Will I build an NS&T layout?

That’s a really good question – and I just realized that while I have addressed this on my Port Rowan blog, I haven’t written about it here. It’s time to fix that.

The short answer is, I don’t know – yet. The longer answer is, I won’t make the decision until several milestones are achieved.

First – I intend to finish my Port Rowan layout.

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. But I think it would be novel to finish a layout in my lifetime.

Second – I need to design a layout that I would actually want to build.

I’m picky about layout designs and compromises.

On the plus side, as my Achievable Layouts blog should make clear I’d rather build a simple layout with a few scenes done well, than a lot of scenes overcrowded. My Achievable Layouts philosophy will guide my designs, and I will only undertake an NS&T layout that can be built without becoming an albatross.

On the minus side, when it comes to the NS&T I know the subject matter really, really well.

With previous layouts – including Port Rowan – I was working largely from photographs and maps, and I was able to introduce compromises without them bothering me too much. Over the years, I’ve built many layouts and each has become simpler than the one before it, as I reduce the compromises by picking smaller subjects to model. But even on Port Rowan – which has just eight turnouts in total, and a single train per operating session – compromises were required. Again, they were easy to make because I don’t have a history with the prototype. But the NS&T? Well, I grew up around it.

To provide an example of the challenge, I walked the line along Louisa Street every day to attend high school. The prototype ran for several blocks and crossed one major street (Lake Street) about halfway along. If I decide to model Louisa Street, how long should the street be? How many blocks should I represent? How much can I compress those blocks? At what point does it lose the feel of running along a street?

Here’s another example: I regularly watched CNR crews switch the General Motors plant on Ontario Street. Again, the track went up the middle of the street past the plant to get to the far side. On the prototype, the track runs in Ontario Street for approximately 2,300 feet. Obviously that’s too long to model uncompressed: In S scale, that’s almost 36 actual feet. But how much can I compress that by? I think 15 feet of street running would be fine. But how about 10? At what point would this huge General Motors plant no longer feel like the major industry that it is?

I feel that compressing scenes will be harder in the case of the NS&T than it was for any previous layout I’ve built, because of my familiarity with the prototype. Can I apply enough compression to actually make something fit in my space that will be satisfying to build, fun to operate – and remind me of the real thing? Those are questions I need to answer.

Third – I would have to actually build all of of the kits I’ve acquired for NS&T freight motors – and get them running to my satisfaction.

I can do this – I’m pretty sure I have the skills – but one doesn’t know for sure until they’re built. Until I have these freight motors 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 these four criteria, then I’ll retire Port Rowan and embark on this new adventure. Until then, Port Rowan is safe. If I cannot satisfy these four criteria, then I see a terrific NS&T diorama in my future…

Why the NS&T?

That’s an excellent place to start…

I have a long history and fascination with railways that run under wires – including the Niagara St. Catharines and Toronto Railway.

I grew up in Toronto, and my first exposure to full-size railroading was the Toronto Transit Commission’s extensive streetcar lines and its (at the time) two-route subway system. The TTC really was “The Better Way”, as its slogan says – so much so that my parents both stopped driving before I was born.

We lived in several places in Toronto, but always near transit – in fact, always a quick walk or bus ride to a subway station – so that my father could easily get to and from work. Growing up, my mother and I would take transit everywhere: to the downtown department stores… the museums, galleries, and other attractions… the Canadian National Exhibition… St. Lawrence Market and other shopping… Centre Island, the Beach, High Park… and, of course, hobby shops such as George’s Trains. In short, everywhere. Transit was a way of life.

For the most part, these journeys involved a subway. Like many Toronto kids, I lobbied to sit at the front of the subway train so I could look out the window to see where we were headed. An empty front seat meant a dark adventure ahead and the twists, turns, rises and falls of the track were as familiar to me as they would be to any TTC subway driver. (If the front seat was occupied by another rider, my transit adventure was positively ruined.)

TTC Davisville - 1960s
(Certain stations were highlights. Davisville was one: it’s above ground, and the location of a subway maintenance yard.)

Buses were just another road vehicle. They were a means to get to the subway, and that was it. No rails. The less said about buses, the better.

Less often, our journeys would involve a ride on the streetcar. Growing up, that meant the iconic Presidents Conference Car (PCC):


I loved the way we would stop traffic to walk into the middle of the street to board. I loved the open windows in the summer, complete with dire warnings about sticking heads or arms out of the vehicle. I loved the sound of the traction motors, and the sparks from the overhead. I loved the dashed lines on station platforms that showed you how the ends of the car would swing out over the tracks as they rounded curves: step inside that line, and you’re going to be hit. I loved the flange squeal.

Today, my wife and 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.) I’m a passionate strap-hanger: Transit is still my preferred way to get around. And while the subway is the most efficient, it’s the streetcar that holds the most appeal for me. I love to grab a window seat in warm weather and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city passing by…

When I was 12, my parents decided to move out of the city. I hated the thought – and when we ended up in the St. Catharines without a car, I discovered just how good the TTC had been. Now, it took most of a day to get anywhere – and the only transit option was a bus.

But, it wasn’t all bad. For starters, back in the 1970s and 1980s, St. Catharines had the most amazing model train store I’d ever seen. Niagara Central Hobbies was nirvana for a railway modeller. And I could walk (or, in good weather, bike) to it from home.

Also – and this was really cool – the Canadian National Railway had a spur line to a General Motors plant just a couple of blocks north of our house:

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…)

Despite living in Toronto, I didn’t often see real railroads at work. They tended to be in places we weren’t. So this was my first real exposure to real-life railroading – and what an eye-opener! The CNR would haul boxcars along tracks in the street, right up the road from me. When I attended high school, I would walk to school along Louisa Street – and my path would frequently cross that of a switch job headed to GM. I soon learned that these were tracks once worked under wire by the Niagara St. Catharines and Toronto Railway. I spent lots of free time on my bicycle, riding through the city to follow these tracks down through the Eastchester Yards and eventually to Merritton Yard, where the CNR’s Grantham Sub (as the NS&T lines were known) connected with the Grimsby Sub mainline.

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

Between the TTC and the NS&T, electrics became a strong influence in my hobby. But I’ve never modelled them – for various reasons that I’ll detail in a future post.

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…


NS&T 8, Welland Avenue yard, St. Catharines – Date and photographer unknown

On this blog, I’m going to explore the NS&T as a potential modelling subject in S scale (1:64). My initial posts will cover my decisions on era, potential locations to model, equipment (including a number of items I already own), and other planning considerations. At some point, I’ll start doodling layout plans and sharing them here, too.

If all goes well – specifically, if my exploration evolves from theory to practice – this site will morph into a record of my model railway based on the CNR electric lines in the Niagara Peninsula. I hope you’ll follow along and enjoy the journey!

(If you want to follow along, one easy way to do that is to enter your email address in the box on the right side of the home page for this blog. You’ll then receive new posts directly in your inbox.)