Wednesday, September 19, 2018

LLPX GP15-1 - Part 1

Back to some Hedley Junction stuff after (almost) completing my room cleaning up and collection reorganization. That brings me to the point of having correct motive power for the modern CFC and funnily enough, it seems the first locomotives to hit our rails will be the last ones we witnessed on the prototype.

LLPX GP15-1s pulling the last freight train on Murray Bay Subdivision (credit: Jérôme Langlois-Lavoie)

LLPX GP15-1s were the last regular motive power used on CFC from circa 2002 until 2011 when they pulled the last freight train to ever grace the rails of Murray Bay Subdivision.

A typical motive power consist between circa 2006 (credit: Jérôme Langlois-Lavoie)

They were plain, ugly, dirty and were devoid of any redeeming (visual) qualities (look for yourself) to the point nobody cared about them. Being on lease and never painted with the road scheme, their patched Conrail ancestry only made them more miserable and soulless . However, life is a strange thing and a decade later, nostalgia and love for industrial grime make them much more interesting from a modelling perspective than I could have thought back then. But I'll be honest here, it's my first time modelling locomotives I basically don't like and it's... weird.

Dirt and grime were a common sight on GP15-1s (credit: Jérôme Langlois-Lavoie)

Their brutish appearance speaks about their power, the dirt about their hardworking qualities and brutish look about their utilitarian purpose. Thus, earlier this year when we firmly decided to accept the layout story was about the CFC, a pair of Athearn Genesis GP15-1 were acquired. They were virtually identical to the LLPX on CFC albeit a few modifications done later to fit the road's particular needs. I thought to myself "here's an easy project; install a Loksound decoder, add rock lights, move the horn, slap some paint patches and here we go." I was so wrong.

My experience with Athearn locomotives is limited. I used to hate their bluebox coffee grinder as a teenager and never embarked in the Genesis line because their models didn't suit my modelling choices. But now I'm stuck with them on this project. Out of the box, the locomotives look gorgeous, full of nice crisp details... and then things start to literally fall apart. These locomotives are engineered to be broken... and not opened. These locomotives have not been yet operated and the amount of things to repair or glue back in place is alarming. Add to that we had to replace every grain of wheat light bulbs. As for the shell, taking it apart is quite an exploit. I'm surprised I've succeed without trashing everything.

Original electronics stripped down before rewiring.

My point is that given the complexity of nowadays models and their intricate (thought obsolete) electronic components calls for locomotives that can be disassembled easily to perform standard maintenance or upgrade task. I certainly salute how Athearn reinvented themselves since the 2000s, but given many other manufacturers make equally complex models that can be disassembled and are sturdy enough to survive getting out of the box, this isn't an excuse.

That said, Louis-Marie is actually in the process of installing Loksound decoders, keep alives and various lights in these units. I'm also working on a way to implement sound in them too. Only God knows how much I hate working with electronics but there is no easy way out.

Rewiring and new decoder installed ready for testing.

But all things aren't bad about this project and at least it's back on track after staying in limbo for months. The funny thing is I bought RTR locomotives and ended up disassembling them! I was reluctant at first, but it was the best way to modify, detail, repaint and install complex electronics without destroying the models and resorting complicating masking tape contraptions.

Most lettering was removed with a Paasche air eraser and baking soda.

The first step was to do some soda blasting and fine wet sanding to take care of the ugly Operation Lifesaver Conrail paint scheme.

Wet sanding took care of the rest.

Some little details were removed or simply relocated like the horns and nose grabirons. Side bells on the long hood were also added. They are Miniature by Eric modified C630 bells. Sometimes, you've got to do with what you have on hand. I also replaced the flimsy stock Sinclair antennas with brass ones. Sometimes, you've got to do with what you have on hand.

New side bell and horns relocated.

Otherwise, the locomotives are in the paint shop and relettering should happen in a matter of days. Rock lights on both ends will be added later when I'll get them.

While similar in aspect each GP15-1 LLPX paint scheme varied in details.

I certainly hope to do these locomotives justice because they will be our main power for quite a while due to some missing part issues with Rapido's undecorated SW1200RS (to make a long story short, it is the last time I ever buy undecorated kit from them). Maybe they are ugly, but they are a useful requirement, just as it was on Chemin de fer Charlevoix. When paired with the old RS18u, they will look quite attractive I think!

Subtle paint scheme differences give both unit some character and distinction.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Layout Room and Old Concepts

I've often spoke about the "I Want it All" mentality, which generally ends up disrupting the best intentions in the world. Many people could thing I mean by that to only focus on one thing until a future project show up. Not really.

Since my high school days, I've been revisiting countless times the same small layout concepts, or as they should be called correctly dioramas (or cameo layouts). These themes interest me a lot, but not in a way I'd like to build a large layout based on them. Sometimes, only one aspect of an era or a specific location makes an impression on you and it is these elements that I'd like to model.

Having cleaned up a lot of my model railroad stuff over the last few weeks, I came upon several of these aborted ideas in my boxes. It could be freight cars, locomotives, structures, turnouts, etc... And since I was accessing what could be useful in the future and what will never be of any use, I had the occasion to revisit a few ideas. This is in line my goal of building a 17' x 12' hobby room in my basement later this winter and using a wall to display small shelf layouts on one wall. Among the many projects, I selected those that were small enough to be depicted full scale without compromising reality and that could still be operated with a small cassette if wanted. Also, all of them can be built to quite a good level of detail without going broke and being drowned in never-ending projects.

