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…

Jim Dufour’s layout on TrainMasters TV

 photo JimDufour-TMTV_zpsrgohgcgs.jpg

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.

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…

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…

 photo MartyMcGuirk-BlogHeader_zps323ff4cb.jpg

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…

 photo USMRR-BlogHeader_zps4ff8dbc1.jpg

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.

Jim Dufour’s B&M Cheshire Branch

This is one of my all-time favourite layouts, and definitely qualifies as achievable. Jim Dufour is building a slice of the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Cheshire branch through New Hampshire in HO scale.

Jim’s layout is basement-sized, but doesn’t fill the basement. There’s plenty of space for people as the layout hugs the basement walls. Jim resisted the temptation most people would have to pack the space with large yards, roundhouses, and major towns. Instead, he is modelling – very, very well – a couple of smaller places on the line.

At the west end, there’s Joslin. A depot, a passing siding, and a spur behind the station. Heading east, there are a couple of spurs before reaching a passing siding and station at Webb.

Continuing east on reaches the main town on the layout – Troy. Here, one finds a depot, a couple of other railway structures, and a couple of spur – one of which acts as a team track. There’s also a lap siding and double-ended siding serving the freight house. All very modest.

Next up is Fitzwilliam, with a siding and two spurs, surrounded by a depot, freight house, and a section house.

The last location modelled is State Line, with a depot and freight house on a passing siding. From there, it’s back to staging.

Notice the consistency from town to town: each has a depot, some have a freight house. Some have a spur or two for switching.

As you’ll see in the videos below – shot by our mutual friend David Haney during a recent visit to Jim’s layout – the places look right. There’s space where space should be. There’s great attention to detail. And the best part is that since this is still a layout under construction, there’s much more to come.

Jim’s layout is proof that an achievable layout can also be an excellent one. I always look forward to following Jim’s progress.

Thanks, Lance!

I got a big spike in traffic recently, thanks to a lovely shout-out by well-known author and layout designer Lance Mindheim. If you’re here because you read the August 31st posting on Lance’s blog, then welcome!

Lance and I both have interests and commitments beyond model railroading, and we think the same way about how a hobby should fit into the rest of our lives without becoming overwhelming. At the same time, we also see eye to eye on the value of model railroading as a medium through which we can challenge ourselves. This hobby is an excellent way to learn new things and push our abilities – and if we don’t do that, I feel we’re squandering a great opportunity.

Lance approached me recently about using a couple of photos for a blog posting he was working on. Even so, his kind words came as a delightful surprise.

The photos Lance used in his blog post show two scenes on my home layout, which depicts the Canadian National Railway’s branch line to Port Rowan in S scale. The first, by my friend David Woodhead, shows another friend – Keith Stamper – observing the progress of a freight extra through the Lynn Valley. The second photo shows an overview of the branchline terminal at Port Rowan. You’ll find lots more about the layout on my Port Rowan blog. Click on the scene of St. Williams, Ontario (below) to visit:
 photo StW-Trees-03_zps0fe33cdc.jpg

Thanks, Lance – and keep up the great work!

James McNab’s Grimes Industrial Track

Many of my layout ideas are for steam-era branch lines or short lines because that’s the style of layout-building with which I’m most familiar. But there are many great examples of prototypes for achievable layouts in the modern world, too.

Even though today’s railroading is characterized by big motive power and long trains hauling commodities and intermodel traffic over vast distances, there are still plenty of examples of prototype crews spending their work day with a single locomotive, shuffling cars for a handful of customers across a territory that would make a terrific, manageable layout.

Here’s one – not presented to encourage others to imitate what the layout builder is doing, but rather to inspire hobbyists to consider the many advantages of an achievable layout design, especially one based on a prototype that still exists and is therefore relatively easy to research.

James McNab lives in Iowa and models the Iowa Interstate Railroad’s Grimes Industrial Track in HO scale in a 12′ by 18′-8″ space. He’s set the layout in 2008, and as the name implies it’s a switching operation set in a suburban area – in this case Des Moines, but with minor changes to details such as street signs, billboards and vegetation, it could be Anywhere, North America.

The layout is modest – with fewer than a dozen track switches and a one-train-per-session operating scheme. But James is observing prototype practices to enhance the operating sessions, he’s doing an exquisite job of detailing the layout, and he’s creating a wonderful environment in which to enjoy the hobby:
 photo JamesMcNab-01_zpsca49cf87.jpg
(Click on the image to visit James McNab’s blog at Model Railroad Hobbyist)

I interviewed James earlier this year for an episode of The Model Railway Show – the podcast I used to produce and co-host. You can listen to that interview as part of Episode 47. You’ll also find links on that page to James’ YouTube channel and photo gallery, which includes a layout plan.

Many things about that interview stick with me, months later, so I encourage you to give it a listen (or, a repeat listen if you heard it when it was first broadcast). But one of the lessons from that interview is that James first became interested in the Grimes Industrial Track while working within sight of the line – proving that inspiration can be practically under one’s nose.