Monday, February 22, 2021

CN Armagh Subdivision - Resurrecting the "Cabot"

Back in 1967 when Canada was still engulfed in the optimistic promises of the early 1960s and the country was celebrating its centenary with vibrant activities such as Expo '67, Canadian National decided to create a new named passenger trains to link Montréal to the Atlantic. That unusual train would be christened "Cabot" in honor of a famous Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto (1450-1498) who worked for the British Crown. From discovering the "New" World to discovering "Terre des Hommes", it wasn't hard to make the link.

As you know, I generally don't care about passenger service. I barely never experienced passenger trains in Quebec during my lifetime except about 5 or 6 times on Via Rail, taking the first Tortillard in 1985 when I was a toddler, seeing the second Tortillard from a few miles away and riding three times touristic trains which I found boring as can be, except for a nice cab rid on JMG1 back in the early 2000s. I have a much more strong link with Belgian interurban trains on which I rode extensively when I was studying there, wasting entire weekend days running around the country to try every line I could while sightseeing. I also have a much deeper connection with Japanese railways of all kind, which were a great fun to ride too. Count in that a  short but fantastic (from my point of view) run on a preserved C62 - the epic locomotive pulling Leiji Matsumoto's famous Galaxy Express 999 - at Kyoto Railway Museum.

That said, it doesn't mean I don't care about North American passenger trains, but simply they don't make my heart beat that much and as much as I can say, VIA Rail will always be a disguised bankcruptcy scheme playing with trains. However, I like mixed trains and when an unusual motive power pull a passenger train, my interest is somewhat rekindled.

Years ago, Jérôme shared a picture shot in Drummondville on July 4th, 1967 by Bill Linley and depicting the "Cabot". Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have cared, but this train was pulled by a pair of C424 and there was a steam generator. I was hooked. In Bill's words:

Canadian National's newest name train, the Cabot, was just five weeks into its service life when I photographed it in Drummondville, Quebec, 62 miles east of Montreal on Tuesday, July 4, 1967. It began on Thursday, June 1, 1967, as a through 966-mile service from Sydney, Nova Scotia via Edmundston, New Brunswick to Montreal, Quebec. This route was the main route for freight to the Maritimes. Local services on the line that CN discontinued included a tri-weekly local from Moncton to Edmundston. They also cut similarly scheduled mixed trains that required an overnight stay at the intermediate division point of Monk if travelling between Edmundston and Joffre, the freight yard near Quebec City.

CN anticipated large travel volumes for Centennial Year events, notably Expo 67, the Worlds Fair in Montreal. Their new train reduced pressure on the Halifax - Montreal Ocean and Scotian services by offering a speedier, direct service for passengers from Newfoundland and eastern Nova Scotia. Train 18 left Montreal daily at 6.45 p.m. and arrived in Sydney at 9.15 p.m. the next day, easily connecting with the Newfoundland 'Night Boat' in North Sydney. In Nova Scotia, CN discontinued the overnight Halifax - Sydney conventional train on May 31, 1967, and added a through Sunday Railiner service.

The launch also saw the discontinuance of similarly numbered trains 18 and 19, the remnant of the old Maritime Express on the Moncton - Montreal route via Campbellton, New Brunswick. Local stops between Campbellton and Charny were then served by RDC's on Trains 618 and 619. On Wednesday, May 31, CN introduced another through coach, sleeping and dining car service to Gaspe on Trains 118 and 119 from a connection with the Montreal - Campbellton, Chaleur, Trains 16 and 17, at Matapedia, Quebec. At the same time, CN cut off Matapedia - Gaspe RDC's Trains 616 - 617 and except Sunday Mixed Trains 246 - 245.

The Cabot was a lengthy train. It included two coaches with reservations required for distances over 160 miles, unreserved coach(es), diner, lounge, coach-lounge, cafe car and four sleepers for the entire run. An Island series, 8 section 4 bedroom sleeper served Montreal - Edmundston and, an E-series 4 section, 8 duplex roomette, 4 double bedroom car ran between Montreal and Moncton.

