

Why trees are important

That may seem like an odd title for a post on a layout design blog, but bear with me…

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Over the past week, I’ve been building trees for the Lynn Valley area of my home layout. (If you want to read more about this, visit my Port Rowan blog.)

I enjoy building stuff – it’s why I’m in this hobby as opposed to, say, a collecting-driven hobby such as sports cards, coins or stamps. And it’s a good thing that I enjoy building stuff, because there are more than 50 trees in my model of the valley – so far. I’ll need at least that many again to complete the scene:
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With the exception of a few evergreens that I acquired from a friend, I have built all of these trees from basic materials: wire, flexible modelling paste, poly-fiber and leaf material.

I don’t do this because I’m trying to save money on trees, although I just did the calculation and each home-made tree cost me less than $2.50 to create so there’s certainly an argument for doing it oneself.

And I certainly don’t do it to save time because each tree takes one to three hours (spread over three or four days because there’s a lot of drying time involved in crafting the armatures).

Rather, it’s a matter of personal preference.

I’m fussy about trees. I appreciate that to be cost effective, commercial offerings need to be mass produced. But I’m underwhelmed by most commercial trees – not only the ready to plant ones, but also the kits. So to get the trees I want, I have to build them myself.

What do I want? For starters, I feel that each tree has to be custom-crafted to fit the space. What height does it have to be? What shape? Is it in the middle of a forest, or at the edge? Is it near water, or a field, or other open space where it can grow sideways as well as up to catch more sunlight? And does it have a practical role to play on the layout, such as hiding a non-prototypical tunnel or the spot where a river hits the backdrop?

I also feel that trees need to be big – much bigger than we typically model them. And I feel they need to be well done because trees tell a meaningful story to the greatest number of people who see my layout. In fact, I would argue that they tell a more meaningful story than my locomotives. That’s because few people could look at my locomotives and determine whether they’re accurate models of the real thing:

– For those who are not in the hobby, or who know nothing about CNR steam locomotives, the most they could say with certainty is, “Yes – those are steam locomotives”.

– For those who know something about CNR steam locomotives, the most they could say with certainty is, “Yes – those are CNR steam locomotives”.

– Only those few who know a lot about CNR steam locomotives could say with certainty, “Yes – that’s a CNR 2-6-0″.

– Even fewer still could say “Yes – that’s how CNR 80 looked in the era that’s being modelled”.

By contrast, everyone who sees my layout knows what a tree looks like.

– An arborist or avid gardener might look at my trees the way a CNR steam expert looks at my locomotives. And they would probably find fault with my trees, which – I’ll freely admit – tend to be generic.

– But most visitors will find them convincing – more convincing than if I’d followed a quicker, easier method to create my forest. (I know this from the reactions of visitors, as well at how people react when I post scenery pictures to my layout blog or other online fora.)

There are many people in this hobby who will argue that convincing trees aren’t worth spending the time on. I’ll only say that’s a personal decision – and let my tree models argue in my favour.

There are lots of articles telling us how to cover scale acres of landscape with forest using techniques billed as “fast” or “easy” – or both. Again, whether one is satisfied with the results is a personal decision. But for me, trees are a no-compromise item. A convincing tree is worth the time invested.

However, they do take time.

As I noted, I’ve built almost 50 trees for the Lynn Valley area of my layout. That means I’ve invested 50 to 150 hours to build these trees – and yet I’m only half done. Then there are the other areas of the layout, which will probably require another 50 trees – at least, because as every layout builder who has planted trees knows, it requires an astonishing number of them to make a forest.

Not everybody pursues craftsmanship in this hobby. But I try to – and one of the advantages of designing and building an achievable layout is that it has allowed me to invest the time required to build the things I need done right. For me, that includes building convincing trees to frame the scenes through which my trains run.

Along the way, I’ve learned a new technique that has added to my satisfaction with the hobby – a technique I would probably have rejected out of hand as “too time consuming” had I been trying to build a huge layout.

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The wrong way to think about “minimum”

Yeah – “wrong” is a strong word and it’s bound to cause some grief.

But I’ve been designing layouts for myself and others for about 40 years, and based on that experience I would argue that most people in the hobby think about the wrong things when they think about the term “minimum”.

I saw examples of this in several threads I followed online this week. The discussions were on various fora and newsgroups – and they dealt with various scales, gauges, eras and so on. But they all shared a common thought:

The person who started the discussion was trying to figure out how to get away with using a smaller minimum radius or a smaller minimum turnout size for their layout.

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(The largest turnout on my S scale layout – a Number 10 at St. Williams, Ontario – is large enough that it looks like a turnout on a real railway. If ever I build another layout, I will use more of these. My minimum turnout is a Number 7 – a size I only use for freight-only spur tracks.)

Presumably, the people who started these discussions want to maximize the fun factor of their layout by maximizing the amount of layout they can fit into their train room. The theory is that the more track one packs into the space, the more fun the layout will be.

(Track manufacturers certainly like this theory because they sell more track that way. And many of their layout-building customers demand Number 4 and Number 6 turnouts – so those are the most common sizes produced. Fewer manufacturers offer a Number 8 – and I don’t know of any that offer a Number 9 or larger as a ready-to-use product.)

But quantity isn’t the only way to measure the fun in a layout. Instead of trying to determine the minimum radius one can get away with, a better approach – I believe – is to determine the maximum radius one can accommodate. If one insists on considering a minimum, here’s a good place to start:

What’s the minimum amount of trackage I really need to create a satisfying layout?

