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.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Cheap Lighting, Good Results

Over the the years, most have been said about layout lighting. You can waste enormous time reading online articles, printed press and a plethora of comments without ever doing anything close to lighting your layout.

A few years ago, I added lighting in my office room to bring some life to my figure collection displays. Basically, it was a series of small projectors on a track with LED lamps. Nothing fancy, but more than enough for the task and still good looking. I was pleased by the amount of light and ease of pivoting each lamps. As you can guess, from time to time, I did display trains on the shelves and thought to myself it would be a decent way to light a small layout.

Forward a few years to yesterday. To light Jérôme's layout, which is about 13' x 11', we used three of these track lights, one for each module. This time, instead of 3000K LED, we went with daylight 5000K. At first, it looked awkward, but in a matter of a few minutes, we couldn't tell the difference. Better, color rendition on locomotives and cars was up to the task and thus we kept the 5000K lamps.

I won't go in detail, but we found out a 3-projector track light was good enough to light an 8 foot long layout module when installed about 2 feet from the fascia. Depending on module geometry more or less lights can be needed. Another positive thing is you can orient the lamps in such a way to put emphasize on certain part of the layout, which bring some life on what we see.

Another positive aspect of track lights is they don't require complex wiring, use easily available standard components, don't need to build valence and can be located anywhere in a room. That last point is important because lights to close to the fascia cast very unrealistic shadows on model. With track lighting and no valence, you can locate the lights were they are more optimal. They look good and deliver a substantial amount of light economically. We spent about $110 on fixtures and LED bulbs to light about 20 linear feet of layout which is quite decent given the results.

I wouldn't be surprised we will soon update certain parts of Hedley-Junction to take advantage of this new lesson.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

St-Pie Layout Progress Update

Over the last few weeks, I've been working almost "full" time on the grain hopper fleet, altering, renumbering and weathering them to better reflect how they looked circa 2006-2008. I don't expect to finish that as soon as I would like, but I've set myself the goal of weathering all the rib-sided cars first then move on working on something else.

Jérôme and I also worked a tentative set of steps to achieve for the layout. No deadlines are set because his working schedule is highly atypical and we get very little time to work together. Since Jérôme is highly proficient at track laying, wiring and scene detailing and I'm bettter at scenery, rolling stock and structure building, we decided to divide the work between us in such a way we can optimize each steps.

To be honest, under most normal circumstances, this project would fail if expectations, resources and time available aren’t taken in account. This is why we decided to define our goals according to what can actually be done. The first thing that must be taken into account is the fact I won’t have access to the layout itself often. At best, once a month, probably less. It means a lot of stuff only me can do will have to be done on my benchwork then delivered to Jérôme for installation.

In that regard, it means scenery work (ground cover, grass, vegetation, river, etc.) will have to be kept to a minimum so they can be done efficiently in one session. The only way to achieve that is to minimize our expectations. It means we won’t go crazy over hyper-realistic scenery, but we will be careful to do a decent job, focussing on correct colors and textures based on the prototype. Given Jérôme’s focus is operation, this trade off isn’t that bad.

Thus, here’s the goals we set for ourselves:
  • Lay tracks and wire them as soon as possible using readily available components (NCE PowerCab and Peco track);
  • Assemble a realistic fleet of cars (correct prototypes, correct paint scheme, correct amount of weathering for the era);
  • Build required structures as close to prototype as possible. Reuse existing structures when possible, model only what was there;
Once these goals will be achieved, stuff like scenery, details, road vehicles and other secondary items will be added accordingly. 
Things we won’t do are backdrops (painted or photo), over the top scenery and tricky structure details. The goal is to get the sense of the place to support realistic operation. These things can be added at a later time but shouldn’t be important at first.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

American Railways in Quebec

The history of railways in Southern Quebec is always fascinating. It is a blend of grandeur, delusion and scaled down dreams. During the railway fever, every locality in the area thought it would genuinely become the next metropolis is only it was linked to the outside world by the steel ribbon. Farmers, workers, investors, governments both local and national pledged impressive amount of money that was often wasted on pipe dreams. Other stories tell us of relatively humble local projects that found their place as a link in larger national and international trunk lines. Hard to not be enthralled by such a diversity of outcomes born from the same faith in the iron horse.