The Cabot featured unusual motive power as CN assigned a pair of MLW C-424s and a steam generator car between Montreal and Moncton. They had 75 mph gearing, which was appropriate to both flat running and the curvy and hilly former National Transcontinental line through Edmundston. A pair of RS-18s often provided the power from Moncton to Sydney. However, the late James Hardie's photographs at Glen Bard show a pair of MLW cab units charging up the grade with 14 cars in tow. In this picture, MLW built MR-24b 3219 stands ready to depart Drummondville at 8:11 p.m. on the Fourth of July. MLW delivered 3219 in the summer of 1966. CN leased many of its 41 C-424s in the U.S. and Mexico. When MLW purchased 3219 on Tuesday, January 26, 1984, I think that they sold it to the NdeM.

An indication that the new Cabot was a success came in October 1967 when the premier train, the Ocean, added through Sydney cars at Truro and began to operate via Edmundston. The following summer season from late June through early September, the Cabot again ran as a through, separate train from Sydney but serving Campbellton while the Ocean continued to run via Edmundston. This seasonal pattern continued until Wednesday, January 7, 1970, when the Ocean once again travelled via Campbellton. From then until the end of though cars in late October 1979, the Scotian handled the cars west of Truro.

As you can see, it was an unusual train. In a recent discussion with Bill, we tried to visualize the consist to see how it looked and what were the exact cars used. Interestingly enough, while the train may have looked somewhat homogeneous, there were a few oddities including an old clerestory heavyweight 12-1 dormette car and several sleepers acquired by CN from MEC, BAR and NYC. There was also a rare Rock Island sleeper still in its old paint scheme purchased by CN the same year to face the increased demand. Pullman Standard cars of various origin and built date created a common yet somewhat varied look.

So, can this train be modelled? The short answer is yes, but it will need a lot of modeller's license and a few repaint. I'm not that much concerned of replicating exactly each cars with the correct windows, but I still would like something that is close enough to be plausible. Also, good quality cars would be required. Fortunately, by assembling together Rapido and Walthers cars, it isn't impossible to make a decent consist.

I already have a pair of DCC sound Atlas CN C424 in the correct paint scheme. Rapido will soon re-release their GMD steam generator, a few repainted True Line Trains 8-hatch reefers with express trucks would also do the job. Walthers produced in the past a decent 12-1 heavyweight sleeper perfect for the lower class passengers and if you pick various cars from Rapido and Walthers, you should be able to find a decent prototype for must cars. Even the Rock Island car can be purchased RTR. Many serious passenger modellers will cringe at my attempt, but bear in mind I'm a freight car enthusiast and I can perfectly live with the 3 foot rule if it applies to passenger trains... something I wouldn't allow with freight!

However, you must keep in mind the Cabot  was a long train, very long. More than 16 feet in HO.  In total, it would be at least 17 cars long! Given must cars are now discontinued and their prices have skyrocketed, I consider such a train would cost me almost $1400 even if I take into account I already own 2 locomotives and 5 cars. Not a small investment.

How I would replicate the Cabot

Would it be interesting to run such a train on the Armagh Subdivision and staged meets? Probably, but I think this is the kind of project you slowly build, adding cars as possible over a long period of time, until you complete the consist. Maybe an interesting aspect of the Cabot is it used basic cars that can be assembled in smaller trains that did run over the subdivision. It makes the investment less whimsical that way.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

CN Armagh Subdivision - Proof of Concept

All layout concepts should get their own scale model to test their validity. In that regard, I once did it for Temiscouata, Hedley Junction and Glassine Canada and never regretted it once.

Since yesterday was Hingsight 20/20 (which I had almost forgotten), it was the perfect time to cut some cardboard and see if CN Armagh Subdivision is a sea-worthy vessel or a rock at the bottom of the proverbial lake.

