Monday, August 26, 2019

A Satisfying Locomotive Project - CV 4550

I've been wondering if I should use "fun" in this post title... and felt it wasn't exactly the right word. What I feel when modelling is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Model railroading isn't fun... it's satisfying. I don't care about fun, it comes and goes... satisfaction is a more durable commodity.

I recently complained how I felt betrayed by RTR high end models that promises a lot of fun and deliver very little in terms of accomplishment. I discussed the matter with a well-known fellow modeller over the last few week and we agreed we felt better trying to make something out of a less than perfect model than fueling our lives waiting for disappointing pre-orders. Modeller and author Mike Cougill even went further, positing it was often better to start from scratch than try to fix what can't be fixed when you took in account the time and resources required.

In that regard, many will recall I mentioned a long time ago how I was still proud of my super detailed lowly Bachmann CP Rail RS3... a cheap model with an EcoTsunami decoder I bought for over $100 a few years ago. It was a fun project that provided hours of research and modelling.

That made me reflect on how we can approach locomotive modelling. Some people like long and tedious work on locomotive that last for an eternity… Months, if not years, collecting detail parts in hope of starting the project sometime… Dealing with complex drive and shell surgery, until every little detail has been altered. Been there, done that... and still likes it. Unfortunately, very few models came out of that protracted approach for obvious reasons.

Others prefer to simply buy and live with compromises. Something I also indulge in. However, sometimes I only want a fun modelling project, a no brainer that yields satisfaction at a decent cost and that can be done in a timely and efficient manner. It’s not a matter of winning a contest, but rather of accomplishing something of honest significance over a decent span of time. The kind of project you try to go as far as you can, pushing the limit over the "good enough" approach yet being aware of obvious pitfalls and that hard choices must be made to reach a conclusion.

After my recent trip in Maine and Vermont, I was ready for such a project and wanted to model some classic New England locomotives for the fun of it. Most of my custom locomotives for the club are done (except the SW1200RS which missing parts issue dried out my remaining interest in the short term) and I’m looking for new modelling challenges.

Green & Gold CN scheme surviving on CV (credit:

While browsing, I became aware Central Vermont rostered GP9s in classic green and gold livery well into the late 1970s (at least 1978) until they were repainted in the attractive Larson Green scheme. A quick analysis of pictures shown me I had most required details parts on hand and the missing ones were in stock in Canadian hobby shops and could be readily ordered from reputable sources at a decent price. Also, Central Vermont GP9s were fairly generic models and didn’t require extensive shell surgery. I also had the paint on hand (old Accu-Paint stock bought years ago in bulk) and could order quickly a set of decals.

Bachmann GP9 shell is sturdy and is decent enough to be superdetailed

Then, it was time to select a model to work with. I had several options: old Proto 2000, Athearn Genesis, Atlas, etc… but having recently ran my pair of customized Bachmann geeps on the layout, I kind of liked their performance and appearance. Bachmann geeps can be bought for about $60 online and provide a sound base for modelling. As for the decoder, technology changes so fast with sound decoders, I prefer to custom install something I will select myself to my specifications when I’ll need it rather than purchasing blindly.

Yes, I certainly won’t say it’s the best GP9 out there, but Bachmann did a decent job for what it is, particularly for customizing. On the mechanical side, the model is fairly reliable, quite heavy and performs well, particularly when you add a quality decoder. The shell lacks details such as grabirons, but for people interested in customizing, this is a plus. Indeed, no need to remove unwanted details and fill holes. In fact, drilling new holes with a custom template and adding wire grabirons only take a few minutes. Another interesting aspect is the shell sturdiness. It makes for a quite solid model that can take abuse when doing some kitbashing. No flimsy underframe details that explode or poorly glued parts. You can drill, hack and saw without fearing to ruin your investment.

