OVAR Report – March 2018

Earlier this week, I was in Canada’s capital as the guest speaker at OVAR – the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders. I had a great time – I’m so glad they invited me!

Before I report on the trip, some words about OVAR are in order…


OVAR is an amazing group. It’s been around for decades – it was established in 1961 – and has a membership of around 180 people. Key to its success is the informal nature of the group. It exists as a social organization – an umbrella for various other groups in the Ottawa area – and that’s it. Membership includes representatives of many such groups, of course – from round-robin operating groups and modular railroading associations, to members of the NMRA and other such official organizations, to those who volunteer at museums and other railfan/historian venues.

Anybody who has been part of a group or club in this hobby knows that politics can become a problem. It rarely is with OVAR, because it exists solely as a place to bring those various other groups and clubs together under one roof, once per month, for dinner and a presentation.

When I moved to Ottawa in the early 1990s, it was for a work opportunity. Never mind knowing fellow hobbyists: I knew nobody in the city. But I found the local hobby shops – and there, I found a brochure for OVAR. It sounded like a good way to tap into the local modelling community, so I attended a dinner. And then I signed up – because it was such a great concept.

Each of us in this hobby have a different approach to railway modelling. We all have preferred scales, prototypes, eras, degrees of prototype adherence, and so on. In addition, we each enjoy some aspect of the hobby more than others. Everyone’s approach is valid – but let’s face it: If the local club’s approach is too different from what you want to do, you won’t continue to be a member.

The strength of OVAR is all of those unique combinations come together in one room. So when I first joined, I’d use each dinner to sit at a table with a group of modellers, and talk to them about how they engaged with the hobby. If their approach was too different from my own, then I’d sit at a new table the next month, and so on until I found the people with whom I best identified. It took a few months, but what a great way to survey the hobby within an entire region!

I haven’t lived in Ottawa in more than 20 years, but I’m still regularly in touch with those friends I made at OVAR.

Having said all that, it’s not surprise that I had a wonderful time as the group’s guest speaker on Tuesday night. I talked with many old friends – several of whom I haven’t seen in person in years. (A few asked about blogging, so I have written another post on that topic, called “Why you should consider blogging“.)

What’s more, I thought the presentation went very well.


I talked about how I ended up modelling Port Rowan in S scale. I started with my days in Ottawa when I built my first prototype-based layout – on which I attempted to recreate a portion of the Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway in the late 1970s in HO scale. Then, while helping a friend decide what to model, I realized the TH&B’s bridge line railroading was not for me, and I switched to a Boston & Maine branch line in the steam era. I was still doing this when I moved back to Toronto in the late 1990s and built my first B&M layout.

However, dissatisfaction with the performance of my fleet of brass HO steam engines – small models of small prototypes – and recognizing in myself an interest in detailing structures and scenes, I moved up a couple of scales, to model a Maine two-footer in O scale. Here, after several years of progress, I ran into an unexpected setback: Modelling a Maine two-footer while living in southern Ontario was a lonely prospect. There just aren’t that many people in the hobby who are interested in The Standard Gauge of Maine. I was also frustrated by poor running qualities of my On2 fleet.

While searching for ideas for what to do next, I met the members of the S Scale Workshop and the die was cast.

There’s more to the story – and I hinted that it might be time for another change – but I’ll save that for future presentations.

As with many of these events, the guest speaks after dinner – and the dinner is a buffet style. Whenever doing this type of event, I’m cognizant that the audience isn’t looking for a clinic – it’s not an RPM meet. They want to be entertained – and they’re going to be sitting in a dark room (so they can see the presentation) after a big meal. Talks have to be general enough to appeal to an audience with broad-ranging interests.

Therefore, I framed the talk in such a way that I hope those in the audience who are curious about making any sort of change in their own hobby have some ideas about the research they should do and questions they should ask before diving in – in the interests of knowing, ahead of time, what they’re about to undertake.

After dinner speeches also have to be entertaining enough to keep everybody awake. I didn’t hear any snores from the audience, so I think I did okay.

I’ve done this talk before, but this was the first time I’ve presented to an audience in which several members lived through my various changes in direction. It was novel, and fun, to be able to expand on some of those stories.

When I do a trip like this – where I stay for less than a day – I like to treat myself to a good hotel. (I’m glad I did – the weather was, well, wintery: that made the 4.5 hour drive from Toronto to Ottawa feel even longer.)