Here is a selection of three old projects that are likely to inspire me in the future. Track plans have been updated according to my improved design abilities.

The first layout is about Q.R.L.& P.Co. Limoilou Shops built in 1927 and still standing to this day. Back in 1998, I acquired DPM modular wall parts and started to assemble this large plant. At that time, my idea was to create a 1 feet x 6 feet long layout that could fit my bookshelf. I had no space available in my room and for a reason or another, I thought this one turnout layout was the way to go. I was fifteen years old back then and I'm still surprised how this design is still strong and didn't need any alteration on my part. Operation would be simple: switch cars at the car repair shop. It would also be a terrific diorama to display and shoot models in context. Given I love Q.R.L.& P.Co., have built many models of the line and clearly know I will never build a full layout on that theme, I think it would be the most fitting was to pay homage to this great interurban railway. And the best thing is Limoilou Shops served both the urban division streetcars and the interurban passenger and freight rolling stock. This layout would be about 12" x 16".

The second idea has been presented countless time and it is Avenue Industrielle in Limoilou, about 500 feet west from Limoilou shops. I always liked this ridiculously minuscule industrial spur and still think it would make an interesting one-turnout layout. It is compact, as character and freight car traffic quite diverse. This is a relaxing project that would show case quite well my classic CNR 1950s material. This layout would be about 12" x 80"

The third idea is an old one I visited countless time but rarely wrote about: recreating a small steam engine facility. The fascination is both for steam locomotives but also for the peculiar structures associated with a roundhouse: coal tower, sanding house, ashpit, turntable, shops, sheds, etc... I'd like to represent a mid-sized terminal, something similar to what CPR Prince Edward Street Roundhouse in Quebec City was but protofreelancing it a little bit. I wouldn't waste my time trying to cram everything on such a layout. Only the tracks connecting the roundhouse and feeding the coal tower and ancillary structures. The layout would be fully operable, but would mainly act as a display cabinet for steam power and specific MoW rolling stock. While based on a real roundhouse, I wouldn't try to match specific buildings but rather go for a generic Canadian feeling. The goal would be to kitbash structures I already have and scratchbuilt the rest as I see fit, using Canadian practices as a guide. Looking at this picture of the roundhouse at Orangeville, Ontario can only bring forward inspiration. This layout would be about 14"-16" x 80".

I would love to see these three cameo layouts stacked together on a wall, creating vignettes of what Canadian early 1950s railroading used to be. With careful lighting and setting, they would tell several connected stories and I can already imagine how their themes would play together. Each module could have a name describing its purpose: The Shops, The Roundhouse, The Spur.

With their minimalist size, they would also be easy to handle and put on a workbench to work on them. Wiring and electronics would be minimalist and shared to keep things simple.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

MLW RS18 Madness - Part 16 - Last Call

Hard to believe this series of blog posts is running since December 18th, 2013. Backe then, we were modelling a more or less convincing rendition of Limoilou yard in the mid-1960s with lot of Alco and MLW power in the roster. Another one of these layouts where you need about a gazillion engines to run dozens of scheduled trains you could never have time or operators to ran... Ah, the good old days!

That said, I've never regretted kitbashing these RS18 from Atlas RS11. It was a fun process and I've learned a lot... and got myself quite decent models which I weathered to my heart content. Given RS18s have been a staple of Canadian railroading since the mid-1950s to today, having a few in a collection isn't a liability at all. No wonder Rapido picked up this great prototype and I certainly can predict a lot of people will buy then by lots. I'll be honest, I'm looking forward to their versions. While I'm satisfied with my locos, I know their obvious shortcomings in term of electronic and details and wouldn't mind acquiring a chopped nosed RS18u if it ever hit the market for our Murray Bay layout..

Not to bad for a Life-Like isn't it?

But enough about consumerism fueled by commercial propaganda. On my desk there is still a last RS18 to kitbash, which is the ubiquitous NBEC 1816 (ex-CP Rai) that ran on CFC during the mid-2000s and was a fan favorite that instantly attracted railfans. I love the old worn out Multimark CP Rail scheme but I'm well aware I'll never build a CP-themed layout. Having these RS18u in Charlevoix is quite a happy coincidence and it's why I decided to complete my kitbash once for all.

The photo etched fan grill will house the twin speakers.

Will it be perfect? No, but as close as I can without loosing my mind. This locomotive will be a stand in for a while, but it's not an excuse to be sloppy and I'm trying to make the best I can out of this heavily bashed Life-Like shell. Among the CFC locomotives I can put in operation, it's the fastest project to complete. Also, I want to do some extreme weathering on this particular locomotive and this kitbash will be a good opportunity to try the military approach once again on a worthy subject. NBEC 1816 was quite worn out when it ran on CFC and will be a fertile ground to experimentation.

Hinges, door handles, extra flag holders and window sills add life to the model.

And I won't skim on electronics either. I'm planning to equip this engine with a Loksound Select decoder (Full Throttle), a keep alive and two speakers. Working ditchlights will also be featured to fully recreate the experience.

As far as things are, I glued the shell back together, a looking at higher resolution pictures of the prototype, I found out small details that I didn't notice when I started the build. Theses tiny details were added as much as possible to recreate a good rendition of the real locomotive. They give personality and they are fun to build.

