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:
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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:
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(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.

Valid Choices

This morning, after reading a blog posting called Stick To Your Guns by Mike Cougill, I got in touch with Mike and asked, “Is this me?”

Turns out it was not – he was commenting about something that happened to another modeller he knows – but it sure sounded familiar. It hasn’t happened to me a lot – perhaps because I blather on at length about why I’m doing things the way I am – but like the subject of Mike’s post, I have had a couple of readers get in touch to warn me that my layout is going to end in nothing but heartbreak, because I haven’t included enough spurs and industries to provide entertaining operation.

Mike makes a very good point – one completely missed by some people in the hobby:

Advice can be very valuable, when the giver takes the time to understand and respect the choices being made by the receiver.

(At times, I can be as guilty of this as anyone, and will try to do better.)

I do find it curious that so many people in the hobby – at least in North America – continue to promote the idea of a large, multi-deck, basement-filling empire not only as the best choice, but sometimes even as the only real goal anybody should strive to attain. To those with the time, money, lifestyle and enthusiasm to tackle a club layout, I say, “Good luck – fill yer boots!” At the same time, I hope hobbyists in the mega-layout camp recognize this is not the route for everyone. For me, for now, I’m happy trying to do something modest – a very small section of the sleepy branch line to Port Rowan, Ontario – but do it to the best of my abilities.
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(Click on the photo to visit my layout blog)

I will never convince those who worry that my Port Rowan layout will end up in the dumpster due to lack of interest that I’m happy with my layout design. And frankly, if it ends up in the dumpster, So What? It’s happened to layouts I’ve built in the past – and it may happen again. I can’t say. Right now I love what I’m doing but I can’t predict the future as it pertains to my interests in the hobby. Few people can. And nobody – myself included – can predict the things that happen in life that are beyond one’s control, that may influence or even dictate one’s hobby choices.

But I’m not worried about any of that. It’s a hobby – one I care about a lot, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not building fire-fighting equipment or a space shuttle: If I get it “wrong”, nobody dies. And for me, the journey is as important as the result.

Mike – a really thoughtful post. Thanks for writing it. And to my readers, give Mike’s post a read – and then remember to do what you find most satisfying in the hobby, regardless of what the rest of us advise!

The Layout Designer’s Layout Designer

I don’t normally use this venue to cross-promote the podcast I co-host, since this blog is a personal diary about my layout. But on Episode 45 of The Model Railway Show, I speak with Doug Gurin, the founder of the Layout Design Special Interest Group.

Unless you’re a serious student of layout design you may not have heard of Doug, but he’s influenced most of the layout designers you have heard of. Doug’s thinking about layout design goes way beyond what most people do, which is “track planning”. He’s conversant on many topics – from ergonomics to lighting to fascia colours. But it’s Doug’s thoughts about using a layout to tell a story – of a real railroad, in a real place, in a real time – that I find most compelling.

As an example, how would I represent my home layout – the CNR’s Port Rowan branch in S scale – at the dawn of the 20th century? The equipment would change, the track might have some minor adjustments, and there might be some changes to the details on the structures. And that’s where most modellers would call it a day. Doug, however, would want to know how we could demonstrate the culture of the railroad and the spirit of the community.

There might be scenes of prosperity – a well-kept flower garden at the station, railway bridge and building employees giving sheds a fresh coat of paint, section gangs standing by for the train to pass so they can resume trimming the ballast on the right of way. Things like that.

By contrast, in my 1950s version of the branch’s story, I paid a lot of attention to distressing my ties and adding static grass between the rails to reflect its status as a marginal line on which only the minimum amount of maintenance is being performed. There will be no railroad employees painting sheds or tending station gardens on my layout, because that would confuse the story I’m trying to tell those who see the layout. Instead, they might be putting a crude patch on the water tank to stop (or slow) a leak – something essential to keeping the line running, but nothing more.

It was also from Doug that I first heard the concept of “modelling jobs” – something that’s big on my list of ways to make my modest layout entertaining for me and my guests. While Doug did not give me the idea of using fascia-mounted brake wheels and air hoses as operations aids on my home layout, or tell me when and where to use them, it was conversations with Doug over the years that fostered my interest in finding ways to help model the jobs of railroading in miniature. And that’s what made me consider fascia tools in the first place, and then research how brakes are used during switching so I could emulate that.

In our interview, Doug and I talk about many things related to layout design – from the origins of the LDSIG, to considerations for the layout designer that go beyond track planning, to areas in which Doug feels we could do more. I hope you give it a listen, because I always come away from a conversation with Doug having learned something that has changed my approach to the hobby – and I’m sure you will too.