Ringing in 2020 on the Clovis branch

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Tarpey

Extra 1736 moves a refrigerator block through under-construction vineyards en route to Clovis

On Saturday, my friend Pierre Oliver hosted the first formal operating session on his HO scale model railway, based on the Southern Pacific Clovis Branch between Fresno and Friant, California. Pierre invited four guests – myself, Stephen Gardiner, Robin Talukdar and Hunter Hughson – to take part in the Clovis Branch shakedown run.

It went well. Very well indeed!

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

The day starts in Fresno – represented by this scenicked staging area. Pierre powers up the engine service tracks at the far end while Robin and Hunter check their paperwork

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

Two views of the engine service area in staging (Fresno). I brought along my Southern Pacific SW-1, which I described in the June 2019 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine

Pierre had set up two trains: the regularly-scheduled way freight would work the entire line, while a seasonal special would switch the various produce-packing houses in East Fresno and Clovis. Robin and Hunter had run a reefer extra during an earlier visit so they took the way freight, while Stephen and I teamed up on the packing house job.

The session ran just under four hours and was impressively trouble-free for a layout that’s so early in its operating life. Pierre gave us a quick pre-session briefing – explaining the throttles, the car forwarding documents, and the very simple traffic control scheme – and then we got to work.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

Robin ties his 2-6-0 onto the way freight in Fresno

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - East Fresno

The way freight rolls through East Fresno, between packing houses and the small interchange yard with the Fresno Interurban

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Las Palmas

Hunter and Robin switch Las Palmas while Pierre hovers over Tulare Avenue (on the far side of the backdrop)

The schedule called for the way freight to leave Fresno first, switching Las Palmas and Tarpey en route to Clovis, where it would leave a block of cars to work on the return trip. The reefer extra would be held until the operator at Clovis reported in that the way freight was headed out of town, then head out to East Fresno to switch a row of packing houses there before travelling to Clovis. Once at Clovis, the reefer extra would own the track: the way freight would be held in Friant until the reefer extra was headed back to Fresno.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - East Fresno

With the way freight clear of Clovis, the reefer extra has rolled to East Fresno. Stephen is the engineer on this train, while I took on the conductor’s duties. Here, Stephen is backing a string of reefers towards three packing house customers

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Friant

Meantime, having switched the gravel pit at Rockfield, the way freight has arrived in Friant. Robin is weighing the gravel loads on the scale, located to the left of the station

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Friant

A look at Friant – including a section house, the scale track, and station. I scratch built the scale for Pierre

There was plenty of time in the schedule for each crew to pause, take photos, and watch what the other crew was up to. The trains were respectable: I didn’t count cars on the way freight, but the packing house extra for which I donned the conductor’s cap had 16 reefers in each direction. Even so, the trains were dwarfed by Pierre’s large but simple layout: there was a real feeling of going places as we trundled past line side structures, down the middle of Tulare Avenue, across grasslands, and through vineyards on our way to Clovis.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Maltermoro

Our switching finished in East Fresno, the reefer extra exits Tulare Avenue and rolls into Maltermoro

Our work – mostly in Clovis – was challenging without being artificially complex: There were no puzzles or “gotcha” moments, providing one planned one’s work. (With about 20 identical-looking reefers to move about in Clovis, I wrote a switch list on a scrap of paper taped to a piece of styrene sheet and that kept me out of trouble.)

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

On arrival in Clovis, we drop our cut of empty reefers in a clear track and grab the caboose. We’ll take it up the line to spot it out of the way at the station

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

Towing one empty past our caboose and the Clovis station, en route to United Fruit. This is our only trailing point switch here, so we’re getting it out of the way first

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

We’re hauling a cut of loaded cars down the Clovis main, between packing houses and the ice deck. The real Clovis did not have an ice deck but Pierre wanted the modelling and operating challenge of one so we included it on the plan. It’s a fine addition!

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

The switching in Clovis proceeds apace. Stephen and I designated the left track – in front of the packing houses – as the place to collect loaded reefers that will need to be iced. The ice deck siding holds our empties, destined for the packing houses. Once we’ve emptied that track, we’ll grab the loads and spot them for top icing. We started with 10 reefers for Clovis, so it looks like we’re halfway done with today’s work

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

While the loads were iced, we retrieved our caboose and tucked it onto the far end of the cut of reefers. Here, we’re all done in Clovis and Stephen is starting our journey back to Fresno. We’ll pick up a cut of reefers in East Fresno on our way back to the yard

This is what an operating session should be. It was fun and engaging, challenging without being stressful, and at the end of the day I felt like I’d experienced a day in southern California in 1951. On a personal note, having had a hand in designing this layout, I was very pleased that it performed as I expected it would.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

Stephen and I enjoy some railfanning as Hunter and Robin arrive in Clovis from Friant, with their train of weighed gravel

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020

Stephen has our reefer extra headed towards Las Palmas (left side of the aisle) while Robin and Hunter (barely visible behind Robin) ponder their work in Clovis

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Clovis

Hunter and Robin switch a customer in Clovis

As the photos show, Pierre is making excellent progress on a large (although simple) layout that he started less than two years ago. Already, the scenes are coming together and they’ll only get better as more structures and ground cover, trees and details are added.