But another interesting aspect of Southern Quebec railways is how many American companies tried to control railways in La Belle Province up to Quebec City. In this short article, I won't talk about larger railroads that were only interested in linking cities such as Montreal and Ottawa, but those who truly desired to create regional networks serving the province itself. In this sense, they were much  more interesting because they wanted to be much more integrated with the land they crossed.

Vermont Central (1860s-1923)

Vermont Central then Central Vermont tried hard to create a monopoly in the second part of the 19th century. With success then failure until its absorption into the Grand Trunk network in 1899. In fact, Central Vermont was probably one of the most obnoxious company out there in Southern Quebec during la Belle Époque. Obsessed to keep absolute control and compete with regional players and Grand Trunk, they bought many small promising (and not so promising) companies only to keep the lines uncompleted and badly rail-served due to their chaotic corporate history. Like a Monopoly board game champion, Central Vermont tried to thwart every concurrent's project on its path, but while it worked for a while, it was also a seed that would spell their doom. By 1923, their remnants were integrated in the Canadian National Railways.

Rutland (1901-1963)

On a more positive note, other railroads like Rutland tried to create a substantial network in Southern Quebec and Montreal. Intermingled with Central Vermont's shaky ploys during most of the late 19th century, Rutland finally severed its ties with this problematic railway in 1901 and set a clear goal to link Canada by creating an independant line linking Canada with the USA via Lake Champlain islands. The terminal was located in Noyan, QC, a few miles from the border. This shaky financial condition of Rutland and several strikes killed the company in the long term. Rutland thus never created a real network in Southern Quebec, being more a bridge line.

Maine Central (1890-1927)

Another player was Maine Central who leased the Hereford Railway linking the USA border to Lime Ridge, an important lime mining area. Called the Raspberry Branch - yes, even today raspberries grow on the old roadbed and I can testify they are delicious - it was a decent investment for a while and looked promising since it linked directly MEC with CPR Short Line and QCR that gave access to important mineral deposits (asbestos, lime). But by the 1920s, the gamble started to be much more a liability than a good investment since it moved very little traffic and didn't connect any town of importance. In 1927, CPR took control of the line and started to prune off several sections of the road, effectively ending its role as a connecting line. By the 1980s, the Hereford Railway and MEC were a faded page of history.

Boston and Maine Railroad (1893-1926)

Boston & Maine, during the same era, decided to give a second life to its Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad which had no important terminus and bought the Massawippi River Railway connecting Beebe Plains to Lennoxville and Sherbrooke. While it was a good regional road linking an industrial city well connected with major players such as Grand Trunk, Canadian Pacific and Quebec Central, it seems it was no longer thought to be a strategic asset by the mid-1920s when B&M was facing a financial crisis and was sold to CP and operated by QCR. It is interesting to note Boston & Maine ran weekly passenger trains between Boston and Quebec City in partnership with Quebec Central. During the touristic season, some sleepers full of pilgrims even reached Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.

Delaware & Hudson Railroad - Q.M.&.S.R. (1906-1929)

However, the most interesting and ambitious player to enter the Quebec was the Delaware & Hudson. They kind of built upon Rutland vision to develop a real main line along the St. Lawrence river. Through purchases and building campaigns, they were on the verge of achieving their dream to connect their american lines with Quebec City via the new bridge under construction. This line was called the South Shore Railway but was operated under the Quebec Montreal & Southern Railway. The D&H was dead serious with their project and made sure it would be completed swiftly. Even an out-of-place camelback locomotive retrofitted with a special snow plow made its debut. Unfortunately, in 1907 their dreams were fatally destroyed when Quebec City bridge collapsed. The disaster and slow reconstruction project meant D&H project was no longer viable since it was running through insignificant rural parishes devoid of industrial potential. From that moment, no new construction was planned and the line slowly withered into a bunch of disconnected branchlines. In 1929, D&H pulled out of Quebec and closed the era when american railroads thought they could develop international bridge lines in the province.

