Operational flexibility

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(The doodlebug provides added play value when a crowd shows up, while a flexible operating scheme allows the layout to adjust to the number of guests)

On the prototype, the line to Port Rowan was served by a single mixed train, six days per week. That’s it. That’s fine when I’m running by myself, but it’s not terribly exciting when I have guests over. What to do?

If I have one or two guests visiting, we usually annul the mixed train and run a freight extra. If I have one guest, we’ll split the conductor/engineer duties. If I have two guests, they can share those roles while I hover to answer questions. (Frequently, I’ll also assume one of the duties of a brakeman and take care of uncoupling cars, since I know some people are uncomfortable reaching between two pieces of detailed rolling stock with an uncoupling tool to perform this function.)

I rarely have more than two guests – but it happens on occasion, as it did earlier this week when four friends Regan Johnson, Dave Burroughs, Robin Talukdar and Bob Fallowfield – showed up to see the layout before meeting up with some other hobbyists for dinner. When the numbers go up, I find it useful to add a second train to the ops session – but the mixed train, or even another freight, would seriously snarl the terminal at Port Rowan.

The answer lies in CNR 15815 – an EMC Gas Electric I acquired about a year ago.

This model is not accurate for my prototype, but the CNR did have an extensive fleet of self-propelled cars detailed in an excellent book by Anthony Clegg), and I painted and finished this model following typical CNR practice.

When I acquired this model, I planned to use it on the S Scale Workshop Free-mo style exhibition layout – and I still will, because it’s an easy model to pack and transport, and it’s a reliable runner. I didn’t really plan to use it on Port Rowan, because – frankly – the prototype never ran a self-propelled car on this branch.

Since putting it into service, however, it has proven to be a great asset for enhancing operations with a second train:

As a passenger train, it follows a schedule, which requires the freight extra’s crew to keep an eye on the clock.

It also takes priority over the freight train, so the freight has to keep clear of the main track when the doodlebug is due.

At the same time, it’s a one-unit train, so it requires no reshuffling of cars or run-around moves upon arrival in Port Rowan, so as a second train it doesn’t overwhelm the small terminal.

After the station stop, the doodlebug operator will turn the unit on the turntable, then stay on the turntable lead – out of the way of the freight extra’s switching duties – until it’s time to head to the station and ready for its scheduled departure.

Looking for ways to break from the prototype’s practice, in order to entertain additional guests, it’s one of the things I’m exploring with this layout. It’s a fine line to walk, however. It’s easy to deviate so much that the essence of one’s prototype is lost – at which point, one wonders why the prototype was chosen in the first place…

In this case, a second train – on those rare instances when I have a crowd in the layout room – justifies the departure. And even though the gas electric is fictional, I think it’s a handsome unit and I’m pleased by the job I did finishing it, so I’m happy to run it to Port Rowan and back.

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Fillmore Engine Terminal

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(Mark works the coal deliver track at Fillmore. With the exception of a staging area to the right, this is the whole layout)

A couple of weekends ago, my friend Mark Zagrodney and I visited Fillmore Engine Terminal – a superb HO scale layout built by Rick De Candido and featured in the 2015 issue of Model Railroad Planning magazine.

It’s a good thing I didn’t do this back when I was still trying to fit a Proto:48 layout into my space (http://themodelrailwayshow.com/cn1950s/?p=39) – because if I had, you wouldn’t be reading about Port Rowan in 1:64 on this blog. Rick’s concept of devoting an entire layout to the servicing of locomotives would’ve solved the challenges I faced in trying to fit O scale into a long but narrow room. (Not that I’m going to switch now – I’m really enjoying Port Rowan, so it’s still safe!)

I’ve written about our operating session on my Achievable Layouts blog, because Rick’s layout is a perfect example of thinking creatively to craft a layout that emphasizes quality over quantity while still being satisfying to operate.

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(Click on the image to read my ops session report)

Thanks Rick – I look forward to our next session!

