West Lebanon – the Hilton and Mears edit

I’m most proud of Prince Street when it becomes a place for collaboration and hosts things in ways I could never do. It’s always better at being human than I am. An absolute highlight was Krista’s post and, of course(!) the My Railfan Five series that Eric, Steve, and I have now tried twice. In line with that, this, that James Hilton and I have been working on over the course of the last week. We both wrote this post and our alternating paragraphs are our discussion on a layout based on a familiar prototype. I’m excited to share this here.

The last remnant of the Claremont and Concord had been, until relatively recently, a unique and idiosyncratic operation interchanging freight with the New England Central at White River Junction, Vermont, crossing the Connecticut River on old Boston and Maine trackage, and serving a pair of customers in the old yard in West Lebanon, New Hampshire.

I’m writing this blog post about the process of design and of collaboration together with my friend Chris Mears, who being based in Nova Scotia, is some way from my home in North Wales. We’ve tried to create an engaging blog post that shares not only the story, but a flavour of the conversation… over to Chris…

I like how trains connect us. We might describe trains by how they deliver us to a destination but, often, it’s a case of who not where that inspires our adventure. I like how that the railway is so effective in this role that even models of railways can form the stuff of connection. If we’re standing on our imaginary station platform in West Lebanon and we turn to face the Connecticut River, we’ll see a magnificent bridge that carries the Claremont & Concord and their carloads of cement, salt, and propane into their Eagle Leaf Transload operation. As James introduces, we’ve been collaborating on a design project focussed on this operation at West Lebanon. One place, that in this case, connects two sketchbooks. Here’s how…

How did I get into this!?! Through our discussion and shared interest in Claremont and Concord operation at Claremont, the conversation turned to what happened after the Pinsley era and the buy out by La Valley in 1989 (the builders merchant in Claremont who didn’t want to loose the rail connection with the mainline) and who later sold the operation on to Christopher Freed in 2002. The last owners of the independent railroad tendered for operation of the yard and interchange at West Lebanon, where the trackage was actually owned by the local government, and served a cement terminal and propane dealer. Freed sold the C&C to New England Central in 2015, owned by Genesee and Wyoming. I had not been aware of this operation, a quick look on Google Earth showed the track in use, and with cars serving the industry, along with a train even on the bridge over the Connecticut River. Chris shared a few photos and I felt the location was worthy of further consideration.

In 2014 I had a chance to visit West Lebanon and step into a place I felt like I already knew so well from studying it in photos and video. On a desperately hot summer afternoon I saw the yellow S2, number 104, sidelined where I expected it to be. Though I dare not trespass, I could park my car and peer down toward the unloading building and see their chop-nose GP waiting between jobs.

These two engines alone could happily summarize a short list of my favourite diesels but it gets better because today the yard is lined with cement hoppers they’ve been unloading and the extra appeal of all that cement-y goodness is enough to satisfy my list of attractive rolling stock.

The stage? A simple track layout that entertains a story I see as completely satisfying. In my signature designs I like to consider my relationship with the layout as an experience. Is it a place I want to visit? How can we strip down the operating session to feel like I’m trackside and not completely absorbed by running the train? Is it a layout I could wander over to, tea in hand, and enjoy shunting cement hoppers around? Sharing space in our home does it look like it belongs? As we dug deeper into designing a layout, based on West Lebanon, our answers started to read like: Yes, yes, and yes. But, as I already confessed, I did bring a bias that may help tip the scales.

Once we cross that magnificent bridge across the Connecticut River and into West Lebanon we land in the simple yard. Just two turnouts that establish two trailing sidings, no runaround required, so you won’t need much help to imagine this simple track plan. However, the almost equilateral triangle shape of the site is something I find challenging. Maybe someday my layout space will encourage such styles of model railway but, for now, I could never deconstruct this simple but sprawling scene into something more linear and comfortable in the long thing shelves that my layouts typically call home.

Chris’s initial idea was a ‘crop’ of the larger scene. When I looked at the prototype a key feature was the river crossing, it was such an important part of the story. I was keen to work the bridge into the layout in some fashion, conscious of the presence and sense of place it would lend to the layout, and my initial doodling of ideas followed my usual tried and tested path of a small ‘cameo’ (theatre style) presentation. As a point, one element I liked was that the switcher actually lived on scene all the time, as the lead actor it would scurry off during operating sessions to collect a train from White River Junction (across the river) and then bring a train over to the yard, switching out empties to be replaced with a new load, before being stabled again, waiting for the next burst of activity.

As model railroaders our evaluation of a layout is often through the lens of “operations”. As “operators” our perspective is from the locomotive’s cab and our evaluation asks where we’re driving to, how hard is it to get there, and will we enjoy the drive? No matter the size of the layout or its complexity our experience is defined by that perspective. Considering the classic shelf layout designs, like the Inglenook, our engines tend to work that kind of layout from one end almost exclusively. Exploring the theatre metaphor: if our engine is the star why can’t it spend most of its time centre stage? Why is it delivering its important lines from the wings? In my latest project, Coy, the engine moves freely from end to end modulating the place of the other actors in the scene by shifting them, incrementally, through each act. Where in Coy the action is in the continuous, almost looping, circulation of our lone engine West Lebanon evolves that idea and suggests a layout design where only the freight cars move in and out of staging. Our engine becomes the skilled party host moving about the room to draw people in or, in this case, tow cars into the scene from one end or shove them back off-scene to the other. Moving from one end of the stage to the other building and releasing a story with the help of its supporting cast and narrating each scene by the smokey beat of its aging Alco heart.

