Saturday, May 23, 2020

If Villeneuve was Beaupré... a Second Look

If you wonder if I'm still modelling, the answer is yes. Less than I wish I could due to a serious load of professional work, but enough to surprise a few ones real soon. I'm bringing back a piece of local history to life, but wish to keep it a surprise! Only a few few select people are in the known since they share a common nostalgia with me with that specific object and they helped me gather data.

And now for something less whimsical yet grounded in several of the same things! You recall (yet again isn't it) that about two years ago I raised the question about the future of Villeneuve on our Murray Bay subdivision. At that time, I mentioned I wasn't particularly convinced this scene was the right one for our layout. It became even more apparent as we modernized the layout toward from the 1980s to the early 2000s. The anachronistic nature of Villeneuve which cement plant closed in 1997 didn't sit well with me. Also, I was never impressed by the nature of operation there. Cool in real life, somewhat boring in miniature. Not everything scale down isn't it!

Another thing that I hate is how we don't feel the train is travelling in Villeneuve. It seems having D'Estimauville right after Villeneuve when it is a few miles away kills the trick. In Clermont, we only have one continuous scene, but the train seems to really travel a few miles due to that. The immersion is total. In a few words, that entire part of the layout seems contrived, lack unity and is basically underwhelming.


I'd say having designed and redesigned a few layouts in the last few weeks really has sharpened my eyes toward Villeneuve. From my last attempts, a common theme I tried to develop was the impression of a continuous scene telling a simple yet compelling narrative. Monk Subdivision was such an exercice, the Groupe TRAQ's several competing designs too, also the work done on a reader's track plan to improve an existing layout and even the funny little twice around design. Discussions with other model railroaders really stressed that finding a balance between operation (or rather, interaction with trains) and telling an immersive story was a key element to make a layout full of life and soul.

Beaupré (Google Earth)

By replacing Villeneuve with Beaupré - another paper mill town - I feel we can truly bring forward the true nature of railroading in Charlevoix. Two big mills kept the life economically viable, they both were full of action and located nearby interesting features such as a large river. One was a terminus in a mountainous valley, the other one was a town along the line build in a rich plain. Same theme, but a different approach.

Abitibi-Price Paper Mill (Google Earth)

Both had to use industrial switcher locomotives to complete the job, yet they had different needs. In Donohue, woodchip and liquid chemicals were a staple in paper production while in Beaupré, they sourced their woodchip locally and mainly received dry additives in covered hoppers.

Bridge over Ste-Anne River (Google Earth)

Also, Beaupré with its large 4-span bridge lend itself naturally to the room. Acting as a scenic point of interest, this bridge divide each side of the aisle: one dedicated to simply running, while the other is the plant. Also, the large river acts as a focal point when entering the room, creating a point of interest where now there is none.

The old distillery (Google Earth)

Another positive aspect is the nature of Beaupré. Since the mill was far away from the track, no need to model it per se. Given the ceiling is really low in this room, we don't get the weird effect of having the cement plant almost touching it and creating unsightly shadows.

Looking east toward the bridge, from the distillery (Google Earth)

Finally, Beaupré is accessed by a modern concrete tunnel under an highway. This exactly like this in the prototype and on the other side lies another town, which isn't modelled. This, it is a natural barrier to end a layout and create a portal toward the outside world. D'Estimauville, while a visually charming place, always lacked a bit of personality. In Beaupré, there was a large abandoned distillery, which provide a glimpse that the railway used to be much in use in the past, but lost a few customers over the years. This helps to ground the narrative that Beaupré is an industrial town that was able to develop with the help of the railway, making a stronger story than splicing clumsily Villeneuve and D'Estimauville.

Looking east from the road overpass toward the mill (Google Earth)

Indeed, all that is a bunch of ideas, but I would be quite interested in build a small mockup to see if there is more than meets the eye or if this is just a bias on my part. But just having a large bridge were trains doing switching have to cross a few time per sessions is already a great feature I love to see on a layout. This old YouTube video may provide a glimpse at what was a common occurence on CFC during the 2000s.



Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A 4' x 6' Twice Around Design for Fun

I often recall on this blog my fondness of my older 4' x 4' and 4' x 5' twice around layout of my younger days. Sure they were crude and unrealistic, but they provided a foundation upon which a long lasting passion for model trains emerged.

I can say confidently that each year, I goes back and try to design something around the same lines and constraining myself to a maximum footprint of 4' x 6' to keep in touch with the originals. The goal isn't to create a prototypically correct layout, but rather to see if a decent design could emerge from such a diminutive set of rules.

So once again, for the sake of good old fun, I'm back to the drawing board. But this time, I'm applying lessons learned over years to develop a track plan that could genuinely be interesting for folks liking the old spaghetti bowl island kind of layout, which, I must admit, has some whimsical charm to it.

For this track plan, I set myself a few goals to make sure it could hold someone's interest while providing enough action to sustain somewhat realistic operations. I based that on my experience as a kind, asking myself what I loved on the old layout and what I dearly hated. All that was merged with a few design ideas from a track plan found on the internet but no longer available. I wish I could have credited the designer. I think it was called "James River & [something]".



