Marty is rethinking a few things

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(Marty McGuirk ponders some difficult choices – click on the image to read about how he is rethinking White River Junction)

One of the things I love about blogging is being able to follow the thought processes of others as they tackle the challenge of fitting their vision into the reality of their layout space.

This is especially challenging when one is determined to faithfully model a specific prototype, as I have done. Port Rowan is so modest – it was one of the smallest terminals on the CNR in southern Ontario in the 1950s, which is one of the reasons I chose to model it. Even so, it required a huge amount of real estate to model “properly” – so much that I had to employ a backdrop made out of fabric so I could easily access the rear of the scene for construction and maintenance (but fortunately, not for operation):

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(A short freight departs Port Rowan. The blue fabric backdrop fades from view when running trains. Click on the image to read more about creating the fabric backdrop)

While I’m pleased with Port Rowan, I’m less satisfied with my rendition of St. Williams. I only have one prototype photograph of the St. Williams station and I was determined to model the scene as shown in that photo – but in order to do so, I had to put the station on the “wrong” side of the track. And while the prototype and my model of St. Williams both have three turnouts to create a double-ended siding and a spur, the physical arrangement of these elements on my layout differs from the real thing:

Extra 80 East - St Williams, Ontario - August 1953 photo X80East-StW-2014-01_zps347cae5c.jpg
(A freight extra rolls past the St. Williams depot. This is one of my favourite scenes on the layout, and I would lose it if I modelled St. Williams more accurately. I’ve written about this dilemma before – click on the image above to read about Rethinking St. Williams)

Now, with two locations and a total of eight turnouts to juggle, my design decisions were relatively easy – even in 1:64. Imagine the juggling required when one is trying to fit a major junction point and yard into a layout space!

This is the design challenge that my friend Marty McGuirk faced when he decided to include White River Junction on his HO scale version of the Central Vermont Railway. Having built a version of it, Marty has identified several reasons why his design bothers him – both operationally and ascetically. And he’s been brave enough to share the problems via his excellent Central Vermont Railway blog. Go have a read – and then spend some time looking around his blog.

Having rebuilt many other aspects of his layout – including tearing down a double-deck design in favour of a single deck – Marty is not afraid to scrap what he’s done in the interests of improving his layout. I agree with his approach, 100 per cent: layouts are learning experiences and should evolve as we gain knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.

I’ll be watching his progress on this closely. Marty’s effort might even inspire me to revisit “rethinking St. Williams”…

A different approach to planning

My friend Chris Mears writes a great blog about the hobby called Prince Street Terminal – and to kick off 2015 he’s started a thought-provoking new series on planning a small layout to fit in a corner of his living room.

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If you’ve missed this series, here are the links to date, in order…

New year, new layout, in which he presents the space and some general thoughts about presentation.

The days between, in which he presents a few of the “givens” for his new layout.

Coffee, cardboard and YouTube, in which he presents some of his preferences – his design objectives – for his new layout.

Something like this, in which he mocks up a potential operating session on one possible plan, rendered full-size with cardboard, sections of flex, and turnout templates.

New Hampshire and Vermont #405 in 1993, in which he shares a video found on YouTube, because it represents the style of railroading he wants to replicate on his new layout.

What I find interesting about this series is that Chris has not started with a list of standards (e.g.: HO scale, 30″ radius, #6 turnouts), or a list of equipment he owns, or a set of possible layout plans for the space, or even a particular prototype he’s going to model – either faithfully, or in freelanced form.

Rather, Chris started by exploring the things about railroading that he enjoys – in both real and model form. I’m confident he has spent a lot of time reflecting on operating sessions on other layouts, and on rail fanning, and has gone beyond the statement “I like this” to ask the question, “Why do I like this?” That’s a great approach, and sure to result in an engaging, personally satisfying layout.

I know there will be more posts from Chris on this, and I know I’ll be following along.

East is West :: Artistic Licence

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(Extra 1532 West at St. Williams :: On the prototype, this train would be headed East)

I used the above photo to illustrate a previous post, which prompted regular reader (and St. Williams resident) Monte Reeves to ask…

Isn’t your train eastbound as the station was on north side of track? Shouldn’t it be Extra 1531 East?