S is the new…

Well, take your pick.

A couple of recent postings I made in different venues prompted an interesting response from readers. I thought I’d bring the two ideas together and present them here.

First, in response to my blog entry on the S Scale Workshop appearance at Exporail, my friend Gene Deimling commented on the fact that the group had two new locomotives on the layout – a CNR 2-10-2 and a CNR 2-8-0. The first was scratch-built – the second was a brass model that was so extensively modified that it qualifies as scratch-built too, to my mind.

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(CNR 2-10-2, a scratch-built model by Simon Parent)

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(CNR 2-8-0, an extensively modified brass import by Andy Malette)

Gene – well known in the Proto:48 circles and an accomplished builder himself – wrote:

S has become the builders scale. O gauge gave up the title years ago.

About the same time as Gene was making this comment, over on the Canadian Railway Modellers group on Facebook Jurgen Kleylein observed:

S scale is the new “narrow gauge” … the amount of scratch building and craftsman work on engines and rolling stock is definitely reminiscent of the way people were approaching HOn3 and On3 years ago.

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(An example of kit bashing that’s almost scratch-building: an in-progress view of my CNR plough. Click on the image to read more about this model)

These are both interesting observations – and I think that there’s some truth to them. Obviously, there are people in every scale/gauge who pursue the hobby at a craftsman level, and who prefer to “build” instead of “buy”. But there are a few factors that help explain why S is getting this reputation.

First, S is a terrific scale for the scratch-builder – particularly those of us who grew up on imperial measurements. Any decent ruler marked out in inches will also be marked out in 1/64ths of an inch – and each of those equals 1 scale inch in S. What’s more, the size of the models is easy on the eye: they’re larger than HO scale and therefore easier to detail, while being smaller than O scale so more manageable in the average layout space.

StW-Station-Order Board photo StW-Stn-OrderBoard-01_zps149435a9.jpg
(S is a nice size for adding details that might be overlooked in HO. I might not have attempted a working train order board in HO, but in S it turned out to be a straightforward project for my model of the St. Williams station. Click on the image to see a video showing the order board in action.)

Second, there’s the matter of necessity. S scale – particularly when modelling a specific prototype – forces one to haul out the raw materials, data and tools and build from scratch, because there’s just not a lot available commercially. At least, not when compared to other scales.

I would argue that O scale lost that “build it” imperative when Atlas made its serious commitment to 1:48 with the launch of Atlas O in 1997. Atlas offered O scale products before Atlas O, but with the new line of business it made a serious push into 1:48, bringing HO scale manufacturing and marketing sensibilities to the scale. I think it’s fair to say that Atlas O’s success encouraged other, smaller companies to support the scale, and 1:48 went through a renaissance. That said, when product is available to buy, the imperative to build is reduced.

Substitute “Bachmann” for “Atlas O” and the same logic can be applied to narrow gauge. Bachmann’s decision to create and market a line of On30 equipment was a boon to O scale narrow gauge modelling in North America. And Bachmann’s success encouraged other, smaller companies to introduce products to support On30 modellers. At the same time, On30 lost its reputation as a kitbasher’s scale: When great RTR is available, not to mention great kits that are custom-designed to fit available mechanisms, the impetus for scratch-building and kit bashing is reduced.

Again, this is not to say that people do not scratch-build in O, or in narrow gauge. Craftsmanship abounds. But compared to how it was a decade or two ago, scratch-building is more of a choice, not a necessity. It’s still a necessity in 1:64.

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(Even little details like the rolls of snow fence must be scratch-built in S. Click on the image to read more about the Port Rowan section house.)

Third, S scale has always been a scale that has attracted scratch-builders, but they were operating below the radar: Those outside of the scale (including me, at the time) didn’t know what was going on in S. That’s yet another thing that’s changed with the Internet. Blogs (not just this one), forums, newsgroups, YouTube, Facebook and other social media channels have made it easy for those who build to share their efforts.

