Sunday, December 31, 2023

Monk Subdivision - Moving Forward

As the year comes to a close, I take some time to reflect upon what as been accomplished over the last twelve months. In the case of the Murray Bay Subdivision, the layout progressed once again at a steady pace and has reached maturity. No need for words, since deeds and pictures do speak for themselves.

A nice and welcoming room

I have also been able to complete a few personal projects such as Stanstead that can be considered as a forerunner for Monk Subdivision and a way to push my skills further. Speaking of skills, I also had the pleasure to see my article on extreme weathering that documents my custom CN snow plow be publish under the care of Scott Thorton who has been a joy to work with him. I think he has some other ideas in store for me and I may soon take up the challenge. Model railroading is indeed taking me where I would have never thought I would go... In a sense, I'm glad to have picked up that hobby when I was a kind.

Building the benchwork piece by piece

That said, the big elephant in the room is indeed the Monk Subdivision. A lot (too much) have been said and written about this tentative layout, but little has been accomplished. The biggest hurdle has always been to deal with the stating yard. To move forward, I built a new 7-1/2 feet x 10 feet room in the basement just for that purpose and it explains why I was relatively quiet over the last week even if there was a lot I wanted to share. It was indeed a battle against myself, procrastination and relying too much on others to do the odd jobs I don't feel comfortable to tackle done by myself. We all know these feelings and sure, I can spend many hours fanning over some great layout build by master modellers but I won't reach that level if I don't put the effort in it. And thus, I cut Internet for a few days to make room for my hobby.

Two holes leading toward a wonderful project...

It started a few weeks ago when it became clear the new room was almost ready, i.e. plywood walls and drop ceiling. It didn't look pretty and felt oppressive. No surprise the architect in me decided to crank it up a few notches to make to make it a nice and comfortable space you want to be for long hours. Why? It had to be bright and cheerful. And also, it will probably be dual purpose to display and operate my small dioramas and modules.

This old Rapido Supercontinental coach is unforgiving!

Building the room took about 2 months and at the end of the day, I elected to wainscot the entire thing, add a few custom made mouldings and install a drop ceiling with powerful LEDs. Honestly, I'm not regretting a single minute my decision to go to such length with this lowly basement room. Because, indeed, I've been spending a full week now building the staging benchwork. Working in a nice environment made it much more interesting and felt less like a chore. I'm also starting to imagine how I will display models in the room and set the storage.

Standardized curves mean standardized roadbed pieces

The benchwork took about 2 days to complete and is made of 1" x 3" pine fastened with pocket screws. I was surprised how fast it went. The next morning, I found out that I made a 1/4" vertical alignment mistake with the main layout in the other room. Fortunately, due to my semi modular approach and use of screws, it only took 30 minutes to realign everything and I was back on schedule. I spent the next few days cutting plywoods, adding shelf brackets and cutting fiberboard. As I worked, I updated my XtrkCAD plan to improve track flow and remove short radius curves as much as was possible, setting a minimum radius not below 27-28".

Joffre yard is taking shape

Laying track was also a straight forward process, even if I redid long sections to increase the radius. My biggest fear was using Walthers Code 83 curved turnouts with 24"/28" radii. I wish I could have used larger turnouts and if possible, Peco ones, but that was a compromise that needed to be done. Fortunately, even my largest 2-10-2 and 6-axles locomotives run fine on them and let me tell you I tested them at full speed and tender first! They aren't not as great as Peco,  but they have solid rail points and decent quality inherited from Shinohara. I also tested them with Branchline heavyweight cars and first generation Rapido Supercontinental cars, both products known to have serious truck issues and they perform OK. Take into account they are really poor runners, so having them naviguate decently and without derailing through the curved turnouts put my mind at ease.

The 2-10-2 didn't mind the curved turnout!

At the moment of writing these lines, Only 4 flextracks remain to be nailed down to complete the first staging yard that will represent CN Joffre in Charny. Louis-Marie has already started to develop a design to control and automate the yard with various electronic modules and detectors. Switch machines are in the mail and should arrive in early January. I can see a lot of experimentation waiting for us, but that's a meaningful challenge I looking forward to.

This refurbished BLI SD40 is testing the yard throat once again...

