Podcasting and Big Model Railroad Media

I’m a big fan of the Up Dunes Junction blog written by Steve Lee. While we model very different prototypes, in different scales, Steve and I agree on a lot of things.

This includes our shared belief in the potential of podcasting to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of this hobby.

A few years ago, I created, produced and co-hosted The Model Railway Show podcast with my friend Jim Martin. I know from that experience that listening to podcasts has become a favourite activity for commuters – and no wonder. Podcasting gives commuters an alternative to “the breakfast bunch” and “afternoon drive” radio programs. Those who produce podcast content know they are reaching a self-selected, targeted audience that’s also captive: since they’re driving, there’s nothing else they can do. They’re stuck in that vehicle for the length of their commute, and looking for something to help them get through the ordeal.

This is Narrowcasting Nirvana. So why aren’t our hobby’s major publishers and advertisers taking advantage of it?

This is the question that Steve asks in a thought-provoking post called, “Hey Big Model Railroad Media: Where’s the Audio Content?

It’s a really good question.

I’ve provided a lengthy answer – just my opinion, of course! – on Steve’s blog. Since Steve started the discussion, I’ve disabled comments on this post. If you want to join in (and I hope you do!) please do so over there. Click on the still-awesome logo designed for The Model Railway Show by Otto Vondrak to head to Steve’s blog now. I’ll see you there!

TMRS Podcast Badge

Chevron jumpers

Wiring problem - chevron jumpers

Layouts always act up when company comes.

On the weekend, I had a couple of friends over – two of whom are not in the model railway hobby, and were visiting my house for the first time. They wanted to see the layout, though – so at some point we went to the train room, and naturally I ran a train…

… which, just as naturally, hit a dead spot on the Stone Church Road overpass. I determined that one of the rails over the bridge was not receiving power. This is not the first time I’ve had problems on this bridge. It went dead on me once before.

Now, I know that I installed drop feeders – I did that for every length of rail on the layout, and when power disappeared on the bridge last time, I dug into the ballast, found the feeders, and resoldered them. It was a painful process – in part because of all the trees around this scene, and in part because the fact there’s a bridge here means there’s half a sawmill worth of lumber belowdecks:

Stone Church Road overpass - under construction
(The Stone Church Road underpass under construction)

Perhaps, because of these issues, my solder joints to the rails were cold last time I repaired this. I decided that this time, I would do something topside.

In the photo at the top of this post, sharp eyes will pick out a chevron-shaped piece of wire spanning the gap between adjacent lengths of rail. There’s one on each rail in this photo. I took short lengths of 0.015″ phosphor bronze wire – the same stuff I routinely use to add pick-up wipers to locomotives that need them – and bent them into chevron shapes with feet at each end. I then used a wire wheel in a Dremel Tool to remove the paint on the rail ends, tinned the feet on the chevrons and the rail ends, and soldered a foot to each rail segment so that the chevron spans the gap.

The chevron is important – it gives the wire some flexibility in case the problem here is that the layout is expanding and contracting with the seasons.

I brushed on some brown paint over everything and my bridge is once again in service. This has taken care of the problem – hopefully, permanently! I’ll find out this coming weekend, when I’m hosting members of the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers for an open house…

More trees for Port Rowan

Trees - Port Rowan

I’ll get to the trees in a minute. But first: I had a fun day yesterday…

A colleague from university got in touch and arranged to visit with his wife. Doug Moorhouse and I were both railway modelling enthusiasts all through school, but it never really came up.

(Apparently, when one is 20 years old, trying to get through post-secondary education, start a career, and impress the many beautiful 20-year-old women in your classes, professing a passion for model trains isn’t considered a conversation-starter: Who knew? Anyway…)

So, fast-forward 30 years or so, and Doug gets in touch. He and his wife Rose are going to hit a local club railway open house on the weekend, and could they come by to see the layout afterwards? Of course!

