Hoo-boy: It’s the NS&T!

That’s “Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto” – and it’s like kryptonite to me. I go weak at the knees for this stuff…


In an earlier post, I mentioned that I picked up a number of pieces from my friend William Flatt, who is downsizing his hobby due to age.

William is an excellent modeller who works in S scale, and models a very unusual prototype: a former interurban in the Niagara Peninsula that became an electrified subsidiary of the Canadian National Railway.


I have a long history with electrics, and the NS&T. I grew up in Toronto, and my first exposure to full-size railroading was the Toronto Transit Commission’s extensive streetcar lines and (at the time) two-route subway system. Today, I live in a neighbourhood bounded on three sides by streetcar lines. The fourth side is defined by the subway. (As a consequence, our vehicle spends most of its time in the garage.)

Later – around age 12 – my parents and I moved to St. Catharines. And while the NS&T was long gone by that time, the CNR still ran freights on NS&T trackage through the city – including up the middle of streets – as part of its Grantham Subdivision.

CNR Grantham Sub - Merritton
(The ex-NS&T yard at Merritton, Ontario – in the southeast corner of St. Catharines)

I would walk to high school along one such street – Louisa Street – and a couple of times a week I could count on seeing a freight behind an EMD switcher as it headed to the local General Motors plant…

CNR at GM Ontario Street - 1993
(While visiting my parents a few years after university, I snapped this photo of the CNR passing between the GM plants on Ontario Street. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last time I saw a train on this line…)

If I recall correctly, the GM Ontario Street job worked five days a week, but my timing wasn’t always perfect. Still, I was curious about the local lines – who wouldn’t be? – and was delighted to discover that they had once hosted freight motors under wire. A couple of books were published, and I grabbed them as soon as I could at my local hobby shop.

Between the TTC and the NS&T, electrics became a strong influence in my hobby. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, many hobbyists my age were inspired by the appalachian coal hauling layouts build by people named Al and Tony – but my hobby hero was Bob Hegge, and the articles I looked forward to in the hobby press were those covering his O scale Crooked Mountain Lines I even have a CML tribute boxcar on my layout.

Many hobbyists model the railway that influenced us at a formative age. I have several friends who do exactly that: to name a couple, Bob Fallowfield is modelling the CP Rail of his youth in Woodstock, Ontario, while Hunter Hughson is recreating the Penn Central in New York State – a line he rail-fanned with his father. By all counts, I should be building a layout based on the CNR in St. Catharines in the 1970s-1980s. But I’m not – for a few reasons.

I’ve never been able to design a CNR Grantham Sub layout that would balance prototype accuracy with my available space. The era I saw first-hand included some pretty big equipment – up to and including 86-foot high cube boxcars that trundled up the street to a General Motors plant.

Boxcars at the GM plant on Ontario Street

Even in HO, those require some space-eating curves. And that’s just as well, because what really appealed to me about the lines in St. Catharines was their electric heritage.

But that posed another problem, in that there are few models of suitable NS&T equipment. I wasn’t about to scratch-build everything. (Keep in mind that I’m only just learning to bash brass and use machine tools – skills that are invaluable when it comes to making locomotives from scratch.)

Now, I knew that in addition to being an excellent modeller, William was also a manufacturer. To model the NS&T in S scale, he designed and produced photo etched sheets and cast parts for various freight motors. I first saw examples of these at the 2007 Copetown Train Show, where the S Scale Workshop was exhibiting its Free-mo style layout. (As an aside, I was not yet a member of the group and their Free-mo layout was less than a year old at the time.)

Will Flatt's work at Copetown
(William’s model of freight motor #18 and express car #41)

The first time I saw William’s work, a couple of his models were on static display on the S Scale Workshop layout. (I could not get a better photo, unfortunately.) I had no idea that he was creating kits for some of the NS&T equipment – and by the time I found out, he was sold out.