That’s an astute observation, Monte – and very few people would pick up on that. Well spotted.

But no – this train is headed west because of some artistic licence on my part.

When designing the layout, I realized that if I built St. Williams correctly, the station would be located between the track and the layout fascia. Viewers would look at the station from the rear.

Normally, I would’ve been fine with that. But here’s the problem: I have only ever seen one photo of the St. Williams station as it appeared in the era I model, and that photo was taken from trackside:

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(I like this scene as rendered on my layout and I’m not willing to lose it…)

And isn’t this photo is a great one? I think so. It shows the Mixed Train to Port Rowan (M233) arriving at the station, with the station agent on the platform and a baggage cart ready to receive LCL and express. It includes the station signboard… the Canadian National Express and CN Telegraph signs… and the roof-mounted train order signal.

There’s so much information conveyed to the viewer in this photo that I wanted to replicate it on the layout – and the only way to do the modelled station justice was to rotate the town 180 degrees so that the station front faces the aisle.

(There’s a practical consideration, too: I had no photo of the back of the station – but if I built it this way, it wouldn’t matter. In fact, the model has a blank wall at the rear.)

These are the sorts of decisions one must make when designing a prototype-based layout. And I’m happy with the decision. While I’ve written previously about rethinking St. Williams to make it more prototypical, I’m not willing to lose this strong connection between modelled scene and the prototype photo that inspired it.

Compasses must be adjusted accordingly…

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“Too Much”

Over on his blog, Chris Adams has written a very thoughtful piece on eating the (model railway) elephant called “Too Much”. Like many of us – myself included – he hit the point where there was so much to do on his layout, it felt like too much. Click on his header image (below) to read more – including how he’s dealing with this challenge:

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I’ve been there – mostly on previous layouts. My adventure with Port Rowan is, in large part, my way of coping with that feeling. I purposefully curbed my ambitions to design a layout that I felt would best fit the demands on my time and the reality of living at least an hour’s drive from almost all of my group of hobby friends – which means I’m doing most of the work, and the operating, by myself. (The exception being David Woodhead, who lives about six blocks from me. Even so, we’re both busy so we see each other less often than one would expect.)

I call these “Achievable Layouts” – and occasionally add examples of such to a separate blog that goes by that moniker. Mike Cougill calls them “Freedom Layouts” – and it’s an excellent term, too.

Each time I start a new layout, I find it has less complexity. To provide but one example of this:

- Two layouts ago, my layout had 30 turnouts on it.

– My previous layout had about 15.

– This one – Port Rowan – has eight.

I sometimes joke that my next layout will have no turnouts at all, like the brilliant Eric Bronsky layout Noitcart Traction from the April, 1978 MR:

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And sometimes, it’s not a joke…

I know Chris well enough to know that he’ll get beyond this feeling of “Too Much”. But I also know that when I feel like that, it helps to know that I’m not the only one. And while I’m too far away to offer help in person, I think he’s on the right track so he doesn’t need my help anyway. If you read his blog, you’ll understand what I mean.

I’m looking forward to more progress on The Valley Line – in due course.

Backdrop in LDJ-52

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The latest issue of the Layout Design Journal is in the mail to members of the Layout Design Special Interest Group, and it includes an article on how I used fabric for the backdrop and valance on my Port Rowan layout.

In this five-page article, I discuss the rationale for using fabric, some tips for dealing with a 70-foot length of material, and offer ideas about things to do and things to avoid to get the best out of a fabric backdrop and valance. I hope you find it an interesting read.

(And don’t let the $12 cover price fool you: The Journal is a bargain, because you receive four issues as part of your LDSIG membership. The Journal really is a valuable addition to the library of anybody interested in improving their design skills so that they can build a better layout.)

Best of all, LDJ-52 debuts a new look for the magazine – including full-colour printing. I’ve seen a proof of my feature and the colour makes a huge difference. I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of the issue.

“Simple and Complete”

Chris Mears writes an interesting blog called Prince Street Terminal and his latest posting really resonated with me.

