Thursday, September 22, 2022

Donohue & Wieland - Adding Small Details

A new greasy concrete fuel pad buried in grass

The layout, until now, never reached that level where adding small details such as oil drums, buffers, fueling tank and other stuff like that. Arguably, I've never been a "detail modeller" that much. I like to have the right amount to bring life to a scene and make it relatable, but overcrowding the place with junk has never been my cup of tea. Here I have in mind the ubiquitous superdetailed roundhouse interior that is a classic of railway modelling. That said, I do admire that work and some techniques inspire me greatly.

An old rusted oil barrel by the pulpwood unloading bay

Recently, we have started adding these details. I found myself spending a few hours painting and weathering very small parts that takes a few minutes or hours to complete. Being able to do so much in so little time is extremely rewarding and a good way to practice weathering techniques without going crazy over an entire locomotive.

Greased ties on turnouts with weathering powder on rail sides

I have still a few ones to add to the layout, particularly around the loco shop in Wieland and the lumber transload area, but it's already a good start. As always, I tried to implement a few weathering techniques presented by Martin Kovac on his excellent YouTube channel (Nightshift).

Diesel fuel tank at Wieland CFC shops

Custom Athearn NSC Boxcar Conversion Kit

 As I grow older as a modeller, I sense I'm no longer interested in purchasing higher end cars except for a few notable models. Not only because costs are rising at an alarming rate, but also because I derive very little enjoyment out of unboxing stuff that goes right on track. Working on a model and painting them is enjoyable, particularly when it is in pursuit of acquiring skills and being able to replicate the reality around us.

It's no secret I've been on a quest of improving old plastic kits of the past for more than a decade and half. I have in me that fascination of seeing what can be done with these crude models. What are their redeeming factors, what are the tooling mistakes that make them harder to improve. In that regard, I've learned over the time that Athearn 40ft boxcars are a decent starting point while old Roundhouse ones are more challenging for less favorable results.

Be it Bachmann Quad Hoppers, Model Power Insulated Boxcars or any other byzantine project of mine, I've tried it all and enjoyed it immensely. This long experience have made me genuinely aware of how these very humble things can become much more than good enough models. At first, I thought about replacing everything with wire and delicate parts, then tried to find a balanced recipe where the returns on investment were maximum while keeping realism as a reachable goal.

NSC-1 ends (work in progress)

I'm proud to announce that this work as culminate this week into the production of a very convincing National Steel Car built 40 ft, 10'-0" high boxcar out of our good old Athearn friend. You won't win a prize with this kitbashed and improved model, but it will be as good as if Irv Athearn did tool a specific Canadian steel boxcar from the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Parts I've made are done following Athearn's own tooling parameters, albeit a little bit more finer, with the goal of providing easy to assemble yet very sturdy models. I have no fear a car modified using my part should providing excellent reliability during operation, which may be of interest to some people with that mind set.

NSC-2 ends

All parts are design to fit Athearn and, by extension, Roundhouse boxcars. Thus, they share the discrepancies these old toolings had. These compromises are relatively minimal and impossible to discern without a calliper and some good eyeballs. However, it means you don't have to fiddle, fill with putty and try to match the surrounding details.

Suitable CNR prototypes built with NSC between 1937-1938:

-472000-472999 (11/1937-2/1938)

-475300-475999 (6-7/1938)

Please check to identify the renumbered cars over the years. It's a fascinating subject!

The kit provides the following parts:

-1x NSC-1 style B End with 8-rung ladder

-1x NSC-2 style A End with 8-rung ladder

-2x 8-rung Canadian style ladders

-2x 6 feet Youngstown doors


-2x 10'3" Youngstown doubles doors for Automobile boxcars

I don't provide new brake wheels, but do recommend using Kadee ones which are excellent and well worth the investment.

It is also recommenced to use Accurail 40ft wooden roofwalks and their underframe brake rigging which can add another layer of realism. Don't forget Tichy roof corner grabirons and Yarmouth eyebolts. In my eyes, they really enhance the appearance of a car.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Further Experiments with Improved Athearn and Roundhouse 40ft Boxcars

Earlier this year, I experimented with the idea of finding an efficient way to upgrade Athearn 40ft boxcars without breaking the bank. The idea was not about turning these cars into prize winning or finescale model (because at the end of the day, almost nothing would remain from the original shell), but rather to erase their ubiquitous lineage so they can merge seamlessly into a fleet.


