Sunday, September 27, 2020

Framing a Layout: A Footprint Doesn't Dictate the Level of Action

 As I move forward to finally build something in my hobby room - maybe a layout? - I try to get a better understanding of what I'm trying to do. Maybe thoughts have crossed my mind since I've been starting to seriously take a look at that challenge. Several concepts I've designed over the years have clashed together and are now starting to coalesce into a more coherent vision.

I recall, many years ago, submitting the idea of displaying several dioramas in this room, each one dedicated to my various interests in railroading. At first, I envisioned this by a series of independent layouts stacked one over the other around the room. While a nice idea, it was plagued to become a collection of dead ends; well-crafted layouts with little purpose.

Later, I came with the idea of trying a layout that would run around the room. As much as I'm not a fan of layouts based on simply having a train running in the middle of nowhere, I must  admit many of my locomotives and freight cars have completely a single loop in almost two decades. This is a shame. I have enough freight cars and locomotives to weathered, detail and improve for a lifetime. Much more than I need to be honest and I know too well I'm not about to sell them. It would be nice to appreciate them from time to time. But in a more pragmatic way, I have no place to break-in my locomotives and program them in a decent fashion. It may sounds ridiculous at first, but it means I have quite a handful of rolling stock with serious mechanical issues due to not having ran enough since I acquired them.

Another point to take in account is the fact I have appreciation for trains from various eras and I must acknowledge it. Trying to fit it all in a single layout theme is an impossible task. It would result in a badly executed product that would fail to deliver anything convincing in terms of realism. However, I'm not that much eager to constrain myself to a single theme. This is why over the last decade I've been trying to understand what is at the core of railroading in North America, particularly in the Northeast (Ontario, Quebec, NB & New England). Some regular patterns have emerged that can act as a common core that bonds many eras and locales. This is something I'd like to exploit.

Also,  I've also discovered our vision field constrains how we can interact and get immersed in a scene. I'm more than convinced that we generally can get comfortable in about 7 to 8 linear feet, maybe 10 feet if you take a chance. Anything over that gets blurry and you need a scenic break or a subdued transition zone before moving over to another interest area. Lance Mindheim called it the Scenery Only Zone, but I've come to compare it to song composition in an old blog post. I really think this has to do with ergonomic and the human body in the same way the size of doors, windows and rooms relate to us. I've seen it in action on Hedley-Junction where scenes in our Villeneuve sections are far too long while the most recent Charlevoix areas are better defined.

Finally, I have a serious problem keeping myself focused when modelling. I am absolutely unable to follow a schedule or a coherent plan even if I do this everyday in my line of work. Most people can't understand how much keeping this blog alive made it possible to have so much coherence in our Hedley-Junction project. But be assured, this is abnormal for me and takes a lot of efforts!

Put all these things together and here's what you will see. I've been able to create interesting parts of layout for the hobby rooms. Scenes that pleases me. But when I try to spread them all over the room, I'm far to be impressed. Also, each theme comes with a particular set of restrictions that goes against my will to put my collection in action. In this regard, my desire for realism hits a wall if I go the fully prototypical way. In that regard, Hedley-Junction and Harlem-Station are two layouts I've built which satiate my appetite for replicating real locations. I'm not sure I want to thread this path for the home layout which is less operation focused and more about railfanning.

For theses reasons, I've came to the conclusion I should set a shelve on each wall, lay a loop around the room and then work on one scene. The Quebec South Shore diorama I presented a few days ago fit the bill. It is generic but yet prototypical in the sense it is based on a real set of rules found on railways, structure I wish to build are indeed real-life prototype and it can support both light operation and railfanning .By following the prototype rules and taking root in real life imagery that means something to me, this generic diorama is a perfect background for CN, CP, MEC, CV and all these roads I like. Be it steam, early diesel or later eras, it keeps its relevance and stay pertinent. The choice of industry is basic but representative and can support the use of many car types. Better, the continuous run makes it possible to both operate small local freight, passenger trains and large freight consists with multiple unit.