As a kid and a teenager, I enjoyed the possibility to see my train run under then over a nice bridge. This is a classic railfanning spot and no wonder it creates some magic on a layout. Another nice thing I liked was a small siding which provided a basic interchange where cars could be switched. However, our siding wasn't located in the right place and was to near to a steep grade. Later, another version of this layout addressed the problem by providing a runaround track and a siding in the flat area, making life much easier.

One big pitfall of my old layout was that reversing a train was impossible and you could see where it came from when looking at the other side. Not very convincing if you ask me!

A coal mining community in Bradshaw, West Virginia, 1946 (credit: Russell Lee, Wikicommons)

So, I decided to see what could be done with a bridge, a runaround, a siding and maybe a small industrial spur. I was surprised. Yes, it's a spaghetti bowl, but I feel it could work wonders for someone liking this kind of stuff.

Basically, on the bottom level, a runaround and a station are there to create a place where cars can be put in interchange and trains reversed. The track then continue under a large bridge and crosses a small river powering an old brick factory with a small siding. Then the main line disappear in a wooden area and in a tunnel where it starts its ascension toward the upper level. There, a rock cut in the mountain provides the space for a small industrial spur to reach a mine. Then our main line crosses the large bridge and disappears again in another tunnel before going down again back to the station.

Both industries can't be switched in the same direction so the operator must used the runaround at the station. It also means ones can staged to different trains, one in each direction. As for the mine spur, the train can switch all the cars, or more interestingly simply pull out the loads and set out empties on the off spot track. A small industrial locomotive from the mining company could take care of switching the cars between the tracks at the plant as would have been usual back in the days. The spur length would act as a yard lead long enough to not foul the main line.

While this layout design isn't the best thing since slice bread, it still has potential to represent a decent mountain, valley or coal railway. I can easily imagine such a layout being set in the Appalachian area, maybe in Pennsylvania or West Virginia. I kept the turnout count quite low and only planned a limited number of relevant structures. More than that would be too much and the visual balance would crumble.

Coal tipple in Crystal Block, Matewan, West Virginia, 1930s (credit: Virginia Tech)

For motive power, small locomotives such as early diesel switchers for road power and a GE 45-ton for the mine would be more than enough. Set in the steam era, I would elect to use Bachmann excellent modern 4-4-0, Alco 2-6-0  or even a mighthy 2-8-0. These are sturdy and quality locomotives that look good on sharp radius curves and can be purchased at very decent price. They also provide an excellent base for kitbashing and superdetailing. Bachmann 0-6-0T would be my locomotive of choice for the mine. As for rolling stock, I would keep it small. Nothing over 40ft. And honestly, I think setting the layout in the 1920s or older would be a safe bet since 36ft cars and small 55-ton hoppers would be the norm. With Accurail providing decent shake-the-box kits at good prices, I feel this would make for a neat layout that can act as an introduction for a kid, a teenager or a young adult. Not eveybody is into prototypical operation on a shelf layout.

Also, there is a lot of scenic potential with such a layout and if someone use the topography in a realistic manner instead of the usual cartoonish Woodland Scenics festival of tunnels and rock faces, it could be compelling and provide many photographic opportunities.

All in all, it was a nice little exercise in design, trying to incorporate lessons learned from more prototypical layouts and trying to make a compelling piece of work. I've often found 4' x 6' layouts in particular to be a joke, full of ludicrous and impractical devices. You don't need them to have a sophisticated small island layout. And honestly, if my small childhood pike had been like this one, I feel my crave for freight operation would have been satisfied.

One thing is sure, there is a place for that kind of layout and approach in our hobby. Many started that way, many even in their older days love that peculiar aesthetic. I personally believe that when done with the right mindset and based on well-thought operation-oriented elements, they can provide a relevant way to perfect your skills. And anybody with a basic artistic sense and an eye for scene composition can minimize the unrealistic aspect of a twice around design!

Don't panic! I'll be back soon to more "serious" endeavours!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Layout Design: Groupe TRAQ's CN Drummondville Subdivision - Part 2

After some discussions with Groupe TRAQ members, it was decided to explore a simpler yet closer to prototype proposition for CN Drummondville Subdivision.

It was my first idea, but I shelved it because I thought some more tracks in front of the station would provide some visual interest. In real life, track arrangement in front of Drummondville station was quite simple save for the presence of a diamond.

You could say the diamond defined a part of the scene because the station had an annex that was perpendicular to serve the CPR line. Why not try this on a layout?

Interestingly enough, the new proposition is based on real life dimensions, meaning the station is correct and the diamond is exactly the right distance from the grade crossing. Better, I found a picture showing the local train locomotive and caboose used to be parked on the small siding in front of the station. Given Groupe TRAQ is a railway historical association, I feel it fits better their mandate if Drummondville is closer to what it used to be.

Meanwhile, I was also asked to create another unrelated layout using the same footprint in the case Groupe TRAQ would add a second shelf. This time, the request was simpler: a paper-related industry to run some CN woodchip cars and a cement customer to run Ciment Québec covered hoppers.

I quickly elected to take inspiration from St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway on ex-CN Sherbrooke Subdivision in southern Quebec, not far from Drummondville. Back in the 1980s, when it was still operated by CN, a new paper mill was built on the hills near Windsor, requiring a quite lenghty industrial spur to reach the plant. At a nearby grade crossing, a somewhat spartan transload facility dealing with chemicals and cement was located. Basically, a shelf layout dream come true.


