Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Layout Ideas - CPR Tring Subdivision

Last summer, I explored a few layout concepts that could be implemented at home for a future layout. Among many ideas, a few things were found out, including the possibility for continuous run while keeping the idea of a point-to-point operation scheme.

Most themes explored dealt with the idea of modelling only a few scenes, maybe just one location. Prototypes like Temiscouata Railway's Connors Branch and QRL&PCo Beaupré station were scaled down to HO and S scales.

Among the themes proposed, a rural Québec CPR branchline was among my list. However, I failed each time I tried to make a layout out of it in the past. It's not for a lack of interesting prototypes though. Canadian Pacific had a lot of small subdivisions which would make terrific layouts, both in the steam or diesel eras. In fact, I'm surprised we rarely hear people modelling these little gems.

Just to list a few of them, you have le Petit Train du Nord in the Laurentides area for people loving grades and mountainous layouts. The very short but extremely interesting St. Lin Subdivision near Montréal (if you are well aware of Trevor Marshall's Port Rowan layout, this subdivision is almost identical and somewhat similar to the Bruce Lines in Ontario). Another great one is the St. Gabriel Subdivision, which still exists to this day and could make for a very impressive small switching layout under the Chemin de fer de Lanaudière tenure. They operate the branchline exclusively with first generation MLW locomotives and interchange with CN in Joliette.

Finally, another interesting area is the Eastern Townships. A lot of CPR branchlines existed there. I've often talked about MEC Hereford Branch and Cookshire, unfortunately none of these ideas coalesced into a decent or interesting project.

I've also explored the old Quebec Central, particularly near Lac-Frontière with my fictious Quebec South Shore Railway located in the nearby town of St. Pamphile. While this layout was bogus, I still think the grain elevator scene and track plan to be one of my best to this date. Unfortunately, this concept was plagued by several issues and it didn't fit well with my personal tastes when running trains. First, I like when there is an originating point to my train. Second, I like to railfan my models in "boring" landscapes that put the trains in a realistic context. Third, while I don't like spaghetti bowls, I appreciate when the tracks can connect and form a continuous run. I already explored that last principle when designing the Beaupré Station track plan. I think it had merits without killing the impression you are going somewhere. And fourth... having the ability to run way freight trains in such a fashion you don't have to find a "reason" or "excuse" for some cars and locomotives.

I must admit I've been looking for such a "CPR-looking" prototype for years and I don't know why I never cared to look at the now defunct Quebec Central Tring Subdivision (also called Megantic Branch) connecting Tring-Jonction to Lac-Mégantic. In fact, I know. I was always lured by branchlines... but didn't care for bridge lines.

The Tring Subdivision was about 50 miles long and bridged the QCR Vallée Subdivision connecting Québec City to Sherbrooke and the CPR Shortline to the Maritimes. A lot of Québec City-USA traffic was rerouted by that line built in 1894-1895. Local traffic was scarce and mainly oriented toward agriculture and natural ressources.

According to various maps I studied, most common commodities carried for local customers were cattle, grain, feeds, lumber, oil, granite slabs and gravel. At least, three feedmills existed by the end of the steam era (Tring-Jonction, St. Éphrem and Courcelles). A Co-Op or creamery (or similar rural business) seems to have existed in St. Évariste (now La Guadeloupe). Several freight sheds - some still surviving - existed in most towns. A few gravel pits and a large granite quarry now owned by Polycor were rail-served. Finally, sawmills and lumber yards were numerous, most towns had at least one and many sidings in the middle of nowhere served to load logs, dimensional lumber and pulpwood.

I also found a description of each stations on the line by Charles Cooper. Here are the characteristics of each ones from Tring-Jonction to Megantic. They are relevant for the steam era thought photographs show substantial structures survived until 1969 and a few until the line demise.

Tring-Jonction (MP 0.0, acting as a division point for Sherbrooke-Vallée-Jonction traffict):

  • 1 concrete passenger station
  • 2 water tanks
  • 1 coal tower
  • 1 icehouse
  • 1 feedmill
  • 1 three-stall engine house & turntable located inside the wye (demolished in 1940)
  • 1 bunkhouse (demolished in1940)  

St. Jules (MP 4.4) No station:
  • 1 saw mill
  • 1 gravel pit

St. Victor (MP 11)
  • 1 station (demolished in 1968)
  • 1 saw mill
  St. Éphrem (MP 17)
  • 1 station (demolished in 1968)
  • 1 large feedmill
  • 1 saw mill
 St. Évariste now La Guadeloupe (MP 24)
  • 1 station (demolished in 1968)
  • 1 freight shed
  • 1 saw mill
  • 1 Co-Op or creamery (to be verified)

Courcelles (MP 32)
  • 1 station (demolished in 1968)
  • 1 freight shed
  • 1 enclosed octogonal water tank
  • 1 cattle pen
  • 1 saw mill
  • 1 grist mill
  • 1 feedmill
 St. Sébastien (MP 41)
  • 1 station (demolished in 1968)

St. Samuel (MP 46)
  • 1 station (demolished in 1968)

Ste. Cécile (MP 50)
  • 1 station (demolished in 1968)
  • 1 water tank 

Mégantic (MP60, division point on CPR Shortline to St. John, NB)

According to old timetables, until dielization, the line was served by a mixed train. It was abandoned after 1960. No regular train was scheduled in 1970 and traffic was handled according to demand. The line was operated at until 1984-1985 and abandonned in 1991. A caboose, a derelict passenger coach and a small steel trestle survive near Courcelles.

