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!

Jim Zwernemann’s Proto:48 masterpiece

Jim Z P48

As I prepared for last week’s trip to Austin for the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention, I mentioned my plans on my Port Rowan blog – and Gene Deimling reminded me that one of the layouts on the tour was the superb Proto:48 layout being built by Jim Zwernemann. I immediately made plans to visit – and I’m so glad I did.

Jim is well known in the Proto:48 community for his beautiful scratch-built freight cars. He’s also an accomplished structure builder.

Jim Z - workshop
(Where the magic happens: Jim’s workshop)

What he has not been until relatively recently is a layout builder – but he decided that he needed a place to showcase his work. And what a beautiful showcase it is. Jim is modelling a general theme featuring two transition-era prototypes: the Southern Pacific’s Texas & New Orleans, and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas. The layout features a single-track mainline that hugs the walls of a 30′ x 25′ space, with a peninsula in the middle to provide some additional switching opportunities. Jim’s workshop is located in a room-within-the-room, in the centre of the layout space.

As the photos show, the layout is still very much under construction – but the pieces that are finished are excellent:

Jim Z - Carmine Depot
(Scratch-built model of the SP depot at Carmine, Texas)

SP 5115
(A GE 70-Tonner given the SP treatment)

TNO 345
(Jim’s beautiful model of a Texas & New Orleans caboose)

Jim Z - Kistenmarcher's
(Kistenmacher’s Store)

Jim Z - Mike's Bikes
(Mikes’ Bikes)

Jim Z - Lakeside
(Lakeside Grocery)

Jim Z - boxcars
(A string of Jim’s boxcars)

Jim Z - TT
(SP 178 – a Baldwin AS616 – takes a spin on Jim’s scratch-built turntable)

UPDATE – July 13, 2018: Jim has shared some additional photos and info about the convention with Gene – and Gene has posted them to his own blog. Click here to see more.

While all of Jim’s work is lovely, I was particularly impressed by his scratch-built model of the MKT’s freight terminal in downtown Austin:

Jim Z - MKT freight terminal

Jim Z - MKT freight terminal

Jim Z - MKT freight terminal

This structure would make a terrific anchor for a shelf-style switching layout.

O scale has always been my favourite – even though I currently model in S, and have never built a layout in 1:48. But I do love the presence of the equipment and the massiveness of O scale structures. Visiting Jim’s layout has me thinking again about how I could fit an O scale layout in my space.

I don’t intend to move from S – I’m currently considering a new layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway (an interurban that ran in the city I lived in as a teenager), and 1:64 is the best choice for modelling that. But I may tackle some O scale designs purely as a planning exercise.

If I do, I’ll share them via this blog.

Thanks, Jim, for opening your layout to the convention. It was great to meet you and well worth the trip!

If you want to know more about my trip to the NMRA Lone Star Region convention, visit my Port Rowan blog.

SP Slim Princess models in HOn3


(Scenes like these may soon be more achievable, at least in HO…)

A while ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the Southern Pacific’s narrow gauge Keeler Branch. These posts included an overview of the prototype as inspiration for an Achievable Layout, and a sample layout design based on Zurich, California. At the time, I wrote:

There’s not much commercially available for the SPNG in any scale.

Well, it seems that’s about to change, at least of those who would consider modelling the SPNG in HOn3.

I recently stumbled across a blog run by Union Terminal Imports. At the end of May, UTI announced that it’s planning to offer an extensive line of SPNG equipment in 1:87.

In addition to the announcement, UTI has posted the complete list of equipment it intends to produce for this prototype. It’s pretty extensive, and includes page references to the Robert A Bader book that documents the equipment.

Prices have not been announced, although at least one dealer (Brass Trains) is now taking reservations.

I have no experience with the importer, so this is not an endorsement of their products or their business. I’m simply passing along the information for those who may be interested.

NS&T Layout Design: Head vs Heart

NS&T Line Car 31 at Thorold

(NS&T Line Car 31 at Thorold, Ontario.)

