Steam up at Tom’s

On Saturday, some friends were headed to a live steam meet about an hour outside of Buffalo, New York, and invited me along. Our host was Tom Bowdler, who has a lovely outdoor track with both 32mm and 45mm gauges represented. The weather was beautiful – sunny enough to be comfortable but with just enough chill in the air that we were comfortable in jackets. The cool air gave the locomotives lovely plumes of condensed steam, too!

My friend Jeff Young brought along “Ursula”:


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

“Ursula” is a 1/12th scale model of the 15″ gauge locomotive built by Sir Arthur Heywood in 1916 for the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton Railway in Cheshire. The model is a bespoke construction designed by Peter Angus and built by Mike Lax. It uses Roundhouse Hackworth valve gear to replicate the unusual Heywood valve gear, and runs on a single flue gas-fired boiler. A batch of three were built – one for Peter Angus, one for Jeff, and one for the fellow who owns the full-size replica Ursula.

Carl Berg ran some terrific, but unusual, live steam locomotives of his own design:


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

Carl built the locomotives seen in this video using vintage Marx “Commodore Vanderbuilt” O gauge tinplate models. They’re powered by a single cylinder oscillator in the cab and a butane boiler in the tender. And as the video shows, they are pocket rockets. I’ve never seen anything faster on 32mm track: any faster and the railway right of way would need to be built with banked curves. These were a delight to watch.

Many other fine examples of the Live Steam hobby had a chance to polish the rails, either on Tom’s permanent garden railway or on his portable exhibition track, which was also set up for the occasion. Here’s a sampling:


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

In addition to several hours of running trains and socializing, the steam-up featured a gathering of three examples of the new 7/8″ scale (1:13.7) Decauville locomotives from Accucraft. These are beautiful models, although they come with bad news and good news. The bad news is, they’re poor runners as delivered. The good news is, the live steam community has been working to solve the issues and it appears there’s a fix. So, with some work, they should turn out to be lovely models that also run well, and offer modellers a perfect locomotive for a 7/8″ estate railway.

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Tom was a wonderful host – I had a great time. He also has a terrific sense of humour. I was pleased to find this wonderful piece of rolling stock on display in his living room:

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It made me feel right at home. Thanks for hosting us, Tom!

We ended the day with a trip to Gene McCarthy’s – a brew-pub in the Old First Ward in Buffalo. Here, Jeff demonstrates an interesting, historical feature of our table:

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A small shelf under each corner provided space to securely stow one’s pint while playing cards. This would keep condensation on the glasses from getting the table wet (and of course prevent one from accidentally tipping a pint onto the cards or any money involved).

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Following a nice meal and a pint or two of craft brew, we headed home – and I captured this glimpse of Toronto across the lake from the tall bridge over the Welland Canal in St. Catharines:

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Thanks to Peter Foley, Jeff Young, and Mike Walton for a grand day out: I’m looking forward to the next one!

Shooting “Fired Up!” Season 2

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On August 30 and 31, Barry Silverthorn, Dylan Wickware and I visited the backyard of Jeffrey Young to shoot the second season of “Fired Up!” for TrainMasters TV.

As with Season One, we shot six more episodes over the two days. This time, Barry added a much-appreciated piece of equipment – a scrim, to diffuse the sun and help keep us from turning into lobsters. (It’s the giant white thing overhead in some of the shots here.)

For season two, we’re exploring several additional aspects of live steam. Episodes will cover coal firing, portable steaming tracks, tools, workshops, locomotive customization, and rolling stock.

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While this is definitely a niche market, live steam is a unique and fascinating approach to the model railway hobby – and it’s one that may speak more strongly to non-hobbyists for several reasons:

1 – It’s a hobby enjoyed in the garden – which makes it a fun, family activity that takes advantage of nice weather.

2 – Given that many model railway enthusiasts have spouses who are not in our hobby, but who like to garden, live steam is a nice “crossover” hobby – a place where we can all meet and do something together, and where each person brings a unique set of skills to the project.

3 – It’s freakin’ live steam for goodness sake! At public exhibitions where we can bring live steam to the general public, we’ve noticed that those interested in steam punk and/or retro/vintage style are really drawn to our live steam locomotives – in a way that they would not be engaged by HO electric trains.