Old photographs also show a lot of variety in rolling stock, including several New England roads, which helps to strengthen the fact it's a bridge line. In fact, while I have several CPR cars, good American cars are easier to find than Canadian ones.

Tom Johnson's INRAIL layout

With all that info on hand, I decided to see if something could fit my available space. I used to place the layout on the future garage first floor, but finally decided to move it on the second floor were space is larger and easier to work with (less doors, less windows, less obstacles, less dirt and dust). It's also better since I prefer to keep the layout in a dedicated room isolated from the more dusty activities performed in the garage.

When thinking how I would handle the project, I decided to follow Tom Johnson's excellent INRAIL layout which I consider a perfect layout for solo operation. His layout was also featured in Model Railroad Hobbyist May 2014 issue. His way of doing modelling isn't very different from mine and I particularly liked when he said to not fear redoing unpleasant scenes and removing unrequired elements to streamline scenes: "By removing some of the clutter it actually makes the layout better." 
And you gotta love Tom's word of advice about model railroading: "Overall I would say my philosophy is model what you love, and less is more." Isn't it sweet!?!

It is interesting to note Tom Johnson's INRAIL track plan is the most boring out there. Even MRH didn't care to draw a nice looking version of it. It's a single track mainline crossing fields and serving a bunch of decrepit grain elevators and feedmills in the middle of nowhere. But as mundane this theme can be, it makes for impressive pictures, memorable scenes and a convincing depiction of a rural community. Tom's layout got character which is only achieved by making things as simple as can be.

Unfortunately, while his attractive photographs are well known, it’s sad most people fail to understand they can only exist because their author carefully choosed to stick to was does happen in real life, i.e., lots of nothing ever happen. Take a look at the ratio of "empty" scenes (or Scenery Zone Only as Lance Mindheim would put it)… most people would feel worried to waste so much space.

Modelling the Tring Subdivision

A lot of lessons can be learned from Tom's INRAIL and most - with other principles I advocated over the years here - can be implemented on a Tring Subdivision.

To make the concept work, we need two destinations for the point-to-point operation. In our case, it's Tring-Jonction and Megantic. Since we need continous running, they will be located back to back for ease of connection.

Each end point has a wye on the prototype. This is a practical way to create interchange opportunities as done on INRAIL. This way, no need for staging or worst, hidden staging, which I always think kills the magic behind a model railroad.

Then, we need a "leitmotif" that will enhance the nature of the line. It can be defined by a set of commodities plentiful in the area: grain / lumber / granite. Everything else is cake icing. It thus means we should find these almost everywhere to show us it is the breadwinner for the railway. Tom did it and Mike Confalone too.

Given I would use a peninsula to separate scenes visually and increase the amount of mainline running in wilderness, I consider that only two other locations can be added without killing the branchline theme. Among the various known stations, it seems St. Éphrem is a must because of the large feedmill and lumber yard. Readers well aware of my former Quebec South Shore Railway switching layout will recognize instantly the track plan and general arrangement.

The next location is harder to select. St. Évariste (La Guadeloupe) and Courcelles are ex aequo. Both have a sawmill and a feedmill/Co-Op, they also had freigh sheds (La Guadeloupe still surviving to this day) and Courcelles had a cattle pen. At this point, I'll have to do more researches to see which town is more interesting to model. Also, they both shared a somewhat similar track plan.

Mégantic won't be modelled. The railway facilities there were quite important and hard to model. Also, they play absolutely no role in this particular "game". Tring-Jonction was the division point and much smaller and easier to model. The station was also preserved and is iconic of Quebec Central architectural standards. For this reason, I would only model partially Mégantic wye for interchange and keep the area forested like the real thing. Since Tring-Jonction will be the largest facility on the layout, it would look silly to have another large location just beside. Better tone down things a little bit.

Since we have kept Mégantic at bay, it leaves space in that area to spice things up with a very locale and peculiar customer: the granite slab manufacturer. St. Sébastien granite is well-known in Canada and USA for its nice light gray color. It was used extensively when building Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica between 1923 and 1976. It is to have travelled by rail to reach larger markets. It is also interesting to note this large customer is located absolutely in the middle of nowhere and nested in a heavily forested valley, which is perfect to keep things simple.

Finally, the last iconic element that could be added would be a very small steel trestle that once existed in St. Victor. I call it a trestle, but in fact it was a three-part deck bridge supported by a few bents. I'm not sure it could be implemented correctly, but it could help to give a sense of place.

I didn't decide on a particular era, but I had in mind the diesel era. While attractive, adding a roundhouse at Tring-Jonction could be problematic from a scenic standpoint. While the combined icehouse/water tank was great looking, I must know when it was demolished. Also, it was located in front of the station and would block the access to several turnouts which isn't very appealing.

