Finishing up, a month later…

Finishing Up

Well, it took more than a month, but I’ve now finished running the freight extra to Port Rowan that Robin Talukdar and I started back in early December.

I was in the layout room doing something else and realized, “Hey – I have 15 minutes: that’s all I’ll need.” So, out came the throttle and I reassembled the train in Port Rowan, then ran it back to its terminal in Hamilton (actually, staging), with a stop in St. Williams to collect a couple of cars we’d set on the siding for retrieval on the return trip.

Finishing Up

I don’t often run the layout by myself anymore: I have done it enough times that there’s nothing really new in the experience for me (and that’s the reality of closely modelling a specific prototype: things tended to be done the same way, day in and day out. That’s great for a real railway, which is about doing a job – less so for a model railway, which is about having fun).

But sometimes when I’m in the mood I’ll have at it – and this was one of those times. I do need to find more of those times, as I enjoyed the 15-minute ops session. (Better yet, I need to find time to invite friends over to run with me!)

Overall, the layout ran well – although I had a couple of instances where my wireless throttle dropped its Wi-Fi connection, which is odd since it’s never more than 20 feet from the base station.

To read more about the start of this particular run, click on either of the photographs.

Unfinished business with Robin

Unfinished business 3

The weather outside was frightful but the train room was delightful when my friend Robin Talukdar found himself in town with a couple of hours to kill yesterday, and asked if he could drop by to “run a train”.

We grabbed coffees, talked about Robin’s recent experience operating on the SP Clovis Branch that Pierre Oliver is bringing to life in his basement, and then headed to Port Rowan.

A freight extra was the order of the day, behind CNR 10-wheeler 1532. With four cars in tow, we had a lot of work ahead of us – well, a lot for my layout, anyway.

We sorted the team track at St. Williams, setting off two cars and lifting two others, which we placed on the siding to collect on the return trip.

Unfinished business 5

Unfinished business 4

We then headed down to Port Rowan, where we collected one car while setting off two. We placed a British American tank car on the elevated coal delivery track to aid with unloading fuel for a local dealer, and shuffled a car into the team track. We had one car to lift – one of the Milwaukee Road’s distinctive rib-side boxcars. And we turned the locomotive in preparation for heading back.

Unfinished business 1

At this point, Robin’s window closed so we left things as they lay. The MILW car is on the main, the van is set in front of the station, and the 1532 is on the turntable lead. Next time I have somebody over, we’ll finish the work.

Unfinished business 2

Robin has undertaken several layouts. Currently, he’s working on the Guelph Spur in Proto:48, a line jointly operated by Ontario Southland and GEXR. Go have a look – he’s doing interesting things.

Great to see you, Robin – and sorry we couldn’t visit longer. I look forward to our next get-together!

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.

Austin Eagle: operating sessions

My trip to Texas to take part in The Austin Eagle – the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention – included a really fun day of operating on local layouts – starting with a session on the HO scale Port of New York Railroad being built by Riley Triggs. You can read about Riley’s layout on my Achievable Layouts blog by clicking on the following image:

PoNY Herald

Later the same day, I took part in a large operating session on the HO scale D&RGW Moffat Route built by David Nicastro and his son, Sam Nicastro. Sam is a millennial who is already passionate about, and accomplished in, our hobby. He’s a modeller, a railfan, and a member of several groups including the Operations Special Interest Group. More than anything I can do, guys like Sam will help keep the hobby strong and viable in the future.

Their layout features a number of advanced electronics applications, including a dispatcher’s desk complete with virtual CTC machine linked into the DCC system and phone system. What’s most remarkable about this is it’s Internet-enabled, so the Nicastros can call upon a friend out of town (or anywhere in the world) to direct traffic during an operating session.

Nicastro DRGW - Dispatchers Office

David’s goal with this layout was to give one the feeling of running a train through the mountains, and he is certainly achieving that. I signed up to run a manifest freight as it would take me the length of the mainline – from terminal to terminal – and it took almost two hours to make the trip, with several pauses along the way to meet opposing trains.

DRGW

DRGW

DRGW - through the mountains

Moffat tunnel

Lift gate

While this is not the sort of layout I would build for myself, I really enjoyed running on it and would be happy to contribute to building and operating the Moffat Route if I lived in the area. Thanks, David and Sam – and your crew – for hosting us!

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!

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!

Narrative RPGs and Ops Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arkhan's character sheet and narrative dice.
(The portfolio for Arkhan – one of the heroes in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion adventure for which I’m game master – plus dice)

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

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

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

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

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

We shop the world via the Internet.

We have blogs and forums to share ideas and techniques.

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

And more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those who like Role Playing Games would think so.

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

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

What a terrific idea!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No 'droids here: Move on!

“The Daily Effort” with Andrew and Chris

Yesterday, I hosted Andrew Batchelor and Chris Abbott for an operating session. Andrew took on the conductor’s role while Chris held down the engineer’s seat – and the session was different than most I host in several respects.

