See you at the Ontario Manifest!

That’s Ontario, California

I’ve been invited to speak at the banquet at Ontario Manifest – the 2017 annual convention for the Pacific Southwest Region of the NMRA. This looks like a lot of fun, and I’m thrilled to take part.

I like California – a lot. I’ve been a couple of times, including for hobby-related events – and there’s a lot of spectacular railway modelling taking place in the state. The people are a ton of fun, too. I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days with them.

For the banquet, I’ll be offering up some thoughts about where the hobby is going, where we’ll find the next generation of serious hobbyists, and what we can do to foster them. I spoke on this topic at the Niagara Frontier Region NMRA convention in Ottawa, Canada just over a year ago, and had a lot of interesting feedback from those who attended. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts in California.

For the Saturday night banquet, I’ll be offering up some thoughts about where the hobby is going, where we’ll find the next generation of serious hobbyists, and what we can do to foster them. As the Ontario Manifest website explains…

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For many of us, the hobby is more than a way to kill time. It’s a lifelong journey of friendships and learning. We love this hobby ‐ and many of us wonder how we can encourage more people to join us as railway modeling enthusiasts. In particular, we wonder how we’re going to reach younger people. Based on experience in his professional life as a corporate speech writer, Trevor has garnered some insights into the demographic known as The Millennials. He’ll share thoughts on how we connect with a cohort that has never known a world in which the Internet did not exist, and who many dismiss ‐ wrongly ‐ as being “more interested in playing games on their phones than in building things”. Trevor will also offer some suggestions about how we make our hobby relevant to more people ‐ especially these Millennials ‐ at a time when few people encounter real trains on a daily basis.

That’s a tall order! But I spoke on this topic at the Niagara Frontier Region NMRA convention in Ottawa, Canada just over a year ago, and had a lot of interesting feedback from those who attended. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts in California.

Since I’m making the trip for the banquet anyway, I’ve also offered to speak about my layout – but recognizing that an S scale Canadian branchlike will be of little interest to many at the convention, I’m using the layout as a jumping off point to talk about working in a minority scale. Again, from the Ontario Manifest website…

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Trevor Marshall is a prototype modeler, and he’s working in S scale. In this clinic, he’ll share theopportunities and challenges of modeling a specific prototype in a minority scale-using his layout as an example. Trevor will cover why he ended up in a less popular scale and how that influenced his decisionwhen choosing a prototype. He’ll offer suggestions for others to research and ponder to determine whether a niche scale is a viable one in which to work. Anybody who has ever considered switching scales or who is interested in working in a second scale can benefit from this clinic.

I look forward to discussing S scale with convention-goers. I wonder if I’ll be the only one working in 1:64?

Ontario Manifest has a great line-up of activities planned – including a visit to the Orange Empire Railway Museum. Those who know me know that I’m a big fan of Interurbans – including the Pacific Electric and Sacramento Northern. So I’m excited to have the opportunity to visit the museum, because they have a lot of preserved Interurban equipment – from those two lines, and others. That’s my Sunday planned…

Ontario Manifest runs September 13-16 in Ontario, California. Check out the convention website for details – and I hope to see some of you there!

CNR 3737 :: Pump for Feedwater Heater

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On Friday, Andy Malette and I held another session at his place to work on our CNR S-3-a class 2-8-2s. Having installed the Elesco Feedwater Heater during our previous session, we moved onto the pump that supplies water to this appliance.

The water pump sits ahead of the compressor, under the running board. But before I could install the water pump, I had to make room for it. This involved cutting away part of the running board on the fireman’s side then fabricating a new section of running board.

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Using my fireman’s side photo, I planned the running board modification. I measured and marked the running board, then used a pair of tiny metal shears to cut the running board in two places, from edge to boiler. I then used the resistance soldering iron to remove the isolated midsection. More heat and a wire wheel in a Dremel Tool took care of the lumps of solder left behind on the boiler. I also removed the sand lines, which need to be re-routed.

Before installing the new running board and the water pump, it seemed like a good time to fill the holes left by the model’s check valves.

