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.

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…

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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.

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:
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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.