Some wire and Atlas parts can create surprising results.

Another thing I did which I never in the past was rebuilding handrails. Using Atlas RS18 stanchions, I removed the piping and replaced it with 0.0125" wire. Not only it looks better, but now the handrail configuration is matching the prototype. I was surprised how the process went smoothly though it required some time. By the way, all delrin parts have been soda blasted to improve paint adhesion. I certainly hope to reduce paint flaking as much as possible.

So at this point of the day, the shell is almost ready for primer and paint once I add the train line hoses and dropping steps on the pilots. As you can see many grabirons, headlights, end endrails and brake wheel are missing. It is intentional as I plan to paint them separately and apply them when the stripping decals are set in place. Adding stripes to a detailed model is always an excruciating experience and I prefer to take an easier path that leads to more consistent results.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Old Habits Die Hard... But Must!

I can consider I've been an active model railroader since 1996 when my English teacher rekindled my interest in miniature trains. More than two decades have past since  then and stuff accumulated. Locomotives, cars, paint, detail parts, structures, scratchbuilding supplies and many mores. Many project started, many aborted before reaching the goal line and all that stuff accumulated... It was a one way ticket.

In the last few months, I finally completely ran out of space. No storage alternative. Boxes started to clutter my office room until last week when out of hospital, the sight was unbearable. One side effect of my medication is that I have to stay away from the sun as much as possible for a few weeks. It could be seen as a very sad thing, but with my very low level of energy, I must admit it isn't that much. However, this is an excellent opportunity to sift through the collection and start clearing up a path toward better days. Thus started my endeavour to put some order in my modelling life.

A typical locomotive project storage box.

The first step was to take a look through the locomotive collection and determine what I would keep and what would have to go. About a dozen of models were selected for sale, all based on the fact I rarely or never used them in the past and had absolutely no interest in using them in the future. Other locomotives were carefully stored and then I moved on my various detailing and kitbashing projects. Each locomotive requiring extensive work was placed in a sealed plastic box with part containers. Yes, it's basic, but I certainly didn't work that way before. Now, no excuse for missing parts or not finding the drive. The same was applied to freight cars WIP, which are now neatly stored in plastic boxes.

Freight car parts typical storage box.

Taking care of various kind of trucks is easy with a bait storage case.

Then I purchased several fishing bait storage boxes and went through my growing inventory of freight car parts. All these details were in various cardboard boxes all over the house and I quickly lost the count over the years, often reordering parts I already had on hand but couldn't locate. Now, there is a box for trucks and wheels, one for brake rigging and ladders, and another for carbody parts such as roof, walkway, doors and car ends.

The sloped bottom makes retrieving parts easy.

Smaller parts such as grabirons and stirrups are stored in a pills organizer case, which is both handy and take very little space on the workbench.

Choosing windows, doors and structure details is now intuitive.

I also did the same with my structure detail parts and supplies. The bait storage boxes were perfect to put some order on hundreds of Tichy parts. Now, at a glimpse, I know which doors and windows I have. It was also a good excuse to take apart several old structures given by fellow modelers over the years. Most were unusable for our layout, including many European kits, and certainly glued together by the most unskilled people out there. We kept them for almost ten years thinking they could be useful some day for parts. Well, I took a few hours and removed every bit of details that were deem good enough including doors and windows. Everything else was trashed, freeing a substantial amount of space!

For scratchbuilding supplies, a second box containing styrene sheets of various size and texture, roofing material and larger parts was necessary. In my office closet, several hooks have been installed inside the door where Plastruct and Evergreen styrene profiles and brass rods and plates can now be seen easily.

Parts organizer for diesel and steam locomotives.

Each drawer is divided in two sections for sealed parts and loose parts.

Finally, I ended my journey by putting some order in my locomotive parts. Back in high school days, probably around 1998, I acquired a small part organizer and started to fill it with details. At first it went well, then all kind of junk ended up there. When I moved in my actual house in 2009, I put it in the back of a closet which was a bad idea. Accessing the organizer was quite hard and soon I stopped to go there. Meanwhile, I still had old scale model boxes from the 90s filled with parts and bits, including empty packages. The boxes were at full capacity and finding a diesel locomotive part required to go through about a hundred packages. Not very fun nor efficient. The solution was simple: clean up the parts organizer to use it exclusively for locomotive detail parts. Each drawers is now labelled according to its content, be it horns, bells, fan grills or rerail frogs. It was also a good occasion to throw away a bunch of useless stuff like plastic wheels, horn hook couplers, Atlas switch controls and other completely obsolete stuff.

Now, I still need to go through the decal collection, which is quite huge, the tools and paint, but the worst is now behind me and it is making my life much more easier. I'm glad I did it... I certainly don't understand how I could tolerate such a situation for two decades.

Monday, September 10, 2018

JMRI Operations & Layout Design

Most people see JMRI Operations and othr layout operation planning methodes (software assisted or manual) as a way to bring life to their layout. On the other hand, except a few extremely dedicated individuals, it is rarely used in the previous steps to get big picture of the prototype.

In my case, I'm a little bit late to the game with a layout almost set in stone. However, the last few week fine analysis of pictures and train movements on CFC helped me to create a JMRI prototypical freight traffic model. And it is an interesting because it better helps to understand how things moved over the rail and where some very specific task were performed.

