Monday, September 18, 2023

Brique Citadelle - Part 2

The next logical step to Brique Citadelle is painting and installing the road better known as Avenue du Sous-bois which used to be the main access to this industrial park until the late 1990s.

I'm certainly no reinventing the recipe. Not by fear of experimenting, but because I want the layout to have a common color palette and techniques to bring in an air of familiarity. As I mentioned in a recent post, just using some different color grass can have a huge impact and I certainly didn't want to gamble.

As always, it's a carboard road painted with Krylon grey primer and camouflage beige. Some light airbrushing blends everything together and add a touch of blue to better capture local tarmac. Powders and colored pencils finish up the road, which is then glued in place with latex caulk. 

Grass is the same blend I always used. The static grass applicator was helpful for some zones, but I must admit I preferred to complete the job with my own fingers. It seems to me each techniques has pros and cons, hence they need to be mixed together to yield the best results.

There are still a lot of things to do, but this area of the layout is taking shape nicely. I particularly love its understated appearance. Indeed, I'll need to add more grass and more ground cover, but I'm not planning to crowd the place with more than a few bushes and trees, utility poles and probably a weathered Volvo front loader reminding us that the site is currently being decontaminated for future redevelopment.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Quebec South Shore Railway - Mark IV: Resurrecting an Old Idea (again)

Several recent conversations with Chris Mears resparkled my interest in exploring shelf layouts as whimsical explorations of possibilities in model railroading. Since I’m cleaning the basement in hope of building new partitions for a storage room and a staging for Monk Subdivision, it gives me some time to dabble in that experiment yet again. Also, since it’s a big cleaning, I getting rid of several building supplies which I have no longer any use for and clutter my basement. These include scraps of foam, old cork rolls, various pieces of wood and plywood leftovers. Giving them a second life before the landfill or recycling makes sense and they cost virtually nothing. Track is recycled too from the original Monk staging which was recently dismantled.


As you know, I’ve designed and built several small layouts over the last decade. It’s a pet subject of mine which is rooted in nostalgia, desire for design challenge and probably a remnant of having been starved for space when I was a teenager living in a very small house. That said, I don’t see small layouts has a limitation because they drive you to understand how train movements work and how much real estate they require. These mathematical equations thus become ingrained in your mental muscle memory and can be put into action when designing larger layout.


My most recent explorations included Donnacona, which I still have in the back of my mind and St-Pie, a farming locality in Southern Quebec that used to be served by CP and later, by the infamous MMA. While extremely interesting project, both of them were bulky even if they footprint was 6 feet long by 15’’ wide. I used traditional carpentry to build them and thus, they were quite heavy, making them less than perfect for something that was supposed to be easy to move around. I may revisit these ideas, but what Chris is doing with his current shelf project (see his wonderful Prince Street blog for more info) kind of gave a second life to my desire to have a small plank for whimsical operation at my desk and photo opportunity.


Chris has been exploring ways of building fast, building cheap and building lightweight. He used ½ foam that he layers and glue down cork with double faced carpet tape. McDonald’s napkins are glued as a scenic base with latex interior paint and he starts pouring scenic materials right away. Let’s just say it outright, Chris and I share the same issues: we are both enthusiastic about everything train and impatient. Fortunately, there is a reliable backbone to this madness which is our love of mundane railroading. At a meeting earlier this year at Hunther Hughson’s house, he demonstrated a slice of that layout building technique and let’s just say we were all impressed with the results. In his proverbial humility, Chris downplayed a little bit the system, but it’s certainly a viable option for many people. And he handled these little pieces of layout very roughly over the years, including several trip in his backpack, to make sure it could last… and sure it did.


Another experiment that impressed me was my own photoshoot module I completed earlier this summer. It was built several years ago using a piece of 1’’ foam framed with some pieces of wood. It was cheap… dirt cheap and was left for years in Louis-Marie’s basement, exposed to humidity and temperature variation. I was pretty sure it would warp badly, but it did survive… Better, it’s feather light, making it perfect to move around depending on lighting conditions for pictures. Certainly, I could use something like that for a layout. At that point, I knew I had enough meaningful information to make a decision. And I certainly set myself a goal that it wasn’t a permanent layout, but only an experiment to push as far as I could.


The track plan was derived from the classic British tradition, which means a passing track (loop) and a siding. I know I have a strong hatred of overcomplicated staging devices, so I gave myself the challenge of making sure all the actions would fit within the layout boundaries, except a short shunting lead.