It didn't take a long time to piece together a basic track plan directly inspired from the prototype. Since the paper mill is quite modern, it doesn't feature complex and byzantine track work, but a very efficient layout. I thought it would be perfect.

Some readers will find an uncanny resemblance with my East Angus layout design and it is true. However, this time I feel I was able to implement my old idea of implementing an hidden staging behind the plant itself. This gimmick has two goals. First to create a plausible impression the train is coming from the outside world and second, to double the time and distance to reach the paper mill. Indeed, you have to move from one end of the layout to the other, then throw the switch and come back on a different track to your origin point. It seems to me to create a better flow of movement will optimizing the use of track and space.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Modelling CN SW9 & SW1200 Switchers - Part 3

After a few weeks hiatus, I'm back working on the pair of SWs. This project has taken a back seat due to a serious rise in my professional workload. It seems COVID-19 didn't impact that much my professional life, instead bringing more water to the mill.

That aside, like many such project, I was not particularly found of working on the next step: the handrails. I used to be quite a mediocre craftsman when equipped with a soldering iron and didn't want to commit myself working with brass and wire. But no one ever grow as a better person without fighting its own fear.


Cleaning the brass and phosphore bronze parts prior to soldering helped a lot, but you can't get away without tinning. I'm not a master, but I expected to get big blobs of solder that would require filing down. Well, it didn't happen. It seems when you do things right, soldering very small parts works well. Now I'm starting to understand a little bit better why some folks love to scratchbuild from that material.  Definitely sturdy and not so hard to work with.


Once I had the handrails out of my way, it was time to paint and decal the units, which didn't take that long. Never been a fan of decalling, but with years of practice, I'm much more confident and less reluctant when facing that dreaded step!


One must admit the 0.0125" diameter handrails look sharp and much to scale than the original Athearn steel wire. Improving the handrails was an effective way to make the model stand out. I'm seriously thinking about replacing the crude Atlas handrails out of my kitbashed RS18s. I hope to locate enough Precision Scale stanchions before they no longer exist.


So far, the locomotive shells are almost complete. Some paint touch up with be required and rerailer will also be added to a later date. I'll also have to create new headlight lenses where the original ones are missing. But the big challenge will be to improve the motorization. I've already ordered some 5-pole motors. I've checked up remotoring kits by NWSL and other manufacturers. I'm not sure how someone can pretend a 5-pole motor is worth that much, but let me say it politely... I'm pretty sure if it was the real retail price, most model railway manufacturers would either ask ludicrous prices or drop some details out of the shell. After watching a few videos comparing the performance between high-priced motors from "reliable" sources to cheap made in China equivalent motors, it became apparent the supposed knock off weren't not only equivalent but often outperformed the higher end item.


Honestly, I've not reached that point where I believe paying anywhere between US$22 to well over US$80 on a motor kit is well-spent money, particularly on a pair of cheap Athearn BB locomotives. With that money, I could simply purchase pre-owned Proto 2000 locomotives and have field day. Or even better, keep that money to buy a better model that will be more useful or fund quality track and turnouts for the next layout. I know many will tell me how the cheap motors from Ebay aren't good enough, not durable and will burn after a while. Let me just say a prominent Canadian manufacturer made itself quite a unenviable reputation by equipping its high-quality model with $2 motors and it didn't stop their fanbase to gloss over that fact.

As for durability, I've seen people using these motors for 2 years now, on models used extensively on a weekly basis, and still getting reliable results. At that point, it's not a matter of being cheap, it's just a matter of recognizing where worth is. I'm not spending over US$160 to remotor a pair of locomotives that will likely end their lives as shelf queens!

When the remotorization will be done, I'll make an update. Until then, I'm not planning to weather the locomotives having learned the hard way it is better to sort out the mechanical aspect of a model before applying the final touches.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Layout Design: Groupe TRAQ's CN Drummondville Subdivision

Since last week, I've been unexpectedly busy designing track plans for other people. While layout design can be an excruciating process when working for ourselves since it is an highly emotional process often based on love for the subject and nostalgia, practicing this art for other is much more easier.


The reason is simple, since we don't have a personal stake in the process, we have more freedom to create hierarchies among design elements. With a clear mind, we have an easier time when it is time to compress or eliminate altogether elements that artificially impede the end results.

The first layout design I present today was commissioned a few months ago by André-Pierre Savard on the behalf of Groupe TRAQ in Charny, QC. The idea was to have a somewhat modern layout depicting a typical Quebec South Shore CN railway town and its vicinity to become part of Charny Station (soon to be a railway museum) permanent exhibit. I didn't give it much thoughts until André-Pierre revived the project yesterday evening.

We quickly agreed the project should take inspiration from well-known towns such as Drummondville and St-Hyacinthe while not trying to replicate a specific prototype. It was much more about capturing the sense of the place.


Heriot Street in Drummondville (Google Earth)

André-Pierre has grown to appreciate very simple track plans which give precedence to scenery and where elements have enough space to breath. Sharing a common vision made the design process quick and efficient. He gave me a set of elements he wanted and I'll credit him for not having asked for the moon but kept things well-balanced given the space available, which is a L-shaped 24" deep 17' x 10' benchwork.

