Sunday, October 23, 2016

Railfanning Central Maine & Quebec Railway and Orford Express

Just a few years ago, taking such a blurred shot of a locomotive on ex-CPR Short Line between Maine and Quebec would have been impossible. But things are starting to change at a speedy pace over the venerable main line under Central Maine & Quebec Railway's tenure. It was time for us to pay a visit to that scenic road. For fans of Mike Confalone's Allagash Railway, CMQ is probably the closest thing actually in existence that reflects his fantasy miniature world.

CMQ #1 running at 25MPH in Cookshire, Quebec, October 15th 2016

Day 1 

Last weekend was an occasion to do some railfanning in group with long time friends. In fact, such an activity didn't take place since a few years with that "lineup". On the first day, Louis-Marie Huot, André-Pierre Savard aka "le p'tit gars à sa mère" (his mother's little boy), Mathieu Gosselin and I railfanned the Central Maine & Quebec Railway between the now infamous Lac-Mégantic and Sherbrooke.

This used to be Lac-Mégantic downtown, October 15th 2016

Most of them didn't railfan the area since the disaster and didn't yet visit the place after the disaster that killed 47 persons.

A "Blue Barn" leading CMQ #1 at Milan, Quebec, October 15th 2016

The sky was bright, the autumn colors were fantastic and the when we learned it would be the inaugural run of ex-CP "red barns" in the new CMQ paint scheme, we bolted to Lac-Mégantic.

CMQ #1 and railfans near Bury, October 15th 2016
CMQ #1 and railfans in action near Bury, October 15th 2016

While I had some reservation about the paint scheme, I must admit seeing it in real life is truly impressive since we were used to see a bunch of patched and heavily weathered locomotives on this road for over 15 years.

An ex-UP tunnel locomotive near Bury, October 15th 2016

When we reached Nantes (we the runaway train originated), we met Frank Jolin, a well-known railfan in the area and followed him until the sun set in Milan, Bury, Scotstown and Cookshire. By the time the train reached Sherbrooke, it was pitch black dark but we still followed the train. There, the Orford Express was readying itself to depart for Magog. During little chat at the ex-CP station with Donald Thompson, the famous OE conductor, we learned three trains were actually moving westward: a CMQ local, Orford Express and the train we've been chasing since noon.

The brick chimney landmark at Scotstown... I shoot half-a-second too soon...
We catched glimpses of the trains while criss-crossing Sherbrooke's streets for an hour then settle down at the hotel for the next day of activity.

CMQ #1 climbing the grade at Cookshire enroute to Sherbrooke, October 15th 2016

Some motive power resting at ex-CP Sherbrooke station

Day 2

On Sunday, other railfans in route for a trip in Pennsylvania joined us aboard the Orford Express for a gastronomic excursion in the dome car between Eastman. Among them was Jean-François Boudreau (Modèle B.T.) and his girlfriend, Dannick Fournier and Maxime Boulé. Saying the event was a funny one would be a serious understatement since you can't expect anything serious coming out of these people when you gather them together!

Orford Mountain overlooking Memphremagog Lake in Magog, October 16th 2016

It was personally my first time travelling aboard Orford Express and I must admit I was surprised by the quality of the experience and food served on board. No wonder this touristic train is still running strong after a decade of existence. In fact, they now own a ship cruising on Memphremagog Lake and acquired a large hotel. They are also planning to add new cars to the train which sounds promising.

Orford Express FL-9 and Budd car under the rain, October 16th 2016
When the train excursion was back to Magog at 5:45 PM, the railfan group going to Pennsylvania left while Mathieu and Dannick stayed with us. Donald Thompson having promised to dine with us on that day decided to give us an exclusive glimpse at the train. We visited every small spaces including kitchen, control cab, preparation room and much more. Then Thompson decided to show us the extremely complex series of tasks required to shut down the train for the night. This is a ritual he is doing almost every night and that take at least one hour and half.

