Prince Street: Building a micro layout in N

I’m a week into this one and I figured things are far enough along to share this fun development: that I have a little micro layout underway. I’ve been trying to get a little done on this every day, even if it’s only an hour’s work. I’m hoping to start blogging about it’s development as things evolve and thought perhaps I should introduce the idea, the plan and also it’s current status.

Inspiration
The December 2008 issue of Railway Modeller magazine featured a really sharp little layout built by Ian Futers. I’m a big fan of Ian’s designs and the style of layouts he builds. I also share his passion for the railways of Scotland during the “BR blue” days. This layout, Victoria Park, is focussed on passenger operations and is built in British O scale. The scenic section of the layout is only eight feet long and that really doesn’t provide one with much room for moving coaches around. However by balancing some really well thought out positions for the trackwork and positioning the few structures around the layout to guide a viewer’s eyes you really just don’t notice how small it is. I felt he did a superb job of building a layout that so clearly communicated what he found appealing about it’s prototype and furthermore did it in a way that really illustrated the period and “scene” to a viewer. There’s a great Youtube video showing the layout in operation and I think I’ve probably posted it here before:

Over Christmas I was browsing through some favourite model railway blogs and websites and landed on Lance Mindheim’s site. In the past few years he’s really become something of a household name for his designs. I’m really excited about the almost revolutionary persona that’s being hung on his name. He’s such a terrific advocate for designing model railways that really work like their prototypes and taking a conversation about model railway operations beyond simply ticking cars off a switch list to really thinking about how railroad cars are moved on our layouts and just where we are switching them. Of course along the way he’s been providing countless examples of model railway designs that could support this style of operation. Last December he posted on his blog: Have A GREAT Layout by New Years. His idea was to focus on one industry, a simple track plan and an even simpler layout. I like the idea of getting something running so you can really start enjoying the operation of a model train and as you grow with the layout in skill and appreciation you can rebuild parts of the layout to reflect this growth. For example: replacing a switch with a more detailed piece of trackwork or the old mantra from countless Model Railroader project layouts: “…spend your time detailing rolling stock”. That’s not a bad idea either.

It has been over a decade since a house move forced me to take apart my last proper model railway. I miss it so dearly and folks, once you’ve had a model railway, not having one is a rather lonely feeling that no amount of armchair railroading or kit collecting can salve. So it’s an almost perfect stage setting eh?! There I am with this tragic emptiness (sad eh?! not really…), the Victoria Park layout that I just can’t stop thinking about and it’s been four years since I read that article so there’s no cure folks. Finally, I was reading Mindheim’s posts which were reminding me that acheiving a functional and enjoyable model railway is not a Herculean task no matter how much analysis paralysis I try to stuff into the box. Not that I needed much more help but I think the final straw was episode 48 of The Model Railway Show. This really enjoyable podcast started with a battle cry: A calculated New Year’s Resolution likely aimed squarely at folks like me that needed to put on some tea and get a layout built and there I was, sitting at my desk and listening to this podcast when it occured to me that I was going to do this. There’s a scene in the classic Wallace and Gromit film: A Grand Day Out where Wallace determines that the only course of action is action.

So what to do?
I still don’t have a lot of money to spend on the hobby and frankly I know that I enjoy making models a heck of a lot more than I’ve ever enjoyed buying them. Furthermore I’ve actually still got a pretty decent pile of stuff already. When not immersed deep into a 19th century Prince Edward Island Railway I can usually be found deep in the seventies-era Canadian commuter rail scene. I’ve probably spent as much time dreaming of layouts based on Montreal commuter train operation as I have for PEI and I know I’ve bought enough trains to do just that. So this is where all the lines converge: I’m going to have a go at building a finer-scale version of Ian Futer’s Victoria Park in N scale. I’ll use code 40 rail and build my own trackwork. I’ll take my time and try hard to get it right but I won’t obsess so much that the idea gets overwhelming as this is something I do suffer for and from. In my eyes it will be a little tiny idea that sort of, in the right light and after the right amount of beer looks sort of like CP’s Windsor Station did in the seventies. I’ve shown the Youtube video above share the plan and I wanted to include a link to this photo taken at Windsor station – this is the scene I’d like convey:
DSC09670