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(That hole in the boiler, just behind the foremost sand line, is the location of the original check valve. There’s one in the same location on the other side of the boiler, too)

I found a piece of brass rod just larger than the hole, and used an appropriate drill bit to open up the hole to accept the rod. I then tinned the hole and the rod and used plenty of flux and the resistance soldering rig to secure the rod. One it was in place, I used a cut-off disc to carefully cut the rod as close to the boiler as I dared. I then ground down the rod flush with the boiler, and finished up with progressively fine grades of sanding paper.

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(… and the hole is filled. I still need to polish the scratches out of the boiler)

I then fabricated a new running board segment from .020″ brass sheet. I used CA to spot-glue the segment I removed to my piece of brass sheet, with the outside edge flush to a sheet edge. I then used a pin so scribe the inside edge, which needs to follow the shape of the boiler and fit around the boiler bands. I made sure I had extra sheet stock to the left and right of this pattern, then sliced the original running board segment off the brass sheet, sanded off the CA, and cut out the new segment with shears. I then filed the new running board segment to final shape.

The new segment sits above the original running board, with tightly curved ends that meet the running board segments ahead and behind it – hence the need for extra material to each side of the new running board. I located the point at which I needed to make the bends and folded them down using pliers. I then measured the height of each folded down section and used shears to cut off the excess material. There are also various notches along the boiler edge to allow for the passage of piping, so I marked those out and filed away the unneeded material.

With the new section fabricated, I soldered it to the boiler then used photographs to locate the water pump. It’s centred just ahead of the boiler band over the third driver.

I cut and folded an L-shaped bracket for the pump, then soldered the pump to it using the provided mounting post. I trimmed the bracket so it would support the pump in the proper location, then soldered this to the boiler.

I finished up by placing the boiler on the chassis to ensure that the new water pump doesn’t interfere with the valve gear. It barely clears – but it’s sufficient.

Every work session brings this bog-standard USRA Mikado closer to my chosen CNR prototype. Compare the photo above with this photo of the stock model, taken just before we started this project:

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The main reason I’m doing this project with Andy is I did not have the know-how required to tackle it myself. I’m learning more at every session, What’s more, I’m throughly enjoying this project and look forward to what we tackle next!

Southampton mural

George Dutka recently visited Southampton, Ontario and shared a couple of photographs of a terrific mural painted on the side of one of the old brick mills. Have a look at his blog to see what I mean:

Southampton, Ontario – Mural

I have a model of the subject of this mural, which regularly plies the rails to Port Rowan. So it’s nice to see it captured in a piece of public art – thanks for sharing this, George!

Like Port Rowan, Southampton is another one of those small Ontario towns once served by the CNR that would make a terrific subject for a satisfying layout. In fact, I’ve even drawn up a plan for such a layout, which you can find on my Achievable Layouts blog.

Enjoy if you visit!

CNR 3737 :: Feedwater Heater

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(Well, that’s looking very different…)

It’s been a while since Andy Malette and I worked on our CNR 2-8-2 brass-bashing projects. It’s just that time of year when other commitments get in the way. But last Friday, we got back at it by installing the Elesco Feedwater Heater on each engine.

The prototype S-3-a class did not come equipped with these. According to Canadian National Steam! – an essential resource for anyone modelling The People’s Railway in the steam era – shop forces in Battle Creek, Michigan added the appliance to CNR 3737 in September of 1940. I’m assuming that this was done as the Grand Trunk Western prepared to sell this locomotive to parent CNR – which occurred on February 18, 1941. CNR 3737 would retain its Grand Trunk Western livery at least until December 1948, when the Canadian government settled the duty, sales tax, and War Exchange Tax.

(As an aside, at the same time as they fitted the feedwater heater the Battle Creek shop forces also swapped in Boxpok main drivers – third driving axle from the front. Thanks for that, guys! I’ll have to retrofit that in a future work session. Andy and I are still discussing how to approach this work.)

