Donnie at the Throttle!

Years ago, before I started my own business, I worked for a large telecom company. And another guy on the team with me – Don (“Donnie”) Blair – was one of the best colleagues anybody could have at work. Hardworking yet easy going… creative… and funny as hell. (And he still is.)

Don is not, however, a model railway enthusiast. He likes trains – just not in the same way as those of us in the hobby do.

But Don recently got in touch and wanted to see the layout, so we arranged a time. He came over last night after work. I gave him a tour of the layout with help from Ian Wilson’s book on the line. Then we ran a freight extra to Port Rowan – and we had a blast:

Don Blair at the Throttle

Don has never run a train on a “serious” model railway, much less taken part in an operating session. I can’t imagine the learning curve involved with that.

I gave him a quick lesson on using DCC – not much more than “This makes it go faster, this makes it go slower, this changes direction, this is the brake, this is the bell, this is the whistle” – and then set him loose in the engineer’s seat. I worked as conductor. We switched St. Williams and then headed to Port Rowan – then decided to break for dinner.

It was tremendous fun. Don did a great job at the throttle, and I think the look on his face in the photo collage above says it all.

After our session, my wife joined us for a trip to (need I say it?) Harbord House, for pints and dinner. Harbord House is as much a part of my ops sessions as a throttle and a switch list. It’s a great chance to sit down, away from the trains, and talk about life (which may or may not include the hobby). And last night was a perfect example.

Thanks for coming over, Donnie! Come again soon…

Telegraph article in June 2016 RMC

St. Williams - Trackside View
(The station at St. Williams includes a sign for the CNR’s telegraph service)

The June 2016 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine includes “Dots and Dashes”, a feature I wrote about the working telegraph network I’ve installed on my layout. Railway telegraph systems are rarely modelled, but were in use throughout the steam era. They were long-lived on lightly-trafficked lines such as my one-train-per-day operation to Port Rowan.

This article details how I set up the network, where I found the telegraphy equipment, and how I have created “cheat sheets” for operators to use when OS-ing their trains. It should provide any reader with enough information to set up such a system on their own layout.

I’ve seen a proof of this four-page article, and I’m really pleased with how the team at RMC has presented the work. (Thanks, guys!) If you get a chance to read the feature, I hope you’ll agree…

Click on the cover, below, to visit the RMC website:

RMC Cover - June 2016 - Telegraph feature

Hand Signals: Lunch and Ops with Steve

Brakeman hand signals
(Doesn’t he look like he’s having fun? Figure 100 is like an ice dancing move. We did not do this – but we did something similar…)

On Thursday, I was fortunate to entertain Steve Lucas, a modeller from Ingersol, Ontario who also happens to make his living on the rails as a locomotive engineer.

It’s always interesting to see how those who work on the real railways react to my little slice of the long gone Simcoe Sub. As such, I’ve wanted to have Steve over for a while to show him the layout – and this week, work and other commitments allowed us to do just that.

Steve and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch at Harbord House, then worked a freight extra along the line. Steve opted to wear the conductor’s hat, and took the opportunity to give me some lessons on switching using hand signals. Steve did NOT wear a jaunty conductor’s uniform or sport a handlebar moustache like the gentleman in the lead image – and the signals were not quite what’s illustrated either.

Instead, a lot of our discussion was about the hand signals used to convey distances (e.g. “Six cars”… “Four cars”… and so on). I only remember a few of these, as it was a lot to take in, but I certainly appreciated how elegant they were to use while switching.

Steve and I also talked about sight lines from engineer to brakeman – important because if the engineer cannot see the brakeman he’s required to stop moving.

Ops aid - scale brakeman
(Having scale brakemen to position on the layout helps to understand where the people need to be when switching cars. To read about the ones I use, click on the image.)

And I learned that one reason all the prototype photos at Port Rowan show the locomotive facing westbound (towards the end of track) is that this would allow the engineer to switch the sidings without having to look over his shoulder – a consideration that had never occurred to me.

So, lessons big and little. I have that much more to think about, and more information to make my layout come alive. Thanks Steve: We’ll do this again when our schedules allow!

I’ve been able to give back something, too:

At this year’s Toronto RPM, I did a presentation on my layout and as part of that I discussed the benefits of blogging. (I’ve summarized that information in a separate post, for those who are interested.)

