Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Bassin Louise: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

A few weeks ago, Jérôme organized an impromptu slide show depicting our early efforts at operation-oriented layout planning back in 2006 when our club was founded. We all had in mind the absolutely atrocious mess that was that layout in its final years, but it was quite interesting to see it in its first iteration, before the “I Want It All” had yet to take root. Funnily enough, this first concept was quite sound and in fact promising though our lack of experience meant we never exploited its inherent qualities, rather spreading its defects in the worst directions possible leading to a certain death by asphyxiation. If you don't mind, we will perfom a post-mortem analysis to understand what went wrong and how it have been made better...

The grain elevator was right in the middle.

This layout was based on Quebec City Harbour in the transition era, specifically the Bassin Louise area and the large grain elevator there. Back then, I was doing a lot of researches for my architecture classes and discovered many maps depicting the track arrangement of days. The place had a lot of charm and could easily translate into a coherent layout.

Ill-conceived DC blocks meant extreme track duplication.

From the start, our attempt was plagued by poor design criterion due to space limitation, but mainly caused by lack of knowledge. Like any beginners, snap-switches and 18” radius curves became our standard, thinking we could cram more interesting tracks on less space. It was a mistake but honestly, it didn’t cripple the layout. Using real #4 or even #5 from Atlas code 100 Customline products would have made operation smoother indeed and later on, we used a few of them as we learned the difference in geometry.

Stub ended sidings redesigned with useless runaround capability...

The other major limitation was DCC. From the start, we wanted two operators with dedicated and independent tracks. As you can already imagine, it forced us to double tracks were only one existed on the prototype. Is wasn’t that much of a bad move if it had been done with more insight, but we ended up with a “cool” and overbuilt row of crossovers and diamonds. It worked fine, but it did take up a lot of space that could have been saved for larger turnouts and radius.

Inability to select useful trackage from prototype created useless sidings.

Another problem was our lack of understanding about railway operations. For some reason, what were stub-ended sidings on the prototype became a mess of runarounds. I can’t recall exactly our train of thoughts, but it seems we overbuild many sidings, failing to see how a railway generally tries to make the most out of less. It shortened sidings a lot while forcing contrived track geometry once again.

Over-reliance on snap-switch made this yard extremely derailment prone...

A corollary of this stance was the over-reliance of switchbacks to the point I can no longer stand to see that track arrangement on others layout. As I previously mentioned, our sidings were poorly designed and to compensate the lack of storage capacity, we used switchback almost everywhere to add tracks in empty spaces that couldn’t be reached otherwise. It made our lives much more complicated than required while adding an extra layer of frustration.

Fear of lack of interest meant diamonds and switchbacks were used too often.

Our lack of knowledge and experience led us to think our frustration with the layout was due to a lack of points of interest – a common mistake among model railroaders and happily encouraged by manufacturers and the press for obvious reasons. Here and there, every empty lot became a railway mess, scuttling every good point the layout had. That was our pitfall, we knew something was wrong, but we couldn’t identify the root cause correctly… and that’s a shame. In fact, that layout wasn’t bad. We recall really interesting operating evenings in the early days of construction. The original concept of CN and CP operating a marine terminal and interchanging cars was a sound one and Bassin Louise was indeed a great design for an island layout. The proof is I recently redesigned that layout early this year as an around-the-walls layout. It does work well and I believe would make a compelling challenge to operate.

At least, the operating drawbridge gave plenty of flexibility when switching.

So, the real question is what could have we done to make the layout if we had known better? Here are a few things I would have done if given a second chance:
First, I would have converted our 5 locomotives to DCC. It certainly would have cost us quite a bit from the start, but this technology would have made track duplication irrelevant, thus saving money and space wasted by extra turnouts.

Second, by removing trackage due to DCC, we would have gained a lot of space for better turnouts. Peco Streamline code 100 turnouts or their code 83 equivalent would have offered better performance and less derailment. It also means siding capacity would have grown sensibly.

Third, redesigning two-ended siding to stubs and getting rid of useless switchbacks would have again saved a lot of track and space while improving capacity.

Fourth, adding staging cassettes for incoming trains would have made operation easier and given it a goal. The connection with the outside world was always a big issue and we failed in addressing it back then.

And fifth, implementing car spots. Simple isn’t it, but back then, we simply shoved a lot of car on a siding, unaware of classification and spotting, then called it a day. Working at trainset speed, you can understand why we felt the layout lacked interest and started to add more tracks. Such a simple thing would have made us aware the solution wasn’t about adding “stuff” but rather about “understanding” how things are used.

How could Bassin Louise be implemented as an around the wall design.