We had a great time. I gave Doug and Rose a tour of the layout. We even ran a train, and although we didn’t spot any freight or follow a schedule, we did turn the train in Port Rowan and take it back to Simcoe, so we did do a bit of switching. I learned that I still had an emergency stop button programmed on one of my two wireless throttles – a feature that’s easy to accidentally hit, so the DCC system shut off a couple of times mysteriously. (I figured out the problem this morning and reprogrammed the button in question to do something less disruptive to operations.)

Doug works in audio production and was really interested in the ambient audio on my layout, so we discussed the hardware and sound files that I use for that. It was nice to talk audio with another person trained in this stuff…

After tying up the train in Simcoe, the four of us went up the street for dinner at Harbord House (as is the tradition with new visitors to the layout). It was wonderful to reconnect with Doug and to meet Rose. It was interesting to learn that other people from my past life were also railway modellers – including at least one professor. And we’re already planning another get-together.

I decided that I wanted to get a little more done on the layout before Doug and Rose visited, so over the past week I worked on more trees for Port Rowan. I’m sure there was still a whiff of hairspray in the air, because the canopy went on Saturday night. But I have finished the trees behind the elevated coal delivery spur and it makes a huge difference to the appearance of this scene. I’ve taken way more photos of St. Williams than of Port Rowan – and I realize that’s in part because Port Rowan has not been as visually interesting, because the scenes lacked the drama of tall trees. Drama? Well, I think they make all the difference in terms of framing what I see through the camera lens. But have a look and judge for yourself.

Here’s a photo from four years ago, without trees:

Port Rowan - shrubs

And here are two photos taken today, from a similar point of view:

Trees - Port Rowan

Trees - Port Rowan

I know which look I prefer.

The forest continues to march towards the end of the Port Rowan peninsula. Time to make more trees…

Trees - Port Rowan

Trees - Port Rowan

Trees - Port Rowan

Trees - Port Rowan

From Maine On2 to Port Rowan in 1:64

This morning, I received an email from a reader who had discovered some of my On2 work online and had some questions. He wrote:

I just watched a video of your old On2 layout and loved the models, scenery, and music. It is rare for me to sit through many model rail vids but you got me. Thanks.

My pleasure! I’m glad you enjoyed the video. For those who haven’t seen it, I’m pretty sure this is the one to which he refers:


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

The reader continued…

As much as I like your S scale layout it makes me wonder a couple of things like, “How long have your been building layouts?” and, “Why the switch?”

I’ve written about how I got started in 1:64 in a series of posts at the very beginning of this blog. The links have been gathered into the “First Time Here?” page and if you haven’t read them, that’s a good place to start. Go ahead – I’ll wait here…

Me and the Big Big Train
(The railway’s General Manager, surveying the line…)

To answer the first question, I’ve been building layouts off and on – mostly on – for 40 years. I started young, and then had the usual break for part of high school before coming back to the hobby in university. At a guess, I’ve built about a dozen layouts over that time, to various states of completion. The early ones were horribly conceived and executed – a product of ambition over understanding – but they were valuable learning exercises and I don’t regret undertaking them.

In my current home, I’ve built four layouts based on three prototypes/themes:

– An HO scale layout based on the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Claremont branch in New Hampshire. I described that layout in the March and April, 2002 issues of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.

– Two iterations of a freelanced Maine two-footer layout in On2 (not On30), inspired by the slate-hauling Monson Railroad. I built the first, smaller version in the space now occupied by my workshop. The second version is the one shown in the video above. It was in the space currently occupied by my Port Rowan layout and was to incorporate the slate mill from the first layout, but I abandoned that project before the mainline reached the quarries.

– The current, S scale layout featuring the last three miles of the CNR Simcoe Sub to Port Rowan.

In addition to these, I have explored a few other ideas for my layout space. Some were merely planning exercises, while others were themes I wanted to build but abandoned when I decided I didn’t like the layouts I designed for my space. (The problem of, “If I only had five more feet…”)

The answer to the second question is more complex. Part of the answer is in those first posts about Port Rowan in 1:64.

Primarily, I found that living in southern Ontario it was pretty lonely to model a Maine two-footer. A few of my hobby friends in the area understood what I was doing – but it was just too foreign for most. My hobby is primarily a social one, and I got tired of having a layout that was difficult for others to appreciate. That’s not their problem – they simply didn’t have the reference.