A quick visit at the local art supplies the day before to get a few white cardboard sheets cost me $4, which is a trifle compared to what would cost a an entire layout. After a few hours, I had a layout, or more exactly, the skeleton of a layout. I didn't bother yet to add scenery, wanting to see if the tracks meshed together well due to a complex variation in elevation. Here's the result and a few observation. Chris Mears like to refer to this design as two interrogation marks due to each scene sinuous track nature. We are not too far from the "mating" interrogation marks!

This overview shot shows that the concept does work. It creates an interesting spacing wrapping around the spectator, which is exactly what I wanted with this railfanning layout.

Armagh is a neat rural station marking the summit. The long flowing sidings are both natural and make for a perfect vantage point to appreciate long consists travelling the line. I some sense, this isn't far from a Confalone scene.

The large helix west of Armagh would be partially buried under some topography, leaving only enough track visible to replicate a horseshoe curve so typical of Monk. Poor farms, old barns, fields and woods would create the perfect background for this very deep scene.

Langlois Siding is a gently curved stop on the line, serving a feed mill and a flagstop. In the back, we can see a 3 spans deck bridge crossing the Abenaki river while the train start to gain altitude to reach Armagh. This makes for a fantastic and scenic alcove to both perform operation and watch train rumbling over the bridge.

Finally, the last scene is where both tracks from Armagh and Langlois Siding cross each other to reach the underground staging. This isn't an easy scene to plan, but seeing it in 3D helped me to have a better grasp of the parameters in play. Instead of forcing topography and features there, I can simply look at what I see and imagine how it should look. With that said, I came to the conclusion the foreground curve near Armagh (left) would be partially hidden behind a very small hill sloping down toward the backdrop. Then, the first stretch of straight track would be a large fill over a deep valley - the famous Armagh Viaduct. This is a signature scene on the line which I wanted to integrate but never really did from fear it would look out of place. For some reason, it now has a home, exactly where it should have been. This is a terrific spot to get a glimpse at locomotives pulling heavy trains at notch 8. The upper track, then curves again in the back where it would disappear once for all behind a hill.

On the foreground, just after the center curve, the lower line emerge from a heavily forested cut and works its way to Langlois Siding by running against the side of a hill that was cut to make place for the roadbed. Rather simple, it should blend well with the next main scene which, as you know, is also very mundane. At best, a small culvert could find it's way. Here's a crude sketch showing the imagined scenes.

While this model is quite basic, it provided a wealth of information. Not only it confirmed the project was sound, but also that it wouldn't look silly even with the very large helix taking up a lot of space in the room. It was also a powerful tool to work out some problematic spots I couldn't figure out in 2D.

Nothing is set in concrete, but the CN Armagh Subdivision is looking even more promising than ever. I can see a convergence of my interests that were explained on this blog over and over. I can already hear the whistle and engine noise of distant trains finding their ways in an inhospitable mountainous terrain... probably some good old Alco sound!

Friday, February 19, 2021

CN Armagh Subdivision - Fleshing Out an Old Idea

While Donnacona is making baby steps and I'm trying to find time to write an interesting follow up about framing railway action from a different perspective, I'm still thinking about the next step, which is a fully-fledge scenic continuous run layout in the basement hobby room. This project is dear to me, but often, we are quite bad judges of ourselves.

As you can recall, the main idea is to run long train and railfan them while they crosses Appalachian Mountains ranges in Southern Quebec. CMQ and Monk Subdivision providing a lot of inspiration.

In the best case scenario, the layout would frame to different rural scenes: a small town with a passing track to stage meets, and a simple rural siding in the middle of nowhere as it happens so often all over North America. Such a scenario calls for a decent staging area, but also a way to create a sense of distance between scenes, including vertical elevation.

