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! 

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