Details such threadplate really add a layer of realism when dealing with budget locomotives

While crude in some respect due to lack of separately applied details, the tooling is simple but quite sharp and accurate.  One thing I like is the flush window panes. Their design is sturdy and they can easily be removed. Basics, but far superior to Athearn Genesis poorly glued glazing I had to deal with recently. In short, I would apply the phrase "good enough" to this model, in the sense it is a sound foundation to lay your work on. No profusion of weird details, annoying delrin parts or models that can be taken appart without removing a dozen of screws in the most unlikely places. Just a good plastic shell you can hack as you wish and glue everything you want.

But certainly, for this price, you must live with some short comings: obvious errors in paint scheme, lack of thread plate on running board, somewhat flat rendition of truck sideframes, etc. And yes, I did take that into account before starting the project. I knew I would have to live with a big shortcoming: it was a GP9 Phase II model while I needed a phase III. It meant the fuel tank was wrong, fuel filler in the wrong position and overall  grill placement on the body wouldn’t fit exactly my prototype. Also, handrails wouldn’t replicate standard Canadian practice, something Athearn Genesis Canadian GP9 did. However, I knew I could address most of these issues without too much effort and the model would be about 95% accurate when I would be done and with a price tag under $100. Certainly, I'm not eager at moving louvers, but I have no choice!

Not the correct pilot? It can be improved and made more prototypical in few minutes.

My biggest complaint with the shell is the shallow fan grill details on the roof. I honestly don’t know why Bachmann didn’t make them with more relief according to prototype. It wouldn’t have been hard and could have improved greatly the final appearance. That said, I had three Details West EMD GP9 see-through fan grill left from my Donohue switcher project. By luck, the fourth fan would be covered by a winter hatch.

A change of phase: a new fuel filler and sanded down louvers to be replaced with resin decals. 

Another shortcoming was the lack of thread plate. This detail does make a difference on models. Fortunately, I had Archer’s early EMD thread plate resin decals on hand and quickly improve the shell with them.

The biggest modification was relocating the fuel gauge and tank cap while reshaping the skirting to fit the prototype. I wasn’t sure I would do it at first, but it does better capture the feel of the real locomotive.

Once done, most of the project was about adding correct details to the shell: sunshades, horn, bell, spark arrestors, rerailer, brakewheel, air and mu hoses. It wouldn’t take long before the model was ready to visit the spray booth.

I certainly won’t get a museum-quality model out of a Bachmann GP9, but I’ll get a sturdy and reliable engine for layout use.  I took care to use durable materials and to cement them with glues and mechanical means that will withstand layout use (and abuse). I know my details will survive instead of popping out of the shell each time my finger touch them. No place for flimsy assemblies because this model was custom made for specific needs. Maybe my needs will be different next time and my methods will have to be adapted...

Also, I’ll see the end of the project before my retirement and I had already several enjoyable hours thinkering with it. As I discussed with a friend recently, I’d rather have a lot of fun doing actual modelling and bashing with a lower end model than get frustrated with a highly priced locomotive that doesn’t live up to my expectation. When I pay $60 for a Bachmann, I know perfectly what I’m buying and the obvious shortcomings. With some love and dedication, I get a pretty model I’m proud of. On the other hand, for $325 my expectations are far higher and each small issue adds up to months of dissatisfaction. At the end of the day, for each dollar invested, I’ve got to ask myself where I get the most joy out of my investment… It may no longer fashionable to buy cheap models and turn them into head turning locomotives because we have been spoiled by manufacturer, but it is where I have fun…

Blending everything under a good coat of primer.

I’ll be honest, the reason why I'm writing about this is quite simple. I was saving money last Spring to pre-order a well-known and long awaited classic Canadian model which I had to kitbash several time in the past. However, my recent experience with museum-quality models made me reconsider this move. Instead, I used this money to purchased a few low budget Bachmann GP9/S4 and Atlas Classics RS11 locomotives that were on sale with decals and detail parts. No, I won’t feed social media with unboxing videos of fashionable models… but I know I have still a few interesting modelling weekends in front of me… Expect a lot of classic Central Vermont, Maine Central and Vermont Railway modelling soon… just for the fun of it! 

