Houses set the scene

Extra 80 East - St Williams, Ontario - August 1953 photo X80East-StW-2014-01_zps347cae5c.jpg
(A single house at St. Williams provides an important clue that there’s a town here somewhere)

A reader recently got in touch privately to offer some observations about my layout, having read my article in the February-March 2015 issue of The S Scale Resource. He wrote, in part…

In my mind there are a couple of areas that help to “set the scene”. One is the use of houses, making it seem so natural that folks actually live there. Too many times we modelers only include structures that somehow are directly related to the railroad in some way. By your including houses, you set a scene of community.

Thanks! That’s a great observation – and it tells me that my use of houses is working because that’s exactly what I hoped they would do. For me, the houses provide a clue that the train is serving two towns – as opposed to two industrial districts, or two cities, for example. They also suggest that somebody from “around these parts” might be riding the daily-except-Sunday mixed train, at least some of the time.

What’s interesting is that conveying this sense of community doesn’t have to require a lot of real estate. On my layout, I have a single house in St. Williams, and two in Port Rowan. (Actually, one house and one mock-up at this time, as the photo below illustrates…)

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Those looking for railroads that exist in seclusion can find plenty of examples – from Shay-powered lumber lines to more modern examples such as the Plaster City Railroad, a three-foot gauge line operated by US Gypsum:


(Modern, but with a moonscape vibe. You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

But beyond resource haulers and other specialized lines, railroads exist to serve communities – with a varying mix of people and businesses depending upon them. It pays to represent that – to put the railroad in context – in our miniature worlds.

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”…

Layout feature in “The S Scale Resource”

I’ve written a feature on my layout layout – and it’s the cover story in the February-March 2015 issue of The S Scale Resource magazine. This is a free, digital publication. Click on the cover, below, to visit the magazine online:

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You’ll find February-March 2015 issue under the “current issue” tab – if you’ve visited the page before you may have to refresh your browser.

Once you’ve opened the magazine online, you can download it too: Look for a set of buttons near the top of the screen. There, you’ll find one with a PDF symbol, and options to download individual pages or the entire magazine.

This article was tremendous fun to write and shoot – the result of a most enjoyable visit with co-editor Daniel S. Dawdy late last year.

I hope you enjoy this look at my layout – I think it’s a great introduction to what I’m doing and I plan to use it as such. Feel free to share the URL with others who may be interested.

Thoughts on the new RMC and FRMR

While the hobby publishing industry continues to exist in a state of flux, there’s good news in the form of two magazines – one rescued from oblivion, the other brand new.

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(The new RMC: Much-needed improvements)

I’ve now had a chance to do a couple of read-throughs of the January, 2015 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine. And in general, I like what I see.

There’s no question that the design is superior to the old magazine, with: larger, glossy pages; cleaner layout; more readable fonts; better graphics; and improved colour.

As for content, the first issue of the “new” RMC has four features – which may sound light, but they’re all fairly long. For example, editor Stephen Priest has devoted nine pages for a diesel painting and weathering article (by Efram Ellenbogen). Even with the more relaxed text, that’s a meaty article.

I like that: I would frankly prefer to see fewer articles in each issu, with more depth to each article, instead of a larger number of shorter features (as some other popular magazines have done). Over time, consistent presentation of meatier features will create a powerful title for craftsman modellers.

I’m also encouraged by Stephen’s first editorial, in which he lays out his plans for the magazine. Stephen’s saying the right things, to my mind. For example:

“Our focus will be on the craftsman: a person who makes beautiful objects by hand: a person who is very skilled at doing something.”

“RMC will concentrate on articles and features that support learning and sharing myriad model-building skills.”

At my stage in the hobby, exposure to new techniques and skills is exactly what I want – and need – from a hobby publication.

Finally (and this relates to yesterday’s post about focus), I’ve heard privately from a few friends and fellow RMC authors who have reported that the new owners are once again paying for features – and paying promptly. I’m also told that problems with subscriptions purchased from the previous owners but never fulfilled are now being resolved.

