The broken view / the overlap

I’d been playing around with some simple lines on a piece of paper. Representing lines of track, I imagined what it would be like to run trains in this place. As I pushed my pretend trains around I realised how much I lacked a sense of their movement. At first I thought I might simply build two independent layouts and alternate their use: Perhaps one day I use the scene that represents the place where the big railroad provides cars and on another day exchange that scene with the other one, the one that hosts the act in which we deliver the cars to the customer.

Then I wondered: could they live in the same place? Maybe overlap?

end view

In plan, it looks like this:

plan view

I build a lot of model railroads that exist in basic rectangular volumes. I find enticing the idea of breaking that front line to introduce a curve.

end view2

With some time this morning I made some coffee and formed these views to help explain the idea. While the above view is not the one I considered first, I now imagine standing here and like the way that way the foreground takes interacts with the distant view.

(To help explain things I propose the following set of sketches. I’ve reduced the entire installation to a monochromatic view and will colour the subject in red to focus the conversation.)

Scene A: The reason

1 load unload

Occupying perhaps two-thirds of the scene’s face this scene is highly detailed and focused on why the railroad exists. Maybe it’s where we deliver the coal to, load the potatoes from, or the terminal of our interurban empire.

4 switching load unload

Standing here to operate a train in this scene we find that it wraps around us to focus our attention on the railroad’s purpose. I’m amused with the idea that in our peripheral vision we can still relate to our origin but it’s “far away” and it’s not immediately obvious how we got to here from there. In this scene we see the train interacting with its purpose.

Scene 2: The interchange

2 interchange.png

Lesser detailed, this scene’s priority is to act as the origin for movement into the layout. Note how it wraps around behind the major scene allowing access to re-rail a derailed car and how it invites you peek in behind the curtain to interact with the model. Both sides of the backdrop are decorated with a sky and even a horizon’s scenery.

2b interchange backdrop.png

I can’t always see the engine but don’t need to since at this place we’re watching the train being exchanged – one set of cars for another. Our attention shifts from the arrival of a locomotive to the work of its train.

5 switching interchange

When we’re operating a train here, we stand centered in this space and  while we could look to the side to see where we’re going the act of doing so is not unlike looking further down the road. With no scenery or track connecting the two areas we can’t simply go there by moving a little bit. Clearly, we need to travel further.

Scene 3: The broken plain

3 broken plane

Using a cassette, sector plate, or like means of off-stage track that is only added when we need to move a train from the background scene to the foreground this is the wall we break through – that “hole in the sky”.

Variation 1: Drawing into the scene

6 possible removable staging

Scene 2, by its area, inherits a lesser visual priority. Further the view of the train is limited since much of it is behind the backdrop of Scene 1. If it’s the place where our train exchanges its cars for another set could we add a removable length of track to provide those cars into the scene?

Nothing new here as the idea of removable staging is so apparent in the hobby. It has a place here too. As with many of my recent designs I use staging here to provide only cars in contrast to the section at the opposite end of the layout that is required to move the train from one scene to the other. I suppose if I really wanted to get carried away this length could take advantage of my Matchbox idea and it could slide into the main body of the railway between use.


A side. B side.

cassette 20180611

Last winter I built a set of three turnouts. It was mostly an exercise in “just do something” fueled by some lengths of rail and a few mugs of tea. I built them with the above layout’s track plan in mind. Well, that plan and thinking I could create a home for an Austerity tank engine that I sort of bought in a moment of National Coal Board in the 1970’s, steam-inspired weakness.

There’s no novelty in this plan. Why I wanted to share it was for the vision of how it’s played with (Sorry, “operated”). Play is based on two operators. One at A and one at B. There’s only one engine. The number of cars is irrelevant.

  1. When play starts, the engine is “on set” already.
  2. A and B flip a coin to see who starts. The result of this coin toss determines who drives the engine first and who calls the first play to execute.
  3. A takes the engine to move those cars.
  4. Once A is finished with his shenanigans he hands the throttle to B. A’s turn is done and the roles switch.

Cars can remain between plays on A2, AB, or B2. I mentioned being able to ferry stock around by using the cassettes at each point. The cassettes can be used to move the engine from one track to another. This would be useful if you had to pick up cars at A1 and deliver them to B1. You’d need to runaround from one end of the train to the other so you could place the cars on A2, then move the engine from A2 to AB to complete the runaround move. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t cheat and move the engine from one end of the layout to the other but then, what would be the fun in that anyway?

Where we might typically add operators to a model railway to expand the diversity of roles I liked the idea, here, of instead exchanging their roles in determining what happens next. Equally, seated opposite each other and sharing equally in the play it sort of feels like sharing a meal together. Hosted on tabletop maybe completes the metaphor in my imagination.

As for inspiration, I can’t add words that would communicate the vision better than this wonderful video from Gandy Dancer Productions.


