Saturday, April 20, 2024

Unspoken Truths - A Cohesive Design - Part 3 (final)

Since making mistakes and correcting them take less time than waiting to find the truth on paper, I’ve decided to fundamentally revise and streamline the Monk project. It doesn’t mean I’m abandoning it, but rather that I’ll try something that can be reverted back to the initial planning if required or that can grow out as I develop the design and find new ways to run trains.

First, I’m completely ditching replicating an exact prototype location. That’s not a mystery to those knowing about my intention with Monk. It had always been the initial goal: find what’s mundane, typical, and relatable. Everything will be generic though prototypically informed. Getting it right is more important than slaving over a prototype that may change according to my fancy. A passing track is a passing track, a grade crossing is a grade crossing and correctly locating a water tank doesn’t really change from a railway to another. Structures are fun to build and can be replaced to create another railway, be it a CNR station or a CNoR one.


Tentative track plan

Second, the theme stays the same: a busy mainline in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. That’s good enough for me. This, combined with the first statement, means that I will no longer give real place names to spots on the layout but rather give them a generic descriptor. The goal is to emphasize what happens there and not to falsely pretend to be somewhere that I can’t model as closely to reality as I would wish. It’s a succession of cameos, vignettes and vistas where one can stand and get immersed by what happens from the trackside. It’s all about railfanning the trains. In this case, places will then be known with short yet evocative names:

  • The Meet: where you can see trains stop at the signals and meeting each other through a clearing in the forest. This is the isolated railfanning spot that provides only a glimpse of trains fighting the grade. It will be located at the Abénakis Bridge which will be replaced by a big fill.

  • The Fill: a very large embankment built in a shallow but large valley with a big concrete culvert. In this regard, this scene is unchanged from the previous layout design. You watch the train as it enters a scenic curve.

  • The Station: a place of civilization where you find fields, a small rural station, a section crew and a team track. Nothing fancy… except for the train order signal and the fact that here, the railway connects with human life.

  • The Causeway: a long narrow embankment built over a lake/marshes on the outskirts of the Station where our train disappear beyond a point we can’t reach after travelling through a highly scenic S-curve.

As mentioned in a previous post, the layout will be modified to be a folded dog bone. The passing track is now implied since there are no visible turnouts and we imagine they are out of sight from the modelled world we can see, as happens often in real life.

Defining the views

Also, some modifications are made to the staging area. Basically, I’ll modify the lower staging to fit the new scenario. I’ve yet to decide exactly what I want to do, but the good news is the longest train will be 50-cars long, which is quite impressive if it even works. Another idea would be to only have the lower level loop used as a staging (between 4 to 6 tracks) and keep the upper level staging much simpler with only one long passing track.

Passing turnouts won't be visible on the layout

My idea is that, if I’m inclined to do so, it would be possible to scenic the upper level and consider it as another layout. Among many ideas, I’m extremely tempted to do it in an American Southwest style reminiscent of Santa Fe and other such classic roads. I won’t hide the fact that ATSF is quite an evocative force in my mind and it would be cool to have a very simple track plan that can support two difference “layouts”.

Proposed scenicked upper staging

Friday, April 19, 2024

Unspoken Truths - Putting Things Together - Part 2

Last weekend was one of these moments when you question everything about model railroading. Kind of like when I wrote the “Thinking out loud” series of articles many years ago where I vented my frustration. Call it midlife crisis if you wish, but I’m reaching a point where I want to get off that train and do something else more meaningful, more streamlined and in harmony with my current pace of life.


I’ve been riding the prototype modelling train for years now, probably close to two decades and it has never brought any sense of achievement, i.e., interacting with my trains in a close and personal way. With prototype modelling, there is always a new barrier we set for ourselves after jumping the last hurdle. It’s certainly a good school to learn a lot about the trade, but at the same time, it can lead to hobby burnout and unsatisfaction. As I said to Chris Mears, I don’t care about operating trains in a highly and well-thought environment… I don’t care! I tried it countless times and it never meshes into my regular schedule for more than a few days. It’s boring to me and I can do nothing about it.


