No experience wasted

My friend Chris Mears is building turnouts for one of his friends, and he just posted a wonderful observation about the process on his website. Click on the image of his frog to read more:

Mears-Frog

I’m reminded of my all-time favourite ad for model railway products. Well done, Chris!

(I’ve disabled comments on this post. Why not join the conversation on Chris’ site?)

Model Local in 2020

Model Local

When thinking of what makes an achievable layout, we typically consider things like size, complexity, budget, available models, and so on. But access to information is also an important criteria – and there’s nothing more achievable than walking to your nearest railway line and having a look (from public property, of course).

Even if the line is no longer in existence, exploring the area where the trains used to run can reveal much – and information about local lines can also be found in local libraries, archives and historical societies. All of this is easier if you don’t have to drive across country (or fly across an ocean).

I mention this because my friend Bernard Hellen has written an amazing, inspirational piece about a potential prototype in his neighbourhood. To read more, click on the image at the top of this post – and enjoy if you visit.

While you’re there, have a look around Bernard’s blog, which is about modelling the Quebec Gatineau Railway – a modern short line running between Montreal and Quebec City. It’s worth the time.

(I’m turning off comments on this post: I encourage you to join the conversation about modelling local on Bernard’s blog.)

Fillmore Terminal in January 2020 RMC

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

At the end of November I had the opportunity to work a shift at Fillmore Terminal, the wonderful engine-service-as-layout built by Rick de Candido. I was joined by our mutual friends Hunter Hughson and Regan Johnson. We spent a couple of hours attending to the New York Central Railroad’s finest passenger power – watering, inspecting, coaling, sanding, cleaning the firebox, lubricating, turning and prepping for their next run.

Many of us have engine terminals on our layouts. Unfortunately, many of us use them almost exclusively as a place to store and display our excess motive power. I say “unfortunately” because we’re missing out on a prime opportunity to model real world activity, and learn more about how railroad’s worked. There’s a flow – a dance – that’s required when you have a half-dozen locomotives working their way through the servicing routine. It can be the subject of a dedicated layout, like Rick’s, or a coveted job on a larger layout that includes yards, mainlines, and all that other stuff.

If you would like to know more, Rick has written the cover story for the January 2020 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine:

RMC 2020-01 Cover

While you’re waiting for that to hit the stands (or your mailbox: you do subscribe, right?), here are more photos from our session:

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Thanks again, Rick, for a great session.

I see my taxi has arrived: I look forward to the next time!

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Can you tell me how to get… how to get to Prince Street?

I sure can!

I recently spent some time reviewing posts on Prince Street, the blog written by my friend Chris Mears. He has a lot of thoughtful things to say about layout design that go well beyond “where to put the track”.

It’s safe to say that nowhere else in the hobby will you find a post about layout planning that includes such observational gems as…

“When we draw this way we leave evidence of our humanity in each line each time that line projects past an intersection with another line and in the smudges on the page from stray graphite caught under our hands as we move about that drawing. Those marks connect us through time to those designers and looking at these drawings you see them as each building’s designers did and you share a moment with them.”

… but that’s just the start. You can read more of this fascinating post by Chris, by clicking on the following image:

I can't find this book

If, like me, you’re a lifelong student of layout design then you might also enjoy Chris’ thoughts on breaking out of the classic, rectangular form. Click on each of the images, below, to read more on his blog – and enjoy if you visit!

Cake post image

Broken View post image

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

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!

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

45 Original Track Plans

I don’t often publish reviews but I’m making an exception here.

In track planning books, it’s rare that the plans can be built as presented, because it’s highly unlikely that the reader’s space for a model railway will correspond exactly to the spaces used by the plans the layout designer presents. So, these books should really be judged on their value as inspiration for a modeler to design a layout for their own space.

At the same time, the plans presented should be grounded in reality – they should have realistic curve radii and turnout sizes for the scale and types of equipment to be run, adequate space for structures and scenes, excellent access to all track, aisles that are wide enough to make building and operating the layout comfortable, and so on.

