Sort of forward

I never expected that trimming and gluing the turnouts into place would make such an impression on me but, in the time since doing so, I can’t stop walking around the Prince Street crossing and siting down the rails. I just love the colour and tone here on the track and can’t wait to start working on some scenic textures and to see a train working its way through this scene.


The first of this evening’s tasks was to carefully move the rails on the salt shed siding to better align with the rails of their turnout. The rails are glued to the tops of the ties, so freeing them was simply a matter of carefully sliding a knife blade along, under the rails, to break that bond. With them now free, a  fresh bead of CA was laid down along the ties and the rail laid into its proper place. Not that it shows so well in the photos, but shifting the rails over also better centered them on their ties.


I thought I’d wait until both the main track and the siding that cross Prince Street were installed and working before I proceeded to pave over that crossing. Curiousity and impatience stepped up to the microphone and made some pretty convincing arguments in favour of ignoring that plan and instead just throwing caution to the wind, mixing up some plaster and paving up to the first crossing. But wait, it gets better…

With the plaster I’d used to pave the road setting nicely, I thought I’d finish out the evening by spending some time tidying up the flangeways. I was happily working away when my eyes wandered to the parallel track’s ties. As a bit of a back story, I’d had this bright idea that for the length of track that would be completely buried in the road, I’d just use up some PC board scrap and solder the rails to it. A critical step in this process was to cut an insulating gap in those “ties” before burying them in pavement. Something I wish I had done before burying them in all their conductive glory under that plaster. Having come to the realization that I’d engineered a rather impressive short circuit I decided to take a step back and exchange a mouthful of rather immature words for a comparable amount of wine and then set down my tools for the night. During the days that followed, I mulled over several options to fix things but, in the end, just decided to grab my Dremel tool and basically cut through the paving, cutting deep enough to also cut through the ties and return both rails to a form of peaceful and polar opposition.

I still haven’t resolved the question of moving or powering the turnouts. I think I’ve narrowed down my selection to something I like and I’m looking forward to proceeding on that in the next couple of days. With the turnouts all in place, I can finish the remaining sections of track and then tie them into the layout’s power bus. I guess, from there, I could hook up some power and get in some time playing trains to celebrate that milestone. Come to think of it, that sounds like a rather nice idea.



Here! Catch! Sorry. Moncton-style.

Last Sunday, Taylor and I met up with Luc for a terrific day of trains and just general screwin’ around.


CN’s SD60 #5476 was on duty as yard engine in Moncton. I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever seen an SD60 and while I’m not normally a fan of large diesels, there’s something in those very utilitarian lines that I find attractive. Perhaps, once an engine finds itself as a switcher it becomes something worth paying attention to?

While watching 5476 working the yard, the crew assigned to work the Caledonia Industrial Park customers climbed into the cab of their GP38-2’s, #4732 and #4800. The yard was getting rather full and 5476 was, if I understand correctly, some braking issues so the Caledonia crew joined in on the yard work. In the above photo, they’re working the opposite end of the yard to both access their cars and aid 5476’s crew in marshalling cars.


We weren’t in the yard long when CN’s train from Miramichi arrived. With CN GP40-2 #4708 in the lead it might have been easy to overlook the real treat, former GO Transit #708 (now CN 9675) is trailing. With this arrival, there are now three trains on duty in the yard and it starts to become apparent that Moncton has “just enough” track. Lots of radio chatter as everyone learns their place on the floor.

Among the container well cars and auto racks there were some fantastic gems waiting to be found. I regret that the Grand Trunk covered hopper that, while moving, never got close enough to be photographed. That said, some terrific cars did punctuate the day’s moves including that pair of Tropical containers (note the puddles on the roof – never seen that modelled before!) and a set of four potash hoppers (first time I’ve seen the real thing).

Watching the local crews working away was an absolute pleasure. First a modeller, I often found myself taking mental notes on things that I think I’d like to represent when I’m operating models in similar situations. I wonder how they establish each crew’s territory within the yard so each can complete their work?

More than just a chance to watch trains, it was a chance to add a few more photographs of the place itself to my files. I’d like to set my own model railway around this time of year and during a fall like the one we’re currently enjoying. Photos not just to record details but also texture and colour, hopefully from perspectives that better approximate my viewpoint when looking at the models.

