How should we frame the sky?

In my grain elevator concept sketch I tried to minimize the view of the backdrop and keep the viewer’s eyes as close to the front edge as possible. Some sort of backdrop will need to be there but I wonder how to soften its presence?

I have a feeling that controlling lighting over the scene is part of the answer. Instead of striving to light the entire scene equally the light should be focused on the front half of the scene – like using spot lights on a stage to focus your attention on the star and allowing the background to fade into the distance.

Traditional model railroad design seems to be constant in this hierarchy governing placement of objects from the front edge of the layout to the backdrop:

  1. Front fascia as a place to hang car cards and switch lists
  2. Track and trains
  3. Buildings and scenery
  4. Backdrop

When we go to the theatre (play, concert, movies, all the same) we agonize over seat selection and questions like: Best view of the stage? Most comfortable seating position?

Building on that, if I place a major obstruction in front of your eyes, between you and what you want to look at, I could force you to move around to see that thing. When you get to where I want you to stand I can control how you look at the scene. I will design something to reward your effort and show you why it’s important to stand exactly here to look at this.

AMT July 22 20000029

I’ve spent a lot of very enjoyable time standing on these platforms at Montreal’s AMT Lucien l’Allier station watching commuter trains arriving and departing. I only know it from this perspective and when the scene is in pretty much this orientation.

Traditional layout design would have me place the entire station on a shelf. It would force me to look at it from the side. No matter how detailed or accurately modeled my model is, it will never look right or feel the same. The only way here, as far as I believe, is to force the viewer to move to the end of the platform and site down the length of the train. Either direction is fine, but never from the side.

GO McNab Scan0002

Similarly, the above scene is from the McNab Street bridge and facing toward GO’s Hunter Street Station in Hamilton. Being an elevated station it’s difficult to see the trains from any other orientation. What if the layout fascia on all sides were designed to replicate the same obstructions hiding the train and forcing you to see the models the same way as you’d watch the real thing?

Fooling around with the grain elevator concept sketches, this is the sort of logic I had in mind. It feels a bit obsessive to describe but yet maybe not so. We already invest so heavily in track planning to find the perfect switching puzzle or a great industry that has lots of car movements in the same space. All of this in the name of creating an enjoyable user experience.

Leafing through the pages of a notebook I found some sketches of a little model railway layout I had on my mind a while ago. In terms of place, I had a vision of the sort of place that was only barely nimble enough to stay one stride ahead of a future that had already overtaken most of its neighbours.


The simple layout plan consists of partial models of only three structures and a small amount of track. It can be “operated” by adding a staging area to each end. It isn’t the plan that fired my imagination but more the presentation of it that I still find rather attractive.


The entire layout should be built inside a shadow box. Rather than simply opening up the front completely, I wanted to use silhouettes based on the shape of the grain elevators to control the view into the scene. The colours on the layout would be golds and greens in the scenery and browns in the structures. A fading blue sky leads off across the background, far enough that “you could watch your dog running away for days”. The entire front fascia, including those structure silhouettes, is treated with the same finish. Something without texture and perhaps the whole face is painted grey. Grey for the way it doesn’t take away from the scene and further frames it as it each peeks around edges. When trains are moving, their movement isn’t always fully on display and we have to look around and in between those elevators to see the train. Perhaps an operating session isn’t made more “interesting” by adding more car moves but by exploring the different views of the train as it goes about its business?

The layout has its own integral lighting rig providing more than enough light to very comfortably see what you are doing while operating the layout. In between operating sessions this same light frames those silhouettes – even from across the room it’s easy to see what this scene is about: grain.


Just as the front of the box is cut out to create silhouette views of the grain elevators I played with ideas to similarly frame the view down the line and along the layout. An old tree growing by the station softens the left line of the frame and the right side might use the gable end profile from a grain bin. Peering down the line, our view is framed by the station and the rail-side of the elevators. Again, the hope is to create something that controls your view of the scene and relate it from the same perspectives that we’d enjoy if we were actually there.

In real life, a place like this wouldn’t have a train running every single time that I was there and neither would the layout. I wanted to play with a concept that used the layout fascia as more than just a rectangular picture frame. A fascia that was as interesting as the work it presents.