Obviously, I’m thinking a lot about this subject after reading the comments from Gene and Jurgen. Thanks, both of you, for the observations!

Establishing Shot

In movie and television production, an Establishing Shot conveys the context for a scene. It gives the audience important information about where and when the subsequent action and/or dialogue is taking place.

For example, if a film is set in Paris, it’s a good bet that the Eiffel Tower will be featured on the skyline – even if the subsequent story does not take place in the 7th Arrondissement. For the same reason, a movie set in Toronto almost always features the CN Tower in its establishing shot. Other clues within the shot – such as the vintage of the vehicles – can help convey era, while clothing styles and weather can help convey season.

Today, Port Rowan has a large town water tank in the area where the rail yard used to be. But as far as I know, in the 1950s it did not have a signature tower of any sort – certainly nothing that first-time visitors to the town would immediately recognize as being uniquely Port Rowan.

Since I’m modelling the branchline to Port Rowan set in the summer in the 1950s, how do I help convey that information to first-time visitors to my layout?

Today, I completed a key component of my Establishing Shot:

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(“Are we there yet?” A tourist hauls his pride and joy – an Airstream trailer – with the promise of summer fun ahead. Click on the image to read more about the trailer.)

This scene – still a work in progress – is located at the very end of the Port Rowan peninsula, which is the first thing one sees as one enters the layout. I have no idea if there were billboards in Port Rowan to advertise Long Point. But I don’t care either – because I’m pleased that in much less than a square foot of layout real estate, I’ve managed to convey a wealth of information, including:

– We’re close to a place called Long Point.
– Long Point is on Lake Erie.
– Long Point is a summer destination, with cottages, beaches and campgrounds.
– It’s the 1950s: The vehicles tell us so.
– It’s summer, because the driver of the grey car has his windows down and he’s pulling a camper.

Note that the scene does not, specifically, convey that we’re in Port Rowan – only that we’re close to Long Point and Lake Erie. As the visitor moves further into the layout – about three feet to the left, to be precise – they well encounter the railway’s impressive station, complete with “Port Rowan” signs. The Establishing Shot doesn’t have to tell the whole story: subsequent shots can fill in more of the details even as the action and dialogue commence.

I built the billboard from a laser kit I picked up from Barry Silverthorn, who used to manufacturer and market 1:64 structures and details under the Grand River Models brand. (While Barry is no longer running that business as a going concern, he has quite a few of these still in stock.) It’s not obvious in this photo, but I enhanced the kit with nut-bolt-washer hardware on the frame and support legs.

For the sign, I found a suitable vintage image online – it’s actually from the 1940s if I recall, but I plan to add some weathering to the billboard so it appears to have been in place for a while. I added my own text in PhotoShop. I then asked Barry about the size of his billboard so I could adjust the image – and Barry not only resized it for me, but he also took my text and did a much better job of laying it out on the image. (Thanks, Barry!)

This scene still needs work. I plan to add static grass, flowers, weeds and bushes – and possibly even a tree behind the billboard. But already, this little scene is playing an important role in telling layout visitors where they are – and when.

(I’m interested in hearing from others about their Establishing Shot. Use the comments section of this post to share…)

(For those of you who participate in the forums at Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine, there’s also an active discussion of this subject over there…)

Taking ownership of your hobby

I found myself nodding along today as I read the latest blog post from Mike Cougill on his OST Publications website. The post – “How do you add value?” – explores how, when talking to others, we often offer up what Mike has succinctly called “biased opinions thinly disguised as ‘advice’.”

We are all guilty of this, I suspect. I know I am, although I try to avoid it. For example, we often advocate for our favourite scale(s), gauge(s), or theme(s) – the ones in which we like to work – with no regard for the preferences of the person to whom we are talking.