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Tulare Avenue

Running tender-first, the reefer extra trundles past the under-construction homes on Tulare Avenue en route to East Fresno

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Las Palmas

Hunter and Robin switch the future home of Gallo Winery in Las Palmas

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

We’re home again! Putting on our yard crew hats, we will pluck the caboose off the end of our reefer block and spot it on the caboose track before heading to the engine house in Fresno

Thanks to Pierre for hosting… to Stephen for being my engineer… to Robin and Hunter for the company… and to Kate for the wonderful post-session dinner. That was a pretty grand way to start the year – we’ll have to do this again!

(For other perspectives on the day, you can read posts by Pierre, by Stephen and by Hunter on their websites.)

Pierre Ops - Jan 2020 - Fresno

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

Serving the Golden Empire – one black line at a time

Last Wednesday, I visited my friend Pierre Oliver to spend the day drawing lines on homasote – something that’s become one of my favourite aspects of the hobby.

Pierre Oliver - Clovis - Lines on Homasote
Clovis, California takes shape in the space formerly occupied by Aylmer, Ontario

As I recently reported, Pierre has made the decision to switch focus – abandoning his vision of Time Table and Train Order-controlled Wabash fast freights across southern Ontario for the relaxed pace of a local freight working a Southern Pacific branch in southern California.

For most of us, abandoning a layout is not an easy decision. We are understandably reluctant to tear out what has taken us so long to build. But sometimes, it’s necessary. In this hobby, if you’re not happy with what you’re doing, don’t keep doing it. You may feel that you’re losing your investment in the layout. You’re not. Because the real investment isn’t in the layout – it’s in you. It’s in the skills you’ve acquired and the knowledge you’ve gained. This includes the knowledge of what does not work for you.

Pierre understands this, so he’s not one to agonize over the time and money he’s invested in the Wabash. Instead, he thought about the pros and cons of the transition from the perspective of what he enjoys in the hobby and how a new layout would either enhance that, or diminish it.

Kettle Creek Bridge - gone!
The big bridge at the west end of the St. Thomas yard has already found a new home. So have the 10 pairs of Wabash F7As that formed the backbone of the old layout’s fleet.

Once Pierre decided that the SP Clovis Branch was, indeed, the way to go, he figured out how he could unload the equipment he would no longer need and acquire the locomotives, rolling stock, and structures that would make the new layout possible.

With a new concept and a plan for the acquisition and disposal of stuff in place, Pierre and I discussed how to transform the existing Wabash layout into the new Southern Pacific project. He decided, and I agreed, that it made the most sense to reuse the existing benchwork as much as possible – especially the long peninsula that currently hosts the yard at St. Thomas.

I scanned a copy of the layout plan from Pierre’s Wabash layout article in Model Railroad Planning 2018. I then erased the Wabash in Photoshop – leaving just the outline of the peninsula, and the room itself. This gave me a nice, scale drawing upon which I could lay in the Clovis Branch. To start, I simply scanned the track diagrams from the Joe Dale Morris book, Serving the Golden Empire – Branch Line Style, and dropped them onto the room drawing. Some quick work with a fine tipped marker connected the scenes:

Pierre Oliver - Clovis branch - early concept
A very quick sketch to determine what would fit. The modest track arrangements at each scene make it easy to work from the prototype, with little compromise. We did make some adjustments, as detailed below.

Pierre liked the idea – a lot – so we fleshed out the details and I did a complete redraw of the plan to create something closer to scale that would actually guide Pierre during construction:

Pierre Oliver - Clovis Branch - Concept
An overall concept for the SP Clovis Branch in Pierre’s layout space. The space is generous for the prototype – much more so than it was for the Wabash – which will make the resulting layout feel very railroady. (Right-click on the image to open it in a separate window, to enjoy a larger view.)

Even with such a modest prototype, there are some deviations from reality:

– Fresno is completely made up. It’s a staging yard, so that’s fine. But since it’s also visible, I thought it would be nice to have some railroady things in it, like an engine house and an SP yard tower. The yard tower and adjacent overhead road bridge help hide the end of staging. Meantime, the engine house (the Port Costa two-stall structure: a kit from BTSRR) will be a lovely spot to store Pierre’s much smaller fleet of motive power.

