Why you should consider blogging

Blogger at window

On Tuesday night, I was honoured to be the guest speaker at the monthly dinner meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR). I’ve written about that in a previous post on this blog – and you can click on the OVAR logo to read that post:


While talking with friends and OVAR members before during the pre-dinner social hour, I had a few people ask me about tips for blogging. I shared some tips – and I’ve written about this before on this blog. But I promised those with whom I spoke that I would summarize my thoughts about blogging. So here they are…

I consider this blog to be as important to my Port Rowan layout as the ties and rail and I will never start another layout without also starting a blog about it.

I started my blog in August, 2011. I had never before blogged and I had no idea what to expect. As of right now…

– I have made 1,296 posts (including this one).

– The blog has generated 7,145 comments. Of those, 2,333 are mine as I respond to the 4,812 comments from my readers (and thanks for those!)

Blog - Comments

– The blog has generated more than 715,000 page views. (It’s actually a bit more than that, because I did not track stats for the first year of blogging. I simply didn’t know I could.)

In addition to making new friends online, the value of this blog has been in its ability to generate information that helps me become a better railway modeller. For example:

– Readers have offered information about the prototype (CNR Simcoe Sub) and the area (St. Williams and Port Rowan) that I model.

– Readers have shared information about traffic sources and commodities to enhance the freight, LCL and express operations on my layout.

– Those readers who are also professional railroaders have shared information about prototype practices that have improved my operating sessions.

– Readers who know more about S scale (because I’m still relatively new to working in 1:64) have given me leads everything from small detail parts to locomotives, and from manufacturers to suppliers (whether they are distributors, retailers or individuals).

Interestingly, in a number of cases, information came my way that I did not even know I “needed”. For example, I’ve had many people become readers who are not railway modellers: They’re historians, or residents of one of the communities I model, or have another interest that overlaps something I’m doing on the layout, such as installing the working telegraphy system.

In the past, I might have had to do extensive research, including trips to archives, to find much of this information. Today, thanks to this blog, much of it has come my way – simply because I shared.

Finally, another important role for this blog is to remind me how I did something. For example, I often return to the blog to look up detail parts I used on a specific type of freight car so I can order more for another model.

I’m sometimes asked if blogging takes time away from my modelling bench. For me, I find it actually encourages me to work on projects. Having gotten into the habit of blogging, I start to miss it if I don’t – and I will pick up a project and work on it just to have something to blog about. The regular need to photograph my progress for the blog also means I’m a better modeller, because today’s digital cameras (even camera phones) show up all of the mistakes and sloppy shortcuts. When I see those in a picture, I know I have to go back and re-work what I’ve built to make it right.

If you have never written a blog, it can seem like a daunting project. It’s not. Here are some ideas – based on my own experience – to get you started.

– Make regular postings: I suggest one per week on average (and I know that I’ve been remiss at that). They don’t have to be “War and Peace” – they can be as brief as a photo and a caption. But to generate the traffic that will start paying off in terms of information gathering, regular postings are a must.

– Write about what you’ve done – not what about your thinking of doing. Unless, of course, you want every expert on the Internet to tell you what to do.

– Give newcomers a place to find their feet. Remember that readers may land on your blog at any post – rarely the first one. On this blog, I’ve included a “First Time Here?” page, into which I’ve gathered some basic information and links to key posts that describe what I’m doing in more detail. I’ve also included lots of photos of the layout on this page, so that people can see what I’m doing and assess whether they want to read more. (Not everybody will, and that’s cool!)

– I’ve also included an “About the Author” page, so people can find out who I am. It’s always more comfortable to have a conversation with somebody if you know who they are, I find. I’ve also included information about how to contact me on that page.

– Make it easy for interested readers to follow you. This blog includes a “Follow this Blog” page to describe the options. And I post the occasional reminder to my blog that new readers should check it out. (This post counts, so if you’re new to my blog – Welcome! Please have a look at how you can follow along.)

– Back up your blog. I didn’t, at first – I didn’t know I could. And then I lost the entire thing. Fortunately, a reader was able to access the XML file (the programming language that creates the blog) for my posts on his own computer and share it with me, so I was able to re-post all of the posts. But I lost many of the early comments. Blogs reside online, and the engine that drive them – such as WordPress – have an export tool that allows you save your blog to your local computer drive. Use it.

– A promising blog that hasn’t been updated in months is a sad thing to find on the Internet. I sometimes wonder if the blogger has unexpectedly passed away. So if you started a blog that you don’t intend to maintain and you read this, do your readers a favour and write a final post saying that you’ve decided to no longer maintain the blog because you’re doing other things. (The reasons are none of our businesses, but we like to know that you’re still alive.)

