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..

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