Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Bassin Louise: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

A few weeks ago, Jérôme organized an impromptu slide show depicting our early efforts at operation-oriented layout planning back in 2006 when our club was founded. We all had in mind the absolutely atrocious mess that was that layout in its final years, but it was quite interesting to see it in its first iteration, before the “I Want It All” had yet to take root. Funnily enough, this first concept was quite sound and in fact promising though our lack of experience meant we never exploited its inherent qualities, rather spreading its defects in the worst directions possible leading to a certain death by asphyxiation. If you don't mind, we will perfom a post-mortem analysis to understand what went wrong and how it have been made better...

The grain elevator was right in the middle.

This layout was based on Quebec City Harbour in the transition era, specifically the Bassin Louise area and the large grain elevator there. Back then, I was doing a lot of researches for my architecture classes and discovered many maps depicting the track arrangement of days. The place had a lot of charm and could easily translate into a coherent layout.

Ill-conceived DC blocks meant extreme track duplication.

From the start, our attempt was plagued by poor design criterion due to space limitation, but mainly caused by lack of knowledge. Like any beginners, snap-switches and 18” radius curves became our standard, thinking we could cram more interesting tracks on less space. It was a mistake but honestly, it didn’t cripple the layout. Using real #4 or even #5 from Atlas code 100 Customline products would have made operation smoother indeed and later on, we used a few of them as we learned the difference in geometry.

Stub ended sidings redesigned with useless runaround capability...

The other major limitation was DCC. From the start, we wanted two operators with dedicated and independent tracks. As you can already imagine, it forced us to double tracks were only one existed on the prototype. Is wasn’t that much of a bad move if it had been done with more insight, but we ended up with a “cool” and overbuilt row of crossovers and diamonds. It worked fine, but it did take up a lot of space that could have been saved for larger turnouts and radius.

Inability to select useful trackage from prototype created useless sidings.

Another problem was our lack of understanding about railway operations. For some reason, what were stub-ended sidings on the prototype became a mess of runarounds. I can’t recall exactly our train of thoughts, but it seems we overbuild many sidings, failing to see how a railway generally tries to make the most out of less. It shortened sidings a lot while forcing contrived track geometry once again.

Over-reliance on snap-switch made this yard extremely derailment prone...

A corollary of this stance was the over-reliance of switchbacks to the point I can no longer stand to see that track arrangement on others layout. As I previously mentioned, our sidings were poorly designed and to compensate the lack of storage capacity, we used switchback almost everywhere to add tracks in empty spaces that couldn’t be reached otherwise. It made our lives much more complicated than required while adding an extra layer of frustration.

Fear of lack of interest meant diamonds and switchbacks were used too often.

Our lack of knowledge and experience led us to think our frustration with the layout was due to a lack of points of interest – a common mistake among model railroaders and happily encouraged by manufacturers and the press for obvious reasons. Here and there, every empty lot became a railway mess, scuttling every good point the layout had. That was our pitfall, we knew something was wrong, but we couldn’t identify the root cause correctly… and that’s a shame. In fact, that layout wasn’t bad. We recall really interesting operating evenings in the early days of construction. The original concept of CN and CP operating a marine terminal and interchanging cars was a sound one and Bassin Louise was indeed a great design for an island layout. The proof is I recently redesigned that layout early this year as an around-the-walls layout. It does work well and I believe would make a compelling challenge to operate.

At least, the operating drawbridge gave plenty of flexibility when switching.

So, the real question is what could have we done to make the layout if we had known better? Here are a few things I would have done if given a second chance:
First, I would have converted our 5 locomotives to DCC. It certainly would have cost us quite a bit from the start, but this technology would have made track duplication irrelevant, thus saving money and space wasted by extra turnouts.

Second, by removing trackage due to DCC, we would have gained a lot of space for better turnouts. Peco Streamline code 100 turnouts or their code 83 equivalent would have offered better performance and less derailment. It also means siding capacity would have grown sensibly.

Third, redesigning two-ended siding to stubs and getting rid of useless switchbacks would have again saved a lot of track and space while improving capacity.

Fourth, adding staging cassettes for incoming trains would have made operation easier and given it a goal. The connection with the outside world was always a big issue and we failed in addressing it back then.

And fifth, implementing car spots. Simple isn’t it, but back then, we simply shoved a lot of car on a siding, unaware of classification and spotting, then called it a day. Working at trainset speed, you can understand why we felt the layout lacked interest and started to add more tracks. Such a simple thing would have made us aware the solution wasn’t about adding “stuff” but rather about “understanding” how things are used.

How could Bassin Louise be implemented as an around the wall design.

At this point, I still believe Bassin Louise was a nice prototype and a good one for a club. Probably better than many other harbour prototype. Though never fully build and without an inch of scenery, it was a very immersive layout. Operating from the inside meant you were actually surrounded by train all around you, which made operation evenings quite magical in some way. I do have some bits of nostalgia left for that layout. If I had a chance to revisit this concept, I would definitely give it a try, finding ways to make it simpler and less contrived.

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