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!

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 Logo

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.

OVAR-2018-TitleSlide

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)

OVAR Logo

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!

Ops with Mark and Dan

Yesterday, my friend Mark Zagrodney and his son Dan came over for an afternoon operations session on the layout.

I try for perfect operations sessions – zero derailments, zero electrical problems, etc. – and for the most part I have succeeded. But this session wasn’t one of those. Everything stayed on the rails, but I did have some electrical gremlins.

Once or twice, my DCC system kicked into short mode. I suspect, but can’t confirm, that something on a brass locomotive is touching something else that it shouldn’t – and that the lightning-quick circuit protection in the ECoS 50200 is catching the short before it clears itself. I’ll investigate that.

More frequently, though, the Mobile Control II wi-fi throttle would lose its connection with the base station. A while ago, I talked to Matt Herman at ESU about this and he suggested moving the Wireless Access Point (WAP), or replacing it with one from another manufacturer. I’m going to try mounting the WAP higher in the room – right now, it’s in the drawer with the DCC system. If that doesn’t work, I’ll look at a more robust WAP.

In part, I know the problems occur because I haven’t run the layout in a while (and I say that a lot lately on this blog). Unlike in the early days of Port Rowan, I’m less inclined to hold solo operating sessions these days. There are other things to do, and when I have hobby time, I try to work on something (such as the CNR 2-8-2 project).

I don’t know if that’ll change. The hobby is a social one for me, so I’m really happier hosting operating sessions than I am running solo. I guess I’ll have to book more sessions to keep things rolling smoothly.

Despite these DCC issues, I had a lot of fun. Dan took on the engineer’s role, while Mark played conductor. I helped out with brakeman’s duties as required. It’s always interesting to watch people solve the problem of switching what appears to be a very simple, straight-forward town like Port Rowan…

As an aside, Dan is a teenager and has grown a lot taller since the last time I saw him – he’s now taller than his dad, and definitely taller than the bulkhead that runs up the middle of my layout room. I’m glad I installed foam pipe insulation along the edges of this ages ago…

Afterwards, we headed to Harbord House for dinner – of course! And I sent Mark and Dan home with a banker’s box full of back issues of MR, RMC and other magazines that I no longer need in my space. Read and recycle!

Pack the trunks and set up the refreshment trolley…

Baggage Wagon and Waving Ladies

I have a busy travel schedule this year, with a number of hobby events already booked across North America. Maybe I’ll see you at one of the following?

Burlington, Ontario – February 10, 2018
Once again this year, I’ll be helping my friend Brian Dickey to exhibit his 7mm Great Western Railway layout, “Roweham”, at the Burlington Model Railway Club’s annual Winter Model Railway Show. (You can search this blog for “Roweham” to learn more.)

Ottawa, Ontario – March 13, 2018
I’m the after-dinner speaker for the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR). I was a member of this amazing group in the 1990s when I lived in the nation’s capital and it’ll be great to catch up with many old friends from the hobby. I’ll be speaking about my layout.

Brampton, Ontario – April 28-29, 2018
Once again, I’ll be helping Brian exhibit his “Roweham” layout – this time at the Great British Train Show.

Enfield, Connecticut – June 1-2, 2018
I’m attending the New England/Northeast Railroad Prototype Modeler’s Meet – my second time at this event. I’ll be giving a clinic on being a prototype modeller in a minority scale, and the opportunities and challenges this represents. I’ll use my layout as my example.

Austin, Texas – June 13-17, 2018
I’m the banquet speaker at The Austin Eagle, the NMRA Lone Star Region annual convention. I’ll be offering suggestions on how to make railway modelling an appealing hobby to millennials – many of whom rarely see a real train. I will also present a clinic on my layout.

Collinsville, Illinois – July 20-21, 2018
I’m attending the St. Louis Railroad Prototype Modeler’s Meet for the first time. I’ve been asked if I would talk about S scale as a viable option for prototype modelling and naturally I’ll be using my layout as my example.