Ops - 2016-11-20
(The star of the show: M238 after collecting its lifts in St. Williams. It ended up being too long for my sector plate…)

This was the first session I’ve hosted in a long time in which we’ve run Mixed Train M233 / M238. Usually when guests arrive – especially first-time guests like Andrew – we run a freight extra because they’re more familiar to most hobbyists. But Andrew was really interested in the paperwork that I use on the layout, and since there’s a fair bit of paper involved with running The Daily Effort it was the better choice for an ops session.

Ops - 2016-11-20
(That’s a whole lotta paperwork…)

While I’m quite comfortable with using the waybills and switch lists, I’m a bit rusty with the paperwork for the mail, express, LCL and passenger portion of the Mixed Train, and it showed. My method for calculating the time taken to transfer packages etc between train and baggage wagon is clunky and distracts from the feeling of operating the train. This was not apparent when I was doing it myself, but is definitely an issue when I try to explain the process to guests. So I need to rethink this.

One possibility I’m now seriously considering is to use a set of triggered sounds to represent the time required. My layout’s ambient audio system easily supports this type of application. I may build several sound files that include the following:

– The railway car door unlocking and opening
– The rumble of a baggage wagon being positioned.
– The sounds of hand trucks and workers moving cargo.
– The railway door closing and locking.

If I were to build a half-dozen of these sound files, each of different lengths, and then have the audio system select and play one at random when triggered via a button on the fascia, that might add enough randomness to the time required for a station stop. The fact that each stop could require three such sequences (for combine, baggage/mail, and LCL boxcar) would further randomize the length of a station stop.

I would still retain the paperwork – the conductor would exchange these with the station agent, as he does now by using the pigeon holes at each station desk – but there would be less math during a session. And that would be a good thing.

I note that Kalmbach recently published a book by Jeff Wilson called Express, Mail & Merchandise Service. As the name suggests, it covers this head-end traffic and how to model it. I have not yet perused a copy, so I don’t know if it addresses how to represent the traffic at the kind of micro level that interests me, or whether it’s confined to (for example) moving carloads of LCL between freight houses. But I have other books by this author and he does a good job of covering a topic, so I’ll investigate next time I’m at my local hobby shop.

This session marked the first time we’ve run trains (beyond some five-minute tests) using my new DCC system – the ECoS 50220 command station and Mobile Control II wireless throttles from ESU.

Overall, things went well – although there were some minor issues. I put these down to the novelty of the new controllers. Chris, who was engineer for our session, is fairly used to my Lenz keypad throttles so it took a bit of time to adjust to the ESU approach.

For example, the ESU throttle knob also acts as the reverser: turn it all the way to the left until it stops then let go and it’ll click and switch direction. But we discovered that the movement has to be deliberate – if it’s done too fast the controller doesn’t necessarily register it. That’s not a problem with the controller – just something that operators have to learn. Now that I know this, I can explain it better to others.

Ops - 2016-11-20

On the positive side, I figured out ahead of the session how to program the physical buttons on the throttle. I mapped frequently used commands to them so that the operator does not have to look at the touch screen to use the horn, bell or progressive engine brake (which is a feature on the TCS WOWSound decoders I’m currently using).

On the slightly annoying and somewhat humorous side, we found that the throttle will save power by going to sleep – but the factory setting (one minute of inactivity) is too quick for a typical operating session. This is slightly annoying because Chris was spending a lot of time tapping the power button on the top of the unit to bring it back to life, and there’s a very slight delay while powering up. I’ve adjusted the sleep setting to a five-minute delay. We’ll see if that works. I can set it as long as 15 minutes, but of course the longer the screen stays active the more power it consumes. I’ve also tried to balance the extra power I’ll be using with the longer delay by dimming the screen.

The sleep issue was humorous because every time Chris woke up the throttle, the WOWSound decoder – which has something like 40 whistles built into it – would randomly change its whistle setting. The next time he blew the whistle, it would be different.

I have to admit that I’m underwhelmed by the WOWSound decoders. They have some neat features that my previous Tsunami decoders did not, including the progressive brake (which I really like) and an audio function to represent clearing the cylinders of condensed steam (which I know is vital when operating a steam engine). But the audio circuit occasionally blasts a “Matrix”-like digital distortion. And I’ve had other issues.

So I’m not too concerned about interoperability issues with the ESU throttles because I plan to replace the TCS decoders at some point. I’m waiting to see what Matt Herman from ESU in North America does with steam sound. He’s already done a great job introducing new diesel audio files under the “Full Throttle” banner and I know he’s been travelling over the past few months to record steam sounds across North America. So it’s only a matter of time. That Engine Brake button can always be remapped to the LokSound “Drive Hold” feature…

Naturally, food and drink was involved. Before our operating session, the three of us enjoyed brunch at Harbord House. While there are other places worth eating at, this has become the tradition of sorts for new guests. I’m currently quite keen on a Toronto brew, Henderson’s Best ESB from the Henderson Brewing Company.

Andrew: Thanks for getting in touch. It was great to see you and I hope the day answered some questions about paperwork. It did for me.

