The Layout Designer’s Layout Designer

I don’t normally use this venue to cross-promote the podcast I co-host, since this blog is a personal diary about my layout. But on Episode 45 of The Model Railway Show, I speak with Doug Gurin, the founder of the Layout Design Special Interest Group.

Unless you’re a serious student of layout design you may not have heard of Doug, but he’s influenced most of the layout designers you have heard of. Doug’s thinking about layout design goes way beyond what most people do, which is “track planning”. He’s conversant on many topics – from ergonomics to lighting to fascia colours. But it’s Doug’s thoughts about using a layout to tell a story – of a real railroad, in a real place, in a real time – that I find most compelling.

As an example, how would one model the Port Rowan branch in the dawn of the 20th century? The equipment would change, the track might have some minor adjustments, and there might be some changes to the details on the structures. And that’s where most modellers would call it a day. Doug, however, would want to know how we could demonstrate the culture of the railroad and the spirit of the community.

There might be scenes of prosperity – a well-kept flower garden at the station, railway bridge and building employees giving sheds a fresh coat of paint, section gangs standing by for the train to pass so they can resume trimming the ballast on the right of way. Things like that.

By contrast, in my 1950s version of the branch’s story, I paid a lot of attention to distressing my ties and adding static grass between the rails to reflect its status as a marginal line on which only the minimum amount of maintenance is being performed. There will be no railroad employees painting sheds or tending station gardens on my layout, because that would confuse the story I’m trying to tell those who see the layout. Instead, they might be putting a crude patch on the water tank to stop (or slow) a leak – something essential to keeping the line running, but nothing more.

It was also from Doug that I first heard the concept of “modelling jobs” – something that’s big on my list of ways to make my modest layout entertaining for me and my guests. While Doug did not give me the idea of using fascia-mounted brake wheels and air hoses as operations aids, or tell me when and where to use them, it was conversations with Doug over the years that fostered my interest in finding ways to help model the jobs of railroading in miniature. And that’s what made me consider fascia tools in the first place, and then research how brakes are used during switching so I could emulate that.

In our interview, Doug and I talk about many things related to layout design – from the origins of the LDSIG, to considerations for the layout designer that go beyond track planning, to areas in which Doug feels we could do more. I hope you give it a listen, because I always come away from a conversation with Doug having learned something that has changed my approach to the hobby – and I’m sure you will too.

A visit with David

Model railways love big basements, and that means most enthusiasts live in the suburbs. Living as I do in the downtown of a major city, I don’t have too many friends in the hobby who are close by.

But my friend David Woodhead is just seven blocks away – an easy walk (Readers who listen to The Model Railway Show podcast that I co-host will know his name: David wrote the theme music we use to open and close the show, as well as the stingers we use after interview segments.)

David is a professional musician and this means two things:
1 – He’s on the road a lot so our schedules conflict more often than not, which means we don’t see each other as much as we should;
2 – When I do see him, has always has some great train-related tales to share. He knows I’m a fan of the Modesto and Empire Traction Company in California, and on his latest tour he eailed me a photo from the road of ex-METRR GE 70-Tonners at work on a shortline in Saskatchewan. Very, very neat. (He also spent some time in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia on this trip – more on that in a future posting.)

It’s always a delight to have Dave over for coffee and conversation – and this time, an operating session on my Port Rowan layout.

David models in On3 (we know each other though our mutual appreciation for O scale narrow gauge modelling), and he prefers stuff that’s smaller than what one finds on the big Colorado three-footers, so it was interesting that he noted that the S scale standard gauge equipment I have compares favourably in size to his O scale narrow gauge models. I too have noted that relationship – my CNR 10-wheelers are about the size of the Maine two-foot gauge Big Forneys – the 2-4-4Ts such as the Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes #10 and the Bridgton and Saco River #8 – that I used to run on my On2 layout.

Today was the first day that I’d had a friend over to run trains since I added the operations aids – the brake wheels, air hoses, and waybill boxes – to the layout. So I prepped a bunch of waybills and empty car bills this morning, loaded the waybill boxes, and we ran a wayfreight from Simcoe to Port Rowan and return. Extra 1532 West had a fair bit of switching to do – lifting one car and spotting three in St. Williams, and lifting two cars and spotting one in Port Rowan, with cars that needed to be moved and respotted in both locations. It was way more work than one would have seen on the prototype in the 1950s, but I really wanted to put the operations aids to good work.

And work we did – more than 90 minutes to do the round trip.

Overall, the session went really well and David seemed to enjoy the work. I sure did. The aids definitely added to the sense of doing something – more than one would experience if one simply paused and said, “I’m hooking up the air hoses” or “I’m setting the hand brake”. At the same time, they didn’t feel unnatural or gimacky – at least, I didn’t think so.