I’m looking forward to meeting many new people, and catching up with friends (including those I’ve only ever met online). My trunks are packed and there’s a fresh pot of tea on the refreshment trolley, so I’m ready to go!

Refreshment Trolley

A visit from the Brothers Harper

Yesterday, I hosted Bob Harper, his brother Gerald Harper, and my friend David Woodhead for a layout visit. There are many interesting connections between us.

I first met Gerald when I hosted members of the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers for an open house back in April of last year. Gerald got in touch recently to let me know his brother Bob was coming to North America from the UK – and bringing his exhibition-style Maine two-foot layout with him. Could they come for a visit? Of course!

Naturally, Bob and I had a lot to talk about – from the mechanics of packing a layout for a plane voyage, to the paperwork required, to how he ended up modelling a Maine two-footer. (I know how that goes – I did it myself, before embarking on the Port Rowan project.)

After a tour of the layout, we retired to Harbord House for dinner. David could not join us, unfortunately, but he did take a few photos when Bob and Gerald were at my house:

Bob Harper at Port Rowan
(Bob inspects a freight extra about to leave Port Rowan)

Gerald Harper at Port Rowan
(Gerald snaps a photo of a CNR self-propelled unit, running on M233’s schedule)

Subsequent to the visit to my basement, Bob and Gerald took Bob’s layout – Franklin in On2 – to the annual Railroad Hobby Show in Springfield, Massachusetts. You can read more about that trip on the MaineOn2 FAQ website.

If you missed Franklin there, you have a couple more chances to see it on this side of The Pond: Bob and his layout will attend the annual Ontario Narrow Gauge Show in Schomberg, Ontario in April and the National Narrow Gauge Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota in September.

Roll-by inspection

A member of CNR’s section gang pauses on the siding in St. Williams to give a roll-by inspection to a passing freight:

Roll-by

Roll by

Roll by

On Wednesday, my friend Stephen Gardiner visited for an operating session – and left me with a nice present. Stephen had drawn up a speeder for a 3D print job in HO scale, and wondered how it would turn out in S. So he revisited his drawings and the result is what you see above. While I’ve posed it on the siding in St. Williams, Stephen’s modifications for printing in 1:64 included providing pockets for extendable wooden handles so the speeder can be posed with a figure hauling it on or off the rails, if I so desire. Thanks Stephen – what a great little detail!

The ops session went well, considering that I haven’t run the layout in a while. Stephen took on the conductor’s role, while I clambered into the engineer’s seat on CNR 80. We had one derailment – possibly due to the freight car truck seizing up a little since it hasn’t been moved in many, many weeks.

Our biggest problem came from misaligned couplers – my fault, for not stopping ahead of coupling to let Stephen do a visual inspection. I don’t use the centring spring that comes with the Kadee 808s – I don’t like how it makes the draft gear bounce in and out, and I don’t really mind that the couplers sometimes need to be aligned manually. I just need to remember that all-important and most prototypical pause before attempting coupling.

Of course, I also need to run my own layout more often: I was pretty heavy-handed on the throttle and was guilty of some pretty hard couplings as a result. I’m sure that the conductor is going to give me a proper dressing down for spilling the coffee in the van!

A few days earlier, I’d updated the files in the LokSound decoders I use – from a beta file to the full production file for SOO 1003, which is my current sound file of choice. The 80 sounds better than ever, although I need to tweak a few volume settings and substitute a different air pump sound file. All in good time…

Stephen is currently planning a new, prototype-based switching layout for his home office space, and is writing about it on his blog. You can following the link to his latest post on the Liberty Village layout – and I highly recommend that you follow along.

Stephen and I have been talking about traffic density a fair bit – specifically, about finding the right balance between realistic appearance and sufficiently engaging operations on a small layout. It’s often tempting to fill a small layout with track, but there are other ways to boost the play value – which is something I’ve been demonstrating (I hope) on my model of the line to Port Rowan. It’s a medium-sized layout, at approximately 14×30 feet, but has just eight turnouts and lots of space devoted to a single track running through the landscape. It doesn’t work for everybody but it does for me.