Elements required included a VIA Rail passenger station with a large parking lot to model a bus terminal, a main street with grade crossing, an interchange track with Canadian Pacific Railway, a set of MoW sheds, a river scene with a substantial bridge and significant amount of fields.

In terms of industries, André-Pierre requested a feed mill, a LPG dealer and another one left to my choice. To keep with the theme, I went with a transload track, which were quite popular in the early 1990s a panacea to railway decline.

Drummondville station, signals, platform and parking lot (Google Earth)

The goal was to have a fair representation of typical CN railway activities in Quebec so the layout could have also an educational value as a display in the future exhibit.

The design took only about a few minutes to create and maybe one hour to fine tune each elements. The biggest challenge being the benchwork will be made of 4' long modules. This meant I had very little leeway to place key elements such as turnouts. Speaking of them, as per my personal rule, I kept them to the strict minimum, below 10.

CN bridge over Yamaska river in St-Hyacinthe (Google Earth)

Basically, the concept is quite simple and strives to maximize how a train travel over the layout. The small leg is a somewhat low density industrial park where all the customers are clustered together. A large rural scene including the river creates a sense of distance before reaching the town itself. The main street and its houses are used to create a visual and physical barrier between the rural world and the urban one. This is not a new trick and in fact, it is exactly how the train enters Drummondville in real life. The large station and its parking look set the mood and also provide a neat foreground against which the trains can move. I recall Simon Dunkley suggesting such an approach for my Temiscouata project and feel he was right about this design being a way quite to how we interact with trains.

From an operation standpoint, a locomotive and its caboose are based in the town, on a storage track by the highway overpass. A pair of track represent the CP interchange and a CN siding which act both as a staging. About 8 cars can be hold there which is more than enough for this kind of layout. Once the train is built, our crew shove the train over the bridge up to the industrial park where switching moves are performed. Then, the train goes back to the town, set the cars on their destination tracks and the locomotive is take its resting place until the next day.

Typical feed mill in St-Hyacinthe (Google Earth)

Many people would have probably added a runaround track in the industrial park, but I refrained for two reasons. Firstly, because it would raise the track density to an unrealistic level. Secondly, because a simpler track arrangement forces the train to travel over the bridge frequently, creating a dynamic and attractive visual effect that really make a locomotive shines.

From a technical standpoint, the layout will be built by Pierre Dutil which is a talented modeller based in Quebec City. His craftsmanship is quite high and his artistic sense well-trained. I have no doubt he will make his magic works wonder with this project though I will probably provide some elements, including a few structures.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

CN Armagh Subdivision - Refining the Concept

While I'm still working on my pair of Athearn SW7 and SW1200, finding myself having fun soldering brass parts from scratch, my mind still probe the idea of modelling CN Armagh Subdivision in the Appalachian mountains.

I can say with confidence this project really brings a new lease of life to my rolling stock collection, be it from the transition era and the 1960s-1970s. It also gives a purpose to my few select CNR steam locomotive kitbashes that have virtually seen no running in eons.


Nevertheless, I thought the previous track plan was a little bit crowded. I seriously took a look at my room and tried to imagine the layout in place to see own things would present themselves to the visitor. It must be said the Langlois Siding scene, while extremely cute, can hardly be modelled in the corner because they are barely accessible due to the presence of my workbench and spray booth. I thus took the liberty to eliminate this scene and replace it with simple scenery. Also, the short distance between Monk Yard and Langlois make it not very realistic.

As articulated in my posts about remodelling Clermont yard, I believe layout design is like a song. You must provide silences between your phrases to enhance them. Having more scene than the room can virtually accommodate would go against that basic rule of scene composition.

Trains meet at Beaubien by Lake Therrien in 1973 (credit: Richard Manicom)

Fortunately, near Monk was a neat embankment filling part of Lac Therrien (Therrien Lake). Richard Manicom took a neat picture of a train meet there and it provided me with a very NTR scene. North to the embankment, the lake turned into a bog with sinking telegraph poles. Something very typical of backwater Canadian railways. What I like about such a scene is that it provided varying ground elevations that create the impression the track did really have to cross over ingrate topography. It is also a perfect spot to display your trains in a beautiful surrounding. And finally, while iconic, this kind of scenery doesn't overwhelm the layout.

Another spot I reworked was the engine facility. Too many turnouts diverged from the mainline, making it both unrealistic and dangerous. Now, both inbound and outbound tracks converged, leaving more empty space for telegraph poles and a small diesel fueling pad.

This small change also enabled me to create a more sweeping curve on the mainline, which looks far better and less like a table top Lionel train set from the 1950s. Slightly moving the tracks make a huge difference. Finally, I also got the right dimensions for the turntable and roundhouse. With these, I was able to better use the space and create a 6-stall roundhouse, which will have a little bit more presence and justify the large coaling plant.

The question remain if I'll build this layout. As we speak, I'm still working on my Glassine diorama, trying to find motivation. Not having the right siding for the plant really stalled the project. However, it is now located on the cabinet and perfectly functional. Did take an entire morning cleaning up the rails, but it was worth the effort as the layout now perform flawlessly. I must admit this is a fun little switching layout and while it can look quite simplistic, I've faced a few challenges during my last few operation session.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

CN Armagh Subdivision: Exploration in Design


It won’t come to anybody’s surprise I’ve been pondering for years the ever elusive question about a home layout. In fact, this dreadful perspective has haunted me since my childhood, always struggling with old houses not designed to host any kind of decent model railway. Two years ago, I finally decided to build a hobby room acting as a future home of layout, an exhibit of my various collections and a workshop.

