Friday, December 18, 2015

Planner's Christmas Musings

To me, Christmas has always equated with introspection. It is the time of the year when you look at what you have accomplished during the year and try to find sense in all that mess… you try to find out the true essence of things while you try to complete your RS18 project.

When I restarted my Quebec South Shore project, I had a lot of ideas on my mind. Particularly, a sight of small mixed and freight trains running in open countryside and serving very small rural towns. I could see the team track, the cattle pen, the freight shed and the depot. It was easy to envision cars of bagged grain, hopper delivering coal to locals and pulpwood being loaded. At this time, I knew I could have it all in a limited footprint because it is exactly what happened to thousands of North American communities for over a century.

Nailing the track plan wasn’t an easy task. I first started from scratch, adding a siding for pulpwood, adding a team track and adding a spur serving a mill. The result was a mess of track. In fact, the track density was so off it was hard to believe this was a rural station at all. Let’s be honest, most stations are nothing more than a runaround siding… often a stub siding… and once a while you get both. I know, I’ve studied hundreds of old photographs and maps.

As much as I’m open to freelancing, this isn’t a natural thing to me and at some point, if it doesn’t operate like the real thing, my interest dwindle. So I embarked in a journey to find suitable end of the line stations.

The big question was what could fit my available space… and defining the available space was in fact the real threatening issue. There is two ways to approach this problem and I think the twisted mentally of this hobby is embodied by the word “available” used a synonym for "must be used". We think about layout planning in terms of “available space”, but that’s the most insignificant aspect. We should think in term of enjoyable, realistic project size and resources. I find myself stupid - as a practicing architect - to never have used my own professional principles for layout design.

Now imagine you buy a 140 acres piece of land somewhere and plan to build a house on it. Would you seriously try to build a 140 acres home just because you have the available space for it? Even shrinking the project to 50% or 25% of the available space wouldn’t make any sense. In fact, the size of your new projected house will be determined by your needs (number of dwellers, their habits and occupations, etc.), your budget and the time you can commit to build and maintain the house. At some point, if you do your work correctly, you’ll find a sweet spot were most constraints are known and satisfied. It isn’t perfect, but realistic... and within the sweet spot, there are still a lot of possibilities to explore. In the end, you didn’t shrink you horizon but only cleared the unrealistic options that wouldn’t have answered what you are looking for. Now, you are ready to spend your effort on something that matters.

When I applied that to my home layout project, I quickly found out my available space was too large for my need… Yes, TOO large. It was clunky, eating a lot of real estate I already use for other purpose. Adding an extra inch here and there didn't make a decisive difference when compared to a slimmer footprint. Finally, I found out a 13” wide and 120” long shelf was the best for me in these conditions. Knowing that, I was ready to find a prototype that would suit my needs and ambitions.

I can’t say I found an answer yet, but I did discover many small branchlines that did a lot of stuff within very limited space. Temiscouata is a well-known case. Ontario’s Bruce branches are also very interesting prototypes that are about 120” long in HO. Finally, I found an article about a station in Frelighsburg, Quebec, initially operated by Central Vermont. This location was served by a mixed train and by regular freight trains. It was reported each consist was habitually a 2 to 5 cars affair. On each Tuesday, a special train affected to cattle would come to pick up animals ready to be sold on larger market. Shipping cream to Montreal and other large towns was also a profitable traffic on the line. Finally, a turntable, a water tank and an engine house serviced the locomotives. Add to this many colourful folks running this branchline and you get a good picture of this railway.

Now, can you imagine all of this happened on a single track mainline with a runaround and a diverging siding serving the turntable? Yes, Frelighsburg was a three turnout affair yet handled a variety of traffic. I even found a fire insurance map of the area and it scale down to HO scale. I call this a lesson of humility. It also means you can model this railway in limited space and still have enough scenery only zones to believe this is part of a larger world.


We can also apply this train of thoughts to Hedley-Junction. I’ve said it often over the last months, but I’m not the only one to consider the real operation core on our layout to be Donohue. The paper mill complex is 16” x 120”. Within this minimal space, one can work for an hour and half at a relaxed pace. Operation is fun to do there because you feel you are truly accomplishing something meaningful and realistically, not just switching cars for the sake of moving them. Funny isn’t? A basement filling layout can be summed up to nothing more than a shelf layout at the end of the day… 

If you take in account the fiddling area (Clermont’s yard), you find out this layout would occupy a 8’ x 10’ room. Rest assured this small portion of the larger layout keeps 3 club members occupied enought to neglect other parts of the layout! If I were asked to build a club layout again, I would kindly decline and do something much more realistic. I’ve learn over this process Jérôme is a hardcore operator loving industrial settings, Louis-Marie is a builder in the true sense of the word and I’m nothing more than a model railfan loving to watch other operate realistically. Oh, and take in account the total time you can pour into the project doesn't equal the sum of each members free time.

I don’t know when we started to assume in this hobby the more people on a project meant it had to be large and oppressive, but I feel it makes no sense to most people. There are a few select people, often natural leaders, which have what it needs to bring large scale projects to fruition. But most of us aren’t them. They make us dream and inspire us… That’s a great thing, but we should also recognize there’s a thin line between inspiration and mindless worship. I never entered this hobby to follow trends or a recipe that should bring me happiness. My happiness with train is very simple and can be described as my irrational admiration for the sheer spectacle of brute force and industrial beauty trains embody.

And let me conclude that by saying I feel the Hedley Junction adventure is far to reach its conclusion. Refining a vision is a never ending process that have little to do with step by step.

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