I’m pleased that Steve has taken some of that presentation to heart and has started a blog about his layout, the Midland Railway. Drop by and have a look around…

Full crew ops

Ops 2016-04-29
(The first train of the evening, CNR Extra 1532 East rolls past the tobacco kilns in St. Williams, Ontario)

Ops 2016-04-29
(3/4 of my visiting crew for an ops session: Ryan, Bob and Barry plan their moves in Port Rowan. Hunter would join us later…)

Last night, I had four friends over for an operating session. I emphasize “four” because that’s a big deal on a one-train-at-a-time layout…

Recently, Bob Fallowfield and I spent the afternoon together and he mentioned that he hadn’t yet had an opportunity to run trains on my layout. I’ve known Bob for several months now and I’d been to operate on his excellent CP Rail layout a couple of times, so I was well overdue to return the favour.

We did a whip-round of regulars, looking for a third person to join us, and we ended up with three more friends: Hunter Hughson, who writes about his layout on his Niagara Branch blogRyan Mendell, who blogs about his Algonquin Railway… and Barry Silverthorn of TrainMasters TV.

(This was a great combination for many reasons, including that I’ve wanted to get Bob, Hunter and Ryan together with Barry for a while now to talk about doing various projects for Trainmasters. We now have a schedule for some shooting days, and ideas for more…)

I was a little worried about having so many people over at once for an operating session. Previous experience has demonstrate that my layout works well with one to three people (including me as host). Five in the room can get a little crowded, and with only one train on the line I worried that I wouldn’t have enough for everyone to do.

I need not have worried: The guys all enjoyed each other’s company and we managed to run a pair of freight extras. In fact, since my 1950s prototype would have run with five-person crews, we qualified as a full crew and divided the work accordingly:

1 – Conductor (managing paperwork, making decisions)
2 – Engineer (running the locomotive)
3 – Two brakemen (aligning switches, coupling and uncoupling cars)
4 – Fireman (well, nothing for him to do since that role is combined with the engineer, so I did that. I guess as the layout owner, I was the “put out the fires” man)

Ops 2016-04-29
(Ryan, Bob and Barry at work. Having dropped cars in St. Williams, CNR Extra 1532 West – at this point a van hop – is just arriving in Port Rowan)

The division of labour worked well for a Friday night. Operations was low-key and gave everyone plenty of time to socialize without disrupting the session. Barry, Bob and Ryan ran a freight extra behind ten-wheeler 1532 before dinner. Then my wife joined us and we met up with Hunter at (where else?) Harbord House. After food, drink and many laughs we returned to the layout for a five-person ops session, working another freight extra behind 2-6-0 Number 80.

Ops 2016-04-29(The last train of the session heads home, behind 2-6-0 Number 80 at St. Williams)

A good time was had by all. I know I’d had a long week and needed a few laughs with friends while running trains – and the guys did not disappoint…

Ops 2016-04-29(“Luke: I am your father!”: Hunter and Silent Bob.)

It’s also gratifying that people are keen to join me for operating sessions: All of them gave up their Friday nights and for most of them, the visit involved an hour or two of travel in each direction. Thanks for making the trip, guys: I’m looking forward to the next time!

Ops and dinner with Jeff

Last night, my friend Jeff Young came over for an operating session, followed by dinner.

Jeff and I worked together earlier this year on a six-espiode series for Trainmasters TV called Fired Up! – and you can read more about that by clicking on the image, below:

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Jeff is a long-time live steam enthusiast, but he still enjoys running on layouts in the smaller scales, too. We ran a freight extra behind CNR 10-wheeler 1532 and the layout performed flawlessly. I love it when the layout does that.

Afterwards, we headed up to The Caledonian, a terrific local pub that’s wonderfully Scottish – from its hospitality to its food to its excellent selection of single malts. Jeff and I were like-minded about dinner, each ordering the smoked salmon appetizer and the lamb shank special, and finishing with some single malts – including a very agreeable 12-year-old Strathisla.

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We agreed that the operating session was a lot of fun, the food was great, and that we really need to do another season of Fired Up! All in all, a very agreeable evening!

Thanks for coming over, Jeff – see you again soon!

A day with Pierre and Michael

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(Michael and I discuss our switching moves as our train arrives at Port Rowan)

I love this hobby for many reasons – but the main one (and I hope it comes through on this blog) is the friendships that it fosters.

