See you in Burnaby in May!

RMMBC - Logo

If you’re in the greater Vancouver area, I’m a guest speaker at the 5th annual Railway Modellers Meet of British Columbia. This is a convention organized by the members of the 7th Division PNR-NMRA, and takes place May 22-24, 2020 at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby.

The theme for this year’s gathering is “The Road Less Travelled” and in my opening address I’m to set the tone. To that end, I’ll be exploring some of the rabbit holes I’ve been down in the hobby, and how they improved my enjoyment of railway modelling. I’ll also offer suggestions about how others can broaden their focus, and (hopefully) reap more rewards from this great hobby of ours. I’ll also be giving a clinic that focuses more specifically on Port Rowan, and modelling in 1:64.

For more on the convention, click on the logo at the top of this post. Bookmark the RMMBC site and check back often – more information will be posted there between now and May.

I hope to meet some of you there!

Dinner Train with Robinson and Ilana, and Bernard and Holly

Train M238 - St. Williams west
CNR M238 emerges from the Lynn Valley as it rolls eastbound into St. Williams

Last night, Mairi and I hosted a dinner party for a couple of couples. An old friend from university, Robinson Kelly and his girlfriend Ilana curious to see my model railway – and because we thought they would make a great addition to the evening, we invited fellow railway modelling enthusiast Bernard Hellen and his wife Holly to join us.

Robinson is not a member of our fine hobby – but he really enjoyed his introduction to it and jumped at the offer to come over sometime to experience an operating session. I will have to think about how to introduce that to someone who is brand new to the hobby, especially since I have developed a lot of operations procedures, materials, paperwork etc. I don’t want to scare him off! Robinson would be an ideal addition to our hobby: He’s smart, curious about the world around him, and has the time and the resources to consider building a layout. We’ll see. I’m not going to push him, though: He’s more than welcome to enjoy the hobby through me and the Simcoe Sub to Port Rowan.

As I noted, Bernard is a fellow hobbyist. He models the Québec Gatineau – a modern G&W-owned short line running between Montréal and Québec City – in HO scale. Bernard’s layout is not as far along as mine, although he has started some scenery and the work he’s done is excellent. I think he enjoyed showing my layout to Holly – it was her first visit – because it gave her an example of what he’s planning to achieve. Holly and Ilana both enjoyed the tour.

Bernard lives relatively close by (at least in Toronto terms): I can walk a half block south of my house, hop on a streetcar, and be in his layout room with no transfers in about 20 minutes. In addition the interest in trains that Bernard and I share, the four of us get along really well – so we need to see more of each other. A lot more.

We had an amazing evening – so amazing, I forgot to take photos while giving the tour. (Thanks to Bernard for sharing the image that leads off this post.)

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I don’t build layouts for the trains: I build them for the friendships they foster. As a “social lubricant”, Port Rowan was a huge success last night and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of these friends!

Ops and dinner with Stephen

Cornfield meet: Oct 2019 Ops

Recently, at a gathering chez Harbord House of like-minded modellers, I lamented that I don’t get enough opportunities to operate my layout. More on that in a moment – but my friend Stephen Gardiner, who was part of the group, said, “Let’s pick a date and do it!”

So we did – yesterday. I prepped the layout in the morning and when Stephen arrived after work we were ready to go.

The first order of the day was to run a short work extra eastbound out of Port Rowan. This was hauled by CNR 1 – a 44-Tonner. I have equipped this model with a decoder and electronic flywheel, but it did experience a few pick-up problems regardless. I will have to look into that. Fortunately, it was not the main event and soon cleared the line.

Extra 1 East met Extra 80 West at St. Williams. Extra 80 West was the day’s local freight, with cars for St. Williams and Port Rowan. With the exception of a few missed couplings – caused by not having the knuckles properly aligned – the session proceeded flawlessly. It’s a testament to the beautiful locomotives designed and built by my friend Simon Parent, as well as to the power of rubbing the rails with a graphite stick.