The footprint was based on dimensions that I felt would be easy to move around between my train room, my office and my workshop. 6 feet long is nice, but 5 feet fits perfectly my Ikea Kallax shelves and my desk. Also, it’s long enough to feel immersed within the scene. It may seems short, but it’s enough to handle a 4 cars long train and a locomotive, which is plenty enough for a single industry layout.


Depth is also another crucial parameter and I elected to keep it at 12’’. It’s a standard measure and makes for a layout that is easier to handle. At 16’’, it can be an issue under some conditions. Since the Kallax shelves are 15’’-16’’ wide, it leaves enough room at the back to keep decorations and objects displayed on the wall were they are.


Now, what’s the theme? Nothing more than the old Quebec South Shore Railway from years ago with the small feed mill. I reworked the track plan to be tighter, but everything else is the same, including the ubiquitous Highway 20 concrete overpass used as a scenic break. I always loved the simplicity of that design and felt it was worth revisiting once more. It’s also suitable for various eras, from the 1950s up to the 2020s. It can be a MMA/CMQ line were larger modern covered hoppers are shuffled around, or something older where 40ft reefers and boxcars are running along B/A tank cars, stock cars and coal hoppers.

At the moment of writing this article, which is about 3 days after construction started, I can confirm it’s taking shape. At first, I built a light pine frame covered with a melamine shelf. I quickly discovered it was far too heavy and replaced it with ¼” lightweight plywood. I haven’t reinforced yet that baseboard, but I may be tempted to add some braces underneath. It would then be easy to convert it into a torsion box if ever required. It must be stressed the great quality of Chris’ modus operandi is to refrain from using wet products on the baseboard, preferring glues and carpet tape to protect it from humidity.


This basic baseboard was covered with 1’’ thick foam secured with No More Nails adhesive. This protect the plywood from wet scenery process and provide enough depth to carve ditches and play with topography. Cork roadbed isn’t glued but kept in place by double face carpet tape. The same tape is also used to secure tracks to cork. This is not an ideal technique because you can’t move around the tracks were there are secured to the tape. It’s almost impossible to move it again if you pressed it firmly onto the tape. The bond is almost instantaneous like CA glue which can be seen as an advantage and a serious caveat. Nevertheless, I had so little track to install it was manageable.


More to come as I continue developing this small layout concept. I have also several other designs in mind, including another British-type micro layout based on a 32" x 9.5" floating shelf.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Brique Citadelle - Part 1

Brique Citadelle used to be a major brick maker in Quebec until its spectacular demise at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. Engulfed in several multi million dollars lawsuit regarding catastrophic quality control that led so several building enveloppe failures, the company which roots went back to the late 19th century, sank like a rock at the bottom of the proverbial pond.

While all that happened when I was was an elementary school kid, I can still clearly recall the intricate structures that made the plant. Each Saturday noon, we would take the industrial road behind  the plant to reach a well-known snack bar after visiting my grandparents living in Villeneuve or shopping in town. The brick and corrugated steel structures were covered in a reddish clay powder that gave an eerie Martian look to the compound. By the mid-1990s, it was in serious disrepair and everything was demolished, leaving piles of rubbles and concrete pads that would endure well into the mid 2000s. I recall the concrete floor was once used by a bike driving school as their formation center.

When the neighboring cement plant went down a few years after Brique Citadelle demise, projects started to emerge. Redeveloping are became a thing and the old industrial remnants were removed and soil decontaminated. At the time our layout is set, Brique Citadelle was nothing more that an abandonned fields with growing vegetation, dirt roads and piles of gravels and discarded demolition bricks. That's exactly what I wanted to replicate: a demolished and long gone industrial structure.

It all started with a coat of universal mud, aka Celluclay mixed with interior latex paint. A thin coat, about 1/16'' to 1/8'' was apply on which I poured sifted sand, various small rocks and scale bricks I once bought from Eastern Europe for that very purpose. They were available in all scales, including HO. They are generally used for military dioramas and are made from clay, which gives them a very realistic texture.

Most bricks were pushed into the mud with my fingers to show they had been mix with the ground and ran over by trucks for years. Others were simply left as piles on the surface. A light sprinkling of limestone powder was applied to merge the bricks with the surrounding. They look quite shiny and new and will require some weathering at a later date.

Before everything had dried, I started to apply some static grass by hand as I usually do, followed by crushed dead leaves and ground foam. I tried to overdo it it, leaving enough bare ground visible to suggested trucks and heavy equipment are frequent visitors.