At various meets over the years I’ve picked up a couple of unbuilt kits for NS&T freight motors #18 and #20. It was definitely a case of “buy them while I could”, but they’ve always been a low priority for me: I could turn the finished models into a diorama, but two locomotives weren’t enough to convince me to model the NS&T – and anyway, I’m modelling the line to Port Rowan, right?

NST 18
(NST 18)

NST 20
(NST 20)

I knew that William was not interested in selling the NS&T equipment that he’d built. I wouldn’t be either: the models represent a lot of time, and many are the pilot models for his kits. But he did have some unbuilt kits and some part-built models for sale, plus all the detail parts needed to finish them. And that’s how come I now own a small fleet of NS&T potential:

NST 8, 15, 19:

NST motor 15

NST 19

NS&T 15 and 19
(Mostly-finished bodies for NS&T freight motors #15 and #19. I also bought an unbuilt set of etchings and parts for #8 – a third motor built to this design, and the subject of the lead photo for this post)

NST 17:

NST 17

NS&T 17
(The etching sheet for NS&T freight motor #17 – a steeple cab. I also bought the parts to finish this)

NST 620 class:

NST 620

NST 620
(The etching sheet for an NS&T 620-class interurban. Again, I also bought a set of castings to finish this one)

Added to what I have already acquired, I have six freight motors. That’s a respectable fleet. While I only have the parts for a single passenger car, the NS&T hosted a number of fan trips and excursions over the years, so I can use the car for that.

IF… I build a new layout.

Will I do that? I don’t know – yet. And I won’t make the decision until several milestones are achieved.

First – I intend to finish Port Rowan. I’m so close, it would be unfortunate to not do so. I enjoy my Port Rowan layout but I have no personal connection to the prototype: I chose to model this line for the very practical reason that it fit my layout space.

Second – I would have to design a layout that I would actually want to build. I’m picky about layout designs and compromises. In fact, this is something that has prevented me from modelling the CNR Grantham Subdivision in the past. That said, modelling the earlier era – the NS&T under wire – opens up new possibilities for me. For one thing, the freight equipment is shorter, and curves could be tighter – tighter even than the 42″ radius I used on Port Rowan (which is already pretty tight – the passenger equipment barely negotiates it). For another thing, the NS&T offers different scenes and customers to model than the CNR of the 1970s-1980s.

Third – I would have to actually build all of these electrics – to my satisfaction. I can do it – I’m sure I have the skills – but until I have them ready to run there’s no point in considering a new layout. Get the equipment finished first, then address the layout. It worked for Port Rowan, after all…

Fourth – I would have to build some trolley wire and get it working to my satisfaction. Despite being a traction guy at heart, I’ve never done this. Can I do it? I’d better figure that out before I commit to a layout.

If I can satisfy those four criteria, then I’ll retire Port Rowan and embark on a new adventure. Until then, Port Rowan is safe. If I can’t satisfy those four criteria, then I see a wicked good NS&T diorama in my future…

As a bonus, there were a number of locations where the NS&T met the steam-powered Canadian National – from Merritton to Port Colborne – so if/when I do embark on this adventure my CNR locomotives and other equipment can all be put to good use.

33 thoughts on “Hoo-boy: It’s the NS&T!

  1. I can relate to your feelings, Trevor, about trying to decide on an eventual modeling direction.

    I’ve got many more years of work on my small Milan branch of the Iowa Interstate, but I’m already thinking about what I’d do once the branch is complete as I have many different modeling interests. For example, I have a love for the Milwaukee Road and especially their fleet of SW-1s affectionately called “donkeys”. In addition, I feel the pull of a freelance desire to model a fictitious small railroad I’d name the Paint Creek & Waterville Railroad – Route of the Rainbow Trout. This fictitious line would be set in the beautiful rolling bluff country of NE Iowa. And finally, I have a strong desire to build a module in G scale after seeing Bob Rivard’s amazing G scale GP9 with smoke unit, step lights, and other exciting details. There’s just something about the sheer size of the scale that gets me excited.