Also, while thinking about it in the last few days, it has become clear that Mon Subdivision isn't a layout centered on operating a train, but rather about operating a small piece of railway. In some way, this is closer to the European way to do things. And can easily imagine someone in the staging room that acts as a dispatcher and send orders at the station in the main layout room. The person there doesn't "operate" trains, but manage the meets at the station, receiving order, controlling the turnouts and making sure that trains meet as they should and safely. In some way, this isn't surprising because my limited knowledge of Monk Subdivision is generally based on pictures showing train meets, dreadful accidents caused by mistakes in traffic control and the fact it was also a line that received a poorman's ABS signal system that made an impact on local railfans.

I'm also convinced my concept of having only one town on the layout is worthy. I was recently visiting Yvan Déry and I was absolutely convinced that the less you have, the better you are. A single town is immersive and has less compromises, which creates a realistic setup. I remember starting a discussing about one-town layouts many years agon on MRH forums and which was revived and expanded upon by Jim Six. Jérôme who often speaks highly of La Mesa club layout in California had an influence on me because years ago, I watched a very long tour of their layout on YouTube. That feeling of running trains in the middle of nowhere made a big impression on me. We all wish we could have that space for our layout, but we forget that we can get a part of that action by simply modelling a slice of it. I've seen plenty of modellers doing that in recent years, which confirms me it is a viable option.

With all that said and done, I wish you all a Happy New Year and hope that 2024 will be a year to nurture your skills and make that hobby a meaningful way to create and grow. The last few years have been quite hard for most people and we should be glad to participate in a constructive hobby that can soothe the mind and steer us away from idleness. This is indeed, a priceless gift!

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Montreal & Southern Counties - A Small Railway to Model

 In 2018, George Riley and Otto Vondrak published a series of 9 articles in Railroad Model Craftsman urging us to Consider the Commuter. This series made a great deal of effort to underline the attractiveness of commuter and interurban railways of all era as worthy modelling projects. They also made it clear they could take very little space while yielding a quite substantial amount of operation. I was quite enthralled by that series and read it quite often over the years, trying to apply it to Quebec Railway Light and Power Company. As expected, it failed because I'm too much aware of that prototype to have a healthy distance to make the required compromises.

However, I know Montreal & Southern Counties Railway only from a handful of attractive photographs and a general idea of the line on the map. I thus have that critical distance required to make required compromises and strive to nail down the spirit of that line.

Using a few pictures from the internet, I was able to piece together something that could make sense, would be rational and small enough to fit a standard bedroom (in this case, an upper level over Monk Subdivision staging).

An achievable M&SC layout in a 10' x 7'6" room

The main goal would be to run a commuter or a small freight train from the terminal in downtown Montreal to the other terminal in Granby (in this case, I've used Marieville as the defacto terminal because I find it more scenic). A small passing track is added between both location to create a meeting place, somewhere where trains stop to add spatial and time. 

Montreal terminal in 1954 (credit:

The first scene is Montreal in a very simplified manner. I only cared about providing the runaround track, a siding to park equipment and a small two track freight yard to do some train building on the layout. The station is based on the real M&SC terminal that still stand to this day and was an exquisite brick structure that can be built full scale. Surround industrial and commercial brick buildings add a sense of urbanity. The entire scene is thus framed by an interlocking tower and the terminal, making it a railway pocket in a dense urban setting that isn't that different from New York City ones.

The entire terminal circa 1948 (credit: Canadian Pacific Archives)

Montreal McGill Terminal circa 1910 (credit: Library & Archives Canada)

Since Montreal is an island, I put the Richelieu river as a scenic divider between the metropolis and the so-called Southern Counties. People will say I'm completely mad to blend together the mighty St. Lawrence and the calm Richelieu, but I personally feel it's alright and the long Richelieu bridge had some real charm that set the place. In this case, since space is at a premium, the bridge would have about 5 short 50ft steel deck spans on a curved piece of track to give a sense of grandeur and distance. This is also the perfect place to railfan you trains.

The next scene would be based on Ste-Angèle where a small flag stop/depot existed near a rural road and which was framed by two beautiful mansard roof houses, one which served as an inn and brought life to the area. I don't believe a passing track existed there, but I don't care at all since it's irrelevant to the layout's goals. These houses were framed by tall trees which help to divided the layout in different scenic units to make it look bigger. All structures would be kitbashed, but since there aren't a lot of them, it would be quite easy to achieve.

Ste-Angèle in 1955 (credit: Joseph Testagrose Collection)

We then enter a wide curve crossing vast fields typical of Southern Quebec. I would imagine a very far away horizon to give it great depth. Think about Tom Johnson's old Indiana Northern Railroad layout.