Back to the matchbox


It started with an idea based on a simple box of matches. (Before I get much further in, bear with me while I wander. It’s okay. I’m old. I do these kinds of tangents all the time.)


I’d had this idea: “Traditionally, a model railway remains fixed in place. If we need that extra length of track, we achieve it by adding to the layout by attaching staging to a free end like a pier jutting from the land out into the sea. In this case, I propose moving the layout out of the way to make room for the extra track we need. This is made easy by mounting the layout on a set of drawer slides built onto the top of the integral storage unit. It slides open and closed like a matchbox and in doing so, both reveals the trains stored inside and also evolves the plan from static diorama to operating model railway.”

Before I’d even talked about the matchbox, I proposed a tightly framed shadowbox of a layout. Even though it was never more than a series of sketches I still enjoy looking at this series of curated views of the scene to watch an imaginary first generation GP placing a few grain boxcars at the elevators.

One idea that did move beyond a series of sketches was the above. It became a massive foamcore mockup. Did I mention my curiousity to explore a tightly-framed view?


One by one, a series of ideas that invite me to look around my living room and wonder what I could store in something like an IKEA Billy bookcase. Of course, the problem with “in a bookcase” is, well are, those gable ends.


Something like the simple view above would fit ever so nicely in the volume created inside a bookcase’s shelf. In the above drawing, as in traditional layout construction, the layout is constructed as one complete unit and the layout is fixed into this volume, early on in construction.


What if the layout, instead, was built on a set of drawer slides?

The frame stays nested inside the bookcase. When the layout is simply on display, between uses, it fits nicely in the envelope of the bookcase. The biggest challenge with the layout is always when it comes time to interact with it and gaining reasonable access from the top. So, as I asked, if it could be slid out you’d have full access to the top so you could uncouple cars, fix some scenics, or attend to a wayward detail.


Freed from the confines of the bookcase, this is where I recall the matchbox-inspired idea that I opened this post with. The layout emerges from its frame like a drawer. Once opened, a wing that was previously tucked inside the main body of the layout is open as another drawer to extend the length of the layout. Over top of the drawer, you could rest of a storage cassette to extend the running track on the layout.

When you are done, the storage cassette is tucked into the drawer “wings” along with the leftover railway cars. Those wings are slide back inside the layout. Then, wings safely stored inside, the railway itself slides back into its frame. It’s a bit coy in its presentation and that playfulness? I think amusing its creator is something a model railway must do.

As a concept, it feels like a great way to use up a collection of drawer slides and indulge in some puzzle box construction. As much as any of that this serves the opposing needs of the static diorama and the operating model railway; most of all my personal need to create a tailored envelope not only for the scene but to contain all the “stuff” that follows a model railway around so I’m not left with a shelf filled with clumsy looking rolling stock and a rummage sale of loose parts.

Most of all it feels like an idea that belongs here.

I’ve referenced some previous posts throughout the above. Here’s some links back and in the same order as I’ve presented them above:

The Matchbox first appeared in this post:

It reappeared in this post, which I think did a superior job of illustrating the idea:

The prairie scene was revealed in an untitled post here:

That massive foam core mockup? Check it out:



Diesel Locomotive Modeling Techniques, Vol. One. Click on the image to read more about the book on OST Publications’ website.

Considering the people who collaborated to create this book I have no doubt that they could instruct me to produce a copy of the SW1500 that Tony built and when I was done, I’d write a blog post with a Prince Street-y title like “The SW1500 that Tony built that Chris built”. The book would be a good investment since a skill like those I’d need aren’t the kind that just fall from the sky to land on your hands. You have to practice and before that, you have to have somewhere and something to start from and where else to learn from than those masters of our hobby.

The hobby has a habit of describing itself as “art” and those who have invested in their practice, as “craftsmen” and as I just did: “masters”. As freely as we paste words like that on the models I like to think there is a conversation that the artist has as they wrap media around a naked idea; as the work arises from the translation of the Idea into the Form the artist is rewarded with something they can consider, both in terms of the investment of self and of stuff; of its ability to represent the emotional dimensions of their inspiration; and now that It is tangible, is It what they hoped it would be.

“This is not a how-to book but more of how I go about it book.”

It’s refreshing to read a book written from the perspective of the artist sharing commentary on his work. In the pages that follow that quote the story moves between what worked and what didn’t. As each stage of constructing the model is completed, it is evaluated and regarded not so much as an accomplishment but as a platform to learn from and build a next project on. “Project” here is not a complete model, such as the SW1500 in question, but component parts of the engine such as a radiator cover. I’ve never thought of models in this way and the more I do, the more I like it. Imagine returning to a finished model and cutting it apart to address something that never quite fit right?