After running more than 1000 simulations - which amount to three years of operation on Murray Bay - it became clear that replacing Montmorency with Wieland was a viable option. The traffic is stronger, car movements more frequent and a little bit more complex due to shuffling of cars between Clermont yard and there.

Villeneuve also took another twist by the addition of another prototypical movement that we never implemented on the layout: storing extra cars on a siding. CFC had the habit to leave cars there so they could pick them up if required. It had another layer of purpose and sense to this particular location. MoW material (ballast cars and snow plow) could also been spotted there before moving up to Clermont.

All in all, I'm glad to have put almost 4 complete days working out this JMRI model. Things are clearer and it will be easier to make choices later.It also feels there is a real outside world and dispatchers behind the trains instead of whimsically choosing cars out of the drawers. I'm looking forward in the next week when track will be back in action in Wieland to test these scenarios and further refine them.

While JMRI isn't a panacea and can't be the focus of layout planning, I still consider that for someone trying to model an entire subdivision, it can start to be another tool in the toolbox to determine how each location plays a part in a railway's daily life. Having to select only a very few elements, it is not bad to have some more factual data to help creating a realistic and engaging experience for operators.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Finding inspiration...

Donohue switcher working Clermont yard

During my almost 5 day stay in hospital last week, I had plenty of time to think about the layout and look at inspiration once again. Hospital rooms, particularly when you are alone in them, are special capsules where you evade such notions as schedule, time or sense of purpose... You indefinitely wait and work your patience. But this can also be seen as a pure form of freedom which isn't a bad thing from time to time.

Bringing cars to Donohue paper mill over Malbaie River

While I didn't bring a lot of entertainment with me, I minded bringing my tablet thinking I would kill time watching series while in bed. But I had very little energy to spare watching long videos and finally started to look at CFC Murray Bay pictures shot during the 2000s by Jérôme. Having a lot of time meant I could start to analyze little details like car blocking, train movements, how cars were switched and mundane details in seemingly nondescript environments.

Train 523 leaving Beaupré after picking up newsprint loaded boxcars.

Here's a collection of a few pictures that made an enduring impact on me and which I consider represent the essence of railroading on Murray Bay Subdivision. You will quickly remark you won't find incredible panoramas and dramatic cliffs, but industrial settings where things used to happen. As I previously wrote, theses places are location where my interaction with CFC has been the most important.

Train 523 crosses Ste. Anne River bridge in Beaupré

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

What To Model?

When it's time to design a layout, a crucial question will quickly arise and which must be addressed frankly: what should we model and what shouldn't be modelled. As you can expect, there is no recipe to make such choices which will be based on various conditions we have to live with (resources, space, time, skills and personal interests). However, it would be wrong to assume you can't replicate the general characteristics of a specific train run if you don't have all the pieces. As long as the story you tell make sense, your brain will fill up what's missing.

I previously compared layout design with a song "chorus-verses" structure. This analogy stay relevant at this next step. Just think about it, you probably know familiar songs by heart but often discovered less famous verses rarely used. They can be omitted without altering that much our appreciation, in such a similar way a song radio edit versus an album edit can vary in length.

In the case of a layout, it means you don't need to model everything to get a coherent and somewhat "complete". Many people will select a few locations, a particular industry and others bits they like and put them together. However, this can be tricky. If the selection is carefully done, you'll end up with a decent layout bolstered by a logical concept that link everything together. The missing parts will be similar to our edited song: barely noticeable. On the other hand, if the selection is whimsical and based on anecdote rather than what's typical, you get an incoherent patchwork of scenes which are extremely hard to logically link together with a coherent story. Unfortunately, most of the time, we go that route.

CFC network with main locations (1994-2011)

I'd like to use the CFC Murray Bay Subdivision to illustrate this with a case study. You probably recall a few days ago I said Villeneuve (cement plant) and Beaupré (paper mill) were equivalent in term of operation and interest. Superficially, they both are small yards where the local freight set out and pick up cars that are switched by industrial locomotive to feed large industry. But in fact, the comparison stops there. Upon closer examination of old timetables, pictures and videos, it has become clear that Beaupré was a much more important location on the railway line.

Original 1994 CFC track plan

Villeneuve is basically a siding where you pick up loaded cars and set out empties. Then you move forward to your next destination. On the other hand, Beaupré was where trains were broken or assembled. To save on fuel and keep trains shorter before entering the rickety topography of Charlevoix, cars picked up en route to Beaupré were left in the yard. This was because most customers had east facing sidings. It was useless to bring these car up to Clermont when their destination was Limoilou, thus they were left at Beaupré and picked up by the next westbound train (523). Now, add this small operation feature with serving the plant in Beaupré and you understand it was a location where a lot happened. In fact, you don't have to physically model some customers because their traffic is actively handled in Beaupré, which is quite a bonus!

Minimum useful trackage to keep operation coherent 

But better than than, a 1994 timetable indicates that it is possible switching at Beaupré isn't done yet by the paper mill and CFC trains must wait until 14:00 before leaving with these cars. This is quite interesting because it means an operator could run his train up to Beaupré, then control the switcher and prepare a cut of cars to be shipped to Limoilou. Then the local train leaves Beaupré. And to make things more interesting, a busy grade crossing was located in the middle of the yard, thus extra care was required to not impeded the important truck traffic serving the plant. It means cars must be blocked in certain ways and consists may have to be broken depending on condition.