    But the dilemma of how to follow all those modeling rabbit trails? Once the Milan branch is fairly complete, I’ve decided going the module route would probably be the best option. One thing’s for sure, this hobby is so full of options and many are just so darn intoxicating it almost makes my head blow up! 🙂

    • Mine too! When you see a cloud of smoke with chunks of flex track in it drifting over southern Ontario, you’ll know it was me.
      For me, the NS&T unique appeal is a personal connection – something I simply don’t have with Port Rowan. So if I can make the locos and the overhead work – and work as well as my current layout does – I’ll pursue this further. Whether it ends up being a small shelf layout/diorama or a basement filling empire depends on what I can make fit in my space.
      One thing though that’s different now is that my work on Port Rowan and in S has honed many of my skills to the point that I can actually consider this kind of project. I doubt that I would have, six years ago…

  2. Fun…I’m imagining your version of Andrew Dodge who changes from On3 DSP&P to P-48 Colorado Midland….What is nice is that your proposing the same scale and gauge….Most of my follow on dreams are not Sn2 but are S-scale…Additionally, You have a working layout in place….You might be on your 3rd layout before I really get started on mine…

    Good luck on your dreams….

    • Hi David:
      Yes, staying in the same scale / gauge (and era!) will have its advantages. For one thing, I have an instant freight car fleet.
      It’ll be a novelty. My past experiences have involved a wholesale swap of scales…

  3. The NS&T? Once you are caught in the copper web, it is like the Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
    I have had this modeling “heart trouble” again and again. I thought I had it under control but now posess the required “fixings” for at least four different layout projects in three scales and four gauges. I was almost successful in stashing away the “absolute minimum” stuff for three of them in just-in-case boxes, then bullheading my way forward on the “yeah, build that one.” Oh well… .
    Oddly, the current adventure is set in Iowa again, this time with HO diesels, (or maybe N.) The last time I headed there in the hobby was in what is now called P:48, under wire, overlaying track down the middle of First Ave, West in Cascade, then turning right to generally follow Hwy. 136 to Dyersville. I had even photographed and measured the signature storefronts and located where the flag stops and on-line customers would be. In real life it would have made a viable interurban, and I was told some of the town fathers talked about building one along this route back when. But, I knew much too much about it after researching it, the equipment needs and probable schedules, as well as driving the route. I had built it in my mind. That was the layout’s downfall. Even now I have a longing to build a model of a neat little combine that Pullman built for the C&ME, maybe run it down a tree-lined street past picket fences and front-porch houses, but I have resisted getting tanged up in the copper web–so far.

  4. I love your model railroad adventures!

    You mentioned interchange with the mainline. Can that translate into modules? Jim Harper has an electric line interchanging with his P:48 SP. The electric line is about one foot wide on the backside of the backdrop for the main layout.

    • Hi William:
      If I pursue this, I expect the NS&T will take over my permanent layout space. It did occur to me yesterday though that I could build a new, smaller, Port Rowan as a module for the S Scale Workshop. That would allow me to re-use the structures, which are the really time-consuming aspects of modelling a place like Port Rowan…

  5. Sounds exciting! I hope you are able to go for it.
    I am in a similar situation. As I mentioned to you in an earlier post, I have been interested in getting into a larger scale than my current HO. In the past, I have hesitated because I have so much financial and emotional investment in my layout, the Dyer Junction & Eureka, which has been featured in MR magazine. And I can’t see my self being able to afford expensive S scale locomotives and rolling stock. But life takes us in unpredictable directions. As it turns out, my wife and I will probably have to downsize, which means dismantling my layout. What a perfect time to try something different! But the expense issue still haunted me, then I had what I thought was a brilliantly original idea. Why not use HO gauge track to model S narrow gauge. Well I found out that it has been done. It is called Sn42. But it is pretty rare, I still haven’t been able to contact anyone doing it (Hint to other readers: if you know of someone, please put me in contact). I plan on using affordable HO trucks and locomotive running gear and scratchbuilding the rest. This would do a lot to control costs. I have already done some proof of concept mockups and I have to say “I love S scale!!!”. I find it so much easier to see the detail and to put myself into the scene. I just resonate when I look at it. I am going to start by building some structures and rolling stock. Then I will have a head start when I move and am ready to start anew.
    Keep up the good work. Your posts inspire me!