Ops paperwork and throttle - 2017-11-08
(The work desk at St. Williams: The switch list shows there’s a lot of traffic today)

Because of these discussions, I set up the layout with a bit more switching than I normally do. In addition to several cars to drop and spot, I placed an off-spot car on the run-around in Port Rowan, which added some complexity to our switching duties. I’m pleased that even with the extra work, the session went smoothly and we had a fun time.

Afterwards, my wife joined us as we retired to Harbord House for dinner and drinks. The newest item on the menu – dill pickles breaded in cornmeal and deep fried – are out of this world delicious.

Great to see you, Stephen – and thanks so much for the speeder!

2017 S Scale Can-Am Social

2017 S Scale Social - group photo

It was another fun day out this past Sunday, at the 2017 S Scale Can-Am Social in Lowbanks, Ontario. My friend Jim Martin (near the middle, back row, light green shirt) has organized this casual get-together for a few years now, and this year’s gathering included participants from across Ontario, as well as Quebec and New York State.

The social is a chance to catch up with each other. It has also turned into a bit of an S Scale swap meet. Every year I go, I think, “Oh – I’m not going to buy anything” and every year, I do. This time, I came home with a brass model of a GS gondola, lettered for the Boston & Maine… a resin kit for a Canadian Pacific “Fowler” boxcar once produced by David Clubine at Ridgehill Scale Models… my third example of Andy Malette‘s mixed-media kit for a CNR combine (one of the essential pieces of rolling stock for modelling the line to Port Rowan)… and a craftsman kit for a brick general store by Grand River Models (a manufacturing company once owned by TrainMasters TV executive producer Barry Silverthorn).

Barry joined me for the meet and together we lined up a couple of interesting guests for future episodes of TrainMasters TV. After the meet, we were joined by David Clubine for a brief visit with Bob Fallowfield and a chance to run trains on his excellent HO scale re-creation of the CP Rail operations in Woodstock, Ontario, in the fall of 1980. It was David’s first visit, and he and I spent a lot of time talking about the powerful draw of the 1980s – an era we both experienced as younger, impressionable hobbyists.

All in all, a fine day out. (Thanks, Jim, for putting it together!)

The Ontario Manifest is this weekend

I’m headed off later this week to attend Ontario Manifest – the 2017 annual convention for the Pacific Southwest Region of the NMRA. I’ve been invited to deliver the after-dinner speech at the banquet on Saturday night. I’m ready to go and looking forward to it!

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.

PSR-NMRA Banquet Speech

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.

I’m also looking forward to my first visit to the Orange Empire Railway Museum.

And yes, I’ll post all about the trip when I return…

Please Stand By

As a consequence of being out of the country for a week, I’ll be tardy about responding to comments on my blogs until late next week – and if you’re a first-time commenter, your post may get held in the moderator’s cue until then. Apologies in advance – that’s just the reality of the Internet these days: everybody gets moderated the first time.

The Pindal Electric Tram

I’d heard about the Pindal Electric Tram for many years, and even seen a few videos. But nothing quite prepared me for the experience…

Earlier this month, some friends and I visited Kaj and Annie Pindal to spend a few hours in the afternoon riding the delightful 15-inch gauge, ride-in electric trolley line that runs in their back yard in Oakville, Ontario.

While I could go on at length about how Kaj built his own equipment, powered mainly by motors liberated from electric lawn mowers, made his track from fence rails, switched from trolley poles to bow-collectors which he fabricated himself, and can use the railway to take the household garbage and recycling to the curb… I think a video is the best way to express the magic that is the Pindal Electric Tram.

So here it is: enjoy if you watch…


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

Thanks, Kaj & Annie: What a wonderful day out!

(I’ve posted this to my “Adventures in Live Steam” blog, because while it isn’t live steam, it is a garden railway so that’s the most appropriate place to publish it. But since that blog receives very little traffic I thought I’d also put it here. Really, this defies categorization.)