A close look at our collection of prototype photos shows that on the engines that Andy and I are modelling, the feedwater heater was installed by cutting into the top of the smokebox and adding a platform. Side-on photos show that daylight can be seen in the lower corners, between the feedwater heater and the smokebox. With the aid of the flashlight on my phone, I’ve tried to capture what that looks like on the model:

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(BTW, the boiler is set loosely on the chassis for these photos so there are gaps that will disappear when it’s properly screwed together)

Following Andy’s lead, I measured, marked and then cut the smokebox top to accept the feedwater heater. (I can admit that taking a cut-off disc in a Dremel tool to the top of a brass steam engine was a bit of a brown trouser moment, but I did not slip. There are no nasty gouges to fill.) I finished the hole with some careful filing. I then cut a platform out of a piece of brass sheet and soldered it into the hole. Andy and I considered building arched side walls for this platform but in the end we decided that they would be completely obscured by the feedwater heater, so there was no point.

The feedwater heater itself is a brass casting provided to us by our friend Simon Parent, who created them for his 2-10-2 models. He also provided us with the spoked pilot wheels. (Thanks, Simon!)

For our models, Andy and I had to slightly modify the connections. As provided, they have two small pipe connections on the back, at the edge, that run parallel to the handrail, one above the other. I had to remove the upper connection and relocate it to the front, pointing down. This involved clipping away the unneeded connection, filing the end to shape, then drilling a hole for the new connection, soldering in a piece of brass rod, and then soldering a flange to it.

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Finally, I tinned the mounting plate and the bottom of the feedwater heater, and Andy hit it with a propane torch – in and out, quickly! – while I held everything in place with pliers. That casting needed a lot of heat…

I need to clean up a bit of solder on the end cap – easy enough to do – and decide whether I want to fill the vertical notch. The prototype had a solid cap, but the mass of this casting will make it difficult to fill without unsoldering the new pipe connection and flange. I might just leave it. It adds character, and the caps could certainly be swapped from engine to engine – or even left off: one of the photos of Andy’s prototype (3702) shows it left bare.

With its new pilot and now a feed water heater, the model is really starting to take on some CNR character. There’s still a lot to do, including reworking the face of the smokebox and adding the water pump ahead of the air pump – a modification that will require us to chop the running board and elevate a portion of it. And of course, there’s that nasty Boxpok driver!

I’m not sure what we’ll tackle next, but we’re returning to Andy’s shop in just over a week. I can hardly wait!

Port Rowan Main Street :: 1956

While this is correct for the era I model, Main Street in Port Rowan is south (beyond the backdrop) of what I model. Still, it’s an interesting photo of the community I’m modelling, and I’m grateful that it was shared via the Stories and Legends of Long Point and Port Rowan Area group on Facebook.

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Not to be too grim, but perhaps C. Leslie Clark ships an occasional coffin (loaded or empty) as express on The Daily Effort

Narrative RPGs and Ops Sessions

I’m going to start this post by describing something that has nothing to do with model railways – and then try to connect it to railway modelling. Bear with me…

Last year, I returned to another hobby after a hiatus of some 30 years. That hobby is Role Playing Games (RPGs), and my return was an eye-opening experience:

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(That’s me, pouring over notes as Game Master for a session of Star Wars: Age of Rebellion at the end of March: My first time acting as GM in 30 years. It was nerve-wracking, but fun – and I can’t wait to do it again!)

If you’re familiar with RPGs, you can skip ahead. For the rest of you, well…

It’s a big subject – but here’s an overly-simplified description. A group of people gather around a table. One person (the Game Master, or GM) has acquired (or written) a set of rules, and prepared the setting plus other information needed to conduct an adventure. Think of the rules as the mechanics of making a film – the lighting, the camera, the microphones, and all the other things are determine what you can and cannot do. And think of the setting and the adventure as the script.

The other people (the Players) each take on the role of a hero – the actors in our script. But instead of following a rigid script, the action unfolds through a group-based story-telling session. Where they go is limited only by the imagination of the Players and the GM, plus the GM’s ability to respond to the actions of the heroes in his setting. An adventure can last a single session – typically, 3 to 4 hours – like a stand-alone movie. Or, it can stretch over multiple sessions, like a TV series. It can also be part of a larger campaign in which the same Players (playing the same heroes each time) undertake several adventures – acquiring experience, plus a combination of wealth, status, power, and other benefits. Campaign play is more like a movie franchise, or multi-season TV show.

The games can be set just about anywhere: They can be based on any popular genre (e.g.: detective stories/pulp, fantasy, realistic science fiction or space opera, horror, super heroes, and so on). They can be realistic, even historical, or built entirely around an imaginary premise.