Stephen took on the dual role of conductor/brakeman, planning our moves, tracking the paperwork and operating the track switches. I perched in the engineer’s seat. The session lasted just over an hour, by which time we were ready to head for Harbord House for pints and a meal.

Stephen at St. Williams
(Stephen collects the waybills for cars in St. Williams from the bill box, which represents the station. He’ll then use the desk behind him to plan our moves in this small community)

Trevor at Lynn Valley
(Stephen caught me as I ran our train through the Lynn Valley and past the water tank. I look pensive. I’m probably not…)

Mocean at Port Rowan
(Mocean – one of my three border collies – keeps us company during the session. It’s not an ops session in my layout room without a dog under foot!)

Stephen at Port Rowan
(We’ve recently arrived in Port Rowan, and Stephen is planing our moves at the slide out desk opposite the not-yet-built station)

As I said off the top, I don’t get that many opportunities to run the layout. Of course, I could run it by myself – and for the first few years, I did that – a lot. It is well-suited for one-person operations. But once one has mastered the operating scheme, it becomes fairly repetitive. Any layout will do that – but it’s especially true of a layout designed for solo ops.

But that’s okay, because I don’t build layouts for the trains – I build them for the friendships. I enjoy the relaxed ops sessions that my layout enables, because it gives my friends and I breathing space to talk – about the hobby, about other things going on in our lives, and so on.

From a purely practical perspective, I’m grateful that the layout performs as well as it does, given the infrequency with which it gets operated. The layout’s simplicity sure helps here – with a minimal number of switches and no other fancy track work or wiring, there’s relatively little on it to go wrong. And the aforementioned graphite stick is really the bees knees for track conductivity. It’s been more than six years since I so treated the rails and I have yet to clean the track, other than after I’ve worked on something messy in the area.

It was great to run a train or two – and the session reminded me of many of the things I like about the layout – from its relaxed pace of operations to the scenery:track ratio I’ve achieved, which really places the trains in the scene instead of overwhelming it. That’s such a compelling argument for me.

The answer, for me, is not to run the layout more often – but to make opportunities to run it more often because I’m hosting one or two of my friends in the hobby. I’ll work on that.

When Scott and Sharon came to town

What do you do when there’s a federal election on, and you’re worried about the outcome? You entertain visitors from out of town – that’s what! The timing was perfect when Scott Thornton (one of the creators of the ProtoThrottle) emailed to say he and his wife Sharon would be in town, and asked if he could visit to see the layout. Of course!

ProtoThrottle

Back when Scott and his friends started selling the ProtoThrottle, I polled a few friends about whether they were interested in one. I figured we could do a bulk order to save some hassle on shipping. Hunter Hughson and Ryan Mendell were both interested, so I ended up ordering three of them. And since I figured that a dinner was long overdue with Hunter and Ryan, I invited them and their better halves to join us too.

I gave Scott a quick tour of the layout – well, not that quick: I think we disappeared to the basement for the best part of an hour. Once everybody arrived at my place, eight of us walked up to Harvest Kitchen – a neighbourhood restaurant that specializes in locally-sourced food and general yumminess. We had a wonderful time.

I was reminded, again, that the true strength of the hobby is in the friendships it fosters. For me, that’s more important than the trains themselves. I’m really glad Scott got in touch.

And it was a great way to forget about the election for a few hours.

Santé!

Garden Renovation

Back yard - September 28 2018
(Well, all of this just has to go…)

It may seem quiet around these parts – and it is. That’s because there’s stuff happening elsewhere in the house – specifically, in the back yard. My wife and I are busy overseeing a scorched earth-style garden renovation to transform a jungle into a space we actually want to use.

Is there a railway modelling angle in all of this? You bet – as I explain on my Adventures in Live Steam blog. You can start at “Clearing the Jungle” and click your way forward through the posts. Or you can bookmark the “Garden Renovation” category and see all the posts, from most recent to oldest.

Enjoy if you visit!

The Austin Eagle is in the books!