Balancing a terrific day trackside was the invitation to see Luc’s model railway. In previous conversations, I’d heard of his plans for the layout but I had not actually seen it. It was terrific to finally have a chance to spend some time exploring and seeing what he’s been up to. Luc is an extremely talented model maker and it’s that attention to detail and clean execution he brings to layout design and construction. It was a real pleasure to see the layout and learn about his next plans for its design and construction. I am already looking forward to going back soon.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable day in the company of some really great friends. Thank you Luc for the invitation and to Taylor for finally getting me to go – I have no excuse and really should have gone sooner. Thank you to Luc and Susan for their gracious hospitality, welcoming us into their home and feeding us. You guys were simply terrific company.

Chris’ Brilliant Backing Plate

Come one. Come all. I am about to share a tale of a most splendid variation on a well known application. A veritable cure for all that ails you. Hurry up. Hurry up. You’ll want a seat right at the very front of the audience and you’ll want to say you saw it here and without delay. What I am about to show you will make that nickel at the door seem like not enough admission once I show you what you are about to see. As plain as day and you will see it clearly with your own eyes. This folks is a really big deal.


“Fortunately, Chris came up with an elegant solution. He cut and fettled a thin strip of brass to solder to the bottom of each head rod. He then drilled a clearance hole for the piano wire, offset on the brass strip. Head rod and strip were tinned, soldered together, and the finished assembly was brush painted a black-grey.” – Trevor Marshall

The Chris that Trevor is referring to is Chris Abbott and the idea to solder a piece of brass sheet to the bottom of the throwbar is entirely his. I think Chris Abbott’s backing plate is brilliant. The focus of my work session last night was to install throwbars on my three turnouts and then attach their feeder wires. I have used one on each of the turnouts.


N scale tie represents the head rod. Soldered to a backing plate made from scrap PC board.

I’ve used N scale ties as my throwbars. Looking back at my work, I think I’m going to redo mine to use Z scale ties instead to produce an even slimmer-looking throwbar. Using the backing plate contributes some strength to these tiny ties quite elegantly. The advantages here go well beyond just cosmetic:

I use a length of steel “music wire” to connect the switch machine to the throwbar. Not having to drill through the tie you’re using to represent the head rod means that you’re not compromising its strength. Furthermore, if you are only using that tie, than the diameter of the wire you are using to connect the head rod to you switch machine is limited by that tie’s width. That smaller wire is just not as rigid and I find it doesn’t always exert enough force to actually move the point blades so there’s a need to then reinforce it with a heavier wire. There are a number of great tips to bond these two pieces of wire together but at the end of the day, it’s adding complication where there’s simply a better way. Using the plate, this problem goes away instantly. You can use any diameter wire you want so something like the one that comes with a Fast Tracks Bullfrog is just fine – just now with less screwin’ around.

Further, when the wire is mounted in the traditional head rod tie it projects above the tie and I find I’m locked in a balance between needing it to project above high enough so that it works but not so much that it interferes with every piece of rolling stock that moves over that turnout. When the rails are only 0.040″ or 0.055″ high, there isn’t much room to spare in this equation. Again…not a problem any more. The location of this is lower so we have, at a minimum, the additional thickness of the head bar (tie) to place with.


Say “Hello” to my little friend

In a previous post, I praised Ken Patterson’s suggestion to use a length of brass tubing as a drill and temporary conduit to aid passing feeder wires from the top of the layout, through a thick foam core, to the underside. Photographed above is my variation. I am in love with this simple tool.


“Look ma. No more tears.” meets “I don’t ever want this to end.”

I filed one end of the tubing to a sort of drill-like shape so I could use it to cut through the foam. With the tubing in place, I simply started the wire  and threaded it through until I was satisfied that it was below the foam. A quick reach under the layout retreives the tubing and the process repeats itself. I’ve used foam for a lot of layouts. Each time I’ve played that game with feeder wires of trying to get them to just run through the hole with getting caught along the way. Those days are gone now.

What’s next?

I already mentioned wanting to redo the throwbars with smaller ties. I have all the parts and it only takes a few minutes to accomplish so why not?

I think I am going to employ a mechanical linkage to move the points. I still really like the design that FREMO suggest, built around a SPDT toggle to lock the points in place and also route power to the frog and I will probably employ something a lot like this. Again, meets my needs and I have all the stuff here.

Once I have items one and two, above, completed I can start to think about sticking the turnouts down so I can finish sticking down the other plain track rails.

Onward mighty glacier. We have a railroad to build.