There’s usually a challenge involved: Slay the dragon, find the stolen plans, stop the evil empire, catch the bad guy, rescue the captured scientist, prevent (or solve) a murder… the possibilities are endless. The GM has a general plan of how things are to unfold, but the players are free to take their own actions.

The rules of the game tend to focus on basic activities. They define how to shoot a gun, how to cast a spell, how to pick a lock, how to fly a star ship (as appropriate to the world in which the heroes are adventuring). These rules typically use dice to resolve successes and failures. But the mechanics of the game are balanced by improv/narrative, where the Players and the GM can make up things on the fly to move the story forward.

As I mentioned, I’ve been away from RPGs for 30 years. And since I’ve had such a long break, I’ve noticed some interesting developments between then and now.

Many of the games I used to play are still around – although they’ve gone through several rules revisions, moved to different publishers, and so on.

Over all, those games are better – the quality is better and there’s a much greater choice of accessories such as figures (many to 28mm scale, which is very close to S scale) to bring adventures to life. (By the way, these new accessories are built the same way that much of our ready-to-run equipment is: It’s designed by the game developers on computer and manufactured in China. And then gaming hobbyists expand on their collection through scratch-building, kit-bashing, and developing their own computer designs for laser-cutting or 3D printing.)

And while I don’t know whether this is universal, my own experience is that many of the newer games have mechanics that are much easier to learn. In fact, in some of my favourites, the game authors have made it clear that the mechanics should enhance the narrative – not direct it.

For me, there’s been a definite evolution – which I noticed in large part because of my hiatus. The most significant change, in my experience, is the change in emphasis from mechanics to narrative as the driving force in game systems.

The games I played as a teenager were dice-heavy, and the randomness of those roles could make or break an adventure. You rolled the dice, a number came up, you compared it to a chart that told you what happened, and there was little room for GM and/or players to interpret the results.

The games I’m playing today often have dice with no numbers on them at all. The dice are marked with symbols that mean things like “success”, “failure”, “positive benefit”, “setback” and so on. They support the character’s actions, rather that dictate them.

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(The portfolio for Arkhan – one of the heroes in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion adventure for which I’m game master – plus dice)

In RPGs, the character sheets (or portfolios) contain a mix of data to influence dice rolls, plus background that allows the player to assume the role. In the photo above, the character is a Bothan commander in the Rebel Alliance, played by my friend Brian. How well Brian assumes the character has a direct influence on the mechanics, so he can shape his hero’s destiny.

So, what does this have to do with model railroading? Good question.

The model railway hobby has also advanced a lot in the past 30 years – and in similar ways to role playing games. Our mechanics are definitely better:

We have DCC, laser cutting, photo-etching and 3D printing.

We have amazing ready-to-run models and terrific resin kits.

We shop the world via the Internet.

We have blogs and forums to share ideas and techniques.

We have strong historical societies, photo galleries, history websites, books and other resources – online and offline – to answer questions, and help us become better modellers.

And more.

The narrative side of things is also better: As a hobby, more of us know more about the rules of railroading than ever before, thanks to groups such as (but not limited to) the Operations SIG and Layout Design SIG. Thanks to many of the improvements to “mechanics” that I’ve already listed, more people are also getting beyond the “building models” stage to the “building a layout” stage. More layouts have scenery and detailed structures than ever before. And with better running trains, sound-equipped locomotives, signalling systems, prototype paperwork, and more, operating sessions are more realistic than ever.

These are all good things. So what’s next? I suspect that as a hobby, we could do better to define and communicate the narrative that drives our layouts.

Often during operating sessions, we become fixated on the mechanical: Moving this car from here to there… moving that train from there to here… letting the dispatcher know where we are… following the time table… deciphering the DCC throttles, track diagrams and switch controls… and so on. But if we step back and look at what we’re doing, operations sessions are essentially a Role Playing Game.

The owner/builder of the layout is the game master, who has created the world, defined the adventure, and established the rules.

The rest of us assume the roles of various “heroes” in the game: we’re the dispatcher, the engineer, the conductor, the yardmaster, and so on.

