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.


  1. Just do it!
    I've made Fitzpatrick and it's work! J'aimerais envoyer mes trains dans les Appalaches!!! envoie moi ton courriel en privé. je tenverrai des photos de mon Fitzpatrick

    1. Bonjour Yvan! Merci des encouragements! Oui, j'ai souvenir de ton réseau, il me semble avoir déjà vu des photos. C'était convaincant!