See you at the Ontario Manifest!

That’s Ontario, California

I’ve been invited to speak at the banquet at Ontario Manifest – the 2017 annual convention for the Pacific Southwest Region of the NMRA. This looks like a lot of fun, and I’m thrilled to take part.

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.

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.

For the Saturday night banquet, I’ll be offering up some thoughts about where the hobby is going, where we’ll find the next generation of serious hobbyists, and what we can do to foster them. As the Ontario Manifest website explains…

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For many of us, the hobby is more than a way to kill time. It’s a lifelong journey of friendships and learning. We love this hobby ‐ and many of us wonder how we can encourage more people to join us as railway modeling enthusiasts. In particular, we wonder how we’re going to reach younger people. Based on experience in his professional life as a corporate speech writer, Trevor has garnered some insights into the demographic known as The Millennials. He’ll share thoughts on how we connect with a cohort that has never known a world in which the Internet did not exist, and who many dismiss ‐ wrongly ‐ as being “more interested in playing games on their phones than in building things”. Trevor will also offer some suggestions about how we make our hobby relevant to more people ‐ especially these Millennials ‐ at a time when few people encounter real trains on a daily basis.

That’s a tall order! But 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.

Since I’m making the trip for the banquet anyway, I’ve also offered to speak about my layout – but recognizing that an S scale Canadian branchlike will be of little interest to many at the convention, I’m using the layout as a jumping off point to talk about working in a minority scale. Again, from the Ontario Manifest website…

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Trevor Marshall is a prototype modeler, and he’s working in S scale. In this clinic, he’ll share theopportunities and challenges of modeling a specific prototype in a minority scale-using his layout as an example. Trevor will cover why he ended up in a less popular scale and how that influenced his decisionwhen choosing a prototype. He’ll offer suggestions for others to research and ponder to determine whether a niche scale is a viable one in which to work. Anybody who has ever considered switching scales or who is interested in working in a second scale can benefit from this clinic.

I look forward to discussing S scale with convention-goers. I wonder if I’ll be the only one working in 1:64?

Ontario Manifest has a great line-up of activities planned – including a visit to the Orange Empire Railway Museum. Those who know me know that I’m a big fan of Interurbans – including the Pacific Electric and Sacramento Northern. So I’m excited to have the opportunity to visit the museum, because they have a lot of preserved Interurban equipment – from those two lines, and others. That’s my Sunday planned…

Ontario Manifest runs September 13-16 in Ontario, California. Check out the convention website for details – and I hope to see some of you there!

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!

Podcasting and Big Model Railroad Media

I’m a big fan of the Up Dunes Junction blog written by Steve Lee. While we model very different prototypes, in different scales, Steve and I agree on a lot of things.

This includes our shared belief in the potential of podcasting to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of this hobby.

A few years ago, I created, produced and co-hosted The Model Railway Show podcast with my friend Jim Martin. I know from that experience that listening to podcasts has become a favourite activity for commuters – and no wonder. Podcasting gives commuters an alternative to “the breakfast bunch” and “afternoon drive” radio programs. Those who produce podcast content know they are reaching a self-selected, targeted audience that’s also captive: since they’re driving, there’s nothing else they can do. They’re stuck in that vehicle for the length of their commute, and looking for something to help them get through the ordeal.

This is Narrowcasting Nirvana. So why aren’t our hobby’s major publishers and advertisers taking advantage of it?

This is the question that Steve asks in a thought-provoking post called, “Hey Big Model Railroad Media: Where’s the Audio Content?

It’s a really good question.

I’ve provided a lengthy answer – just my opinion, of course! – on Steve’s blog. Since Steve started the discussion, I’ve disabled comments on this post. If you want to join in (and I hope you do!) please do so over there. Click on the still-awesome logo designed for The Model Railway Show by Otto Vondrak to head to Steve’s blog now. I’ll see you there!