Interestingly enough, this scene is self contained. In about 12 feet of linear space, a world in minature is created, both immersive and compelling. Better, this project leaves the 3 other walls as blank canvas for future diorama that can be operated in the same fashion. They can depict whatever I wish, be it a QRL&PCo river scene, an early 20th century rural station, a simple overpass or a bit of Baie-Saint-Paul. The idea is not to go in the "I want it all" fest, but rather to create modelling opportunities for the future. I know a layout has a limited shelf life once completed. Having the opportunity to consider each wall as a self-contain scene means I can redo parts when I'm ready to build something else or even refurbish what I have when better skills are acquired. All these individual scenes, each framed by a cabinet section, would share a common running loop and there would be no need to fear anachronism single the trains of a particular era would be operated by getting immersed in a single diorama at once.

Another thing I like about this idea is its incremental nature. The loop can be quickly put in place and running. Building the first diorama will be also a simple endeavor. Also, I must take into account my health issues and professional responsibilities. My hobby time is limited and I prefer to make the best of a small area than waste my time trying to fill up my room. The end goal is running trains, having fun, modelling prototypically grounded models and doing some light operation for the sake of enjoying some action and sharing the collection.

If I may conclude, I found out over the last few months I didn't need nor wanted a large layout but only a way to interact with trains and immerse myself in this creative world. I made the mistake to conclude running large trains meant a large layout. I made the mistake to think a diorama or a switching layout was incompatible with continuous run. I made the mistake of repeating a lot of ridiculous assumptions made by this hobby which always create the false dichotomy between the ideal layout and the compromise layout. As if the idea layout had to absolutely be large to fulfill large dreams which is probably the most ridiculous idea out there in this hobby. Isn't ridiculous to think a continuous run means a continuously scenicked layout? Isn't ridiculous a switching layout should be a terminus at all cost (nothing against them, they are cool)

The funny thing is that I only started to realize you could more with little by watching a lot of British modellers' YouTube videos. Not the finest ones, not the finescale ones, simply the average Joe ones. Those who aren't at the top of their game, but are clearly learning lessons from experimenting with their hobbies. Their approach struck me because they had a surprising validity beyond their low bro appearance. They shared a similar vision to the better examples from the UK: they were a slice of world where you could have a glimpse and enjoy the trains. Trains could run continuously, but it didn't meant the builder over extended his vision, but he simply made in such a way the outside world could still exist whatever the size of the layout. It meant to me that the size had nothing to do with the amount of action occurring. The most simple location - be it a flag stop - was still part of a network and didn't have to be the most complicated staging ever or a series of insufferable gimmicks. I all had to do with framing your subject.

That brings me to my initial point: I find it hard to frame a subject when it must fill a room. Give me a limited space and I'll have a vision. Give me a large room and it fills like the blank sheet syndrome. It is probably why I always come back to my old Quebec South Shore design experiment because it distillates what railroading in the Northeast means to me: rurality, feed mills, muddy team tracks, small roads and ondulating topography. As long as I can find these common features, I feel in my element and can dream of a local Central Vermont train, a large CP Rail consist or a CNR Mikado pulling a string of single sheated boxcars or hoppers.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm ready to get myself a pair of IKEA Ivar shelves, build a benchwork and lay some tracks. No real idea how it will turn out, but judging by my past efforts, I believe it will make sense and pass easily for Quebec Central Tring Subdivision, CP Newport Sub, NTR Monk Subdivision and many other tracks crossing the border.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Quebec South Shore Railway - Mark V: Framing a Subject

Once again I'm at it, revising years old layout designs to implement new ideas picked up here and there and based on my experience.

Many years ago, I built an experimental layout based on Quebec South Shore. It was about the end of an semi-abandoned fictive line by the 80s serving a feed mill and some various customers at a team track. It was basically designed on the fly, using track and structures on a baseboard until I got a visually interesting result. It was surprisingly interesting for what it was, but when I tried to expand it, it failed.

Original QSSR with its extension

The failure was simple to understand. It was a matter of outreaching too much. The layout was originally conceived to be a single visual unit about the length of a hollow core door. Now it was two door long. The extra length was necessary as it acted as a staging track and to provide a runaround. However, it was poorly implemented from a visual standpoint.

Fortunately, Neil Schofield has recently posted a lot of pictures of his lovely New England based layout set in the 1980s CP Rail Newport Subdivision. Neil does something not many people do when they think about designed scenery: he hides the trains. Be it behind structures, roads, barns, embankments, cuts, viaduc, he always find a way to create a playful and visually dynamic game of hide and seek. It creates various vantage points that grounds the trains in the topography in a very realistic manner.