When the background scene was done, I move my attention to the foreground where I started scenery last week. I didn't like it because I ran out of my regular static grass. Using different colors and jute rope to achieve the same blend was a foolish errand. Hence why we ordered the old stuff during the week.

There is still a lot of work to do with this scene, including trees, ground weathering and small details such as relay boxes and bushes. However, I'm quite happy of how it turned out. More grass will be applied on siding tracks to tie up this scene with the cement plant, but that's a footnote as far as I'm concerned.

A few unexpected results of this new scenery is it makes the mainline look longer and the lighter shade of ground makes it more luminous, two thing that works in our favour. I can't wait to finish the road and continue this work.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Restarting the Modelling Season

The last two months have been quite calm due to vacations outside the country and taking some time off after the big effort to complete the Charlevoix section of the layout. There are still some little elements to add or finish, but we can consider it mostly done. Thus our attention is turning toward an area that was left alone for too long. In fact, many years!

First train of the season, fresh from the shops!

Indeed, it's time to work again on Villeneuve, with fresh eyes and experience gained while working on Charlevoix. Lots have been discussed yesterday, including inverting the scenes, adding an overpass and other ill-thought schemes. As always, after exploring crazy ideas, we generally go back to the original plan! Which is to complete the scene as it was originally designed. While it could be interesting to remodel Villeneuve, we have to keep in mind the track plan was carefully designed and swapping elements that seem trivial could lead to serious operational incongruities.

Track plan and operation aside, the big challenge is getting the backdrop right. As most of you know, the cement plant was demolished a little bit less than 20 years ago and the land has been redeveloped as condos. It's virtually impossible to take pictures of the area and expect it fits an industrial setting anymore. Also, with trees growing a lot since then, many vistas are now impossible to capture on camera. Something else will need to be done... another similar area with similar topography.

Another big issue is using if we really want to continue the early leafless spring theme. This comes with several limitations, including the difficulty to cut the tree line on a photo. Sure, we could print the sky too, but we have had not stellar results in Charlevoix due to humidity affecting the paper. Also, it's quite hard to install full length backdrops. Another issue is that leafless trees are the greatest thing to hide seams, gaps, building junctions with backdrop, etc. Vegetation is great to hide what should be hidden. Don't get me wrong, I like the leafless season, but something must be done.

A quick grass test near Villenuve

First, Clermont is north of Quebec City, in the mountains. Spring starts later there, maybe one week or two. It would mean that if leaves start to appear in Clermont, then they would be fully there in Quebec City. Certainly, they would have a tender green to them, but there would be leaves.

We think it would be easier to shoot adequate pictures in that time of the year, making our life easier. Meanwhile, we could wait until next spring to take pictures and start the scenery right now, leaving a small gap to insert the photobackdrop later. We did the same in Clermont and it worked well.

This backdrop issue aside, our biggest challenge will be to complete the structures. The large cement plant will need to be enlarged at the back. It will be fully modelled. The bagging plant is almost ready to receive its cladding and details and several ancillary buildings could be done rather quickly. As for cladding, I now have a very hard time finding HO scale suitable corrugated cardboard to imitate asbestos panels. From now on, I think I will simply 3D print them according to my needs. It will be more cost efficient and prototypical that way.

I'm really looking forward to start modelling again.

Highball! A new season arrive...

On a positive note, Jérôme was able to revive our duo of GP-15s. Better sounds and keep alives have now made them very reliable locomotives, so all the frustrations associated with poor performance are gone... at least for now!

Friday, July 7, 2023

Building Monk Subdivision – Mark 2

The first Monk Subdivision didn’t get far has it got entangled in issues such as hidden trackage and steep grades. I took a few days last month to strip down the incomplete layout to the benchwork. Better to start from a clean slate. However, lessons learned from this previous iteration were quite precious to get moving fast with the second one. My soldering skills are better, my grasp of spline roadbed building too. Also, I’m more comfortable with laying tracks.


Settling down with a much simpler track plan also help to speed up the construction, which is quite a great factor for motivation. Add to that Quebec was plagued with a heatwave during the last few days, it was just a good reason to spend my evening in the cool temperature of my basement rather than suffering the debilitating 32 degrees Celsius of my modelling room/office.


As always, working with spline roadbed is so natural to create free flowing track on a scenic layout. I love that technique, which is relaxing to build. It goes beyond simplistic geometry and provides much more subtlety. No wonder many large layouts use it.