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From Maine On2 to Port Rowan in 1:64

This morning, I received an email from a reader who had discovered some of my On2 work online and had some questions. He wrote:

I just watched a video of your old On2 layout and loved the models, scenery, and music. It is rare for me to sit through many model rail vids but you got me. Thanks.

My pleasure! I’m glad you enjoyed the video. For those who haven’t seen it, I’m pretty sure this is the one to which he refers:


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

The reader continued…

As much as I like your S scale layout it makes me wonder a couple of things like, “How long have your been building layouts?” and, “Why the switch?”

I’ve written about how I got started in 1:64 in a series of posts at the very beginning of this blog. The links have been gathered into the “First Time Here?” page and if you haven’t read them, that’s a good place to start. Go ahead – I’ll wait here…

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(The railway’s General Manager, surveying the line…)

To answer the first question, I’ve been building layouts off and on – mostly on – for 40 years. I started young, and then had the usual break for part of high school before coming back to the hobby in university. At a guess, I’ve built about a dozen layouts over that time, to various states of completion. The early ones were horribly conceived and executed – a product of ambition over understanding – but they were valuable learning exercises and I don’t regret undertaking them.

In my current home, I’ve built four layouts based on three prototypes/themes:

– An HO scale layout based on the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Claremont branch in New Hampshire. I described that layout in the March and April, 2002 issues of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.

– Two iterations of a freelanced Maine two-footer layout in On2 (not On30), inspired by the slate-hauling Monson Railroad. I built the first, smaller version in the space now occupied by my workshop. The second version is the one shown in the video above. It was in the space currently occupied by my Port Rowan layout and was to incorporate the slate mill from the first layout, but I abandoned that project before the mainline reached the quarries.

– The current, S scale layout featuring the last three miles of the CNR Simcoe Sub to Port Rowan.

In addition to these, I have explored a few other ideas for my layout space. Some were merely planning exercises, while others were themes I wanted to build but abandoned when I decided I didn’t like the layouts I designed for my space. (The problem of, “If I only had five more feet…”)

The answer to the second question is more complex. Part of the answer is in those first posts about Port Rowan in 1:64.

Primarily, I found that living in southern Ontario it was pretty lonely to model a Maine two-footer. A few of my hobby friends in the area understood what I was doing – but it was just too foreign for most. My hobby is primarily a social one, and I got tired of having a layout that was difficult for others to appreciate. That’s not their problem – they simply didn’t have the reference.

Coupled with this, and equally important, is that because few people in my region knew about the Maine two-footers, I had very few local sources of information about any aspect of them. I couldn’t draw on local knowledge for very much. By switching to the CNR, my local support group got a whole lot better – for everything from equipment to operations. I was spending more and more time with terrific, fun modellers who knew a lot about Canadian railways running in southern Ontario – and nothing about Maine two-footers. Why is that important? Well, working on a layout to which others can relate is important if you’re in the hobby for the social aspects of it.

It’s also important if you want to build skills.

For example, I’m learning to modify brass locomotives with the CNR 3737 project. This is happening because another hobbyist in the area, who knows a lot about doing this kind of thing, also has a brass 2-8-2 to modify into a CNR prototype. Nobody I know in the Toronto area is doing a major modification on a brass SR&RL Forney to convert it to a Monson Railroad prototype. So, if I was still working in On2, I would be figuring that out by myself. I could do that, I’m sure – but the work sessions on the CNR 2-8-2s have become a great social event for me, too.

In the same way that the best advice to anybody considering their first DCC system is, “Buy what your friends use, because you’re going to need help and no feature on any system beats the benefit of local knowledge”, I’ve benefitted enormously from local hobbyists now that we’re moving in the same circles.

With the Maine two-footers, my local knowledge was at least 12 hours away by highway, and across an international border. (And, it has to be said, that border has only gotten more onerous to cross in the years since I modelled the Maine two-footers.) That meant my research trips were expensive, in terms of time and money. They involved at least two days on the road, plus at least two nights in a hotel. So I could only do occasional trips. It’s hard to find the answers to questions when that much travel is involved. Yes, the Internet is wonderful, but there’s nothing like going and seeing for oneself to really get an understanding.

