Saturday, September 26, 2020

Quebec South Shore Railway - Mark V: Framing a Subject

Once again I'm at it, revising years old layout designs to implement new ideas picked up here and there and based on my experience.

Many years ago, I built an experimental layout based on Quebec South Shore. It was about the end of an semi-abandoned fictive line by the 80s serving a feed mill and some various customers at a team track. It was basically designed on the fly, using track and structures on a baseboard until I got a visually interesting result. It was surprisingly interesting for what it was, but when I tried to expand it, it failed.

Original QSSR with its extension

The failure was simple to understand. It was a matter of outreaching too much. The layout was originally conceived to be a single visual unit about the length of a hollow core door. Now it was two door long. The extra length was necessary as it acted as a staging track and to provide a runaround. However, it was poorly implemented from a visual standpoint.

Fortunately, Neil Schofield has recently posted a lot of pictures of his lovely New England based layout set in the 1980s CP Rail Newport Subdivision. Neil does something not many people do when they think about designed scenery: he hides the trains. Be it behind structures, roads, barns, embankments, cuts, viaduc, he always find a way to create a playful and visually dynamic game of hide and seek. It creates various vantage points that grounds the trains in the topography in a very realistic manner.

Raised foreground enhance the sense of distance (credit: Neil Schofield)

Another source of inspiration has been British modelling. Brits are "blessed" often with ingrate spaces and rooms to build layouts. A strong tradition of dioramas, cameos and self-contained layouts has existed for decades and take advantage of it. The interesting things about their designs is the way they stage their trains and how they enter the layout. Clever use of tunnels, bridges, overpasses and buildings create various scenic dividers. If done well, you end up with an immersive scene that feels like a block sawn out of the real world.

Illusion of depth to frame an entrance (credit: Chris Nevard)

Equipped with these design ideas, I tried to revisit my Quebec South Shore layout again. I also draw inspiration from my various railfanning trips done in New England last year.

The new design is basically what I would call a typical "railway unit" all over North America: a passing track, a siding to a local business, a team track and a depot. Using dimensions from a British chap having built a similar switching layout, I decided to use a 5 x 50ft car long runaround track with a switching lead long enough to not require a cassette. Based on my experience with my previous layout, I decided to base the design on a feed mill/builder supply to provide switching opportunities (I've drawn two sidings but one could suffice). This industry is probably the most ubiquitous along railways and Tom Johnson made a name for himself by simply modelling these all over again. It is also a common occurrence to see such a row of aligned wooden/steel clad structure on rural branch lines.

A staging track lies beyond the overpass (credit: Mike Cawdrey)

Once these basic choices done, I had to take into account two big flaws: create a sense of trains coming from somewhere and hiding how the main line disappear at both end. Here enters Neil Schofield. On my previous layout, there was an overpass with a long road leading to it. It worked well but everything beyond was alien. I had no need for two separate scenes. Thus, it came to me that the track beyond the overpass should be considered staging. When the train is beyond the small overpass, you can't see it anymore. It also creates a sense of distance. However, if you can see directly the train beyond the overpass from the aisle, the effect is lost. Similarly to my East Angus paper mill design, My idea is to make the track curves toward the front and place a forested hill in front of it. Not only it gives a plausible reason for an over pass, but it effectively acts as a visual block.

Revised Quebec South Shore track plan and frame

To some extent, this visual block could be an extended fascia joined with the valence, similarly to how Brits hides their fiddle yards on exhibition layouts. The only view possible would be when standing it the front scene and looking at the curved track disappearing behind the overpass and heavily forested hill. A distant photobackdrop would provide enough deep to enhance the illusion.

At the other end of the layout, the situation is a little bit cramped, but nothing is lost. Here, I would use the tree tunnel tricks. Once again, the foreground trees would be on a small embankment which would hide the track as it hit the wall. An old depot with a road would creates the other side of the "tunnel". Once again, this structure could only be seen from the access road, creating an interesting sense of distance and hiding the fact the poor thing is put against the wall. This structure and background trees would also provide a good way to make the gravel road disappear in a convincing way.

 Caribou, Aroostook County, Maine, October 1940 (source: Jack Delano on Wikipedia)

Once again, as we can see, it is possible to expand a layout operability without overreaching. There is always a danger to add too much and in this case, I believe the focus should stay where the action is: between the access road and the overpass. Visually, it is a 7-8 feet long scene that we can embrace in a single glimpse. As I once said, everything over that length is generally completely lost to our humane senses. It seems to me designing scenes and transitions on a layout must take into account that "visual bubble". 