Let's not kid ourselves, it isn't museum-quality, but an honest replica.

And that brings us to something more fundamental that varies from modeller to modeller. What do we get out of that hobby. No one knows that when he picks up this hobby, but over the years, patterns appear and it is dumb to fight against them. It has been clear in this blog I take pride morphing cheap models into more prototypical objects. I like analyzing the potential of a model, looking for a suitable prototype (or vice versa) and bringing that vision to life. This is my solace, in a very monastic way. It soothe my mind and inspire me to get better at what I do. I certainly don't believe it is the only way, but it gave me countless meaningful hours in the past, learning about railroads and their history.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

JMRI Operation In Action

Over the last week, work on the layout came to a halt. Not due to lack of interest, time or resources, but rather to enjoy actually running trains, troubleshooting the track work once more before scenery is applied and to gauge how our JMRI Operation programming perform.

Leased CN 9423 switching a cut of empty cement cars at Villeneuve

So far, intense rail polishing over the layout help to greatly reduce electrical issues. At this point, I’m confident to say 95% of the rails are perfectly clean, which greatly improved operation. We simply use a 1” x 2” MDF block with 220 grit sandpaper firmly glued on it. It does a great job and keeping one at hand helped to track down issues without wasting time cleaning all the track at once.

In term of locomotive, my Atlas GP40-2 CN 9423 is now fully operational. It was weathered and got a decoder a few months ago, but we finally programmed it and wired back the ditch lights. So far, this locomotive performs beautifully and smoothly. The sound is a little bit low and will need tweaking. I wouldn’t be surprised I’ll have to improve the speakers in the future, but so far, it’s quite satisfying to operate with an actual locomotive that visited the Murray Bay Subdivision at that time.

As for JMRI Operation, we had a rickety start because I fiddled too much with cars which caused errors. Besides that, we found out I over complicated how Clermont and Villeneuve yard works. In general it is fine; however some cars have weird and erratic movements that don’t fit their normal behavior. It seems I’ll have to reprogram some tracks and routes to make sure car flow is more fluid in the future.

I could reprogram everything now, but I prefer to run JMRI Operation as it is right now to track down more bugs.

These operation sessions were also a good excuse to get rid of many cars no longer fitting the prototype era. Several older kaolin tank cars and insulated boxcars were removed as a result. Jérôme also share my opinion several of our cars will benefit detail upgrades. It has been decided that every blue box era covered hopper on the layout will now receive the Tichy ladder rungs treatment. It shouldn’t take too long to do.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Good Enough... An Ever-Evolving Notion

There is no shame coming back a model and making it better. Mike Cougill’s recent blog posts show us clearly the benefit of reflecting upon one’s work and bringing it back to the workbench for improvement. If you only move forward with each project and never address what went wrong, your skills won’t improve that much. It will certainly take some precious time understanding how to address the situation, but honestly, it won’t go to waste.

While my focus with the club layout fleet isn’t the same as Mike’s desire to recreate an almost perfect rendition of a car, I am also bothered by details that are inconsistent. When you mix together cars from several manufacturers with different level of details, you end up with visual discrepancies that can really break the immersion. In this case, I’ve updated several old Athearn Blue Box era covered hoppers with wire grabs and Tichy ladder rungs. Keeping one of them unmodified is just to glaring to be overlooked… even if I completed the car’s weathering a few weeks ago.

A few years ago, these coarse ladders were "good enough"... they no longer are.

I know many people would consider this weathered car “good enough”. I certainly have no issue with that notion, but in my case, I see “good enough” as a moving goal post. What I considered good enough 10 years ago is different from what I now consider good enough. This mindset is a positive one when it helps you to move forward and make sensible choices so a project goes forward. What was considered a road block in the past – let’s say making custom brass handrails or parts – may now be a part of your skills. Why stay stuck in the past, accepting compromises no longer required?