While my experiment went well, I also encountered a problem: the lack of suitable detail parts, more precisely doors. As you know, the Athearn doors are quite wrong and far too short. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, gimmicks such as operating doors were all the crazed due to O scale influence. Oversized door tracks and claws were inevitable and for this reason, the doors were smaller than they should have been. Add the fact the detail wasn’t great, and you have more than one reason to scrap them completely.


The door before adding rivets and hardware

Unfortunately, finding suitable 10’ high 1937 AAR doors is now a fool’s errand. Both Atlas and Intermountain parts are getting extremely hard to find and they cost quite a lot for what they are. For these reasons, I decided to design my own doors using Atlas, IM parts and pictures as blueprints. The process was fast and about 30 minutes later, I had a nice door ready to 3D print. Given the part height, it’s about 90 minutes to print, which is more than reasonable.


Later, I decided to convert other boxcars, namely Roundhouse old 40ft tooling which wasn’t that great when compared to Athearn. Their later retooled efforts with fixed doors from the late 1990s and early 2000s were much better. That said, I decided to do something different and make them early CNR steel automobile boxcars. These were built in 1936 by NSC and CCF with Murphy flat panel steel roof and a 10’-0” interior height. By 1946, they were raised by 6 inches to increase capacity. Since the Roundhouse cars need a lot of work along the sill, I felt they were perfect for this project since the dubious details had to be removed anyway.


CN automobile boxcar (credit: Chris van der Heide collection,

I selected the ECC cars since they had Dreadnaught ends with the same 5/4 rib pattern than the Roundhouse cars. NSC had they own distinctive rib pattern (NSC-1) which would be cool to replicate but using a much better plastic shell has a starting point.


Filing down raised panels is easier than you would think

For the roof, I did a compromise. Since I didn’t want to cut the shell apart, I simply cut and filed down the raised panels. Real Murphy roofs have a very different way to be attached to the boxcar sides, but I overlook that detail since it’s not the goal of this project to be 100% accurate.

Finally, I need a pair of double doors and decided to tweak my previous 3D design. It took about 15 minutes to get it right with the correct hardware and the same time to print.

Another detail that bothered me was the cast on ladders. Athearn ladders are decent for what they are, but the Roundhouse ones are thick and looks wrong at first glance. Also, the lower rung is missing. I gave it some thought and ask myself if it was efficient to remove a ladder and replace it or if it was better trying to upgrade it by adding the missing rung. I didn’t want to waste A-Line stirrups if possible.

Roundhouse ladders are just plain wrong and unsalvageable...

I tried to improve the molded ladder but results were poor and it was a slow process. In a word, it was counterproductive. Then, I chiselled the ladder off and found out it took about one minute per ladder, which was much more efficient. Now, it was time to design a replacement ladder with 8 rung and an attached stirrups has was customary in Canada back in the days. To keep the car level of detail consistent, I used the same design parameters that Irv Athearn set for his boxcars 70 years ago. I could have made very fine ladders, but what I needed were ladders that would blend with Athearn and Roundhouse cars. In my mind, you can’t have finescale ladders with chunking ends. Make it all the same and it will look better. If you go all in with prototypicalness, embrace it. If you want to stay middle of the road, be consistent too.


Designing the ladder took about 5 minutes at best… it was a breeze. The result was nice because now the boxcars had that distinctive Canadian vibe as if Roundhouse had released, in the 1970s, a real Canadian automobile boxcar.


I won’t pretend these cars are prize winning models, but in a fleet, they do a fine job. In themselves, they have no merit, but you can convert about 4 of them over the course of a few evenings without turning mad or loosing hairs.

Furthermore, they may be a little bit incorrect, but they try to stay true to prototype as much as possible. And finally, the key is to bring them to life by applying realistic weathering. As I get more experience in this hobby, I’m learning everyday that right colors and right weathering should be among the first criteria to attain realism. Realism and accuracy are somewhat different in my mind. They work together, but I would say that realism is what makes a model plausible while accuracy is the measure by which the model is close to its prototype. There is no hard line between both concept and each has to chose what is adequate for his purpose.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Donahue - Stunning Progress!