This happens a lot in the niche corners of our hobby. Somebody will decide for themselves that modelling the D&RGW in On3 or the CNR in S is the perfect choice and then try to convince everybody they encounter in the hobby to do it, too. Or, they don’t bother to help others see the light – they simply turn up their noses at the HO scale, standard gauge, modern era layout or the live steam loop in the garden. Wouldn’t it be better to ask questions about the builder’s vision, than pass judgement based on one’s own prejudices?

At this point in my journey through the hobby, I find that 1:64 is the perfect scale for me. But I try very hard to not proselytize about it. It works for me – it may work for you, or not. And I’m fine with that.

I do advocate for simpler layouts – and even write about them on occasion on my Achievable Layouts blog. But I try to do this in a way that I’m offering choices for people to make up their own minds about whether such layouts are right for them. For example, I try to highlight how my Port Rowan layout, while simple in design, is satisfying to build and entertaining to operate. I also try to convey how this layout fits comfortably into my life, rather than dominating it to the exclusion of other interests and commitments.

There is one aspect of the hobby that I encourage everyone to embrace – and that’s experimentation.

I’ve written previously about the Lesson of Bendy Elm:

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(Click on the image to read more)

Today’s blog post from Mike reminded me of that lesson – specifically, a comment in “Conversation No. 3” near the bottom of the piece, about taking ownership of the work.

I meet a lot of people in the hobby – at conventions, hobby shops, operating sessions, social events, train shows and elsewhere. I’m reasonably well known in the hobby thanks to dozens of features in Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, my co-hosting of The Model Railway Show podcast and, more recently, several appearances on TrainMasters TV. But that notoriety often gets confused with being an “expert”.

I’m not – I just find it easy to blather about what I’m doing, and I’m not afraid to look like an idiot when it goes wrong.

However, this misconception that I’m an expert at anything means people ask me questions such as, “What’s the best way to lay track?” or “What products did you use to make a tree?” or “What DCC system do you use?”

If the questions are being asked because a person is gathering data, then I’m comfortable in providing answers. I can usually tell if that’s the case because the questions don’t ask “What?” but “Why?” – as in “Why do you use this type of leaf material for your trees?” or “Why do you like the DCC system you use?”

But if the question is, “What did you do – because I want to do it exactly like you?” then I start to twitch. This is a hobby, and I can’t tell others how they should engage with it. I can share what I’ve done, but as I’ve said before on this blog it pays to do one’s own experiments.

Reading Mike’s blog post also resonated with me in relation to a discussion currently taking place on the S Scale SIG forum about the merits and drawbacks of using three-point gauges to hand lay track.

Trifecta photo Trifecta-S-70.jpg

Points were made about gauge widening on curves, which three-point gauges facilitate. And there were comments in favour of doing this – and against it – which depended on whether a model steam locomotive’s driving axles have sufficient side-to-side play. There were points made about the angle at which front and rear flanges meet the inside rail on a curve. And so on.

I must admit that if I had no experience with three-point gauges, the conflicting views and the warnings might’ve convinced me to not try them. That would be easier than experimenting and would prevent the possibility of failure.

And that’s my point: Failure is good for the hobby. So, take ownership of your hobby – experiment and fail – and, if you’re so inclined, share your experiences on a blog of your own. I look forward to reading it!

Just make sure that you’re telling the world what you did, and not what others should do

Spot order and small layouts :: A visit with Gord and Andy

Late last month, I ran into Gord Ross at one of the local hobby shops. Gord’s a regular reader and after talking with him a while, I invited him to visit. Well, we had that visit on Thursday.

I also invited my friend Andy Malette to join us, because I know Gord has put his toe into the water in S scale, and Andy knows just about anything one could want to know about building a layout in 1:64. Andy was able to provide Gord with lots of information about sources for equipment and other stuff one needs for a satisfying S scale layout.

We started with lunch at Harbord House, then headed to the layout room to run a freight extra to Port Rowan behind 10-wheeler number 1532:

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The layout ran well and the work took about two hours to complete. The three of us had a great time.