Here we go again


The second three-way turnout is underway this evening. I’m just taking a short break and thought I’d share a quick photo. This evening, I think I’ll get the rest of the rails in place and that will leave only the point blades to install later.

As accompaniment, there’s a glass of Hell’s Bay Brewing Dark Cream Ale and though I’ve had the Reverend Horton Heat on my mind all day today, the album I’m playing is one of Melody Gardot’s.

I sure am enjoying this work.

Where did all the (Monson) freight cars go?

With a subject line like that, I wish I had something to say that was as grand. Something worthy of my Pete Seeger-inspired subject line. What I do have is a “light bulb moment” of discovery I wanted to share in these two thoughts:

  • Where did the Monson Railroad store its freight cars when they weren’t in use?
  • A typical day must have had a lot of light engine moves.

In the twenty or so years since I first got hooked on Linwood Moody’s book (The Maine Two Footers) I’ve developed a sort of special fondness for the Monson. Never once did it occur to me that I don’t know where they stored cars that weren’t in use. For reference, Trevor Marhsall has already posted some terrific track diagrams of the Monson here:

Starting at Monson Junction there’s trackage but any cars that appear in the photos I have are there for specific reason and part of a freight movement. I can’t find a photo of a car simply being stored at the Junction.

Moving along the line to Monson itself there is a small yard at the station:

  • An engine shed for storing engines;
  • A shed and siding to store the passenger car;
  • The turntable lead seems to have provided a home for the line’s snow removal equipment but I’ve never seen photos of revenue stock on this siding or the similar one at the Junction;
  • The only remaining trackage is the former loop but I believe this was only used for cars being unloaded at the station in a “team track” fashion;

If my assumptions are correct then that would imply that their freight car fleet would be stored down at the quarries between uses. This makes sense since it makes the full fleet available at any time.

So in a typical day, would this make sense:

  1. Light engine move from Monson to the quarry to retrieve loaded cars to deliver to Monson Junction.
  2. Engine waits with cars at Monson Junction until unloaded.
  3. When empty the full train is returned to the quarry.
  4. Light engine returns to Monson and day is complete;

The first minor variation worth suggesting would be that steps 1 and 4 could just as easily have the passenger car in tow making steps 2 and 3 mixed train movements. Further, if unloading the cars at the Junction would take too long the engine and passenger car could return without them leaving the cars temporarily at the Junction.

If all the cars are stored at the quarry and there are two quarry branches does this mean that there would be movements from quarry-to-quarry to balance the demand for empty cars?

  • Storing the cars at the quarry makes sense for the flat car fleet since I presume they’d be the primary car movement on the line as suggested by the photos I’ve seen;
  • Would the box cars have been held at the quarry too?

Despite the length of time I claim to have been interested in the line or even attempting to study it, this thought never occurred to me. I think I just wanted to park this thought somewhere to return to later when I’ve had more time to think about it.



7 days of beer

Before I begin, a cautionary note from our sponsors: No model trains were consumed during the publication or creation of this post. Now, back to your regular programming.

Moth Lane Brewing (

A week ago we were gathered at Ed’s to work on his model railway. While I didn’t remember him previously mentioning that he’d been to visit the folks at Moth Lane I couldn’t not overhear that there were growlers of their beer on hand. Conversation flowed from our individual best ideas on how to fix a problem turnout to whether or not the stout or the IPA was the better beer. Having tried both, I’m in the privileged position of believing that they were created equal. Never have we been so lucky. The IPA was jam-packed full of hoppy goodness and that stout could easily replace Brick Brewing’s Waterloo Dark as my current favourite “go to” for a darker and heavier beer – a title I take and bestow rather seriously.

And the award for the most stunning artwork on a growler goes to Moth Lane. Just wow!

Upstreet Craft Brewing (

On Monday, Krista and I attended our first Charlottetown Makerspace meet-up. It was hosted at Upstreet. I brought some N scale turnouts I’d built and Krista brought a knitting project she was working on. We were welcomed by some great folks keen to share their Arduino, costuming, gaming, and similar passions. Craft sodas and beers flowed freely and a damn good time was the thing we made. Upstreet’s bottled product is something I try to have on hand at the house regularly but visiting the brewery often offers the chance to try some limited run beers only available on site. Last time I was there they had a neat German (Weisse?) beer that they’d made that I was looking forward to. In its place however was a smoked Porter that I haven’t entirely made my peace with yet.