OVAR covered the price of a modest hotel. I paid the difference and gave myself an upgrade, booking into the Chateau Laurier – one of a family of grand old railway hotels built by Canadian Pacific.

Chateau Laurier - Main Lobby

I got to my room late in the evening, and looked out my window in time to see an entourage pull up: a fleet of black vans with red/blue flashing lights. They showed up again the next morning to collect their passengers:

Chateau Laurier - Belgium Entrouage

I found out at breakfast that the King and Queen of Belgium were in town, and staying at the Chateau. They even left behind some terrific waffles, which I thoroughly enjoyed:

Chateau Laurier - Belgian Waffles

All in all, a fine trip!

See you at OVAR! (March 2018)


I’m off to Canada’s capital shortly, to speak this evening to members of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR) at their monthly meeting. I used to live in Ottawa, so I’m looking forward to seeing many friends at the dinner.

I’ll be talking about how I ended up in S scale, and the research I did before jumping into 1:64 and building Port Rowan. I hope I provide some ideas to those in the room who might be considering whether, and how, to model a new prototype, era, theme and/or scale.

(This talk is particularly timely for me, as I’m currently undertaking the same sort of research to decide whether to build a new layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway. I’ve been posting a lot of information about the NS&T on its own blog: If you haven’t visited lately, you might want to have a look…)

OVAR meetings are always a good time. I’m looking forward to it!

A letter from Copetown (2006)

S Scale Workshop - Cover photo SScaleWorkshop-CoverImage_zps884a9f05.jpg

A decade ago – in February of 2006, to be exact – I visited the Copetown Train Show and saw the modules built by the S Scale Workshop. I was working in another scale and gauge at the time, but a seed was planted that today has resulted in the layout featured on this blog.

It was the Workshop’s first exhibition of their free-mo style modular layout and it impressed a lot of visitors at Copetown that year. I headed home and wrote a letter to Bill Schaumburg – then editor of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine – about the show, and the debut of the S Scale Workshop on the southern Ontario exhibition scene.

Here’s the letter… which Bill printed in the June, 2006 issue as part of his Editor’s Notebook feature. After you read it, I’ll offer up some observations…

Hello, Bill:

Greetings from the Great White North! Although I must admit it’s not really white in Southern Ontario these days, despite it being the middle of winter. It’s cold, but the ground is brown and the roads are dry, which makes for easy driving (always a concern at this time of year).

But even if the weather outside IS frightful, many enthusiasts (myself included) brave the elements at the end of February and hit the road to the Copetown Train Show, which takes place in a small town of the same name just west of Hamilton, Ontario.

Copetown has never been a typical train show, but rather a showcase for fine model building with a focus on Canadian prototypes.

Copetown does not attract the usual train show crowd of families and casual punters (not that there’s anything bad about shows that do, but not every show has to cater to every taste). Instead, it draws many of the same people one meets at Railway Prototype Modelers meets such as Naperville, Cocoa Beach, and the others you regularly write about in your monthly column. Word is, about 400 people attended this year’s event, and I even saw some old friends there who had driven a good six hours to attend. (That’s particularly impressive when one considers that Copetown is only open to the public on Sunday: Exhibitors set up on Saturday and then get the chance to visit each other’s displays, buy stuff, sell stuff, socialize and so on. The day ends with a dinner, followed by an evening of slide shows and/or clinics. All in all, it’s good incentive to become an exhibitor: I’ll have to do something about that.)

Copetown features photo dealers, Canadian railway SIGs and Historical Societies, booths about area club layouts, tables staffed by manufacturers of Canadian-prototype rolling stock, structures or other details, authors or dealers of books about Canadian railroads, and layouts that exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship, usually based on a Canadian prototype.

There were a number of layouts on display this year, but I think it’s safe to say that the one that created the biggest buzz in the hall was a modular layout created by seven members of the S Scale Workshop. This layout is built to the Workshop’s own version of the Free-mo standard, which allows groups to build modules of any size and shape and then link them together in any number of ways to create large free-form layouts (the concept is described in detail at www.free-mo.org).

The members of the S Scale Workshop began building their modules in earnest just a few months before the show, yet managed to assemble an astonishing 93 linear feet of model railroad in a large, lazy U-shape that worked its way through the main exhibition space.