Coupled with this, and equally important, is that because few people in my region knew about the Maine two-footers, I had very few local sources of information about any aspect of them. I couldn’t draw on local knowledge for very much. By switching to the CNR, my local support group got a whole lot better – for everything from equipment to operations. I was spending more and more time with terrific, fun modellers who knew a lot about Canadian railways running in southern Ontario – and nothing about Maine two-footers. Why is that important? Well, working on a layout to which others can relate is important if you’re in the hobby for the social aspects of it.

It’s also important if you want to build skills.

For example, I’m learning to modify brass locomotives with the CNR 3737 project. This is happening because another hobbyist in the area, who knows a lot about doing this kind of thing, also has a brass 2-8-2 to modify into a CNR prototype. Nobody I know in the Toronto area is doing a major modification on a brass SR&RL Forney to convert it to a Monson Railroad prototype. So, if I was still working in On2, I would be figuring that out by myself. I could do that, I’m sure – but the work sessions on the CNR 2-8-2s have become a great social event for me, too.

In the same way that the best advice to anybody considering their first DCC system is, “Buy what your friends use, because you’re going to need help and no feature on any system beats the benefit of local knowledge”, I’ve benefitted enormously from local hobbyists now that we’re moving in the same circles.

With the Maine two-footers, my local knowledge was at least 12 hours away by highway, and across an international border. (And, it has to be said, that border has only gotten more onerous to cross in the years since I modelled the Maine two-footers.) That meant my research trips were expensive, in terms of time and money. They involved at least two days on the road, plus at least two nights in a hotel. So I could only do occasional trips. It’s hard to find the answers to questions when that much travel is involved. Yes, the Internet is wonderful, but there’s nothing like going and seeing for oneself to really get an understanding.

By contrast, Port Rowan is two to three hours away, depending on traffic. I can make a day trip, any time I like.

Dogs outstanding in the Port Rowan yard
(I can even take along my wife and dogs, and make an outing of it.)

It’s much easier to be inspired when I can walk the Lynn Valley hiking trail to see the bridges, or visit with the person who ran the feed mill in Port Rowan – and do the round trip in a day.

As well, I’ve pursued both prototype and proto-freelance modelling, and I definitely prefer the prototype approach. Railway Prototype Modelling meets are among my favourite hobby events, and I never felt comfortable displaying my On2 models at them – even though they were prototype models in everything but the lettering. (And I can tell you, my displays got blank stares at RPMs in the Toronto area.) Again, it’s about how one engages with the hobby. I like Port Rowan in 1:64 because my local community can relate to the prototype, even if they’re more used to seeing the CNR modelled in HO. The difference in scale is a conversation starter – not a killer.

There are more reasons, but those are the main ones.

To the person who got in touch – those were great questions. Thanks for asking!

Full Throttle Steam on TrainMasters TV

The current segment on TrainMasters TV features my CNR 10-wheeler #1532, fitted with a LokSound decoder and loaded with Full Throttle Steam:

DCC Full Throttle Steam

Click on the image above – or follow this link – to start watching. You need to be a subscriber to TrainMasters TV to see it, but membership is quite reasonable.

(UPDATE: ESU has now released the first Full Throttle Steam file – based on SOO Line #1003, a 2-8-2. It’s at the top of the on ESU’s steam download page. For future reference, note that Full Throttle steam – and diesel – sound files are noted by the “(FT)” at the end of the name. Thanks to Matt Forsyth for alerting me that the first file is now publicly available.)

CN 3737 – Cab back and railings

CNR 3737 - Al Paterson prototype photo - left side.
(Click on the image to filter this blog for all posts about this project)

Last Friday, Andy Malette and I held another joint work session on our CNR 2-8-2 projects. This time, work continued on the cab.