I’m currently considering tearing out my Port Rowan layout and starting over, with a new prototype. There’s nothing wrong with Port Rowan – I like the design, I like how it operates, and I love how it looks. But Port Rowan was always an intellectual exercise for me: It was my first layout in S scale, and it was as much about learning about the scale – what could and could not be achieved – as it was about the layout.

I picked Port Rowan as a subject to model for purely rational reasons: it was simple enough, and small enough, that I could fit it in my space. I could also find all the locomotives and rolling stock necessary to populate the layout with the prototype equipment that ran to Port Rowan.

But I have no emotional attachment to the place. Port Rowan is a lovely small town on the north shore of Lake Erie. But I’ve never lived there. I have no memories of the place.

Many of the best layouts – the most satisfying – are those that speak to us on that personal level. Port Rowan speaks to me about Canadian branchline railroading in the 1950s, but it doesn’t speak to me about anything I’ve experienced first-hand. But if Port Rowan doesn’t… what does?

When I was a teenager, I lived in St. Catharines – the largest city in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Just up the street from our house was a General Motors component plant that was served by a Canadian National spur.

This line was interesting because the trip to GM included a lot of street running – with good reason: the line was built as part of the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, and electric operation that ran throughout the eastern part of the peninsula (with boat connection across Lake Ontario to Toronto). At one time, the GM plant was served by the NS&T, under wire:

NS&T 14 - McKinnons, 1951

(NS&T 14 – a classic GE steeple cab – switches a tank car on Ontario Street, with McKinnon Industries – part of General Motors – in the background)

The NS&T was a remarkable railway – part city streetcar service, part interurban, part industrial switching operation. It was owned by the CNR and ran passenger service until 1959. Electric freight service lasted until 1960, when the wires finally came down and CNR diesels took over.

While I did not experience the NS&T under wire for myself, I did haunt the places where it used to run. I find that the combination of what I remember from my teenaged years, coupled with a lifelong fascination with streetcars and interurbans, is very appealing. It’s much more meaningful to me.

Today, I have an opportunity to model the NS&T in S scale – thanks to the generosity of someone who is already doing that, but at a time in his life when he needs to downsize. I’ve started a blog about this venture – Niagara Electrics in 1:64 – on which I’m currently exploring the railway through images in my collection, with an eye to picking places to model.

The line past the GM plant is an obvious choice for its relevance to my life. But it’s primarily an emotional choice, and I am struggling with the practicality of it as a modelling subject.

McKinnons - Aerial photo 1955

(1955 aerial photo of McKinnons (GM) on Ontario Street in St. Catharines. The main track entered the scene from the east via street running on Louisa. It angled through Woodruffs siding onto Ontario Street. It then ran north to Carleton, turned east to Haig, and ran south on Haig. Spurs also ran behind the portion of the plant on the west side of Ontario Street. Photo from the Brock University online collection.)

There are a number of challenges with modelling this portion of the NS&T:

1 – This would be almost a single-industry layout, with limited car types. I’ve already built a layout where my rolling stock selection is limited – and it would be nice to build something where a larger variety could be justified.

2 – GM was at the end of a spur line, with limited opportunities for other trains to make an appearance. Passenger runs worked through to Woodruffs siding and then skirted behind the GM plant to reach Port Dalhousie – but on a layout, they would make only a brief appearance between two staging areas. Otherwise, Ontario Street would be a one-train layout similar to what I’ve done with Port Rowan.

NS&T at Woodruffs

(NS&T passenger trans at Woodruffs siding. On a layout, this would be the only place where one saw more than one train.)

3 – The prototype track arrangements are awkwardly shaped – the main track curls about a few city blocks, much like a backwards number “6”, with spurs radiating out from it at 90 degrees. This would make it difficult to design into the typical, linear layout space (including mine). At the same time, I am so familiar with the prototype that it will be more difficult to introduce compression and compromise into a layout design in order to make things fit.