In mid-June, I spent four days in and around Austin, Texas to attend The Austin Eagle – the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention. I had an amazing time! Everyone I met in the region was incredibly friendly and even though they knew each other much better than they knew me, they immediately made me feel right at home.

I packed a lot into the four days – including two operating sessions, a day of touring layouts, a clinic presentation, speaking at the Saturday night banquet, and a whole bunch of great food, craft beer and engaging conversation. It’s hard to know where to begin.

But I’ll start with the banquet. I was the guest speaker, and whenever I do one of these I’m cognizant that there’s a wide range of interests in the room. Speaking at the banquet is not the time to present a tour of your home layout, no matter how well known you are (and I’ve seen that done by some people in the hobby who are much better known than I am). That’s fodder for a clinic (and I did discuss my layout in my Friday morning time slot).

As with other such engagements – including the Algonquin Turn 2016 in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and the Ontario Manifest (Ontario, California) last September – I used the keynote opportunity to share 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 have done many things in this hobby. I have worked in several scale/gauge combinations, attended conventions, operations weekends, RPM meets, narrow gauge gatherings, SIG events, train shows, exhibitions in which trains are displayed to the general public, and more. I’ve given speeches, written articles, produced and co-hosted a podcast, and been both a guest and a host on TrainMasters TV. And, of course, I’ve blogged.

While that reads a bit like a brag, I feel I need to mention it because as a result of this exposure, I’ve had brilliant conversations with many, many people about our hobby. That includes people who have been railway modelling enthusiasts for decades… those who have just started… and even those who have never heard of the hobby.

Man using Ear Trumpet

One thing that I’ve learned from all of those conversations is that for many of us in the hobby, this is more than a way to kill some time. It’s been a lifelong journey of friendships and learning. We love this hobby – and many of us wonder how we encourage more people to join us as railway modelling enthusiasts. In particular, we wonder how we’re going to reach young people.

I run into similar questions in my professional life as a speech writer. I’ve worked with many clients who are trying to connect their businesses – and the products and services they provide – with customers, and one demographic that everybody is trying to figure out is the Millennials. Broadly described, the Millennials are the cohort of young people born in the 1990s or later.

One of the biggest factors that sets Millennials apart from the rest of us is that this is a group that has never known a world in which the Internet did not exist. That has had a huge influence on how the Millennials think and act.

I won’t get into detail here – I had an hour for my speech, and I filled it – but I shared a number of insights about the Millennials, including:

1 – The world in which they’re living. Millennials gravitate to urban cores for a variety of reasons related to lifestyle and employment. And those are expensive places to live. That means dedicated space for a layout is limited, or non-existent.

2 – The economic reality they face: For a variety of reasons related to cost of living and the changing nature of employment, it’s expected that the members of this generation will be the first who are financially worse off than their parents.

3 – The relevance – or, more to the point, irrelevance – of real railroads in their daily lives.

Those are challenges, but there are some positive things to be said, too. Specifically, there’s a group of Millennials – call them The Makers – who love to build things. They are the future of our hobby.

4 – The Makers are building battle bots, steampunk accessories, LEGO machines, and more. They speak Arduino and Raspberry Pi. They’re comfortable with designing on computer, to run a machine (such as a 3D Printer) that does the construction. They develop apps to integrate their smart phones with their devices. And so on. Our challenge is not “How do we get young people to build things?” but “How do we identify those who do – and convince them to give our hobby a try?”

5 – Our hobby embodies many characteristics that appeal to Millennial Makers – including the collaborative nature of the “operations” game that we play, in which there are no winners or losers.

6 – I’ve run into many examples in our hobby where our interests and those of The Makers overlap. So we’re not as far apart as we think.

However, to engage with The Millenial Makers, we have to take a different approach. For them, trains are not the gateway into our hobby. I believe we need to back them into becoming railway modellers by emphasizing those things that appeal to the Millennial Makers – such as electronics, interactivity, collaborative work, and social media. For example:

7 – If a Millennial is doing something with servos and controllers, ask them how they would tackle a semaphore signalling system or train order boards.
 