“I spend a few hours comparing the out-of-the-box model with my photographs of the prototype. This begins the process for choosing which engine number or production phase I will do. Once that has been decided I’m able to focus on one specific engine. Then I start three lists”

As much as this book tells the story of creating this stunning model in the terms of what worked, what was learned, and what could still be improved on, it doesn’t completely ignore an opportunity to share good quality instruction. As Tony discusses in the opening pages, there is still time to evaluate the quality of the research media and catalogue those materials he’ll need to complete the model. It’s neat to learn how Tony prioritizes each component of the model and invests his resources. The design of the book forced me to read it as a contemplation and in doing so, I started to see myself in the work and I started to consider how I might try to make things like a radiator housing or how to make better handrail stanchions. Where I might have simply read this and thought it was above my abilities, the work is presented in such a careful way the work is divided into projects that don’t seem so daunting. Projects that even a modeller like me could attempt in isolation that could eventually result in my own SW1500.

The hobby has room for books that are greater than the work they instruct in the creation of. Books that discuss the relationship we have with our models, as we’re creating them.  Books that provide a place to receive a discussion on why you made the choices you did. I believe we learn more from others if we learn why they made that choice, how they arrived at it, and why it felt right.

Among the many books that form the body of our family’s library I’m certain we count favourite volumes that we return to for the comfort of their familiar pages, phrases, and personalities. Like an old friend that we can always count on to welcome us with a familiar story that we’ve never heard too many times. These are the books that are absent from our hobby. Thank you Mike and Tony for investing so heavily in the creation of a book that is all at once a guide you could follow that would indeed deliver a stunning model of an essential diesel and does so in a rich way that presents a story that need never result in a model at all. A book strong enough to stand on what it is.

I doubt I’ll build a model like the one described in this book but I don’t need to. For me, this is a book I’ve already read through several times and in its pages I find a story worth re-reading that runs richer than simply instruction and that feels pretty good.

If you’ve managed to read this far and haven’t purchased a copy of the book itself, please do so. This is the type of work that we need to support the creation of and the best way to express this support is by investing in it and work like it.

Through the course of this post I’ve quoted several passages from the book itself. I believe I have used those that have already been shared in places such as the OST blog so that I haven’t compromised the content of such a superb book.

“For a small shelf switching layout, the perfect engine is the end cab switcher.”

Speaking of quotes, I couldn’t help but pick one last one. A statement that caught my interest since it really stands out awkwardly in the book. Maybe it’s a teaser toward an upcoming volume. Regardless, why is this the perfect engine? Maybe that’s a conversation to have sometime. I hope so.


Inspiration…the morning after.

This will not be inspirational. I don’t do that. Others do. Lots of others do. Thankfully, they do it very well. Right here, I want to say something like “The Hobby” but really the next part is really the moment when someone says something is inspirational. This moment passes into the next, something is still inspirational, and that’s where my question begins:

What motivates?

So, I ask “what” but I think a part of this same question is also how do we calculate the translation of one into the other?

What motivates you to? And how do you motivate yourself?

I’ve been thinking about the exchange of inspiration for motivation. Model railroading’s media is fluent in its promotion of inspiration but not so well-endowed in motivation. Some answers come to mind quite easily so I won’t wear down your attention with a list. If you’ve read this far: “Where does the motivation come from?”

There’s no wrong answer, right?

The camera


I’m constantly impressed by the camera on my iPhone. Even, as I’ve just learned, when it tries to help and does something spontaneously right and wrong, taking the picture it wants instead of the one I thought I was taking.

In the above photo, I’m looking straight into the setting sun while these two GP’s make up tonight’s 509 – the Dartmouth to Autoport train.

In the instant that I pressed the button to take this photo the camera instantly changed the light levels. The sky is washed out. In doing so, look at all that cool detail in the engine’s paint. The way the paint is fading, door by door.

My photo would have been overexposed. My photo is… The camera took a different photo. Together we’ve created something neat.

And in doing so, reminded me of what it was like to be shooting on film, in a time before digital cameras, and still only learning how to take a photo.



You just have to be there

I know, my affection for photographing and sharing pictures taken near Alderney Landing here in Dartmouth is obvious.

I am so drawn to the complimentary lines in views like the above. I find places that offer patterns like these attractive and even calming. I don’t know why, I just do. Perhaps it’s that I see a strong architectural relevance here in the way that all the man-made elements repeat a parallel line that converges almost as if to a common focal point. Further that while everything man put here agrees to this pattern, the natural elements do not. There’s a contradiction that to me feels fundamental and standing here feels powerful. And good.

And the train passes through here so often that it’s easy to practice photographing in this location to test it.

Scrolling through the many photos I’ve taken at or near this particular location I noticed something that distinguishes time trackside from the hobby of model railroading: When I’m trackside I don’t get to choose between things like the best way to interpret the scene as a miniature. I just have to be present and enjoy it. That’s a quality I find attractive in the minimalist approaches to model railways.

I wonder what the minimum number of decisions a modeller could make and still complete a layout is or what they are?

I wonder how that completed work would compare to our current, decision-heavy, approach in terms of the experience for the creator.

Is there really a link between the work and the satisfaction?