One could argue this is a sad story, but I believe whatever if the original goal was never reached, most of these projects did have an impact. Maybe railways weren't the ultimate solution to develop these regions and certainly too much lines were built, but at a time when no other technology existed, they were a step forward and gave an impetus that lasted a few generation.

This intricate mixture of canadian and american interest in a bunch of regional and local lines is probably what attracts me. While small and simple to understand and model, these lines were complex and compelling stories. They have a soul and are a great occasion of mixing together the common railway culture both our countries had shared since the craze started in the early 1830s. In a sense, most railways ever built in Quebec were always about connecting some place with the american market, with a specific obsession with Boston.

So don't be surprised I often visit and revisit the Southern Quebec railways time and time again.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

St-Pie Layout - Benchwork Completed and Installed

I didn't promise extensive reports about this project, but I'm glad to announce the benchwork is now built and found its way in Jérôme's home.

The benchwork was built in three separate modules in Louis-Marie's workshop that could be easily loaded in Jérôme's car for a 2-mile trip to their final destination. Benchwork is quite lightweight and built with a typical ladder-style 1" x 4" frame. 1/4" lauan plywood was used. I know it's not bullet proof, but I used it with success on my Harlem Station layout and given the abuse this layout has suffered, it behaved extremely well under such circumstances.

Wooden legs were also built with T-nuts and bolts for height ajustment. It came really handy since Jérôme's basement floor is a roller coaster. Legs were painted in black to minimize their visual impact. Meanwhile, we haven't decided yet on the fascia color, but white is starting to be a serious option. We initially thought about painting it black, or tan, or simply Pullman green, but when installing the layout, it became apparent the white primer made the layout disappears. We rarely hear about using this color, but we will give it a shot. It seems promising.

Sorry for the extremely crappy photos. I didn't have my camera and Louis shot a few ones with his phone under very bad lighting conditions.

I'm glad to see the project moving forward. Next step will be to lay the cork roadbed and tracks, then add the bridge deck. Then wiring and operation will start. I also started to weather the grain car fleet, starting with old Blue Box kits to hone my skills before moving on pricier and more detail ones.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

St-Pie Layout Greenlighted

Some progresses occurred during the last weekend about the St-Pie Layout as we shall call it now. A few prerequisite conditions had to be met before we ever ventured into this project, namely finding suitable motive power. A successful trip to Van Horne Hobby in Laval, QC, last Saturday helped us secure a brand new Atlas B39-8 in LMX scheme equipped with a very old original QSI sound decoder… While the paint scheme will require some touch up to match prototype pictures, this is an excellent start for a project.

Once we got the locomotive, we bought a few grain hoppers to complete the fleet. Before visiting hobby shops all over Montreal area, we made sure to survey every rolling stock that could be seen on MMA St-Guillaume subdivision’s pictures. Grain hoppers are costly and we only wanted to purchase relevant material that characterized the road.

A few other items were also acquired, including a pair of Central Valley 150ft Pratt Truss bridges, a Lonestart grain semi-trailer and rooftop details for the future scratchbuilt grain elevators. In that respect, we now have everything on hands to make this project real.


Meanwhile, Jérôme has been fiddling with the track plan a little bit over the last week. I certainly think mocking up the layout on the floor was a great thing. While I’m a big fan of over-designing track plans, I know too well scene composition and operation must be tested in real life before committing to a final plan.