So, while there’s a lot of emotional pull to such a layout, it scores poorly on the practical front.

By contrast, a layout based on the NS&T’s operations in Thorold – immediately to the south of St. Catharines – is a lot more logical.

Freight at Thorold depot.
(An NS&T freight motor switches a boxcar near the Thorold depot. The small freight yard can be seen in the distance.)

Thorold has many things going for it as the basis for a layout:

1 – The NS&T’s operations in Thorold were quite compact, and tended to be linear – so easier to fit into a layout space.

Map of the NS&T in Thorold

(Map of the NS&T in Thorold. With an aisle up the middle of the Old Welland Canal, it would nicely fit around three sides of a layout room. Staging would be required in three directions – lower right to St. Catharines, lower left to Niagara Falls, upper left to Welland and Port Colborne. Right click and open in a new window for a larger view…)

2 – Thorold was on the main line – in fact, it was the location of an important junction.

3 – There’s a variety of interesting NS&T facilities to model in Thorold – including a depot, a freight shed, a power substation, a railroad track scale, a section house/speeder shed, and a small yard.

Freight crew with motor 16 working in Thorold yard.

(An NS&T crew switches a car over the scale track in Thorold’s small yard.)

4 – There are interesting scenic features to model – including a portion of an old canal used as a mill race, bridges, some in-street running, and a portion of the main track elevated on trestles behind the downtown.

5 – There are a couple of major industries to generate traffic including a paper mill, plus smaller customers like coal dealers and lumber yards.

6 – I have excellent information about the NS&T in the area – better than I do about its operations elsewhere.

So, Thorold is the practical, logical choice – much like Port Rowan was. And it suffers from the same problem: I have no personal connection to the town. As a teenager growing up in St. Catharines, I never visited Thorold. So if I’m looking to build a layout that speaks to me emotionally, Thorold isn’t it.

The best option, of course, would be to build both places, perhaps on separate decks. Given that St. Catharines and Thorold were separated by the 300-foot rise of the Niagara Escarpment, there’s prototype justification for a (hidden) helix to connect them. But I’m not sure I’ll go that route.

Meantime, I’ll keep Port Rowan where it is, and continue to explore the massive collection of images and other data that I’ve acquired on the NS&T to determine my path ahead. I’ll do that on the NS&T blog mentioned above: If you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll join me there.

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

More progress in Scarborough

 photo ReganLayout-InStreetTurnouts-01_zpsezprlo7t.jpg
(Me and Mark hard at work. Not our best sides!)

On Sunday, Mark Zagrodney and I enjoyed a day-long work session on the CP Rail Scarborough Industrial Track that Regan Johnson is building around the walls of his home office.

I’ve written previously about Regan’s layout, but the recap is that he’s building an HO scale layout that I designed for him a couple of years ago. You can read more about it by clicking on the layout plan, below:

 photo CP-SID-Plan-01-Labelled_zpsv3dwuq0e.jpeg

As I noted in the linked post, I built two in-street turnouts – serving the spurs along the left side of the plan. These are not, strictly speaking, prototypical for the spur line that’s inspired Regan. But I thought the street-running and in-street switching would add significant visual and operational interest, and Regan agreed.

Since they were my idea, I felt it unsportsmanlike to force Regan to tackle the in-street turnouts. Plus, I was curious whether I could build them. So I did – well over a year ago.

 photo InStreetTurnouts-Finished_zpslwh5oarr.jpg
(Click on the image to read about the turnouts)

My goal at Sunday’s work session was to finally install these two turnouts and hook them up to mechanical switch machines. Regan, Mark and I worked together on this and by the end of the day, we had two turnouts ready for the paving crews:

 photo ReganLayout-InStreetTurnouts-02_zpsuhqzphjw.jpg
(The results of a few pleasant hours of spiking and soldering. The black lines denote the edges of the road)

Regan has been very patient, waiting for this work session to take place. But he hasn’t been idle. Almost all of the rest of the track has been installed. In fact, we managed to lay the main through the street in both directions, and link it up to the team track area at the bottom of the plan. There’s only about three feet of track to spike in the upper left corner, and the mainline will be finished.

 photo ReganLayout-InStreetTurnouts-03_zpsto2ebpv9.jpg
(The roadway is 4.5″ wide – or approximately 33 feet in HO scale. That’s enough for a lane of traffic on either side of the track. A couple of truck trailers and a covered hopper demonstrate the clearances and hint at the visual for this area of the layout.)