Raised foreground enhance the sense of distance (credit: Neil Schofield)

Another source of inspiration has been British modelling. Brits are "blessed" often with ingrate spaces and rooms to build layouts. A strong tradition of dioramas, cameos and self-contained layouts has existed for decades and take advantage of it. The interesting things about their designs is the way they stage their trains and how they enter the layout. Clever use of tunnels, bridges, overpasses and buildings create various scenic dividers. If done well, you end up with an immersive scene that feels like a block sawn out of the real world.

Illusion of depth to frame an entrance (credit: Chris Nevard)

Equipped with these design ideas, I tried to revisit my Quebec South Shore layout again. I also draw inspiration from my various railfanning trips done in New England last year.

The new design is basically what I would call a typical "railway unit" all over North America: a passing track, a siding to a local business, a team track and a depot. Using dimensions from a British chap having built a similar switching layout, I decided to use a 5 x 50ft car long runaround track with a switching lead long enough to not require a cassette. Based on my experience with my previous layout, I decided to base the design on a feed mill/builder supply to provide switching opportunities (I've drawn two sidings but one could suffice). This industry is probably the most ubiquitous along railways and Tom Johnson made a name for himself by simply modelling these all over again. It is also a common occurrence to see such a row of aligned wooden/steel clad structure on rural branch lines.

A staging track lies beyond the overpass (credit: Mike Cawdrey)

Once these basic choices done, I had to take into account two big flaws: create a sense of trains coming from somewhere and hiding how the main line disappear at both end. Here enters Neil Schofield. On my previous layout, there was an overpass with a long road leading to it. It worked well but everything beyond was alien. I had no need for two separate scenes. Thus, it came to me that the track beyond the overpass should be considered staging. When the train is beyond the small overpass, you can't see it anymore. It also creates a sense of distance. However, if you can see directly the train beyond the overpass from the aisle, the effect is lost. Similarly to my East Angus paper mill design, My idea is to make the track curves toward the front and place a forested hill in front of it. Not only it gives a plausible reason for an over pass, but it effectively acts as a visual block.

Revised Quebec South Shore track plan and frame

To some extent, this visual block could be an extended fascia joined with the valence, similarly to how Brits hides their fiddle yards on exhibition layouts. The only view possible would be when standing it the front scene and looking at the curved track disappearing behind the overpass and heavily forested hill. A distant photobackdrop would provide enough deep to enhance the illusion.

At the other end of the layout, the situation is a little bit cramped, but nothing is lost. Here, I would use the tree tunnel tricks. Once again, the foreground trees would be on a small embankment which would hide the track as it hit the wall. An old depot with a road would creates the other side of the "tunnel". Once again, this structure could only be seen from the access road, creating an interesting sense of distance and hiding the fact the poor thing is put against the wall. This structure and background trees would also provide a good way to make the gravel road disappear in a convincing way.

 Caribou, Aroostook County, Maine, October 1940 (source: Jack Delano on Wikipedia)

Once again, as we can see, it is possible to expand a layout operability without overreaching. There is always a danger to add too much and in this case, I believe the focus should stay where the action is: between the access road and the overpass. Visually, it is a 7-8 feet long scene that we can embrace in a single glimpse. As I once said, everything over that length is generally completely lost to our humane senses. It seems to me designing scenes and transitions on a layout must take into account that "visual bubble". 

Also, more layout design ideas will soon be published. These are designs developed during the lockdown and one was commissioned by a regular reader. I think it could be interesting to many people because it basically deal with redesigning an existing layout to improve operations, realism and make place for a more relaxed environment. And don't panic, Hedley-Junction isn't left in rest. A lot of work is happening in Clermont & Wieland and the CN Woodchip Cars are entering their final design phase.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Hindsight 20/20 Virtual RPM 3.0 on September 26

 This Saturday is the third virtual edition of Hindsight 20/20 RPM (Railroad Prototype Modelers meet). This event is a great opportunity to stay in touch with talented modellers and share knowledge, experience and approaches to the hobby. Interestingly enough, while it was supposed to be an expedient in time of lockdown and sanitary measures, this new format is proving successful. In fact, I'm probably not alone to watch the various clinics while actually doing some real modelling at the same time. It is a great way to keep both learn and try.

Registration is mandatory but free throught Speedwitch Media website.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Backdrop Time!