Crude first drafts

The first idea was to create a large peninsula to provide for a scenic experience and gain altitude. However, the 10 feet wide room can't support such a large blob. Imagine, aisles were about 18 inches in some area... definitely a no go.

Integrating the helix into the design (credit: Chris Mears)

Then Chris Mears, which seems to follow with interest this pipe dream of mine, simply proposed to put a helix in the corner which could induce a neat flowing curve into the main town. The helix would provide a decent way to gain elevation quickly while adding distance between adjacent scenes. In fact, the layout would become two distinct worlds, one depicting a valley bottom and the other one the summit. The helix would also create a sense of distance since the train would disappear for a while before emerging again from the wooded area rural area before reaching the town. From afar, the sound of the engines would be heard long before the locomotives would be in sight... just like in real life.

Fleshing out the concept (credit: Chris Mears)

This layout would also work as an entire section with signalling blocks. Exiting stagings, trains could meet in the small town, with eastward traffic fighting the incline having priority while westward trains travelling down the road would wait their turn. In fact, not quite different from Mike Confalone's own Holman Summit. Grade in the helix would be about 1.4%, which is quite mild and would reduce running issues. Only 2 turns would be required. Other grades, most of them hidden to reach the staging under the town would be somewhere between 2 and 2.4%, which in itself isn't too bad. Keep in mind I'm wanting to run large locomotive consists ranging from two to five units lashed up together.

Some dimensional considerations...

Trains travelling the layout would be made of scheduled first class passenger trains, railiners, excursion trains, local switchers, extras and, as expected from a freight enthusiast like me, good old way-through freights.

Now with some scenery

As discussed in many posts last year, the layout would be timeless. Generic as possible, but based on Southern Quebec and inspired by Monk Subdivision. Trains from the 1950s up to CMQ in 2020 would be welcomed because structures would be rare and of type that can still be found. I would mind building two or three similar depots, set in different eras, from the 1950s to the modernized 1960s-1970s versions until they were boarded up in the 1990s. My main focus would probably be from 1967 to 1980, with a strong component of CN wet noodle, old CP Multimark and colorful CV/GT/DWP trains.

The proof of concept

The big challenge of this layout will be to deal with the helix from a visual standpoint. It is a large part of the room and care will be needed so it blends flawlessly. It is a massive endeavour! But I feel the entire layout will provide a great opportunity to model track roadbed and the complex topography associated with a railway infrastructure. In my eyes, this is one of my favourite aspect of layout building.

A vision of Langlois Siding

I would also like to dabble a little bit with block signalling to replicate a working CTC system (or ABS system as was implemented on Monk subdivision). When Donnacona is done, this will be the next project when the pandemic gets a little bit more under control... if it ever go beyond the proof of concept.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Donnacona - The Conventional Approach

Indeed, I made a bold decision with this diorama. However, another option on the table was making it a fully-fledged North American switching layout. I take some time to share it here to show you how we would typically approach this project if it were to be published in some magazine or railroad planning book. It is not per se a bad design at all, but it tells another story and frame the subject in a way I didn't like. Also, I know I had no appetite for yet another paper mill layout as I am already building one with the club.

Donnacona and the river (credit: Yvan Déry)

However, I believe many people could benefit from a few ideas posted here as it propose a very interesting mill on a narrow shelf. It could be built as drawn or merged into a much larger layout. But first of all, I'll take no credit for that plan since I've built upon ideas already modelled by Yvan Déry, a modeller from Portneuf area who made a rendition of the entire subdivision in HO scale. Among it, was a replica of Donnacona including the pulpwood yard by St. Lawrence river which provided me with initial inspiration.

Another shape, another story

In this conventional design version, the layout would be L-shaped, about 10' x 10'. On the right leg, the mill is built as I did with the diorama version, but it would have a much longer switching lead connecting to the main line, by the depot. One leg would be industrial, the other one much more natural, with the depot acting as a pivot.