Chris: Thanks as always. Cheers!

A cold car for St. Williams

It’s been a while since I shot a video on my layout, but after last weekend’s trip to Caledonia and Lowbanks I felt inspired so I grabbed video camera, lights, and tripods and headed to the basement.

In this video, a CNR freight extra pauses at the St. Williams train station, then spots a pre-iced CNR eight-hatch refrigerator car on the team track so the local co-op can load it with produce. With the work accomplished, the train continues on its journey to Port Rowan:


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

I wanted to play around with cut-aways and other editing tricks, rather than shoot a static “set up the camera here and watch the train roll by” presentation. It’s been a quarter century since I’ve had to do any of this, so the edits are sloppy – rusty skills have made my timing atrocious

The exercise made me appreciate even more the skills of professional videographers and editors like my friend Barry Silverthorn at TrainMasters TV.

The thing about what Barry does is that people will watch his videos and think they’re great – but not necessarily know why they think they’re great. The devil is in the details: the timing of the switches from shot to shot, the care in framing the scene in the lens, the fine adjustments to lighting and sound. Compared to his work, this is pretty crude – but still more visually interesting than the single-camera POV.

This approach to video does take more time – I shot 49 segments, and used almost all of them to edit together into this eight-minute story – but I think the result is worth the extra effort.

And the “story” is the real challenge: I’m re-learning how to use visuals to tell a richer story – not just about the trains, but the environment in which they operate, too. I’ve tried to do that here. You can be the judge…

“Instant on”

Car Storage Drawers under the Staging Yard

While I now have a lot of storage capacity under my sector plate staging yard, I also like to keep a full complement of trains ready to run on the four-track sector plate itself. In addition to the locomotives and rolling stock, I try to have all the paperwork for these trains ready to go.

In discussing an unrelated issue with a friend offline, I realized one of the things I like about this arrangement is that the layout is ready to go with the press of a power button. The electronics world calls this “instant on” and it has several advantages – particularly for simple, one or two person layouts such as mine.

The biggest is the ability to run short, frequent sessions as time allows. Lance Mindheim has written about breaking down operations into small chunks, and then operating several times per week, whenever one has a bit of time. Here’s how this concept applies to Port Rowan:

On my layout there are two towns and a total of 12 “spots” for freight cars – but as I’ve noted recently, typically less than half the spots are used at any one time.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume six freight cars are scattered throughout the layout, and only three of those are ready to be lifted: One in St. Williams and two in Port Rowan. To run a train from staging to Port Rowan and back, with all work performed, would typically take 75-90 minutes – and I do that fairly regularly with friends.

But what if I don’t have an hour and a half? What if I have 15 minutes this morning, and 10 minutes this afternoon, and another 15 minutes tomorrow, and so on?

Breaking the operation down into smaller chunks is the answer:

Let’s assume I have 15 minutes available to me this morning, I could grab my paperwork and throttle, and run a train from staging to St. Williams. I could also complete the paperwork at the station – figuring out what cars to drop and which ones to lift, writing up my switch list, and so on. Then I could go do the “real world” things that need to be done.

Van at St Williams station
(A freight extra stops with the van in front of the St. Williams station, so the conductor can confer with the station agent on the work to be done in town)

Again, assuming I find myself with another 10 minutes this afternoon, I could return to the layout space and pick up where I left off. With the paperwork ready to go, I could switch the cars in St. Williams. I might get all of the switching done, or I might only get the lifts taken care of, with the set-outs still to do. When I run out of time, I can put down the throttle and paperwork, and go back to the real world.

St Williams team track
(There’s switching to be done in St. Williams – not much, but some…)

Tomorrow, I can use my 15 minutes to run from St. Williams to Port Rowan, stopping for water along the way and arriving at the station. I can prep my paperwork for switching Port Rowan. And then I can walk away, knowing the next time I have time I can start on the switching.

Extra 80 West arrives in Port Rowan
(A freight extra arrives in Port Rowan. Before switching, it will continue ahead to the station so the crew can receive their orders)

It might take a week of short segments to run a “full operating session” in this manner, but it means the layout continues to entertain, and continues to be run – which seems to be the best way to keep any model railway in good shape.

However, there are several things to consider about running a layout in this fashion. These include:

The layout needs to be “instant on”. If one has to set up trains in staging, or even set in place a removable section of layout to allow for operating sessions, that can eat up a good chunk of the 10 minutes one has to run trains.

It works best for simple layouts – for example, this one, with one train on the line at a time. That said, on a more complex layout one could set up a branch line train to be used for these quick sessions, without disrupting the relationship of trains elsewhere on the layout.

One needs space to store paperwork and throttles, near the places where the train will pause between operating sessions. In my case, I have pull-out work desks at both St. Williams and Port Rowan that are perfect for storing ops aids between sessions.

St Williams Work Desk
(The work desk at St. Williams. Click on the image to read more about these)

I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for everyone to consider how their layouts can be “instant on” and how they can support these segmented operating sessions with activities that require no set-up, are quick to run, and can easily be walked away from when real life calls…