I remember moving to a new city shortly after university and not knowing a soul – but I stopped in at the local hobby shop, found out where the railway modellers socialized (at a supper club called OVAR), and within no time at all I had found some like-minded individuals who have gone on to become some of my closest friends. The great thing about the hobby is that these are people that I may never have otherwise met: Our careers are different… we lived in different neighbourhoods… we have different circles of friends outside the hobby… we have different passions outside the hobby… we’re all over the map, age-wise… and so on.

But the hobby brings us together and the bonds forged through it are strong.

I was reminded of this on the weekend. Late last week, Pierre Oliver got in touch and asked if I had any free time on Sunday. Pierre and I are close friends, despite living two and a half hours down the highway from each other. We always enjoy each other’s company, and he was coming to Toronto to meet up with a modeller from California who was in town on business. It was their first meeting, and Pierre wondered if I’d like to host an operating session on Sunday morning and then go for lunch.

I’m always up for that – and I did have a free weekend – so we made plans.

Our guest for the day was Michael Gross, who is in town to shoot some episodes of a television show he’s in. I’ve seen Michael on TV of course, and I knew that he is an enthusiastic hobbyist. (He’s an ATSF modeller who is building HO scale Free-mo modules with a granger branch line aesthetic. His modelling themes – wheat fields, feed mills, stock pens, and oil dealers on the Kansas prairie – are very similar to the ones I deal with in modelling a rural community in southern Ontario.) But to be honest, I never expected to meet him – much less host him for an operating session – if for no other reason than the fact that our home bases are separated by several thousand miles and an international border.

But the common bond – this fascinating, challenging, sometimes frustrating but always rewarding hobby of ours – is one that means a writer from Toronto and a model-builder/manufacturer from St. Thomas can spend the day with a well-known actor/director from Los Angeles and do the things that all good friends in the hobby do (or should do!) when they gather:

– We ran trains (and the layout ran very well to my great relief).

– We shared techniques – discussing everything from operating patterns and enhancing a simple layout with prototype practices… to effectively modelling agricultural areas… to the use of ambient audio to enhance the story we’re trying to tell through our layouts.

– We exchanged thoughts about why we love the hobby.

– We swapped tales of conventions we’ve attend and the characters in the hobby that we’ve met.

– We visited a local hobby shop – the Credit Valley Railroad Company – because it’s always fun to look for things for one’s layout when on the road.

– And, joined by my wife Mairi, we enjoyed lunch at Harbord House and dinner at Harvest Kitchen – two of our many neighbourhood restaurants.

Most of all, we had a wonderful time. Thus are old friendships strengthened and new ones forged.

Michael: It’s wonderful to meet you and thank you for choosing to spend your day off with us. I look forward to spending more time with you whenever you’re in Toronto with some free time in your schedule and the desire to talk trains.

Pierre: Thanks for arranging the day, and for doing all that driving! (And work continues apace on the guest room – so, hopefully, you’ll soon have a place to stay when you’re in the city.)

I had a fantastic day – and I’m inspired to make some more progress on the layout as a consequence: Time to find some clear space, some tools, and another project!

Work desk :: Task lighting

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(Ikea to the rescue)

When hosting operating sessions, I like to turn off the lights in the layout room so that the layout lights are the only source of illumination. It puts the focus squarely on the layout.

However, I noticed that this arrangement meant that the work desks at St. Williams and Port Rowan were often in shadow. I needed better lighting.

I stumbled across some LED strip lighting units at Ikea and realized they would be a good addition to the facia. They’re called Striberg, and they come in various lengths – from 14″ to 36″. They’re intended for use inside the Pax wardrobe system.

I bought two of these – one for each work desk – plus two Ansluta power supply cords (sold separately).

As shown above (at St. Williams), I mounted the Striberg on the fascia above the desk. I cut the connector off the end of the power cord – leaving enough cord that I could require it later – and then I drilled a hole through the fascia just large enough to thread the power cord. (More on this, below.)

The Striberg LED strips have a three-way switch on them. They can be turned off, on, or set to light up when exposed to the room lights – for example, when opening a closet door. But I wanted the lights to come on automatically, whenever someone pulled out a work desk.