Via Rail Budd car at Monk Station (Credit: Jean-Pierre Dupuis, 1979)

Predating taking that big step, I wrote a series of articles titled “Thinking out loud” which was intended to freely explore various ideas without being constrained by our main project, namely Hedley-Junction. It was a terrific experiment that both helped me to better frame my interest but also explore how to size the scope of a subject so it can be turned into a real project. Various great ideas were explored, including a paper mill in East Angus which captivate me, and Temiscouata Railways among others. I also recall exploring the possibility of creating a runaround layout based on QRL&PCo later days. While these weren’t necessarily intended to be built, these designs indeed cross-pollinated Hedley-Junction in such a way it was possible to take bold actions never thought before that made the layout even better.

Many of my designs dealt with end of line scenarios. A very few ventured in continuous run territory for obvious “unrealistic” conditions thought I did dabble in this genre with Bedford and a version of QRL&PCo in Beaupré.

Armagh Station (date unknown, Facebook)

However, after building a few highly prototypical self-contained layouts such as Harlem Station and Glassine Canada, I came to a sad realization. I love to design, research and build these layouts, but at the end of the day, while they provide a satisfying endeavor in modelling, they don’t sustain my hunger for simply running trains. Operations are great, switching small industries too… but sometimes, I just feel like running a train and relaxing while I railfan it. In fact, I have no problem dealing with a point-to-point club layout, but as entertainment at home, it seems to be a different animal. I could probably say that when I’m home, 2 out of 3 times I want to “play with my trains”, I’m just in the mood for looking at my rolling stock in action.

I often wrote about my fond memories of my 4’ x 4’ twice around layout when I was a kid. Frankly speaking, it was the worst layout ever built, but the level of enjoyment has never been surpassed. That was 30 years ago, but what a fun thing it was. It was designed from my brother who – I never was able to replicate it – succeeded in compressing a 4’ x 6’ Life-Like track plan on a 4’ x 4’ using sectional track. My father, brother and sister helped to build and run the layout. And a few weeks later, for my birthday, my mom gave me two structures: a house and a transfer crane. A small siding provided to switching, which generally ended up with a derailment due to the poor slow speed performance of my pancake motor-equipped Bachmann F9 and Life-Like GP3802.


Monk coaling tower (Credit: Canada Science & Technology Museum)

I’m not delusional enough to believe one can capture back his childhood memories – which isn’t my goal – but I certainly believe it is possible to understand what made them a success. For this reason, I’ve been trying to explore another new continuous run layout for the hobby room, this time trying to reuse as much as I can my large roster of freight cars inherited from Harlem Station and from the previous Hedley Junction iteration when we were modelling the 70s and early 80s. Can you believe my fleet of kitbashed CN RS18 virtually never saw any substantial level of action? A crime… I know.

Naturally, I’d like to give a second life to this stuff which is generally in great shape. Bluntly, I’d like to have a layout where I don’t have to try to justify the existence of every single car or locomotive based on a specific online customer. This has nothing to do with the “I Want It All” mentality I regard with skepticism, but with the fact that at some point, it is meaningless to paint oneself in a corner which you can’t escape. Blending passion and historicity is a fine line to thread… and no wonder only running a local freight train can be extremely limiting.

Monk yard and it's coaling tower today (credit: Dannick Fournier)

Is it really a wise move to have all that rolling stock I still like unused because it is unfit for the local feed mill or the small paper mill? Is there a way to stay perfectly realistic will providing enough room to not condemn 80% of the collection to an unwise sale? Giving them a second life (or even just a first life) would be a sensible use of my collection and a honorable way to limit my expenses while working on stalled projects and kits.

This isn’t very different from what Mike Confalone said when he scrapped his Woodsville Terminal layout in favor of the Allagash Railway. Mike loved building this small line and its inherent charm, but he also wanted to witness large freight consists. He wanted more action and I can understand him on that point. The central question lies in how you can keep that small and realistic charm with the goal of running all kind of trains within a credible frame. Once again, it is a question of balance and the less is more approach can help us to find a way...

To be honest, this train of thought started when I built Glassine Canada. At one point, I had a drawer full of cars to test the layout and felt like many of them would never be used on any project of mine. Worst, when I started to store my collection in my cabinets, I found literally dozens of cars that were great but no longer had purpose. What could be done? Sell them? Or use them?

At that moment, it came upon me it a small layout that would replicate a diminutive classification yard would be a neat thing. Add a small engine facility and you are in business. No need for specific customer cars. I had memories of my friend’s layout during our high school days. It was your typical 4’ x 8’ layout from the 80s, ballasted with sand and dotted with kraft paper mountains. While ugly, it had a decent 4-track yard with a long enough lead to perform decent switching moves. We didn’t really know exactly what to do, but most of our fun was derived from doing classification work in that very yard, building and breaking trains. One would give instruction and the other switched the cars. Later, when we built our first club layout in 2007, the same casual switching approach was taken. And you know what? We had a lot of fun.  It was not a soulless job, but great game. With some refinement, it could have been quite great in fact.