The Dohonue yard relatively empty by a warm day of May

Once in a while, we surpass ourselves without knowing it. It seems that several months if not years of discussion have finally yielded results. As I move forward with scenery, I finding my own language using various media such as ground foam, gravel, dirt, grout, static grass and dead leaves. When looking back at what I considered my best work one year ago, I can see a huge difference. Surfaces are no longer treated as carpet, but have a lot of variation in cover, color and texture. These progresses wouldn't have been possible without the strong influence of Chris Mears whose experiments modelling grassy tracks seem to have percolated into my work (to my great pleasure).

The electric pylon in the background add dynamism

At this point, I consider the end of Donohue yard is now completed. Some ground work is still required at the other end, near the warehouse and office, but for the most part, we can consider that the only things to do are adding small details to add life to the scene and finish some buildings.

Grass is a complex assemblage of textures...

Lessons learn with this project will certainly be applied elsewhere on the layout, with my intended goal (unlikely to be reached), to finish ground cover in Donohue, Clermont and Wieland by Christmas. At that point, the only parts of the layout to be left unfinished will be the Villeneuve and Maizerets scenes, which have been on hiatus for a few years now and need some love.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Donohue: No More Ballast... or Almost!

Work is resuming on Murray Bay Subdivision after a longer summer hiatus than anticipated. Always hard to make predictions about a layout construction schedule isn't it?

On a positive note, the first session was extremely positive. First, Louis-Marie has been able to reset the DCC system and locomotives. So far, it seems the control issues have been almost completed resolved and the Rapido CFC SW1200RS switchers are back in service. This is a major step since we built the layout to run these specific locomotives. To be honest, it's quite nostalgic to see these moving on our layout. And I may add that as much as the GP15-1s are quite interesting locomotives, they don't have the aura of real CFC ones.

On the scenery side, we have also completed terraforming the right side of the village in Clermont. Foam is shaped, covered in universal mud and painted. A few curbs will be added later when dealing with ground cover. That another thing behind us. Regular readers will probably know it took years to finally reach that point with that scene.

Finally, the big news: ballasting is completely done. No more gravel to glue, no more custom blends that takes hours to sift. It's done... at least in Charlevoix, because some more ballast is required at the cement plant in Villeneuve. I'm quite happy because it opens new opportunities to move forward with vegetation, layered ground cover, details and finishing touches. It also means I'll soon start to complete structures such as the woodchip unloader and the warehouse interior. Who could have thought we would see the end of that endeavour.

On a negative side, the summer was extremely wet in Quebec City and the photo backdrop wrinkled quite badly. It's probably the last time I used a photo backdrop printed on a material vulnerable to humidity. I'm not looking too much at the sky when operating the layout, but on picture, the wrinkles create nasty shadows that must be Photoshopped which is a shame... I'm starting to wonder if we should have been better to cut the backdrop at the horizon and simply keep the painted wall for for sky... Lesson learned I guess!

Thursday, September 1, 2022

East Angus - Revisiting a Good Old Design

Late summer has been busy with a progressive return to modelling and the construction of Monk Subdivision staging yard. Interestingly enough, this sparked me to revisit a very old concept based on several of my recurrents ideas: a mainline for railfanning, a very small town, a paper mill and some depiction ot topography and hydrography.

As you may remember, the original concept for the basement layout was based on East Angus, QC. It's a small locality on Quebec Central Railway that developed around a paper mill located along the St. Francis River. It has always fascinated me because this paper mill was both compact yet visually attractive. Indeed, it was a brick industrial canyon located by a beautiful multiple span deck bridge.

That said, what prompted me to revisit this design is mainly my work on building and wiring Monk Subdivision hidden staging. I've always had a justified fear of hidden trackage but can understand their use and wanted to see what could have happened if it was an accessible surround staging as designed by Trevor Marshall for Mike Hamer's famous B&M layout.

First version, with a single track main line

A surround staging for a layout such as East Angus makes sense because the paper mill act as a low height screen that hides it without impacting too much access. It also removes grades, which are generally a less than desirable thing on model railways. It's also a fun build from a modelling perspective. Lots of interesting and varied scenery involving trees, hills, rock faces, complex river bed, fields, etc. It's also a neat structure challenge including a neat brick paper mill built in several phases and styles. Add to that classic railway structures such as the depot, the feed mill and speeder shed. And finally, the pièce de résistance, a very long and impressive bridge.