A month ago, I was asked by Lonnie, a well-known member of the St. Louis RPM to write a bio about myself for the website promotional material. As could be expected, the instruction were both very clear and oriented toward a goal: to share your “identity” by assigning a specific prototype, locale and era to your modelling efforts. It felt awkward to write it… it felt weird, as if I was an impostor. I don’t model a single prototype in a specific era and locale and don’t believe it’s a fundamental aspect of my relation to this hobby. In hindsight, I should have written the truth: “Matthieu Lachance isn’t a prototype modeller, but he enjoys modelling based on prototype pictures to achieve realistic results.” My approach is to inform my modelling based on reality… not to replicate a very specific slice of reality and consider it my entire creative world.


Lance Mindheim’s wise words still resonate with me: “he doesn’t give a rat’s rear about operation…” I could say that about many things related to that hobby. Regular readers will know that I like to replicate specific trains in their environment… but not how a specific subdivision works. Over the last few days, I’ve been in introspection mode and had to recognize that what drives my participation in this hobby is recreating trains (locomotives + cars). Stations, signals, turnouts, bridges are there for context, they create a frame, a setup, a mise en scène, but they aren’t the end goal. When I look at Charlevoix Railway in Louis-Marie’s basement, I’m extremely grateful to have been able to build such a thing with friends… only if trains could run their course without reaching the end too soon.


I’ve shared many times my idea to create generic layouts which provide a parade route to display trains in a compelling way. Each time I’ve created a layout, it was all about setting up nice little railfanning spots: a bridge, an overpass, a grade crossing, a hill, a broad curve… And this is what I’ve done when I succeeded in this hobby. The home layout isn’t different. The project has been in planning for years and the current iteration dates to 2020. If you have followed the Monk Subdivision project, you know that I’ve worked hard to streamline it to the bare minimum, to get the essence of a railway with as little elements as possible. The focus was on framing nice views. On the other hand, the operating scheme has been a nightmare even if very simple. Running up to 8 trains with two staging and a bunch of control panels isn’t my cup of tea. I have also to ask myself: will I have the time to set these operating sessions. Will I have the patience to program them, to debug these things when all I want is to run trains because I can operate them elsewhere (Stanstead and Murray Bay Subdivision). Why not start with a simpler layout that can be expanded when and if required?


As I’ve found out over the last few years in other realms of my life, it’s a time of streamlining to go right to what matters and enjoy it. It’s not about taking shortcuts, but about finding what is essential. In that regard, the Monk Subdivision isn’t different and its goals, while still the same, must be attained in a timely and meaningful way. Let’s look at what it means by a series of three sketches.


Monk Subdivision is just a big excuse to look at long trains running on the mainline (option 1). Nothing less, nothing more. The two stagings are funnels that feed trains to that stretch of mainline. There are two approaches to that: you model the real way trains meet, of you find a way to simply mimic that impression of bidirectional traffic. The first way is the most typical one and based on prototype. You have a single track mainline with a passing track and trains meet there. Since you live in a model world, you lack space and compress things. Long turnouts end up crammed into curves and you fight with geometry. On the other hand, you have nice view of trains entering the passing track and cool signals. OK, alright with me… oh! But you have to control the train constantly, so railfanning is taking the back seat because you need to have that cab in your hand and make sure traffic is moving safely… Loss of immersion. And don’t talk about the level of wiring involved just to get started.


The other option (2A), shunned by serious hobbyists oriented toward “real” operation, is to simply create the illusion of a passing track. It works on the premise that if you are looking at a very long siding (Armagh had a 140 car passing track capacity), there are very little chances that would will see both end of it except if you are standing by a turnout. In that case, the line will look like a double track mainline with bidirectional (albeit slow) traffic. That raises a couple of questions… Armagh siding was about a little bit over a mile long, which is about 64 feet in HO scale. The entire visible mainline on the layout is at best 42 feet long… So you won’t see both ends at all, which is an interesting observation. One could decide to model only one visible turnout, the other one being implied as being somewhere in the outside world. You still must manage traffic, but only at one end of the passing track, making your life easier and, focussing the experience in one unique place that becomes special.

 But there is more to that idea… What if both ends couldn’t be seen, i.e. not modelled on the layout? Can we accept that? Is it a “lie”? The layout would be a flatten continuous run, a.k.a, a dog bone (option 2B). The double track would represent the mainline and the siding even if it’s the same exact track. In the staging room, there would be no need for reversing loops as traffic would run always run in the same direction on each track, creating an illusion of bidirectional running. The Edmundston and Joffre stagings would then be greatly simplified and it would be possible to run DC or DCC without having a headache dealing with reversed polarity. Would it be sad to lose the signals? Though there may be a neat solution…


Less is more...