If we go a little bit further, you could say I have great interest in simple solo operation such as switching a team track, have fun doing classification work with a friend and a great love of watching long trains running. The three actions have in common looking at freight cars and locomotives moving at a very slow pace. I’m a freight car enthusiast, what can I say!

Now, how can you put together these contradictory elements without having a mess of a layout? Well, let’s see what I designed.

A Layout Concept

Some want a dream layout… but I’d rather have a freedom layout. Something with enough versatility to sustain my eclectic needs while having a strong narrative grounded in reality. I’m not into imagineering stuff thought I certainly do admire those able to find their creative way!



Before moving forward, let’s put some conditions. First, the layout must be generic enough to fit a few decades without looking anachronistic. Given my rolling stock collection covers well the era defined between 1952 and 1981, that gives us a rough template where to look for a prototype. The said prototype will be a little bit backwater to explain why it didn’t evolve over the years. Fortunately, such places did exist and they were in fact numerous on our continent. Next, we will need a main line, a yard and maybe a small town to perform a few switching moves. Adding an engine terminal to simulate a division point where locomotives are maintained and turned would be also a great idea. Don’t forget a roundhouse, with its supply track, is indeed an industry in itself and not just a magnified locomotive parking lot.

Monk yard (credit: unknown, 1973)
The mainline will provide the excuse for running and railfanning anything that fit the chosen era, be it large locomotives, multiple unit consist or passenger trains. Let’s be clear, if the layout is set in the mid-60s, what is running that day will be consistent to the era. The yard will provide classification work to build the local trains while the small town a reason to run the aforementioned local freight trains for short yet rewarding switching sessions that would last anywhere between 20 minutes to 1 hour.

Also, these tree aspects shouldn’t contradict themselves but rather complement each other. By example, if you are working the yard, it should be possible to let a train run on the main line or having a friend handling the local freight. It should even be possible to stage meets between opposing direction trains.

As for a prototype, it seems to me CN (ex-NTR) Armagh Subdivision (also known later as Monk Subdivision) on Quebec South Shore would be a neat place to draw inspiration from. It was abandoned in 1981, saw a sustain level of traffic to the Atlantic and hosted a few interesting rural villages. Local customers were related to agriculture product/feed, lumber, pulpwood, oil and coal. All things I love on a layout. Better, Monk itself was a division point with a roundhouse where crew change occurred. It hosted a large two-storey station and a classification yard full of weeds and bushes, making it a very scenic place with a sense of remoteness and abandonment.

Monk yard (credit: unknown, 1973)

Monk Subdivision also saw passenger traffic between Charny and the Maritimes. It also had a cool mixed freight train in the 60s and railiners in the 70s. Better, all the old wooden structures survived up until the line close in 1981. Since that subdivision slowly faded away starting the end of WW2, it seems CN never cared to “improve” all the buildings with cheap grey shingle sidings and sky blue/orange doors. Basically, they still looked like they used to in the 1950s with their dark red siding and cream trims. In fact, judging how bad the paint looked on color pictures, I guess they never cared to repaint them after 1960.

But better, if you remember my Quebec South Shore Railway project with the small feed mill, you will also recall it was originally located in St-Pamphile, on the Quebec Central Lac-Frontière line. I even mentioned in my fictional story that the feed mill siding handled lumber and cement for the restoration of a local hydroelectric plant. Well, near St-Pamphile is the town of Armagh on Monk Subdivision which had a small siding for a feed mill that also loaded lumber and was located less than a kilometer from a hydroelectric dam. Seriously, if this isn’t a great coincidence, I don’t know what it is. Also, Armagh had two stations. The main station sported a depot, a passing track and a very long team track handling all kind of goods including coal and oil. You could also find a water tower and a section house with a speeder shed. About a mile further East was Langlois Siding, a small flag stop which had only one siding serving the aforementioned feed mill and a portable station. Within the same locality was a quite large deck bridge over Rivière du Pin valley which provided quite a spectacular and scenic panorama.

So basically, a Monk Subdivision layout would feature a lightweight version of Monk yard, engine facilities and station in a realistic manner and a small town similar to Armagh with both station and the large bridge for the sake of coolness.

Lacasse feed mill, Armagh (credit: Ministère de la Culture du Québec)

Generally speaking, when designing, I like to have access to prototype track plans. In the case of this layout, I thought knowing less would be better. I’m not that much interested in modelling the exact prototype, but I do like its flavor. Monk was created weeks before I had access to a map of the area. Only pictures helped me to shape the various scenes in a more artistic approach. However, I must stress my knowledge of how railways work did help a lot in creating something grounded in reality. Not following a specific prototype wasn’t a reason for doing fanciful interpretations.

In terms of trackage, only the strict minimum is required. In that regard, I based my design on Craig Bisgeier’s excellent Ten Commandments of Model Railroad Yard Design and Trevor Marshall original design for Fresno Yard on Pierre Oliver’s excellent Clovis Branch layout. The engine facility is based on Marty McGuirk’s The Model Railroader's Guide to Locomotive Servicing Terminals book, but also on Rick de Candido’s exquisite Fillmore Avenue Roundhouse layout which, when his blog was online, used to be one of the most interesting source about steam engine facilities. Also, the beautiful CPR Orangeville, ON roundhouse also provided a lot of inspiration.