The first order of business was to finish the cab back. In a previous session, we’d squared off the rear of the roof – something the CNR did to make it easier to hang curtains to protect the crew in cold weather. This time, we added a back wall to the cab roof:

CNR 3737 - cab back

The wall is simply a piece of brass sheet, cut to match the curve of the roof and with two windows added according to prototype photos. Some of these cabs had the back wall flush, while others – like CNR 3737 – had a lip. Two small lengths brass were added under the side roof extensions, next to the back wall, and then trimmed and filed to length to complete the major modifications. This work required one to get in and out quickly with the resistance soldering probe, so as to not unsolder the roof extensions. I was really pleased that I was able to do this with no rework required.

As the above photo shows, we also added stanchions and railings to the cab roof. This was a relatively simple operation: mark and drill the holes, tin the stanchions, string them on a wire to keep them all properly aligned, then add lots of flux and hit them with the heat.

CNR 3737 - cab roof rails

We left the wires long to the rear of the stanchions, then trimmed them after soldering. At the front, the handrail loops 180 degrees then bends parallel to the front cab wall, so we did that too:

CNR 3737 - cab roof rails

The cab still needs an armrest under each window, but we’ll add that after painting. I think it’s pretty much done, and can be set aside while we start on the next phase. I’m not sure what that is, but I’ll find out at our next work session. I’m looking forward to it!

If you ever get a chance to learn from someone who knows their way around a brass engine… do it! (Thanks for teaching me, Andy…)

LokSound Love for 1532

CNR 1532 - LokSound installation
(Replacing the decoder in the 10-wheelers looks challenging, but it’s really just a case of mapping the wires and doing things one wire at a time)

Over the past week, I’ve done a fair bit to advance my hobby goals.

I’ve resumed working on trees for Port Rowan, and I’m pleased with the progress: I applied my bark mixture to nine more armatures this morning.

I had another work session at Andy Malette‘s place, as he and I convert USRA Light Mikados into CNR S-3-a 2-8-2s. (More on that in this post.)

And I finished converting the core fleet of steam locomotives to LokSound Full Throttle Steam, with the installation of a LokSound Select into the boiler of CNR 1532 this morning. With that, I’ve finished the two moguls and two 10-wheelers that I use in regular operating sessions. I’m loving the new sounds and the motor control. This is what I was looking for.

I have a couple other steam locomotives to convert, but I can do them as time allows.

All in all, a fine week!

First finished trees for Port Rowan

Port Rowan - trees
(A tree towering over the billboard on Bay Street completes this scene, which welcomes visitors to the layout. The billboard is my layout’s Establishing Shot)

Recently, a friend on Facebook shared a photo he took during an operating session at my house a couple of years ago. When I looked at the photo, I realized it included several twisted wire tree armatures in the Port Rowan scene. And then I realized that those same trees were still in the “twisted wire armature” stage.

Now, I do like to plant the tree armatures and leave them in place for a while before finishing them, so I can determine whether I like the arrangement and whether they will interfere with operations. After all, crew members have to reach in to the scenes to uncouple – and some will use their left arm, while others will use their right.

But two years is more than sufficient time to determine this, so my friend’s Facebook memory was a call to action. Therefore, I decided it’s time to finish these trees. I started with four trees that are in the foreground of the scene.

This tree – about 10″ tall – is positioned in the meadow, near the apple orchard. It’s in front of the yard throat – but that actually means it’s out of the way of operators, because no uncoupling takes place there:

Port Rowan - trees

A shorter tree to the right of that tall one also has a smaller footprint, keeping it out of the way of operators:

Port Rowan - trees

This tree – also around 10″ tall – is located next to the garage in Port Rowan. It’s across from the station and, again, in front of a turnout where uncoupling will never happen:

Port Rowan - trees
(Note the row of wire tree armatures in the background. Those are next!)

A parting shot – the tree behind the billboard at the end of the Port Rowan peninsula:

Port Rowan - trees

I think the tree and the Airstream trailer nicely capture the mood I’m trying to create.

Layout size and reluctance to learn

Old Ways Are Best
(Fun for a wedding, or when on holiday. But if you want to enjoy the many advantages of a modern car, you have to learn to drive)

When I look at the model railway hobby and compare it to what I’ve experienced in other hobbies, I am often surprised at how much resistance people in this hobby offer up to the idea of lifelong learning.