I’ll soon post a few blog posts about decision to buy a cheap Bachmann GP9 diesel and turn it into a proper Central Vermont prototype. I’m perfectly well aware this model won’t win prizes or be worth showing at a RPM event, but I also know it provides countless modelling opportunities. What I did overlook a few years ago when bashing the same locomotive, I can’t do anymore. My notion of good enough moved forward. I’m no longer satisfied with incorrect louvers placement because I know how to efficiently remove and add them. Moving a fuel filler would have been a hurdle back then… now it’s a matter of a few minutes. Will I replace the less than perfect Bachmann Bloomberg trucks with better sideframes made by Athearn or another manufacturer? Maybe. Will I dare to replace the wrong phase fuel tank with a kitbashed one? Probably? As you can see, the goal post moved…  Good enough no longer means a decent approximation in this case, but care to make sure all major components specific to this locomotive are in the right place. This time, what is good enough for me is starting with a lower end locomotive to make significant economies. The compromise is made on the fact I know the Bachmann shell lacks a lot of details but is sturdy enough and well design to perform well on a layout. Given the price, the detail parts I already had on hands and the fact it would provide hours of satisfaction, I thought it was good enough for me. If I ever make another Central Vermont GP9 in the future, maybe I’ll start with another model because my notion of good enough will evolve.

In conclusion, good enough shouldn’t be seen as a cheap shortcut, but has a sensible choice made to reach a goal given the circumstances. From there, you can move forward (and should if you care about what you are doing). Also, it should be applied with some consistency. You can’t be a rivet counter trashing everybody because their models are subpar according to your standards while your layout seems like what a high school student’s best effort done in a weekend. In that regard, I have far more sympathy toward someone who’s good enough efforts are geared toward achieving a coherent vision. If you don’t care about consistency, at least be honest with it. It’s your hobby and you are free to have different interests. I certainly have no problem with people enjoying the train set aspect of this hobby when they perfectly know what they are doing.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Improving Blue Box Covered Hopper With Tichy Details

Today's entry is about a improving cheap cars again. Because it is satisfying to take mundane objects and transcend their inherent limitations.

For decades, modeller’s have removed cast on details on countless freight cars and replaced them with wire grabirons. It is a “passage obligé”, some tedious action most prototype-oriented modellers will deal with to some extent. Some will simply abandon, others will do it only when they feel it matters and the rest will simply purchase higher end models to put an end to their misery.

Typical Athearn Blue Box end cage.

Why we do it is obvious and while it does make sense when dealing with a few select models, it becomes a senseless endeavour when dealing with a fleet of vintage or lower budget cars. In my case, I built a fleet of covered hoppers over the years by assembling a rolling stock from various manufacturers and quality. Inevitably, you end up with beautiful state of the art models coupled with crude approximations from the Blue Box era, or worst, trainset origin. What can you do? Well, there is some hope.

Typical Athearn Blue Box end cage.

To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of removing all molded on grabirons from hoppers then drilling dozens of holes with a #78 drill bit then gluing an equal amount of wire detail parts. I recall doing it on a cheap Model Power cylindrical hopper back in my high school day and what an experience it was! However, it generally pays off by giving a better sense of scale and creating the impression the car is an assembly of components rather than a blob of plastic.

While it yields nice results, it is not only time consuming but also requires a lot of precision. Indeed, if one grab is not aligned, the end result is ruined. Also, drilling tiny holes on flimsy structural members isn’t always the greatest idea, particularly when two perpendicular grabirons are at the same level. We find tricks to deal with that, but it is still a tedious and risky process. No wonder some people simply replace the end cages with new photo-etched ones... Depending your end goal, this can be a truly pertinent answer, but in the case of Hedley-Junction, this is a little bit overkill.

Grabirons made of styrene stripes are decent, but not under close inspection.