One solution would be to partially represent them. You have the two signals on the passing and mainline that are a few hundred feet from the turnout. The turnout itself and the approach signal being invisible, in the outside world. While looking at prototypical distances of signals to the throwbar in Quebec, it’s about 360 feet! Which is roughly 4 feet in HO. Something rarely modelled correctly due to compression… But that’s the nice thing about Monk, compression doesn’t apply because it’s a series of railfanning vignettes. As for operation, the traffic and signals would be handled exactly like a double track mainline with Automatic Block Signalling (ABS), which is the most basic way to implement them.


Real signals are quite far appart from a turnout.

At the end of the day, there is nothing new in what I’m presenting. It’s simply an acknowledgement that prototype operations aren’t the core role for Monk which, at the end of the day, it closer to an exhibition layout or a diorama with action. More on that on the next installment! 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Unspoken Truths - Know Yourself - Part 1

« Know Yourself » was famously inscribed on the entrance of Apollo’s Temple in Delphi and remained a strong maxim that still resonates to this day. As a friend recently said, we forget that pride, which is nothing more than a lie, is often at the heart of most human misfortunes. As a matter of fact, model railroading is plagued by pride in the sense that we all strive toward incredible goals while constantly lying to ourselves about our goals and means. I was recently listening to a few model railroading podcasts and, for most of the time, they are all about struggling with lack of satisfaction, compromises, broken dreams and the incapacity to find a consistent narrative in one’s work. Frustration is the word and most try to cope by lying to themselves. It’s also funny how they answer invariably to people looking for advice with “find a small prototype” and “build a shelf layout” as if it was a panacea. Things are more complicated than that and personal goals may differ greatly even if we share the same passion.

That said, many find solace by being true to what they are and, while most of them aren’t prototype modeller, maybe there is some wisdom in their choice. Funny thing, I was watching some guy’s basement empire replicating an entire subdivision somewhere in the US Northwest. I thought it was overdone and couldn’t understand how someone could build such a monster in a lifetime… The scenery and artistic touch were not great and for a while, I thought he mismanaged his effort. Yet, it was clear that museum quality scenery wasn’t a goal of his and that going the good enough road was probably what made it possible to reach a satisfactory level. Not sure if he’s happy, but given he invested the time and resources to build the layout and bring together many people, I would say his goals were consistent with what he truly wanted. He wanted to operate a subdivision with friends and it seems he reach that goal. That’s more than commendable!


An operating session on Farnham Terminal

At the other hand of the spectrum, you find our good old switching layouts which I love to design. They seem to be a great answer to many ills and provide an achievable canvas, a good deal of moderation and the possibility to explore at your own pace. However, as I said previously, it’s not the panacea and I find myself stuck in that middle of the road position.

A good example is the recent MMA based layout I designed. During the weekend, I put together some old modules over a pair of Kallax shelves and added some tracks and cardboard mockups. During the day, I operated the layout thrice on DC to get a hang of it before committing to build. The first time was fun… the second was OK… the third was: enough is enough… You may put that on the fact I was getting tired, but I was not. I was just bored at a beautifully crafted idea. My fun was derived from proving that I could create a visually compelling working layout in such a small place. I loved it, but not building and operating it. As I mentioned to Chris Mears, great intellectual fun is derived from solving such puzzles, but I don’t want them as something to play with. Which brings me back to knowing yourself first.

Such a small layout can get realistically busy

After switching the small layout, I couldn’t help but recall a slightly less famous Lance Mindheim’s quote: “he doesn’t give a rat’s rear about operations”. Sure, with such colorful words, it’s hard to forget! Lance is well known for promoting the small switching layout over more than last decade and his writing certainly helped me to find my groove when I was lost. However, what is less known are how he can adopt a dramatically different position if his customer doesn’t fit the small layout operation type. In the aforementioned blog post, Lance was describing that knowing yourself matters and put together a fictional customer who had desires that went against the grain. Funnily enough, the older I get, the closer I feel to that “guy” who doesn’t care.