The old CNoR main line would be modelled, including a siding where inbound and outbound cars from the paper mill would be set. Another siding, by the river would hold pulpwood cars to be unloaded as was the case from the prototype.

Operation wouldn't be different to what I already have in mind. The locomotive would be stored by the depot, travel the main line, pick up a few cars and come back to the mill. The idea being that the locomotive can travel several times across the entire layout to provide visual interest.

While the diorama version put a lot of emphasis on the industrial canyon, this one puts forward the riverside nature of the mill, with a large sweeping panorama giving a sense of place and scale. The depot would act as our human connection to the scene, a role that is imparted on the office building in diorama version.

I do like this plan, but it doesn't fit my idea of a canvas. Too large, I feel it doesn't work as a small switching layout approached as a piece of art. The mill itself captures my interest and the idea of intricate brick structures isn't alien to it.

On the other hand, it shows a same prototype can be translated in various scale and can dramatically change in terms of tone and ambiance give the focus we choose. There is now better option here, but it's a matter of knowing what you want to achieve and selecting the right approach. Yvan Déry chosed the more conventional approach with his mill and it was a perfect choice given is large layout based on substantial operation. His way to replicate the dark and menacing skies over the river, the quaint little depot and the pulpwood siding should be enough to prove us it was well done.

But I don't want to replicate what others have done, so I went forward with my own personal approach.

In the next installment, we shall deal with the diorama and how it is developed from sketches using an iterative process. It is a mix between sculpture, theater, architecture and historical investigation, which isn't generally how we approach a layout. It leads to a non-linear building process which wouldn't be really suitable with a large layout, but which can be possible when dealing with a smaller footprint... here again proving it is indeed a canvas.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Donnacona - Crafting a Narrative

I’ve taken my sweet time to update my work on Donnacona. With an increase workload but also due to a lot of online conversations with other modellers, mainly about his project, it kind of killed my inspiration to write. It seems there is a limit to the number of channels on which you can share your ideas before they start to distort themselves and falters! With that said, let’s move on!


 As I previously mentioned, Donnacona is based on an experience at railfanning a typical early 20th century paper mill. The word railfanning is important because I wish us, the spectators, to approach this layout from a certain distance. Yes, we operate the layout, but in such a way we still are the lurkers. We can’t see everything from our vantage point, online what is accessible to us without trespassing the property. This is, truly, a timeless experience most of us can relate...

We have all – at least most of us – witnessed real operation at a plant. While we can understand what is happening, a big deal of the action is often out of our sight and only the sound of a roaring engine let us know something is happening. Walking down a road, we try to track familiar noises to locate our target. Then, it makes its entrance…

A 0-4-0 switcher at St. Anne Paper Co. (credit: Bill Grandin Collection)

To achieve this goal, two big challenges must be addressed: 1) the subject must be framed, 2) the scene composition must guide our sight. These two key elements must then blend together into a coherent picture, just like a neat painting.

For years, I have admired Chris Nevard’s work on small British layouts. Chris isn’t a prototype modeller in the sense he doesn’t replicate real locations and most of his diorama are quite compressed. However, he informs his work on reality, working with shapes, colors and textures to create a realistic and compelling world. For this reason, he is able to create organic compositions that work flawlessly.

Railway bridge in Stanwardine in the Fields, UK (credit: WikiCommons)

As mentioned, the main trick with small European layouts is to hide the layout ends. With its overbuilt environment and impressive railway infrastructure, this is easily achievable with such prototypes. The same could be said of many Asian railways too. In these countries, bridges, overpasses, ditches and tunnels are a common occurrence and you can see many of them crammed along a single mile of track. In North America, except in a few very select places, such infrastructures are qui rare. Most railway lines don’t have tunnels. Farms have plain gravel grade crossings and not fancy brick or stone overpasses (and if it is the case, they are underpasses). It’s at this moment that Donnacona starts to shine.


