Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Thinking Out Loud – Part 7

This series of blog posts is taking me in varied directions I never envisioned! From layout design to turn of the century Canadian modelling, it’s been a fun endeavour albeit mostly a virtual one…

My desire to take action led me to launch my personal project to show that pre-CNR model railroading is an achievable goal. While I’m not planning a layout, I feel I have the duty to do a few demonstration projects because lack of motive power often translates in lack of motivation for many people. My guess? It’s probably not harder than modelling the following decades of steam operation in Canada. It's why we will explore a few reasons why Model Turn-of-the-Century (TOC) Canadian Railways. And don't freak out, I will also list arguments against it.


Before Canadian National was formed between 1919 and 1923, the railway scene in Canada was varied and graced by the presence of numerous actors of all size (well, it stayed true to some extent, but CNR and COP domination was overwhelming). Well established companies were competing against newcomers in an intricate game of power and influence. There are a lot of prototypes to choose from.

In that era, many companies were modernizing their fleet meaning vintage 4-4-0 operated along the most recent innovation on the market. If you want to run larger steam engines but still like the look of older motive power, you are in the right time. A quick survey of CNoR pictures available online showed me that in 1907, they rostered 4-4-0 with fluted domes and wood cabs, modernized 4-6-0 and just started to operate brand new large 2-8-0.  If you like Canadian Pacific, you can even throw in some experimental Mallet in the Rockies.

There’s also diversity in rolling stock since industry standards were evolving very fast with the introduction of all steel construction. From 28ft boxcars to 40ft OSB boxcars from the late WW1, you’ve got a lot of choice. Model Railroad Hobbyist published an article about freight car trucks evolution showing the impressive diversity of technologies at that time. Small details like trucks make a big difference!

Diversity because it was a time when Canadian rolling stock was a little bit more than a continuous string of red oxide cars. CNoR rostered a fleet of attractive white reefer (Atlas made a nice looking O scale version of the CNoR Quebec reefer), Grand Trunk had a few colourful cars too. Passenger cars were also more diverse.


This argument is self-explanatory, TOC trains were smaller both in length and car size. It makes them highly useful to model in smaller spaces. It also translates in less compression and more realistic scenes and track plans. I scaled a few major locations in Quebec City from insurance maps and most of them fit very tight quarters. If you remember what I said in previous Thinking Out Loud instalments, it’s all related to the achievable layout concept.


Paint schemes and data

Painting an early 20th century locomotive is much more exacting than painting the entire engine black and slapping adequate decals on it before call it a quit. Modellers who dabble in that time period and real life locomotive restorers know it is far more complex than that. Back in the days, many locomotives were painted dark green. Unfortunately, if you don’t look at first hand data from the original order, you are bound to believe they were black. That’s the plague of black & white photography. Now, imagine you are an amateur like me, working with very little information, low to medium resolution scanned pictures and a very little access to first hand evidence… you’re definitely bound to make a lot of mistakes. At least, one thing must be clear, the change from colorful paint schemes to a drab coat of black took several decades. War restrictions, economic down turn and change in fashion slowly but surely affected the industry.

Working as an architect specialized in heritage building restoration and having done some academic research in that domain, I came to doubt about the so-called accurateness of restoration projects I’ve seen. When you visit, you are always assured the professionals did their “utmost” to make it looks as it was back then, only to find out the most basic errors have been made and the result isn’t no more than a patchwork of overlapping layers of interpretation. Unfortunately, even the most careful professional will hit a wall when data no longer exist and he must fill the gaps as best as he/she can. The only thing that changes is how much effort they will put in making sure they pushed that wall as far as they can.

That said, we must strive to find a decent “compromise” without losing sleep over it! As knowledge surface, it will be easier to do a good job at representing period paint scheme. Fortunately, most major Canadian railways of the time didn’t seem to have favoured outlandish paint schemes. They follow general North American practices of their time. Bringing these paint schemes back to life via modelling is a very motivating challenge in itself. As for commercial decals, there's hope I guess.

Nostalgia (or lack of)

This is a limitation identified by Steve Boyko in a recent comment and I gave it a lot of thoughts. It seems superficial at first, but he put the finger on something that's grounded in human psychology.

It’s well known our dedication to this hobby is fuelled by nostalgia or raw emotion. Unfortunately, nobody actually alive ever experienced that era except a handful of individuals. The chances you witnessed a Canadian Northern consist passing by your backyard is probably zero. As for the transition era, even if we are many to not have known it first hand, we are flooded by a wave of people who did know about it and documented it in detail.

By example, my interest in Quebec Railway Light & Power is more than curiosity for a historic road. My father did see it in action back in the 40s and 50s and told me about the sparking trolleys and old abandoned roadbed he play on. These are vivid memories that have been passed down to me. Unfortunately, I have no such relation with the Grand Trunk and Intercolonial, and since railfanning was virtually without a voice back then, we can’t recall the era by looking at it through the eyes of fellow hobbyists as we can after 1934.

Since we tend to recreate what we know well (old or actual), it’s hard to be drawn to that era. I suspect only a few individuals are genuinely fascinated by that era enough to dare modelling it. John Ott is such an example among many others (Aquia Line, Stockton & Copperopolis, etc.). My small goal here is simply to make it clear to such minded people that TOC Canadian modelling is viable and interesting, and probably as rewarding as building a neat Colorado mining layout of same era.

P.S.: While talking with people involved in the decals trade (when hunting decals for my project), I've been told that when CDS Lettering stopped making dry transfer a few years ago, the remaining stock of GTR locomotive lettering sold like hot cakes. They are now virtually impossible to find while other old time CDS dry transfer can be easy found. To some extent, it means interest in the era does indeed exist but the question remains unanswered: has anybody built and painted a “correct” Grand Trunk locomotive?

By the way, I've been told by Louis-Marie work on our Murray Bay Subdivision club layout won't start before the end of August. But don't fear, the Grand Trunk and Harlem Station projects will fill the gap meanwhile.


  1. Clare Gilbert, owner of Sylvan Scale Models, built many nice early GTR engines. In fact, some of them are shown on the NMRA Achievement Program web site.

  2. Direct link to Clare's article:

    1. Excellent! First time I see excellent models of Grand Trunk. It's sad pictures aren't very good, but the amount of work Clare Gilbert put in them show very well. Thanks for sharing this beautiful work. It's extremely motivating.