It’s a short post, but Chris nicely captures the advantages of designing and building what I call an Achievable Layout. He notes that life has been busy for him lately, with the result that even grabbing 15 minutes for a work or operating session is difficult – but when he does find that time, the layout is ready for him to enjoy.

I feel the same way about Port Rowan. Last night, for example, I was airbrushing a project and decided afterwards that I needed to run my airbrush through my ultrasonic cleaner. (It does an amazing job of cleaning the airbrush.) The process takes about 20 minutes, and I didn’t want to leave the parts in the cleaning solution overnight, so I turned on the layout and switched St. Williams.

The thing is, the layout was ready to run – and I can run it by myself. If I had a larger, more complex layout, I would not be able to do that – not without upsetting the set-up for a future, group operating session.

(The Sergent couplers, by the way, worked flawlessly last night.)

But back to Chris: Click on the Prince Street Terminal banner, below, to read his thoughts on this, called “Simple and Complete” – and enjoy if you visit.

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Well said, Chris!

Rethinking St. Williams

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(I like this scene as rendered on my layout and I’m not willing to lose it…)

This post could also be titled “Dodged a bullet”…

This week, reader Mike Livingston was able to share with me a photo of the Hammond Mill in St. Williams. Unfortunately, Mike was unable to obtain permission from the photo’s owner for me to publish it here, but I can tell you that the mill was a 1.5-storey structure with a barn roof – like the roof on the next to the team track in Port Rowan:
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(Like this, but larger. Click on the image to read more about the team track barn.)

This structure has been elusive, so in the meantime I’ve been using a stand-in – a scratch-built model of a grain storage bin based on a structure in Cheltenham, Ontario – as shown here:
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(Click on the photo to read more about the grain bin)

Now that I have a photo of the real mill, however, I’m thinking about building it for the layout. And that got me thinking…

My rendition of St. Williams has always been fanciful – a situation dictated by the size and shape of my layout space. Unlike Port Rowan, which I was able to model fairly faithfully, I took several liberties with St. Williams:
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(St. Williams as built. Click on the plan to view a larger version)

Like the prototype location, my 1:64 St. Williams features a doubled-ended siding and a single spur. But my siding is curved – and actually about twice as long than the prototype’s four-car capacity. As well, my spur is located too close to one end of this siding and points the wrong direction – back towards the siding, not away from it.

Could I model the town more accurately?

Here’s St. Williams from the air, with the railway’s former right of way highlighted:
St Williams from the air - labelled photo StW-Labelled.jpg

Port Rowan is to the lower left, while Simcoe (staging on my layout) is to the upper right.

The location of the station is indicated with an “A”. The four-car siding was located to the right of the station, and used as a team track. Meanwhile, the Hammond Mill was on the north side of Queen Street, just to the left (west) of the railway crossing. The spur to the mill went behind the structure, so the mill was tucked between the spur and Queen Street.
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(The Hammond Mill area today, looking north from Queen Street. This is not the original structure. The RoW is now used as a utility corridor.)

With this information to hand, and inspired by the vintage photo of the Hammond Mill, I decided to draw out St. Williams more accurately, to see if it would fit my space:
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Comparing this quick sketch with the layout plan, I’m convinced I’ve made better use of my available space by taking some liberties. Reworking St. Williams to be more faithful to the prototype would require several changes I’m not willing to make:

- I would have to lose the Stone Church Road overpass – a scene I really enjoy – because it would interfere with the Hammond Mill, the mill spur, and the Queen Street level crossing.

– I would have to bump out the benchwork to accommodate the mill, which would affect my ability to maintain (and enjoy) the track through the east end of the Lynn Valley scene – which starts immediately to the west of Stone Church Road.

– I would have to move the station to the aisle side of the track, so that it would be viewed from the back. Since the only picture I have of this station is taken from the front (see the lead photo), and since this is the image that inspired me to model this station, I’m not prepared to lose that view on the layout.

There are several alternatives, of course. I could flip the station/team track portion 180 degrees, so that the station was to the left of the team track, and the first scene a train encounters upon leaving the sector plate.

But as built, I have almost four feet of running room from sector plate to Charlotteville Street, which gives operators a chance to get up to speed and blow for the crossing.

