Sunday, September 19, 2021

CN Monk Subdivision: Tying Together the Elements

It's now time for a real blog post with real content and not just pretty pictures that are easy to slap together. I was hoping to share my completed my three Rapido CFC SW1200RS but disaster struck again and I had to other two missing parts from the manufacturer again. It has now reached a level of a running joke. Each time I complete an assembly, I find out missing parts. And yes, since that order last week, I found out the wipers weren't in the boxes eithers. I'll hit the bullet and simply use wipers from my detail box. That said, I'm glad Robin at Rapido hasn't yet lost patience with my several request. That said, the models as turning quite beautiful and I feel like all these efforts and bitterness will wash away soon.

But back on the main topic. I've been revisiting again and again the Monk Subdivision project. It always been a favourite subject of mine: a generic railway in Quebec South Shore's Appalachian region (yes, Appalachian railroading isn't just a thing for American coal railroads). As such, the main goal has always been about displaying and running models... not operation. That may sound strange, but when I'm at the club layout, I'm automatically into an operation mode. It feels right and it's fun doing it with my fellow members. After all, the layout is geared toward that kind of activities. But as I have often pointed out, the CN Murray Bay Subdivision can't run long train aimlessly. When I'm alone, I generally prefer to simply look at my trains running by. It's  relaxing and beautiful.

The last two weeks were particularly eye opening for many reasons. First, using my old Glassine Canada module, I slapped a few tracks and replicated John Farrington's RSSX layout. John's layout is beautiful, well thought and practical from an operation standpoint. Hard to believe it is his first serious modelling effort... Let's just say he knock the ball out of the park. For this reason, I thought such a plan - slightly more complex than the boring Glassine Canada module - would be a great start to test if I still liked this kind of layout. The short answer is no. It never works at home. I get bored after 20 minutes. After half an hour, I simply started to unbox old locomotives of mine, including Proto 2000 switchers and Bachmann Brill trolleys. I ran them from an end to an other continuously, testing their speed. I had fun and was back to when I owned my old 4' x 4' layout in my elementary school days.

A small RSSX switching layout (credit: John Farrington)

The next day, I was at the club and switched Clermont yard... and had the time of my life. Strangely enough, operations are quite similar to John's RSSX layout or Glassine Canada. Then, what's the problem? Not the layouts, but me... and it's not a problem. My mindset is different and thus, the layout must provide a different answer. Clearly, a small switching layout doesn't make sense for me at home. I tried dozen of times during the last 12 years and they all failed to capture my interest in the long run. I love planning and building them, but quickly lose interest when they are in action. I can waste hundreds of hours modelling specific cars for them, but once they hit the rails, my mind is somewhere else.

Interestingly enough, I recently watched a British YouTube video on Richard Warren's Everard Junction layout. Richard's approach is interesting because he started like most people with a "I want it all" approach. Big station, lots of tracks, yards, industries and locomotive facilities until he got so frustrated he simply scrapped everything and started on a new premise. Interestingly enough, while the old layout was about "adding interest", the new one is about removing peculiar details in favour of a more mundane and relaxed atmosphere. Not surprisingly, keeping the number of elements low meant the modelling quality has greatly improved.

In a unusual move, Richard has removed features from the layout and redone several areas when he felt they were overdone or not on par with his skills and vision. He ended up with a very long stretch of mainline tracks running in the countryside. No structure, just the right of way and surrounding nature. As expected, the result is wonderful and perfectly showcase trains. Even his urban scene is developing nicely. I always feel he is about to do too much, but I think he has really reached a balance between his vision, skills, budget and time. 

The rural section of Everard Junction (credit: Richard Warren)

However, a recent comment he made on his latest video resounded in my mind. Richard mentioned he didn't care about complex operation. He tried it with his older layout and it never stuck with him. He preferred to railfan his layout and for this reason, he was perfectly glad to have removed almost all sidings and only kept the mainlines. It also freed him from unsightly "model railroady" compromises and made it possible to do the railway infrastructure in a more realistic fashion. Basically, he was pleased with a simple concept as mundane as trains travelling from the countryside to a town until it reached the station. He thus simply models the last mile or so of tracks when the rural setting morphs into the suburbs and downtown.