With that said, it’s also a good occasion to test ideas in real time. Moving mockups and structures around to see where they belong, which is always, to a certain extent, a tricky business on paper. At this point, it has become quite clear the station building must be located on the aisle side to provide a more engaging contact with the railroad. As for the sidings, they look better against the backdrop because, in a sense, they are a backdrop when trains parked there are passed by express freight and passenger trains.


On the other hand, I’m no longer sure the water tank looks good in the foreground. I’ll have to find a better location for so it can’t obscure the nice view of a train leaving the big scenic curve. This is the kind of thing that only manifest themselves when working with physical models.

The same can be said of the grade. Until now, I had reservations about it. And now I feel it is a must… the train must climb the hill to reach the station. Visually, it doesn’t look right if everything is flat. For sure, we are talking about a 1.4% grade and nothing really serious… Just to add that little visual impact but not to the expense of reliability.

So far, I'm excited by the project and have found a good way to build in in meaningful steps, which is crucial to ensure success.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Thinking outside the Room - Part 4

For some, building a layout is something relatively straight forward, and for most of us, it’s just a long and windy road toward a goal.  For Monk Subdivision, the adventure started more than two years ago when I started to explore the idea of modelling a single mainline in rural Quebec. An early post had all the key ingredients boiled down to a cohesive recipe: a small town with a team track and almost nothing elsewhere.

While this approach seemed simple, I got lost more than once and at some point, fell victim of the “I want it all” curse. The small village became a large division point, then other branchlines started to grow here and there in hopes of creating “interest”. Later on, I explored the possibilities of staging yards, which devolved into a madness of hidden trackage that became a liability for trains. Fortunately, I was able to see the light and to rationalize the layout back to its roots: modelling a generic Canadian mainline in Southern Quebec. Operations would be simply watching trains meeting at a small siding and running the local switcher working the team track. Nothing less, nothing more.

Simple tracks mean less issues. As Joe Fugate likes to say, you can’t have quality if you seek quantity. Less turnouts, less problems… less problems, more fun. Yes, it’s simplistic, but with model railroading, you can’t escape reality and physics.

As for staging, I’ve come to a hybrid solution that ensures I can meet all my goals without compromising too much. The issue was about having two returning/staging loops depicting both end of the line and reducing the grade between the lower deck and the upper deck. My solution consists of creating two identical staging yard and shifting them about 1 foot apart so the aren’t overlapping. This provides two benefits: 1) all tracks are directly accessible from the top and 2) the vertical separation doesn’t need to be more than 4 inches.

Another issue was how to build the layout… what about the phasing? Build the staging then build the layout? That would require me to postpone the project until I could add a room in the basement to house it. Not fun if you ask me. Another option, as suggested by Chris Mears is simply to build the roadbed in the layout room, create a temporary loop and run trains. Elevation can be modified later by altering the risers supporting the spline roadbed. It has the advantage of providing a working layout and a lot of time to work out wiring, signalling and controls while the staging room is being built. Once done, it’s all about drilling a hole in the wall and rerouting both ends of the layout to their respective staging loop. Risers will be adjusted accordingly to get the correct grade.

That said, I’ve already committed to build during the last few days. Old roadbeds, tracks and wiring have been removed and the new spline roadbed is being built. The previous iteration was a failure as a layout, but I learned a lot about splines, soldering and wiring. All that knowledge is making the rebuilding a breeze. 

Splines are such a fantastic way to build roadbed

Well, after a lot (too much) of careful thoughts, I've come to the realization I really wanted a two level set of returning loops/staging yards. The layout goal has always been about railfanning trains and it's the best arrangement to get a lot of traffic and manage it easily with current technology.

The difference this time is that I reduced the number of tracks on each loop and offset them so they aren't hiding each other. It's much more practical for access and maintenance. Also, vertical separation can be reduced dramatically to 4", which creates gentle grades in the layout room.

First train on the layout!

Speaking of the layout room, the grade out of Joffre staging (the lower loop) is about 1.6% then it's reduced at 0.4% between the turnout/signals and the team track. This gentle grade reduces the drag that could affect longer trains or less powerful locomotives. Lesson learned from the previous staging.

As for the scenicked layout itself, things are now much simpler. A small station, with a passing track and a team track acts as our point of contact with the human realm. Sidings are on the backdrop side so cars and trains on them never obscure the action on the mainline. They are part of the background. Another advantage is having the depot in the foreground, which enables me to have more details, trucks, cars, and actions taking place and setting the scene.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

CN Woodchip Cars - The End

Almost a decade ago, I started working on CN woodchip cars 3D model to be printed. It was a very long walk through several hardships that made me learn a new trade, new skills and how designing model cars can be an excruciating exercise in compromise...