There were a few problems – the team track switch at St. Williams might be a bit tight in gauge, and one car derailed on the switch to the team track spur in Port Rowan. I’ve made a note of the cars involved and the locations and will haul out the standards gauge and make adjustments as needed. I’ll also check the cars to make sure that I haven’t tightened the truck screws too tightly.

David – great to see you and let’s do it again soon!

Brakes + Air: When + Where?

Or, “Sometimes, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”…

When I added the brake wheel and air hose operations aids to my layout fascia, I had a reasonably good understanding of when these items would be used while switching cars. But then as I started to actually use these aids, questions arose – mostly around the order in which a crew would do things involving hand brakes, air brakes, and couplers.

So, I decided to pick the brains of a few pros I know – railroaders, current and retired, who are also model railway enthusiasts and therefore would understand what I’m trying to do.

I set up a switching sequence in St. Williams that I feel covers most situations on the layout – including set offs, lifts, and the re-spotting of cars that need to be moved to perform the other work. I then switched the sequence, taking photos and making notes about when I thought handbrakes would be set or released, glad hands would be connected, train air line valves would be opened, brake tests conducted, cut levers pulled, couplers checked for alignment, etc.

I then shared this with my railroading friends and sought their feedback.

The result of those conversations can be found in the sequence of captioned photos, below (click on each image for a larger view, if necessary):

Brakes and Air - 01 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-01.jpg

Brakes and Air - 02 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-02.jpg

Brakes and Air - 03 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-03.jpg

Brakes and Air - 04 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-04.jpg

Brakes and Air - 05 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-05.jpg

Brakes and Air - 06 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-06.jpg

Brakes and Air - 07 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-07.jpg

Brakes and Air - 08 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-08.jpg

Brakes and Air - 09 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-09.jpg

Brakes and Air - 10 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-10.jpg

It turns out I had a good (if basic) understanding of the proper sequence for switching, although I’d missed some significant things such as the need to bleed air from the brake system when spotting cars.

My sequence assumes a two-person crew – an engineer and a conductor/brakeman (which is what I’ll be using on the layout). In the 1950s, there would be two brakemen on the ground to speed up the switching but as one of my pros put it, “I think I heard the other guy say he was going to the general store for some supplies.” I expect that’s what happened.

I also found out that my approach is what one would call “by the book”. Interestingly, the source who spent much of his time on mainline assignments concurred with my approach… while my pro who worked way freights and switch jobs offered a different, faster approach. Here’s an excerpt, with my edits for clarity in square brackets:

Engine and car goes [into the spur] and couples up [to the tank car and boxcar] and pulls out to the switch and the boxcar [being lifted] is kicked onto the train. One brakeman at switch and other pulling the pin.

If the brakeman are experienced, the two cars [the tank car being re-spotted and the hopper car being spotted] would be kicked into the spur track and tail end brakeman would ride the cars back and tie them down on spot. All this done without air in cars.

You learn to spot the cars on the first kick or the hogger and conductor will chew you out. Before I got set up we did this a lot… the jobs you work regularly you could do this with your eyes closed.

Most sidings had a grade so one would know which way the cars roll… if they roll out [of the spur], the tail end man would release the brakes and the cars would roll out to the engine at the switch.

My way freight expert noted, however, that “by the book” is a more attainable approach on model railroads, because our cars don’t have the mass to for kicking cars or to take advantage of the slight grades one might find on a spur. Still, very interesting stuff. Not only has my understanding of switching improved, but so has my appreciation for the talents of train crews.

While full names will not be revealed shared to protect the reputations of my sources, my thanks to G, J and D for their input!

Canadian National Steam!

Canadian National Steam

My latest copy of CN Lines – the excellent magazine produced by the Canadian National Railways Historical Association – included a flyer for a new series of books covering Canadian National steam locomotives – and it sounds very exciting.

This series starts with Canadian National Steam! This 248-page book will be supplemented by seven roster volumes. In all, the series promises more than 1,200 photos and lots of great information about the more than 4,300 steam locomotives on the roster of the CNR and its subsidiaries.

I have nothing to do with the publication of this – just an excited book buyer, and thought I’d share.

Follow this link to the publisher’s web site for more information.

Hand brakes and Air Hoses

Air hoses and hand brakes photo OpAids-07.jpg

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of the approach Lance Mindheim is taking for his modern-era CSX Miami layout. Lance and I seem to think along the same lines – especially on the subject of finding ways to help model the job of railroading.