From any measure, Bernard Kempinski has hit the target with his latest book, 45 Original Track Plans from Kalmbach:

 photo BK-45-Original_zpsi5jdqiwm.jpg
(Click on the image to visit the Kalmbach store online)

These 45 plans – never before published – present many great ideas, from small shelf layouts to empires that will fill a large basement or special purpose building. There are also some plans designed to take advantage of popular modular standards, or to be exhibited as self-contained layouts. Truly, there’s something for everyone between the covers.

And for the purpose of this blog, several of the plans would build into what I would call “achievable layouts” – layouts that can be built and operated by one person, with a modest annual investment in time and financial resources, while still providing a lifetime of construction and operating enjoyment. In particular, I encourage people to look at the following layouts (plan number in brackets):

– Canton Railroad (1)
– American Can (2)
– Bear Island Paper Mill (4)
– Menial-La-Tour (11)
– Fort Miles (13)
– Victoria Crater (15)
– West Bottoms (17)
– SNE Air Line (19)
– Ballard Terminal Railroad (25)
– Sunon Motors (26)

The above represent my favourites in the book, because I think they’re all highly achievable layouts. Some are simple shelf switchers, while others fill a modest room.

Some of my favourites would be even better than they already are if they’re built as-is, but in one scale down. For example, the O scale West Bottoms layout (plan 17) is a 10×20-foot U-shaped layout that features 48″ radius curves and #5 turnouts. If one were to do it in S scale (or even HO) on the same benchwork, those 48″ radius curves would look spectacular and the builder could bump up the turnout sizes to a more prototypical #7. At the same time, the structures would be that much more impressive (and could even be slightly smaller, to provide more open space between each). Car capacity would increase, without the need for additional trackage. And so on.

Each plan is accompanied by a photo or two of the prototype (or prototype inspiration) and a description – about a page worth – that provides some background and highlights the key features of the plan. The plans are nicely rendered and the text is very readable – and provides just enough information to start the reader on a Google-powered adventure to find out more about the plans that most inspire him or her.

I particularly like Bernie’s introduction – and recommend that every buyer read it. In about a page, Bernie details his criteria for drawing plans, and they’re good concepts for anyone to adopt when designing their own model railway. Those who do will find their layout gives them maximum pleasure and minimum frustration.

I also appreciate that Bernie has presented a set of plans that cover a wide spectrum of interests.

– As one would expect, there are many examples of traditional steam/diesel transition era railroading, as well as modern railroading. But there are a number of plans based around less-modelled eras, dating back almost to the beginning of railroading.

– What’s more, while most of the plans are of North American themes, there are plans based on prototypes in the UK, Iran, France, Peru – and even on Mars. (This last, while futuristic, is not fanciful: as Bernie notes, it’s based on the ideas presented by Robert Zubrin in the book, The Case For Mars. And Bernie’s timing could not be better, with the book’s publication taking place just ahead of Hollywood’s release of The Martian).

– And finally, Bernie has explored a range of scales – including N, HO, S and O, in standard and narrow gauge formats.

There are many track plan collections that feature layouts that would frustrate anyone who attempts to build them, or result in an unrealistic layout that’s not very far from “toy train under the tree” status. Some designers are notorious for this. Readers of this book will not have that problem. All designs have been created with construction in mind.

If I have any criticism, it’s of the phrase “track plans” in the title. These are “layout designs” – because they consider everything from the placement of structures and key scenic elements, to the availability of the key locomotives and rolling stock required to bring the finished layout to life.

Highly recommended!

The Hidden Blessing of Constraints (thanks, Lance!)

Lance Mindheim has written a terrific post called The Hidden Blessing of Constraints. I wish everybody in the hobby would read it, and heed it.

Lance concludes the post with several pieces of advice. To this, I would add two points (related to each other):

Select a prototype to model: Learning to model what is there will force you to challenge your abilities in a way that freelancing might not, because when freelancing it’s always possible to adapt one’s vision to one’s skills or available product.

Pick a manageable piece of railway to build, so that as you tackle the various skills required you see real progress on your layout.

There are plenty of examples on this blog that satisfy both of these points. If you’re new to this blog, I encourage you to go exploring…