Now, after all that wait, 8 completed cars are ready to enter service. All of them built and weathered, using my design printed and sold by Kaslo Shops. In that regard, I wish to thank John Whitmore who was always very supportive of the project and made it possible. As I assembled the kits, I found a few things I would like to improve, including the decals. I hope to forward these improvements to John during this summer.

As for the model themselves, I went a like bit further with weathering. No new technique so to speak, but just cranking it up a few notches. Since 3D printed cars have always slight artefacts due to the process, I thought I would use an approach based on Tom Johnson grain hopper weathering techniques mixed with a few armour modeller tricks shared by Martin Kovac at Night Shift on YouTube.

Basically, I faded the paint with a substantial amount of white then added another fade layer to which I also added some light orange to make it even lighter while keeping a warm hue. The real trick was to apply that layer in an irregular and cloudy pattern on flat panels only to replicate the highlights created by distorted steel plate. When combined with regular weathering, it really gave an amazingly realistic look to the cars, replicating that beaten up appearance so characteristic of gondolas.

Once again, I can't help but urge modellers to keep their mind opened, look at what is done outside our hobby and take chances with their models. Modulating colors and hues before applying decals is truly a radical yet easy way to improve drastically your work! Try it!

Monday, May 8, 2023

Thinking outside the Room – Part 3

As promised, we are now back for the third and final installment of Thinking outside the Room. Having selected a few good design elements, it’s time to tie things together for a “final” plan of action.


Many observed rightly that the staging bulge right in the middle of the room was an atrocious waste of prime space and I agree. But it was a step required to further my thoughts. In architectural design, we often explore ideas that are deemed useless or not optimal to figure out “why” they aren’t and what is good about them. They won’t be the final option, and we know it, but they are useful steps to learn more about the project, our priorities and the potential of the space available in front of us. Maybe 90% of things will be wrong or unwanted, but there is a 10% that could provide a key for another option. It is also a way to learn why a bad idea is a bad idea. Simply discarding designs based on feeling doesn’t provide a great deal of foresight. And if you are asked why it’s bad from people who think it’s good, you have zero argument to sustain a positive conversation about it.


In the case of Monk, drawing this option with the bulge proved many things:

-          The bulge does take a lot of space;

-          Looking at a staging with entering a room is far to be appealing;

-          A working surface on top of the bulge would be to deep to be really useful and it would reduce access to tracks for maintenance;

-          Framing the best scenes under the cabinet is a winning move;

-          Superposed staging yards are indeed a neat use of space, particularly if they have exactly the same geometry.

Staging inside versus outside the room

Armed with that, we know that we have some good elements to work with and a few deficiencies to work out. First, let’s take the staging yards outside of the room. We explored the workshop option earlier in part 1 and it didn’t make sense. But there is also some space on the right side which is full of storage shelves. Many things on these shelves are hobby related and must be protected from dust. It isn’t the case right now so building a new room to protect them would not reduce storage space and provide for shelter from wood dust. Storage shelves could be installed under and over the staging layout.

The full mainline run is now restored

As you can see, we are now addressing two completely separate issues by building a single 6’ x 10’ storage room. Something completely unexpected, but very fortunate and practical for the house.

Some scenery to tie hings together

With the staging outside, we can restore the continuous scenic mainline around the room and let scenes breath. Since both staging are one over the other, the entire visible track is thus a long gentle grade typical of mountain railroading. It’s about 1.1%, which is quite acceptable in HO and in line with prototype National Transcontinental Railway design guidelines of the 1900s.


Refining ideas by hand; a better lakeside scene

It also opens another door which is of uttermost interest. It is, once again, inspired by the siding at Lac Therrien that was built on a causeway. This siding, in the middle of nowhere, acts as a place where you can stage meets between trains. It would be long, capable of holding trains pulling about 20 cars. I can already imagine building a shelf to rest on and a control panel in that area to railfan trains meeting there. It’s also a good excuse to implement a realistic yet extremely simple signal system. The visible part of the layout would then be 2 CTC blocks: a stretch of mainline and the siding, sandwiched between two staging yards.