So far…
I think the first big stumbling block was comprised of equal parts of trying to figure out where in our small house I’d fit in a layout and given that it will likely be small how could I build a simple shelf that it would sit on. Victoria Park is only eight feet long in 7mm scale. Literally converting that into N meant that I was looking at a shelf of only about twenty-eight inches. Naturally I looked in my workshop for wood and how I’d frame such a small shelf. This small a shelf doesn’t require any real structure but I knew that I would be actuating turnouts from beneath the tabletop and that mechanism should be protected by some sort of valance. On a traditional layout this valance is provided by a layout frame so there would be some sort of structure even if only light. A couple of modellers on British model railway forums have been exploring the use of foam core for a layout base. I had a couple of sheets of this lying around from craft projects and decided I’d give it a go.

The base
I’m using 3/16″ thick foam core. I’ve used the full length of a sheet as my layout’s length and settled on a six inch width so the final size is six by thirty inches. To give the sheet some structure I cut some strips about 4″ wide and fashioned a frame around the perimeter the same way you’d frame that sheet of plywood with 1×4’s. I had some scrap leftover from the sheet so I added in some cross braces and little blocks to reinforce the joints. As a material, the foam core is a delight to work with. Our kitchen table is my workbench so it was nice to use something that was easy enough to work without dragging out proper tools.

I took a scan of the track plan Railway Modeller published with the article and pulled it into AutoCAD. I had some turnout templates already created as CAD blocks and placed them over the plan. Then it was a simple enough matter to drawn on the remaining track. To help in building the track I also drew in the tie locations. Once satisfied I printed the lot out on my little colour printer. This gave me a full sized plan to work over and since I had included the coloured plan I’ve actually also got a two dimensional scene showing the location of buildings and the like which helps mask the current cardboard prarie.

On to trackwork
I am building my own trackwork, it’s one of my favourite parts of the hobby. I’m not very good at it but I make up for a lack of talent with enthusiasm and hope it balances equally and the trains work. I had a bunch of number five turnouts already built and am using these. I’m using code 40 rail from Micro Engineering and some of those lovely ties from Fast Tracks. Between the circuit board ties I would usually have used wooden ties but I have been thinking about trying styrene strip instead. In N scale the wood grain shouldn’t be discernable and I’m really attracted to the ease of ripping through a stack of 0.040×0.060″ strip. I have laid a strip of this trackwork and so far am quite pleased with the outcome. After paint and weathering I doubt the plastic ties will look any different from wood.

Next Steps
Tonight I wanted to write this blog post. Afterward I think I’m going to work on getting that little bit of trackwork I started last night. This length reaches across the back of the layout and will be my main arrivals track. Once in place I’ll focus on getting some power in those rails so I can play trains. After that is done I think I may get a cassette for car storage (fiddle yard) built so I can store a completed train. These two phases should allow me to stage a couple of trains and bring them in and out of the station. I’ll work on the sidings then from the back to the front. The plan hinges on tighter track centres and having the two back sidings will give me something to work against before settling on a final place for the remaining track.

Whither PEIR?
Never. Never ever. Building a layout in TTn3.5 focussing on the PEIR during the late nineteenth century is a something I dream of doing. It’s almost practical now. Prince Street will be fun and something to keep me active in the hobby while I collect models and methods for this opus.

What else?
There will be platforms to think about and I’m keen to start thinking about how to echo Ian Futers’ success with view blocks. CP’s Windsor Station station used to have a really nice canopy plan and I’d like to think about trying to do something similar. Maybe?

This is starting to ramble so I owe it to you to draw this to a close for now. Stay tuned, I’ll post more as I get more done, these posts will be shorter and i’ll try to have some pictures too.

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