Car blocking and train movement per location.

Why does it matters? The reason is simple, as things stand, the layout area depicting Villeneuve is quite underwhelming in term of efficiency. Beautiful, realistic and prototypical... but nothing really happens there. Most of the time, we run the train directly to Clermont which takes about 2 minutes and don't make a stop at Villeneuve most of the time. Picking up cars in Villeneuve isn't a great activity too. Thus, you end up with a 14' x 11' room (about 40' of main line) which basically only exist to take a train out of staging before moving it as soon as possible to the next room. Let's call this a serious design caveat! Villeneuve is nothing more than a vignette... a long one, but still a place where nothing really happen. And from a historical point of view, by 1997 the plant was closed and since the very early 1980s, it no longer received gypsum and coal by rail cars. Not a very impressive customer...

In the case of Beaupré, the mill was still strong up until the late 2000s. Railway employees had to take decision there depending on condition and various train movements made sure it wasn't a pit stop in a F1 race. And that's the key element: at Beaupré you take decision... in Villeneuve you do as per instruction like a robot. From an operator perspective, the choice is easy.

And that's the important key feature of Beaupré in regard to how to decide if you model or not a location. Beaupré and Villeneuve handle the same amount of cars, but they don't have the same relevance. If I had to make a choice, I would choose Beaupré because the layout room would be a large comprehensive scene where an operator can be kept busy at his "operation station" for a while. The room and scene would have a purpose, which is dramatically lacking in Villeneuve. And it makes sense since real railroads don't give a damn about stuff that no longer as a purpose. It should be the same with a layout.

Another interesting aspect of choosing Beaupré over Villeneuve is about replicating the essence of a particular prototype. I've often wrote about my admiration for Tom Johnson's Inrail layout based on an Indiana branchline fully dedicated to serving feedmills and grain elevator. Tom's layout isn't the greatest our there in term of scope, size or goals, but it shines because it sings a song about the harvest season. All the towns and empty space between share are similar tone that create a strong feeling of travelling a particular part of a country. Each grain elevators, which are basically similar, makes the theme even more stronger, creating a sense of immersion, of realism and of purpose rarely equaled. In that regard, focusing Hedley-Junction on paper and lumber products is probably the best way to convey what characterized the line up until the effective end of freight service in 2011.

Having two paper mills, both similar yet different in the way they interacted with the railroad, give a powerful sense of purpose to the layout while making it highly coherent. It also provides two large and mostly prototypical scenes instead of a collection of poorly grafted together locales. Each scene immerse the operator in a different world where multiple tasks must be carefully handled... And each room end up with very scenic elements such as large rivers and bridges that are exquisite railfanning spot.

At the end of the day, after almost two intense weeks of research and thinking, I must admit modelling the Murray Bay Subdivision as a comprehensive layout is easier to achieve when done as a modern railray. Like anybody, I started with the 1950s as a benchmark for optimal operation opportunities. This wrong assumption was based on the idea since trains were still dominant in that decade and served virtually all industries, the potential and interest was higher. With the time, I have come to understand potential and interest aren't related to quantity. The early 2000s Murray Bay may have been seen as a plain branchline without redeeming factor, but in fact, it was much more interesting that trying to figure out what happened in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when nobody cared about documenting the railroad except for a few rare steam excursion.

That brings me to my last point about choosing what to model. At one point, you've got to do what you can with what you have. Up to 1994, it's quite hard to understand what really happened on the Murray Bay in respect to freight operation. We have glimpses here and there, but not a general portrait of what really happened. From a cosmetic point of view, that may be fine, but it's clearly not enough to create a coherent story - a song - about the railroad. I struggled a lot trying to do so... and failed more than once. Only the Donohue plant worked because the available data was comprehensive and we knew exactly what happened there. Jack Burgess - which have been quite vocal recently about his excellent Yosemite Valley Railroad layout - stressed how having access to a lot of quality data convinced him it was possible to replicate the railroad as it was. The same applies to our project; after 1994 we know exactly what happens. We look at a train and we can determine which customer a specific block of cars is for. We know each locomotives and their operation history and have a good grasp of how things were handled. It's not a matter of being lazy, but this is convenient and makes layout design and operation far much easier. Knowing so much how things happened enable us to make definite and coherent choices about what to model and what to not model... And at the end of the day, you can even look at the official track diagram and select the best verses and keep them in your layout "radio edit"

Monday, September 3, 2018

Learning how to approach Layout Design

The revised concept of Clermont is basically built around what I would call "operation stations", which are areas dedicated to intense interaction with trains. As previous described in a recent post, these stations are located where high concentration of turnouts or mechanical devices can be found and act as verses of a song to tell a story.

Murray Bay in a nut shell

Such stations - and I think this is the right word for this concept - are places where an operator is generally standing without moving that much while his focus is on what's going on. These are perfect spots to "railfan" the train crawling at slow speed and it wouldn't be that hard to imagine such part of the layout as a self-contained switching or cameo layouts. This concept finding its way on a medium sized basement filling empire is probably not surprising to regular readers. In fact, I think it isn't a bad thing to implement such an approach to a larger layout if the goal isn't about running fast trains but rather on appreciating them from the trackside. None of these approaches is better than another, it's only a matter of making a well thought choice relevant to your interests, habits and resources.