Jérôme's drawing explaining CTC blocks

On the visual side of things, this new track plan has a powerful argument for it. Both staging areas punch the wall in the exact same spot. Also, the Abenaki bridge scene no longer needs to deal with a nasty curve. Having the swing gate to the room crossed only by a straight piece of track makes geometry much easier to deal with and is more forgiving with track alignment. I also like the fact both scenes under cabinets are no longer linked together in front of the doorway. This connection felt clumsy and was broken when the gate was opened. Now, they connect in a more natural way around the wall instead of being broken at the doorway. It’s a natural spot for a vertical separation too.


Lac Therrien seen from the aisle

I’ve discussed that plan with friends and most of them agree it’s a much better and elegant version. It is a serious contender and can be built easily, economically and can run in a matter of a few months. It’s now up to me to make a long due move.


Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Railway Modellers Meet of B.C. 2023 Reminder

Just to remind you that tomorrow evening, I'll be presenting a virtual clinic about modelling the Pre-CNR era at Railway Modellers Meet of B.C. 2023. Registration is mandatory but free here.

You can find the schedule for the entire Virtual Prologue event here. My clinic will be hosted between 19:05 and 19:50 PST (Pacific Standard Time), or 22:05 and 22:50 EST (Eastern Standard Time).

It has been a really fun clinic to prepare and lots of new cars have been painted for you to enjoy!

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Thinking outside the Room - Part 2

The Japanese layout discussion also sparked another interesting point, which was about showcasing trains instead of showcasing railway trackage.

In this hobby, it is often assumed that if you want to represent the essence of a prototype, replicating at least one station is the sure way to go. For obvious reasons, it is indeed a strong design position. Stations have signature buildings and industries typical of a specific locality and railway company. They are strong affirmative elements that define the peculiar identity of a company. On the other hand, this strong association means that any deviation can be annoying for most modellers who knows too well their prototype.

From my own personal experience, I find out that I barely interact with station scenes. They are nice to build, nice to look at, but at the end of the day, I find myself always railfanning my own miniature trains in the most mundane settings on the club layout, i.e., along a single track mainline, disconnected from the “signature” elements and grounded into the landscape.

At this point, it is indeed a matter of personal preference and I find no wrong way to tackle design as long as the premise correlates you own interests. Also, modelling mainline has always been an interest of mine dating back to childhood. But let’s play with that idea a little bit and see where it can leads you.

Thinking outside the room has opened a wild and long exchange of ideas between Chris Mears and I. It would certainly be great to share these raw thoughts here, but the format would be hard to translate in blog form. That said, many interesting concepts were shared and are worth exposing here.

The first thing is that a loop staging outside the room is a no go. It seems I made serious dimensional errors when I made a proof of concept. For some reason, I made the length much longer than it was in real life. Thus, it doesn’t fit the intended space. Another option was simply to expand the loops outward in the basement large woodworking shop. As you can already figure out, this is highly undesirable. Sacrificing a precious working area to run trains in a dusty environment is not a sound nor sane proposition. I’m mad, but not THAT mad!


Thus, it’s back to square one… or is it? Once again, our friend the Japanese N scale layout in Hokkaido will lend a helpful hand. Could the returning loops be incorporated into the layout room? They are huge aren’t they… fitting them in corners is pure madness... No, I’m not into building the next bridge over River Kwai!


But could the loops be located in the center with the layout surrounding them? I know it’s an unusual proposition as it means to remove entirely Armagh from the picture. But is that a viable proposition? Wouldn’t it remove the core of the layout, or worst, dilute entirely the signature scene that hold together the layout around a narrative? Maybe… if the goal was to depict Armagh, QC in the early 1950s or in the 1960s. However, nothing is more removed from my initial intentions than fixing the layout rigidly in a specific reference frame.  Armagh and Monk Subdivision have always been a useful tool to provide inspiration for a generic yet realistic layout depicting the South Shore. It could be anywhere in between Southern Quebec, New England and New Brunswick, which I stated more than once on this blog.

Chris' sketch about 3 scenic modules an one left for future use

Reaching that point, one can ask itself if the station scene isn’t too specific to fit several eras and prototypes. The answer, at least mine, would be yes and no. Yes, because it comes with a signboard with a specific location, but also no because most rural stations around the continent shared a good deal of common features. At this point, just replacing the buildings could be enough to trick most people. But they are also a point where things happen such as stop, refuelling, switching, etc… In my own personal experience of trains, they are moving on the mainline about 98% of the time. Not that it’s entirely true, but it’s how I encounter them. They are floating dreams running in front of my eyes, filling up my field of vision and impossible to stop… Once they are there, later they aren’t. Destination unknown most of the time, except for a faint idea about the next division point.