With the lighting in place and most roads and structures in their final location, it's finally time to finish the backdrop for Clermont. I waited many years before doing it because, well... it's not my cup of tea. But if we want to move forward with this part of the layout, we can't postpone any further. If fact, we waited far too long to finalize it.

The original photobackdrop in Clermont dates back to July 2014 and was never replaced with a permanent version. However, it did fit well with the scene and I only slightly retouched my photos to make it a little bit large. The biggest challenge was to merge together early Spring and late Autumn pictures together. In that regard, I suspect we should have set the layout in late Autumn to get rid of that problem and have the opportunity to use dead leaves and vegetation all around to add texture and depth to the layout. That is something I could indeed put in action in the future.

Rivière Malbaie

Many years later, we added a photobackdrop in Wieland. It was a test printed on a cheap laser printer. Nothing fancy, but it was a neat test bed. Basically, it looked neat and we thought we could expand on that idea. After a few trips in Charlevoix, I now had enough panoramic pictures to sew them together. A lot of artistic license was required to stitch them in a way that would compliment the layout. Trying to be 100% exact would have been a foolish endeavour. My main concern was adding much more buildings and junk into the backdrop to better represent the transloading operation in Wieland. Another key element was providing a well-detailed backdrop near General Cable siding. This area is extremely narrow and don't provide enough space to plant trees and bushes in a realistic manner. For this reason, most of the visual effect must be done with photographs.

Wieland backdrop

I hope to print these background this week and expect to start putting them in place by next week if everything goes as planned (which never does!).

I'm also working on the last structure required at Donohue. It is quite a technical challenge but most of the largest parts are now together. This is a much more complex building than we ever thought it was. Each time we look at pictures, we find new details that could affect railway operations in a significant way.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Railway Operations Under The Sun

Clermont yard as rarely shown in full action

Hard to believe yesterday was our first "real" operation session since probably last December. COVID-19 kind of threw a monkey wrench at us and when lockdown rules eased out, our minds were focused on improving the way we display the layout.

A few cars, a switcher, a derail and you've got a story going on

Now, all the fluorescent fixtures are in place, which creates an even light all over the place. It is great from a technical point of view, but certainly looks industrial and not artistic. Fortunately, Louis-Marie is building a set of baffles that will help to conceal the fixtures and reduce glare. But with that said, I would not be surprised a LED spot here and there at key locations will be required to provide more dramatic effects. Good candidates for such an improvement would be Rivière Malbaie, the grade crossing in Clermont, and probably the yard throat in Wieland.

Simplicity can tell a lot is done with subtlety.

However, before doing that, we need to address the big challenge of designing and installing the photo backdrop. All elements have been assembled and now only the final touches are required to make it work. The goal of the backdrop is not only to provide a prototypically correct environment for our trains, but also a way to create a sense of depth. This depth is required to prove Murray Bay Subdivision is an isolated line running up a large valley. It will probably be quite a challenge, but we are ready for it.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Lighting: Almost Done...

The peninsula end has always been dark... no longer.

Yesterday, we completed the installation of new fluorescent fixtures on the larger layout room. Finally we got rid of shadows and yellowish lighting.

Fixtures installed along the fascia for optimal lighting

I've read my share of "how to light correctly a layout" over the years. Most end up beingcumbersome, complicated, costly and taking a huge amount of time to put together. As I said in a previous blog, we tried many things over the years and at the end of the day, keeping things simple was the solution for us. I'm not advocating on cutting the corners, but rather to be pragmatic in consideration to your needs. Our layout is quite large and not operated on a frequent basis. It would be foolish to go overboard. On another hand, a different type of layout smaller or larger could benefit a lot from a more fancy lighting rig which could enhance some aspects. This is not the case with Hedley-Junction and if something must be done, it could on a per case scenario.

Half the new fixtured turned on.

I've been impressed with the new lighting. Colors are better, many shadow zones have been addressed and the sky is bluer than ever. In my eyes, the big improvement is how orange rolling stock, particularly CN stuff, looks now more vibrant and realistic. 

Bright CN orange hoppers now stand out at Wieland shops.

Certainly, our installation is quite crude and causes a lot of glare. Next time, we will install baffles to reduce this undesirable effect. Some test were done with prepainted mouldings and it looks promising.

Wieland transload now looks much better.

So now we can go back to working on the layout and cleaning rails and wheels covered by more than 6 months of oxidation.

The alcove is no longer dark like a cave.