While the layout is based on Quebec Central, truth is that it could find many different North American railroads or simply be generic.

And now, for the big question... would I trash Armagh to build East Angus? Maybe yes, maybe not. Both have different purposes and goals. So far, I'm eager to give Monk Subdivision a shot because of its universal appeal. I know I'm not that much of a solo switching operator. That said, if Monk ever fails for whatever reason... I wouldn't mind to try my hand with East Angus. I know from operating our Murray Bay layout and Hunter Hughson's paper mill layout that modelling a small and achievable paper mill is always a winning formula. And in this case, that beautiful setup is what welcomes you as you enter the room!

Second version, with a double track main line

Monday, July 18, 2022

Bachmann Alco 2-6-0 Conversion Mini Kit - For Sale

I recently polled modellers on Ste. Anne's Car Shops page and found out that 80% of people didn't have access to a 3D printer and preferred to purchased a real kit in resin instead of STL files.

For this reason, I've decided to offer printed parts to future customers so access to this kit is easier for everybody. I've also updated the individual part catalogue.

Also, many people wanted to model the popular CNR Class E-10-a locomotives. For this reason, I've have produced more parts to customize your models including 3 types of window frames (open, closed, with windshield), 3 types of air tanks, , 2 types of cab vents, 2 types of marker lamps and 4 types of coal bunker extensions. I've also added a steam whistle and two rerail frogs since brass parts are getting hard to find.

You can order the kit directly from me by email or on Facebook Messenger. Please specify which type of air tanks and coal bunker extension you need. If you want to model a specific CNR locomotive, let me know which one and the conversion kit will be customized to fit your needs.

Introductory price is CAD $30 which is quite a deal given the sheer number of parts you get. Compared to brass parts, you save almost half the price while getting CNR parts instead of generic ones.

All parts can also be purchased individually or in bulk at better price (ask for a quote). I'll soon release a catalogue.

Part Catalogue:

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Bachmann Alco 2-6-0 CNR Conversion Mini Kit Released!

As the title says, I've just released the first kit, or more appropriately, set of STL files for resin 3D printer.

The kit includes several parts required to convert a HO scale Bachmann Alco 2-6-0 into a credible Canadian National Class E-7-a locomotive. It can be used to model other Class E locomotives too since most of them shared similar characteristics.

Many parts in the kit are multipurpose and can be used on other locomotives, including numberboard, headlight, backlight, marker lamps, etc. The kit comes also with a 5 pages illustrated instruction manual describing the steps required to complete your model.

You can also purchase STL files individually if you only need a few ones:

I'm also planning, as data will be available, to release different coal bunkers since many types were used on Class E locomotives. These bunkers will be offered graciously to people who have purchased the conversion kit. This could open doors to many options!

The STL files are sold for CAD $25.00 which is quite a deal given the price brass detail parts cost nowadays. I've evaluated printing the entire kit should cost you less than $2.00 in resin and take about 2 hours maximum. The more you will print, the more economical it will be. Files also includes the supports, which will make print setup faster. If you encounter issues while printing, contact me. It will be a pleasure to make sure your parts are printed as they should.

To order, contact me directly by email or on Facebook Messenger via the Ste. Anne's Car Shops official page. Accepted payment method is eTransfer for its inherent versatily but Paypal is also accepted.

Thanks for your support! Depending on the interest, I'm looking forward to release other parts and mini kits to convert generic plastic locomotives into decent and credible Canadian National prototypes..

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Ste. Anne's Car Shops - Official Facebook Group

It's official! I created a new private Facebook Group dedicated to custom 3D printed detail parts I've designed. For those interested, you can join at HERE.

The goal is to share these parts and design ideas!

Monday, July 11, 2022

Announcement: Sharing 3D Parts

After thinking about it for a while, I've decided to share several of my 3D printed detail parts with all interested modellers. Over the last few years, I've been designing a few parts for my own personal needs but know they could be useful for many others. Recently, I started rebuilding a fleet of generic plastic steam locomotives for a friend and noticed probably many people could be interested in these parts. Also, with the custom detailing part market dwindling at a fast pace, I think providing an alternative is a good option.

As you can see, a new tab has been added in the blog header that will lead to the online shop. This new service will be called Ste. Anne's Car Shop in honor to the original Quebec Railway Light & Power Shops in Ste. Anne de Beaupré, QC where they built their first electric locomotive in the early 20th century.