By contrast, Port Rowan is two to three hours away, depending on traffic. I can make a day trip, any time I like.

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(I can even take along my wife and dogs, and make an outing of it.)

It’s much easier to be inspired when I can walk the Lynn Valley hiking trail to see the bridges, or visit with the person who ran the feed mill in Port Rowan – and do the round trip in a day.

As well, I’ve pursued both prototype and proto-freelance modelling, and I definitely prefer the prototype approach. Railway Prototype Modelling meets are among my favourite hobby events, and I never felt comfortable displaying my On2 models at them – even though they were prototype models in everything but the lettering. (And I can tell you, my displays got blank stares at RPMs in the Toronto area.) Again, it’s about how one engages with the hobby. I like Port Rowan in 1:64 because my local community can relate to the prototype, even if they’re more used to seeing the CNR modelled in HO. The difference in scale is a conversation starter – not a killer.

There are more reasons, but those are the main ones.

To the person who got in touch – those were great questions. Thanks for asking!

Layout size and reluctance to learn

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(Fun for a wedding, or when on holiday. But if you want to enjoy the many advantages of a modern car, you have to learn to drive)

When I look at the model railway hobby and compare it to what I’ve experienced in other hobbies, I am often surprised at how much resistance people in this hobby offer up to the idea of lifelong learning.

Emphasis is often placed on finding quicker, cheaper, easier ways to do things – rather than better ways to do things. Concepts that promote mediocrity are embraced and spouted as gospel. A good example of this is the “Three Foot Rule” – the idea that as long as something looks good from three feet away, the project is a success and no further work needs to be done.

I’ve often thought about why we do what we do, and there are several posts about this on my blog. But today, while drinking my morning coffee and sharing thoughts with a couple of friends, I approached the problem of “reaching for the middle” from a different angle.

I wonder if the reluctance to learn has something to do with the nature of layout building? In other hobbies, project timelines are much tighter.

A golf game lasts a few hours – and then it’s done. The next game is a new beginning. It’s a new opportunity to do better. Some would say the whole point of golf is to improve one’s score, for the bragging rights.

Building a piece of furniture takes a few weeks or months – and then it’s done. The next piece is a new beginning and can be related to the first piece, or can be radically different. New techniques, materials, and tools can be explored. The resulting piece of furniture doesn’t have to blend in. It doesn’t have to match the previous output.

Military modellers build individual models – not entire fleets of ships or divisions of tanks. Each project stands on its own merits. And each new project is an opportunity to do better.

But in our hobby, we rarely look at each locomotive, or structure, or tree as a model unto itself. They’re usually part of a larger project – a layout – so we spend less time reviewing the project just completed. We tick the box – “That’s one more for the layout” – and move on. We don’t review what we’ve built and ask, “What could I do better – either next time, or right now?”

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(The process of continuous review and improvement is why you’re not reading my blog on one of these)

I’m guilty of this. I have cut corners on many of the projects that comprise this Port Rowan layout. I have stand-in freight cars… background structures… and other compromises. I added them to the layout and then I moved on. And now, every time I look at my layout I see things I could’ve done better. (That said, I also acknowledge that if I had done them better, they probably would’ve taken longer and I would have less of the layout built by now. Would that be a bad thing? Maybe not.)

At least I recognize that I’ve made those compromises. And I also know that since I have a relatively modest layout – one that has taken me a few years to build, not a few decades – I have plenty of opportunity in the future to revisit those compromises and make them better. That’s my plan, anyway. And in order to achieve that, I am actively working to acquire new skills or upgrade as the hobby evolves. For example:

I’m learning to work with brass, through the CNR 3737 project.

I’ve upgraded the decoders in my steam locomotives not once, but twice in five years. Currently, I’m tearing out decoders and replacing them with Loksound decoders loaded with Full Throttle to take advantage of ESU’s sound reproduction and motor control.