At this point, I still believe Bassin Louise was a nice prototype and a good one for a club. Probably better than many other harbour prototype. Though never fully build and without an inch of scenery, it was a very immersive layout. Operating from the inside meant you were actually surrounded by train all around you, which made operation evenings quite magical in some way. I do have some bits of nostalgia left for that layout. If I had a chance to revisit this concept, I would definitely give it a try, finding ways to make it simpler and less contrived.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Railfanning: What Future for Jackman Station?

Last summer, I ventured into the United States for the first time in my life by visiting Northern Maine. Later, another 2-day trip around Maine brought me from Jackman to Brunswick then Rockland, Bangor and Moosehead Lake before going back to Quebec. It was a good occasion to see in real life the geography of places I’ve read about for decades and to get a better sense of the place. All in all, it was a quick yet fascinating exploration of New England railroads and architecture.

For this reason, I created a new category on this blog simply called "Railfanning" to group together these short trips. Since I'm not in the mood to create long post about travel, each post will cover a very specific subject and my musings about it... 

Indeed, the first major railfanning spot was former CPR station in Jackman. This iconic building has been featured on countless photographs since the International of Maine was opened in the 1880s. While it survived for more than a century, the last few years have been rough for this abandoned structure left to the element.

These interesting structural and architectural details that really make building!

Weathering is harsh, lack of heating destructive and the structure is slowly but certainly rotting away. With the recent destruction of Bodfish section house, I see no future for Jackman station as it is right now. Through broken glasses, it was possible to catch glimpses of former occupation, but the dire state of decrepitude shown there was no will to ever put this structure in function.

Rotten roofs can take decades to crumble, but the interior damage is substantial.

From an architectural point of view, Jackman station is indeed an interesting building with it second story with plastered gables. Not a common sight in the area yet very typical of CPR style of that era. While it could be salvaged, the restoration efforts would be colossal and costly. Decontamination is certainly required and several structural members are starting to give up due to rot. Even if efforts were spared to save it, what new purpose would it serves? Jackman isn’t a large town and given they already had to demolish significant historical buildings in the recent past shows the community hasn’t the vitality to support such a project.

No heating and broken windows have sped up deteriorations...

CMQ has an attitude of keeping its property in good order and clean. Irrelevant and cumbersome artefacts are removed and I suspect the next structure to go down in history following Bodfish section house will be Jackman station. I’m not sure Omer Lavallée would be pleased with that, but as he once wrote about the demise of Quebec Railway Light & Power Co. in March 1959, cold hard facts don’t care about sentimentality and nostalgia.

Water leaking from the roof is taking a toll on ceilings...

Disclaimer: All pictures were shot from the station platform and interior photos are in fact taken from outside through broken windows. Trespassing property is forbidden and honestly, the decayed nature of this building is quite concerning in terms of structural integrity.

My advice would be enjoy the sight while it last, because the future is dark for this long appreciated icon of Maine railroading.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Grass for Clermont

Hard to believe one year has passed since we took the bold yet courageous decision to rebuild Clermont yard from scratch. While it seemed it would be a straightforward project to be completed before Christmas 2018, we didn't meet that unrealistic psychological deadline. We missed the target, but does it really matters? Rebuilding the peninsula was the right decision and ensure we got rid of less than perfect remnants from previous layouts. No room for complains. It is now time to scenic the area and bring it back to the state it was prior to rebuilding.

The first step is to cover the entire hill will grounded dead oak leaves, but unfortunately, I ran out of supplies faster than I thought. It thus forced me to scenic the grass embankments on both side of the yard. Since a road as yet to be modelled on the left side of the peninsula, I worked my way toward Wieland up to the small creek.

Working with photos, I thought it would be a good idea to continue using the recipe used in Villeneuve yard. Some consistency in colors won't hurt. Various length and color of static grass were used. At first, dead grass was applied by hand near the track because, most of the time, vegetation near the ballast is lacking in terms of green shades due to drainage. Then, my custom mix of green static grass was applied with an applicator to fill up the gaps. Grounded green foam and leaves were then sprinkled over the grass to add texture and color. This last step really brings a drastic change in appearance, adding a level of realism you can’t get with only using fiber material. Color variation, depth and texture all matter.

Small tuffs of grass were also added between ties on the sidings. I know many people like to use commercial or homemade tuffs, but I prefer to create mines directly on the layout. Jérôme think I could add much more vegetation between rails, but I prefer taking a safer approach and do it by step rather than exaggerate. Waiting next week to do is better.

So right now, about 8 feet of yard are now scenicked. Interestingly, the grass now make it appears narrower and longer, which is a good thing! I was counting on this optical illusion to make it look more realistic and I'm glad it worked out. I always see scenery as a way to reduce the visual impact of track so it can blend into the larger scene.