The modules assembled into a single track line with a staging yard at one end, a model of Port Dover, Ontario at the other (actually, part of one member’s home layout), and a passing siding in the middle, with a couple of spurs still to be built. Using wireless walk-around DCC throttles and a small fleet of sound-equipped S scale Canadian National 2-6-0s built from etched kits by S Scale Loco and Supply (www.sscaleloco.com), the layout kept visitors entertained all day.

Some of the modules were unfinished at show time – one was still at the pink Terra Foama stage, while another had nothing more than green garbage bags stapled to each side of the roadbed to prevent any derailed trains from making a 50-inch plunge to the floor – but the potential was readily apparent and I’m sure this group will impress us all over again the next time they do a show.

It was particularly enlightening to see an S scale, craftsman-quality layout up close and personal. Interesting things are happening in 1:64, and it’s worth looking into (as if I need ANOTHER distraction). I can understand the attraction, especially if one’s modeling subject is a modest prototype, such as a branch line patrolled by small engines pulling light trains of 40’ steam-era cars: The “slightly larger than HO” nature of S would give small prototypes a presence and heft that HO just can’t accomplish, without having the overall scene overwhelm a layout room.

It was also interesting to watch the crowd’s reaction to both S scale and the free-mo nature of the layout. One could almost see the current hit the mental light bulbs. I predict that in the next couple of years, I’ll be seeing many more Free-mo style layouts at Southern Ontario shows – mostly in HO, of course, but in other scales too.

While most of the Copetown attendees have invested serious amounts of time and money into their chosen scale/gauge/era/theme, building a Free-mo style module would give many of them an opportunity to explore an avenue of the hobby that lies beyond their primary interest, and who knows where that could lead? Only to great things, I expect.

The builders of the HO scale Ontario & Eastern sectional layout (which was the cover story in the February, 1998 RMC) started the show several years ago. After a long and successful run, the O&E members decided to retire their exhibition layout to devote more time to their endeavors at home, and they passed the show’s organizational duties onto the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers (with a double “L”, since that’s how we do things here in Canada).

So, Bill, that’s the story. I hope you can make it to Copetown some year – weather permitting, of course. But to be fair, I should warn you that by the end of the weekend you may end up horse-trading your Nevada County Narrow Gauge equipment for some CN moguls, eight hatch reefers, and other signature models of Canadian railway history.


– Trevor in Toronto

Workshop video poster - Copetown 2014 photo Copetown2014-Poster_zps64528bc3.jpg

I was an outsider to S scale when I wrote that, but I find it interesting that my initial reactions to the scale were, by and large, right on the money for me.

– “(as if I need ANOTHER distraction)”
It turns out I did. I was unhappy with what I was doing in the hobby, and it was time for a change. It took me about five more years to realize that.

– “I can understand the attraction, especially if one’s modeling subject is a modest prototype, such as a branch line patrolled by small engines pulling light trains of 40’ steam-era cars.”
Well, that’s pretty obvious, since that’s what I’ve ended up modelling on my Port Rowan layout.

– “The ‘slightly larger than HO’ nature of S would give small prototypes a presence and heft that HO just can’t accomplish, without having the overall scene overwhelm a layout room.”
This is definitely something that I’ve appreciated as I’ve been working in 1:64 over the past few years. I’m a junkie for detail, and as I wrote way back near the beginning of this blog, I originally tried to design an O scale layout to fit my space. It didn’t. S did, while still giving me most of the presence that I love about O. It’s not “in your face”, but it’s also not “way over there” either.

– “I predict that in the next couple of years, I’ll be seeing many more Free-mo style layouts at Southern Ontario shows – mostly in HO, of course, but in other scales too.”
This has also happened. Since 2006, several Free-mo groups have launched in the region. I’ve even been involved in a few of them. Some have folded, others have remained quite small, but there are also some quite large groups that are very active.
I’m glad I read the crowd right that day.

– “Copetown does not attract the usual train show crowd of families and casual punters (not that there’s anything bad about shows that do, but not every show has to cater to every taste).”
This is still the case, 10 years later – and it’s one of the reasons that Copetown continues to be a terrific show for the “serious” hobbyist.

