Attainable layouts (coal dealers vs. coal mines)

I was supposed to have lunch with a friend last week but life had other plans. However we had a short but great conversation by phone.

One thing he said stuck in my mind. He mentioned that he’s rethinking his plans for his layout in order to build something that’s more attainable. He’s realized that other commitments in his life mean that he would be better off focussing on a less complex layout that he can actually expect to finish.

I think this is a great idea – one that I’ve been mulling over for years, it seems, since each new layout I’ve started has been more attainable than those that came (and went) before it. With my Port Rowan layout, I think (I hope) I’ve found the right balance between challenge (S scale, hand-laid track, a number of scratch-built structures) and reward (rapid progress without an overwhelming investment of time). We’ll see…

Many years ago, a Hobby Sage advised that we should plan our staging needs – then double them. The argument was that we could never have enough staging because, inevitably I suppose, we’d want to add more trains to the layout to keep people busy. Fortunately, some hobbyists are now challenging that assumption – and looking to enhance the realism of the work done by each train so that fewer trains are needed to satisfy the operators.

Done right, even a layout supporting just one or two trains can keep people entertained. Similarly, choosing industries wisely can save money, time and staging yard capacity: For example, it takes the same number of moves to spot a single hopper car on a coal dealer’s siding as it does to sport a string of hopper cars under a coal tipple.
Fewer weeds around coal bin photo CoalTrack-Weeds-07_zps4f512a4f.jpg
(No coal today!)

This isn’t to suggest that everybody adopt the approach I have. But I encourage everyone to assess – realistically – the real world demands on their time, money and other resources when planning a layout to be sure the layout fits their lifestyle – instead of becoming it.

The Peterboro Project

Pboro - Swing Bridge - Canoe
(A couple pauses in their paddling to watch CNR 7302 roll across the swing bridge)

I read something online today that reminded me of one of my favourite memories in the hobby and I thought I’d share it here.

Back in 2006 my friend Pierre Oliver and I knew each other and knew we travelled well together, but we had not worked on any hobby projects. Then we got to talking and realized we were both intrigued by the Free-mo modular standard, and decided to build a module.

We knew of no other Free-mo enthusiasts in the area (although the S Scale Workshop, of which I was not yet a member, was using a standard developed from the same principles). So we saw this as an opportunity to introduce Free-mo to Southern Ontario modellers. But we also knew that any module we built would also have to stand on its own as an exhibition layout, in case nobody else was interested.

We wanted to do something that really showed off the free-form nature of Free-mo and realized one of its strengths is the ability to replicate prototype locations, in a way that other modular forms cannot. This is because with Free-mo, the benchwork can follow the track – including a prototype track arrangement. Other systems force the modeller to work with restrictive modular specifications that make it difficult to capture the feel of most real places.

Pierre and I looked for several candidates and settled on the CNR New Yard and adjacent industrial park in Peterborough, Ontario.

Labelled street map of Peterborough.

CNR Zone Map DP-2.
(CNR map showing the New Yard and Peterborough Industrial Park. Pierre and I modelled the section to the immediate left and right of the Highway 78 overpass, and transplanted the swing bridge to the right side of the layout.)

The result was The Peterboro Project (“Peterboro” is how the CNR spelled it).

Pboro - New Yard.
(The local crew has tied up in the New Yard)

Pboro - Silent Sentinel.
(No longer staffed, the boarded-up swing bridge tender’s tower stands as a silent sentinel)

Pboro - National Grocers.
(National Grocers and the Highway 78 overpass frame the scene)

Pboro - Ragu.
(Ragu ships a boxcar load of pasta sauce. Mmm… pasta sauce!)

The Peterboro Project was a single module that consisted of a dozen sections, each a maximum of 60 inches long by 18 inches deep. In total, we had about 50 feet of module: about 27 feet represented the through route, with the balance on a number of peninsulas – including one about 12 feet long which in turn supported its own peninsula. Pierre hand laid the turnouts and produced some great freight cars for the layout. I scratch-built many of the structures.

We created two adapters that flared the ends out to the standard Free-mo modular width of 24 inches, so we could connect to other modules. But when set up in exhibition mode, we left these at home and attached a five-track sector plate to one end of the through route. We could then operate the module as a sprawling switching layout. Here’s the plan of the module, in two arrangements:

Pboro - Free-mo.
(Peterboro set up as a Free-mo module. Note the two trapezoid sections that bring the module ends out to the 24″ Free-mo standard width.)

Pboro - Standalone layout plan.
(Peterboro set up as a stand-alone exhibition layout. The trapezoids are left off, and a sector plate is added in the lower right corner.)

Peterboro’s debut was a Free-mo rally hosted by the Rochester Institute of Technology Model Railroad Club in the fall of 2006. Pierre and I had a great time but this was the module’s only Free-mo appearance. We exhibited it as a stand alone layout thereafter. (We had no problems with Free-mo – we just didn’t have any additional Free-mo opportunities.)

The module was featured in the August 2008 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine – and then Pierre and I sold it off to move on to other home layout and modular layout projects.

I took many photos of Peterboro while under construction in the workshop:

Pboro - North End.

Pboro - Looking south from Lansdowne.

Pboro - the Mainline arcs through the module on a cosmetic curve.

Pboro - the New Yard and Freight/Express building.

Pboro - Past the leads to the Peterborough Industrial Park.

Pboro - Crossing the swing bridge.

Pboro - Leaving staging.

Entering the Peterborough Industrial Park.

Pboro - an overview looking across the industrial park.

Pboro - Overview from the sector plate.

Pboro - Overview of the New Yard area.

Pboro - Looking into the industrial park from the main.

I also shot pictures at at a number of events, including exhibition set-ups at a customer appreciation day and barbecue hosted by Toronto-area hobby shop George’s Trains

Pboro - George's Trains.

Pboro - George's Trains.

Pboro - George's Trains.

Pboro - George's Trains.

Pboro - George's Trains.

… and at the 2007 Toronto Christmas Train Show…

Pboro - TCTS 2007.

Pboro - TCTS 2007.

Pboro - TCTS 2007.

Pboro - TCTS 2007.

Pboro - TCTS 2007.

Pboro - TCTS 2007.

As should be obvious from these pictures, Peterboro was never “finished” – we planned to add trees, people and details, and the module could’ve benefitted from some additional attention paid to presentation (skirting would’ve been nice). But even as exhibited in its “work in progress” state, The Peterboro Project received a lot of positive comments, and it’s gratifying to see a number of groups that now use Free-mo or Free-mo inspired standards in Southern Ontario. I wouldn’t say we introduced the concept, but we certainly gave it a push.

I learned a lot through the Peterboro exercise – especially some tricks that are invaluable when building a layout that needs to survive hours of bouncing and bashing in the back of a vehicle. I also learned that I really like sector plates for staging – something I continue to use today.

But the best part is Pierre and I spent a lot of time in the workshop together in the summer of 2006 to build Peterboro. And along the way we became really good friends. While Peterboro is now someone else’s, the friendship continues stronger than ever. And we can make each other crack up by saying things like “It’s a co-op!”, which not even our wives understand.

I’m really glad we built The Peterboro Project.