When I built the Murray Bay Subdivision, I derived most of my fun from scenery. The same applied with Stanstead. Modelling rivers, embankments, woods, grass, fields, ditches and all the mundane natural things were a pure joy and almost a spiritual experience. I recall Louis-Marie often commenting on how my persona brightened up when I was doing vast swat of scenery. In the same vein, I love building structures that are intricately connected to the scenery, like bridges, retaining walls and the various little trackside details. If it’s part of the landscape, I love it… and that’s something I’ve always knew yet never fully understood. I may well be a landscape modeller.


At the end of the day, it's cute... but gets old fast

Another place from where I derive a lot of fun is watching train runs. How often did I write that I was looking at Jérôme switching the layout. I don’t want to control the trains; I want to see them in motion. The moment I have the controller in my hand, the magic spell break and it’s no longer possible to immerse myself completely into the scene. Hence why I probably don’t care a rat’s rear about operations. More on that in a following article as it will have direct impact on the Monk Subdivision.

Friday, March 29, 2024

MMA Blues - Or Repurposing The Overlap

Once upon a time, Chris Mears invented The Overlap – a clever compression of two distant scenes in one small layout. The goal was to depict two ends of a branchline or an operation, while providing a visual break on a cassette which was to be understood as miles travelled. Recently, someone dug the concept from an excellent James Hilton’s inspiration book and it got my brain working again. Kitchen renovations have taken me away from modelling, but the train bug never dies that easy, so I started to exchange ideas with Chris, including how The Overlap could become a nice little paper mill based on Donnacona, or more likely, East Angus. Recycling old ideas is a trope of this blog, so with not indulge in it!


An early sketch

The idea evolved when YouTube decided to suggest a few videos of two turnouts layouts which sparked again my creativity because of there closeness to The Overlap. All featured a cassette or staged the train directly on the layout. I’ve never been a big fan of both ideas because they feel artificial to me and seem like artifices created to compensate for a lack of oversight. That said, it’s my own prejudice because I’m well aware these designs do work well and aren’t the result of poor design. However, rethinking about my interest in Southern Quebec railways, I wondered if I couldn’t combine these basic ideas with The Overlap and, probably, a pinch of British design.


The overall layout should be self contained, able to run train of 3 long covered hoppers and a caboose/shoving platform. The template was the top of a set of IKEA Kallax shelfs, providing for an 8 ft by 14 inches footprint. From experience, I knew it was long enough for operation.


Two separate scenes for different experience

Then, it was time to develop the idea. The key element was to stage the train out of our view so the distant originating point would be invisible, creating a surprise when it enters the scene and getting rid of selective compression. In that regard, the staging area would be in fact a UK-style hidden fiddle yard at the back of the layout.


MMA train over St-Pie bridge (credit: unknown)

The junction between the hidden staging and the layout would be a heavily forested area as is so common in old Southern Quebec villages. On the right would be the switching lead, disguised as a chunk of the mainline. It would be, in itself, a scene that I would call the “Bridge” or the “Mainline”. It is a place where you can railfan the train as it moves over and over that 36 inches stretch of track. Inspired by Ste-Pie, an agricultural village once served by MMA, that mainline could be a long bridge crossing a calm river. Both ends of that scene would be hidden by mature trees, making it truly a window through which you can admire the rolling stock and motive power at work. To enhance and dramatize that setup, the track would be angled toward the viewer, adding an element of dynamism, both visual and auditive.


Refining the concept

The train would then reverse course to reach an industry – probably a feed mill and a lumber supply. These mid-size mills and elevators were a common sight on MMA and having that rural hardware store is always a neat way to frame a scene. Once again, trees would surround that piece of land to create a railfanning alcove or bubble. Here, cars are spotted and shunted. While the river scene is distant, the feed mill is at the human scale, directly accessible and open toward the public and the operator. When direct human contact is required with the train, the scene naturally opens toward the people in the room. On the other hard, the river scene, which probably would feature a truss bridge, would be “distant” with the train running behind trees, over the water and shrouded by the bridge metallic structure.



Saturday, March 9, 2024

Ciment St-Laurent - Part 2

Ciment St-Laurent is a slow burning thing... we thought it would be fast, but such a large structure do require some serious thought to assemble. But we all know how putting a deadline on layout projects is generally a waste of time.

