Prototype inspiration: Cobourg ON

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(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.

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(Looking southeast from the VIA/CN station parking lot towards Division Street. That’s the CPR on the overpass.)

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(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.)

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(An eastbound CP Rail train rolls behind the VIA station…)

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(… 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.)

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(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:

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(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:

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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:

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(Area to the west of the station. North is to the right of the image)

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(Station area. North is to the top of the page)

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(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:

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(Looking east from Ontario Street, towards the runaround at KS76. The track diverging towards us at lower right is KS79)

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

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(Another shot of the General Foods plant, looking west from Ontario Street)

Now, let’s look at the industrial park:

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(Looking north on KS32. In 2006, the switch to KS35 has been lifted but the ties remain)

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(End of track, KS35. The track is gone, but the impressive stop remains)

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(Curves at the top of the park. The closest is KS46, while the track beyond it is KS43)

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(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.

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(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

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(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:

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(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!

CP Rail in Woodstock, circa 1980

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Last week I had the opportunity to visit Bob Fallowfield and his HO scale layout. Bob lives in St. Catharines, Ontario – the city where I lived through my teenaged years, when prototype railroading really made its first impression on me. But Bob’s not modelling the CNR Grantham Sub in the Garden City.

That’s because when prototype railroading spoke to him, Bob was living in Woodstock – an hour and a half west on the highway. So when one descends Bob’s basement stairs, it’s Action Red one finds on the rails, as he’s doing a terrific job of bringing to live the CP Rail in and around Woodstock in the autumn of 1980.

I hitched a ride with Ryan Mendell, while Hunter Hughson joined us later in the day. The four of us had a great time, running trains and telling tales.

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(Bob, Hunter and Ryan at work)

Bob’s layout has all the qualities I like in a design.

First, it’s firmly anchored in reality. I like prototype-based layouts – or freelanced efforts so well conceived that they could’ve been based on reality – because they challenge the builder to learn about real railways. Everything from track arrangements to operating patterns just rings truer when one observes, and copies from, the full-size world. Even little details are present, like speed signs:

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Bob’s layout is also modest in scope, and his focus on specific scenes has helped him to make great progress. This is his first serious effort at a home layout and he’s accomplished a great deal in less than five years.

In a space the size of a typical basement recreation room, Bob has built the railway’s small yard in Woodstock, plus the neighbouring industries. The yard is L-shaped, occupying a long wall and a short wall in the room. His interpretation of Woodstock is quite close to the prototype and Bob has achieved a nice balance in his composition, putting the railway in its environment:

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Across the aisle from Woodstock, Bob has modelled Zorra, Ontario – a community just to the west on CP Rail’s mainline, and site of a large cement plant fed by its own quarry:
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On the other side of the Zorra backdrop, Bob has included Beachville and Putnam – two small stops along a secondary line to St. Thomas:

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While Woodstock is a modest yard, it’s also a busy place. The town is on CP Rail’s mainline connecting Toronto with Windsor – the gateway to Detroit and the US Midwest. There’s a parade of mainline trains through Woodstock in both directions, including a few that stop in the yard to drop and lift traffic.

A local switch job works the freight house and neighbouring industries around the yard, while a number of branch line jobs operate as turns out of Woodstock. During our operating session, I teamed up with Hunter on a local that switched Zorra en route to St. Mary’s. I also worked solo to St. Thomas via Beachville and Putnam.

Bob has devised a clever track plan that allows all three routes out of Woodstock (east and west main, plus the line to St. Thomas) to terminate in a common staging area on a lower deck. There are many trains stored here, ready to take their turn on stage:

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With more than 70 turnouts, Bob’s layout isn’t a simple design. But most of these are in staging, where a lot of storage is needed to support the parade of trains. On the main deck, where all the action is, the layout is quite modest and achievable. There’s a manageable number of realistic structures to build and scenes to detail, and nothing feels crowded or contrived.

I was really impressed by the overall look of the layout, and it was a lot of fun to operate, too. It’s the perfect stage for operations and a terrific way for three or four enthusiasts to spend a few hours completely absorbed in an interesting era in southern Ontario railroading.

Thanks Bob: I’m looking forward to our next ops session!

During our visit, we also discovered that the four of us get along really well. We share a common vision about layout design, despite pursuing different prototype inspirations:

– Ryan is building the Algonquin Railway – a very convincing freelanced line set in the 1970s and inspired by the operations of what was originally the Ottawa Arnprior and Parry Sound through Algonquin Park.