8 – If they’re doing something with RFID, ask how they’d apply it to tracking freight cars on a layout.

9 – If they’re creating designs for a 3D Printer, ask how they would replicate a diesel control stand, in miniature, to hold the electronics found in a DCC throttle.
 
10 – If they’re interested in APP development, ask how they would create an APP to turn a smart watch into a fast clock.

And yes, these are ideas that are already being tackled by hobbyists, but so what? These are the places where our hobbies meet. Let’s take advantage of that. And let’s recognize that there are many ways to approach a problem – a fresh, non-hobby set of eyes may be just what we need.

That said, reaching Millennial Makers will require changes to how many of us do things in the hobby. For example:

11 – We can’t do this if we’re preaching to younger people, because that will just drive them away. To encourage more people to join our hobby, we need to do more listening – to find out what fires a person’s interests, and then relate that to what we do. We enjoy a hobby unlike any other in terms of the depth and breadth of what can be done in it. No matter what a person says they’re interested in, I am confident we can find examples in our hobby to which they can relate. But we have to know what they like, first – so shut up and listen. And yes, I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to not listening. I think we fall into this because we are so keen to tell people about our great hobby. We want to share it. And sometimes we smother others.

12 – We also can’t engage Millennial Makers – or anybody else for that matter – if our only public presence is the Train Show. That’s because at train shows, we’re mostly talking to ourselves. Say the words “Train Show” and an image comes to mind that, frankly, many people outside of the hobby would not consider interesting. To reach Millennial Makers, I think we need to do more to take our hobby to where they are – to events such as Maker Faires, and meetings at Maker Spaces. (If you’re not sure what those are, Google them.) And we need to do more to put our efforts online where younger, connected people can find them. Starting a blog is a good example of how we can do that, and in a previous post I’ve offered some thoughts on doing that, as well as some reasons why your hobby might benefit from one.

I hope I left the banquet attendees with some useful information and some ideas for further discussions. If you were in the room, thanks for letting me speak – and do share your thoughts on this via the comments section on this post (or start your own blog!), because it would be great to hear from you.

In fact, I’m already receiving a great deal of interesting (and positive) feedback from the banquet speech. A number of attendees approached me afterwards, to run ideas past me or offer up suggestions on how they intend to incorporate some of my ideas into their local activities as a way to encourage more people outside the hobby to consider railway modelling as a worthwhile, rewarding, lifetime hobby. What was especially notable about my presentation this time around is that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive – rather than fret that the hobby may be changing, the members of the Lone Star Region of the NMRA seem, to a person, to be ready to grab the bull by the horns and wrestle it. It convinces me that the hobby will remain strong in the Lone Star Region.

As an aside, The Austin Eagle was the final regional convention for Charlie Getz in his role as NMRA President. I was pleased that he was in the room for my address. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to talk to him afterwards – so I didn’t get any immediate feedback. But I was pleased to read Charlie’s thoughts in the July/August 2018 NMRA eBulletin:

Getz-eBulletin

(Thanks for the kind words, Charlie. And you’re right – this hobby is robust enough that it has a bright future!)

I also took part in a couple of operating sessions and a self-guided layout tour, which I’ve covered in separate posts.

Finally, I ate some superb food in Texas. The greater Austin area has a vibrant food and craft beer culture. A highlight on the trip included Jack Allen’s Kitchen, a small chain of farm-to-table restaurants. I liked it so much I bought the cookbook on the way out the door and my wife and I have been enjoying a taste of Texas ever since.

And it wouldn’t be a trip to Texas without barbecue – including Green Mesquite and The Salt Lick.

Thanks to the organizing committee for putting on the terrific event – and a special thanks to Riley Triggs for reaching out to me and asking me to speak at the banquet. I had an awesome time (despite picking up a nasty cold on the plane trip home) and I look forward to returning to Austin in the future!

See you at The Austin Eagle!