That said, we have made some interesting progress, mainly related to the bagging plant which may be considered one of the simplest part of this industrial complex.

1950s rolling doors are made of corrugated paper

The MDF structure core was built years ago, but required some touch up. A new 1/4" high foundation was added under the core so the conveyor structure linking the bagging plant to the silos would sit at the right height. A new loading platform and an overhung roof were also glued in place according to prototype pictures.

Another feature is the doors location which, contrary to our initial assesment, were centered but are offset toward the right. This is a strange arrangement, but it probably means so industrial equipment was located on the left side of the warehouse. On the other hand, this offset location creates a more dynamic facade to this otherwise very boring building.

As with the cement plant itself, the structure is cladded with extra fine corrugated cardboard mounted on thick paper strips to replicate the overlapping effect. Even if the bagging plant isn't complete yet, once on the layout, it instantly improves greatly the industrial appearance of that scene! I can't help but see the entire cement plant done soon!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Ciment St-Laurent - Part 1

Life has been busier than I could expect in recent weeks and several unpredictable events unfolded... some sad, some happy. That said, I forgot for a while this blog but modelling has been active, both on Monk and the Murray Bay Subdivision.

The new structure is a 1:1 replica of the real plant

One of the biggest step forward is our commitment to complete the large Ciment St-Laurent plant in Villeneuve. The current (now dismantled) structure was a half baked mockup that needed to be replaced by something more permanent. Learning from our initial mistakes, we have greatly improved our construction methods and the new cement plant is both more realistic and practical.

Rails embedded into 3/4" thick MDF

It was decided to start from scratch, including the sub-roadbed. We wanted to replicate the loading track embedded into the structure concrete pad and it called for a new slab of thick MDF. After fiddling around and finding out the layout was not level due to warping caused by our decade ago sloppy craftsmanship, we decided to screw the pad to the wood dowel columns to create a strong and sturdy assembly. It seems to work!

Fixing the MDF concrete slab to the structure

Another hurdle was dealing with cladding. On several buildings on the layout, we have been using white extra fine corrugated cardboard. This is a very useful material to replicate old asbestos corrugated sheathing from the 1950s. Unfortunately, it's getting very hard to source and three previous attempts miserably failed from several suppliers: what they advertised has extra fine, was in fact fine... and don't be fooled, by fine, I mean OK for O scale. Another option was using corrugated styrene, but it's extremely costly and it's a pain to glue on MDF without using a lot of CA or epoxy. Didn't want to go that route.

Working with paper cladding is easy, simple and efficent

Finally, frustrated, I decided to give a second look at scrapbooking suppliers and found one, Doris from Germany, that claimed to sell extra fine corrugated cardboard. The listed dimensions fitted what had been used on Donohue and I ordered a bunch. Several week later, it was a joy to discover it was the right material and the cement plant project could go forward.

Laying thin cardboard strips to create the overlap effect

As for cladding the building, I like to overlap the individual rows of sheets. You can't do that in HO scale due to the cardboard thickness, but a way around that is simply to cut the row to the correct length and glue a thin 0.25mm cardboard strip at the bottom. It creates a subtle yet realistic overlap that brings some relief to the surface. When all glued in place, you get a very neat appearance and it only takes a few minutes to assemble because MDF and cardboard bond together quite fast when using regular carpenter glue.

A completed wall!

For vertical lines between individual sheets, I will use a dark pencil and draw them. I don't see the need to model these joints in real. If I was dealing with corrugated paper or tin foil, that would be another matter!

Thursday, January 11, 2024

3D Printed Curved Track Templates

Track templates to lay curved tracks are notoriously expensive. Metal ones are great for sturdiness and plastic ones such as Peco Tracksetta are quite versatile with their various slots for nailing tracks. Unfortunately, they have two main shortcomings: uneconomical and available only in a very few radii that aren’t always suitable for our needs.


I have no issue with costly specialized tools when they are extremely useful and that the efficiency gained covered the expense in a meaningful way. You accept to pay a little bit more to save time and get better results. It makes sense. But selling plastic injection templates that have been out there for decades, are the results of very little engineering skills and don’t offer flexibility makes just no sense to me. If you need to lay several curves of a fixed radius, they may make sense, but if you track plan requires several different radii, these tools make no sense.