Gord is considering an S scale layout for a small space, and noted that having a chance to run my layout answered several questions for him about whether a modest layout can be entertaining. I’m convinced they can be, as I’ve written about this on this blog and on my Achievable Layouts blog. But it’s one thing to read something – quite another to experience it for oneself.

We discussed the advantage of choosing industries that support a variety of car types with specific spotting rules. I think this is particularly important for smaller layouts.

For example, a furniture factory might require the same layout space as a grain elevator, but it would require more switching.

That’s because the furniture factory could receive inbound loads of lumber, fabric, leather, glass, hardware, adhesives, finishes, solvents, and the occasional delivery of machinery. Finished furniture could fill outbound cars. What’s more, these inbound and outbound carloads would likely need to be spotted in specific order along the factory’s siding – and some cars spotted at the factory might not be ready for pick-up.

By contrast, a grain elevator might receive several cars for loading, but if they’re all going to be loaded with the same commodity, spot order doesn’t matter.

If we assume six cars will be switched at our furniture factory, that could require a fair amount of back-and-forth shuttling to lift cars that are outbound, then sort inbound cars and cars that are staying put into correct spot order. A grain elevator – even one with a 12-car capacity – would require much less switching.

For an example of a prototype for an Achievable Layout with not one, but two furniture factories on it, have a look at the CNR Southampton Sub. Click on the image for more:

Southampton Depot - GTR photo SouthamptonDepot-GTR_zpsfe992786.jpg

(Lance Mindheim has written a fair bit about the philosophy of choosing industries for their spotting locations, as opposed to their car capacity. Here’s a good example on Lance’s blog, using an article by Jim Lincoln on a corn syrup facility as his example.)

Even a team track – the easiest and most space efficient industry to model – can offer this sort of play value. In fact, team tracks account for the majority of the spotting locations on my layout. I make this work by dividing the team track into several spotting locations and then assigning specific spots to specific customers. For example, Potter Motors in Port Rowan receives the occasional flat car load of tractors.

A flash of red photo WAB-Flat-04.jpg

This car must be spotted at the very end of the team track, so that Potter can set up a ramp to drive the tractors off the end of the flat car. On my layout, I’ve designated four spots on the Port Rowan team track and labelled them “T1-T4”, counting from the wheel stops. Then, on the waybill for the flat car with tractor load, I have noted it must be spotted in “T1”.

Gord and I also talked about small, prototype examples. My go-to example is the CNR Waterloo Sub to Galt, Ontario. I’ve given this example to several friends and know at least one person who is building a version of it in HO. I’ve also written it up on my Achievable Layouts blog: Click on the image, below, to read more about this subdivision.

CNR Galt Header photo CNR-Galt_zpseb46cb88.jpeg

Andy, Gord: Great to see you both and I’m looking forward to more operating sessions!

RS18s and violins :: A visit with David

One of the great things about having friends over to see the layout is I never know where the conversation is going to head. I always learn things – and not always about trains.

For instance, on Wednesday my friend David Woodhead visited and I learned about this odd instrument:

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(Click on the Stroh Violin to learn more about it on Wikipedia)

Curiously, the instrument in question actually came up in relation to my recently-completed RS18 model:

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(Click on the image to read all posts about the RS18)

The connection, of course, was the DCC sound unit I put in the model. David was impressed by the sound, and wanted to know about the speaker I’d used and how I mounted it. Here’s a look at the gubbins:

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The speaker is mounted facing up, and the sound escapes the body shell though several avenues – including the various grilles along the sides of the long hood, the exhaust stacks on the top (which are open) and the large rooftop radiator fan.

I mentioned to David that the speaker was ported, but that I was unable to determine whether the port made any difference to the sound. I’d tried a simple test – blocking the port with a finger – and I failed to discern a difference.