In that regard, maybe the station is no longer the mundane point of view of the railway, but rather something out of the ordinary. As I mentioned to Chris, I’ve realized over the last decade how little I care about switching moves when I’m at home. I don’t care at all, it bored me to death. I just want to see rolling stock moving on the mainline, watching them from a fixed vantage point, immersing myself. If I want to switch, I go to the club layout and get my fun there. So why should compromises be made to get a half decent switching layout with a short length of mainline? Murray Bay has only switching districts and no mainline… thus the home layout should provide something different.

Displaying trains on the mainline...
When you think about it, is the layout made to “play” with trains or to “display” trains? Both genuinely worthy goals, using similar structures and components, but not exactly the same. Knowing myself, I’m in the second category and it comes to my mind a small basement layout should provide for that. A good stage with exquisite scenery. Something achievable, easy to maintain, that can be built in a decent amount of time on reasonable budget.

No station, but a central staging area...

Thus, the central set of staging loops starts to look appealing. Sure, it eats a lot of space, but on the other hand it leaves more space for the scenic layout to develop itself under the IKEA cabinet. With such a layout, there is no longer a need for selective compression since it’s only a slice of railway from the prototype between nowhere and nowhere. A mile or two, it doesn’t matter. The mainline is just finding its ay around the hills and the small rivers to reach a final goal I can’t fathom and which, ultimately, doesn’t really matter.

The "Dragon head" as dubbed by Chris Mears

This is also a proposition that makes sense. The staging “bulge” can be built independently from the walls and be highly accessible for maintenance. It also creates alcoves from which you can watch the trains, which are always an interesting spot to stand.

It is also possible to hint at some rail traffic control by having the first turnout of each staging loop on the layout, as if they were depicting the beginning of a passing track (which, they are indeed). The main layout thus becomes one long occupancy block. A stage for trains to play their game and be displayed. In some way, the scenic portions are now a large panoramic screen surrounding the viewer. It’s an immersion experience, which is one of the things I always loved with model trains… when they trick you to believe it’s the real world.

From a more pragmatic perspective, this kind of layout takes away a lot of construction issues and limitations. It’s simple, yet sophisticated, and I like it that way. In fact, I recall that early ideas about that layout also tried to capitalize on that before the FOMO factor tricked me in adding “stuff”.

Staging loops in the center for ease of access

Another big point in my eyes is the sheer staging capacity provided by the loops. I got the idea from some fanciful European modeller I’d rather keep the name untold, but it works very well for its purpose. Just in term of capacity, the longest track on the loop can hold one locomotive and 37-38 40ft cars. By HO standards, this is huge for a small 16’ x 10’ feet layout. It really captures the essence of big railroading without compromise nor need for a basement empire. Even the Cabot, that very long CN passenger train from the 1960s linking Montreal with the Atlantic, can be staged in its longest iteration… imagine, two Alco C424 pulling 16 heavyweight and stainless cars through the Appalachian Mountains! If I’s a pre-1918 NTR train during the war, we easily reach forty 36ft cars in tow behing a large and mighty 2-10-2 .

Serious staging capacity!

As you can see, the language has changed. It’s no longer about modelling “that place”, but about modelling “trains” in their natural environment. For that reason, I like this idea! And for the bulge, I’ll find a way to give it a useful purpose; be it covered with a tabletop to create a lounge or install a clever diorama or rolling stock display on it. The spray booth and other useful tools with find their way in storage under it… You know, you never have enough storage!

With some scenery

As for the scenic aspect of the layout, it captures three of my favourite spots on Monk Subdivision: the Lac Therrien causeway along the marshes, the neat girder bridge over Abenaki river and the cool concrete culvert spanning Rivière du Sud at Ste-Euphémie.