I’ve upgraded my DCC system to take advantage of more powerful throttles and more advanced features.

I think sometimes people in this hobby get stuck in the mentality of, “I’ve built that. It’s done. It’s time to move on.” I get that. When building a large layout, one can’t keep revisiting the completed sections – there are still so many uncompleted sections to tackle. And if one has mastered a technique, and it worked on those completed sections, why consider doing things differently the next time?

 photo Oldways-03_zpspmc6typ6.jpg
(Okay when camping, or in an emergency… but do you really want to give up indoor plumbing for this? Old ways aren’t always the best)

Sadly, this means the resulting layout often looks like the builder’s skills froze in time the moment they started construction. If the first piece of the layout was completed in the 1970s, and the builder mastered the use of dyed sawdust and zip texturing, then that 1970s era scenery is likely still on display today (worse for the wear of being untouched for the past 40 years). And when the layout is viewed by those who have mastered more modern techniques – say, the use of static grass – they’re not going to leave feeling inspired.

I’m sure this isn’t something the builder wants. We all want to put our best effort forward, don’t we? To take pride in our work and inspire those who visit to see it? I sure do.

For those just embarking on a layout, perhaps the biggest favour they can do for themselves is to ask if they honestly have the energy, time and commitment to not only maintain the layout they’re planning, but to continuously improve it. And if the answer is “No”, it’s okay to scale back one’s plans…

Roweham 2017

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(The passenger train – an auto coach pushed by a 14XX class 0-4-2T – arrives at Roweham)

Those who have read this blog for some time now know that I’m a fan of smaller layouts. I’m far more impressed by a small, thoughtfully-conceived and expertly executed model railway than I am by a half-baked basement-filler. The hobby is not about quantity for me; it’s about quality. In fact, I have a whole other blog devoted to what I call Achievable Layouts.

So it’ll come as no surprise that last Saturday, I was delighted to help my friend Brian Dickey exhibit his 7mm (British O scale – 1:43) masterpiece, “Roweham”, at the annual model railway show organized by the club to which he belongs. Also on hand was my friend Pierre Oliver – who, like me, helped Brian exhibit Roweham at last year’s show. We were joined this year by Ross Oddi. (Great to meet you, Ross!)

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(Ross, Pierre, and Brian on deck)

 photo Roweham2017-03_zpsuxmpwvor.jpg
(Ross deploys Brian’s version of the Galvanick Lucipher to break the train as engineer Pierre prepares his next move. Brian’s layout uses prototypically-correct three-link couplings, which add to the play value)

For me, Brian has really hit all the targets with Roweham. The modelling is excellent, and careful. The design is realistic and relaxed – perfect for a branchline terminal in a Green and Pleasant Land. The locomotives and rolling stock are appropriate for the modelling subject, and run flawlessly. (We had one derailment during the show – the result of buffer lock between a longish 2-6-0 and a short wagon. Brian immediately removed the mogul from service so it would not detract from the presentation.) And the presentation is professional – from the skirting, to the fascia, to Brian’s handsome waistcoat complete with brass GWR buttons. (Since I’m part of the exhibition team, I’ll be happy to follow Brian’s lead and pick up a waistcoat from his supplier.)

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(An overview of Roweham, from the terminal end)

In short, it’s clear that Brian has made an effort to reward the public for their $5 admission fee – even as he enjoys this layout at home. This also informed Brian’s wise decision to have three people help him exhibit Roweham. He wanted to make sure he could talk to visitors even as the layout continued to operate, and he wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to take a break from operating – a much better situation than one person, standing on his feet for six hours, trying to explain the layout to guests and keep the trains moving.

While it’s a modest design, with just four turnouts, Roweham is already finished to a level rarely seen at exhibition in these parts, and Brian continues to add details. New features this year include a cattle dock, a water tank, a brick workshop, some tractors, and more.