As a show, though, it remains a novel experience in Southern Ontario – an exhibition with a specific focus, instead of a general train show. Other good examples of “focussed events” in the area include the Ontario Narrow Gauge Show and the Great British Train Show, organized by The Platelayers Society. Both are well worth attending – in large part because of their unique focus on the hobby.

There are several local shows each year that pretty much present the same thing as every other local show. The same layouts are featured. The same vendors show up. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all – so there’s not much point in attending. Some of these local shows are failing. If they want to turn around their fortunes, they could look at how to make their shows a unique event instead of offering up more of the same.

It’s been 10 years since I wrote that piece, and The Copetown Train Show continues. So does the S Scale Workshop – which will be celebrating the 10th anniversary since it first exhibited those Free-mo style modules, as it exhibits at the 2016 Copetown Train Show. Workshop member Jim Martin has written about this on The S Scale Workshop blog. We’ve included a couple of early photos from 2006, as well as a layout plan for this year’s exhibit and information about attending the show.

Check it out, and I hope to see you in Copetown on Sunday, March 6th!

Save the date: 2016 Toronto RPM

 photo TorontoRPM-Banner_zpsehch5ui5.jpg
(Click on the image to visit the Toronto RPM blog)

It’s time to make plans to attend the 2016 Toronto Railway Prototype Modellers meet!

The details are below. If you are in the Greater Toronto Area and have a blog or website, I encourage you to share this information to get the word out.

2016 Toronto Railway Prototype Modellers

Saturday, April 9, 2016
8:30 am – 4:00 pm

Humber College
203 Humber College Boulevard
Toronto, Ontario M9W 6V3

North Campus – Building B – Rooms B201 & B202

Google Map

Click on the banner at the top of this post to visit the Toronto RPM blog, and be sure to contact organizer Brian Gauer (his email can be found on the blog) to let him know you plan to attend.

I’d also like to thank Brian for inviting me to deliver a clinic at this year’s meet. I’ll be giving the first run of a presentation I call, “When I’m 1:64”:

 photo WhenIm1to64-SlideDeck_zpshat9lj8f.jpg

As the title slide suggests, this is a clinic about the opportunities and challenges of modelling a specific prototype in 1:64 – using my layout as an example. I’ll cover why I ended up in S scale, why I picked the Port Rowan branch and things to research and ponder to determine whether S is a viable scale in which to work. I’ll also explain why I write this blog and now consider it as essential to building a layout as having a good supply of ties and rail. And I’ll wrap up with a quick tour of the line – because everybody likes pretty pictures.

All of this information is available in the 1000+ postings on this blog, for those who care to sift through it. But I’ve added some fresh photos – including several of earlier layouts in other scales and gauges. And, of course, I’ve boiled down the story to what I hope is an entertaining and informative 45 minutes.

I’m looking forward to giving this presentation and I hope to see you at the Toronto RPM.

S is the new…

Well, take your pick.

A couple of recent postings I made in different venues prompted an interesting response from readers. I thought I’d bring the two ideas together and present them here.

First, in response to my blog entry on the S Scale Workshop appearance at Exporail, my friend Gene Deimling commented on the fact that the group had two new locomotives on the layout – a CNR 2-10-2 and a CNR 2-8-0. The first was scratch-built – the second was a brass model that was so extensively modified that it qualifies as scratch-built too, to my mind.

 photo SSW-Exporail2015-BrianN-10_zpsvubqg2yt.jpg
(CNR 2-10-2, a scratch-built model by Simon Parent)

 photo SSW-Exporail2015-BrianN-14_zpsghvnxv52.jpg
(CNR 2-8-0, an extensively modified brass import by Andy Malette)

Gene – well known in the Proto:48 circles and an accomplished builder himself – wrote:

S has become the builders scale. O gauge gave up the title years ago.

About the same time as Gene was making this comment, over on the Canadian Railway Modellers group on Facebook Jurgen Kleylein observed:

S scale is the new “narrow gauge” … the amount of scratch building and craftsman work on engines and rolling stock is definitely reminiscent of the way people were approaching HOn3 and On3 years ago.

 photo Plow-07_zps2bbdb6fd.jpg
(An example of kit bashing that’s almost scratch-building: an in-progress view of my CNR plough. Click on the image to read more about this model)

These are both interesting observations – and I think that there’s some truth to them. Obviously, there are people in every scale/gauge who pursue the hobby at a craftsman level, and who prefer to “build” instead of “buy”. But there are a few factors that help explain why S is getting this reputation.