So basically, I provided for a long passing track to stage meets but also to act as an arrival/departure track. A caboose track, in front of the station but behind the yard provide for an interesting visual element to stage. The yard can be operated independently due to its long yard lead.

Langlois Siding portable station (credit: Ministère de la Culture du Québec)

The engine facility is small, yet most elements are there. The inbound track is equipped with an inspection pit, a coaling tower, a sand house and an ash pit. A long supplies track act as a customer and will also serve a few diesel reservoirs. I’ll have to decide where the diesel fueling pad will go, but it will probably be on the outbound track. Monk roundhouse used to be quite large, but by the mid-1950s, it was abandoned and used as a saw mill. According to a map from the era, it was by then a 6-stall building, which could be easily replicated on the layout. The rest of the track plan is simple and self-explanatory.

This layout plan has been an exercise in restraint. It could have been easy to add to much stuff and in many cases, I removed tracks and structures to keep the scenes uncluttered and turnout count as low as possible without compromising the operational aspect. At this point, 14 turnouts would be the maximum required, which, honestly, is quite low given the scope of the project.

However, do I consider it visually balanced or even interesting? Could it work in my room without overwhelming the place? These are good question. The bridge scene, Armagh and Langlois Siding would be nested under 15” deep display cabinets while Monk Yard wouldn’t have any valence over it.

Rivière du Pin bridge, Armagh (credit: Dannick Fournier)

I believe having the yard as the focal point when entering the room is probably the most compelling way to present the layout. Not only is it the main component, but it is also the anchor to the various stories that can be told.

The second focal point would be the bridge scene. With a total span of 39”, this is a major visual component that creates a sense of distance while providing a majestic setup to show case locomotives and rolling stock. Then, the last major element that one could only see when entering the room would be Armagh, confirming the second role of this scene and stressing its inherent rural nature.  The final scene would be Langlois Siding which can be a little bit tricky to execute. One could be tempted to consider it a separate scene, however, the physical distance is almost inexistent. In my mind, it should be considered as a geographical location merged with Monk Yard. It isn’t unusual to have customers located within the yard limits and I feel it would be the best bet.

Will I dare to build a version of this design? I don’t know, but it is an interesting option to explore given the flexibility in term of rolling stock and how it repurposes a huge chunk of my collection. It is also an assessment about my interests in this hobby and how I relate to models.


Sunday, April 12, 2020

Weathering Track: The Last Step

When weathering track, most people will understand the need for having the right ballast and using realistic colors for ties and rails. Others will had oil spills and other such dirty deposit. However, a simple trick to improve the look is adding a coat of weathering powders on the track.

A light earth brown from AIM or other manufacturer over a camouflage brown paint base does wonders. Time consuming to apply, but a difference maker if you ask me.

Front track not weathered, rear track done. See the difference!

The pigment lighten and dust the rails, creating a realistic rust powder appearance. Also, the light shade makes details such as rail joiners, spikes and tie plates pop up, improving the overall appearance.

Front and rear track now weathered.

Finally, the powdery nature of the medium means a little bit will spill over ties and ballast, creating a realistic blend between the track and surroundings. It brings the track into the decor nicely.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Dufferin-Montmorency Highway Overpass - Mark II

Ten years ago, I built the first version of Dufferin-Montmorency Highway overpass. At that time, the club layout was focussing on Limoilou yard and it was used to create both a sense of place and hide the hole in the wall.

It was also my first modelling blog ever written here, so you can say this structure was part of Hedley-Junction DNA. For the new diorama/switching layout, I also need a model of the exact same structure. However, this time I decided to learn from my mistake and make a better job out of it.

Back then, I basically never used any kind of putty, never really thought about sealing wood and MDF components before painting even if I knew it would help a lot. I wasn't very keen on sanding too before applying primer and between coats of paint. But that structure did look cool and was a favourite of many people how visited the layout. Often, we considered reusing it, if only it could have fit the scene and space available.
Original overpass: blobs of glue and damaged material.

Before build the new overpass, I had to determine where to put it, how it would relate to the tracks and where pillars would be. Easy to say, but as you will find out later, I made a little mistake and had  to take strong measures to correct it.

Original overpass: paint had a different texture depending of material.


First step was to assess the structure. Back in 2010, I made several compromises in terms of height and pillar spacing. I also made the parapets far too high while making a few errors how the crossbeam supported the stringers (concrete beams). I thought I should follow the prototype closer, but in the end, I reused the same dimensions as my first scratchbuild. The reason was simple, the prototype span is larger than my layout width! Also, having only one span would look silly and wouldn't hide the fact there is nothing on the other side. Having a forest of pillars really helps to create the illusion of a real visual barrier. In that respect, artistic considerations has the upper hand.

The pillars create a new and interesting vantage point to railfan the trains.
Another decision was to have the overpass complete on both side. On the first version, it was facing a wall and I didn't bother. However, this time, the overpass is floating in the middle of nowhere and needs to look good on both side. Also, even if there is a wall, I still would do both side, because I thing it looks better when you see all the lanes. Cutting a lane in the middle wouldn't be visually interesting and creates that "cropped" image appearance I'm not too fond of. Think of it in the same way as flat structure against a backdrop. You reach a threshold when it no longer looks believable and the same apply with overpass hiding the end of a layout. Too many great layouts are visually ruined by these compromises that should have simply be avoided.