    • Hi Jim:
      While rare in North America, 42″ gauge is/was in common use elsewhere in the world – including places like New Zealand and South Africa. So, you find modellers in those places working in Sn42 as you have suggested.
      In North America, I’m guessing the most common application of Sn42 would be to model the Newfoundland Railway – later part of the Canadian National Railways system.
      Good luck and happy modelling…

    • If you want true 3′ gauge, you might consider what Doug Tasgold is doing using HO gauge track and customizing HO mechanisms in 55n3. His layout is featured in Model Railroad Planning 2018. I expect the article will explain all aspects of 55n3.

  6. As much as I love your Port Rowan layout, this “new” direction seems right up your alley. You’ve gained valuable experience with brasswork and those new machine tools, and those kits are gorgeous! Hope for a new future layout is in the air.
    Cheers, Gord

  7. I worked the former NS&T thrice in my time at CN. I wish that I’d known the line better and brought a camera with me as I worked it. On the railway for just a few months in the summer of 1987, the paper mill at Thorold was covered on my first first shift. A day or two later, we ran up and down Ontario Street, pulling and spotting cars at GM and Cadbury. About 1994, I returned for a day braking on a job that now originated at Niagara Falls, spending the day traversing various parts of the line, and switching yet another paper mill. Now I crack John Mills’ original NS&T book once in a while and marvel at what was.

  8. Oh my gosh this sounds like fun.

    When you posted about your visit at William Flatt’s I wondered if any of his beautiful traction models followed you home.

    I really enjoy this sense of evolution in your work, how the current works provides an opportunity to evolve into the next. In this way, it’s not like the typical “new layout” expedition.

    Seriously though, traction. I love it.


  9. Completely off the topic of modeling fascinating railways of our youth (which I heartily applaud as it tells a great story from the heart!), I noticed the 86′ Auto Box in the photo is a 4 door car. In the US GM uses 8 door cars, the 4s are only used by Ford. Is Canadian practice different or did this change by era?

    • I have no idea Seth. Good question.
      I do know it’s a GM plant – it was a couple blocks up the street from my parents’ house.
      Also, the auto industry in Canada is closely tied to that of the USA (and, more recently, Mexico). That dates back to the Auto Pact of the mid-1960s. So those cars could be carrying components loaded from, or destined to, plants in the United States.
      Maybe someone else reading this has some insight…

  10. Trevor:

    If you want to learn how to build working trolley wire in S scale, the newly minted MMR Dick Karnes is the guy you want to talk to. He operates his trains via wire. I have seen several pics of his layout and I get the chance to operate on his layout during Soundrails 2018 in March. This will be my first experience with wire and maybe I will figure out why trolley folks are so passionate about it. 🙂


    John Gibson

    • Hi John:
      Have fun at Dick’s place.
      I have several local friends who are traction modellers and have mastered the art of stringing wire, so I’m good to go. It’s less of a “need to learn how” issue and more of a “need to actually do it” one.

  11. Just looking at those pictures, I can see the fascination! Resisting the urge to change may be more difficult than you think….

    • It’ll all depend on my skills at building the kits, and designing a layout I actually want to build and operate…
      Regardless, contemplating a change is a pleasant exercise!

    • Hi Gene:
      This is why I want to try my hand at the overhead before I commit. I’ve never done overhead before. I’ve read all the theory, but…

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