Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Focusing your Energy

September 2015 has been an incredible month for Hedley-Junction. Lots of work has been accomplished: many new cars were kitbashed and are now in revenue service, a backdrop was installed in Clermont, the track conversion to code 83 is done, our RS18 project resumed and many operational aspects of the layout are now addressed (including timetable).

Meanwhile, prototypical information unknown before (mainly pictures) helped us to redefine some key elements. You’ve seen us struggle with the true scenic identity of Clermont-La Malbaie area since almost two years now. It was the same for Montmorency. At this point, the layout is reaching a maturity we couldn’t foresee clearly. More relaxed and enlarged scenes stiched together, long mainline run, subtle panoramas and realistically sized industries paid off. So far, many diminutive scenes are turning out into amazing railfan spots. The fact you can place your camera in any location and get a great shot came as a total surprise to me.

I often stressed out how restraining oneself and not trying to overreach is the key to a successful home layout. It doesn’t mean to think “mediocre” and make ridiculous compromises. No, it only means to strike for a few elements that truly make a railroad works. In our case, we streamlined the number of visible industries to 3 (you read 3, that’s right!). Murray Bay Subdivision served almost 20 interesting industries but in fact, back then, 3 were the bread and butter of the line: cement, paper and textile. All other traffics were marginal and we decided a simple team track would suffice to represent them all. All in all, when a regular train is 80% newsprint-related, it should deserved the same relative importance on the layout.

If this layout was a regular 12 feet x 10 feet around the wall, most people would think that’s a neat idea. But our layout is far bigger and roughly 16” x 30”… with no means for continuous running. Yes! So large and only 3 industries! But note my words, none of them was compromised: Ciment St-Laurent plant follows carefully the prototype and can handle exactly the same number of cars, Donohue isn’t as large as the real thing, but all the main trackage is exactly laid per prototype and the backdrop shows the mill complex almost in its entirety. Finally, Dominion Textile is a little bit more problematic, but the new layout arrangement only shows a part of the plant instead of compressing it unrealistically… and rail traffic has same volume as the prototype of that era.
Now, time to answer the big question. Do we have fun operating? Yes… and there’s more variety than one can think of. Change the number of cars in a train or skip a customer and you get a totally different game. Better, you feel your train is truly going somewhere, reaching the end of the line with no means to loop around. You want to go back? Then take time to reverse your train. Now, add some prototypical operation procedures and you’ll find yourself enough submerged in railroading you’ll forget the mainline is quite short for a 92 miles long subdivision.

As a matter of fact, doing less, but doing better is an incredible motivation factor to me and fellow club members. We are lucky when we can gather together once per week. We simply don’t have the time to start building an empire. Jérôme often said the goal was to “run trains in a prototypical manner”. And now, I think we should extend that basic and sound philosophy to layout building: do like the prototype. It means to do only what you can manage to do and that will bring a profit. As dedicated as I am to this hobby, I can’t do everything. Having only a handful of scenes to build makes it less stressful. In fact, since I focussed my energies on a smaller project, my modelling output truly exploded: buildings, scenes, cars, locomotives, etc… And I don’t feel crushed by deadlines anymore because the layout is fine and running. I’m just adding icing on an already delicious cake.
Just a few years ago, we used to stall and get easily side-tracked. It would occasionally end up in slump and loss of interest… But since we focussed on some relevant aspect of our prototype, it doesn’t happen anymore. Why? I answered it earlier: one reason among others is that with fewer key scenes, even if you work part time on each of them, they evolve quickly. Nobody wins a war by fighting on too many fronts.

But it took a lot of time to see things from this particular way. I’m a perfectionist, which means I’m my worst enemy. I’m not alone in that boat and I have seen more than a talented modeller failed because he was crushed by his own unrealistic ambition. Three people thought me the way by their interesting way to deal with model railroading.

The first one was Lance Mindheim and his East Rail layout. I was captivated how he could achieve great realism and prototypicalness with such a small track plan. It was hard to digest the lesson learned and it resulted in the first version of Hedley-Junction depicting a yard and an industrial park. It took me a long time to finally understand the biggest lesson from his work was that “silence” zones were no railroading activities occur are fundamental to any scene planning. If you forget to leave a large amount of place without a specific purpose, you miss the point of a traveling train crossing a specific territory. We naturally hate void, but it is the first thing that must be planned on a layout. Void makes a layout great…

The second one was Trevor Marshall who proved definitely that going smaller was being mediocre or diminutive. His S scale Port Rowan layout is a living testimony that “less is more”. Trevor built only two locations and the number of industries is so limited one can wonder how he still finds interest in it after so many year. He can achieve that because everything he build or does have a global meaning to the world he created. What could be seen as gimmicks on larger layout find their true purpose: operating station signals, operating derail, etc.  Trevor’s lessons are similar to those of Lance Mindheim, but if I could sum up what I truly learned from him was humility and restrain. His relaxed yet dedicated approach to the hobby lifted up a lot of pressure I put on my shoulder by setting irrealistic goals. With Trevor, I learn to focus my energies on what’s essential. His influence was fundamental when I decided to design Murray Bay Subdivision.

The last big influence was Mike Confalone. One could argue that he’s completely in opposition with Lance and Trevor’s philosophy since he built a large and complex basement filling layout. He himself stated clearly he was dissatisfied with small branchline operation. But if you truly analyse his work and modus operandi, he’s in the same league… Mike’s layout is mainly made out of cleverly organized void; track lost in vast expanse of space. If you analyse independently each branchline he modelled, you’ll find out they have about the same track density/location than Port Rowan. He only created a net of several “small achievable layouts” to build up a large network. And that’s where Mike’s big lesson lies: he reconciles Lance and Trevor’s lesson of humility with big time railroading. In no way that is mediocre.

In the end, the three of them never tried to overreach, but only focussed their energies on what was relevant to operating a railroad in a specific location. Not only it brought them fun operation sessions, but they were able to achieve striking visual results because they didn’t spill the beans on too many things. At the same time, their layout acts as “spaces”, “locations”, “geographic areas” crossed and served by a railroad and not the contrary. It’s why they work from an artistic and operation stand points.

Learning what matters in this world is a never ending process. The proof, our layout is constantly evolving. There’s no recipe for everyone and there’s many way to learn these essential lessons. However, I think being humble enough to recognize what drives our interest in trains is crucial. Too often, we mix up “interesting” things with what we truly like. That made me visits almost every railroading era from the late 1890s to the 2000s. “I want it all”, that was the mantra. In my case, it took me almost 7 years to understand that my first and most durable train impression was seeing a consist of CN zebra-painted boxy 4-axle locomotives pulling a string of brown wet noodle-painted boxcars followed by a Pointe St. Charles caboose.

As a kid, all my modelling efforts were ruled by this need to have that train run in my miniature world. Until recently, I thought it would be impossible, I thought “space” was THE “problem”. Space ain’t the problem, we are the problem. Once you clear your mind and recognize what matters, the answer is clear and you wonder how you couldn’t see it all this time. And be sure of want thing… ditch your WANT list and think about HOW you’d like thing to run. The first one comes naturally, the second isn’t intuitive and should be where your efforts go... then you’ll see that what you WANT will find its way without compromise into the grand scheme and be totally zen by dropping that misleading chimera.

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