I’ve been using “throwbar” and “head rod” interchangeably and apologize for any confusion that results.40

What’s neat worked for me

I’m one of those folks who just don’t tend to sleep late. On the weekends, I try to find something that I can do quietly without disturbing the rest of the house. If that moment is around the first of the month you can usually find me and the cat on the couch, with our morning coffee in hand and watching Ken Patterson’s latest What’s Neat video.

Way back in the December 2015 video he suggested a tip about routing wires through the very thick foam base on his model railway. The problem is simple: Invariable, while snaking the wire through the foam it starts catching in the foam. About midway through Ken’s video, he shows what he does. It’s a simple variation and I think quite brilliant: he simply routes a length of brass tubing into the hole and then the wire just slides through that. Once the wire is in place he removes the tube and gets back to the task.

While running power feeds on my own layout, I thought I’d try this technique out and it worked just perfectly every time. It’s quite a slick idea and something I plan to just keep doing.

Here’s the video:

…but not like important good work

With most of the ties now in place, I’ve shifted my attention toward rail. As I write this, I figure I am approaching the point of having about half the rail for the layout installed. Electrical drops have been soldered to the underside of each section but as yet there is no main power bus to tie those to. I’m using CA to bond the rails to the ties. While I’m satisfied with the quality of the glued joint, I intend to spike the track too. For spikes, I’d like to try those really sharp looking spikes that Andy Reichert is selling and I’ll order those this week. When they arrive, I’ll also tidy up a few rails that, while in gauge, I’m just not content with their position.

With the rail glued in place, I also took some time to break out some tubes of paint and set to work with getting some new colour on the rail. The rail itself is recycled from a previous layout. It had been painted already so the work here was more to lighten the colour and generally tidy things up. I’ve used alternating shades of burnt umber and raw sienna as the new colour palette for the rail. Once I get some ballast stuck down I plan to revisit the rails again with a bit more weathering on them to just take the edge off that almost-too-freshly rusted state they currently show.


I like the idea of using a brown as a base colour for track. To that end, using a can of Tremclad Leather Brown spray paint I’ve painted the turnouts now too. I’ll give the paint a further few days to dry and then will start washing some  colour onto these parts to distinguish between the rails and the ties and make these metal and plastic parts better blend in with their neigbouring elements.

I found a jar of Woodland Scenics fine ballast, “Buff” colour, and thought I’d spread about a tablespoon’s-worth of it just to see if the colour might work. This shade used to be my favourite ballast colour but I’m not sure that I still feel that way. Photos along the real Claremont& Concord show ballast in a more blue-gray hue and I think I’d like to move in that direction.

Stepping back from the layout, while painting the rail, I was still feeling really pleased with the state of progress on this project and my own work. I remarked to Krista: “I’m doing something really good here. I mean, not good in a saving the human race important kind of way, but good nonetheless.” That expression sort of stuck with me and there’s the title for this update.

While most of the work continues with a seemingly endless parade of mugs of tea by my side, they have been joined by the occasional glass of Garrison’s IPA as well as several glasses of a nice Shiraz of rather dubious origin.

During quieter times when some audio would help, I’ve been listening to a few different Melody Gardot albums as well as some podcasts I’m behind, episode-wise, on (such as Model Rail Radio and Thinking Allowed).

What’s on the punch list next?

I wish there were such things as turnout throwbar fairies. That you could place a model railway turnout under your bed at night and by morning you’d find they’ve arrived and installed a nice hinged throwbar for you. I’m just being lazy and I only need to do this for three turnouts. I really just need to just get on with it.

If I had two wishes for Christmas…I’m not Steve Martin reciting a classic sketch. If I had two model railway wishes the second I’d spend on a mechanism to move those point blades, hold them in place, and route power up to the frog. Every modeller has something that, even the mention of, inspires an almost paralyzing anxiety. Turnout mechanisms is mine. I don’t know what to do and I wish the problem would just solve itself by my avoiding it. Mind you, that never works so I need to figure out a way past it.

Fascia. Fascia. Fascia. The joy of success borne of work on top of the layout is perpetually undermined by how ugly the plywood framing looks. Sooner rather than later I need to address this problem so I’m less embarrassed by my own deficiencies here.

Ties. Getting better all the time.


There are some really neat techniques to weather and age ties and track. I used to be able to say that I’ve not really tried any of them. Yup, I used to be able to say stuff like that. Luckily, I just couldn’t settle my mind or quell that curiousity.

