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

Fillmore Terminal in January 2020 RMC

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

At the end of November I had the opportunity to work a shift at Fillmore Terminal, the wonderful engine-service-as-layout built by Rick de Candido. I was joined by our mutual friends Hunter Hughson and Regan Johnson. We spent a couple of hours attending to the New York Central Railroad’s finest passenger power – watering, inspecting, coaling, sanding, cleaning the firebox, lubricating, turning and prepping for their next run.

Many of us have engine terminals on our layouts. Unfortunately, many of us use them almost exclusively as a place to store and display our excess motive power. I say “unfortunately” because we’re missing out on a prime opportunity to model real world activity, and learn more about how railroad’s worked. There’s a flow – a dance – that’s required when you have a half-dozen locomotives working their way through the servicing routine. It can be the subject of a dedicated layout, like Rick’s, or a coveted job on a larger layout that includes yards, mainlines, and all that other stuff.

If you would like to know more, Rick has written the cover story for the January 2020 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine:

RMC 2020-01 Cover

While you’re waiting for that to hit the stands (or your mailbox: you do subscribe, right?), here are more photos from our session:

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

Thanks again, Rick, for a great session.

I see my taxi has arrived: I look forward to the next time!

Rick Ops - Nov 30, 2019

A retreat? Or a way forward?

Wayne Slaughter is an exceptional modeller who is building the Dominion & New England Railway, an achievable layout in 1:48. (If you have never visited… hit the go button on your coffee maker or plug in the tea kettle, finish reading this, then grab a hot beverage and go spend some time in Wayne’s world. It’s worth the trip.)

Wayne recently posted to his blog that after a sustained effort to attempt to make it work, he’s decided to (in his words) “Retreat from Proto:48″ in favour of O gauge (1.25” between the railheads).

I’m sure it was not a decision that he took lightly – but, I also agree with him that it’s the right one for him. As Wayne explains on his blog, he was becoming frustrated with the added expense and difficulty of regauging locomotives and freight cars – especially any steam engines he would like to run, which would require new drivers to be turned.

St George Freight House
(Wayne’s beautiful model of a freight house in 1:48. The track in front of it is Proto:48 – for now – but will soon be re-gauged to O scale (1.25″). Will that slightly wider gauge make any difference to the scene? Of course not: prototype modelling is less about the technical details and more about the approach. Click on the photo to read more about Wayne’s decision to re-gauge his layout.)

Wayne was also finding that some of the details embraced by Proto:48 modellers, such as realistic couplers, were causing more problems than they solved. I’ve run into these sorts of dilemmas on my own, S scale layout: I gave realistic couplers a fair test over several weeks, but found that they dominated post-operating session conversations, and not in a positive way. I switched back to Kadee couplers and now we talk about other things, which is as it should be.

You can read more about Wayne’s decision on his blog by clicking on the image above. But I’ll add that there’s an important lesson here:

I’m a firm believer that we should try to stretch our skill sets and that if we’re interested in prototype modelling it’s worth striving for accuracy. But we should not let such ambitions kill our enjoyment of the hobby, just for the sake of being “more correct”.

Proto:48 works for some – but not for all. A layout is only achievable if it’s one that you look forward to working on: If it becomes yet another source of frustration in one’s life, it’s going to stagnate. And what do you want out of the hobby? A “100 percent” layout that exists only in your mind? Or a “95 percent” layout that is fully realized in your train room?

Back when I first met Wayne online, he and I were both fans of the Maine two-footers. When Bachmann released its On30 Forney, there was some discussion amongst the On2 community about what this would mean for modelling the Maine two-footers in 1:48.

Some people focused in on the few inches in difference in gauge and said “30 inch gauge isn’t Maine two-footing”. But others – myself included – argued that if everything else was modelled with respect to the prototype, the gauge wouldn’t make a difference. We suggested things like “Use slightly wider ties so the rails look like they’re in the correct spot, proportionately’, “Model prototype equipment instead of using Bachmann’s three-foot inspired rolling stock’, and so on.