As such, I made a remark to Louis-Marie on Sunday afternoon about how our layout had been so badly thought and built upon wrong premises. The entire project was plagued by whimsical decisions, mood swings and a poor understanding of how we like to run a layout. Important decisions about how we interact with trains for "real" were an after thought. It seems to me we put so much effort trying to replicate iconic scenes or well-known rolling stock that we completely forgot to respect our theme. No wonder it became a frustrating checklist instead of a coherent story. The most frustrating part is I was already refining my approach to model railroading at that time. But it seems my grasp was better on smaller designs than larger projects.

Larger projects are hard to manage because they forces you to make choices among many, many possibilities. There is also the illusion that if you don't implement a certain amount of iconic elements, your rendition of the prototype will be a failure... which is not the case.

To be honest, dealing with a very small layout is far much easier. From the start, you know you will have to only keep a few relevant elements and build around their strengths instead of creating a collection of vignettes. This "collection" effect is generally what will kill the coherence of a larger design.

In the case of Hedley Junction, it is clear we took a long time understanding what we really wanted to do. For a long time, we thought running long trains on the mainline would be the big element. But in fact, the switching of very specific industries quickly took hold and eclipsed everything else. Unfortunately, we couldn't conceive representing an entire subdivision with only a few very spots. If I learned something from designing switching layouts, it's that you don't require to model the entire story. Only a few glimpses, in the same fashion when you railfan a specific line, you will only see a fraction of scenes and actions, but nevertheless relevant ones that have a significant impact on your imagination.

If your goal isn't about replicating a complete operation day, which is rarely the case or possible, things start to be more clearer. Murray Bay subdivision was basically a shortline hauling newsprint and lumber products. All the other stuff was extremely marginal. Most action occured at Clermont yard where inbound and outbound trains were built or broken and Donohue where an industrial switcher served the paper mill. Wieland was a satellite location where lumber was loaded and MoW performed occasionally. At Beaupré, the paper mill was similar, thus irrelevant on the layout at this point. Some lumber was picked up in Château-Richer and finally cement cars at Ciment St-Laurent. In between, nothing really happened.

In the case of a layout, what matters are only a few key elements. Donohue must be replicated as close to prototype as possible to make sense. The yard is also a key element for smooth operation. Wieland doesn't require to be fully modelled to get a good picture of the area. As long as you can pick up and set up flat cars, you're in business. As for the cement plant, it's not bad to do it as close as it was since it is home of intense activity. In that regard, someone could simply choose to represent the Abitibi-Price paper mill in Beaupré. This one wouldn't need to be fully depicted, only the tracks where the train set out the cars on a siding. The plant switcher wouldn't be required to be modelled since it is irrelevant to the story and Donohue can be done in a far more compelling way. However, this second paper mill is a good way to reinforce the layout theme based on newsprint hauling. And truth to be told, this being a customer located on line and not at a terminal, the work isn't done in the same way as would be with Donohue, bringing a welcome variety. That said, it must be noted operation at Ciment St-Laurent isn't really different from Abitibi-Price.

As you can see, a story emerge... a local train serving paper mills in quite scenic areas that are visually interesting with their strong railroad flavour. We have a sense of slow motion, large masses of steel being shuffled around, bridges over powerful rivers that once powered generic small industrial towns. And from there, we can start to design a track plan based on a story, with its chorus and verses. And, I believe, get a result that is manageable, but also compelling and that draws you into the scene and action. This is what I call layout design... this is what I call setting up a stage for our trains. From there, making choices is far easier, because we already know what matters and what are our goals. Depending on the song you want to write, you'll get a very different set of parameters and themes, but you'll be able to reach a goal worth of your efforts and that will pride your intellect.

And that brings me to my last point. Layout design is hard... really hard. Countless and useless books have been written about that. Most of them spread between the "I Want It All" mentality and the mostly useless Givens and Druthers (which are basically things you start to really care about only when you have a decent idea of what you are trying to do). My main complain is that very few people step out of their hyped bubble to look at things for what they are. Everything is driven by pure passion - which is fine to some extent since it is a hobby - but most mental efforts are wasted on "How" to do things rather than "Why"... we generally end up with a lot of stuff done and bought... and still crying we didn't accomplish anything. Sad isn't it? Yes it is... I would seriously feel bad if I approached my professional practice with such an attitude. Yet, I still do it with railroading.

My goal isn't to discourage anybody... on the contrary! But rather to encourage people to develop courage to go beyond their first epidermic reaction with this hobby and seek truly what is the essence of what they like about it. The good thing is we are all different and thus great diversity makes this hobby a fascinating place. But also a good thing is that all these half-baked efforts aren't for nothing, as long as we learn something from each step, becoming more proficient at each iteration. I made a lot of mistakes myself yet I'm happy to have made them because I had the courage to share them with you and try to find out what happened... and just for this reason, I consider blogging about this passion was probably the best decision I took because it forced me to put in words and articulate my feelings, helping me to see what was worth and what wasn't...

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reingeneering Clermont: A Layout as a Song...

In my last post, I explained a few reasons - including health issues - that pushed me to propose a new orientation to the layout "Charlevoix" room. Now, I'd like to use a superposed plan of what was there and what is proposed to better understand the reasons behind this drastic decision.

To be noted, the red elements on the following track plans are from the original layout and are dismantled.

Let's start with a few shortcomings of the previous design. Each ones are numbered in black.