That got us talking about ports in speakers for audio systems, secondary sound holes on acoustic guitars and – eventually – the Stroh Violin, which certainly looks like something conjured up by a model railway enthusiast with a well-equipped shop and some spare instruments lying about.

I’ve always thought that the best in our hobby are extremely curious. We love chasing down obscure facts and revel in the unusual – and Wednesday’s visit was yet another example of that.

David and I even ran trains – sort of. Mostly, we talked about various projects over coffee. And that’s always fine.

Great to see you as always, David: Come again soon!

Zero derailments!

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(This should never, ever happen. That’s the goal)

In response to my report on this week’s visit from Simon Parent and Hunter Hughson, it was noted that minor derailments are a fact of railroading. For evidence, one only needs to look at the re-railers hung on the tenders of my model steam locomotives:

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Yes, it’s a fair point: Derailments do happen in the real world, and sometimes with spectacular results.

But to be honest, derailments happen so infrequently on the prototype when one considers the number of trouble-free miles that locomotives and rolling stock rack up every day in North America. I have no data to support this thought but for my little branch from Simcoe to Port Rowan, it’s likely there were only a half-dozen such incidents over its entire lifespan.

Regardless of frequency, we aim for different things on a model railway.

When a minor derailment happens on the prototype, the crew gets to work re-railing the equipment – but it’s still work. The derailment is the thing they remember about the day at work, and they probably went home at the end of the day to complain about it over dinner. Then they went back to work the next day, because that’s how they made their living.

As on the prototype, when there’s a derailment on a model railway, the crews re-rail then get on with their job. And, as on the prototype, the derailment is probably one of the things they remember about their run. They might discuss it over dinner – and who wants that to be the thing that guests take away from an operating session? There’s also the question of whether they back for another operating session. They don’t have to – this isn’t a job. Maybe there’s another layout they’d rather run on, or another way they’d prefer to spend their free time. I know I’ve made that decision in the past…

However – build a layout that operates derailment-free, and guest operators definitely will remember that!

I remember the first layout I ever operated on that ran with no electrical or mechanical issues. It was the D&RGW Sonjora Branch, built in On3 by my friend Dave Burroughs:

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Chris Abbott and I spent a terrific afternoon running trains on the layout, and all we could talk about on the way home was how flawlessly it operated. We spent several hours running trains, and there was no table-thumping… no finger-poking… no re-railing. We were able to focus – entirely – upon the experience of operating a narrow gauge branch line.

(It should be said that Dave’s layout is also quite modest – one of those “Achievable Layouts” I keep yammering on about – which makes pursuing “zero derailments” a real possibility.)

Operating a trouble-free layout like Dave’s was (and is) such an unusual experience in the hobby – and it informed my thinking about establishing a “zero-derailment” goal for my own layout. But here’s the key to making it work:

Knowing it can be done – through first-hand experience of a layout where it has been done – allowed me to clear that first big hurdle of “whether” it can be achieved and focus instead on “how” to achieve it.

This is just my opinion of course, but the problem with establishing a goal of anything less than zero derailments is that it’s a slippery slope. How many derailments is okay? Is one per session fine? How about two? If two is fine, how about three?

Aiming for zero – and really meaning “I want no derailments during a session to be caused by equipment, track or other things I can control” – means that when a problem does occur, I make note of the issue and try to resolve it.

The same goes for poor electrical performance: I want no stalling or table-thumping or finger-prodding, or people asking “Was that a short?” – because it detracts from the pleasant (and, frankly, rare) experience of running a well-built and well-maintained layout.

This is why I always mention the derailments or other troubles in operating session reports. They remind me of the problem so I know where to look when trying to fix it the next day, or the day after that.

Everybody will set their own standard for reliability, but this is mine and I’m happy that I’m pursuing it. I’m also happy that I’m most of the way there. I’m confident that I’ve achieved 99% reliability and I’m shooting for 100%.

Would my layout be 99% derailment-free if I didn’t set a zero-derailments goal for myself in the first place? Definitely not.