The next big challenge will be to model the tall dead plants typically found along the right of way. Pictures show large weeds about 2-3 feet high were common along the tracks in Clermont, even during spring. I tried using real plant parts, mainly the flowery ends, but I’m not convinced. I also have some commercial weeds, but they are quite costly and I need quite a substantial amount. However, I have recently found while gardening that weathered sisal rope looks like dead weeds in HO scale. When exposed to weather for a few months, it turns silver. I suspect this material, cut to length, would make terrific dead plants on a layout. I’m going to try and fibers start to desintegrate into smaller filaments. I will gather old sisal rope remnants from my garden and cut them to lenght.

Meanwhile, I’ll have to improve the creek bed which got covered in plaster with no so great results. I may have to remove this plaster all together and start from scratch. I feel I won’t like it if I keep it as it is.

But all that said, I can't pass under silence what struck me the most yesterday when working on the layout. The lighting will apparently abundant is poor and the wrong color. I'm not sure exactly how we will address this issue, but it will have to be... I'm seriously thinking about using rail LED projectors so spice up the scenes and spotlights features. This could help to create areas of interest while guiding our eyes toward the action. Right now, everything it washed by a monotone bluish light that doesn't make our hard word looks good. It's a shame to put so much effort yet nullify it under a generic blanket of light that washes away every bit of relief and colors.

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Satisfying Locomotive Project - CV 4550

I've been wondering if I should use "fun" in this post title... and felt it wasn't exactly the right word. What I feel when modelling is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Model railroading isn't fun... it's satisfying. I don't care about fun, it comes and goes... satisfaction is a more durable commodity.

I recently complained how I felt betrayed by RTR high end models that promises a lot of fun and deliver very little in terms of accomplishment. I discussed the matter with a well-known fellow modeller over the last few week and we agreed we felt better trying to make something out of a less than perfect model than fueling our lives waiting for disappointing pre-orders. Modeller and author Mike Cougill even went further, positing it was often better to start from scratch than try to fix what can't be fixed when you took in account the time and resources required.

In that regard, many will recall I mentioned a long time ago how I was still proud of my super detailed lowly Bachmann CP Rail RS3... a cheap model with an EcoTsunami decoder I bought for over $100 a few years ago. It was a fun project that provided hours of research and modelling.

That made me reflect on how we can approach locomotive modelling. Some people like long and tedious work on locomotive that last for an eternity… Months, if not years, collecting detail parts in hope of starting the project sometime… Dealing with complex drive and shell surgery, until every little detail has been altered. Been there, done that... and still likes it. Unfortunately, very few models came out of that protracted approach for obvious reasons.

Others prefer to simply buy and live with compromises. Something I also indulge in. However, sometimes I only want a fun modelling project, a no brainer that yields satisfaction at a decent cost and that can be done in a timely and efficient manner. It’s not a matter of winning a contest, but rather of accomplishing something of honest significance over a decent span of time. The kind of project you try to go as far as you can, pushing the limit over the "good enough" approach yet being aware of obvious pitfalls and that hard choices must be made to reach a conclusion.

After my recent trip in Maine and Vermont, I was ready for such a project and wanted to model some classic New England locomotives for the fun of it. Most of my custom locomotives for the club are done (except the SW1200RS which missing parts issue dried out my remaining interest in the short term) and I’m looking for new modelling challenges.

Green & Gold CN scheme surviving on CV (credit:

While browsing, I became aware Central Vermont rostered GP9s in classic green and gold livery well into the late 1970s (at least 1978) until they were repainted in the attractive Larson Green scheme. A quick analysis of pictures shown me I had most required details parts on hand and the missing ones were in stock in Canadian hobby shops and could be readily ordered from reputable sources at a decent price. Also, Central Vermont GP9s were fairly generic models and didn’t require extensive shell surgery. I also had the paint on hand (old Accu-Paint stock bought years ago in bulk) and could order quickly a set of decals.

Bachmann GP9 shell is sturdy and is decent enough to be superdetailed

Then, it was time to select a model to work with. I had several options: old Proto 2000, Athearn Genesis, Atlas, etc… but having recently ran my pair of customized Bachmann geeps on the layout, I kind of liked their performance and appearance. Bachmann geeps can be bought for about $60 online and provide a sound base for modelling. As for the decoder, technology changes so fast with sound decoders, I prefer to custom install something I will select myself to my specifications when I’ll need it rather than purchasing blindly.

Yes, I certainly won’t say it’s the best GP9 out there, but Bachmann did a decent job for what it is, particularly for customizing. On the mechanical side, the model is fairly reliable, quite heavy and performs well, particularly when you add a quality decoder. The shell lacks details such as grabirons, but for people interested in customizing, this is a plus. Indeed, no need to remove unwanted details and fill holes. In fact, drilling new holes with a custom template and adding wire grabirons only take a few minutes. Another interesting aspect is the shell sturdiness. It makes for a quite solid model that can take abuse when doing some kitbashing. No flimsy underframe details that explode or poorly glued parts. You can drill, hack and saw without fearing to ruin your investment.