Also, more layout design ideas will soon be published. These are designs developed during the lockdown and one was commissioned by a regular reader. I think it could be interesting to many people because it basically deal with redesigning an existing layout to improve operations, realism and make place for a more relaxed environment. And don't panic, Hedley-Junction isn't left in rest. A lot of work is happening in Clermont & Wieland and the CN Woodchip Cars are entering their final design phase.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

More Thoughts About The Future...

The new layout project for the hobby room is taking shape. One of the main goal is learning to master operation tools (switch lists and car routing via JMRI OperationPro) and fine tune locomotive decoders. The goal is to start small to get a better understanding of basics, then move on accordingly.

The layout plan is based on the work of a British modeller knowns as Mog on YouTube and RMweb who dabbles in North American modelling. His simple track plan is versatile yet extremely mundane and typical of North American small town railroading. Better, it is car spot sensitive, meaning each move makes sense in the grand scheme. Dedicated sidings serve a team track, a logistics warehouse and a feed mill and a runaround track provide some variation. Train length is about 5 cars plus a caboose if required. Operation represents a switcher turn from a staged railroad yard to an industrial district.

While small, this layout allows exploring specific operation patterns, including car spots, schedules, off spot storage and other interesting concepts. In my mind, it is primordial this project can be built and put into operation quickly. Better, I like the fact this layout can then be realistically scenicked then be expanded later on. I’m not looking to replicate a particular prototype, but rather a vibe and something that can be used both as a test bed for ideas and plain enjoyment.

Having collected over the years a lot of unused freight cars fitting this project scope and era, I know it won’t be boring. I also want to take this opportunity to better understand the electronics, mechanics and programming behind locomotives. This is also the kind of project that would lend itself well to experiment later with ProtoThrottle.

While some could see this project as a washed up version of anything I had in mind, I must admit I’m tired of planning elaborate projects and not enjoying my trains. Streamlining the design allow me to reach interesting steps quicker and it certainly doesn’t mean I’ll water down the level of craftsmanship, not at all. Basically, this is what Quebec South Shore Railway has always been about. Hedley-Junction is already a formidable tool of prototype-based modelling. No need to pursue two hares at a time.

About the setting and locale, I’m seriously thinking about a fictional town located on Quebec/New England border. For the sake of variety and modelling interest, I’m thinking about rotating the railway identity from time to time, including Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Central Vermont, Maine Central and Vermont Railway. I already own several locomotives in these paint schemes that doesn’t fit Hedley-Junction and which I have no interest in reselling. Most of them are first generation ALCO/MLW and EMD locomotives. In particular, Central Vermont is interesting because by the late 1970s, new and old paint schemes could be seen and “foreign” power from sister companies such as CN and DW&P were common.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Understanding Stanbridge Subdivision Traffic

While I continue to document CP Stanbridge Subdivision, I discover tidbits about operation here and there. Interestingly enough, I've been able to get a better picture of what used to be hauled by combining information from Canadian Railway Historical Society's monthly Canadian Rail magazine and BAnQ aerial picture database (macro-inventaire).

As for all these remote and rural subdivision, information isn't centralized or even compiled and digested in a global vision, but is a patchwork of partial knowledge. However, so far I gathered enough to better grasp how things worked out.

It seems the small feedmill in Bedford used to receive about 2 grain cars twice per week. This is about what I expected. I suspect the Apple Grower Cooperative warehouse and Champlain Industries were also switched on a similar frequency.

However, the case of Bedford Quarry is quite interesting. This single industry is the sole reason the line was kept alive under CP's tenure and its successors. In the 60s and 70s, it was common that 7 open hoppers full of crushed limestone were hauled directly to Farnham with a final destination to Shawinigan Chemicals. At the same time, the quarry provided high quality ballast in quite impressive quantities, often hauled in Hart convertible gondolas. Finally, according to fellow modeller Paul Trudel, the quarry also shipped lime in slabside hoppers. Paul referred to a picture shot in Bedford and found in Canadian Rail, but so far, I haven't been able to locate the exact issue.