If you have not yet started a blog, I hope that this post will encourage you to consider doing so. I use WordPress and recommend it – I like the user interface and I think the resulting blogs look elegant. But there are other engines – such as Blogger – that may suit you better. I encourage you to look at each and then if you’re interested, register a name (it’s free to do so) and start sharing!

Bloggers without borders

OVAR Report – March 2018

Earlier this week, I was in Canada’s capital as the guest speaker at OVAR – the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders. I had a great time – I’m so glad they invited me!

Before I report on the trip, some words about OVAR are in order…


OVAR is an amazing group. It’s been around for decades – it was established in 1961 – and has a membership of around 180 people. Key to its success is the informal nature of the group. It exists as a social organization – an umbrella for various other groups in the Ottawa area – and that’s it. Membership includes representatives of many such groups, of course – from round-robin operating groups and modular railroading associations, to members of the NMRA and other such official organizations, to those who volunteer at museums and other railfan/historian venues.

Anybody who has been part of a group or club in this hobby knows that politics can become a problem. It rarely is with OVAR, because it exists solely as a place to bring those various other groups and clubs together under one roof, once per month, for dinner and a presentation.

When I moved to Ottawa in the early 1990s, it was for a work opportunity. Never mind knowing fellow hobbyists: I knew nobody in the city. But I found the local hobby shops – and there, I found a brochure for OVAR. It sounded like a good way to tap into the local modelling community, so I attended a dinner. And then I signed up – because it was such a great concept.

Each of us in this hobby have a different approach to railway modelling. We all have preferred scales, prototypes, eras, degrees of prototype adherence, and so on. In addition, we each enjoy some aspect of the hobby more than others. Everyone’s approach is valid – but let’s face it: If the local club’s approach is too different from what you want to do, you won’t continue to be a member.

The strength of OVAR is all of those unique combinations come together in one room. So when I first joined, I’d use each dinner to sit at a table with a group of modellers, and talk to them about how they engaged with the hobby. If their approach was too different from my own, then I’d sit at a new table the next month, and so on until I found the people with whom I best identified. It took a few months, but what a great way to survey the hobby within an entire region!

I haven’t lived in Ottawa in more than 20 years, but I’m still regularly in touch with those friends I made at OVAR.

Having said all that, it’s not surprise that I had a wonderful time as the group’s guest speaker on Tuesday night. I talked with many old friends – several of whom I haven’t seen in person in years. (A few asked about blogging, so I have written another post on that topic, called “Why you should consider blogging“.)

What’s more, I thought the presentation went very well.


I talked about how I ended up modelling Port Rowan in S scale. I started with my days in Ottawa when I built my first prototype-based layout – on which I attempted to recreate a portion of the Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway in the late 1970s in HO scale. Then, while helping a friend decide what to model, I realized the TH&B’s bridge line railroading was not for me, and I switched to a Boston & Maine branch line in the steam era. I was still doing this when I moved back to Toronto in the late 1990s and built my first B&M layout.

However, dissatisfaction with the performance of my fleet of brass HO steam engines – small models of small prototypes – and recognizing in myself an interest in detailing structures and scenes, I moved up a couple of scales, to model a Maine two-footer in O scale. Here, after several years of progress, I ran into an unexpected setback: Modelling a Maine two-footer while living in southern Ontario was a lonely prospect. There just aren’t that many people in the hobby who are interested in The Standard Gauge of Maine. I was also frustrated by poor running qualities of my On2 fleet.

While searching for ideas for what to do next, I met the members of the S Scale Workshop and the die was cast.

There’s more to the story – and I hinted that it might be time for another change – but I’ll save that for future presentations.

As with many of these events, the guest speaks after dinner – and the dinner is a buffet style. Whenever doing this type of event, I’m cognizant that the audience isn’t looking for a clinic – it’s not an RPM meet. They want to be entertained – and they’re going to be sitting in a dark room (so they can see the presentation) after a big meal. Talks have to be general enough to appeal to an audience with broad-ranging interests.

Therefore, I framed the talk in such a way that I hope those in the audience who are curious about making any sort of change in their own hobby have some ideas about the research they should do and questions they should ask before diving in – in the interests of knowing, ahead of time, what they’re about to undertake.

After dinner speeches also have to be entertaining enough to keep everybody awake. I didn’t hear any snores from the audience, so I think I did okay.

I’ve done this talk before, but this was the first time I’ve presented to an audience in which several members lived through my various changes in direction. It was novel, and fun, to be able to expand on some of those stories.