With rare exceptions (and I’ll provide an example, below), the narrative takes a back seat to the mechanics of the operations game. We follow the rules, but otherwise we basically play ourselves. I know I do. Are we missing an opportunity?

Those who like Role Playing Games would think so.

I suspect that gamers would enjoy a layout like the Kansas City Terminal, built by Jim Senese of Oklahoma. I’ve read about Jim’s layout in Great Model Railroads and Model Railroad Planning. It’s also been featured online. You can find a good description of it on this page, where I will direct your attention to the last line of the first paragraph:

It’s 3:00 pm on Saturday, November 15, 1980 – the last weekend before the Frisco was absorbed into the Burlington Northern. The eight model railroaders who come to operate the KCT are divided into four two-person crews. One crew will be hired by the M-K-T, one by the Frisco, one by the Kansas City Southern, and one by the Missouri Pacific. During the 3.5 hour operating session each crew will switch industries along their railroad, provide customer service moves at grain elevators, and interchange interline freight cars with the other three trunk lines. As an additional dimension, each crew will be provided with a description of the corporate culture of the railroad they work for and will be asked to adopt that persona during the session.

What a terrific idea!

Now, this works well for Jim because he has built a terminal switching layout focussed on the interplay between four railroads in the Kansas City area, and each railroad has its own culture. But I’m sure this idea could be adapted to individual jobs on any layout. It could be as simple as assigning each operator a persona – a character sheet – that describes their personality.

Are they new to the job, and worried about making errors? Or are they old hands, counting the days to retirement? One could add detail as one sees fit. An old hand might live to hold court with the other railroaders – or might be somewhat dour and unapproachable.

In the Star Wars RPG universe (and, I’m sure, others), each player selects an “obligation” or a “duty” for their character. This is their motivation for being in the Rebel Alliance in the first place, and it combines with the character’s background story to help the player in several ways, including:

It helps the player assume the persona of their hero. In fact, it encourages this, because the Game Master will assess how well the player is fulfilling their character’s obligation (or duty) when awarding experience and other goodies at the end of an adventure.

It helps direct the story, by giving players an understanding of how they would react to situations and what sorts of opportunities they act upon. It also gives the Game Master tools to use to engage the characters in the adventure he or she has designed.

I wonder: If a long-time gamer suddenly embraced railway modelling and built a layout… what would it look like? What would operating sessions be like? Would they include props – perhaps, come to sessions dressed for the part?

Something to think about, as you ponder three Stormtroopers on speeder bikes patrolling through Port Rowan…

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Open up!

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I’ve been asked several times to open my layout for tours, and I rarely do. My layout is medium-sized but the layout room is fairly tight. Get more than a few people in the space and it gets uncomfortable. And since the layout is designed for walk-around control, with turnout and turntable controls mounted on the facia, it can also become impossible to operate if the aisles are plugged.

But Ian McIntosh from the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers has been asking me for many years now if I’d host a tour. (In fact, his first request was back when I was still modelling the Boston & Maine in HO scale.) And earlier this year, Ian suggested that he and his wife Joan – also involved with the local chapter – could schedule members into time slots, and keep the numbers to something that my layout could manage.

So, I said “Yes”, and I hosted about a dozen people on Saturday afternoon, divided into three 90-minute windows.

Normally, people who visit my layout have a good idea what to expect. Sometimes, they’ve known me for ages and I’ve already shared my work with them. Other times, they’re regular readers of this blog so they have a solid understanding of my layout and my approach to the hobby. Some of my guests this past weekend have read my blog. But for most, I think, it was a brand new experience.

There was a lot to experience, and I’m always interested in what ideas people take away from my layout.

Having had several visitors over the years since I started building Port Rowan in 1:64 in October of 2011, I know that some features are always popular:

The garden scale switch stands I use to control turnouts always generate a lot of discussion. So do the tools I’ve mounted on the fascia to help operators simulate setting brakes and pumping air.

Visitors always comment on my use of environmental audio – the birdsong and other noises that help place the viewer in the scene. My decision to light they layout with 12v Halogen landscape lighting is also often discussed.

I know my approach is a track less travelled. I’ve built a very simple layout in a rather generous space, giving it a relaxed feel that’s not often seen in the hobby. And of course it was a real temptation during the design phase to add more track or choose busier locations.