In the above photo, I have lightly sanded the previously coloured ties to just soften the paint. My ties are cut from 1/16″ balsa sheet. I wanted to try scrubbing them with a brass-bristled brush to see what sort of effect that would leave. Initially, I was worried the wood would be too soft to sustain any sort of aggressive action but I soon learned I was wrong about that assumption. The more I picked away at this, the more impressed I felt. I dug an X-Acto knife from my tool box and, using the back of the blade, picked and gouged at random ties to further distress them. By the time I took the above photo I was really starting to feel like I knew what I was doing.

To restore some finish and get some depth into all that work I grabbed some acrylic paints and washed a very thin and equally random coat of black over the finished trackwork. It’s settling in quite nicely and I think the ties look amazing. I’m glad I made the time to try something new, to me, that I hadn’t before.

Distressing these ties wasn’t complicated but, man, am I ever beaming with pride over how well they turned out.

My inspiration for all of this is the track that Hunter Hughson has been building for his layout, as illustrated in this photo:

Some of the nicest HO scale track I’ve ever seen done.

What comes out in the wash

My latest layout update is: Most of the ties are glued down now and the glue has dried on the first batch (I stuck them down over the course of two evenings) so I had a chance to start washing some colour onto them.

When I set to work, to start colouring the ties, I had a certain script set in my mind that prescribed what I was planning to achieve in terms of how the finished ties should look. After fussing around with the work I was pleased in my ability to execute my plan but not sure if I liked how things looked. Part of my uncertainty is that my references are photographs of track where the ties are as much a part of the finished scene as the surrounding scenery and it’s difficult to filter out the other visual “noise” and focus only on the colour and condition of just the ties, so I can compare the thing I’ve created to the thing I was trying to recreate. Once upon a time I had an art teacher whose strength was found in her ability to get her students to see what was actually there and distinguish that from what we wanted to see or assumed we saw. Ours is work where we negotiate a place for our style that is somewhere between the completely abstract and the very skilled and the perfectly executed miniature of something real.

I guess that’s my thought for today.


What I see when…

Right now the model railroad is just a stack of rough plywood forms and odd bits of Styrofoam. I see so much more in that mess though, as we often allude to with sayings like “…in the eye of the beholder”. In particular, one image from Kenneth Houghton’s images on the Fototime website just about says it all. I wanted to share a link to the photo as an indicator of where I’m trying to go and why I am so very excited about this project:

Even now as I site down a line of cork roadbed I see the above scene. A Claremont & Concord Railway 44 tonner running along the edge of the street with a single boxcar in tow. Or, at least where that scene used to play out “once upon a time”. If one photo about says it all, then one more couldn’t hurt and this one, also from the same collection fills in the rest of the story:

Where the rest of the story is the answer to the very question of why the little railroad is still able to run at all.

It took a second introduction to this elegant little plan before I could see myself in it. Then the connection was instant. I had been stuck on the idea of prototype modeling in very literal terms. Trying to find that perfect real life moment and then designing a layout like I was arranging the forks in the exacting arrangement of a very formal dinner’s place setting. In doing so, I stopped thinking about what attracts me to an idea, sees it as inspirational, and makes my heart race; how good a connection to the essence of a moment could feel. It took a while and the exceptionally patient help from a great number of friends to find this stride and learn the difference between plan A and plan B. (I’m a rich man, made so by the gift of their interest, patience, and enthusiasm. I’m grateful for it.)

Tools so nice you just want to use them

Before heading out to Atlanta, I finished soldering together the three turnouts I’d need for my layout. The two “in town” turnouts were built with code 55 rail but the larger curved turnout on the way out of town was built with larger code 70 rail. Most of the track I’ve ever handlaid has been built using codes 40 and 55 rail. I find this tiny rail easy to work with and typically just formed typical turnout parts freehand. I’m constantly amazed at just how different it is to work with the larger code 70 rail – after all, it’s only 0.015″ taller right?!

For the larger rail, I wanted some help from the toolbox. I used a filing jig from Fast Tracks to make up the frog points and turnouts blades for my curved turnout. The jig I used was for a number 5 turnout and the one I was building was a larger number 6 so I had to further finish each part with additional filing but the bulk of the work was completed using the jig to hold the rail. That tool works so well, I wish I needed more turnouts. It’s such a pleasure to work with a tool so well designed and equally well made – to work with something that just does what it does and does it so well. I’ve always liked the Fast Tracks slogan of: “You don’t have to build it. You get to build it.” I’d like to add: “Trust me, you’ll want to build it.”