When I do a trip like this – where I stay for less than a day – I like to treat myself to a good hotel. (I’m glad I did – the weather was, well, wintery: that made the 4.5 hour drive from Toronto to Ottawa feel even longer.)

OVAR covered the price of a modest hotel. I paid the difference and gave myself an upgrade, booking into the Chateau Laurier – one of a family of grand old railway hotels built by Canadian Pacific.

Chateau Laurier - Main Lobby

I got to my room late in the evening, and looked out my window in time to see an entourage pull up: a fleet of black vans with red/blue flashing lights. They showed up again the next morning to collect their passengers:

Chateau Laurier - Belgium Entrouage

I found out at breakfast that the King and Queen of Belgium were in town, and staying at the Chateau. They even left behind some terrific waffles, which I thoroughly enjoyed:

Chateau Laurier - Belgian Waffles

All in all, a fine trip!

See you at OVAR! (March 2018)


I’m off to Canada’s capital shortly, to speak this evening to members of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR) at their monthly meeting. I used to live in Ottawa, so I’m looking forward to seeing many friends at the dinner.

I’ll be talking about how I ended up in S scale, and the research I did before jumping into 1:64 and building Port Rowan. I hope I provide some ideas to those in the room who might be considering whether, and how, to model a new prototype, era, theme and/or scale.

(This talk is particularly timely for me, as I’m currently undertaking the same sort of research to decide whether to build a new layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway. I’ve been posting a lot of information about the NS&T on its own blog: If you haven’t visited lately, you might want to have a look…)

OVAR meetings are always a good time. I’m looking forward to it!

Ops with Mark and Dan

Yesterday, my friend Mark Zagrodney and his son Dan came over for an afternoon operations session on the layout.

I try for perfect operations sessions – zero derailments, zero electrical problems, etc. – and for the most part I have succeeded. But this session wasn’t one of those. Everything stayed on the rails, but I did have some electrical gremlins.

Once or twice, my DCC system kicked into short mode. I suspect, but can’t confirm, that something on a brass locomotive is touching something else that it shouldn’t – and that the lightning-quick circuit protection in the ECoS 50200 is catching the short before it clears itself. I’ll investigate that.

More frequently, though, the Mobile Control II wi-fi throttle would lose its connection with the base station. A while ago, I talked to Matt Herman at ESU about this and he suggested moving the Wireless Access Point (WAP), or replacing it with one from another manufacturer. I’m going to try mounting the WAP higher in the room – right now, it’s in the drawer with the DCC system. If that doesn’t work, I’ll look at a more robust WAP.

In part, I know the problems occur because I haven’t run the layout in a while (and I say that a lot lately on this blog). Unlike in the early days of Port Rowan, I’m less inclined to hold solo operating sessions these days. There are other things to do, and when I have hobby time, I try to work on something (such as the CNR 2-8-2 project).

I don’t know if that’ll change. The hobby is a social one for me, so I’m really happier hosting operating sessions than I am running solo. I guess I’ll have to book more sessions to keep things rolling smoothly.

Despite these DCC issues, I had a lot of fun. Dan took on the engineer’s role, while Mark played conductor. I helped out with brakeman’s duties as required. It’s always interesting to watch people solve the problem of switching what appears to be a very simple, straight-forward town like Port Rowan…

As an aside, Dan is a teenager and has grown a lot taller since the last time I saw him – he’s now taller than his dad, and definitely taller than the bulkhead that runs up the middle of my layout room. I’m glad I installed foam pipe insulation along the edges of this ages ago…

Afterwards, we headed to Harbord House for dinner – of course! And I sent Mark and Dan home with a banker’s box full of back issues of MR, RMC and other magazines that I no longer need in my space. Read and recycle!

The NS&T: The end of Port Rowan?

The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “not yet” and “possibly not ever”.

I’ve had a couple of readers ask if my interest in the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway means I will be dismantling the Port Rowan layout.

As I mentioned in my first post about the NS&T, I have a number of issues to address before I decide whether to put Port Rowan in the bin. These include:

1 – Building the NS&T equipment I’ve acquired to my satisfaction.

2 – Building some overhead wire to my satisfaction.

3 – Designing a layout for my space that I would actually want to build and operate.

4 – (And this is important) A commitment to finishing Port Rowan. I’m so close that it would be unfortunate to not do so. Providing circumstances (eg: moving, major mechanical failure in the house, etc.) do not force me to dismantle Port Rowan, I’ll get it done.