Emphasis is often placed on finding quicker, cheaper, easier ways to do things – rather than better ways to do things. Concepts that promote mediocrity are embraced and spouted as gospel. A good example of this is the “Three Foot Rule” – the idea that as long as something looks good from three feet away, the project is a success and no further work needs to be done.

I’ve often thought about why we do what we do, and there are several posts about this on my blog. But today, while drinking my morning coffee and sharing thoughts with a couple of friends, I approached the problem of “reaching for the middle” from a different angle.

I wonder if the reluctance to learn has something to do with the nature of layout building? In other hobbies, project timelines are much tighter.

A golf game lasts a few hours – and then it’s done. The next game is a new beginning. It’s a new opportunity to do better. Some would say the whole point of golf is to improve one’s score, for the bragging rights.

Building a piece of furniture takes a few weeks or months – and then it’s done. The next piece is a new beginning and can be related to the first piece, or can be radically different. New techniques, materials, and tools can be explored. The resulting piece of furniture doesn’t have to blend in. It doesn’t have to match the previous output.

Military modellers build individual models – not entire fleets of ships or divisions of tanks. Each project stands on its own merits. And each new project is an opportunity to do better.

But in our hobby, we rarely look at each locomotive, or structure, or tree as a model unto itself. They’re usually part of a larger project – a layout – so we spend less time reviewing the project just completed. We tick the box – “That’s one more for the layout” – and move on. We don’t review what we’ve built and ask, “What could I do better – either next time, or right now?”

Old Ways Are Best
(The process of continuous review and improvement is why you’re not reading my blog on one of these)

I’m guilty of this. I have cut corners on many of the projects that comprise this Port Rowan layout. I have stand-in freight cars… background structures… and other compromises. I added them to the layout and then I moved on. And now, every time I look at my layout I see things I could’ve done better. (That said, I also acknowledge that if I had done them better, they probably would’ve taken longer and I would have less of the layout built by now. Would that be a bad thing? Maybe not.)

At least I recognize that I’ve made those compromises. And I also know that since I have a relatively modest layout – one that has taken me a few years to build, not a few decades – I have plenty of opportunity in the future to revisit those compromises and make them better. That’s my plan, anyway. And in order to achieve that, I am actively working to acquire new skills or upgrade as the hobby evolves. For example:

I’m learning to work with brass, through the CNR 3737 project.

I’ve upgraded the decoders in my steam locomotives not once, but twice in five years. Currently, I’m tearing out decoders and replacing them with Loksound decoders loaded with Full Throttle to take advantage of ESU’s sound reproduction and motor control.

I’ve upgraded my DCC system to take advantage of more powerful throttles and more advanced features.

I think sometimes people in this hobby get stuck in the mentality of, “I’ve built that. It’s done. It’s time to move on.” I get that. When building a large layout, one can’t keep revisiting the completed sections – there are still so many uncompleted sections to tackle. And if one has mastered a technique, and it worked on those completed sections, why consider doing things differently the next time?

Old Ways Are Best
(Okay when camping, or in an emergency… but do you really want to give up indoor plumbing for this? Old ways aren’t always the best)

Sadly, this means the resulting layout often looks like the builder’s skills froze in time the moment they started construction. If the first piece of the layout was completed in the 1970s, and the builder mastered the use of dyed sawdust and zip texturing, then that 1970s era scenery is likely still on display today (worse for the wear of being untouched for the past 40 years). And when the layout is viewed by those who have mastered more modern techniques – say, the use of static grass – they’re not going to leave feeling inspired.

I’m sure this isn’t something the builder wants. We all want to put our best effort forward, don’t we? To take pride in our work and inspire those who visit to see it? I sure do.

For those just embarking on a layout, perhaps the biggest favour they can do for themselves is to ask if they honestly have the energy, time and commitment to not only maintain the layout they’re planning, but to continuously improve it. And if the answer is “No”, it’s okay to scale back one’s plans…