I’m looking forward to operating sessions on this layout. The street section will be particularly fun, with the switch crew having to tread carefully down the middle of the street, bell ringing and crew ever-watchful for cars and trucks driving too closely to the centreline…

Prototype inspiration: Cobourg ON

 photo Cobourg-030_zpsrqjub2ya.jpg
(Welcome to Cobourg – an ideal subject for an achievable layout.)

Sometimes, everything for a layout just comes together in one place. My friend Bernard Hellen reminded me of that recently when he posted on his Quebec Gatineau railway blog about a visit to Cobourg, Ontario. (My friend Chris Abbott and I visited Cobourg a decade ago, which is when I took the photos for this post.)

This small city, about an hour or so along the highway east of Toronto, sees a lot of railway action. That’s because it’s on the Toronto-Montreal corridor for both the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific – in fact, Canada’s two major carriers parallel each other through the city, just a stone’s throw apart.

 photo Cobourg-033_zpscsomnmnx.jpg
(Looking southeast from the VIA/CN station parking lot towards Division Street. That’s the CPR on the overpass.)

 photo Cobourg-032_zpsp44fbnq6.jpg
(The parking lot – south – side of the VIA station. The CNR main runs along the north side of the structure. The CPR track is behind me.)

 photo Cobourg-041_zpsqxrxaqtk.jpg
(An eastbound CP Rail train rolls behind the VIA station…)

 photo Cobourg-043_zpspcag8lxi.jpg
(… and then across Division Street. Ahead of the train can be seen a small yard where the two railways could interchange traffic, although I don’t know how often this was done.)

 photo Cobourg-023_zpshztgotvt.jpg
(West of the depot, a westbound VIA train accelerates away from its station stop on CNR trackage. Down the road, one can see the gates for the CPR line that parallels the CNR)

The CNR had a small yard across the tracks from the station, some of which was removed a few years ago, when VIA installed an overhead walkway and second platform on the north side of the mainline. When Chris and I visited, the yard was still there – and held a string of covered hoppers:

 photo Cobourg-027_zpsd9wqywst.jpg
(Chris inspects the scene)

These were destined for one or more customers in the adjacent industrial area. Yes, industrial area! In addition to the parallel mainlines, a layout based on Cobourg would also offer plenty of switching opportunities. Let’s get oriented with a satellite view – straight up, and labelled. Click on the images to view larger versions:

 photo CobourgON-Aerial_zpspjighshf.jpg

 photo CobourgON-Aerial Labelled_zpsj7qhx2ia.jpg

You’ll note there are a lot of “KS##” labels on the second map. These are track assignments, from a CNR track map from 1984:

 photo CN Zone KS Cobourg 01_zpsvq2qrjah.jpeg
(Area to the west of the station. North is to the right of the image)

 photo CN Zone KS Cobourg 02_zpsbhvydnlg.jpeg
(Station area. North is to the top of the page)

 photo CN Zone KS Cobourg X_zpsdfga3s0p.jpeg
(Customer assignment list)

The “play potential” for this area should be obvious. The industrial park – in the upper right – has several customers and is quite organized, while the jumble of tracks to the left serve a large, multi-building complex that belonged to General Foods/Kraft at the time. Let’s look at some photos of the area, starting with General Foods:

 photo Cobourg-010_zpslwbieqin.jpg
(Looking east from Ontario Street, towards the runaround at KS76. The track diverging towards us at lower right is KS79)

 photo Cobourg-011_zpsr7bkilo0.jpg
(Looking west from Ontario Street, towards the General Foods plant. KS79 branches to the left, while the righthand track is the lead – KS77)

 photo Cobourg-017_zps31tizbcy.jpg
(Another shot of the General Foods plant, looking west from Ontario Street)