Orford Express FL-9 nose, Magog, October 16th 2016

This procedure is of major importance to Orford Express because it could mean the train wouldn't be able to start the next morning, causing costly losses to the company and a hard blow to its outstanding reputation. Moreover, the fine exotic wood interiors are extremely prone to temperature and humidity variations. He shown us a spot where extensive damage to a wood panel was caused by the morning sun overheating the car stainless shell because the ventilation was accidentally shut down one night. In a matter of less than 3 hours, the panelling fireproof finish was ruined, turning grey.

Orford Express Dome Car fine interior, October 16th 2016

Donald Thompson was also extremely generous in his time answering our various questions and showing us the mechanical details of his nice EMD FL-9 which work decidedly like a clock. After closing the gates, we had a long discussion with Thomson at a local restaurant about the origins of Orford Express, CMQ tenure of the old CPR short line and François Rebello's future train between Montréal and Boston. Time went fast and at 10 PM, we parted ways. It was time to go back to Quebec City.

Central Maine Quebec Railway

A lot have been said about CMQ, including many seasoned railfans making the most ludicrous and gloomy predictions about the absence of future for this line. I had the occasion to railfan MMA a month before Megantic disaster when it was pathetic state of disrepair and trying to make up for losses by carrying crude. Then I went in the area last year during springtime when CMQ was trying to revive the line. What I saw last weekend was a different story.

MMA mainline full of weed near Scotstown back in May 3rd, 2013

First, long gone were MMA chipped rails and full of weed tracks. What I witnessed was a fine looking regional carrier with well-maintained tracks. Near Bury, a stretch of track I was familar with now had clearly visible superelevation showing the intention to run fast there.

CMQ well-maintained and superelevated mainline near Bury, October 15th 2016

The train we chased had well over 50 cars of various commodities. Locomotives were in good order and two of them sported the company's colors. Railroad crossing were improved in some places.

A boxcar patched for CMQ in Nantes, Quebec, October 15th 2016

Many will say CMQ didn't have the choice to step up its game if it wanted to get social acceptance after the disaster. But what I witnessed tells me a story of a company that is investing in its future. Will CMQ succeed were many others failed? That a thought question to answer, but John Giles was definitively the man needed to set things straight back on the Short Line. I hope him the best since he is doing a fine job of bringing railways back in the 21st century game. So far, his 25MPH trains testify of the great changes going on there.

Should I point out railfans unanimously said that day the Short Line was back being one of the finest railfanning experience in Quebec.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

It Sounds Good?

After my last post, I was pleased to read Trevor Marshall's comment conforting my impression about the need for meaningful sounds on a layout. But the best was when Lance Mindheim decided to add another layer of thoughts a few days later.

Interestingly, the subject seems to gather a tremendous amount of curiosity among model train operators and Ed Kapuscinski wrote to Lance about his new sound application for phone called TrainCrew. I didn't tried it yet (I'm still living in the 20th century), but from I've read and heard on his website, this is exactly what I had in mind two weeks ago while writing. The phone approach is probably the most versatile way to handle complex "sound props" while operating. No need for gimmicks or gadget. Just a good old simple device. And if you look at Ed's app, you'll see he went quite far with setting airbrake, inspection and other railroading acts that can be really bothersome to replicate otherwise.

Go check for your self!

Now, my only wish would be to have a sound replicating a hopper being emptied over a pit.

By the way, home improvement in the club layout room is nearing its end at a fast pace. If everything is going as expected, big projects like the cement plant and painting the remaining tracks in Villeneuve are about to get started. I think it's time to upgrade the plant CAD drawings!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Derail & Sounds & Co.

Yesterday, Jérôme started to build a prototype for an operating derail. We need 4 of them on the layout and he decided to try Tom Klimoski's trick using Alexander Scale Models Hayes Derail #A-9501.

The modification is easy. You file down the moving part until you only keep the useful part. Then you drill a hole to insert a custom made hinge built with a piece of brass rod. This U-shaped rod is then inserted in holes drilled into ties. For more realism, styrene sheet or parts salvaged from the Alexander kit will be glued on the ties to replicate the metal hinge better. This is the kind of detail I like: realistic, operable and simple to implement.