CNR E-7-a conversion mini kit

I won't sell printed parts, but rather the rights to download the files. Designing parts and making sure they print well takes a lot of time, effort and also resources (resin isn't cheap nor the supplies to keep the machines clean and running). The shop will probably be set up on CGTrader in the next few weeks with a goal to be open for business by August.

CNR E-7-a conversion mini kit (tender)

Parts offered are mainly Canadian National steam locomotives details including vestibule cabs, headlights, tender ladders, etc.

Be aware that most parts are designed from pictures and crude CNR diagram. I rarely have access to original engineering drawings. It means, these parts may lack the precision a rivet counter would want. That said, the are made to fit the intended plastic RTR models, meaning I have to adjust some dimensions so it looks alright once assembled. Also, in the case of headlights, they are made to be direct replacement for their own headlight. 

Also, many fine parts may look a little bit crude. Think of headlights and ladders. I could print them more finely, but there long term solidity under normal handling could be severely affected. The goal was to get sturdy parts and reliable printing. However, I'll probably improve a few parts over the time when I can make them look better.

The first project will include a conversion kit for the popular and versatile HO scale Bachmann Alco 2-6-0. It can be kitbashed easily into a CNR class E locomotive, in particular E-7-a. 

I'm not planning to release full kits since they are time consuming to produce and manage. I prefer to leave that to real professionals. As you know, I've design two CN woodchip cars and a Grand Trunk Railway caboose. I'm glad to report you can expect some very positive announcements about that in the very near future.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Scenery at Donohue - Part 3

Grass helps to blend the backdrop and the modelled scene

Work on the club layout as resumed yesterday after a short hiatus. Yet again, the focus in on the Donohue yard.

In the previous session, we applied ballast and let it dry without looking at the results for a few weeks. It a relief to discover it dried correctly without any discoloration.

Looking at picture from the real yard, it became evident that a lot of vegetation took root into the ballast and between ties. In the 2000s, it was no longer that well maintained. Lots of grass also grew along the building.

I started applying grass by making blobs on diluted white glue on the ballast where I wanted it. Using a straw color short static grass, I pinch the fibers between my fingers and dab it into the glue puddle. I see very little merit using a static grass applicator for this step.

The next step is similar, but this time, using greyish dead grass fibers. They had variety and also some shadows. Another way to add texture is sprinkling my usual olive green grounded foam to create smaller plants brought back to life by spring.

Sprinkling dead leaves and ground foam add texture

At that point, the layout is relatively drab and looks like a desert. Honestly, it looks great, however, it's not how early May looks like in Charlevoix. So I need more greenery!

I generally using a Noch Spring grass blend, mixed with a very toned down green from Woodland Scenics (almost mint) plus some straw colored fibers. Since a few months, under the guidance of Chris Mears, I've been adding jute rope cut in 3 to 4mm fibers. They are move texture and more muted colors. I then, once again dab these fibers into my previous work to build up the effect.

Finally, using the same blend, I fire up the static grass applicator and add a subtle coat of fibers to blend everything together. This is generally followed by a subtle sprinkling of crushed dead oak leaves.

The site of a future grade crossing

I must admit I'm quite satisfied with the ground cover. It makes the yard looks much larger and it also divide the space in two very distinct areas: the warehouse and the unloading bays. Another thing that works well is brushing fine limestone dust over the roads with a large soft brush. It really helps to get that dirt road look and the dust settle in quite a permanent way into the rough texture.

Loose dirt over roads really improve realism

On the negative side, I must admit I went overboard with grass in the warehouse area. In real life, this area was paved and covered in crushed stone so trucks could move there. Looking at my work, it looks like an abandoned warehouse, which wasn't my goal. That said, it will be easy to fix by building up new layers of dirt and gravel up to the rail heads and leaving some grass pocking through the surface. This isn't an easy scene because it must be composed as we go forward with it.

Too much grass toward the warehouse...

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Monk Subdivision - Correcting The Grades

After thinking about it quite a while, doing some tests and maths, it was time to correct the grade, install tracks and test again. It all happened yesterday and the new results were quite fascinating.

The new grade is about 1.7%, including curvature factor. Some lighter locomotives do experience a slight loss of speed whe leaving the second curve. At this point in time, the drag caused by the cars being all in the curves is at it's maximum. I may try to improve that a little bit, but to be honest, most locomotives do climb the grade without issue and it would be foolish to expect a constant speed on a grade.