This brings us to the conclusion traffic on Bedford subdivision was surprisingly strong given the remote nature of its location. It is fairly honest to say about 10-12 cars per train each day was a common sight, which is substantial for a short 12 miles run. However, we must keep in mind the fact it hauled high quality ballast was - according to Canadian Rail - the most important reason CP kept the line from oblivion. Given the line was in operation until 2014, it is a miracle it survived for so long.

Monday, July 1, 2019

CP Stanbridge Subdivision

Moulée St-Pie's former feed mill burned down last winter...

This weekend, I took Friday off then headed toward the Eastern Township in Southern Quebec to railfan the former CP St. Guillaume Subdivision and Stanbridge Subdivision. Both were abandoned and laying in poor state of disrepair. While there are some talks about CMQ reviving some of them in the future, it seems to be a huge investment for very little profit. Except the large lime plant in Bedford on Stanbridge Subdivision, all other customers are too small or simply out of business.

Vegetation retaking its place near St-Pie bridge

St. Guillaume Subdivision near Abbotsford... yes, it's a track!

Nevertheless, they make for great layout inspiration material and to be honest, they are probably among my favorite CP branchlines in Quebec. Many readers will recall I often drawn plans based on these subdivisions and after finally railfanning them, I'm more than convinced they are top material for modellers.

Farnham station used to be a busy location during MMA's tenure... now a ruin.

What particularly caught my eye was Stanbridge Subdivision. This line was the southern part of a ill-fated and ill-designed railway that were to connect Sorel on the St. Lawrence to Lake Champlain in Philipsburg. Had it been the first in the are to propose this scheme, it could have been profitable, but it was late in the game and competition was fierce. This line ran parallel between two others similar railways that were backed by larger companies and had physical connection to the United States. Worst, they thought shipping and selling hay to New England large towns, New York and Boston would turn enough profit to keep the business afloat... at a time when horse traction was going to be a thing from the past.

As one can predict, this entire scheme quickly crumbled apart and large sections were abandoned, creating a network of small spurs serving areas of interest. As customers went down or moved, the track were pulled. Stanbridge Subdivision which used to be a junction with Central Vermont ended up being a small branch linking the railway hub Farnham to the obscure locality of Stanbridge Station. Once Central Vermont tracks were removed, it was a wye in the middle of nowhere connecting to nothing.

Stanbridge Subdivision enters Bedford in quite a dramatic fashion...

But from a modeller's perspective, these 12 miles of tracks are pure gold. Let's go back to 1980 and imagine an entire subdivision in a small room with all the tracks and customers. In Farnham, the first customer was an apple growers cooperative's warehouse. The track was nested between two large concrete sheds. After running for about 10 miles across the countryside, the line reached Bedford, a small industrial village. There, a runaround and a siding served a mid-sized feed mill and lumber supplies.

J.O. Lévsques feedmill and hardware store still in business and going strong

The feedmill could only handle a car at a time while a small unloading platform was used to receive lumber and other commodities. Back in the days, an oil dealer was also served by the siding, but it was since then derelict and abandoned.

This lot used to be Bedford team track and oil dealer...

Another interesting aspect of Bedford is a weird custom-made grade crossing signal made out of wood, street lamp post and traffic lights. It would make for a great modelling project.

Feed mill siding protected by custom grade crossing signals

A few hundred feet further, the line crossed Corey Brook over a 60ft long and 15ft high wooden trestle.

If it wasn't for topographic maps, I wouldn't have even known a bridge was there...

Then discovered it was a four-pile wooden trestle...

This bridge was the fourth rebuilt of the original bridge... Three rows of rotten piles in the river bed testified about the previous structures standing there.

An interesting detail seldom modelled...

Then, right after the bridge a turnout described a sharp curve leading to a large limestone quarry owned by Gulf Canada. This plant produced lime for industrial and agricultural processes, but also crushed stone for ballast and aggregate. A large amount of hoppers could be seen on the sidings.

This used to be the limestone quarry sidings

Finally, after half a mile, the train reached Stanbridge Station. In the middle of a field was an old wye overgrown by grass and trees. The former passenger depot, now abandoned and in dire state of disrepair was still standing and used as a shed by a local food processor - Champlain Industries -  specialize in soy sauce and soups using the wye tracks as their private siding. It was the proverbial end of steel. There, our locomotive - a mighty CP RS18 with high hood in Multimark paint scheme - would turn around its train before going back to Farnham. Such was life on the Stanbridge Subdivision in these days.

Up to Stanbridge Station rails were removed, but ties stayed in place...