Fulfilling subscriptions and paying the authors (if payment has been promised as part of the author-magazine relationship) are two essential steps for running a successful publication. I know for a fact that the previous publisher’s reluctance to pay made it difficult for the editorial team to attract and retain contributors.

Some big names and accomplished modellers in the hobby – exactly the types that RMC needed to provide content – were burned and refused to write for RMC under the former publisher. Others, hearing the tales of non-payment, shied away from submitting their work.

Resolving this issue was critical – and it appears to be fixed. Hopefully, former authors and those who considered it but did not contribute will give the new RMC a chance. I know I will, as soon as I have a project worthy of print.

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(Techniques, presented well)

I’ve also had a chance to read not one, but two issues of Finescale Railway Modelling Review – the new craftsman magazine out of the UK. This magazine was announced back in September, and I immediately took a one-year trial subscription. I’m very glad I did.

(I should mention that my first issue did not show up in a timely manner. I emailed the publisher and learned that my subscription had fallen into a computer-glick black hole. That said, the publisher apologized and extended my subscription by one issue to compensate me for my inconvenience: a class act!)

FSMR appears to fall somewhere between the very high-end craftsmanship typically presented in Model Railway Journal, and the bog-standard ready-to-run layouts and simple projects often featured in more general interest UK magazines.

And that’s a neat place to be. For example, in the first two issues I’ve read articles about: retrofitting finer-scale wheels to an RTR steam locomotive; working with white metal kits, including soldering techniques; weathering locomotives and rolling stock; scratch-building brick structures; scratch-building gas pipe fittings; and more.

The content is UK-focused, but techniques tend to be universal and as a Canadian who has been exposed to British railway modelling all his life I’m well-versed in terms like “splashers” and “tumblehome”.

The design of this magazine is exquisite, which is no surprise since the presentation is done by Roy C. Link. I have several of the books designed and published by Roy – including the now out-of-print book on the Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway – and they are, to my mind, the gold standard of railway publishing.

With these two publications to look forward to, 2015 is looking like a great year to be in the hobby.

Focus

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…

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.

No more “Silver Streak” incidents

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(Runaway locomotives are never a good idea, but especially not when one’s layout includes a sector plate)

As reported last month, I was having a problem with the TCS WOWSound decoders I’m now using for all of my steam locomotives. If I started a locomotive at speed step 1, it would take off at full speed.

I wrote to the manufacturer and was advised to not use the user-loadable speed table feature on the decoders. Okie dokie.

(I like using my own speed tables because the top speed on most locomotives is way too fast for our layouts. The result is, operators end up working with the bottom third, or bottom quarter, of the throttle. It’s kind of like having a speedometer that reads up to 500 kph (310 mph) when the vehicle can’t go more than 50: The rest of the dial is wasted space, and there’s no fine speed control available at the low end. By writing my own speed tables, I’d given operators full use of the throttle.)

However…

This morning I turned off the speed tables, and decided to see if I could achieve acceptable performance using the starting/mid/max settings of CVs 2, 6 and 5. I did – quite quickly, in fact – and the locomotives no longer tear off at full throttle if set to Speed Step 1.

While few others will benefit from knowing the settings, I’m putting them here so that I can refer to them down the road.

CNR Moguls 80, 86, 908: CV2 = 2; CV5 = 60; CV6 = 30.

CNR 10-wheelers 1532, 1560: CV2 = 5; CV5 = 50; CV6 = 25.

Why the differences in settings between the two classes?

Well, I set CV2 – starting voltage – so that the locomotive would just start to move at speed step 1. The 10-wheelers needed a little more power before that happened.

At the same time, the 10-wheelers run much faster than the moguls – so trimming their top speed a little more severely helps keep their speed within reason on my layout.

It was a simple fix and I feel more relaxed about running the layout knowing there will be no Silver Streak incidents…

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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…