SP 2-6-0s
Two of three 2-6-0s Pierre acquired for the new layout. Pierre equipped them with LokSound decoders and paired sugar cube speakers. He reports these Iron Horse Models brass imports are smooth runners, sound great, and easily handle 25 cars on the flat.

– I flipped Tarpey so the winery is on the far side of the tracks, against the backdrop. This just made more sense for the space: the stub tracks can head towards the corner, and it will be easier to switch this important customer if the winery is not in the way of the operator.

Wine tank car.
Pierre has been collecting brass models of multi-dome tank cars for winery service – something he didn’t need for the Wabash layout. Now, if only someone would offer them in plastic!

– The biggest change is the addition of an ice deck to Clovis. Pierre and I discussed this and agreed that while it’s a major departure from the prototype, the additional play value of icing refrigerator cars for all of the packing houses on the branch was just too good to pass up.

Ice Deck at Clovis
Extra moves for on-layout cars justified this design decision

Icing refrigerator cars is an operation that is unique to railroads serving produce packing areas, and helps define the character of the prototype. This is especially important for those of us who live on the other side of the continent, and need all the help we can get in capturing the character of southern California railroading. (In a further adjustment, Pierre decided the ice deck should go against the wall, and that the packing houses I had replaced with the deck should remain in place. So we added another double-ended siding in this space.)

– The quarry at Rockfield was an important customer for the SP, providing a lot of ballast to the railroad. We didn’t have room to model it, but a couple of spurs in the furnace room will allow Pierre to at least model the stone traffic on the branch.

– We could not fit every track in Pinedale on the layout, but captured the flavour of it, at least.

With a plan in place, construction could begin.

Rather than tear out all of the Wabash at once, I suggested that Pierre start with Clovis. This long wall previously held Aylmer, Ontario – the farthest he’d built the Wabash as he worked his way around the room. By starting here, Pierre could get a switching layout up and running relatively quickly. He could then work his way up the branch to Friant to add some play value. Friant can become a temporary staging area, with trains working to Clovis and back. Meantime, Pierre could scrape off the peninsula and start working his way down the branch towards Fresno. The last piece to build would be Pinedale, which will just be in the way during the rest of the construction.

All of which brings me back to last week’s trip. Pierre had scraped off the rails and ties at Aylmer, spackled and sanded the homasote roadbed, and given everything a coat of medium brown paint. It was time to lay out centre lines for the track in Clovis.

Ice Deck at Clovis.
The ice deck at the left end of the Clovis scene.

It was important to determine the icing facility’s footprint before drawing in the track. Pierre went one better and actually built the model – consisting of three Tichy icing platforms and a Walthers ice plant. The deck is 54″ long and can serve 10 cars at a time. As noted above, it doesn’t belong in Clovis, but will add too much to leave out. Rather than displace some packing houses, we added a track to Clovis for icing.

In the above photo, the main is the track next to the icing track. It’s placed on the standard 2″ centres for HO scale. To achieve the more open look of California, however, the siding for the packing houses (to the left of the main) is offset from the main by 3″. The sheets of paper and kit boxes represent packing houses.

Clovis - planning - centre.
A cluster of turnouts near the heart of Clovis. The hairspray bottle is standing in for a town water tank.

To help with laying out the plan full-size, we employed Number 6 turnout tie strips from Fast Tracks. This made sure that we didn’t fudge the drawing and create turnout clusters too tight to build. The paper template is for a Number 4 turnout: I didn’t really want to use one that tight, but the prototype included a spur that branched sharply away from the main at this point and it was the only way to fit in this spur.

We had the plan pencilled in, agreed upon, and inked with black marker in just a few hours. All in all, a most productive day. Pierre is already gluing down ties so we should be serving the Golden Empire – at least in Clovis – in no time!

(You can visit Pierre’s blog to follow along on his new layout building adventure!)

From Wabash conveyor belt to SP peddler freights

This is a story about changing track – in pursuit of an Achievable Layout:

I’ve written on this blog before about the Southern Pacific Clovis branch from Fresno to Friant. I thought at one time that I’d build a layout inspired by this branch in Proto:48 – it’s one of my favourite lines. But it just didn’t fit my layout space – and then I discovered S scale, and the CNR line to Port Rowan.

But a friend was unhappy with his layout, and a recent trip to the La Mesa Model Railroad Club in San Diego convinced him of two things:

1 – He didn’t have enough space or regular crew to model Time Table and Train Order operations effectively.

2 – He really liked California railroading.

And then I told him that in addition to my collection of Proto:48 Southern Pacific steam I had three SP moguls, in HO scale – plus kits for cabooses, a station and an engine house.

Well, I don’t have those anymore – and Pierre Oliver has a new project.

“Well, my work here is done…”
– The Model Railroad Enabler

(I’ve turned off commenting on this post. I encourage you to join the conversation on Pierre’s blog!)