I’m proud of the work we do on “Fired Up!” and I hope our viewers enjoy it too. Season Two goes to air on TrainMasters TV this winter.

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Video of the Accucraft Decauville


(You may also view this directly on Youtube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

I’m a little late to the party on this one, as the video was published in May. But here’s some footage of the 7/8ths (1:13.7) “Decauville” live steam locomotive being produced by The Train Department and Accucraft.

I’m very excited about this one. I have several pieces of 7/8ths scale rolling stock for an estate railway, but no locomotive to pull them. My order has already been placed…

By the way, if you want to see the prototype, here’s a video of it on the Sandstone Estates in South Africa, which really illustrates just how small the prototype is:


(You may also view this directly on Youtube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

Enjoy if you watch!

Thanks to The Train Department for making this project happen. I can’t wait!

Fired Up! with Jeff Young

My friend Jeff Young is well known in the live steam community and he writes the live steam column for one of the major hobby magazines devoted to railroading in the garden.

So I’m thrilled that he and I have been able to work together on Fired Up! – a new series on TrainMasters TV that explores the world of live steam. Fired Up! covers choosing, setting up, running and servicing garden scale live steam locomotives. It’s aimed at those new to live steaming, but I hope even experienced water boilers will enjoy it.

Here’s a preview for the first episode, which will be available for viewing this weekend:

We’re doing six episodes this season – and if it’s well received we have the outlines of six more for season two. And of course if it’s really well received we’ll create additional seasons.

Yes – there’s a reason for the spinning barbecue in the opening credits. To find out more, you’ll need to watch the series – and to do that, you’ll need to be a subscriber to TrainMasters TV. But here’s the good news: membership is quite reasonable and you’ll be able to watch a whole lot of excellent hobby-related content, created and presented with top-quality production values.

Think of TrainMasters TV as an all-singing, all-dancing glossy magazine about railway modelling, and you’ll be surprised at how affordable it is.

Enjoy if you watch – and happy steaming!

UPDATE: The full first episode is now available for viewing.

Forthcoming Decauville 3-ton loco

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Exciting news for those, like me, who are contemplating a 7/8″ estate railway in the garden and looking for something small to pull their stock. Jason Kovac at The Train Department has teamed up with David Fletcher, with plans to bring a 7/8″ (1:13.7) scale model of a Decauville Type 1 3-ton locomotive to market.

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(Click on the image to visit The Train Department’s page for more information)

The model will be based on measurements and drawings of a restored locomotive at the Sandstone Estates in South Africa.

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This butane-fired model will be available in Maroon, Green and Black. While the website doesn’t explicitly state it, the model is listed on the “Accucraft” page so it’s safe to assume that Accucraft is the builder. The model will be gauge adjustable for both 32mm and 45mm railways and at just over 8″ long and 7″ high, it’ll be perfect for puttering around an estate railway or small industrial line.

Pricing and delivery to be finalized so I won’t provide specifics on either here, other than to say “Contact Jason if you’re interested”.

An initial planning exercise

I’ve started to think about the potential for a ground-level railway in the garden:
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I photographed the garden from a deck off my second-floor home office and have doodled some ideas onto the image as shown above. The perspective is quite forced from this vantage point – in reality, the loops would be the same diameter, as indicated on the image.

As this plan shows, the line is set up for continuous running with manually-controlled locomotives. My thought would be to lay dual gauge (32mm/45mm) track on the dog-bone, with two steaming bays (one for each gauge). Alternately, I may just lay both bays with both gauges. Most of my equipment is built to 32mm gauge, but my Isle o’ Man Peveril and its carriages are 45mm. In addition, since the live steam hobby is such a social one it would be nice to have both gauges available when friends drop in.

For the same reason, I’m considering a fairly generous minimum radius, given the available real estate. As suggested in the plan, the 10-foot diameter loops occupy most of the two wide spots in the garden. I have taken a measuring tape to the garden and confirmed that these loops will just fit, although the one at the upper right will be a tight squeeze.