Addressing the above four issues could require a few more years. And it’s possible that I may never address all of them, in which case Port Rowan stays put.

It’s true that if I do decide to build an NS&T layout, Port Rowan will have to go. But that’s fine. Most of the investment in this layout is in the skills I’ve developed – which I can carry forward to the next project.

As for the physical plant, most of that is reusable too. Equipment, structures, trees, electronics… all can find a home on my new layout, or on modules for the S Scale Workshop. What would be lost? Some benchwork. Some track. Some basic scenery. That’s about it. I can live with that.

No: I will not be selling off Port Rowan – either whole or in pieces. I’ve had a few people ask about that. It’s not going to happen. See above re: physical plant.

I’m excited about the NS&T because it hits many of my hot buttons. I have a stronger personal connection to it than to Port Rowan, which was chosen simply for achievability. That said, if Port Rowan comes down, it will survive in some form or another. As an example, I may rebuild the terminal area into a module for the S Scale Workshop. We’ll see…

Meantime, I’ve created a new blog about the NS&T precisely because I want a place to collect and organize my thoughts and information about the next layout, without cluttering up the blog about Port Rowan. To that end, I’ll stop posting about the NS&T here. If you want to know more, follow along with the new blog.

The NS&T: Well, that escalated quickly…

Soon after starting this blog about my adventures with Port Rowan, I decided that I would never embark upon another layout project without also writing a blog about it.

Given that I’m in the very early stages of deciding whether to embark upon a layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, it should come as no surprise that I’ve set up a blog for it. You can find it by clicking on this image:

NST-Blog Header

There’s not much to see, yet. But I’ve included the usual email sign-up form so you can follow along if you’re interested.

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.

CNR 8549

CNR 8549

Last week I visited my friend William Flatt, an accomplished modeller who works in S. William is 80 and has determined it’s time to pare down his hobby – a wise but difficult decision that many people refuse to make in their senior years. As part of that, he has been selling off some of his equipment to local hobbyists prior to putting surplus gear up for auction to the masses.

I picked up a number of things from William, including this CNR wooden express car that will be a perfect addition to my mixed train to Port Rowan. William says he built this from a resin kit, years ago. It’s beautifully done and I’ll be proud to run it on my layout. I will swap couplers and wheels to match my layout standard, but that’s it.

Thank you, William!

(I picked up some other equipment too, which I will describe in a future post)

CNR 3737 :: Tender

I’ve been tardy in updating my blog because it’s been very busy lately, so this is actually a report on two work sessions with my friend Andy Malette. Both focussed on the tender for CNR 2-8-2 number 3737

Let’s start with a reference photo – the stock tender that came with the URSA light Mikado from Overland:

CNR 3737 - stock tender

In the first session (held at the end of January), I reshaped the side walls forward of the coal bunker. On the stock model, these slope back to the deck. But CNR 3737 has a semi-enclosed cab, which meant these needed to be modified. The trick is the fine strip of beading along the top of the side walls: We wanted to preserve that.

A careful application of heat and a single-edged razor blade lifted this off, about one third of the way back along the bunker. I was then able to cut and file away the angles on each side. Finally, I cut and shaped new wall sections to build up the front of the side wall. Once these were soldered in place, I carefully re-bent the bead and soldered it down. Here’s the result:

CNR 3737 - tender mods

When I got home, I realized that the tall walls to either side of the coal bunker doors would also interfere with the back of the semi-vestibule cab…

CNR 3737 - tender mods

… so, off they came:

CNR 3737 - tender mods

The deck to either side of the coal doors is pretty messy now – but the good news is, my prototype photos show spilled coal all over these small decks, so I’m not going to worry about it. I will have to do some clean-up and filling around the side wall extensions that I added, though.

While I was doing that, Andy was prepping for our next session (held yesterday). He cut some channel and angle to length and drilled it for me so I could build new steps at the front of the tender. Thanks to his prep work, the assembly went quickly. Compare this image to the stock photo:

CNR 3737 Tender - front steps

Each ladder assembly consist of 14 pieces. Andy tells me his took a lot of time to assemble, and he was surprised mine went together relatively quickly. Of course, what goes around comes around: The other project during yesterday’s session was building a three-piece assembly for the rear number board. It consists of two C-shaped brackets and the number board itself… and for the life of me I could not get everything to solder properly. Andy eventually stepped in and got it mounted – and I will have a lot of clean-up to do on the rear wall of the tank:

CNR 3737 - tender number plate

The tender still needs a ladder on the fireman’s side, plus railings, power conduit, rear light, and other details. But it’s already looking a lot more like it belongs on the CNR.