After the rural scene, we enter "downtown" Marieville, a sweet little town sporting a neat and distinctive late 19th century two storey depot. It is indeed the main feature of that place, with the passing track/runaround a small team track serving the local industries such as a feed mill that can be modelled if one wishes it. The scene is very railroady with tracks, a long platform, a parking lot and some gravel patches around the team track. Main street runs behind the depot where neat wooden townhouses and small shops gives a sense of a thriving community sustained by the rails. Imagine also lush trees and overhead catenaries framing the scene and giving it personality. That's how I envision Marieville: simple, yet utterly relevant!

Marieville, QC in 955 (Credit: Novak/Joseph Testagrose Collection)

Operation would be rather simple, implying small communter trains made of a diesel (probably a F-M H16-44 or a MLW RS-18 or even a RS-3) pulling a baggage/RPO car and a coach. Electric interurbans could also be featured, pulling a typical milk car or even Budd cars. The idea is to hint at changes, at mutations, at that very moment the traditional traction line becomes diesel, just before disappearing. A sort of swan song.

Small freight trains, made of 2 or 3 cars and a caboose, could be pulled by the same locomotives. They would perform simple yet immersive task at both terminals. Trust me, it may sound simple, but one can get very busy if working slowly and with a modicum of prototype practice. Also, if you want to run small steamers, be my guest!

Such is the M&SCR layout I propose, grounded and inspired both by Riley and Otto's articles and a handful of evocative pictures. This layout also shines because it is close and personal. Both terminals are located in alcoves for an immersive experience, you never see the entire layout from one point and each modelling subject is both mundane and yet a challenge. Certainly, if you recognize a bit of Trevor Marshall's Port Rowan in this layout, you won't be wrong!

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Understanding Classic Boxcar Red Weathering

Over the last few years, I've been experimenting with boxcar red weathering. Understanding that ubiquitous railway color is central to most modellers' work and can be useful. When we think of adding weathering, the first step we learn is to add some grime and darken the model. While true, this is now the entire story and I've written quite extensively on that subject.

In the last few months, I've been sampling colors from pictures and creating color swatches to get a better grasp of what colors I should use as base paints. Except if you model a car that has been freshly painted less than a year, you can be sure that your models will display some level of discoloration. Let's look at what a bunch of CNR boxcars shot in 1955 in Armstrong, ON can tell us. This picture was published in Robert Wanner's book "Across the Canadian Shield".

In the picture, the steel boxcar is extremely weathered. While we can't figure out the roadnumber, this car is a 10'-0" high boxcar with a flat or Murphy raised panel roof. The paint scheme is barely visible and completely faded. There are no trace of green paint on the maple leaf, which indicates this is most likely a car that was painted before the white leaf paint scheme was discontinued in 1944. At the time of our picture, the car hasn't been repainted for at least 12 years. It must be noted that it was common for white paint to disappear on CN boxcars of the era while the green paint stuck for longer though it faded badly. This would be the equivalent of the ghost lettering on modern Railbox cars.

Let's look at the colors. On the roof, it is clear most paint has flaked from the galvanized steel panels. Paint back then didn't stick well to zinc applied on steel and would disappear almost completely after a decade. Note that the steel color isn't shiny, but rather a flat grey. Sometimes, you can perceive a few hints of blue depending on the galvanization. In this case, it is a very neutral gray.

The car sides are brown, but a rather freshly color. The red brown has turned into a warm and light leather color with some variations in darkness where grime accumulate. Miniature figure painters will recognize these dark flesh colors that are offered by paint manufacturers serving that hobby. Why bother starting with real red oxyde when you can just skip the fading process and paint with a faded color?

The very grimy parts near the door are interesting because it has a grey hue. It's kind of pinkish, but rather dark.

The ghost lettering is almost the same color as the car body, but a little bit lighter. To replicate such an effect, one could paint the model with the dark flesh color, apply and seal the decals, they airbrush a filter made of the same color to blend everything together. That would make for a very cool effect which I'm kind of interested to replicate.

Finally, the Fowler boxcar on the right is also very interesting. We find the same leather/dark flesh color on the sides, however, the roof is dirty pink with a lot of white in it. Was the roof repainted with a different red oxyde paint that weathers pink? Maybe... or the UV rays attack roof paint in a more violent way that car sides due to the angle of exposition. I would go with that later explanation since I've often observed on old pictures that roofs are often very pinkish compared to the sides.

With all that said and done, it's clear the debate on boxcar red is basically irrelevant if you base your work on the observable world around you. Look at leather and flesh colors and add them to your arsenal. They will be extremely useful to filter, modulate and fade your base colors... and may even replace them altogether!