An 8-foot diameter loop would be a better choice, although that might limit what I can run – and I’m currently debating my choices in that regard. In addition to the attraction of building a layout that can host visiting power, my own live steam roster includes a Welsh Highland Railway 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratt by Accucraft and a Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway 2-6-4T by Roundhouse.

Both are lovely locomotives, but both are huge. And both pose problems when it comes to building suitable trains for them to haul.

I have kits for the LMVLtR’s carriages and goods stock, but they’re frankly rudimentary. They will take a lot of work to turn into presentable models.

I’ve found almost nothing worth building for a Garratt to haul, particularly since I would prefer to repaint the Garratt into a South African Railways livery. And the Garratt’s massive presence pretty much demands a long train behind it.

Rather than build a social track, it’s tempting to focus on one prototype. For this pint-sized garden, the best match would be the equipment I’ve built for a 7/8″ scale, 18″ gauge Estate Railway:
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My thoughts in this direction got a boost this week when I received my copy of a book on the Sand Hutton Light Railway – another excellent work from RCL Publications:
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(Click on the image to visit the publisher’s website)

For those who don’t have the book, there’s a nice capsule history with a map and more photos at the Disused Stations website. Click on the image below to visit the Sand Hutton page there:
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I do not yet own a suitable locomotive to model an estate railway scheme in 7/8″ scale, but I’m sure something will appear when the time is right. A number of people have successfully kit-bashed 7/8″ estate locomotives from 16mm mechanisms, for example…

With tighter curves, I might be able to work a more elaborate plan into my garden – at the cost of excluding some equipment (both my own and that owned by friends) from having a place to run.

I will have to doodle some ideas for a 32mm gauge estate railway to determine whether I have anything to gain by creating a garden railway around one theme instead of a design that accommodates everything.

A 1:1 water crane

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(I’m filling the tank on Monson Railroad 4 at the museum grounds in Portland, Maine – using the water crane I financed and helped build)

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co and Museum uses a water crane to fill the tanks on their historic steam locomotives. Here’s the story:

Back in 2006, my friend Chris Abbott and I visited the museum in December to help out with the annual pre-Christmas train rides. This is a very busy time for the museum so volunteers were most welcome.

One of our tasks was to top up the water in Monson Railroad 4. We would fill the tank every second run. The process involved one person climbing onto the locomotive, while the other passed him a fire hose, then headed into a warehouse across a parking lot to open the water valve. The person on the locomotive would drop the hose into the water in the tank so it wouldn’t thrash about while the filling proceeded. He would then have to yell at the other person to shut off the water before the tank overflowed.

The building where the valve was located had no lights, so it got quite dark at night and the valve was at the opposite side of the warehouse, so there was a lot of scrambling to turn the valve on and off. In between times, the fire hose would simply lie on the ground and drain out.

And that caused problems. Firehoses are designed to sweat, to prevent them from catching fire and when we put down the hose it would get covered in dirt. The next time we filled the tank, we’d drop the hose into the tank’s water and the dirt would come off. Eventually, the dirt clogged a filter so that one of the injectors wouldn’t work. Fortunately, the other was working and we were able to clear the filter to complete the run.

That night over dinner at J’s Oyster, we discussed the problem and by the next day over breakfast at Becky’s Diner, we had a solution: The museum needed a water crane.

When we got home, I talked to my friend Pierre Oliver about this and he agreed to help with the project. This was a great thing, since at the time Pierre worked in a theatre shop that included a fully-equipped welding bay.
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Rather than build an authentic water crane, we opted for something that would be robust enough to stand up to winter in the museum’s seafront location and that could be repositioned with the museum’s front-end loader. That meant all-steel construction, although we drilled the top of the frame for wood deck boards that could be finished in a less-slippery coating.

At the bottom of the frame, we added a connection for the fire hose:
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The hose would be installed before each day’s events thus keep dirt out of the locomotives. Between times, a plastic bag over the end of the water crane would keep the connection clean.

We made a ladder from angle stock, drilled for round rungs:
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The angle stock was left long to act as hand rails when climbing to the platform.