Also, when I was swtiching some cars at Maizerets, I came to the conclusion some prototypical operations makes no sense when you have no sound or action to make you believe they happen. Setting handbrakes, uncoupling cars, pumping air are all concepts that can't be conveyed by waiting the clock move around.

After a while, I thought it would be great to have a "sound box". Something similar to a DCC cab but fitted with common railway operation sounds. You push a button and you hear the handbrake wheel turn. Something very, very simple. We tried a mockup using a cheap MP3 player and the result is more than excellent. People with smartphone could probably achieve the same thing with a playlist of railway sound. In fact, there is a lot of different ways to achieve this result so I won,t bother describing ours in detail.

However, this has nothing to do with sound decoder in locomotives or sound cars. Both of them makes no sense to me. I don't want to hear the coupler clank out from a distant locomotive, but on site. It's why a portable sound device is the best. The sound is heard where you are performing the task. And you don't need to wait for a given amount of time that means nothing since the sound explicitly tells you what's going on.

I'm curious to see how this idea will develop into something practical in the future, but I find it interesting starting point to materialize practices that can't be scaled down for obvious reasons. As a matter of fact, I held two small switching sessions yesterday. One with a small HO scale brakeman figure and one without a figure. Seriously, I find operating with a figure far more engaging than without it. Call me childish, but I'm more prone to respect speed limit and coupling/uncoupling procedures when I have my little brakeman working the train. It also forces me to better think my moves since I don't want him to walk uselessly or throw turnout twice when he can do it once. It is probably the most basic way to implement realistic operation without feeling forced to apply invisible rules.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Quebec City CPR Prince Edward Roundhouse in 1930

You remember probably when I discussed track plans and roundhouse based on Quebec City during the summer. I had the nice surprise to get blueprint showing Canadian Pacific roundhouse located a few hundred feet west of Palace Station this morning. Groupe TRAQ member Mathieu Gosselin was kind enough to scan and share this map drawn in 1930. This is also the scene were the first minutes of this interesting movie were filmed in the 1950s.

CPR Prince Edward Roundhouse (credit: Groupe TRAQ, Pierre Parent collection)

For fans of roundhouse scenes, the CPR facilities were nestled between Crown, Prince Edward Streets and St. Charles River. To spice things up, a few customers were rail served by spurs branching off the terminal. The small size and action packed nature of this engine terminal makes it an interesting source of inspiration for people wanting to model something realistic and which could be realistically done without eating too much real estate.

The roundhouse was gradually converted to diesel power in the 1950s and disappeared from the landscape circa 1976, when CPR mainline track in Quebec City downtown was removed to make place to urban redevelopment (social housing over highly contaminated land!) and remove traffic jams caused by the trains, but in fact, behind this official stance lies an incredible fight from local citizen to save St. Roch borough from utter destruction as happened a few year before with the Provincial Parliament Hill. In that era, St. Roch which used to be a thriving typical north american business district is now decaying into a pathetic state of poverty which, to some extent, is still visible 50 years later.

While the back story takes its roots in the mid-60s, the railway saga start in 1971, the local St. Roch parish priest  which name is fittingly Lavoie ("The Way") will lead a series of "attacks" over the railway to attract political attention over the serious issues plaguing the borough. On March 22, citizens are encouraged to place their garbage bins over the CPR tracks. At this point, citizen comities are gaining impetus and the tide is no longer in favour of Canadien Pacifique. The story will be featured in many Canadian newspaper. In the end, the colorful actions of the priest will raise enough concern that Prime Minister Trudeau (the father) will accept to meet him. From that point, politicians will campain to remove the track which will happen, reshaping for ever the way trains interact with Quebec City. For more details about this surrealist story, a nice article in French can be found here.