Lac Therrien near Monk (credit: Google Earth)

But as you can already guess, this bulge design is only one step on the road to finding an acceptable solution for the layout. Stay tuned for the next installment where we will go back outside the room to loop the loop.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Thinking outside the Room - Part 1

A steam freight train in Hokkaido, circa 1968

As Sanstead is coming to an end, it’s now time to think about Monk. A series of discussions with Chris Mears took us to Hokkaido during the last years of steam operation in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We explored ways to create a series of cameo scenes linked together on a scenic N scale layout using Kato components. The goal was not to build something or to plan for a real layout, but to play with a lesser known prototype which share a lot of Canadian-like feature such as topography, rivers, vegetation and mountains. Sure enough, steam era in rural Japan is an impressive thing. It merges together state of the art late steamers with narrow gauge and layout-friendly features such as steep grades, scenic bridges and tunnels. The locomotives of that era are themselves marvels of engineering; the Japanese having pushed to the limit what could be done with narrow gauge. Fair enough, having seen these brutish 4-6-2, 4-6-4, 2-8-2 and 2-8-4 with my very own eyes, I can tell you can’t distinguish them from their standard gauge brethren if you don’t start to look closely at the rail spacing. In some way, they heavily borrow from big American steamers while keeping specifically Japanese details that puts them, in my mind, in a similar category than Canadian steamers. The vocabulary is the same, but the accent is different if I could say.

A train running in a valley in Hokkaido

Compressing a river horizontally...

A study in elevation

Such a layout doesn’t need to replicate complex operations. As is fashionable with Japanese layout, you railfan your N scale trains on a generally quite simple track plan. In my eyes, it’s an excuse to see nice trains crossing through a beautiful landscape. For this reason, I can easily imagine a single track mainline with two hidden returning loops acting like shadow stations. The visible part of the layout is depicting a river valley and several bridges and tunnels dividing 3 similar but differently framed scenes. It may sound gimmicky, but when you study rural lines in Hokkaido, you quickly discover than in some areas, it was common to find 4 major bridges per miles. In that regard, the old Shiranuka Line provides inspiration beyond your wildest dreams.


A single mainline layout with hidden returning loops

That said, as much as I love late Japanese steam and find Kato N scale locomotives exquisite and reliable, it is very unlikely I will commit to that. However, all these themes of framing scenes about large steamers traveling a rural landscape with some staging are in fact nothing more than what Monk is all about. Once again, good design is universal and can serve several prototypes over continents.


Returning loops in dashed lines

One thing I’ve liked with the Japanese layout is the returning loops used as staging. Many Europeans (and Americans) use that trick to create a sense of going somewhere. It is particularly useful when you want to model traffic between two division points without having to model them or fiddle with trains. The automated reversing ensure traffic moves in both directions. It’s also easy to automate and control trains in a compelling way.


In the case of Monk, there are two options. The first one is to replace my current staging with two loops under the upper level (Armagh). I once explored that idea with Chris Mears and while it’s extremely elegant on paper, it’s a nightmare to build and to maintain. Accessibility is appalling and hiding tack with scenery is a recipe for disaster. It’s not that different from what I have built until now. Trevor Marshall advised me to stay away from hidden staging and tracks that cannot be maintained properly. I’m not sure I listened to him even if I knew he was right. Current maintenance issues on Murray Bay Subdivision do remind me how frustrating dealing with electrical issues is. Mind you, all tracks all accessible and visible on that layout!


Enters option 2, which consist in building the loops outside the room. Not something I was eager to do, but now I’m seeing more and more value to that. Basically, two loops would be built on a table on top of each other. The yard throats would be installed in such a way they don’t overlap, which would make them easier to monitor, repair or maintain in the future.

This option would remove all hidden trackage from the layout which is a good start. But it would also get rid of superposed trackage in some area, eliminating vertical clearance issues. Another good point is that scenery will be much more easier to create since there will be no need for access hatches and other clumsy and annoying contraptions. Also, Armagh scene would be narrower with the elimination of the stating yard that was located being it. More space in the room isn’t a bad proposition.

Finally, the swing gate will only have to deal with a single track and no grade, which will make track alignment easier and less prone to seasonal dilation. Yes, this is a serious issue to keep in my and I wouldn’t mind making the bridge even more simpler.


That said, it means that almost everything I built last year is now completely useless. Is it a big issue? Not really. I’ve learned a great deal about model railroading in the last 18 months, much more than I could have ever predicted. My goals are the same, but I have more sophisticated tools to reach them and it would be foolish to go forward with premises that no longer makes sense and show their limitations.

As extra, here's an interesting sketch by Chris Mears who describes it better than me:

I’m fooling around with this a lot. The progression through scenes (green shade) is not ABC..F but AFC-DBE. An alternation so as the train moves through the room it doesn’t move sequentially from wall to wall with half a train still in each wall-scene but like a series of stages so the visible train is only visible on opposite room sides.

Non sequential scenes (credit: Chris Mears)

But let's stop it for today... more interesting thoughts to share in a next installment!