Hence, I decided to make my own template. The radii I need are 27’’, 28’’, 30’’, 37’’, 38’’ and 40’’. Let’s just say these aren’t standard! I made mine by drawing them in SketchUp and 3D printing them. They are similar to the metal ones, but I could easily see myself adding a few holes here and there to give more nailing track options.

Printing and cleaning them took 2 hours for 6 templates and cost a little bit under 25 cents (Canadian dollars, mind you!). At this price, there is no excuse not to print them even for smaller jobs.

With these useful tools, I was able to improve the track flow in the staging yard by bumping the minimum radius at 27”, which provides for much better running performance with full length passenger cars. I will still have to improve (read surgery) for some cars to track better over the 24’’/28’’ radii curved turnouts. That said, there will probably be a restriction for long passenger trains having to run only over the larger radius on these curved turnouts.


Making templates is another way that 3D printing can be used. It could be very useful for special trackwork or as a kitbashing template. I expect to explore more of these options as I built the layout.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Monk Subdivision - Mike Confalone Was Right

 I've always been a planner at heart and this is no surprise my line of work is architecture. However, when dealing with a hobby, time rare and spending it by the dozen over things that don't move forward is both uninteresting and self defeating. I recall reading a few years ago that Mike Confalone confessed to be a poor planner, having little patience nor talent for it. That said, he compensated by working directly on the workbench, making countless mistakes he could have resolved before and finding solutions as he went ahead. What a haphazard way to build a railway empire isn't it?

For sure, we could say that Mike is somewhat dumb to not have learn his lesson after all these years... but upon further investigation, Mike isn't dumb. He has just found that making a mistake and correcting it takes less time than over planning a bulletproof ideal theory. It's not a call to not plan, but to recognize that moment when you have worked your main ideas well enough to commit to build. With a clear picture in your mind and a good step by step approach, you can move forward at an incredible pace.

Countless mistakes were made... but all were resolved in a morning

The reason why I'm writing about that subject is because I spent very little time behind the computer lately but a lot at the benchwork. In many case, I wanted to make sure the solutions to implement were perfect, yet, without the computer, I had no other choice than commit myself and cut some lumber. Bear in mind, I made a lot of mistakes even if I've been planning that layout for four years now... (yeah, you read that correctly, four years of doing very little). In many case, making the mistake generally took less than 10 minutes and correcting it was done before the hour mark. Let's recall a few examples:

When I cut the holes in the walls, I had a good idea where the tracks would punch through it, yet, I made them too big and too high. Cutting holes took about 5 minutes and making them right took less than an hour, including paint. At one moment, I went to the computer to check a few things on XtrkCAD and a good 45 minutes was lost and I learned very little that I didn't know from cutting wood in the basement.

Later, I found out the benchwork was installed 1/4" too low compared to the original benchwork on the other room. I was devastated after spending a day building it perfectly level... Yet, unscrewing the entire thing and raising it up took about 45 minutes, which is less time than checking your emails and Facebook.

Few days later, I installed the roadbed in the wrong angle in the yard. A mistake of 2 degrees that made the minimum radius in the area to be too sharp. I took 15 minutes to understand  how I made the mistake and how I could correct it. 30 minutes later, it was all done.

Finally, today I found out a lot of things weren't right with the swing bridge I built 2 years ago. A quick level check made it clear the vertical post holding the hinges wasn't vertical at all. It could have been a big task to correct it, but in fact, it was done in less than 20 minutes. Later on, I cut a hole for the track in the curved backdrop. As expected, even if I did measure it twice, I made a mistake.. no biggies, I corrected it and made a filler piece were I cut too much material. Once again, it was a matter of minutes.

I'm certainly not apologizing for poor craftsmanship. But at the end of the day, this is layout building and not layout agonizing. I know myself and in most of these cases, I would have hesitated for days before cutting anything, then after realizing I made a mistake, I would have gone back to over planning. These things would have consumed several days, if not an entire week. Now, let's do the math and you will see that making and correcting about 5 mistakes in the last week took about 5 hours at best and the project moved forward at an incredible pace. 

It's always down to an effort/effect ratio. Committing to your actions will always be more proactive than curling up in a corner and overthinking what are at worse very basic carpentry issues that are better resolved with tools and some positive thinking.