Details such threadplate really add a layer of realism when dealing with budget locomotives

While crude in some respect due to lack of separately applied details, the tooling is simple but quite sharp and accurate.  One thing I like is the flush window panes. Their design is sturdy and they can easily be removed. Basics, but far superior to Athearn Genesis poorly glued glazing I had to deal with recently. In short, I would apply the phrase "good enough" to this model, in the sense it is a sound foundation to lay your work on. No profusion of weird details, annoying delrin parts or models that can be taken appart without removing a dozen of screws in the most unlikely places. Just a good plastic shell you can hack as you wish and glue everything you want.

But certainly, for this price, you must live with some short comings: obvious errors in paint scheme, lack of thread plate on running board, somewhat flat rendition of truck sideframes, etc. And yes, I did take that into account before starting the project. I knew I would have to live with a big shortcoming: it was a GP9 Phase II model while I needed a phase III. It meant the fuel tank was wrong, fuel filler in the wrong position and overall  grill placement on the body wouldn’t fit exactly my prototype. Also, handrails wouldn’t replicate standard Canadian practice, something Athearn Genesis Canadian GP9 did. However, I knew I could address most of these issues without too much effort and the model would be about 95% accurate when I would be done and with a price tag under $100. Certainly, I'm not eager at moving louvers, but I have no choice!

Not the correct pilot? It can be improved and made more prototypical in few minutes.

My biggest complaint with the shell is the shallow fan grill details on the roof. I honestly don’t know why Bachmann didn’t make them with more relief according to prototype. It wouldn’t have been hard and could have improved greatly the final appearance. That said, I had three Details West EMD GP9 see-through fan grill left from my Donohue switcher project. By luck, the fourth fan would be covered by a winter hatch.

A change of phase: a new fuel filler and sanded down louvers to be replaced with resin decals. 

Another shortcoming was the lack of thread plate. This detail does make a difference on models. Fortunately, I had Archer’s early EMD thread plate resin decals on hand and quickly improve the shell with them.

The biggest modification was relocating the fuel gauge and tank cap while reshaping the skirting to fit the prototype. I wasn’t sure I would do it at first, but it does better capture the feel of the real locomotive.

Once done, most of the project was about adding correct details to the shell: sunshades, horn, bell, spark arrestors, rerailer, brakewheel, air and mu hoses. It wouldn’t take long before the model was ready to visit the spray booth.

I certainly won’t get a museum-quality model out of a Bachmann GP9, but I’ll get a sturdy and reliable engine for layout use.  I took care to use durable materials and to cement them with glues and mechanical means that will withstand layout use (and abuse). I know my details will survive instead of popping out of the shell each time my finger touch them. No place for flimsy assemblies because this model was custom made for specific needs. Maybe my needs will be different next time and my methods will have to be adapted...

Also, I’ll see the end of the project before my retirement and I had already several enjoyable hours thinkering with it. As I discussed with a friend recently, I’d rather have a lot of fun doing actual modelling and bashing with a lower end model than get frustrated with a highly priced locomotive that doesn’t live up to my expectation. When I pay $60 for a Bachmann, I know perfectly what I’m buying and the obvious shortcomings. With some love and dedication, I get a pretty model I’m proud of. On the other hand, for $325 my expectations are far higher and each small issue adds up to months of dissatisfaction. At the end of the day, for each dollar invested, I’ve got to ask myself where I get the most joy out of my investment… It may no longer fashionable to buy cheap models and turn them into head turning locomotives because we have been spoiled by manufacturer, but it is where I have fun…

Blending everything under a good coat of primer.

I’ll be honest, the reason why I'm writing about this is quite simple. I was saving money last Spring to pre-order a well-known and long awaited classic Canadian model which I had to kitbash several time in the past. However, my recent experience with museum-quality models made me reconsider this move. Instead, I used this money to purchased a few low budget Bachmann GP9/S4 and Atlas Classics RS11 locomotives that were on sale with decals and detail parts. No, I won’t feed social media with unboxing videos of fashionable models… but I know I have still a few interesting modelling weekends in front of me… Expect a lot of classic Central Vermont, Maine Central and Vermont Railway modelling soon… just for the fun of it! 

Let's not kid ourselves, it isn't museum-quality, but an honest replica.

And that brings us to something more fundamental that varies from modeller to modeller. What do we get out of that hobby. No one knows that when he picks up this hobby, but over the years, patterns appear and it is dumb to fight against them. It has been clear in this blog I take pride morphing cheap models into more prototypical objects. I like analyzing the potential of a model, looking for a suitable prototype (or vice versa) and bringing that vision to life. This is my solace, in a very monastic way. It soothe my mind and inspire me to get better at what I do. I certainly don't believe it is the only way, but it gave me countless meaningful hours in the past, learning about railroads and their history.