Now, let’s look at the industrial park:

 photo Cobourg-050_zpsi33ti3lz.jpg
(Looking north on KS32. In 2006, the switch to KS35 has been lifted but the ties remain)

 photo Cobourg-059_zpsqsugwthp.jpg
(End of track, KS35. The track is gone, but the impressive stop remains)

 photo Cobourg-065_zpsugmeonnq.jpg
(Curves at the top of the park. The closest is KS46, while the track beyond it is KS43)

 photo Cobourg-069_zpskr1zveyw.jpg
(Looking east. KS43 is at left, while to the right are KS46 and, behind it and leading into the building, KS44)

A layout based on Cobourg could be easily built in N or HO. It would fit around the walls of a rectangular room, with the station area along one long wall. Here, one would face south, looking at the station from the CNR side and with the CP Rail running along the back of the scene.

A peninsula into the centre of the room would accommodate the General Foods industrial trackage, while the industrial park in the northeast corner could wrap onto benchwork built away from the long wall opposite the station area. Behind the industrial park (preferably accessed by a separate aisle against the wall, and separated from the park by a backdrop) one would build a double-ended staging yard to feed the two mainlines – one for CNR/VIA trains, the other for CP Rail trains.

 photo Cobourg-Layout-Sketch_zpst7outvd3.jpeg

(Literally, a back of the envelope sketch of a possible layout. Not all track shown. Click on image for larger view)

This would be a great layout for three or four people to operate. Obviously, the focus would be the local job that switches the industrial park, and this would keep a conductor/engineer team occupied for a session. A third – and possibly fourth – person could polish the rails on the CNR and CPR with manifests, locals to switch the interchange and yard… and, of course, VIA passenger trains.

Thanks, Bernard, for reminding me of this great location!

F Units in Woodstock – in 2016

Last week, Bob Fallowfield, Barry Silverthorn and I visited Woodstock, Ontario to do a bit of rail fanning. We saw many things, including a pair of F units working in revenue service – in 2016, no less:


(You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

These covered wagons are designated as “FP9u”. They were originally owned by the CNR, and later VIA Rail. VIA upgraded the locomotives (hence the “u” suffix) with new prime movers and other changes to extend their useful service life. The diesels next went to Rail Link, and are now owned by the Ontario Southland Railway.

The OSR is a model railway enthusiast’s dream: A modern short line offering personalized service with an eclectic collection of locomotives. Any of its operations would make an ideal subject for a layout.

Spend some time on the OSR website and see if you don’t agree…

(NOTE: The three of us were shepherded by an official from the OSR. Don’t trespass while rail fanning!)

CNR – Purina mill in Woodstock

Last week I joined my friends Bob Fallowfield and Barry Silverthorn in Woodstock, Ontario. Bob is modelling Woodstock on his HO scale home layout and was our guide for the day. We saw many things, including a Canadian National Railways local crew switching the Purina feed mill. I only captured a short video of this work (see below). But it was enough to confirm that this would be an ideal subject for an achievable layout:


(You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

The mill spans the tracks, and on a layout the overhead conveyor could act as a scene divider into staging. So too could the pedestrian overpass that I stood on to record this video. The mill itself (specifically, to the right in this video) would make an imposing backdrop, if one positioned the viewing aisle to the left of the scene. Tall trees further frame the scene, while there’s plenty of detail to model in the mill and the track.

Sound makes a big impact in my video. The throaty prime mover and the squeal of flanges bring home the mass of railroading. To that end, building this layout in a larger scale (Proto:48, anyone?) would put the viewer right in the scene. One of the O scale “Red Caboose” geeps would provide ample room for DCC, other electronics, and a big speaker – while the new “Full Throttle” decoder files from ESU Loksound would deliver the perfect atmosphere. Check out this Loksound video, shot on Bob’s HO scale layout. In particular, listen to the GP in the video and imagine what that would sound like in an O scale model with a much larger speaker:

Beyond engine sounds, I would add a flange squeal device to the curved route through the turnout. Iowa Scaled Engineering makes a great flange squeal module.