Now, if you ask me how I would tackle such a subject matter, I believe I would try to capture the low density and decrepit nature of the railway. It means most scenes would be rural and oriented toward agriculture and their supporting businesses. In this case, it is interesting to note 3 customers out of 4 are directly involved in sector of activities.

Areas around Bedford reminds me of Tom Johnson's famous INRAIL grade crossings...

Farnham would be staged and only the apple warehouse would be modelled. Then Bedford and Stanbridge Station would be fully represented since it can be done. This would enable the possibility to recreate operations as they were performed by CP Rail.

The layout would be set in autumn, probably late September which would be a great time to model traffic on a rural branchline. Structures would be completely scratchbuilt, with some kitbashes. According to pictures from the late 1970s in Quebec Archives, most of them weren't in the best shape.

Typical consists would have between 3 to 7 cars at most. Operation would be light yet diversified. I've come to the conclusion covered hoppers, open hoppers, gondolas, flat cars, boxcars, insulated boxcars, reefers, tank cars and stock cars could all have been frequent visitors. Some industries would see frequent switching such as the limestone quarry and food processor, while others would be less frequent. It means not all trains would have to go Stanbridge Station... or serve Farnham and Bedford.

In terms of operation, the layout would be quite enough to run 30-45 minutes long solo sessions while being possible to operate in tandem. An extra serving the quarry could be also a possibility.

Motive power would be provided by MLW RS3 and RS18.

Finally, due to the geometry of the room, it could be possible to use the staging cassette as a bridge to perform continuous running. While accessory, it is always nice to railfan one's own trains.


My Quebec South Shore Railway project was always about modelling a decaying CP branchline... particularly one that was pruned down and which end of steel was a sea of grass... Interestingly enough, Stanbridge Subdivision embodies all these aspects without resorting to fantasy. So far, I consider it another step toward my initial vision.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Weathered Grain Hoppers

The first batch of grain hopper is now officially weathered. Many techniques were used, including oil and acrylic paints, washes, fading, color modulation, chalks, color pencils and weathering powders.

All cars were weathered according to prototype pictures circa 2006-2008 and graffiti were hand drawn using color pencils.

Most cars are a mix of old Athearn Blue Box kits, Accurail and Intermountain. The weathering was intended to blend together the cars, thus narrowing the huge difference in detailing.

Another batch of hoppers is ready to meet its fate. At the end of the day, about 25 cars will have to be weathered. As a starting point, I'm doing the rib-sided cars first, keeping the smooth-sided ones for later.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Refining the Track Plan

Last Friday could be considered a fruitless evening because we didn't permanently attach track, however, it would be a preposterous claim in fact.

It was an occasion to set tracks on the benchwork in their planned location and see if things could be improved from a visual perspective but also for operation. Sometimes you move a track half an inch and get a totally different result.

It was also a good occasion to decide where and how the structures would be. The feedmill will be framed on the layout in such a fashion we will be able to include the very photogenic 1950s store brick facade. A few houses will also be scratchbuilt to better grasp the feeling of a small rural town in Southern Quebec.

The next step will be to fix permanently the tracks and tackle the Central Valley double span truss bridge that is quite a challenge in itself. Bridge piers and abutments will probably be 3D printed according to prototype.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Ready For Track Laying

Since the St-Pie layout is a summer building effort, we have to make decent steps forward to ensure the project move along. One such step was gluing down cork sheet on the plywood to create a suitable roadbed for track laying.

In real life, terrain in St-Pie is extremely flat, so we decided to install the cork all over the place. Small variations in topography will be done later by using some putty or universal mud or anything suitable.

Cork and new light fixtures.

This step is also important because from now, Jérôme can work by himself at his own pace. He's our master track layer on the club layout and I certainly expect he will do a good job.

Interestingly enough, Jérôme wants to nail down the track instead of gluing it. He has often advocated for this in the past. Nailing track is no longer considered "professional" nowadays with everybody gluing the track down. While it is debatable, his opinion is you should never permanently glue your tracks before having operated the layout for a while to trouble shoot your work and see if the planned design is really up to the task. It may be a matter of moving a turnout one inch or two to get better results or simply realign a siding a little bit for clearance. Once everything has been worked out, you can glue and ballast the track... or simply keep the nails there if it doesn't bother you that much.

I'm most admit I'm pretty curious to see how operating such a minimalist layout will turn out. We really went on a limb with this one and I hope it can project long lasting interest for an operator.