But I’m glad that I built the layout just the way I did. And it proved itself again on the weekend, as I was able to operate the layout – solo – for my visitors while still holding conversations and answering questions. At no time did I feel stressed by the experience.

I had a couple of DCC-related incidents – possibly caused by something touching on a locomotive and causing a short – but nothing that stopped the show. I’m investigating the issue and hope to have it resolved quickly. Also, I had just two derailments – not perfect, which is my goal, but both caused by (my) operator error so I’ll mark that up as a “win”.

And of course, there’s often a discussion around S scale. For many people, mine is the first layout they’ve seen built to S scale standard gauge. I had many conversations about how I ended up in S, and how I find it to be a sweet spot between the size of the models, and compatibility with a medium-sized space. For me, it really does combine the mass of O scale with HO’s ability to model the space around the tracks, too.

I never try to convince others to model in S: choice of scale is a personal decision, and what works for me won’t work for you. But I suspect a few people left with a new appreciation for 1:64.

(Thank you, Ian and Joan, for arranging the tour. And thanks to everyone who attended. I enjoyed sharing my layout with you!)

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Podcasting and Big Model Railroad Media

I’m a big fan of the Up Dunes Junction blog written by Steve Lee. While we model very different prototypes, in different scales, Steve and I agree on a lot of things.

This includes our shared belief in the potential of podcasting to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of this hobby.

A few years ago, I created, produced and co-hosted The Model Railway Show podcast with my friend Jim Martin. I know from that experience that listening to podcasts has become a favourite activity for commuters – and no wonder. Podcasting gives commuters an alternative to “the breakfast bunch” and “afternoon drive” radio programs. Those who produce podcast content know they are reaching a self-selected, targeted audience that’s also captive: since they’re driving, there’s nothing else they can do. They’re stuck in that vehicle for the length of their commute, and looking for something to help them get through the ordeal.

This is Narrowcasting Nirvana. So why aren’t our hobby’s major publishers and advertisers taking advantage of it?

This is the question that Steve asks in a thought-provoking post called, “Hey Big Model Railroad Media: Where’s the Audio Content?

It’s a really good question.

I’ve provided a lengthy answer – just my opinion, of course! – on Steve’s blog. Since Steve started the discussion, I’ve disabled comments on this post. If you want to join in (and I hope you do!) please do so over there. Click on the still-awesome logo designed for The Model Railway Show by Otto Vondrak to head to Steve’s blog now. I’ll see you there!

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Chevron jumpers

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Layouts always act up when company comes.

On the weekend, I had a couple of friends over – two of whom are not in the model railway hobby, and were visiting my house for the first time. They wanted to see the layout, though – so at some point we went to the train room, and naturally I ran a train…

… which, just as naturally, hit a dead spot on the Stone Church Road overpass. I determined that one of the rails over the bridge was not receiving power. This is not the first time I’ve had problems on this bridge. It went dead on me once before.

Now, I know that I installed drop feeders – I did that for every length of rail on the layout, and when power disappeared on the bridge last time, I dug into the ballast, found the feeders, and resoldered them. It was a painful process – in part because of all the trees around this scene, and in part because the fact there’s a bridge here means there’s half a sawmill worth of lumber belowdecks:

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(The Stone Church Road underpass under construction)

Perhaps, because of these issues, my solder joints to the rails were cold last time I repaired this. I decided that this time, I would do something topside.

In the photo at the top of this post, sharp eyes will pick out a chevron-shaped piece of wire spanning the gap between adjacent lengths of rail. There’s one on each rail in this photo. I took short lengths of 0.015″ phosphor bronze wire – the same stuff I routinely use to add pick-up wipers to locomotives that need them – and bent them into chevron shapes with feet at each end. I then used a wire wheel in a Dremel Tool to remove the paint on the rail ends, tinned the feet on the chevrons and the rail ends, and soldered a foot to each rail segment so that the chevron spans the gap.

The chevron is important – it gives the wire some flexibility in case the problem here is that the layout is expanding and contracting with the seasons.

I brushed on some brown paint over everything and my bridge is once again in service. This has taken care of the problem – hopefully, permanently! I’ll find out this coming weekend, when I’m hosting members of the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers for an open house…