Indeed, the industrial canyon created by the mill and its boiler house is perfect to hide the right side of the layout if you are looking south. The boiler house height creates a natural transition with the front and end of the layout which frame perfectly that part of the scene.


At Donnacona, freigh cars disappear between industrial structures (credit: BaNQ)

On the right side, the tracks on the prototype were running parallel to a small cliff. By having the cliff in the foreground, similar to what Mike Cawdrey did with his Calais, ME layout, it helps to make the sidings disappear into staging gradually. This is a useful visual trick because it provides a place to hide and park the locomotive. When the layout power is turn on, you can hear the locomotive, but barely see its chimney or domes above the grassy hill. More on that later. Then, what to use to frame the exit to staging? A bridge won’t do and tunnel neither. However, Donnacona used to have a series of pulpwood conveyors moving logs from the St. Lawrence shore to their piles behind the mill. These conveyors can then be used to cleverly hide the staging and frame the right end of the layout. A small reservoir or some other structure or object is used to hide the spot were the conveyor hits the backdrop.


Donnacona's GE switcher running parallel to the cliff (credit: Massey F. Jones)

The next element is scene composition. This layout, like a written sentence, is read from left to right. From a virtually unbuilt environment toward a highly industrialized site. This gradient creates a vertical diagonal that draws our attention toward the mill.


To this is superposed another narrative drawing inspiration from the railfanning perspective. In Donnacona, the office building was located right next to the warehouse, by the sidings. Small and quaint, this ivy-covered brick structure had all the hallmark of a house; a place where humans live. In this industrial mess, this is probably the closest place to our daily experience, making it the perfect point of entrance. The boiler house on one side and the grassy hill on the other one both frame our view toward that office which is even more emphasized by the presence of an access road. In some sense, you could say the layout is composed of three separate parts. From left to right, the grassy hill (nature), the office building/access road (humans) and the boiler house (industry). This is an interesting progression from nature to industry, following a common tripartite trick used by photographs and illustrators since eons ago.


The homely ivy-covered office acts as an anchor (credit: unknown)

As a railfan, after walking the access road nearby the office, you try to hear some locomotive noises… You can’t see it, but behind the grassy hill, you can unmistakably hear the sounds of an idle engine ready to work. Your keen eyes can see the chimney puffing smoke and the top of a dome or tow. Slowly, you climb the hill, walking on top of its crest until you can see the locomotive in all its glory. After waiting a while, it starts moving on the steel rail and disappear beyond the conveyor… you can no longer see what’s happening, but it can only mean they went to the nearby yard to pick up some cars.


Framing the staging entrance (credit: Matthieu Lachance)

After emerging again under the conveyor, a fresh cut of cars is ready to be switched at the plant. The crew runaround its train, disappearing again far beyond the grassy hill. Then, they start their job. Switching the boxcars at the warehouse is quite straight forward and the access road provides a great viewpoint on the action… However, when the start to shunt the boiler house, almost everything become invisible behind the large brick structure.

The boiler house is another way to frame trains.

Knowing cleverly that boiler houses are real life infernos, you venture in the gravel lot and try to spot moving cars through open doors and windows. Certainly, the place is filled with boilers and pipes, but it’s still possible to get a good idea of what’s happening. The acid building platform is wide opened, offering a rare glimpse on a tank car spotted at the unloading dock.


Scene composition: suggesting and framing the action (credit: Matthieu Lachance)

Then, the locomotive and its crew run back to the yard with loaded boxcars and empty coal hoppers. They parade in front of you, whistling at the grade crossing and probably annoying a few office workers nearby! It then proceeds to disappear for a while… Maybe 20 minutes later, the locomotive emerges from beyond the conveyor and stops by the grassy hill as always. A crew member then jumps off the tender platform and take a large hose to fill up the tender again until the next work shift. It’s time to go back home… They won’t move until much later this afternoon when the monstruous mill will have consumed a few tons of coal and churned out tons of newsprint bound to New York City.