A trip to my local electronics surplus shop provided the solution, in the form of lever lever switches. These have a long lever made of springy metal that may be bent into a suitable shape. The switches have two circuits (known as “on/on”): When depressed, they switch one way – and when released they switch the other. For my application, I could leave the “depressed” circuit inactive and have them activate only when released.

I bent the lever into a suitable shape, then mounted the switch on a block of wood. I then mounted this block on the frame that supports one of the drawer slides for my work desk. I positioned this so that when the desk is fully closed, the back of the desk will fully depress the switch:

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To wire the switch, I cut the cable at the appropriate length, then introduced the switch into one of the leads. The cable then continues to the small Ikea transformer which supplies the LEDs. I mounted this on the wall of the room, near where I was going to plug it in.

I strongly dislike running house wiring through a layout. I think this is a recipe for disaster or even death. So by mounting the transformer out of the layout, near the wall receptacle, I’ve been able to only run low-voltage, low-current wires through the benchwork to the lights.

For the Port Rowan work station, this meant buying some more two-conductor cable from my electronics surplus store and threading it through the benchwork from the end of the peninsula to the wall. I needed about 25 feet of cable, which I simply added between the switch and Ikea’s connector. The length of the run did not cause any issues.

When the desk slides shut, it depresses the switch and switches to the unused circuit – the light goes off:

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As soon as it’s opened, the switch springs open – completing the circuit that I’ve wired up – and the light comes on:

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I’m pleased with how this project turned out. Operators now have plenty of light so they can sort their waybills and draft switch lists. The best part is, there’s no thinking involved on the part of the operator: The light turns on and off automatically.

Mixed Train Traffic Study

Hagersville-LCL photo Hagersville-Resize_zpsd9144a97.jpg
(The Daily Effort at Hagersville, Ontario – June 20, 1953. Photo via the Henley’s Hamilton blog. Click on the image to visit that blog and read more about the mixed train from Hamilton to Port Rowan and Port Dover)

I’ve written a few times on this blog about my desire to make operating the mixed train (M233/M238) a unique experience. M233/M238 hauls a combine, a baggage mail car, and a boxcar in LCL service. These three cars – and the people, express, LCL and mail that they transport – are essential to the character of the mixed.

 photo M233-CNR86-StWilliams_zps55169f21.jpg
(The mixed train, with no carload traffic in the consist)

But from an operator’s perspective, these cars don’t actually do much: They trundle along at the back of the train, behind the carload freight, like a 200-foot-long caboose. They’re re-ordered at Port Rowan, but the switching is minimal. It’s one of the reasons why I like to run two short sessions when friends visit: One with the mixed train, and one with a freight extra. This way, visitors get to experience a variety of trains.

But in doing so, my concern is that if the focus is on just the carload freight in the mixed train, it will feel a lot like running a freight extra. What’s more, given the train length constraints on my layout (imposed by the length of the run-around in Port Rowan and the length of the storage tracks on my sector plate), the play value of the mixed will suffer if the focus is on carload freight. This is because the mixed typically has only one or two cars of carload freight in its consist – so there’s even less switching to do than when I run a freight extra, which can accommodate up to five cars of carload freight while still fitting within the Port Rowan run-around.

 photo Ops-20140706-01_zps648ef68e.jpg
(A freight extra, hard at work in Port Rowan. Without that 200-foot-long “caboose”, a lot more carload traffic can be handled – and that means more switching during an operating session)

I’ve already created a number of receipts and tickets to represent the LCL and express that the mixed train carries, plus tickets for mail bags and passengers. And I’ve written about the idea of defining how much time needs to be spent making each station stop – so that the volume of passengers and goods actually influences the mixed train’s progress along the line. As noted in More progress on LCL and Express, I decided to test the following formula:

*The car must be spotted for five minutes, plus one minute per 200 pounds (or portion thereof) of freight listed on the receipts.

You can read that earlier posting for the rationale, but in limited testing this formula has been working for me.

However, the challenge has been that I’ve needed something to keep track of the spotting times – especially in St. Williams, where the platform is short and the train must be repositioned if all three of the “mixed train” cars must be worked.

I was using scrap paper for this, but I’ve been looking for something better – something “more railroady” to give the conductor a reason to actually be recording the times required for the work. What I really needed was a form to tie together all the other paperwork – the freight receipts, passenger tickets, and so on.