Austin Eagle Banner

I’m putting the finishing touches on the presentations I’ll be delivering at The Austin Eagle – the NMRA Lone Star Region’s 2018 convention being held June 13-17 in Austin, Texas. If you’re in the area and want to attend, click on the banner, above, to head straight to the convention website.

I’ll be delivering two presentations…

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.

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 my experience in my professional life as a corporate speech writer, I’ve garnered some insights into the demographic known as The Millennials. I’m going to share some 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”. I’ll 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.

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-themed branch line will be of little interest to many at a regional convention in Texas, I’m using my layout as a jumping off point to talk about working in a minority scale.

In my clinic, I’ll share the opportunities and challenges of modeling a specific prototype in a minority scale. I’ll cover how I ended up in a less popular scale and how that influenced my decision when choosing a prototype. I’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’ve never been to Texas. I’m looking forward to visiting Austin and putting some faces to some names at the convention: maybe yours will be one of them!

No NERPM for me this year

Well, nuts.

Things did not work out. Something has come up and I won’t be able to attend the New England / Northeast RPM June 1-2 in Enfield, Connecticut.

I was really looking forward to it, but life sometimes gets in the way of trains.

No need to send best wishes, etc. It’s all good. But if you want to take my place, there’s a clinic slot open at 9am on the Friday…

Start your own dinner club!

As I mentioned earlier this month, I was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders. I used to be a member, many years ago when I lived in the nation’s capital. And that experience inspired me a few years ago to set up a similar group in the Greater Toronto Area.

The Toronto Railway Supper Club is a social club – we don’t build a layout, hold a contest, or have clinics. There are plenty of other organizations that do that – and members of those organizations are part of the supper club.

Supper Club - March 2015

(A member of the Toronto Railway Supper Club discusses a brass model he’s been re-detailing. No, it wasn’t me…)

As the name suggests, we get together once a month and have dinner. More recently, we’ve started having a member (or members) do a brief after-dinner presentation. The point is to gather with hobbyists who are, perhaps, outside our normal circle of friends or modelling interests. We can learn from each other, over a meal and an adult beverage. New friendships are formed, too!

I ran the Toronto Railway Supper Club for three years, before stepping aside to let some others take over for a while. I think it’s important to build up a group of people who can manage such an organization. (That’s the OVAR model, too: that group has an executive team that regularly changes up as people decide it’s time for someone else to take a turn.)

Some people have asked how I set up the Toronto Railway Supper Club, so here are a few tips – based on my experience – for setting up a supper club of your own:

1 – Work with the venue. Before I even approached other hobbyists about the supper club, I talked to my local gastropub (yep – Harbord House) to see if they could accommodate a large group. We picked a Monday, since that’s a day that’s normally slow for the pub. Each month, I’d check with the pub to confirm a date, so they could write it in their calendar. And I would get in touch with the pub about a week before the event to let them know how many people we would have – approximately – so they could plan staffing, etc., accordingly. (More on that, below.)

2 – Start small. For the first event, I invited fewer than a dozen friends. I described what I wanted to do, and then at our first dinner, I invited to each invite somebody to join them at the second dinner. The idea was to grow gradually, so I could figure out the details as I went along. And by having my friends invite friends, I would meet a bunch of people I did not know well – that was the point, after all.

3 – If the group grows too big for your venue, look for another. This happened with us: once we were regularly getting 25-30 people at Harbord House, we found the noise level was overwhelming. People started to leave the club because it was just too loud. So I went looking for another venue. A friend in the club suggested Louis Cifer Brew Works, which has a mezzanine for larger groups, complete with audio-visual equipment that allowed us to do powerpoint presentations after dinner.

3 – Don’t get stuck in your own niche in the hobby. In other words, don’t make it an S scale group – or a free-mo group – or a D&RGW modellers group. Branch out. In our club, some are primarily interested in operations, while others focus on electronics… or live steam… or building structures. A broad variety of scales, gauges, eras and so on are represented. Some are members of clubs, or historical societies, or museums. Some are manufacturers, while others work at (or own) hobby shops. Some are historians, with no interest in modelling. But the best conversations happen when three or four hobbyists talk about a common subject from different perspectives.

