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.


  1. Matthieu, you may enjoy reading the exploits of Geoff Foster and his 'Off the beaten track' blog . . .
    Also Gordon and Maggie Gravett's 'Pempoul' layout is a wonderful example of the modelling of trains in the landscape

    1. Thanks for the link. I'm well aware of Gravett's work. Their artistry is hard to be... and very inspirational.

  2. Hello Matthieu!
    I like the concept of the Quebec South Shore. In order to remain logical with your interest of NTR railroad, this layout could also be modified to represent St-Isidore feed mill... So you could have the first part of the Armagh Sub. And create elsewhere Monk yard...

    1. In fact, I'm not real trying to replicate a specific set of locations, but rather to get the feeling right. This module can be connected with almost anything.