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Meantime, Brian has taken a second pass at things, especially equipment, to give it a tasteful weathering job. All in all, Roweham will only get better each time it’s on display. Here are some more shots from the day…

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Most modellers I meet are obsessed with quantity. They talk about the number of locomotives they have, or the number of freight cars, or the size of their layout. The first question often asked is, “How big is your layout?” – with emphasis on “big”. How different the hobby would be if we instead started with the question, “What story are you trying to tell?” – and then gauged how well the layout accomplishes that.

Brian’s layout tells a very clear story, and that’s why it succeeds so well.

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Thanks again, Brian, for letting me be a part of your exhibition!

DCC: Upgrading to keep current

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(What’s in the box? I’m not telling – yet: Stay tuned.)

I have a perfectly good DCC system. And I’m about to replace it. I’ve ordered a new system – from a different manufacturer – and it should arrive this week.

I’ll write more about the new system once I have it in hand and have had a chance to connect it to the layout, but some may question why I would upgrade. For me, it’s really about keeping current with technology changes in the hobby.

I first got into DCC back in the mid-1990s. I had a friend in our round-robin who had become a Canadian manufacturer’s rep for Lenz, so I got an early start.

DCC was brand new. Lenz was brand new. My friend was running software build 0.86 on a Lenz system. Of the many quirks, it didn’t yet have English instructions on the hardware, so all the commands and feedback were in German. “Aus” for “Off” (a short), etc.

Another friend in our group had built a medium-sized, freelanced, operations-oriented layout with DC cab control. He had five memory cabs, selected through rotary switches. The memory meant one’s train would keep moving while the operator unplugged to move around the layout. It worked very, very well. NO problems at all. So, understandably, my friend’s initial reaction to DCC was lukewarm. “Why would I switch?” he’d ask. And frankly, none of us could answer him. I sure couldn’t.

But then he had a group of old-timers over for an ops session. They were 10-20 years older than him. He’d first learned about ops on a layout that they had built. And he realized really quickly that they were confused by the concept of five-cab control and memory walk-arounds. And that experience played a big part in his decision to switch to DCC.

My friend didn’t decide to switch to DCC to make it simpler for the old-timers, but because he realized that if he didn’t stay current with the hobby, he would become like them. The hobby would pass him by, and when he went to other people’s layouts, he’d be the guy wandering around like a lost person.

So he switched. He moved all his rotaries to Cab 1, and wired a Lenz system to it. There was a steep learning curve for decoder installs, especially with the decoders being a large as they were at the time. And it wasn’t a cheap transition. Nor did it happen overnight. But he took the plunge.

And almost immediately, things changed on my friend’s layout – for the better. We stopped looking at rotary switches and started running trains. We re-worked how trains interacted with each other, especially in yards where road power was being cut off and switchers were adding or removing cars. We started adding helpers to one of the grades, because it was easy to do and the helper could be independently controlled.

None of this was expected, and it was all great. And this was before the advent of sound. We had NO idea sound was coming when my friend converted his layout. And you can imagine how sound changed the operating sessions! Everything slowed down. We instituted two-person crews on most jobs, because the engineer now had more to do. As a consequence, we also cut the number of trains running on the layouts and cut the speed of the fast clock in half. We started incorporating real railway procedures, like pumping air in the train line and performing brake tests. And so on.

So, fast forward to today. I’m still using a 20-year-old system (I bought my first Lenz base station in 1996). Things like JMRI have completely passed me by: I’ve downloaded it, but never used it for several reasons. For starters, when I first encountered it, decoders – even sound decoders – were relatively simple to program using CVs right off the throttle. Today, there are so many more options that even changing the ring rate of a bell can involve three or four CVs. Second, I don’t have a computer hooked to the layout or in my workshop – something I will have to address at some point.

My current Lenz throttles have a 10-button keypad for functions yet current decoders can have up to 28, so accessing anything above F9 involves switching to another stack – a complicated, disruptive process. (And even though my layout is simple, there are a lot of functions to access on my locomotives – cylinder drains, injectors, blower, bell, whistle, etc. etc. etc.) So once again, I find myself playing the layout instead of running the trains.