– Hunter has started his 1970s era layout by building the International Paper complex on Tonawanda Island in New York State (and is detailing its construction on his blog).

– I’m modelling a modest CNR branch line in the steam era.

Our layouts may be very different, but they exhibit common traits – including a strong vision and an achievable design that’ll keep a few people entertained for an afternoon or evening, while still leaving time and energy to enjoy a meal together.

In fact, on our trip to Bob’s we enjoyed a couple. Ryan and I car-pooled (thanks for driving, Ryan!) and met Bob for a late lunch at Duff’s Pizzeria. This was a real trip in the wayback machine for me – after I moved away from St. Catharines to attend university, a high school buddy and I used to go there occasionally for late night wings and pitchers. In fact, I think last week’s visit was the first time I’d set foot in Duff’s in a quarter-century – and definitely the first time in daylight. It hasn’t changed a bit…

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When Hunter showed up after work, the four of us headed downtown for dinner at The Merchant Ale House, before returning to Bob’s for an evening session.

As an article in the local newspaper notes, three young guys who liked to brew beer at home opened this brew-pub in 1999. This was long after I’d left St. Catharines, although I found it on one of my visits home, and I was unsure it was still around. I’m glad it is – and pleased to read that their in-house brews account for 70% of their drink sales. If you’re in St. Catharines, check it out!

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It was heading onto midnight by the time Ryan and I headed for home – a long but wonderful day out with friends, built around an achievable layout.

What’s better than that?

Fillmore Engine Terminal

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(Mark delivers a load to the coaling plant at Fillmore. Rick’s modelling is beautiful and the layout concept is engaging – and definitely achievable)

Earlier this month my friend Mark Zagrodney and I visited Buffalo, New York – in the 1940s, thanks to Rick De Candido and his wonderful HO scale interpretation of a New York Central engine terminal that almost was.

Rick’s layout shares the living space in a condominium. As the lead photo shows, the layout is fairly deep so access is needed to both sides of the terminal during an operating session. Rick has built the entire layout on casters so it can be rolled against the wall when not in use. The benchwork itself is executed to a fine finish, making it a pleasant display in the living room. (That said, Rick has fabricated frames and a dust cover to keep the layout clean between sessions. These are removable and store underneath the layout during operating sessions.)

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(Mark works in the operator’s aisle, created by rolling the layout away from the wall for operating sessions. The finish on Rick’s benchwork makes the layout look like it belongs in the living room. He built the benchwork in the condo’s hobby room)

Our operating session required three people. Rick worked as the road crews: He delivered locomotives from the rest of the world (staging area) to the first inspection stop, and collected outgoing locomotives from the ready track. Mark and I were hostlers. Mark handled locomotives up to the turntable, while I managed the turntable and roundhouse work.

The staging area features a two-deck elevator moved with an automative-style screw jack:

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(The two-deck staging elevator)

The lower staging includes a manual turntable for spinning locomotives. The upper deck is used for supply trains – for example, a switcher with a cut of loaded hopper cars for the coaling tower. (Rick plans to swap the order of the decks at some point, since the engine level is used more often and he feels it would be nicer to leave the elevator in the “down” position as much as possible.) Each deck is a traverser table mounted on drawer slides to conserve space.

Rick also worked as engine terminal foreman, writing up assignments on his computer and displaying them on a flat-screen TV which featured a representation of a chalkboard. This can be seen in the upper right corner in this photo:

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(A cut of loaded hoppers at the coaling tower. A NYC Hudson receives sand and coal on arrival track 1)

Also shown in the photo above are two pairs of digital timers. These have pre-set times loaded into them, and represent the time required to perform various functions as a locomotive travels through the terminal. They’re paired because there are two inbound tracks, so each track has its own timer at each work position. When Mark or I spotted a locomotive at a work position, we’d hit start on the appropriate timer and that locomotive would be considered under “blue flag” protection until the timer dinged. We could then advance the locomotive to the next stage of its servicing.