It feels good to have a steady stream of layout updates to share. I’ll close this post with some randoms of the turnouts in place on the layout. This week’s work will hopefully see ties in place and ready for the start of plain track construction. I’ve also pledged to myself that I’ll wire things as I go instead of leaving it all until the end…

“What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”

We’re back on the Island after a really fun vacation in Atlanta. Flying home today and reflecting on what we did, it feels like we were there for longer than just three days. It was our first time in Atlanta and we really had no idea what to expect or what to do. We had such a terrific time. It seems like everyone we met were spectacular ambassadors for their city and the city is one they deserve to be so very proud of. We walked everywhere and when we needed to cover more ground, more quickly, we grabbed our Breeze cards and hopped on MARTA or the Atlanta Streetcar. After a long day of travelling home, it’s a pretty lazy evening here. I figured, in the name of attempting something resembling productive I’d work through a post of train photos.


I’d read Amtrak’s schedule for The Crescent Limited and saw that if I was moving early enough I could catch it on its New Orleans-bound trip. On Friday morning I headed out to do just that. After a superb walk from our hotel, along Peachtree, to the station, I crossed over the highway by Atlantic Station I couldn’t help but notice the parade of MARTA trains doing the same just a bit further up the road. They are really moving and I’m rather pleased with how well this photo turned out.

In between MARTA trains, I waited…


Running just about a half-hour behind schedule, almost as if waiting for better lighting before it appeared, The Crescent Limited arrives in Atlanta.

The Peachtree overpass provides a superb view of the train in both directions but is itself guarded on both sides by a very tall chainlink fence. To set up these photos, I have my camera carefully aimed between the links. The actual view looks more like this:

We’re big transit users for those destinations that are just too far to walk and for that, more MARTA is the way to go.


I took the above photo of a southbound, Airport, train at the Five Points station. The interesting trivia here is that when I took this train this stretch of the Orange line was experiencing a period of single-line running while maintenance was completed on the other track. There isn’t much headway between trains and the thought of managing that same frequency, in opposite directions, on one track is nothing short of impressive. I’d love to have learned more about the logistics of making it happen.

Unable to resist the invitation of a streetcar ride, we made pretty great use of the Atlanta Streetcar service. The streetcar and its line are really only a couple of years old and it was neat to be a part of something still so new. I took the above two photos from our carriage on the gigantic Skyview Atlanta ferris wheel. Hard not to see something like this and marvel at just how model-like it all is.

Facing a very early flight out of Atlanta, we changed hotels to something much closer to the airport and spent our last night in Hapeville. Our hotel was directly across from Porsche North America and the distance from our hotel to Porsche was bisected by Norfolk Southern’s track through town. I did manage to catch the tail end of two trains but neither time did I grab my camera. NS was performing some work on this track and had staged a rather neat work train nearby. The train was staged in three separate blocks of cars: one set of rather old boxcars presumably for storing materials, one set of bunkhouse cars, and finally a block of flat cars each loaded with different pieces of equipment. Those flat cars were a neat mix of Norfolk and Western and Southern cars, each a memory of the history of the railroad different from the more famous Heritage scheme engines NS have decorated. This last photo is of just one of those cars.


By the way…

“What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?” is, I learned, the cry of the front line staff at The Varsity. Of the many places I wanted to see in Atlanta, this landmark restaurant was high on the list. I still don’t know how to describe it. In their words: “Welcome to The Varsity! The World’s Largest Drive-in Restaurant…” With an introduction like that, it would be easy to imagine The Varsity as some caricature packed with crappy fifties memorabilia. It was anything but and was a simple joy to visit. I wish I could go back again and again.

Speaking of food, the other “gonna eat here” restaurant on my list was a visit to Sweet Auburn Market over on Edgewood. Of the many vendors I discovered I only have eyes for Soul Food. Again, words fail to describe the experience but I think Krista coined the best and I’d like to use those to describe Soul Food: “I was totally unprepared for the amount of delicious!” Soul Food? Yes, in so very many ways. Jammed full of black-eyed peas, corn bread, and fried chicken our souls were fueled for a terrific walk through the neighbourhood.

Starbucks was everywhere in the city so coffee was never far away but I was surprised that independant shops were very scarce. That said, across the street from the Atlanta Zoo is The Grant Park Coffeehouse. I consider Charlottetown’s own Receiver Coffee Company as the finest coffee I’m ever going to have, anywhere. The folks at Grant Park Coffeehouse are a damned fine close second.