From a long-term perspective, the throttles – which I really do like – are entirely hardware defined, which means accommodating new features is difficult. And yes, the system can be upgraded – and has, in the past – but those upgrades require sending the throttles back to the sales rep so he can pull and replace IC chips, because the system itself is not software defined, and not Internet enabled.

So, it’s time to try something more advanced – to stay current, and prepare for the future. Because I want to take advantage of the many new, incredible features that are on the horizon – as well as those that have not yet even been conceived. And I don’t want to be that guy wandering about, looking lost, in the ops sessions.

“Instant on”

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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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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…

Stand-in CNR express car

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(This mixed train is missing something: a CNR express car. The proper one is not available, but I’ve found a suitable, temporary stand-in)

Good things come to those who wait. But in the meantime, “close enough” is better than “none at all”…

I’ve decided I need to compromise – at least, temporarily – in order to fill out my 1957 version of the mixed train to Port Rowan. There are two significant differences in this train, when compared to its 1953 version: CNR 10-wheelers had replaced the Moguls on the head end and – with the demise of the postal contract – the baggage-mail car had disappeared, to be replaced with a simple express (baggage) car.

My 1953 train accurately reflects its consist…

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… but my attempts to model the 1957 version have been stymied by the lack of an accurate CNR express car in S scale. Fellow S scale enthusiast David Clubine and I have badgered our mutual friend Andy Malette at MLW Services to fill this gap, preferably with a four-axle NSC steel car – like this:

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(Jim Parker photo from the Canadian Freight Car Gallery. Click on the image to learn more.)

Andy has “expressed” interest (see what I did there?), and he’s done a great job on some other CNR passenger car kits in S scale, including the combines that bring up the rear of my mixed trains. But I also appreciate that Andy has other projects he wants to tackle, and that a market of “Dave and I” isn’t a very good reason to devote the best part of a year to developing a kit. So while the NSC car is on his “someday” list, I’ll content myself with being thrilled when (or even if) he does this car.

In the meantime, however, my modern mixed train falls short. It doesn’t look right, and operating sessions with this train suffer without the express car and its associated activity. My choices are either to build my own NSC four-axle express car or find a suitable stand-in.

Building my own isn’t beyond consideration, but I have other projects that are more of a priority. For starters, there are still a number of structures to build and trees to create. If I decide to build the NSC car, it will be a few (several?) years before I can tackle the project – and that leaves me with the same unsatisfying situation I’m in today.

So, I prefer the second option – the suitable stand-in. The next task was to determine whether any such model exists.

For this, I combined two sources.

First, the National Association of S Gaugers has an online Product Gallery, in which the organization is trying to collect and share information about every locomotive and piece of rolling stock ever produced for 1:64. It’s a tall order, but the Product Gallery is remarkably complete – and most of the entries include photographs of the models.

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(Click on the logo to visit the NASG Product Gallery)

I searched through the gallery’s “baggage car” section, and compared the photographs to pictures in the Canadian National Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment Volume 1, written by John Riddell and published by Morning Sun Books. And, I found a match – or, at least, a model that’s a close-enough stand in for my purposes:

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The prototype is a series of 25 cars built by National Steel Car in 1940. They’re almost 65 feet long and have a distinctive “turtle roof”. And, while they’re not dead-on matches, they sure look close to the Southern Pacific baggage cars imported by SouthWind Models – an example of which is shown below:

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Yes, there are discrepancies – some pretty big ones. Notably, the baggage doors on the CNR cars extend almost to the roof, whereas they stop at the letter board on the SP cars. Also, the roof vents are all wrong. But for a stand-in car, until Andy produces (or I build) the NSC baggage car that should be on my 1957 mixed train? I can live with that. Dan Navarre at River Raisin Models had an unpainted example in stock, which is current en route to me.

I’m looking forward to having a more accurate mixed train: More accurate, because “wrong express car” is better than “no express car”…