An On30 layout built by Lou Sassi has recently started making the rounds in Kalmbach publications and proves that this is a viable way to model a Maine two-footer in 1:48. Lou’s layout is entirely convincing – and the gauge doesn’t matter. By contrast, I’ve also seen On2 layouts that are not convincing because the builder made other compromises that were more noticeable.

I’m glad Wayne shared his thoughts about this change via his blog. It’s not a retreat – it’s a way forward. Based on the photos on his website, Wayne is building an awesome layout in O scale – and it will be “Proto”, regardless of the spacing between the rails. This is an excellent decision on his part, because it allows him to move ahead, instead of having his hobby derailed by 0.073 of an inch.

Can you tell me how to get… how to get to Prince Street?

I sure can!

I recently spent some time reviewing posts on Prince Street, the blog written by my friend Chris Mears. He has a lot of thoughtful things to say about layout design that go well beyond “where to put the track”.

It’s safe to say that nowhere else in the hobby will you find a post about layout planning that includes such observational gems as…

“When we draw this way we leave evidence of our humanity in each line each time that line projects past an intersection with another line and in the smudges on the page from stray graphite caught under our hands as we move about that drawing. Those marks connect us through time to those designers and looking at these drawings you see them as each building’s designers did and you share a moment with them.”

… but that’s just the start. You can read more of this fascinating post by Chris, by clicking on the following image:

I can't find this book

If, like me, you’re a lifelong student of layout design then you might also enjoy Chris’ thoughts on breaking out of the classic, rectangular form. Click on each of the images, below, to read more on his blog – and enjoy if you visit!

Cake post image

Broken View post image

Juice Jacks at the Train Show

Earlier this month I spent a Saturday with my good friends Chris Abbott and Mark Zagrodney at the annual Greater Toronto Train Show. This show has grown over the past several years to take over three buildings at a fairgrounds north of the city. There’s always something interesting to see – and an opportunity to catch up with fellow modellers from around southern Ontario. (I was so engrossed with the show, I forgot to take pictures – if only there was a handy camera that I could fit in my pocket – but my friends Stephen Gardiner and David Woodhead came through with photos for me: Thanks guys!)

SN 650 - Train Show Test Run
Test-running one of my two Proto:48 Sacramento Northern steeple cabs.

A highlight for me was spending a bit of time (not enough time!) with David Higgott and Mark Hill – two talented modellers I’ve known since we were all in the Canada Southern Free-Mo group about a decade ago. Dave and Mark decided to work on an exhibition layout in Proto:48 (finescale O) and now have a classic “through station to double-ended staging yard” display measuring (at a guess) 20×50 feet. There’s still a lot of work to be done on this layout but the potential is huge, and it was great fun to run some 1:48 trains.

Proto48 - Toronto Train Show 2019
Dave Higgott – at right – talks with another Proto:48 enthusiast, Robin Talukdar. Mark Hill is third from right talking with another show visitor.

Dave and Mark even let me bring along and test my Proto:48 Sacramento Northern steeple cabs. At home, I have only three feet of test track in Proto:48 – not really enough to put these lovely models to work – so it was wonderful to let them stretch their legs. The layout is about four feet off the floor, so these O scale models were right up at eye level, where I could appreciate their mass and their detail.

(I wrote about this Proto:48 layout when Dave and Mark debuted it two years ago.)

While the layout is large, the plan is simple enough that two guys (with some help) are able to build it and exhibit it. They’ve focussed the details, such as their hand-laid track with tie plates, on the visible front section – and have used flex track (yes, in Proto:48) for the staging areas to speed construction.

Another highlight was seeing a small 7mm scale (British O – 1:43.5) layout based on the narrow gauge railways of India. The exhibitor – Lloyd Pierce – had a Darjeeling Himalayan Railways steam engine built from an EDM Kit, plus a wonderful collection of scratch-built diesel locomotives, passenger carriages, freight wagons, and other goodies – even a rail bus.

Darj layout - Toronto Train Show 2019

Darj layout - Toronto Train Show 2019

This layout was quite small, but obviously very satisfying for the owner – and is an excellent layout for showing off his exquisite models of a prototype that really stands out from the crowd at a Canadian train show. Lloyd and I talked about the challenges of modelling a prototype that’s so far away, about how he gets his information and about the state of railway preservation in India. I learned a lot in a very short time.