First, S is a terrific scale for the scratch-builder – particularly those of us who grew up on imperial measurements. Any decent ruler marked out in inches will also be marked out in 1/64ths of an inch – and each of those equals 1 scale inch in S. What’s more, the size of the models is easy on the eye: they’re larger than HO scale and therefore easier to detail, while being smaller than O scale so more manageable in the average layout space.

StW-Station-Order Board photo StW-Stn-OrderBoard-01_zps149435a9.jpg
(S is a nice size for adding details that might be overlooked in HO. I might not have attempted a working train order board in HO, but in S it turned out to be a straightforward project for my model of the St. Williams station. Click on the image to see a video showing the order board in action.)

Second, there’s the matter of necessity. S scale – particularly when modelling a specific prototype – forces one to haul out the raw materials, data and tools and build from scratch, because there’s just not a lot available commercially. At least, not when compared to other scales.

I would argue that O scale lost that “build it” imperative when Atlas made its serious commitment to 1:48 with the launch of Atlas O in 1997. Atlas offered O scale products before Atlas O, but with the new line of business it made a serious push into 1:48, bringing HO scale manufacturing and marketing sensibilities to the scale. I think it’s fair to say that Atlas O’s success encouraged other, smaller companies to support the scale, and 1:48 went through a renaissance. That said, when product is available to buy, the imperative to build is reduced.

Substitute “Bachmann” for “Atlas O” and the same logic can be applied to narrow gauge. Bachmann’s decision to create and market a line of On30 equipment was a boon to O scale narrow gauge modelling in North America. And Bachmann’s success encouraged other, smaller companies to introduce products to support On30 modellers. At the same time, On30 lost its reputation as a kitbasher’s scale: When great RTR is available, not to mention great kits that are custom-designed to fit available mechanisms, the impetus for scratch-building and kit bashing is reduced.

Again, this is not to say that people do not scratch-build in O, or in narrow gauge. Craftsmanship abounds. But compared to how it was a decade or two ago, scratch-building is more of a choice, not a necessity. It’s still a necessity in 1:64.

 photo SnowFence-Done-02_zps66zuefg1.jpg
(Even little details like the rolls of snow fence must be scratch-built in S. Click on the image to read more about the Port Rowan section house.)

Third, S scale has always been a scale that has attracted scratch-builders, but they were operating below the radar: Those outside of the scale (including me, at the time) didn’t know what was going on in S. That’s yet another thing that’s changed with the Internet. Blogs (not just this one), forums, newsgroups, YouTube, Facebook and other social media channels have made it easy for those who build to share their efforts.

Obviously, I’m thinking a lot about this subject after reading the comments from Gene and Jurgen. Thanks, both of you, for the observations!

Big models of small prototypes

S is a minority scale – not many of us work in it – so it sometimes takes some explaining to those who are not familiar with it. I think a photo can convey a lot of useful information about the relationship between S and HO – and where each scale has its strengths – so I took one:
 photo SvsHO-Steam_zps79a0ba38.jpg

At 1:64, S is 36 per cent larger than HO – in each direction. For me, what this means is that S is an ideal scale for building models of smaller prototypes, such as the CNR Mogul at left. This S scale 2-6-0 is roughly one foot long – or about the same length as the HO scale New York Central 2-8-2 posed with it.

From a model-building perspective, this means that the CNR 2-6-0 – which would be darned tiny in HO – is a decent size in S scale. Many HO scale models of these small locomotives look great, but run terribly. But in S, there’s space in that boiler for a decent-sized motor, there’s room to thread wires to extra electrical pick-ups, there’s an opportunity to add a decent amount of weight, and so on.

In fact, there’s arguably more space, because S scale models are taller and wider as the photo shows. The space advantage also applies to tiny details such as the lights and number boards – which are easier to illuminate in S simply because there’s more space for LEDs (or lamps) and wiring.

At the same time, this small S scale steamer requires roughly the same standards on a layout as a medium-sized HO steam locomotive. Turntables, storage tracks, tails for run-arounds, and so on – if an HO Mikado will fit, so will an S scale Mogul. The 2-6-0 will demand a larger minimum radius – in part because the equipment it pulls will also be larger, and will look better on broader curves. But it’s also likely to pull shorter trains than a 2-8-2, so the actual train lengths – and therefore the space taken up on the layout by staging, yard tracks, sidings and so on – may work out to about the same.