This week, I sent off my renewal for my subscription to Model Railway Journal – a UK publication focused on finescale modelling.

It’s never easy to renew, since MRJ does not have an online presence and does not take credit cards. This means a trip to the bank, to acquire a bank draft / money order to mail off. But I’m always impressed at how well this works.

I’ve been a subscriber for a number of years. I’ve also purchased several books directly from the publisher, Wild Swan Publications. And every transaction has involved a process that seems ancient by today’s standards.

I have an image of leather-bound ledgers and a massive card catalogue in which all subscriber details are kept…
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That said, every transaction has also been faultless – which is more than I can say for many digitally-enabled publishers with which I’ve had dealings. Wild Swan has obviously decided its business is to publish some of the best reading in the railway hobby – and that this does not include spending time managing web sites and forums, or figuring out why its computer is not talking to its printer, or the many other time sucks that our alway-on lives present to us.

Other publishers could learn from this. Others could more clearly define their focus, then stick to it.

I recently read a digital publication – it doesn’t matter which one, or even whether it serves the railroad hobby – in which I quickly identified several factual errors. I also witnessed sloppy graphic design and – more worryingly – a major error in editorial judgement.

The publishers could certainly benefit from rethinking their raison d’être. If it’s to run a forum, that’s what they should do. If it’s to publish a magazine, the focus should be there. Doing both, plus the many other things they do, means the quality of each is diluted.

That said, if the company is successful then I certainly can’t – and won’t – tell them how to run their business. But as a professional writer, I’ve seen many examples of this attempt to be too many things to too many people, and it’s never turned out well for the publishers in question.

It also occurred to me that a stronger focus would benefit many hobbyists. Decide what you’re trying to model, and then figure out how you’re going to do it – and ignore the distractions. A layout that tries to be too many things will end up satisfying nobody.

It’s only taken me 40-something years to figure this out, but with Port Rowan I appear to have found that focus. That’s not to say I’m immune to the distractions. I’m not: There’s a whole display cabinet of them in my home office.

But my primary focus is narrow enough, and modest enough, that the distractions don’t derail my objective of building a realistic model of a railway that looks good and operates well…

Those that can

Over at The Erratic and wandering Journey, author Simon Dunkley has raised an interesting point about how we approach the hobby.

Simon takes issue with a phrase we often hear in the hobby. Here it is:

I think hand track laying is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

The phrase is specifically about track – but it applies equally to almost everything in the hobby. To wit:

I think airbrushing is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

I think building a realistic tree is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

I think installing a DCC decoder is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

I think reading a blog is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

And to be fair to the person who made this statement, they’re right if the statement is taken at face value: Only those who can do something, can do it. But of course what the person is really saying is, “I can’t do this, because I don’t have the talent”.

At which point, this person has already lost the battle. But, perhaps, not the war.

That’s because none of us – not a single person in this hobby – started with a talent for any aspect of railway modelling that was conferred on them by birth. Nobody emerged from the womb knowing how to solder a wire, or drive a screw, or saw a board, or any of the thousands of other skills required to built a layout.

The person who has decided he can’t hand lay track? Maybe he hasn’t tried. Or maybe he has tried, but it didn’t work.

Those of us who can hand lay track? We failed, too – in my case, many, many times. I have hand built some awful track in my time. (I’ve also blown up DCC decoders… fabricated laughable trees… splattered paint from an airbrush like a graduate of a pre-school finger-painting class… and more.) After those initial failures, the key is to try to understand what went wrong, modify one’s procedure, and try again. And again, and again, until one succeeds.

So with that in mind… and with the new year upon us… I’ll make a resolution to tackle something in this hobby that I cannot currently do, and then over the course of 2015 work on it until I can do it. I’m not sure what that thing is yet, and I won’t add pressure to myself by declaring it publicly because I hate resolutions like that and this is, after all, a hobby.

I look forward to discovering that I can do something new…