Using Google Earth and a measuring tape, Jérôme found out St-Pie runaround could only handle two grain cars at once. Yes, you read well… two cars in 2010. That may sound ridiculous, but it seems MMA deemed it was enough for their needs which is ideal for a small layout. Peculiar operation patterns are bound to happen. This discovery also has an unexpected impact on scene composition. Initially, we placed the grain elevators too far apart. But now, they are closer on the layout, making for a much interesting scene framed by two tall structures. It also means the lead track on the left side is now much longer, which is indeed a positive development.

Finally, another parameter surfaced: the layout must be fully independent from the walls (supported only by legs) and modular for ease of transportation is a move is required. I don’t see it as a constraint since it will be easier to build each module in the workshop and do the messy work there.

So now it’s time to rip some wood and assemble the benchwork… Meanwhile, back to Hedley Junction where I still have a lot to do!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

QSSR Mark IV - St-Guillaume Subdivision - MMA

When my friend Jérôme told me last summer operating Harlem Junction wasn’t very practical given his available space and time, we started to discuss what could be an interesting small layout that would capture prototypical operation, be visually engaging, relatively simple to build and manage. On top of the list was also minimal track maintenance and ease of staging impromptu operating sessions lasting anything between 30 minutes up to one hour. It is also interesting to note he favors short trains with a branchline flavour, which is quite useful for our purpose.

While these parameters are rather simple, they can make or break a deal quickly. Unreliable electrical pickup and too much track to clean can easily turn a nice idea in a nightmare. We’ve all experimented how small electrical failures can sour the most optimistic operator on earth, particularly when dealing with low speed switching. Furthermore, the more complex a layout is, the harder it comes to stage efficiently and quickly an operation session. This is another deterrent that should never be underestimated in the context of short solo operation.

A Premise

Jérôme being a real life railroader, he likes to take up operation challenges and find ways to accomplish a task. But don’t be fooled, it’s not a matter of complexity for the sake of it such as a switching puzzle like John Allen’s Timesaver. He prefers situation when you have to perform optimal moves given normal life limitation just as real railroads do. His request was timely because at the time, I was exploring ideas for a small HO layout at home based upon the same general ideas.

What’s interesting with Jérôme is that he knows what he wants, what works for him and what doesn’t bring him fun. For years, he bothered with grain cars until I built a large replica of Quebec City’s Bunge (now G3) elevator. It was a few weeks before we changed the club layout focus and thus, our grain cars never saw action since we purchased them.

It is also interesting to note Jérôme operates frequently our layout (and others too) which helped him to shape his personal approach to model railroader. It means he won’t ask for impossible things and knows how much action he can expect from a given design. It’s not a matter of speculation but rather taking decision based on experience.

A Prototype

Since last summer, I’ve been exploring the possibility to replicate a stretch of ex-CP track that was operated by the ill-fated Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway in the 2000s in Saint-Pie, QC. Called the St-Guillaume Subdivision, it used to link Stanbridge, Farnhman and St-Hyacinthe. What MMA operated was only a remnant of yet another former grandiloquent 19th century trunk line linking the St. Lawrence River and the United States to bring hay on New York City markets. It was destined to fail, which took about 150 year to happen.

The last Quebec South Shore Railway project was indeed based on St-Pie which is a small rural community with a feed mill and an impressive concrete grain elevator. This prototype is interesting because it is really focussed in terms of traffic, rolling stock and industries, while being easy to replicate in HO scale in a very standard spare bedroom. Among the prototype chief features are a nice Pratt truss double span bridge, a weed-infested right of way, short siding and a passing track that can barely hold more than 5 grain cars. If you add to that a sharp 90 degrees bend, you get something that can be reasonably be modeled without too much compromise.
St-Pie, QC (courtesy Google Earth)

You can have a better appreciation of the prototype with these excellent pictures shot by fellow railfans Jean-François Dumont and Frank Jolin before the line demise.

Most of you can recall I mentioned last summer I had another layout concept in mind that I would like to share with you. It was this project. A few reasons prompted me to develop this idea beyond just wanting to model Southern Quebec.