Newer tests were performed with the habitual suspects, i.e. a few key steam locomotives and a few diesels. We both tried with passenger and freight trains. Personnaly, it is my belief long passenger cars with 6-axle are more taxing than freight cars. I suspect a 3-axle truck on a curve creates more friction than a few 2-axle trucks. Indeed, for equal lenght and weight, I found out most of my locomotives perform better pulling freight cars than passenger cars. And mind you, my freight cars having been shelf queens for years aren't great runner either.

With that said, here are some experiments:

The 4-6-0 is a smooth and impressive small steamer (credit: Bachmann)

-Bachmann 4-6-0 (with 56" drivers): This locomotive is small yet very powerful for its size. It can indeed pull 1 boxcar and 5 Athearn heavyweight coaches. We also added 3 Atlas Branchline boxcars. It was it's limit. Quite impressive. The drive is also quiet and steady. Definitely, the metal boiler makes a difference.

-Bachmann 4-6-2 (with DCC Sound): As I previously said, this locomotive isn't a stellar performer due to being a little bit too light, but with the new grade, it can pull 1 boxcar and 8 heavyweight coaches. Far more than I ever intended to do.

BLI Light Mikados are better than I thought... (credit: BLI)

-BLI 2-8-2: I read a lot of nasty comments about the pulling power of that locomotive. Maybe mine is an exception, but it pulled the entire passenger consist without issue. Better, we then tried to see its limit by building the longest freight train physically permissible on the layout. It meant a 31 cars train, including about 6 cars with Confalone-style weights (8 oz. per car) and maybe 3 with plastic wheels. This is the longest train possible in the staging. It's even too long for Armagh passing track. The BLI Mikado climbed the grade pulling that crazy consist without effort. A beautiful sight... Imagine my relief to see this steam locomotive perform much better than anticipated. I never intended to pull more than 10, maybe 16 cars with Mikados... These locomotives are keepers in my book. That said, I'm not a big fan of Paragon 3 sound. It's fine at low speed, but under effort or faster speed, it's just a non descript annoying noise.

-Proto 1000 F3A and B: This duo of locomotive once again performed flawlessly. One loco isn't enough for the 31 cars train, but two is the sweet spot.

-Proto 2000 GP7: This pair was able to move the entire train, but had difficulty in the last stretch when it became apparent one loco had a split gear issue.

-Atlas C424/RS11: Two of them are enough for the long freight trains, but three are better.

To make a long story short, most steamers will be able to pull their intended payload. Diesels are powerful, but most trains will need multiple units to perform flawlessly. This is expected and desired. I don't regret accumulating a lot of F-units for that purpose and my large fleet of kitbashed RS-18 will come handy.

As for sound, I'm on the fence... It's cool, but most of the time, it's just annoying. I'm getting tired of it to be honest. I see two options in the future: setting sound decoders at low volume levels and maybe equipping DC locomotives with silent decoders. I hardly see any benefit installing costly sound decoders in old Proto locomotives. Also, the real sound that was missing yesterday was wheel squealing. From my experience railfanning trains, hearing the freight car wheels and other sounds is much more pervasive than the locomotives themselves. If I ever go the sound route, I may serious think about adding train ambiant sound with detectors in curves if required rather than equip the entire locomotive fleet.

I'm curious, what are your thoughts about sound? Surprisingly enough, I find among the young model railroaders a tendancy to prefer lower volume sound... and in some times, just plain silence. Are we reaching a level of noise saturation? After all, a silent train gliding over the rails with a gentle "woooshh" sound is a calming sight... almost white noise.

With that, my next challenge is building the Joffre grade (from staging to Armagh through Langlois). It may be more tricky, but now I know the recipe!

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Monk Subdivision - Assessing the Grades

A week ago, I wrote a very long blog post about how I could improve the grade on the layout. Lots of numbers and even a spreadsheet. It explains how curves and grades compound together to create a horror show. I postponed its publication because some tests were performed in the last few days to better understand what was really happening. I discussed the matter with friends and people online... Most replies left me perplex, but others did confirm me that compensating curvature to get a constant effective grade was the way to go.