(1) Over the years, to accommodate Dominion Textile, we came to enlarge considerably the original benchwork 18" width. At first, it sounded like a great idea to have a track fully embedded into scenery with great photography opportunities. Unfortunately, it became a plywood central that would eat up a lot of resources to landscape, but also a hindrance for many reasons.

This wider benchwork made access to the electric panel (top left corner) harder, but also made the aisle noticeably smaller, making it hard for two persons to stand there. It was no longer fun to go there. Finally, since the benchwork was very wide, it wasn't really practical to access under layout storage.

(2) Using Dominion Textile large multi-storey brick plant to hide the tunnel entrance was a great scenic trick that looked neat and had a purpose. Unfortunately, we didn't operate the plant since our era is now set in the 1990s and it was closed. It was also not practical to operate this customer. With 3 car spots hidden behind a large structure, you never knew what was there and it wasn't fun at all. Finally, Dominion Textile is an iconic building. If you model it, it better be just like the real thing or everybody will notice you are trying to fool them. It was clear to me replicating the structure would have a towering cost both in material and available time. Too much resources for what we could ever gain from having it on the layout except to say "Hey! Looks, it's Dominion Textile!"... in the same way people want you to look at their nude figures under the bridge or their eternal burning building scene with fire trucks.

(3) The red lines are what should have been ruins of QRL&PCo old hydroelectric power plant. Very neat scene, but it required a large cliff with a waterfall, complicated concrete ruins and a mesmerizing amount of trees. Wonderful and very photogenic... but unfortunately in front of an electric panel. This project was dead on arrival for this single reason.

(4) The previous concept with the track sweeping along St. Lawrence river forced us to install a sharp curved turnout in the middle of the peninsula to salvage the impressive scenery. But as our trains grew in size to better represent the prototype and our operating patterns came closer to what used to be done on CFC, it became a serious limitation. With a 20" radius near the turnout, it was increasingly becoming a liability with some freight cars and locomotives... and it did look silly. Finally, since a lot of operations happened there since turnouts are generally where we spend the most of our times, it wasn't very practical due to other peoples always walking around you. Turnouts on a curve at the end of a peninsula are rarely an optimal design idea.

(5) This cute grade crossing what neat... but in fact not that great. Since the train emerged from a long tunnel behind the furnace, you barely knew when to use your whistle since it was impossible to know exactly where the train was. It always ended up in botched whistling at best when you had other things to do.

(6) Clermont's team track has always been hard to define. It looked great with a feedmill, but it made little sense since that customer wasn't really rail served. As a team track for lumber transloading, it wasn't very convincing because you could hardly imagine a semi-trailer truck finding its way there. Worst, there was very little space for lumber storage, making it an unlikely location for such a function. Thus, we decided this little track would be what it used to be on the prototype: a storage track. Old MoW equipment will be kept there with some front loader dedicated to ballast and rip rap loading. Maybe a rusting snow plow, which was a hallmark of Clermont... But nothing more...

Now, for the new stuff in Blue Uppercase Letters.

(A) Industrial activities in Wieland are now concentrated in one easily accessible area. It gives a purpose to a location that had none and will be easy to operate following the prototype practice. Team tracks are the best option to keep scenery low for a better access to the electric panel. Finally, with a narrower benchwork creating an alcove, someone can stay 20 minutes there and switch the customers without blocking the main aisle.

(B) In these location, I imagine a small shelf along the fascia where mechanical devices actuating the switches and derails would be located. They would also provide a writing surface useful when checking the switch list. As you can see, they are located exactly in front of turnouts because it is where we generally stand for a long time. As stated often, I'm certainly wanting to use garden scale Sunset Valley switch stands to operate the turnout, exactly how Trevor Marshall did it on his excellent Port Rowan layout. I'm having a hard time convincing my fellow club members, but I hope it will happen.

(C) This is the "scenery zone" part of Wieland. This is the kind of track were no direct interaction with trains is required. See it as a buffer between activity zones that create space. I want to use it to get the ambiance of Malbaie River valley. A single track flowing in a plain with old mountains in the background. Landforms aren't majestic, but a combination of sloping prairies, ditches and grass covered hills. I already imagine a row of trees in front of the track, barely hiding it and giving the impression the train is running across the wilderness... just like the real thing.

Let us conclude with how the new design come together as a compelling story about railroading in Clermont. This is vital because without a coherent storyline, a layout is only a collection of disjoined vignettes making very little sense.

Just like a song, the "Clermont Room" is now made of "verses" and "chorus". Chorus are the scenery zones. They repeat themselves and bring no new information. They set the mood and frame the verses which are the activity zones. Activity zones are where actions are performed and required a high level of concentration. They must happen where people can concentrate on complicated tasks without being disturbed continually. So let's have a glimpse at the new song:

First Verse: Wieland. Here, an incoming train must switch Reynolds but also the lumber yard. According to prototype pictures, it wasn't uncommon for locomotives to pick up lumber flat cars and shove them up to Clermont yard.

First Chorus: The track run in the valley at slow speed before reaching Clermont yard which is located in the middle of the woods.

Second Verse: Clermont South yard throat. A lot happens here to reverse trains but also to build consist and switch cars for Wieland. This zone is nothing more than a clearing in the woods with some turnouts.