There are several stages to servicing a locomotive. On Rick’s layout, every steam locomotive goes through the following steps as it arrives:

– Water and initial inspection (a deck of cards produces the occasional fault, which requires additional time in the roundhouse)
– Coal and Sand
– Ash dump and wash rack
– Lubrication (performed in one of two designated stalls)

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(Switcher 7815 is on a service track to work the coaling tower. A cut of cars is spotted, then pulled forward as each is emptied. The streamlined Hudson is on inbound track 2, at the inspection pit. The label on the fascia indicates it will be spotted here for 20 minutes)

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(The ash dump and wash area. A switcher will soon arrive to haul away that full ash car and replace it with an empty gondola. Note the subtle detailing, such as the weeds in the expansion joints of the concrete pad)

Locomotives that are staying for an extended period of time (either because of a fault or because they’re not needed in the short term for an outbound train) will then be moved to another stall:

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(The roundhouse is cut away at the back, allowing operators to see their locomotives and appreciate Rick’s fine modelling)

Departing locomotives are turned on the turntable then staged on two outbound tracks. Here, they receive a top-up of water and are turned over to the road crew.

The layout operates on 1:1 time, and even with several locomotives in various stages of servicing there is some breathing room in the operating session. As it was our first visit, Mark and I used that time to admire Rick’s work, talk about the thinking behind the layout, and so on. As more sessions take place, there’s an opportunity to fill the time between locomotive servicing activities with some head-end switching: As the photo below shows, Rick has also modelled a portion of the passenger servicing facilities at Fillmore:

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(A NYC Alco High Hood diesel spots head-end equipment next to the express platforms. Diners, sleepers and observation cars may be spotted at the brick building to be resupplied)

This segment of the layout is also fed by a traverser table-style staging area. Work here is not as tightly scripted as the engine terminal assignments, so it’s an opportunity to spot a car or two before getting back to the main work of the session.

Rick’s layout is a terrific example of thinking creatively to design an achievable layout. Many of us, faced with the challenge of a modest space in a living room, would gravitate to a modest branch line terminal (like Port Rowan on my layout), an industrial switching area (like the East 38th Street project by Lance Mindheim) or even a single large industry, like the Pine Street Mill.

Rick took a different approach, eliminating almost all (but not all) rolling stock to focus on the locomotives. This would make a lot of sense for most of us, considering that everybody I know (myself included) has way more locomotives than they need for their layouts. (I once joked that the correct ratio for a model railway is one locomotive per freight car.)

We’re attracted to the power – and Rick’s answer is a brilliant way to show it off. This is especially true if one enjoys detailing and painting locomotives. (And if that’s you, then you should really be watching “Notch 8” – a new series on TrainMasters TV.)

To read more about Rick’s layout – and so see a layout plan – pick up the 2015 edition of Model Railroad Planning from Kalmbach. Click on the cover, below, to learn more:

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Thanks, Rick, for a great day in Buffalo. I look forward to the next operating session!

Ontario Southland in Feb 2015 Railfan & Railroad

The Ontario Southland Railway is a short line company operating in several locations from Guelph to St. Thomas, Ontario – with a mix of classic short line hauling and industrial park or large industry switching. I was reminded of this when I spotted the February, 2015 issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine:

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Photographer Marcus W. Stevens has written a great feature on snow-plow operations on the OSR. (You can see more photographs by Marcus W. Stevens – including more of the OSR – on the Railpictures site.)

That’s the OSR’s 1907-vintage plow on the cover – yes, more than a century old! – and still wearing its Canadian Pacific black and red paint.

Like many short lines, the OSR has an eclectic collection of equipment (and they list the roster on their website), many of it still in the paint schemes of a previous owner. The article, for example, documents the work of a plow train consisting of an ex-Chessie System GP9 and an FP-9 from the Waterloo & St. Jacobs Railway. Other locomotives wear the OSR’s maroon and cream scheme inspired by the scheme used on the diesels of the Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway (which was absorbed by CP Rail in 1987)

But I digress…

The OSR offers several potential subjects for an achievable layout. Browse through the company’s list of operations and you’ll discover everything from modern rural railroading on the St. Thomas Sub … to in-plant switching (about 100 auto racks per day!) at CAMI Automotive (itself along the St. Thomas Sub)… to industrial park switching in Guelph (with a branch to Campbellville). Depending on location, the OSR has connections with the Canadian National, CP Rail, or both.

(Some portions of the St. Thomas Sub operation are featured on the Branchlines in Tradition DVD which I wrote about elsewhere on this blog.)