Since I like small steam prototypes, S scale allows me to enjoy them while also enjoying the presence and performance benefits akin to well-detailed, well-tuned, medium-sized HO scale steam.

(Thanks to my friend Pierre Oliver for the loan of this locomotive to help illustrate this post!)

A very brief moment of weakness

Valley Mallet portrait photo SP-1767-05.jpg

While Hunter Hughson and I waited for Mark Zagrodney to arrive for yesterday’s ops session, layout design discussion and dinner, I hauled out some of the Proto:48 equipment that I’d acquired for a planned Southern Pacific layout. Hunter is a musician as well as a modeller, and we had been talking about the shortcomings of trying to push full-sized locomotive sounds through the tiny-and-therefore-tinny speakers that we’re forced to install into our models.

I thought Hunter would enjoy hearing what can be done when one has the space for a decent-sized speaker. And even in a small prototype, such as this SP 2-6-0, there’s a veritable cathedral of space inside the tender. In this case, I was able to fit a 1.77″ diameter High Bass speaker. As this brief video from a couple of years ago demonstrates, the sound is pretty spectacular compared to what one is used to in HO – even captured through the condenser mic on my camera:

The detail on the O scale locomotives in my collection is also impressive. I take no credit for it – it’s all the work of the builder (Boo Rim) and the importer (Glacier Park Models):
A study in piping photo SP-1767-06.jpg

Cab light photo SP-1767-03.jpg

Back-up light photo SP-1767-04.jpg

And the couplers – retrofits from Protocraft coupler kits – are as realistic as one could want. They even operate correctly: to uncouple, one uses a dental pick to lift the cut bar, which in turn pulls the pin.

After playing with the locomotives and some other equipment for a bit, we went onto other things – but it got me thinking about whether I’d picked the right scale (S) and the right prototype (CNR) for my current layout. Did I make a mistake?

So this morning I re-read one of my earliest postings, called “Why S Scale?” I reflected on my observation from more than two years ago that, as I put it:

When trying to draw an O scale plan for my layout space, I always came away unsatisfied… (and)… my two primary objectives for the layout were in conflict.

That took care of the waffling – and serves as an example why it’s useful to document one’s progress in the hobby. Re-reading my blog this morning, I was able to cast the hard, cold light of reality on yesterday’s moment wistful nostalgia for O scale. 1:64 is definitely the right scale for me – for this layout room, at least.

I also had a look at my entry about the SP Friant branch on my Achievable Layouts blog. In that post, I included a rough sketch of an S scale SP layout for my space. It reminded me that in O scale, the already-compressed scenes in that plan wouldn’t fit at all:
SP Friant Branch Layout in S scale (space test) photo SP-FriantBranch_zps8053816f.jpg
(Click on the plan to read more)

That said, I’m going to hang onto my O scale models, which slumber in a display case in my home office. I enjoy looking at them – and I really enjoyed running a couple of them on a simple test track yesterday.

Maybe – someday – I’ll figure out how to use them as the basis for a layout:

It might have to wait for a move and a bigger layout room.

Or perhaps when I get the S scale layout a little further along I can think about doing a UK-style exhibition layout: Another advantage of those big speakers is that the sound the generate can actually be heard in a public hall.

Failing that, maybe I can find space in my current house for a shelf switcher. It may seem counter-intuitive but when the trains themselves are so big, even a simple “Inglenook Sidings” style of layout can be entertaining.

Well, we’ll see. It’s a hobby and I’m in no rush to make a decision on this. But in the meantime, yesterday’s fun also reminded me that I still have to install DCC and sound in some of these locomotives, a procedure that includes a second decoder to provide independent control of headlight, back-up light, class lamps, illuminated number boards, and cab interior light. Working on these will be a nice project when I need to a break from Port Rowan and recharge my enthusiasm for layout-building.

It’s all good!

It must be enjoyable

I had somebody I know email me offline to say how much he enjoyed seeing the movie of my Maine two-foot layout, which I recently posted to this blog.

He’s a fan of narrow gauge and while he made a point of saying he enjoys what I’m doing with the CNR Port Rowan branch, he really wishes more people would take up the challenge of modelling the Maine two-footers in O or S scales, as I once did.