Modelling the job changes the focus of a layout – from the trains, to the people who operate them.

My use of garden-scale switch stands with padlocks to control the turnouts on the Port Rowan branch is a good example of this:
Lock it up photo SwitchStand-Installed-05.jpg

I could have used more conventional methods of turnout control – anything from ground throws to stall motors with fascia-mounted push-buttons – and from the perspective of the trains, the job would’ve been accomplished: The turnout would line for either route, as required.

But with the switch stands, the brakeman on my layout enjoys the experience of unlocking the switch stand, lifting the lever, rotating it to the other position, and dropping the lever… then locking up the stand after the work is done.

Another example of modelling the job is the recent addition of waybill boxes – also with padlocks. These perform the same function as the pigeon holes traditionally employed in car-card operating schemes. But the waybills and empty car bills I’m employing look and feel more like the real thing, and the waybill boxes duplicate the actions a real conductor would undertake to deposit or collect waybills at an un-staffed station, yard office or junction point.
Waybill Box: St. Williams photo WaybillBox-StW-01.jpg

Paperwork - Load to Staging photo LoadToStaging.jpg

Paperwork - Empty to Staging photo EmptyToStaging.jpg

Which brings me to my next enhancement for operating sessions – something I picked up from the September 11, 2012 entry on Lance’s blog. (Thanks Lance – I hope you get ideas from reading my blog, too!)

Lance wrote about the importance of setting (and releasing) hand brakes, noting it’s a part of almost every switching move and therefore should be duplicated during operating sessions. As Lance notes, the easiest way to do this is to pause while switching to represent the time taken to set or release the hand brake on one or more cars. But let’s be honest, how many of us will remember to do that? Similarly, how many of us will remember to connect air hoses between cars when switching is finished and our train is ready to head to the next location?

Lance solves the handbrake problem by mounting valve stems at strategic locations around his layout to allow the brakeman to actually model the job. I liked this idea and decided I could do something similar for my layout. At the same time, I also came up with a way for brakemen to connect air hoses.

My solution involves detail parts manufactured for large scale (ride-on size) railroad equipment. A few minutes with Google directed me to Paul Vernon at Precision Steel Car. (Service was excellent, and the parts are beautiful. Thanks Paul!)

I’ve now mounted hand brakes and air hoses on the facia at four locations on the layout where they’re easy for crews to reach when performing switching moves. These serve as visual reminders for brakemen to pause to set brakes or connect air hoses – but I also assembled them in such a way that they can be a tactile reminder too: The brake wheel is 2.5 inches in diameter and turns, the release lever on the housing can be pulled, and the glad hands on the air hoses can be connected:
Air connected photo OpAids-08.jpg

To make the brake wheels turn, I needed to drill out the hole in the centre of the brake housing. I screwed a housing to a scrap of plywood and clamped this to the table on my drill press. I started with a smaller drill bit and worked my way up to a Number 20 for final drilling. This was almost – but not quite – a slip fit for an 8-32 bolt. In fact, it allowed me to use the steel bolt to cut threads in the brass casting.
Drill set up photo OpAids-01.jpg

Drilling the housing photo OpAids-02.jpg

(The mallet in the first image helped make minor adjustments as I was centering the housing under the drill bit.)

I also cleared the hole for the release lever mounting. To mount the lever, I found a brass tube that fit inside the hole in the lever, then cut a short length of of this and secured it into the brake housing with CA. This protrudes from the front face of the housing enough to slip the lever over:
Fitting the release lever photo OpAids-03.jpg

Assembling the hand brake photo OpAids-04.jpg

Here are some notes:
– The wheel and release lever are laser cut steel and were shipped with a protective coating of oil. A quick trip through my ultrasonic cleaner removed this.
– To install the lever, I slipped it over the tube. I then slipped a brass hex-head bolt and washer in place, and ran a nut onto the bolt on the back side of the housing. I adjusted the tension so the lever can move, but doesn’t flop about, then added a drop of CA to the nut to secure it in place.
– For the brake wheel, I glued a steel washer over the hole in the housing with CA to give the wheel a larger surface to bear against, and added a plastic washer between the brake wheel and bolt head. On the underside, I added a lock washer and a nut. I adjusted the bolt until I could turn the wheel, but it won’t spin freely. Again, I added a drop of CA to the nut to lock things in place.

For the air hoses, I found some appropriate tubing (in this case, copper – because that’s what I had on hand). I cut eight pieces and then inserted a piece of coat hanger wire inside each. This kept the tubes from collapsing when I introduced a 90 degree bend into each pipe. I then secured a bent pipe into the back of each valve housing with CA – being careful to create pairs so that when mounted on the fascia, they would face each other.