Having an unscenicked and very unprototypical sector plate immediate to the left of the scene would also seriously limit the angles from which I could view/photograph the station. And I do like the view…
Extra 80 East - St Williams, Ontario - August 1953 photo X80East-StW-2014-01_zps347cae5c.jpg

So, no: Unless I can another eight or 10 feet of wall space to the left of the sector plate – which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future – I’l stick with the St. Williams scene as I’ve built it. It was an interesting exercise in “what fits”, however – so definitely worth the time to try it out.

I may have to replace the grain building with a more accurate model of the Hammond Mill, however. I’ll add that to the “someday” file…

A cleaned up layout plan

It’s been almost three years since I first posted a plan of my layout on this blog – so it’s time for a new one:
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(Click on the plan to view a larger version)

This plan is based on an original, drawn for me by my friend Chester Louis for an article I wrote for the Layout Design Journal. (Thanks again, Chester!)

There have been few alterations from the original design. Some of the benchwork is slightly different, which made the layout easier to build. But for the most part the changes are minor and cosmetic – involving the tweaking of structure locations and suchlike. The most obvious change is that I split the Lynn River into two segments to make it easier to scenic this area.

Still, I thought it would be nice to add a cleaned-up plan to this blog since my rough scribblings – while adequate to the task of building the layout – leave something to be desired from an aesthetic standpoint:
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(Click on the plan to view a larger version)

The good news is, regardless of the quality of the drawing, I remain throughly satisfied with the track arrangement and the building and operating challenges this layout presents.

S at the GBTS

There were lots many things to see at the 2014 Great British Train Show this past weekend, and I spent about three hours at the show catching up with old friends and making new ones.

But a special treat for me was this S scale layout, built and displayed by Mike Watts. I didn’t take a camera with me, but my friend David Woodhead did and shared these photos:
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(Thanks, David!)

David also reminded me that Mike was responsible for the S scale Wandle Valley Railway – a layout that was very influential on my thinking when I first saw it in the 1990s.

Unlike most exhibition layouts of the time, Wandle Valley was built as an oval, with about one-third of the loop hidden to create a staging area. The track plan (included on the link above) was simple yet realistic – and the overall presentation was most elegant.

I remember Mike had a set of flip cards to let viewers know what was happening. I can’t remember for sure, but I seem to recall that he used ambient audio – mostly bird calls – to set the mood. And he definitely showed that a simple layout, with few turnouts and spurs, could still be engaging to operate.

It was great to see Mike’s new layout – well, new to me anyway – and I look forward to spending more time enjoying it at future shows.

Thoughts on the forest

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In the comments on a previous post about progress on the Lynn Valley forest, Mike Cougill asked:

With the addition of the trees, how are you and your guest operators adjusting to the view?

It’s a great question and I felt the answers deserved more prominence on the blog, so I’m copying them from the comments on that previous post into this post.

To start the ball rolling, here are my impressions as the layout designer and builder:

This area has developed rather quickly. It’s gone from a very spare scene dominated by grass to a forest…

That said, I planned from the beginning that this area would be forest. I felt it would offer me a different modelling challenge than the open areas of Port Rowan and St Williams. And when operating, I’ve always envisioned this area to be full of trees. Therefore, my perception of the area hadn’t undergone much by way of adjustment.

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Hunter Hughson operated on the layout a couple of weekends ago, and offered these observations:

The new forest makes a huge difference…

When I most recently operated on the layout, I felt that there were three distinct locales emerging on the layout – Port Rowan, Lynn Valley, and St. Williams. One very important factor contributing to the realism of the layout is that the entire train is within a single locale while work is being done there. For instance, work at St. Williams involves stopping for waybills and spotting cars on the team track accordingly. The locomotive and train never move into the next scenic space do any of that work. The same is true for the Lynn Valley and Port Rowan locales.

Each locale is comprised of a number of intimate scenes. The Lynn Valley, where Trevor has most recently planted trees, serves to break up the flat farmland/flatland scenes of St. Williams and Port Rowan. The locale is comprised of a number of engaging and well-planned vignettes. The branch line operating speed affords the crew some time to enjoy the subtle variety. None of this feels forced or rushed because the landforms, river bed, and forest canopy are comprised of natural and familiar lines, colours and textures. The visual effect of all of this is amplified by the soundscape, featuring cicadas and a range of bird species.