4 – Find a way to organize the event that works for you. When I started the Supper Club, I did this almost entirely by email (sample below), and kept a list on my smart phone of who was attending in a given month. Now that two others are managing the club, they use Doodle polls to announce dinners and tally attendees.

5 – Lay out some ground rules – but not too many. The Toronto Railway Supper Club has one main rule: If you plan to attend, let the organizer know at least a week ahead of time so an accurate number can be given to the venue. That’s it. Oh – and pay your bill at the end of the night: my rule for that, as organizer, was that I would stay until the end of the evening and would cover anybody’s bill – but add a 30% tip for the server. And then I’d collect from the person who dined and dashed. (It’s surprisingly easy for that to happen: when you’re in a conversation and realize your car-pool driver is about to leave, you might grab your coat and go…)

6 – Encourage participation: ask people to bring out models or other projects to display and talk about. If someone is a member of a club, or historical society/museum, or organizes a train show, ask them to talk for a minute or two about what’s going on with their group. Supper clubs should be all about the cross-pollination of ideas. Getting people to talk about what they’re doing is what it’s all about.

7 – As for presentations, they’re a great idea – but keep them light, and short! Remember, most people in the room will not have a strong interest in or extensive knowledge of what you’re doing – and most of them will probably have had a bit too much to eat and drink, because hey: we’re having fun, right? So, no RPM-style clinics. No displays of your encyclopedic knowledge. Give your audience a break, with a presentation that will appeal to a broad range of interests: An overview of your layout is a good one, as is a rail fanning trip you recently took. Pictures are good! 20 minutes is fine. 40 is probably the limit.

8 – Encourage responsibility: encourage car-pooling with designated drivers. If you’re in an urban area, pick a venue that’s close to public transit.

To help you organize your own supper club, here’s a copy of the typical email I would send to members to announce an event.

Hi everyone:

Here are the details for our next get-together…

Monday, September 25, 2017 – 6:00 pm on

Louis Cifer Brew Works
417 Danforth Avenue
Toronto ON M4K 1P1
(Map attached)

http://www.louisciferbrewworks.com

PLEASE CONFIRM YOUR ATTENDANCE BY MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 18TH. And please do not “reply all” when confirming.

As always, knowing how many are on board is vital, so…

IF YOU PLAN TO ATTEND, YOU MUST LET ME KNOW. It’s the ONLY “rule” for this group. Thanks in advance!

As the maps show, Louis Cifer is quite close to the Chester TTC subway station, on the south side of Danforth. It’s also just a few minutes east of the Don Valley Parkway – take the exit for the Danforth/Bloor and go east over the King Eddy Viaduct. There’s are a couple of Green P parking lots in the vicinity. Here are links to five close ones:

http://parking.greenp.com/parking-info/carpark-info/87_14-arundel-avenue.html
http://parking.greenp.com/parking-info/carpark-info/277_242-danforth-avenue.html
http://parking.greenp.com/parking-info/carpark-info/156_18-ferrier-avenue.html
http://parking.greenp.com/parking-info/carpark-info/88_25-ferrier-avenue.html
http://parking.greenp.com/parking-info/carpark-info/78_35-erindale-avenue.html

If you do not want to be a part of this social group, let me know and I’ll remove you from the list. Just because you’re invited, doesn’t mean you have to attend – but we’d love to have you as a part of this group.

If you know someone who you think would be a good addition, let me know that too. Send me an email with their email address, and I’ll invite them.

RIDE SHARING, ETC.:

Some of you are coming in from out of town and I know a few of you live in the same general direction as others in this club. If you have a ride to share, or are looking for one, feel free to ask on this list or contact a list member off-list. You all have each other’s emails by now…

Any questions? Email or call…

I’m looking forward to seeing you soon!

That should answer most of your questions – but if not, ask via the comments. And if you start up a supper club, let me know: Maybe I’ll come for a visit!