I then found appropriate places to mount these operations aids and laid them out as seen in this photo:
Op Aids laid out photo OpAids-06.jpg

The brake wheel is secured to the facia with four Number 4 screws. To mount the air hoses, I glued wood blocks behind the fascia, marked and drilled mounting holes that are press fit, then added a bit of CA when I was happy with their location to secure them.

I gauged the spacing of the two air hoses by what worked when trying to connect the glad hands and found 7.5 inches was ideal. (At some point, I would like to add a button between the two air hoses that, when pressed, would run a sound sample of an air brake test to represent that function.)

Two inches down from the top of the fascia keeps the gear below the scenery.

As this view of the south end of St. Williams shows, I also made sure they were not too close to other fascia elements, such as throttle panels and switch stands:
Op Aids photo OpAids-05.jpg

I mounted a hand brake and paired air hoses at each end of the siding in St. Williams. I also added a set of these operation aids at the yard throat in Port Rowan. The fourth set is located near the Port Rowan depot, making it handy for setting brakes on the passenger equipment or on cars left at the feed mill at end of track.

I’ve already started an operating session using these aids and I’m very pleased with how they help represent the work. When I need to set brakes, I reach over to the nearest brake wheel and give it five or six turns for each car I’m setting. To release brakes, I pull the lever up and return it to its resting position. I normally leave the air hoses connected so when I need to represent that activity, I disconnect then reconnect the glad hands, repeating for each car that needs to be connected.

Most importantly, with these aids in place I’m now thinking more about when I need to set or release hand brakes, or connect air hoses. That’s adding more play value, and more time, to my operating sessions.

Well done, George and Don

This week I finally received my subscription copy of the October 2012 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine and I really enjoyed the cover story, which looks at how George Dutka and Don Janes have each modelled White River Junction, Vermont on their layouts.

Well done, fellows!

I met George and Don several months ago at Pierre Oliver‘s place. It was a real treat getting to know them.

If you want to see more of their work, check out George’s White River Division blog. Tell ’em I sent you!

From there, to here

That’s the question: How, for example, did this boxcar get from the Milwaukee Road to my little corner of the Canadian National?
MILW 21189 photo MILW21189-01.jpg

I’ve written previously about two valuable resources for determining this – the freight car rulebook and the accounting rulebook published by the Association of American Railroads:

Freight car rules photo AAR-Freight-Coughlin-1956.jpg AAR Accounting Rules photo AAR-Accounting.jpg

These books explain the mechanics of freight car forwarding and the proper use of waybills and other paperwork. But they don’t describe the actual route taken by, say, a B&O covered hopper or a Wabash flatcar:
Weathered Wagontop photo BO-630382_zps085cc587.jpg

Tractor Flat Finished photo WAB-Flat-03.jpg

To help with that, I rely on two additional resources.

The first is the 1948 Handy Railroad Atlas of the United States, originally published by Rand McNally and reprinted by Kalmbach Publishing Company:
1948 Railroad Atlas photo US-Atlas.jpg

The second is Lines of Country: An Atlas of Railway and Waterway History in Canada, a stunning coffee table-sized book published by Boston Mills Press:
Lines of Country photo LinesOfCountry.jpg

These two books allow me to trace the route any freight car would take to arrive on the Port Rowan branch.

Do I need to know that information? Not really. It will help me fill out the waybills I’m using for operating sessions, but that information won’t make a difference to the crews who need to spot a car in St. Williams or Port Rowan.

However, as a student of railway history (and aren’t we all?) I enjoy knowing this sort of information simply for the pleasure of knowing it.

What I’m using for car forwarding

My friend Gene Deimling recently asked about the waybills I’m using with my newly-installed waybill boxes, so here’s a brief explanation.

I decided early in the planning stages for this layout that I would enhance the train-running experience by using paperwork inspired by the prototype. Therefore, instead of car cards and rows of pigeon-hole boxes on the layout fascia to help operators sort them, I would create waybills and provide my crews with paper, pencils and small clipboards so that conductors could use the waybills to write up their own switch lists. In theory, the bills stay safe and dry in the caboose, while the brakeman does the work referring to notes on a hand-written list – a list that can blow away in the wind, fall into the ditch, or otherwise be destroyed without affecting the railroad’s ability to be paid for its effort.

Before Chris Abbott could build the bill boxes, I needed to create the waybills themselves: We needed to know how big they would be. I went searching for ideas on the Internet – and here I have to give a shout-out to Tony Thompson for his extensive work on waybills and other railroad paperwork. If you really want to get a handle on freight car forwarding, the “Waybills” postings on Tony’s blog are a great place to start.