Whether one is looking for ideas for a single-industry layout or a modern branch line… and whether one wants to model an urban or rural setting… there’s a lot of possibility in the Ontario Southland, with interesting operations and a model-railroad-ready variety of equipment.

When people ask me for ideas, I’ll certainly suggest the OSR as the subject for an achievable layout. I’d love to see some maps of track arrangements and suchlike, too…

Branchlines in Transition

I recently picked up a copy of a DVD by this name at my local hobby shop. The video was shot by Steve Bradley, whom I’ve met a few times while operating trains at a mutual friend’s place. It’s a fairly short video – at just 42 minutes – but it provides plenty of inspiration for someone looking for ideas for an achievable layout in a modern (1990s) setting. Green Frog Productions, which markets the video, has a teaser video online:


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

Here’s the video description from the Green Frog website:

Take a look at the operation of 5 Southern Ontario branchlines. Shot in the late 1990’s just prior to many branches being taken over by shortlines or having sections partially abandoned, you’ll join the crews, be trackside, aboard the trains, and even ride a plow extra. A great look at how it was, not that long ago.

I found a number of things interesting about the subject presented here.

First, with the exception of one segment – the snow plough run north of Orangeville – the subjects presented are all strong candidates for an achievable layout. (Don’t get me wrong: The snow plough run – the last chapter of the program – is excellent, but for different reasons.)

These were not high-traffic branches and many of the trains featured are quite short, which would lend themselves to modelling in a larger scale such as S or O. And – as I hope I have proven on my own layout – a lightly-trafficked prototype does not have to result in a layout that is boring to operate: It just changes where one must put the focus. And a couple of the prototypes featured here did (or still do) serve auto plants, significant carload generators that also require the railway to switch to a clock. One – the Goderich and Exeter Railway – did a roaring trade road salt as suggested by this photo.

The above photo is appropriate because my second observation is that all five operations featured were shot in winter. I was struck by how this changed the way I viewed the railways in their environments. Snow adds a uniform wash to the scenes, which tones down the colours of structures, scenery and details. The result is a real focus on the railway equipment, which – by virtue of the fact that it moves – tends to be relatively clear of snow. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean – photos I took during a December 2005 trip to Saskatoon:

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(To see more of Canadian railways in winter, search on the word “winter” at the Railpictures.ca database)

I was particularly struck by segments featuring CP Rail diesels in their “Action Red” paint, which positively leap out of the grey surroundings. A layout given this treatment would be the polar (pun intended) opposite of a layout set in the height of autumn, in which railway subjects would be forced to compete with a riot of leaf colours.

That’s not to say the railway equipment is completely clear. Snow has drifted quite deeply onto locomotive walkways and pilots, which would be an interesting modelling project. It’s also caked onto trucks, brake rigging and other details below the frame, which would wonders for highlighting these traditionally dark areas on a model. Things I knew existed below the walkways, but had never really noticed in photos of clean locomotives, are readily apparent with a dusting of the white stuff.

My own layout is set in August and I’m not about to change that. But I’m sometimes asked by others for inspiration, and this DVD has given me some interesting ideas to ponder…

CNR 10-wheelers in 1:48

While reading the just-published November-December 2014 issue of The O Scale Resource, I scanned the ad from the 3rd Rail Division of Sunset Models, and noticed this:

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(Click on the image to visit the 3rd Rail website)

While Sunset’s die-cast line does not always live up to the more discerning modeller’s expectations, I’m pretty impressed by the CPR 4-6-0s they offered a few years ago. And at US$1299.95 each, the price quoted on the reservation page for these CNR 10-wheelers can’t be beat – not when compared to the going rate for most 1:48 brass steam, and not when one considers that these are the only choice for CNR 10-wheelers in O scale.

Sunset’s CNR 10-wheelers will open up many possibilities for those working in O scale to create a steam-era Achievable Layout. In fact, I’ve written about several possibilities on this blog, including:

CNR – Southampton Sub in S (layout plan)

CNR – The Wiarton Spiral (layout plan)

CNR – Waterloo Sub to Galt (concept sketches)

Enjoy if you (re)visit.

Meantime, if you’re interested in these then get your reservations in – and start saving. The CNR 10-wheelers are scheduled to arrive next year.

The Desert Princess

The Southern Pacific’s Keeler Branch in California was an other-worldly place.