Original overpass: the drain pipes made of sprues are a detail to replicate

While workmanship on the original overpass wasn't top notch, it was still a well-thought piece of modelling, so I decided to keep the recipe and only improve it where I could. The original overpass was made out of styrene and MDF. The decking and beams are concrete and thus MDF was my first choice material. Pillars have neat flutings on their corners, thus they would be easier to scratchbuild out of styrene. The parapets have very intricate 1970s random grooved pattern which was extremely fashionable back in the days in civil engineering circles. They can only be convincingly modelled with styrene. As for the crash barrier in the middle, MDF was my first choice too.

As many knows, MDF and styrene glue together extremely well with thin CA glue. The bond is permanent and almost impossible to break. The MDF will delaminate before you can break the glue bond. Also, the bond is instantaneous. You don't have even half a second to wiggle the part in the right spot. It must be perfectly dry aligned, then glued in place. It may be, as you can guess, both a blessing and a curse. Learn to work with it, and it will open a lot of possibilities. Interestingly enough, CA glue on MDF can be easily sanded down to a glass-like finish. This is of extremely great importance because when painting materials with different porosity, you get variation in shines that look horrible and only get worst with weathering.

All surfaces sealed with CA. When primed, the wood grain disappear.

So here's another tip for working with MDF. Seal your component with thin CA glue. Apply it over all the faces and when dry, with fine sandpaper, polish the surface. Not only it will reducing warping in the long run, but the surface is perfect for painting. And it works also on regular wood. Since I didn't have enough MDF for the concrete beams, I used leftovers from a 3/4" thick pine plank. The CA glue helped me to completely hide the wood grain.

The central crash barrier was quite a challenge. The particular profile on such concrete barrier is hard to replicate. Back in 2010, Louis-Marie did it on a table saw, but as he explained me, it was the perfect recipe to lose a few fingers in the process. It was time to find a safer way to do it. The new process is simpler, I used a 1/4" plank of MDF that was about 3 inches high to have enough material to grasp in a safe way. On each side of the plank, I cut notches about 1/4" deep and 1/16" wide. Once the profile was right, I then cut it from the plank at the correct height, leaving an inverted T-shaped base. The barrier was then liberally covered in CA glue and when dry, I used a file to flare the base and top of the wall. I repeated the process several times, sanding down material until satisfaction. Interestingly enough, CA pooled into the "T" crevice which smoothed the profile, making a visually compelling slope. On my prototype, the crash barrier plinth is covered in galvanized sheet metal and I really wanted that detail to be carried on the model.

As for the order of assembly, I started by gluing the concrete beams (stringers) first on the deck. When dry, I cut the deck and beams on the table saw to length, making sure to induce an angle for visual interest. Then, the crossbeams made of 1/4" MDF were added. They do wrap at each ends around the beams, creating a "C" profile or a kind of clamp. All surfaces were sealed and sanded twice at this point.

It was then time to make the pillars. They are basically styrene boxes. To create the notches on the corners, I simply glued another sheet of styrene. All angles were sanded and round to look like cast concrete. Then, using a square and sandpaper, I made sure each pillar was perfectly perpendicular. As I said, CA glue, MDF and styrene aren't forgiving. you must dry test your parts before gluing. When everything was exactly as wished, pillars were located on the crossbeam in their exact position and thin CA glue was applied. It soaked right into the MDF, creating a very strong bond. Full disclosure: I did glue two pillars in the wrong place... I thought I would break the model when I had to take them apart. Not an experiment to replicate.

Oups! The pillars are too close to the track!

The last step was to build the parapets. They were crafted on the workbench and made longer than the overpass. I prefer to cut them to length once glued on it. They are made of several layers of styrene sheet and stripes to match the random prototype pattern. Later, a styrene railing with grace them.

A man can barely walk by the train without getting hit by the locomotive.

With the overpass almost completed and ready for paint, it was time to test it on the layout... and the biggest of my mistakes became instantly apparent. Maybe by sheer naïveté, I thought having the track quite close to the pillars wouldn't be too bad. Unfortunately, it looked both unrealistic and visually unbalanced. Basically, about 4 days of works for nothing.

Serious alignement issue
However, while looking at the track, it was evident they weren't straight. It was a little bit weird since I was certain the alignment with the pillars was correct when I planned the layout. Using a long straight edge, I found out the misalignment was severe, at least 3/8" which in HO scale is almost 3 feet. In another place, I wouldn't have minded such an insignificant detail, but given the trains were almost scratching the pillars, I had to to something.

Gaining 3/8" makes a great difference

Thanks to Lance Mindheim, I glued the track with white glue. After wetting the track again with water, it became soft again and I was able to move the track to the correct alignment. It certainly wasn't a walk in the park, but it did work. After soldering back the feeders, I tested the overpass again. Now it looked right! Yes, I lost half a day correcting my mistake, but I know it would have been detrimental to keep it as it was. In the process, I had to scrap the complex road I had painstakingly built to fit the track geometry... so no, it wasn't an easy decision to make.

Final location with road

Nobody is immune from mistakes and addressing them when they appear is what makes you a good modeller. In fact, a good deal of being a better modeller implies simply to learn to not compromises with shoddy results and try to fix them. It's the only way to improve as rebuilding from scratch this overpass proved us.