Using this information, I created a blank Waybill that’s 4.5″ wide by 5.5″ tall – about half the size of a real Waybill. I also created a blank Empty Car Bill measuring 2.25″ wide by 5.5″ tall. I duplicated these then saved the masters where I wouldn’t accidentally use them.

To create a new Waybill or Empty Car Bill, I duplicate and rename the working master, using the car number and an index number. (So, for example, “WB-CN487747-02” is the second Waybill for Canadian National boxcar 487747, while “MT-CGTX1038-01” is the first Empty Car Bill I’ve created for Canadian General Transit Company tank car 1038.)

I then pull the new Waybill or Empty Car Bill into PhotoShop and type in the required data using American Typewriter 10pt. I pick a blue colour for this data – it looks like typewriter ribbon and unlike black ink, the blue helps the information pop off the paperwork. This makes it easier for visiting operators – most of whom don’t do this every day for a living – to find the information they need. (I learned this trick from Tony’s blog, by the way.)

I have not yet filled in all of the information on the paperwork. But at a minimum, I have added the following data:

– Road name at top and bottom of waybill
– Car initials and number
– Car kind (AAR code)
– Destination. This includes the “TO” (track name, spot number), “STATION” and “STATE”
– Route (not really needed for my layout, since the rest of the world is represented by a single staging location)
– Consignee and Address (Name and Town)
– Description of Articles (in other words, what the car is carrying)

All of this information is on the left size of the Waybill.

For loads originating on the branch, I fill in the Shipper’s information on the right side as well, including:
– Origin. This includes the “FROM” (track name, spot number), “STATION” and “STATE”
– Shipper.

There are two types of Empty Car – both using the same Empty Car Bill.

The first type is an empty car that is being delivered to a shipper on the branch for loading. For these, I fill out an Empty Car Bill with car number, type, and then the information in the “FOR LOADING” section.

The second type is a car that has been emptied by a receiver on the branch and is headed for home. For these, I fill out an Empty Car bill with car number, type, and then the information in the “FOR HOME” section. I then staple this to the front of an appropriately completed Waybill.

A loaded car coming onto the layout requires a Waybill to direct the crew where to spot it. For example, I have created a Waybill for tank car CGTX 1038 that directs it to the elevated coal track in Port Rowan, for unloading by the local fuel dealer. I will include this Waybill in the package of paperwork for the train crew:
Paperwork - Load to Layout photo LoadToLayout.jpg

But I will actually print two of the Waybills, then fill out an Empty Car Bill FOR HOME (Canadian Petroleum Co. in Sarnia ON) and attach it to the front of the second copy:
Paperwork - Empty to Staging photo EmptyToStaging.jpg

In some future session, when I decide it’s time for this tank car to return to the refinery (staging), I will load the “Waybill/Empty Car Bill” set into the bill box in front of the Port Rowan station. When the crew arrives, they will check the bill box take this paperwork with them when they leave town with CGTX 1038 in their consist.

An empty car coming onto the layout for loading requires an Empty Car Bill filled out FOR LOADING. For example, I might direct empty boxcar CN 487747 to the team track in St. Williams for McCall and Company by adding this Empty Car Bill to the crew’s paperwork:
Paperwork - Empty to Layout photo EmptyToLayout.jpg

At the same time, I will also create a Waybill for the loaded car – in this case, filled with boats being shipped to Eaton’s in Toronto.
Paperwork - Load to Staging photo LoadToStaging.jpg

When it’s time for this car to be lifted, I will put the Waybill in the St. Williams bill box.

Some cars will require only one on-layout destination. An example is the flat car with tractor load that I modelled:
A flash of red photo WAB-Flat-04.jpg

Its only plausible destination is the team track in Port Rowan, where Potter Motors will unload the shipment.

For most cars, though, I will create sets of Waybills and Empty Car Bills to allow the car to go to two or three places on the layout:

– A boxcar might deliver lumber to the St. Williams team track.
– In another session, that same car might deliver feed additives to the mill in Port Rowan.
– Another time, it might be used to ship a load of boats from McCall and Company in St. Williams to Eaton’s in Toronto.

This will add variety to the moves, so that crews don’t see, for example, the Milwaukee Road boxcar and assume they know where it’s going:
MILW 21189 photo MILW21189-01.jpg

I am still creating waybills for some of the freight cars in my collection, but I have printed enough examples to try out the Waybills and Empty Car Bills in operation. Already, I have hosted a few sessions using this paperwork and feedback from the crews has been positive.

Obviously, I will need to create a filing system to keep all of the completed Waybills and Empty Car Bills in some sort of order. Another project!