It was a place where whaleback tender-equipped 10-wheelers hauled classic narrow gauge boxcars, gondolas, flat cars, stock cars, tank cars, specialized hoppers and water cars, plus unique cabooses. Trains ran past weather-worn structures and through spectacular scenery that ranged from fertile to desert, framed by the incredible Sierra Nevada, Inyo and White Mountain ranges, to serve small towns and large resource industries.

And, it’s a great subject for an achievable layout – in narrow or even standard gauge.

It’s a narrow gauge modeler’s delight and a scratch-builder’s dream – especially for someone looking for an alternative to the Colorado three-foot lines. What’s more, the SPNG is incredibly well-documented. There are a lot of top-notch books on the line, including Southern Pacific’s Slim Princess in the Sunset 1940-1960 by Joe Dale Morris and Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge Locomotives and Freight Equipment by Robert A. Bader – both published by the SP Historical and Technical Society. While these are my favourites, a number of other books have been published too. There’s plenty of information about the SPNG – including hundreds of photos and excellent track diagrams for many of the places along the line.
Morris-SPNG photo Morris-SPNG_zpsa47fd30f.jpg Bader-SPNG photo Bader-SPNG_zpsd4dee8ed.jpg

For atmosphere, the Classic Railroad Videos series from A&R Productions includes The Desert Princess. (In fact, it’s their best-selling title, according to their website.) Here’s a very short clip, courtesy of the publisher:

So what’s missing? Well, frankly, there’s not much commercially available for the SPNG in any scale. And that’s a shame. In Sn3, P-B-L imported some SPNG steam locomotives at one point, but they’re hard to find. Here’s one that turned up recently in an online auction:
PBL-SPNG-8 photo PBL-SPNG-8-01_zps6743b616.jpg

PBL-SPNG-8 photo PBL-SPNG-8-02_zps707ca821.jpg

Also in Sn3, Railmaster offers a kit for SPNG locomotives – one that even the manufacturer admits is a challenge:
 photo Railmaster-SPNG-Locos-Sn3_zps12e15c02.jpg

I recall seeing brass models in On3 and HOn3 as well, but as with all things brass they’re hard to come by.

For diesel fans, Rich Yoder Models did an On3 model of SP-1 – a GE end-cab unit known as “Little Giant”. I wrote a review of this model – also offered in O standard and On30 – for Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, and the review is posted online here.

The rest of the equipment is also problematic. Some craftsman kits exist for freight cars in Sn3. If there’s other equipment available, I haven’t encountered it. The fact that one can spend a day doing Google searches on modelling this line and turn up almost nothing by way of equipment is most telling of the challenge one would face.

That said, one could use stand-in models. In On30, the Bachmann 2-6-0 is two wheels short but is a suitable small steam locomotive – and the modeller could do some kit bashing and scratch-building to give it a whaleback tender and SP-ify it. And narrow gauge equipment tends to have advantages over standard gauge stuff when it comes to scratch-building. First, it tends to be of simple, wooden designs, which are easier to build that riveted steel cars. Second, a layout doesn’t need a whole lot of equipment since narrow gauge freight cars are, by their very nature, in captive service: They don’t roam the national rail network, because they can’t.

If narrow gauge is not your thing then in HO standard gauge, the Bachmann 10-wheeler would be a decent start for a smooth-running model. Again, it would need modifications to make it more SP-like. Or one could standard gauge the branch and use SP 2-6-0s from Glacier Park Models (O scale), River Raisin Models (S), or Iron Horse Models (HO).

It’ll come as no surprise that I have not found many layouts online that depict The Desert Princess. Byron Henderson has created a layout plan for HOn3, which can be found on his Layout Vision website. Better yet, find the Morris and Bader books and work right from the prototype plans they contain.

Meantime, I hope someone of influence at one of the larger manufacturers catering to the narrow gauge community (a Bachmann or a Mountain Model Imports, for instance) grabs the Morris and Bader books and falls in love. It would be easy to do, and both SP modelers and freelancers would delight in models of the SP’s narrow gauge 10-wheelers (Numbers 8, 9 and 18 are the most famous), interesting freight equipment, and distinct water cars and cabooses. On3/On30 models would have a lovely presence without overwhelming a layout space, and one could spend a great deal of rewarding hobby time switching the modest yet interesting yard at Laws, California… the transfer yard at Owenyo… or the talc company at Keeler.

Well worth a look if you’re in the market for something a little different!