In Courcelles, I used the steam era track arrangement. Courcelles could be simplified though the possibility to schedule meets there is a nice touch. Certainly, things would have to be tested on the benchwork to make sure it is practical, particularly the passing track which seems quite short (and was in real life).

Operation potential

While simplistic, I think this layout have operating interest and diversity. The yard in Tring-Jonction is a nice place to set out motive power, build small consists, interchange cars and serve a few customers. It makes for a natural spot to start and end a session. The various customers along the line are coherent and strengthen the idea you are serving rural communities. While similar customers exist, many are somewhat different in size and location. While St. Éphrem elevator is larger and works as the regional provider of feeds, fertilizers, heating oil and building supplies, the one in Tring-Jonction is simply a feedmill and the Co-Op in Courcelles only handle very limited traffic. The same applies to the sawmill. Courcelles does have a side track lumber yard while St. Éphrem only offers a team track where trucks bring finished lumber for exportation. Granite Polycor acts as the oddball industry with its own set of particular needs.

Operations can be cut into three types: way freights, local switcher and interchange run from both points. Trains are generally short, about 4-5 cars with a caboose, never more than 8 cars.

Scenery and era

At this point, I didn't gave much thought about it. I certainly would love to do a CP Rail post-1968 Multimark era layout. Since I like the mix of old and new rolling stock typical of that specific period, I feel it should be in the early 1970s when the line still saw a "decent" level of minimal service.

As for the season, I have no idea. Maybe summer or fall, or should I say, a season with foliage to help conceal the fact the layout will often be less than 1 feet large. It's also something I never did and I like when Multimark rolling stock is in stark contrast with its environment. While "New England in fall" is a beaten to death theme, it's still the best period to model freight traffic from feed mills and grain elevators. I see two options: early Autumn with mostly olive green and yellowish leaves or late falls when everything turns brownish orange and yellow. I would certainly stay away from the vivid colors when forest seems to be in flames.

The layout would also have two distinct districts recalling the nature of the landscape on the line. The first part from Tring-Jonction to Courcelles will be agricultural lands and gently sloped while the section between Courcelles and Mégantic should be more heavily forested and sports a few rock cuts, marshes and more conifers.


  1. This is a terrific concept, Matthieu. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us.
    While you note that it's a simple layout design, the operations would be greatly enhanced by employing prototype practices and locomotives equipped with sound (particularly the excellent sounds currently offered in the Loksound "Full Throttle" series). It would also be a great layout upon which to use the Realistic Diesel Control Stand currently being developed and discussed on the MRH forums:
    Rather than use this as a handheld throttle, I would create mounting points along the fascia at key locations for switching - perhaps near the left and right ends of each runaround track in the towns.
    - Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

    1. Thanks Trevor. It's simple and versatile. You know very well how much time it takes to switch prototypically a single location. Given the line didn't have scheduled trains imply sessions can be long or short depending on my mood.

      I'm actually giving serious thought about trying the Loksound Full Throttle. In fact, the three RS-18 are a future test bed.

      I like the idea of a fixed throttle for another reason: I prefer when the layout is at eye level when operating. However, it's a real problem when building it or having to reach some areas. At the club room, I often use a stool as an engineer seat to be at the right height even if the track is at 47". A similar concept could be implemented with the Realistic Diesel Control Stand + a stool. That would be perfect. I already have in mind one of these old grey metal swivel chairs from the 50s or something similar to a real locomotive seat.

      Prototypical operations are nice, but when the right conditions are met: sound, comfort, well thought industries and many others including knowledge of the prototype. I'll visit Groupe TRAQ (the local railway historical association) next Saturday. I've been told they inherited a lot of Quebec Central archives. Also, many ex-workers from the CPR era are still alive and I should be able to learn more about operation practices and trains on the branchline. I think modelling a prototype with ex-workers still alive is a great asset.

  2. Railways are linear things, albeit curvilinear at times, and you have captured this well, Matthieu. Has you note, another important feature is that you have breathing space between stations, and switching one doesn't involve going into the neighbouring station's limits.
    You have also come across the same benefit the prototype did when switching from steam to diesel: engine preparation and disposal is much simpler, away from major depots. Park up, apply the brake, switch off and go home...
    As you note, 11 industries along the way provide plenty of of activity, including the option to not switch each industry with every train, increasing the operational realism.

    Thank you also for sharing your thoughts over the development of the design: this is so much more interesting than a simple, "Here's the plan. What do you think?"


    1. Simon, it seems your comment went unnoticed. I think too often track planning advices are very superficial and don’t tackle the numerous and often contradictory ideas storming one’s brain. As you pointed out, things such as choosing an era can have a significant impact on any project. It is unfortunate for many people in the hobby that nobody cares to explain how to sort out priorities when designing. This is what my days at the Architecture school told me and I’m glad my teachers had enough insight to give us a framework within which we could express our creativity. Focussing on a very few strong points supported by a generic but sound framework is too often overlooked… There is a big fear in model railroading: the fear of choosing. We are led and blinded by our burning passion.