 A caricature of Mgr Lavoie cleverly nicknamed "Mgr The Rail Way" (March 23, 1971, le Soleil)
As for my personal opinion on that matter, I feel there was some truth in the citizen claims. In many areas, the train would run a few feet from houses full of kid. Gerry Burridge shot a classic picture of a CN special Winter Carnival train almost scratching houses on both side. I've never heard about any accidents, but the risk was high and pollution constant in that urban canyon. I've heard the steam era was particularly insupportable in these impoverish boroughs.

Most vintage movies and pictures show enormous traffic jams in downtown, blocking all major access roads. My only problem with the dismantling of the track, like most urban decisions took in the 1970s in Quebec City, lacked long term perspective. It was a good decision to remove the mainline, but severing Palace Station and almost destroying it wasn't the greatest idea of all time. I've been told that most politicians of the time were convinced the train was a thing from the past and no longer a requirement for a modern and progressive city. Later, when they reconnected the station with CNR mainline in the 1980s, the job was minimal at best and didn't make room for expansion. Worst, the urban redevelopment program decided to build a large non-descript building in the middle of the downtown main street (St. Joseph Street) called Les Façades de la Gare which isolated the station from its borough, creating an artificial barrier that definitely isolated the impoverish sector of the city from the port and historic district.

Such is the story behind the demise of CPR Prince Edward Street roundhouse. By the way, Marty Bernard took a few interesting pictures of CPR locomotives at the roundhouse including RS10 8580 and RS18 8800.

For modellers, Prince Edward Roundhouse is the easiest Quebec City "classic" locomotive facility to model without any need for compression. If sometimes in my life I require to model a roundhouse, I’m pretty sure I’ll have this one in mind for inspiration. Now, I would be quite happy to find the same kind of map about CNR Limoilou Roundhouse (ex-CNoR).

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A New Modelling Season...

I'm glad to announce we had our first true club meeting since we took a summer break a few months ago. While renovations aren't completed in Louis-Marie home, we still can work on the smaller room aka Villeneuve and D'Estimauville.

Nothing is scheduled, but work on the cement plant is going to take priority. I didn't draw anything yet, but I have a design in my head that should make operation, maintenance and detailing easier than our first attempt.

Among other projects are completing the grade crossing signals and implementing ambiant sound. Louis-Marie already have the parts and a good idea how he will tackle the challenge. I trust him to make something amazing out of nothing as he always does.

As for Jérôme, he is urging me to put my effort on Temiscouata when the time will come. Some new pictures where recently published in a local magazine (Groupe TRAQ) that shed a new light on Connors Branch and its peculiar junction with NTR/CNR. We also discussed several other ideas, but I guess he's again right on this one. From experience, I know his guts generally are trustworthy. But it will be a long shot before I can start to build anything.

Meanwhile, I'm already working on some experimental layout. For those who once followed my Quebec South Shore Project, just keep in mind it is an expansion around this concept with a similar theme and setting (CP Rail's Quebec branchline in the 1980s in an agricultural community). This time, the track plan takes in account several aspects I covered in the Thinking Out Loud series. Speaking of it, I still have a few draft about articles but I don't know if I'll publish them. For the moment, this small project is gonna stay "secret" since it is highly experimental and could truly shock some peoples! If the results are worthy of publication, you'll see it, if not, it will join the numerous junked layout remains filling up my damp basement! Once again, it is testing ground to build up some skills before trying them on Hedley-Junction.

The Grand Trunk locomotive project and decals, it is on hold for a while. On a good note, I got the missing brass parts required to complete the locomotives, namely the pumps, pilot and spoked pilot wheelset. This autumn will be quite frankly busy with professional and academic projects thus I can't promise anything. Knowing myself, it will be probably done during Christmas vacations when I have a lot of free time to immerse myself in modelling.

As for the people who followed the Thinking Out Loud series this summer and enlighted me with their experience and advices, I wish to thanks them a lot. It is evident a substantial amount of people are working on interesting concept and pushing their hobbies to higher levels. Sharing is a part of that movement and it was truly a pleasure to see my personnal journey is no longer a matter of thinking I'm an isolated weirdo not jumping into the bandwagon!