While I don't model the same settings at all and won't operate a wonderful 4 track mainline, I can relate to his experience. CN Murray Bay Subdivision thought me all about simple scenes that breath and puts the trains in the center of action.

For this reason, I have to ask me how to approach the Monk Subdivision in a way that maximize railfanning while providing a compelling story within the available space. I often mention my approach to layout design is such as to provide a canvas for trains. Over the year, I have developed a strong interest in what I call "mundane layout design". The tendency in the hobby is to see a layout from the railway perspective while I much prefer to see it from the human one. It's probably why I've never been compelled to layout element design lists. While I recognize merit in this approach and use several of its ideas in a subconscious way, I feel it's a straightjacket if you aren't after realistic and intense operation. I much prefer to simply browse old topographic maps and pictures to see what is mundane, recurrent, typical and it can narrate a story when meshed with our quite unrealistic track configurations...

You won't be surprised I have once again streamlined the layout quite a bit to only keep what made sense. Suffice to say I often going back to Chris Mears' excellent sketch. I'm amazed how he was able to grasp my intentions so flawlessly in a single drawing. So here's the updated track plan which is only provided to give a glimpse at my thought process. Let's dive into it!

The new track plan...

...with scenic annotation.

The first scene when entering the room is Armagh with its depot. Given it's the focus of railway operation and an excellent gateway to railfan train, it has much more visual impact. However, to provide a hint this is a mountain railway line, this scenes (and the others too) have a raised foreground. It helps to frame the railway as a line climbing its way in a valley. Generally speaking, people will put the mountains in the background which gives a canyon impression. However, when you travel the Appalachian Mountains in Southern Quebec, they are characterized by vistas. Having a raised foreground then helps to give the illusion of a very deep scene.

Appalachian mountains in Quebec generally command large panorama

Armagh was the summit of Monk Subdivision and it's why a train enters the scene by a grade when exiting the helix. This grade is partially hidden behind a farm scene and a row of trees. It makes for a gradual transition that blurs the line between hidden and visible tracks, but also support the idea of a train entering a village after many miles in the woods. Framed by old cottages, the track then crosses a road, confirming we now have entered civilized territory. As I often say, roads are where humans can directly interact with trains, it is an interface. This becomes even more evident when we look at data and pictures.

In Armagh, the line emerges from trees and farmsteads

The line is now progressing toward the station by crossing well-maintained fields and a small hamlet.

Reaching Armagh station, we get a glimpse of the village.

 Astute readers will recognize the feed mill scene as the one I proposed and built several times in the past. I'll plead guilty! But it proves how such a mundane object can tells a lot of things and mesh perfectly with my mundane approach to model railroading.

Most artists have only one thing to say in their life... it's probably mine!

The roadbed expand as sidings tell us something special is going on. Our train slows down, then comes to a stop before continuing its run. After the station, we enter a very mundane territory characterized by a single main line, fields and woods. Nothing special, just a standard stretch of tracks reminding us this line was built in a very underpopulated area... And as we travel toward East, fields leave their places to trees...

A quick preliminary sketch

The second scene is based on a specific spot located in Ste-Euphémie-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud, a small village. It is the exact spot where the National Transcontinental makes a sharp horseshoe curve to cross the Rivière du Sud valley. It sounds dramatic, but it isn't really... at least not in a John Allen way though it could be debatable! Let's look at what pictures and maps can tell us about it...

Ste-Euphémie's horsehoe curve (credit: Google)

The same spot on a topographical survey (credit: BAnQ)

The horseshoe curve as it existed in the 1970s (credit: Ken Goslett)

The valley isn't that deep, but it's enough to provide a glimpse of what railways are: a straight line crossing an ingrate topography. We can use these specific characteristics to hide the inherent "model railroad". First, a small farm scene with a barn on the hillside hides the train entering the scene. Imagine the valley is behind the railway and the track hugs the hillside. As we reach the valley bottom, the roadbed is raised on a large fill culminating by a sizeable concrete culvert. Then, the train enters the horseshoe curve and disappear behind the trees covering the other side of the valley. Just like the prototype, a parallel road crosses the river at this very place, creating a wonderful vantage point for railfanning. While this entire stretch of track is perfectly horizontal, the variation in the landscape frames as a line climbing a valley. This is basic railway engineering at work.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Switch Stands for Turnouts

 A basic railway detail often overlooked is switch stands. While ubiquitous in real life because you can't really do on a railway without them, they are scarce on layouts. They used to be costly and truth to be told, they can be quite fragile. I've seen a few made of brass, but it can get quickly onerous.