In my response, I noted that the key phrase in my previous posting is “on those rare days that it worked well”.

The unfortunate reality is that those days were rare indeed. I won’t go into the details here but the upshot is, I took up the challenge and – after seven years of trying to model a convincing Maine two-footer – I found the exercise so frustrating that it was ruining the hobby for me.

Most days, my On2 adventure felt like a Sisyphean challenge:
Progress Report photo ProgressReport.jpg

I kept trying to make it work because I loved the look of narrow gauge in general, and Maine two-footers in particular. I also enjoyed the larger size of O scale. But eventually, I got tired of fighting to push that rock up the hill. Others may do better with On2: More power to them!

I’m having better luck with S scale.

That’s not to say that my layout is perfect – like any layout, it requires maintenance. For example, this week I’m dealing with a bit of expansion which has closed the gap between the main track and the sector plate. I’ll need to file back the rails a bit, or create a set of sliding rails so I can adjust the approach to the sector plate to suit the season. I also have one turnout that’s giving me a bit of grief: I need to adjust the points so they do a better job of mating with the stock rails.

But these are small, isolated issues.

It’s a rare day indeed when the layout does not work well, and that’s an important difference. I’m still challenging myself – just as I did in On2 – but with S, I achieve enough successes that I’m also having fun.

And that’s important because this is a hobby – and that means it must, first and foremost, be enjoyable. It’s meant to provide a welcome diversion from the stresses in the rest of one’s life – not become another source of stress and frustration.

That doesn’t mean the hobby has to be easy, but it shouldn’t actually seem like your trains are actively fighting you.

“How does it feel compared to Maine On2?”

Having read the report on my first operating session on the Port Rowan layout, that’s the question a friend of mine asked. He models a Maine two-footer in 1:48 scale so he knows, first-hand, some of the frustrations I had working in On2. I know a number of other readers are here because they’re friends who share my interest in the Maine two-footers as well, so I’m sure they’re curious too. It’s a great question.

From the perspective of the style of railroading depicted, this standard gauge layout and my previous, two-foot gauge layout are very similar:

– Both model steam-era common carrier railroading.
– The trains are similar too – like The Daily Effort to Port Rowan, my two-footer hosted short mixed trains consisting of a couple of freight cars plus varnish to carry passengers, mail and express.
– With the exception of the carloads generated by the slate mill, the freight traffic on the Maine two-footer was similar – building supplies, agricultural products, coal and oil, etc.
– And my two-footer served customers primarily via team tracks and other shared, public sidings as opposed to dedicated spurs – just as customers are served on the Port Rowan branch.

What’s different?

Ironically, the standard gauge terminal at Port Rowan operates more like a Maine two-foot terminal than the freelanced terminal I built in On2. At Port Rowan, trains arrive, do their work, turn and leave – much like they did in places like Monson Jct., Bridgton Jct., and Farmington. On my Maine two-footer, I never had the room to model a main yard such as the one at Phillips, so my transfer yard served double-duty as a classification yard. That never really worked.

But the biggest difference is mechanical. My S scale locomotives run beautifully – they’re smooth and reliable at all speeds, and they’re sure-footed like mountain goats. I tried hard to create bullet-proof track work on my Maine two-footer and had all of my On2 locomotives tuned up by someone comfortable with tweaking drivetrains, and still had disappointing results. My On2 equipment ran well, but not perfectly.

If that seems like a lofty goal, it shouldn’t – if locomotives, rolling stock and track work are all built with care and attention to quality, operation should be flawless. I could never come close to that in On2 – but in S, I’m almost there. I may never get there, but it’s worth trying because it will mean that when I’m hosting an operating session, I’ll be able to immerse myself completely in the miniature world I’ve created instead of spending my time fretting and fettling track and equipment. As I mentioned in my first run report, I had two derailments – pretty good for a break-in run – and I’ll attend to those. But otherwise, I enjoyed perfect performance, which meant I could enjoy watching my work in progress come to life.

In those terms, there’s no comparison – compared to On2, it felt fantastic!

Why S scale?

That has to be the second question, and the answer is complex. This posting will therefore be long – thanks in advance for chewing through it.

First, some background. I’ve modelled in O scale for several years. My last layout was in O scale, two-foot gauge, depicting the unique narrow gauge railroads of Maine:

My Maine On2 layout.