No wonder a few years ago, I decided to take a shortcut and simply cut the plastic grabirons, file done their remnants and replace them with thin styrene stripes. Some people do use 0.010" diameter styrene rod for much more realistic results. Let's be honest, it certainly saves a lot of time and do look good from afar. However, upon closer inspection, the illusion fades away and your model does indeed still looks crude compared to a better model. I know, it gets on my nerve when operating.

Tichy ladder rungs definitely improve the cage end

But there is a better solution that takes away this shortcoming: Tichy styrene 18” ladder rungs. These ladder rungs are even easier to apply than styrene stripes, while providing better details including bolt castings on both ends. Certainly, this part is only good when dealing with straight grabirons, but yet provides an efficient way to improve average-looking models. I even think the bolt details look better than the usual wire option. When painted, the Tichy ladder rungs blend together seamlessly with the model and create a homogeneous aspect you don’t get with wire. It feels like a finely manufactured end cage such as Intermountain cars.

Still looking good under closer scrutiny, only subtle paint retouches needed.
So, at the end of the day, when prototypically-correct and relevant to the model, Tichy ladder rungs not only provide a more compelling look to end cages, but are also much easier and faster to install, requiring less tricky preparation work. It is a sensible way to improve old blue box kits to better standard while keeping sanity. The results are convincing given the context and final goal.

Now, do I wish to go the next step and upgrade my covered hopper roofwalks with photo-etched parts? Well, these parts are not cheap at all and ones must take into account that factor, particularly when the metal parts have almost more value than the kit itself!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

JM Huber Hopper - More Weathering

Another hopper weathered. Slowly, but certainly, I'll see an end to this project of weathering 100% of the fleet.

This hopper is a custom decorated Athearn BB kits that should represent a Trinity-built hopper. Unfortunately, the correct car doesn't exist in HO and would require kitbashing a very expensive and discontinued Walthers car with parts from an Atlas hoppers. Something I'm not eager to do... I've better thing to do with $150.

Like many other JM Huber hopper, weathering is light and I tried - with little success - to replicate light rust spots developing on the sheet metal. It was my first time and visibly, it shows. I hope to do better, but this foobie was a good opportunity to learn.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Thinking Out Loud Again...

It seems the month of August always makes me approach model railroading with with a philosophical grain of salt, Once again, I'm back at thinking out loud, letting ideas flowing freeling even if maybe they means nothing, knowing perfectly that writing them shapes them into more concrete concepts that can then be measured to their true value...

Designing a home layout can be quite a tricky issue. Many hit that wall and books about the subject are, indeed, abundant. While they are all helpful in some way, most of them tackle the issue of a first “serious” layout… but don’t really dabble into a layout for a well-seasoned modeller. It assumes we will find our groove or niche at some point and will stay stuck in it for the rest of our lives. Such a thing isn’t true.

Most of us have evolving goals, tastes and interests. A core of permanent things will stay in place, but honestly since we are builders, once things are done, we need a new challenge. Managing these fleeting feelings within the design process isn’t always quite clear or easy. Our obsession with efficiency leads us to believe everything that is wasted or scrapped it a pure lost while it shouldn’t be seen that way.

In my mind, the moment you tackle a hobby project, you know you are in waste territory. You are definitely not there for the money or to make the most rational choices. If it was the case, no layouts would be built because they are, basically, pipe dreams. However, what we are seeking is generally a challenge, a sense of achievement and to pursue a somewhat artistic vision or sets of goals.

In my case, my core interests are well-defined after almost 3 decades in this hobby. However, it is extremely hard to let coalesce all these conflicting and time-consuming goals into something satisfying.

Should I define my interest by a single prototype or should I rather try to focus on a general vibe that fits my goals and vision? For at least a decade, I’ve been hunting for a prototype that would give a comprehensive answer to my questions and aspirations. Some came close, most failed. It seems to me it was not the way I wanted things to be done. On the other hand, going completely loose felt it wouldn’t be “honest”, “prototypical” or even “adequate” due to my experience in this hobby. In my mind, a voice was telling me a serious modeller must be serious in his approach to deliver inspiring and well researched results… Presumptuous I know, but such is peer pressure, the one you imagine and that doesn’t really exist.