In the days that made up the rest of the week, I was grateful to have a stock of their Eighty Bob in the fridge to take some of the pressure of the dwindling Shiraz supply. Need to get some more wine started…

Schoolhouse Brewery (

This weekend brought us to Ski Martock. Their lodge includes a pub and while their fridge runneth over with a fine selection of local product, their taps were from Schoolhouse. This was a first experience for me and I enjoyed a glass of their Vice Principal IPA. Certainly interesting enough to go “back to the tap” as Randy Bachmann might say.

Hell Bay Brewing (

I feel like Nova Scotia has become a bit of a promised land for the beer lover. Standing in the liquor store and attempting to simply pick up a case of beer I was almost overwhelmed. It’s a very good problem to have and I hope it only gets worse. With a name like Hell Bay Brewing and a beer described as a Dark Cream Ale I couldn’t resist and I think this is one of the real winners of the week. I brought a few home and doubt they’ll last as long as I’ll later wish they did.

3D Printing at the library

We were in Halifax yesterday and stopped by the Halifax Public Library. This library is simply a model for exactly what the modern library should be. What they’re doing works. The place is packed with people using the space for more than just shelter. Krista noticed that the library’s makers space was open for demos that afternoon and had some activities planned. That girl never has bad ideas and this seemed too good an invitation to pass up so we climbed the stairs to the second floor and toward a land of Arduino, 3D printing, and just makin’ goodness.

Of the activities on display, they had their Makerbot Replicator running. For me, this was the first time I’d seen one of this particular printer in operation. I’ll admit to a bit of 3D printer snobbery here and that I didn’t exactly think too highly of this machine. That said, 3D printing is still cool and I still wanted to talk to the folks running the machine. My experience is in design but the actually printing is still done for me and not by me. Regardless of what they were using I was keen to learn more about the process.

They had a large sample of random models they had printed in the past. It was neat to have so much variety on display to handle and inspect. Not just finished models but some that were exactly as they would have been when the printer was finished. So not only could I see the model but also the supporting structure created during the printing process. Everyone on hand was so approachable, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic to talk. As we talked I could barely contain my need to ask one particular question: “Can I print a model I designed?”

“Of course!”

I store most of my work “in the cloud” so I was able to quickly download an STL file I had created for the N scale CP caboose I designed a few years ago. Knowing this is a model that I have successfully printed I knew I had something that could work. I still expected more work within the printer’s software but really, printing here turned out to about as simple as sending a regular print job to the office printer to print on plain old paper. Within minutes, including time to log in to my drive and download the file, the printer was running my job.

With the complete print job sent to the printer we actually started printing a HO scale version of the caboose. As the job began to execute we watched as magically the first walls of the model started to appear. Unfortunately, the deeper into the job we got the closer a time estimate the machine was able to provide on just how long the printer needed to finish its work – about four hours. Despite their enthusiastic insistence that we should let the printer finish I couldn’t ignore the guilty feeling that was consuming me – so we killed the print job. So, no, I don’t have something I can show you. Sorry.

What did I learn:

  • The Halifax library folks were exceptionally keen and proud to show their printer off and their generosity extended to try future projects;
  • During our conversation, they mentioned that Dalhousie University also has a printer and is quite happy to print models. Apparently they just charge to run the machine so not only might this be faster than Shapeways, it will cost less;
  • The Makerbot used at the Library will print to a resolution of 0.2mm. This sounds coarse and was really a major factor in my disregarding this printer. Having now handled models printed to this resolution I’m re-thinking this attitude. It’s not even close to a part cast by a master of injection moulding like the folks at Grandt Line could produce but it’s also not like a gloppy pile of crap like those hot glue pens that Michaels sells would produce. With some surface preparation, these models could be used and have some real potential;
  • The software offered so many options with regard to print resolution and methods that perhaps with some more experimentation we could have found a happier medium (time v. quality) to print the van in under four hours;

I don’t have a model to show but I’m still excited about the experience. Shapeways did something truly amazing when they developed a software front-end to make it easier to interact with a 3D printing studio and places like the Halifax Public Library truly democratize the manufacturing process by making it so publicly available that anyone can do as we did: just walk in off the street, download and print the file. It really was just that easy.

We live in the future and it is good.