I’ve also spent much of the last year working on various projects for a planned Southern Pacific layout in Proto:48:

SP-1767 in Proto:48

I enjoyed the projects, which included:

– Adding DCC, sound and lights to my Glacier Park Models SP 2-6-0s;
– Detailing rolling stock, including a lot of Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator cars; and
– Converting everything to Proto:48 trucks and Protocraft couplers.

A portrait of the Valley Mallet.

Cut Lever - Bottom Mount

I love the size of O. Trains have heft. Details can be seen. And I enjoy building large models of small prototypes such as section houses and flag stop shelters.

However, when trying to draw an O scale plan for my layout space, I always came away unsatisfied. The problem is, my space is reasonably long, but very narrow. I was running into curve radius issues. I was also finding that, in O scale at least, my two primary objectives for the layout were in conflict.

First, I wanted to create realistic scenes. That meant giving the scenes space to breathe, so they’d look like places one would find on a full size, standard gauge railroad as opposed to a miniature basement empire. It also meant using larger turnouts than what one normally sees on model railways. My friend Mike Cougill uses #8s and #10s on his Indiana and Whitewater layout and I love the effect. (But judge it for yourself by visiting the OST Publications website and look for his book on detailing track in the online store.)

Second, I wanted some operation. Not a lot, but enough to keep a couple of people entertained for an hour or so.

What I found was that even a simple design became so compressed in O scale that it ended up looking like a TimeSaver. (Not literally, mind you: I use the term as an example of any compact switching puzzle – the very sort of thing that real railroads avoid. Craig Bisgeier has written a great critique of the TimeSaver and why one should not use it in a layout.)

In addition, every plan required a HUGE balloon track involving almost 360 degrees of curvature (when one includes an adjacent yet necessary S curve) to get trains from one side of my layout space to the other. Even so, this curve was going to have to be pretty tight – I would say “train set tight”. Every design ended up with two too-tight switching districts (or a too-tight terminal and a staging yard) and a whole lot of curved, awkward nothing in between. Try as I might, I just could not imagine hand-laying all that track for something I knew would end up being frustrating. Been there, done that.

At some point, I realized that Proto:48 would not fit my space and give me what I wanted. So, what to do? Some friends suggested that I make some adjustments to my goals – for example, by trading in the small steam power for small diesels, which could negotiate a tighter curve and smaller turnouts. I decided on a different strategy.

I’m interested in a variety of scales, gauges and prototypes. And along the way, I’ve collected interesting equipment for each – often for use with local modular groups to which I belong.

It occurred to me that I should try working my way down through the scales/models in my collection. Could I design an appropriate layout for these, that would fit my basement, look realistic and give me the operation I desire? O scale (1:48) didn’t fit, but maybe its 3/4 sized cousin, S scale, would? If not, I have plenty of HO in the display cabinet.

My S scale models are of Canadian National steam-era prototypes, for use on the sectional layout built by the members of the S Scale Workshop:

S Scale Workshop.
(Want to know more? Visit the S Scale Workshop online)

I’m an associate member of this group – I’ve yet to build a module – but I’d picked up two lovely S scale CN 10-Wheelers built by Simon Parent from his own kits:

CNR 1532 in 1:64.

CNR 1560 in 1:64.

Could I find a suitable CN prototype?

Ian Wilson has written a series of books on the Canadian National in southern Ontario, so I grabbed my stack of these and started searching for small yet interesting spots I could model. Ian’s book on the Hamilton lines included information and photos on Port Rowan, which I liked for various reasons, aesthetic and practical.

It took two attempts to create a plan that fit my space beautifully:

– The 25% saved by downsizing to S scale would allow me to use the longer turnouts I desired and still give me plenty of space in my scenes for a realistic arrangement of structures.

– In addition, I could reduce my minimum radius by 15% in S; which would still be a more generous curve for my S scale CN 10-Wheelers than my O scale radius would have been for the SP 2-6-0s. The relatively larger minimum radius addressed the “train set curve” issue.

– The space saved by switching to S would also free up enough real estate for me to include the siding and station at St. Williams (the next town up the branch from Port Rowan) and still have room for a decent-sized staging yard to represent the rest of the world. Operations just got a whole lot more interesting and there would be a stronger sense of the trains actually going somewhere.

So far, so good. But two locomotives do not a layout make. What else is available for a CN layout in S? I’ll address that next time…