I know for sure I don’t need a lot of layout to be happy, nor a complex track plan or operations. I also know I have fondness for poorly managed railroad infrastructure and small-time railroading. I don’t care for mainline and neat larger locomotive – whatever the era – I want character and story-telling. Maybe it takes its roots in the fact I had to live with 4’ x 4’ layouts for almost 15 years… That said, basement empires depress me… nice to see, not for me. I have enough of Hedley-Junction on my plate to not start another never-ending enterprise. That said, I also know my interest lies mainly in freight cars. I fondly love them as much as I don’t care for passenger cars which I find absolutely boring and devoid of industrial ugliness. Finally, I have a short span of attention when dealing with projects. The smaller they are, the more I deliver.

Remark how so far, I didn’t even spoke about prototypes, eras or locales. They are, indeed, mainly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

Two recent trips in Vermont and Maine helped me to open my eyes to a reality. Maybe I don’t need a prototype-focussed layout, but simply a layout as a canvas. A realistic and practical track plan, a decent enough size to feel it’s a real place without feeling overwhelmed and the opportunity to model with care things that matters to me.

The layout I have in mind isn’t great, compelling or impressive. In fact, it is absolutely boring by all common set of values held by this hobby. I can see short trains, low density industrial trackage, derelict team tracks and a few structures. All of them can be easily replaced, rebuilt, enhanced over time. The canvas supports projects and frames them, giving them a goal and a sense of purpose. A prototype? I don’t care. I know I like roads that could be seen in Quebec and Northeastern states. CN, CP, CV, MEC, VTR, BAR… Fair enough for me…

I kind of recall my child days, when my layout was extremely simples. Some days, I felt I wanted to run CN trains and set the right locomotive and caboose on the track and simply adjusted the number of CN freight cars to recreate the right vibe. Some other days, it was CP and small variations were done to comply with the theme. This is something I miss. A freedom not associated with the “I want it all” mentality, but rather about how you feel about your hobby and what you want to craft.

Too often, I’ve slaved over a prototype only to find out that when it was done, it was the end of it. My shelves are loaded with specifically scratchbuilt and kitbashed projects that never saw a decent amount of use because they were simply no longer relevant or motivating when done. Do I advocate for a whimsical approach? Not really. My interests are quite clear in my minds, I simply don’t want to tie me to some ultra-specific goals that hold no more interest once achieved.

That brings me back again to my vision of a small home layout. Small trains, small operations, small footprint. If I want to run a CV local switcher, let it be… If it is CN, I wish I can do it as fast as taking a CN locomotive out of my shelves and putting it on the rails. As for industries, generic warehouses, a feed mill and a team track are all I need. Wants to back date the layout, simply replace one structure by another built to a similar footprint. Maybe the late 70s steel industrial warehouse can be replaced by an older brick one, completely changing the layout theme. Modern Canadian crossbucks at the grade crossing are replaced by American ones and we just moved a few miles south of the border. Since all my favourite roads interchanged between them in a relatively small geographical area, most freight cars can be used whatever the layout theme is for the day. Remove a few modern ones and you are in 1975 or add a nice NSC newsprint boxcar and you are now firmly in the early 1980s.

Such is my vision. A canvas that fits my inspiration and not that rigid frame the hobby promote. It doesn’t mean sloppiness. Not at all! Simply flexibility to acknowledge moving interests… In fact, it would be better to compare this to an atom. Consider the various hobby interests to particles forming an atom. From afar, they look almost monolithic and form a easily recognizable element. But from a nearer vantage point, they are distinctively vibrating and moving within a strong field of common influences. Such should be my home layout… something that can survive the passage of time without ending in the dumpster when interest is gone!