A brass ball valve and a swivel coupling allowed the crane arm to swing over the tank, and allowed firemen to control the water locally instead of from the warehouse connection:
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The horizontal delivery pipe was made from PVC instead of steel to keep the weight down, and to reduce injury to equipment or people if they should bump into it. The elbow at the end of the delivery pipe was finished with a threaded section to accept a length of firehose that could be dropped into the tank of a locomotive (as seen in the lead photo):
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Here’s the finished water crane, ready for pick up by a museum volunteer:
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The crane is pretty tall, but was designed to come apart for transport.

This is one of the more unusual projects I’ve been involved in and it was great to be able to give something back to the museum, which had welcomed me into their steam team. It’s been a while since I’ve visited but I hope the crane continues to provide them with good service for many years to come…

Water Boilers display track

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I’m an occasional member of the Wednesday Night Water Boilers – a talented group of live steam enthusiasts who, as the name suggests, gather on Wednesday evenings to run trains on their garden railways. As the photo below above, the group also has a portable display track, which they can set up at exhibitions.

This picture was taken in the event hall at Steam Whistle Brewing, which is located in the historic John Street Roundhouse. The above photo was shot during one of the many appearance by the Water Boilers as part of the annual Doors Open Toronto event.

The great thing about doing this type of event is that most of the visiting public are not members of the model railway community. As such, the demographic range is much broader and – frankly – I find that the interest level on the part of the public is much greater and more respectful than that of people who have found their niche in the hobby and are simply not that interested in what happens beyond their chosen scale/gauge/prototype and so on. The questions asked tend to be very insightful – the nit-picking is non-existent – and everybody has a good time.

Live steam is particularly popular with the public at large:
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(That’s me in the blue shirt, explaining something about my Accucraft Garratt to visitors at Doors Open Toronto 2010, as Water Boilers Jeff Young (left), Peter Foley (seated) and Bill Shipp (right) look dubious)

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(Jeff Young adds water to his coal-fired locomotive “SWMBO” as visitors and other exhibitors watch closely during Doors Open Toronto 2008)

While this track is used primarily for exhibitions, I think such a track would be an ideal home track for someone, like me, who has a small garden in the downtown of a major city. It could be set up for a few days at a time when the forecast called for a stretch of nice weather, then stored safely in the garage to allow the garden to be put to other uses.

I hope, some day, to build such a track – especially since I find it increasingly difficult to get to Water Boiler events so my locomotives and rolling stock tend to slumber away in their storage boxes. Maybe I’ll get one built in time for the 2015 steaming season…

Dave P’s live steam mystery

A while ago, I ran into a gentleman named Dave Pottinger. He knew that I’m modelling the Canadian National Railway branch line to Port Rowan, Ontario – and he thought I might be able to help him solve a mystery. Since it’s related to the live steam hobby, I’ll post it here as well as on my Port Rowan blog.

Yesterday, Dave emailed me scans of a pair of slides he shot almost 50 years ago. The scans are reproduced below.

Dave picks up the story…

I took the photos and it was sometime in the summer of 1965. I had just got my first 35mm camera, a Minolta. As I recall, the man lived on the road that goes off to the northeast of the main street in Port Rowan, somewhere along the bay, but not actually out of town. It could have been Front Road, as I see it on Google Earth, because the road was not straight like most of the streets in town. That’s about all I can recall of his place. When I went back a few (?) years later, I couldn’t find it.

If anybody knows anything about this line, please share via the comments function. Thanks in advance!

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Quiet. Too quiet.

It’s been a while – a long while – since I’ve posted to this blog. If any of you are still watching it, then thanks for your patience. I hoped to get more done in the live steam side of the hobby in 2013, but truth be told I didn’t even make it to a steam up – much less build anything.

I’ve just been too busy working on my indoor, S scale layout – which represents the Canadian National Railway’s line to Port Rowan, Ontario. And I’m making lots of progress there – click on the image below to visit the Port Rowan blog, if you haven’t already done so, and you’ll see what I mean:
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That said, during a recent visit from a friend who is also interested in live steam – and who also has found his hobby stalled by other demands and interests – we talked about ways to encourage each other to get more done. And we may have a plan for that – so watch this space…