A 4-6-2 struggling with an effective 2.5% grade

The first test was very simple and served to determine the pulling power of my Bachmann 4-6-2 light Pacific on a straight grade. The goal was to find out the maximum grade permissible to haul a decent passenger consist made of one express boxcar and 5 heavyweight coaches. Using wood shims and a 8 feet long straight plank of pine, I built a temporary track. At 1.6% I didn't see any serious loss in power. Sure the train slowed down a little bit, but it wasn't struggling nor exaggerate. About the speed reduction you would expect in real life. 

Testing performance on a straight grade to get useful data

At 1.8%, it's still within acceptable limit if the train pulls 3 very free rolling coaches and a boxcar. At 2%, you break the proverbial camel's back and performance goes down the drain. Serious slowing down and wheel slippage. This is good information because it means the grade + curvature factor should never exceed 1.8%-2% to ensure smaller and lighter steam locomotives can perform adequately. Let's see the data for my layout.

First, eyes can trick you. When you look at a grade curving toward you, an optical illusion is created and it seems the incline is much steeper than it is. I was under the expression that my grade wasn't constant and that it was the chief cause of all my issues. Using a level and a ruler, several measurement were taken. When compiled, a constant 1.6% grade was obtained, which was in the ballpark of what I planned. It's also the Bachmann 4-6-2 theoretical limit to pull a decent consist. A conclusion imposed itself: I didn't take into account the curvature effect on the grade. Maybe I thought it was of little consequence when using 36" curves. Go figure out... When I designed a helix for the first version of this layout, I took it into account.

We know from John Allen and John Armstrong that the effective grade for a curve is Grade + 32/R, R being the curve radius. These results are a rule of thumb obtained by empirical means. They are not a scientific formula, but they give an excellent approximation when dealing with model railroad typical radii.

For Monk subdivision, the radius is 36" (32/36) thus we get an additional 0.9%... Everybody knows that 1% in railroading (the real thing) is a serious operation challenge that can warrant helpers or double heading. No different with model trains even if their pulling power isn't scalable. A mere 1.6% is thus bumped to 2.5%, which is starting to enter Woodland Scenics trainset territory... and for our poor Bachmann 4-6-2, it's far beyond the 2% threshold.

I seriously won't go further with math explanations has I'm terrible with numbers and several modellers have done much more valuable and serious work than me in that department. The layout goal isn't about doing feats of engineering, but rather getting decent and consistent results whatever the quality of locomotives. It's understandable that the current grade works well with quality diesel and steam locomotives. One could elect to only run these excellent models, but this isn't the reason why I designed that layout, otherwise, I would have made different choices. This layout is a display case for my entire collection, thus it must takes into account the poor runners too.

Diesels are versatile compared to steamers...

That leaves us with contemplating various solutions, but let's start by assessing the acceptable grade for curves. Let's say we want a ruling effective grade of 1.8%. It means 1.8% - 0.9% = 0.9%. We should thus try to build something that isn't over 1% in the yard.

The actual numbers are a rise of 1.5" for 8 feet.  The curve length is about 5 feet long thus an elevation of almost an inch at 1.6%. We must drop that a little bit. At a 0.9% grade, it means an elevation of about 1/2". Can it be done? Yes, if I spread the grade over a longer length.

Fast forward a few days and I've done exactly that. I dropped the riser in the yard and curves to get a 0.9% grade and extended the straight grade over the swing gate. Taking curvature into account, both sections now have an effective grade of approximately 1.7%. The Bachmann 4-6-2 can now easily pull a decent consist of one boxcar and 6 poorly rolling Athearn Blue Box heavyweight cars! Now, imagine if I succeed adding a little bit more weight into the boiler and making the car trucks free rolling! We've reached the point I wanted. I'm quite happy to have solved that issue even if it meant tearing down previous work and removing all the tracks that were already installed.

I also relearned a lesson. I wasted one week calculating things instead ot tweaking pieces of wood when the actual work took about 1 hour... Another proof overthink problems solves nothing. That said, I've learned a good share about pulling power, free rolling trucks, grades and operational challenges. These are aspects I never really faced seriously with other layouts in the past. As expected, this layout is not only a project, but a challenge to myself and my skills in model railroading.

On a side note, I found out track on fiberboard are noisy so a cork roadbed will be added to reduce noise transmission. Some tests shown me it was indeed the way to go. I guess trying to be cheap didn't pay off in the end.