While pondering the problem, I recalled a document Roger Chrysler shared with me, which detailed the work performed by crews on his chosen prototype. If I recall, the document was created as part of a management/labour negotiation – and that gave me an idea:

Given that in the era I model, the CNR was looking to abandon mixed train service on the Port Rowan branch, it might make sense for management to run a traffic study – complete with a form for train conductors to fill out. While it would appear the form is being filled out to collect data, it would actually work as a tool for calculating the time required to do the work.

Inspired by the concept, I’ve created a suitable form to test during future operating sessions:

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(Working on paperwork: This time, a traffic study form for the mixed train)

Each form has spots for listing mail, express, LCL and passengers. Small notes under each category appear to be targets for the study – but they actually provide the operator with a formula for calculating how much time must be spent performing each operation during a station stop.

Spaces beside each category provide room for entering the quantity (e.g.: 350 lbs of LCL) and for doing the time calculation and recording the results in the form of a start time and end time.

When the appropriate car is positioned and ready to be worked, the start time can be recorded, the calculation made, and then the end time noted. That car can’t be moved until the end time has passed.

For the sake of completeness, I’ve also included space to note the number of carload cars lifted and set off, and the time required to perform this work. Unlike the other categories, there’s no target time to perform the calculations here: The conductor will simply note the start and end times from each station’s fast clock.

The conductor will fill in one form for each station – so, three forms per operating session: One for each direction at St. Williams, and one for Port Rowan.

Is it a lot of paperwork? Not really. It’s the equivalent of writing down one’s work on a switch list – something my crews already do when handling carload traffic.

I also like that this Traffic Study form will remind operators that in the era I model, the job they are doing is being threatened by CNR management looking to abandon marginal branch lines, and annul services such as Port Rowan’s daily mixed train. I’m trying to tell a story with my layout and my operating sessions. As the tag under my blog’s title suggests, I’m trying to draw visiting operators into the world of “A Canadian National Railways branch in Ontario – in its twilight years”. This Traffic Study form may be a fabrication – but it’s one that should help me convey the story of The Daily Effort to visiting operators.

M233 at St Williams photo StW-Crossing-Trees-04_zps73bc3d71.jpg
(M233 stops at St. Williams to transfer passengers, mail, express and LCL)

CP Rail in Woodstock, circa 1980

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Last week, Ryan Mendell, Hunter Hughson and I visited Bob Fallowfield and his terrific HO scale layout, based on the CP Rail operations in and around Woodstock, Ontario in the autumn of 1980.

I’ve written about our visit on my Achievable Layouts blog, because Bob’s layout is a great example of a prototype-based model railway that can support a mainline parade of trains plus interesting yard and local switching for a small group of friends, while still being manageable by one builder.

In fact, Bob started his layout – which occupies a space about the size of two bedrooms – less than five years ago and he’s well on the way to finishing it, with convincing scenery and prototype fidelity. His progress over such a short time should provide inspiration to anybody who is still struggling with getting past the dreaming stage to start building.

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(Click on the image to read my report)

Thanks Bob – I look forward to our next operating session!

Keeping the Minions under control

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One of the things I’m pleased about is that – despite the plaster dust and disorder kicked up by an extensive home renovation – the layout is running well. That’s not by accident, of course…

Layouts, like Gru, come with thousands of Minions. They’re all the little things that can go wrong, and keeping them on a short leash is one of the biggest tasks for a layout owner. It’s also one of the most important.

I was reminded of this earlier in the summer while re-watching the “End of the Line” segment on TrainMasters TV, in which three layout owners tear out large portions (or all) of their creations.

Two of the lessons I took from that segment were:

– How important it is to stay on top of the many little maintenance tasks any layout requires, and

– To be vigilant against the phenomenon of “Creeping Normality”.

Of course, there are many positive reasons to tear out some (or all) of a layout, as the “End of the Line” segment also makes clear. But if left unchecked, Minions will take over one’s layout – at which point a dumpster (and a good pesticide*) may be the only option.

As I prepared to show off the layout to visitors earlier this week, I gave the track and equipment a quick dusting with a soft brush. I also tested all track switches and loosened up the mechanical turnout controls by operating each of them back and forth about a half-dozen times. And I test-ran the locomotives that would be in service during the session.

It took perhaps 10 minutes to do this, but it made all the difference. If there were Minions about, I was able to keep them under control, and prevent them from creating havoc…

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(*No Minions were harmed in the writing of this post)