Austin Eagle: operating sessions

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

PoNY Herald

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

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

Nicastro DRGW - Dispatchers Office

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



DRGW - through the mountains

Moffat tunnel

Lift gate

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

California Dreamin’ | We’ll always have Perris

As part of my trip to California in mid-September, I squeezed in a brief stop at the restored ATSF train station in Perris. This is something I’m really glad I was able to do – it was a pilgrimage of sorts.

To find out why, visit my Achievable Layouts blog. Just click on the pretty postcard view of the station, below:

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017
(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!)

Roweham 2017
(Ross, Pierre, and Brian on deck)

Roweham 2017
(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.)

Roweham 2017
(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.

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

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…

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

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.

Roweham 2017

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

Doing my part for the NMRA

The Globe and Mail – Canada’s national newspaper – ran a story last week about a problem with the renovation at Toronto Union Station.

You can read the full article on the Globe’s website, but the gist of it is that clearance under the old train shed roof is too low to accommodate planned electrification of the area’s commuter train services. And the agency responsible for the renovation didn’t factor that into the plans – with the usual consequences of cost overruns, delays, yadda-yadda-yadda…

That sounds like bad layout design to me.

I realized this was a golden opportunity to give the hobby a shout-out, so I wrote a letter to the editor – published in today’s edition of the Globe:

 photo Letter-GM-2016-01-29_zpssa8q5x2m.jpg

Just doing my part…


A day out with Pierre – and Thomas

On Friday, I visited my friend Pierre Oliver in St. Thomas. His house quite close to the Port Stanley Terminal Rail tourist train – which was playing host to Thomas the Tank Engine.

Pierre and I set aside our “serious hobbyist” attitudes to just enjoy watching a goofy train roll by… every 15 minutes. I couldn’t resist grabbing a quick video:

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

Thomas wouldn’t look at us. Was it something we said?

While some of us joke about this guy – and I’m still not sure how successful he is at converting kids into railway modelling enthusiasts over time – Thomas is a huge draw for the PSTR and the Elgin County Railway Museum. The Thomas days provide a much-welcomed injection of funds to these organizations.

And when one looks past the little blue fella, one finds an interesting consist in that tourist train and on the property. In addition to the GE 44-Tonner in the video, the PSTR owns three other small locomotives from a variety of builders. Meanwhile, the passenger fleet consists primarily of re-worked cabooses, which would make for interesting kit-bashing challenges. And everything is painted in a very attractive scheme.

Have another look at that video and check out the consist. Not all that easy to model after all, is it? Perhaps Proto:Thomas is in our future?

 photo Proto-Thomas_zpsbuex7fr4.jpg

Hmm… perhaps not.

In addition to playing at rail fans, Pierre and I did a lot of hand-waving in his future layout room. I think we made some great progress on figuring out what will fit, and how. I look forward to helping Pierre build the new layout when the time comes…

Finally, I picked up a few freight cars that Pierre built for me. I have some finishing to do on them so no further details now.. But I’ll share them in the fullness of time…

Great to see you Pierre – and the new house looks wonderful. Exciting layout-building times ahead!

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:

 photo Ops-20150514_zpsu8fjqfzc.jpg

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!

Hinder, or help?

 photo CNR80-CNR1532-StW-Dark_zpsljohca1c.jpg
(A reader asks if progress in St. Williams makes me less likely to change the track arrangement. Click on the image to read more about this favourite train-photographing spot, and to assess the progress made here over the past two years)

Following a recent post on the above location on my layout, reader Craig Townsend asked:

You’ve mentioned in the past about possibility redoing St. Williams to better replicate the prototype, so does looking at the progress you’ve made hinder or help your decision to keep St. Williams the way it is?

It’s a great question – thanks for asking!

It’s true, I’ve pondered this a lot, including a couple of times in previous blog postings. A big driver behind this train of thought was the discovery of this photo of the Hammond Mill in St. Williams, shared by my friend Monte Reeves:

 photo StW-HammondMill_zpsaeaf4229.jpeg
(Click on the image to read more about this picture)

And I definitely would like to model this mill and all the adjacent structures more accurately – someday. But I’m still not sure re-building this portion of the layout would be a good idea.

To recap, here’s a drawing of the St. Williams portion of the layout, as built:

 photo StWilliams-LayoutPlan_zpsd05c9c7a.jpg
(Click on the plan to view a larger version)

And here’s a quick drawing of St. Williams in the same space, but more accurately representing the prototype:

 photo StWilliams-TestFIt_zps67ac8f17.jpg
(Click on the plan to view a larger version)

In pondering these two designs, I have determined that reworking St. Williams to be more faithful to the prototype would require some changes that 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 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. Or I could flip the entire St. Williams scene end for end – so that I’d build the “correct” track arrangement, but trains heading to Port Rowan would encounter the mill before arriving at the station.

I’m still pondering these ideas.

Meantime, I don’t have to do anything: I have a lot of projects to work on to finish the layout, including some big structure projects – specifically, the station and Leedham’s Mill in Port Rowan. I can do those, and then revisit the Hammond Mill / St. Williams question.

As for the original question – does the progress I’ve made make me more or less likely to redo this area? – the answer is that it doesn’t affect the decision either way. I will continue to ponder the prototype and my space, and if I come up with a satisfying arrangement that is closer to reality, I’ll gladly tear out the St. Williams that I’ve built (but I’ll finish those Port Rowan structures first).

Having built the St. Williams scene that I have, I know I could do it again, if desired. And of course I can save and re-use the structures, trees, fences, telegraph poles and other elements that have gone into this scene.

In fact, I’m sure I’d do an even better job on a second attempt, because I’ve learned things while building St. Williams the first time around.

But that’s in the future. In the meantime, I can enjoy the scene as-built…

 photo Ops-20150420-02_zpsvjflnuac.jpg

New look for Lance’s website

This is good news…

Like many of my readers, I’m a big fan of the work that Lance Mindheim has been doing to encourage hobbyists to build what I call “achievable layouts“. I’ve always been frustrated, though, that Lance’s website and it’s always thought-provoking blog 1) was not searchable and 2) did not support RSS or other means of automatically notifying me when he’d posted a new entry.

Apparently, I’m not alone: As Lance notes in a post from last week, he’s in the process of addressing these by migrating this website engine over to something that includes a WordPress blog (the same blogging engine I use here).

The RSS feed does not yet appear to be active. But I will post an update as part of this post when it is. (And here’s an update: I plugged the URL for the blog page into my RSS reader and it worked.)

I know Lance will be pleased by the change, particularly the ability for readers to follow his blog. I have two following options on this blog and I’m flattered by the number of people who use it to keep tabs on what I’m doing.

Marty is rethinking a few things

 photo MartyHeaderSteam2_zpsfilpt89a.jpg
(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):

 photo Ops-2014-11-21-02_zpse8704323.jpg
(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.

 photo Mears-Planning-2015-01_zpscb9a9980.jpg

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.