Second Chorus: The bulk of Clermont Yard is nothing more than a bunch of curved track sweeping along a low wood covered cliff. In real life, it is barely accessible and visible... It will be the same on the layout since most switching activities happen at the throats.

Third Verse: Clermont North yard throat. A lot happens here, including the MoW and daily switching chores. This is where Donohue's switcher pick up and set out cars from the paper mill. It is also a rare place where the public can interact directly with the yard due to a nearby grade crossing and access roads.

Third Chorus: Malbaie River is the scenic divider par excellence. On one side is CFC trackage... on the other side is the paper mill with its private tracks. Only transfer runs can happen there.

Fourth and final Verse: Donohue Paper. The end of the track is the breadwinner of the layout. Intense industrial activities happen there and switching is complicated and long. In itself, the plan could be considered as a complete and self-containing layout.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

A New Modelling Season

It started last night, unannounced as the chilly early September morning. Nevertheless, a big obstacle was overcome, one that haunted me for years without ever finding a definitive solution. I've talked about it countless times, drawn plans, made mockups and refrained from taking action...

Gone is Montmorency and Dominion Textile, gone are Charlevoix towering cliffs and gone is St. Lawrence shores... Emblematic they were... and as anything emblematic, their self importance and iconic status made them compete for attention while detracting us from the railroad.

But such a bold decision couldn't have been made without an unexpected hospitalization last week that nailed me in the bed for almost a week. Chronic diseases and health issues are never a laughing matters, but after several long stay in hospitals during the last decade, I've come to appreciate that special time when I have nothing to do if not developing my patience and sifting through life and what really matters. Hospitals are probably the most striking reality check one can get, particularly when you are basically bedridden for days and the most basic human activities such as taking a meal, going to the toilet or simply sleeping can become not only challenging but also a constant source of suffering.

Such experiences, and a lot of time to think between meals and injections, provides fertile grounds for thoughts. And while I had various ones about all aspects of my life, at some point, the layout surfaced here and there. While extremely weak, my mind was still sharp enough to analyze the railroad from a distant perspective. Health became a major component of what I often call "limited resources" and it forces you to make choices... bold ones.

Finally, after a few days, it became clear to me why I was unsatisfied with the layout and particularly that long stretch of track between Villeneuve and Clermont. In recent years, I often wrote how I felt no realistic solutions could merge these scenes together... Thus I simply decided to remove them. Nothing more, nothing less... simply gaining space so the only scene in the room could breath and work according to its intended purpose.

Since focussing on CFC, it became clear the diminutive Clermont yard, which was basically a single siding was not only too short, but couldn't handle the traffic. I'm not talking about having a big yard for the sake of having a big yard, but rather underlining the fact it was mathematically not working, thus being a real liability for the railroad. Also, having curved turnouts on curved made operation awkward and prone to derailment.

Thus, since the old "signature" scenes are gone, we now have space to lengthen the yard and add the required siding. Not only there is no longer a need for unrealistic scene transition, but we now have operation going on for real on the other side of the peninsula, which wasn't the case up until now. We have basically given up our useless 12 feet of "main line" which were used about 30 seconds per operation session with a more prototypical longer yard which ensure we can  enjoy trains all over the room.

A simplified and unified track plan for Clermont

Having a longer yard is also an excellent occasion to better replicate prototypical gestures as was common on CFC, including derails and other mundane task. It also gives us enough room for improved locomotive control. Here I am thinking about recent development such as the Proto Throttle. It's no longer a matter of stop and go, but rather thinking how to start or slow down the engine to make sure the task is perform seamlessly. To be honest, looking at a locomotive performing a task at reduced speed matters much more to me than large viaducts and vistas.

That brings me to my last point: scenery. Our layout isn't small. That's a lot of real estate to decorate and cover in scenery... Too much for myself, and particularly with my frail health. Also, I'm not a fan of complicated scenery tricks. However, my appreciation for realistic track, roadbed and mundane landforms is real. Looking at several pictures of Charlevoix Railway, it struck me that the most beautiful spot where all in the middle of nowhere and, in fact, generally unknown to me because they are unreachable. Nothing happens there and since no one really live there, we are in presence of a basic philosophical question: if it is not known, does it exist? My answer, in term of model railroading is a resounding NO.

On the other hand, where action occurs and interaction with trains is the most direct, the landscape is absolutely average and banal.  Ditches, woods, dirt roads, more ditched, weeds and bushes with low mountains in the background. While extremely mundane, it felt strange that I had a far stronger emotional response to these scenes than the wonderful vistas along the St. Lawrence River. Given our relation to this hobby is generally very emotional and driven by nostalgia, it was clear what should be given up and what should be hold dear.

I could discuss about this during countless hours, but I'll make it short. Over the years, I've come to realize this hobby comes with serious limitations due to its continentally-sized subject matters. These limitations can be seen as compromises or even hindrances, but at some point, one should see them as design potential. Issues are great because they provide opportunities... A layout is the same thing. Knowing you better, knowing you strengths and your weakness helps you to know when to know which fight is worth battling for. I certainly won't discourage anybody to face up big challenges, as long as these challenges are meaningful and fruitful.

Abandoning several iconic elements of Hedley Junction can be seen as a loss, but it can also be seen as a gain if at the end of the day, it makes the project progress steadily in a satisfying way. This is one reason why we make choices.

Last evening, we scrapped at least 20 feet of mainline including our most scenic areas... I regret nothing.