A few months ago, I purchased a dozen of 3D printed switch stands on Shapeways designed by Steve Hunter and found them well designed. I painted and weathered them, but also took care to add turnout numbers on the target just like you can find on prototypes.

Finally, I had a chance to finally install them on the layout two days ago. Yes, they are fragile and would prefer another alternative if possible. I know Rapido made a few ones in plastic but it seems they have the same flaw: they stand in your way when throwing manually a turnout. It makes me wonder if I shouldn't try to operate more turnouts with rods and knobs.

However, these issues aside, they really make a subtle but welcomed difference on the layout. Giving we made a point to keep the color palette subdued, these yellow targets really pop up and add interest.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Hindsight 20/20 10.0 - A New Clinic

 I'm pleased to announce Hindsight 20/20  Virtual RPM is back after its summer hiatus and I'll present a clinic on extreme weathering detailing my efforts to replicate a Canadian National CCF-built snow plow preserved in Clermont, QC. This project garnered a lot of attention and I'm honored to have the chance to share my most recent experiments with realistic weathering. As always, you can register for free on Speedwitch Media website.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

A Bridge for Drummondville

The Drummondville layout project is needing a decent representation of the local bridge that spans St. Francis River in that town. While several bridges on the market are close enough approximations, they don't capture some interesting features of the prototype, thus I undertook the task of improving upon what I had on hands. Several pictures can be seen on Historic Bridge website.

As a starting point, my friend purchased an already built Central Valley truss bridge. This is probably one of the best plastic kit bridge on the market, but the previous owner didn't do a great job at assembling it. Several members weren't fitted correctly and some dimensions were off. However, given I would bash it, I didn't mind too much the discrepancies.

Left: pristine kit, Right: after solvent cement is dabbed

My first job was to built the Walthers deck bridge spans on each end of the main span. It was a straightforward assembly, but I decided to try a military modeller's trick to add some steel texture to the sruface. On armour models, this trick replicate cast steel parts. However, since the bridge is built from plates, the texture serves to replicate the motley and irregular surface of heavily rusted steel covered in crust of peeling paint.

Steel texture under a coat of brown primer

The technique is simple. Using an old stiff brush, you dabble solvent cement on the surface. It lightly melt the surface and if you are careful enough, the effect won't be too harsh. If you overdo it, you can easily sand it down a bit and add a light coat of solvent to melt down any odd bump here and there. With a coat of primer, the result is quite impressive and gives a materiality you don't get with plain styrene.

When came the time to work on the main span, I only kept the vertical members and removed all the diagonal braces. Drummondville bride is much stronger than Central Valley prototype which is suitable for older prototype.

New diagonal members were scratchbuilt from 0.5mm thick styrene sheet. It certainly was time consuming, but less than I thought. Anyway, I couldn't locate Plastruct or Evergreen shapes that could have fitted the build and there was no point spending money on something I could do.

Intitially, I made the gussets by punching rivets in styrene sheet... however, the sheer number of gussets and rivets needed for the project was just mind boggling. It would never look good and would take a life time. For this reason, I designed my own gussets in SketchUp and fired up the 3D printer. 3 hours later, I had enough parts to completely rebuild the bridge.

Finally, the bridge was primer with Krylon brown primer and painted with several light coats of acrylic paint. Nothing scientific or special, I simply blended various colors together while looking at prototype pictures. Washes were also used and finally, weathering powders were used to highlight some details here and there. Basically, I used the same techniques used on the previous bridge I did.

At the end of the day, I'm quite satisfied with the bridge. It certainly would have been easier to start with an unbuilt kit, but I think it will be good enough for the layout.