Trevor was still in the process of building and planting trees, but it was clear to me that the Lynn Valley is in the process of being transformed from a transitional space between two locales to a locale with its very own strong sense of place.

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Chris Abbott, who took part in last weekend’s operating session, used the question posed by Mike to make some observations about the role of trees in every locale my layout represents:

Port Rowan’s trees, which most properly dwarf the trains, provide an analogue of urban canyons with its silent looming structures – but in bright green & gold instead of drab brick, grimy cinder block, and rust splotched corrugated iron. The semi-transparency of the delicate foliage allows the simulated sunlight to vividly dapple the equipment as it rolls through a lush countryside strongly reminiscent of the rural setting of my boyhood home.

The effort of accurately capturing the lackadaisical droop of the willow and stark white of the birch trunk (amongst a myriad of other details) instead of the vague and unsatisfying caricature presented by popsicle sticks and garishly dyed reindeer food is a welcome visual treat offering rich texture and depth not present on the vast majority of layouts in this or any other age.

Currently, the actors enter the stage through an evergreen curtain to trundle along the edge of a hinted-at vast field of tobacco (a crop prominent at my childhood locale), cross the distinct separation provided by a wide public road, and stop under an almost ethereal canopy providing shade to the St. Williams station platform. The arrival of the train greatly entertains wide-eyed children peeking from their impregnable treehouse nestled in the boughs above a tidy row of neighbouring homes.

Returning once more into the full light of day, the equipment arrives at the St. William’s siding – parenthesised as it is by the grove encompassing the station and the bold edge of the Lynn Valley’s forest. Shunting activity is greatly eased by depicting only gently rolling terrain and a low stand of corn between operator and track.

Continuing on towards the Lynn Valley, the train plunges headlong into a shadowed tunnel of leaf laden, arched limbs to quietly disappear behind a stand of massive trunks, affording only tantalising glimpses of our lead player as it rounds the broad curve therein. Bursting back into the light only moments later, it coasts over the low trestle spanning the tranquil river.

Our protagonist drifts along as it approaches the water tank, largely ensconced by a towering backdrop of primeval forest stretching off towards a dark and foreboding distant sky. More winding water under the girders of a characteristic bridge leads the eye to a herd of cattle obtaining refreshment from the flow and respite from the harsh sunlight in the cool shade of the trees edging the river banks.

Itself replenished, the train surges forward once more, thumping mightily over the aforementioned bridge deck, exiting yet again into the stark brightness of the summer’s day. Wending its way through a reverse curve, it approaches the organised splendour of an orchard of apple trees which, in appropriate contrast to the wilds of the virgin forest and in consideration of the manual gathering operations of the time, is pruned to permit harvest via step ladders and a ubiquitous pickup truck.

Once through the orchard, wide expanses of low grasses (studded liberally with wildflowers and hiding an array of local fauna) offer excellent and unimpeded access to the (relatively) extensive trackage of the Port Rowan terminus and its associated rural industries.

While it remains for more trees to be added to this end of the layout, careful placement will retain access to all necessary points of uncoupling while likely creating yet another scenic break between the team & coal track areas, and the station & Co-Op zones proper.

The addition of the trees to date has already created, to my mind, 7 visually distinct zones on the layout. If the terminal peninsula were to be visually split, (as suggested above) there would then be 8 such zones. Quite an achievement considering the small footprint of the benchwork, all without resorting to the threadbare artifice of diving through backdrops or making mountains out of molehills.

It’s interesting to see how different people interpret the same scene – and I’m pleased by how my friends are reacting to the evolution of the Lynn Valley. Hunter and Chris have done an excellent job, I think, of analyzing the role of the forest – and they’ve definitely picked up on the design goals I had in mind for the forest when planning the layout, which tells me that my plan is working as it should.

Hunter, Chris – thanks for your thoughts on this. And Mike – thanks again for asking the question!