Both layouts on display are still works in progress, but more progress is evident each time I see them. I can’t wait to see what’s new next time!

About those Juice Jacks…

I’ve been going through old projects that are half-finished, and finishing them. It feels good.

I recently wrote about updating my O scale model of the 1921 Mack Switcher. Here’s another project I’ve been working on: two O scale Sacramento Northern steeple cabs. I now have DCC+Sound in the first one:

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

These are important models to me. I have a lifelong fascination with traction and interurbans, heavily influenced by the writings and photos of Robert Hegge. I’ve written about that on this website before – see California Juice Jacks for more.

Given that history, it feels really good to be working on these…

About that Mack…

Mack 33T - Painted

Back in November – I can’t believe it was that long ago – I posted about an O scale model I own of a Mack 33 Ton switcher. I then put the model – still in lifetime brass – on a shelf in my workshop and forgot about it.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I happened to spot the model and my inner Imp of the Perverse whispered, “You really ought to paint that, you know…”

So I stripped it down, primed it and painted it:

Mack 33T - Components
(The Mack switcher, separated into three components. The cab interior is still in primer at this stage)

I’m sure the prototype was basic black, but I sprayed my model with Tamiya Dark Iron. This is a colour I love – it has a whole lot going on in it, and it really brings out details. As the lead photo shows, I used an emery board to carefully remove the paint from the “MACK” sign and from the emblems on each hood. The couplers – from Protocraft – are finished with Neo-Lube. I need to give them another coat.

When I took the locomotive apart, I discovered this nice little tag installed by the builder – the late Lee Snover:

Mack 33T - 52 of 54

For now, the model is finished. But already I plan to do more. I’ve ordered four 30″ wheels from Jay Criswell at Right-o’-Way so I can convert this model to Proto:48. This will allow me to run it with other 1/4″ scale models in my collection, and run it on the layouts of a few friends in the area.

I also plan to add DCC with an electronic flywheel (capacitor), additional pick-up wires, and sound. And, of course, install an engineer and window glass.

I’ll return to this project when I have collected the rest of the materials I require. But already, I’m glad I’ve made progress – and it has me looking around the workshop at other “someday projects” that it’s past time to tackle…

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

Minimum Space Mack

Mack 33T switcher

What do you do if you like large scales but don’t have lots of space? Adjusting your goals to embrace large models of small prototypes is one approach.

Years ago I picked up this delightful O scale model. It’s a 1921 Mack 33-Ton switcher, produced in brass by Lee Town Models. As the Canadian two-dollar coin shows, it’s tiny – less than 4.5″ over the footboards. Despite its diminutive stature, the model has a can motor between the frames and runs beautifully, while the brass construction gives it plenty of weight. And while I haven’t yet attempted it, I suspect there’s plenty of room belowdecks to squirrel away a LokSound Select Micro, a pair of ESU sugar cube speakers, and a TCS Keep-Alive module – my favourite configuration for DCC and sound these days.

But what does this have to do with layout design? Obviously, a 4.5″ long locomotive doesn’t need a lot of room to manoeuvre. More importantly, the prototype – featuring chain drive and a pair of 40 HP engines – wouldn’t be expected to pull a whole lot or conquer grades: It’ll look right at home trundling about with one or two cars in tow.

While it’s not necessary to build a small layout for a one-car or two-car train, such an endeavour can become a showcase for fine model-building. It also provides the opportunity to think outside the box. Over on his Prince Street blog, my friend Chris Mears has been developing some ideas for small layouts that do just that, using innovative benchwork configurations. Examples include The Broken View / The Overlap and The Matchbox.

Finally, the Mack switcher is not the sort of unit one expects to find in wide open spaces: Critters like this would’ve worked in mills or factories as in-plant switchers. That suggests a layout built around such a locomotive would feature vertical scenery – brick canyons and concrete silos – which would trade real estate for air rights. An example of “going tall” – in O scale no less – is 13th and North E, an urban cameo by Mike Cougill. The Mack 33-Ton switcher would look right at home in Mike’s warehouse-dominated environment.