Real railways maximize curve radius and turnout sizes. Broader curves and larger turnouts translate into higher track speed and less wheel wear. At the same time, real railways minimize the amount of track they build, paring it down to the essentials – because track costs money to build and maintain. A real railway will never use two turnouts where one will suffice.

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(The Number 10 turnout for St. Williams – under construction. Look at how long that frog is, when compared to the caboose.)

Those who are interested in building train sets will continue to focus on minimum track standards, to pack the most track into their available space. But what they’ll end up with is a train set. Even the largest layouts will look like a train set if the curves are too tight and the available real estate is packed to the edges with ties and rail.

At the other end of the spectrum, those who are interested in replicating a real railway in miniature would do well to pay more attention to maximizing their track standards – and minimizing the amount of track they plan to build in their layout space.

There are many good reasons for this approach. But here’s one to think about:

Nobody ever tore down a layout because the curve radius was too large, or the turnouts were too big.

But lots of layouts have ended up in the bin because curves and turnouts were too small.

Zurich: A ghost town you can model

My recent post about the Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge prompted to me to revisit my many books on the three-foot gauge Keeler Branch – and the result is this closer look at what could be done with this prototype in a modest space.

While the SP Narrow Gauge is a small prototype, the two terminals – Laws and Keeler – would require a fair bit of length to model properly. The mid-point connection with the standard gauge Southern Pacific at Owenyo would also be a space-eater. None of them is very complex, however, and I may draw them up … some time.

But let’s start with a more modest undertaking: Zurich, California:
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That’s Zurich in the early 1950s as captured by Bill Poole and found on the Carson and Colorado Railway blog. Click on the image to visit the blog, and consider donating to help the railway restore SP #18 – a 4-6-0 that ran on the Keeler Branch.

As the image suggests, Zurich was a pretty small town in a dramatic setting. Today, Zurich is a bona fide Ghost Town. Desiccated timber, crumbling concrete and a plaque marking the former location of the station are all that remain:
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(Click on the image to read more about the Keeler Branch on the Abandoned Rails website)

But in happier days – the kind we like to model – Zurich generated a respectable amount of traffic for the SP Narrow Gauge. In Southern Pacific’s Slim Princess in the Sunset, author Joe Dale Morris notes Zurich had a 20′ x 46′ depot, plus the following customers:

Blue Star Grinding shipped Talc, Marble, Clay and other products from its plant. Many of these were in bags, shipped in boxcars.
A loading ramp south of the depot was used to load gondolas with talc and soda ash.
The Standard Oil Company had a facility to receive petroleum for the area in tank cars.
The stock pens shipped cattle and sheep in stock cars.

That’s a great variety of car types for such a small place. Here’s how they look when laid out on a layout that’s fairly faithful to the prototype:

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(Click on the image to view a larger version)

In this plan – designed for the O scale enthusiast (in “n3″ or “n30″) – Laws is to the right, while heading left takes one to the transfer yard at Owenyo and beyond that to Keeler. I describe it as “fairly faithful” because the oil dealer spur should actually connect to the mainline between the two double-ended sidings. The way I drew it saves a considerable amount of length without compromising the operation.

Zurich would make for a manageable, but interesting, narrow gauge layout. The modelled portion takes up 17 feet (plus staging to either end, which could be accomplished with a sector plate), which is pretty good for O scale, even O scale narrow gauge. (This same plan could be used for Sn3 in 12′-9″. However, I’d be tempted to keep the layout at 17 feet and add more distance between the structures for an appropriately relaxed presentation.)

I’ve designed Zurich to fit a 24″ deep space, perhaps on top of storage shelves. But if one had more depth then I’d suggest adding 6″ to the back. One could also make the layout 36″ deep, adding 8″ to the back and 4″ to the front. With this kind of depth available, I’d also be tempted to run the main at a slight angle to the front edge for additional visual interest.

And switching Zurich would be interesting too. It’s not a puzzle layout but there’s still plenty to do and not much track in which to do it. Stock cars would have to be moved when switching Blue Star, and in reading about the Keeler Branch I believe that the Laws-bound train would switch the trailing point spurs and leave any pick-ups on one of the double-ended sidings to collect on the return trip to Owenyo.

The wide open spaces and flat terrain around Zurich suggest an high-level layout – perhaps up to the breastbone – while the incredible mountains in the background demand a backdrop with curved corners.

This would be a great layout for the hobbyist who loves to build things. The SP Narrow Gauge is very well documented and the wooden rolling stock and structures lend themselves to scratch-building. What’s more, a high layout with strong lighting would be a great place to display one’s craftsmanship. Finding prototype steam power in On3 will require hunting for a brass 10-wheeler, but Rich Yoder Models has imported the GE 50-Ton diesel “Little Giant” in On3 and On30 – and as reader Bill Uffelman notes, Bachmann’s On30 “Tweetsie” 4-6-0 would work as a good stand-in with some redetailing and the addition of a Whaleback tender from Wiseman Model Services. Backwoods Miniatures also offers a Whaleback tender kit as part of their On30 line.

In Sn3, PBL and Railmaster have done the 10-wheelers (in RTR brass and in kit form, respectively).

Looking for more information? I highly – highly – recommend Joe’s book. It’s out of print, but click on the cover to launch an AbeBooks search:
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