And, I would add environmental sounds – especially birdsong. I’ve done this on my own layout, using Dream Player Pro kits from Pricom Design. It’s incredibly effective.

A layout like this would be a showcase for fine model-building – including a lot of scratch-building. But the prototype shows that inspiration can come in small spaces, even if one wants to work in larger scales.

CP Rail: Scarborough Industrial Spur

 photo CP-SID-PeterNewman-1975_zpsslbadhln.jpg
(Peter Newman shot this photo of a CP crew working the Scarborough Industrial Spur in 1975. This is an ideal prototype for an achievable layout. Click on the image to see a larger version, with Peter’s story, on the Railpictures.ca photo site.)

My friend Regan Johnson recently asked me for ideas for an HO scale layout to fit around the walls of his home office. He wanted something based – or at least inspired by – a prototype. He wanted space for lots of structures. And he wanted it to fit existing benchwork for a layout that he has now outgrown.

About the same time, the Toronto Railway Historical Association published a track map and customer list on its Facebook page for CP Rail’s Scarborough Industrial Spur. These can also be found on the Old Time Trains website, so I’ve reproduced them here, along with a Google Earth view overlaid with the track maps from the Southern Ontario Railway Map project:

 photo CPRail-ScarboroughIndTrack-Map_zpskum7rqpn.jpg

 photo CPRail-ScarboroughIndTrack-Legend_zpseng73rwn.jpg

 photo CPRail-ScarboroughIndTrack-GoogleEarth_zpsz7cplnwb.jpg
(CP Rail in Red, CNR in Green)

This short (3.4 mile) spur in Scarborough – now the east end of the amalgamated Toronto – served a number of small industries, a couple of larger customers and a small team track facility.

I shared the track map with Regan and he thought it would make a suitable prototype. We exchanged several emails and as a result, I developed a plan to give us a starting point for a discussion over dinner. Turns out he liked the plan, so we’ve moved directly to plans to build this in his home office.

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Given how modest the space is, the layout plan is “inspired by” the Scarborough Industrial Track, rather than a faithful reproduction of it. The idea was to capture some of the typical operations of a suburban switching spur, along the lines of those advocated by Lance Mindheim, but with a southern Ontario aesthetic.

In the plan above, the structures are pencilled in as the final positions would depend on the kits or plans Regan wants to build. And since he requested it, I swapped out IBM for a brewery.

Regan wanted the option of continuous run so he could have a train circle the home office as he worked, so I’ve accommodated that by including a lift-out section to bridge the entryway. At other times – including during formal operating sessions – this would be removed and the track along the right wall would become a spur serving Warden Lumber. An extension could be fitted, as shown, to provide more room for spotting cars.

In normal operations, a train would start staged on the main at lower right. It would enter the scene and then use the main and storage track to sort its cars. Rather than switch everything at once, it would work in zones – perhaps working the lumber yard, then the brewery, and then returning any lifts to the storage track to exchange for cars destined for the warehouses at 351, 353 and 361. Finally, cars for the facing point spurs – the scrap dealer (344) and team yard (356, 358) – would be handled in a third trip along the spur.

With the benchwork already in place, construction should start early in the new year with a turnout-building party, using a Fast Tracks Code 70 #6 fixture. The turnout to 344 is in the street, and will be fun to build. We’ll likely start with most of a turnout built in the Fast Tracks fixture then add longer guard rails to represent trackage in the pavement, finishing off with a single point switch.

Even in a modest space that’s used for other purposes in addition to the layout, it’s possible to develop a plan that’s at least inspired by a prototype and without overcrowding, that will offer a couple of hours of entertaining switching. I look forward to operating sessions on this layout!