While Harlem Station is a neat layout, it proved to be quite overwhelming to operate for a single person, namely Jérôme. It also takes up a lot of space in his office room, making it not the best way to optimize available space. Furthermore, most of the time, you want to operate about 45 minutes or 1 hour, maybe less. Harlem Station is quite complex, but a small rural community is something you can interact with on a more frequent basis. Lance Mindheim often advocated smaller layouts were indeed more engaging to operate regularly. I fully agree with him, knowing how much my original QSSR layout has been to operate. When you put all that together, it’s no wonder I believe Jérôme deserves a layout better suited to his need.

St-Pie is thus interesting because it was located on a short branchline connecting St-Hyacinthe and Farnham, two large railway hubs in Southern Quebec. It served several farming communities along the road, including several grain elevator and feed mill. In fact, it was almost exclusively a grain hauling line. Pictures and railfanning trips helps us to understand trains were short, very short, often between 5 to 15 cars, but generally closer to five than fifteen. It was often operated with quite weathered and faded ex-LMX GE B39-8s.

Another interesting aspect of this prototype is how it is naturally framed in such a way it is visually interesting. You’ll notice most of the action is near the layout center portion which is well-framed by the bridge and the smaller feed mill. Track ends are also hidden in tree tunnels that are a both end of the layout, making for a natural way to hide them without complex contraptions.

From an operation standpoint, the line can be operated westbound or eastbound. According to Jérome’s recollections and pictures, St-Pie’s customers were all switched on northbound and southbound trips. This is interesting, because it meant the runaround had to be used half of the time. Better, that passing track was often clogged with extra cars waiting to be spotted. No need to say what seems to be a very simplistic layout can quickly turn out to be more than meets the eye.

A Project

To test the idea, we decided to “draw” the layout benchwork on the floor with masking tape. It was the best way to fine tune how track and structures would work together. Using turnouts, flextrack and foamcore structures, it also helped to compose scenes in a way they will look better and more realistic. Let’s be honest, you can fiddle with 2D and 3D planning all you want, but at the end of the day, scene composition has to be in real. With scale model or full scale. Somehow, perception with our eyes always differs from virtual perspectives. Though my training as an architect helps me to anticipate how things look in real life, it’s always a tricky exercise. Better work with real stuff, particularly when the design process has an artistic nature. Picture's subpar quality is due to a serious lack of adequate lighting in the room (which will have to be addressed when building the layout).

As for the layout itself, it will be built in three modules (left, corner and bridge) supported by legs. Since we hardly know the wall composition and don’t want to risk messing up with insulation and air barrier (this is a basement after all), making a self-supporting shelf isn’t the best solution in our case. Since Saint-Pie is a relatively flat “urban” setting, a flat benchwork will be more than enough. Water putty, papier-mâché mud and other such products will be used to add some relief to the scene. Noteworthy, MMA track was buried in the ground with almost no ballast remaining in sight. It was a common occurrence on MMA trackage, which was generally plagued with serious speed limitations. While a serious issue on the prototype, this makes our benchwork and track laying process simpler. I certainly wish to build up on experience gained when add ballast and weed to Villeneuve yard recently.

Overall, this layout is quite focussed yet has some interesting challenges. The project small scale make it suitable to hone my scenery and structure building skills while providing Jérôme with something he can be proud of. To my knowledge, nobody ever attempted to create a MMA layout and given the company’s abject reputation after Lac-Mégatic events, it’s arguably everything except a popular road. That said, it still has a lot of character from a modelling standpoint, which is why I think the St-Guillaume Subdivision is worth a try.

Track plan with real structures

Help Needed - In Search of... Motive Power

By the way, we are actively looking for an Atlas HO LMX GE B39-8 (or B-40) with the red nose to operate this layout. They are quite hard to source, but I wouldn't be surprised some are sitting indefinitely on collectors' shelves or in unsold inventory. If you have any information regarding that model, let me know!


I’m not planning to turn this project into a regular feature of this blog. Coverage will be sparse and it’s not my goal to unveil it until it reaches a level of completion I’m proud of..