This idea, where operation is prototypical, but less formal than a large typical switching layout can be refreshing. As Chris says, it puts the lead actor, the locomotive you’ve spent all that time, money and effort on, back on centre stage, the power house of the presentation, set within a realistic scene giving a sense of time and place. My first design (below left) used the cropped plan Chris had shared, but added the loop for Rymes (the propane dealer) and putting the bridge at the back of the layout, hiding the exit to staging over a glimpse of the bridge behind dense trees, typical of the area. However, once it developed no matter how I tweaked the position and angle of the bridge I could not get enough of it visible without leaving the ‘hole in the sky’ to staging painfully visible. It occurred to me that one concept that I’ve used with Chris’s guidance is ‘Unfolding’ and I thought this might be of use here…

On Tuesdays in Charlottetown, PEI, we’d wander down to the library to join some friends and fold some paper. It was always neat learning the different techniques of origami and watch a plain sheet of paper become something fascinating. Equally, taking that thing apart to see if it could be reconstructed by simply repeating those same folds in those same places in that same order. In another exploration of the Claremont & Concord I had described an idea I was working on where I “unfolded” the CPM mill from a square site into a series of linked cameos that interacted with each other exactly the same way that you’d move around that mill. Rather than try and force the site into the space, like the classic round peg into a square hole, I wondered if we could use a similar theory of unfolding West Lebanon? Instead of trying to force it into an unnatural form that muzzled the elegance of the site could we deconstruct what happens, where it happens, and how into a series of components changing the conversation from selective compression or contrived subtraction. Shifting into a meditation that considers, truly, what are we trying to represent? What is that story?

So in this instance I felt the scene could be split into two views, the yard, and the bridge – and initially placed these as separate scenes… the idea of overlapping these into one cabinet, to give one layout, one theatre with two stages put an area of useful staging for the cement transloading ‘off set’ behind the bridge, I felt like this was getting somewhere… (below right)

Once I adopted this change in mindset it became easy to separate what are essentially two different sets: the bridge over the Connecticut River and the unloading shed. Freed by the ability to see these as two connected but separate scenes translating their form from triangle to thin line becomes a very different exercise. Then I remembered The Overlap. The Overlap was a concept I created as a way of representing distance. I am very proud of it as a conceptual design and excited by its potential but until I considered West Lebanon and how it might fit into the Overlap’s concept I struggled to find a layout that would really showcase the potential of the idea.

The concept of the overlap at first was difficult for me to get to grips with, and I wasn’t convinced by the disparate nature of the stage. I could see that it was obviously a way of presenting two separate scenes, however I was worried it wasn’t as neat and visually pleasing as a two staged cameo. One thing I wasn’t sold on in this format was the arrangement of the plan as Chris had originally drawn it, it didn’t sing to me as a strong representation of the prototype. I almost wrote it off…

However curiosity got the better of me so I delved deeper into Chris’s original commentary and took some of his drawings and began to doodle and overlay my ideas on how to translate West Lebanon. The two scenes were clear, however I wanted to develop my initial arrangement (top left earlier) and so I’ve merged the two scenes into one, blurring the hard edge of the Overlap… the line to the interchange with the NECR over the Connecticut river still leaves the yard but now ducks behind the backscene before appearing further down the layout as ‘half’ a bridge. The viewing angles this would support, no, encourage of the bridge area would allow some really high quality modelling without needing to include the whole width of the structure and river below… it also ‘lands’ on the Connecticut side of the river, making a connection metaphorically with the mainline railroad connection. This ‘bridge’ alone could act as staging for the yard, manually swapping cars on and off the bridge… or a further ’staging’ area could be included off scene on the right. My scheme now puts the cement unloading shed as front and centre, giving our lead actor a real job to do, unloading a few cars at a time, before swapping for another few loads and repeating until all were emptied… to me the advantage of overlapping the back scene in this way provides a connection, a real connection, between both scenes that also works operationally. Although the overlapped joint in the backscene is less than ideal, I think it is a visual compromise that could be worked with and the actual edges at ground level would be hidden by generous greenery and trees anyway. A sensitive lighting scheme would see the whole of the back section of the layout illuminated too, back washing the backscene consistently so the light level between the two overlapping skies could be carefully managed so as not to distract the eye, and an overall theatre presentation with lighting pelmet would disguise and reduce the view of the overlapping scene.

A key challenge when adapting a plan to fit ‘The Overlap‘ is how to deal with the movement of the train from the forward scene to the back scene. In simple terms this is mechanically accomplished with a simple sector plate that delivers the train from one to the other. The challenge is always going to be how to narrow the focal point where both scenes connect so that it feels as if the train has not changed plains but simply continued its journey. In my sketch (see below) I’m really pushing my luck because I’m actually cutting the bridge in half too so am hoping that this end not only resolves the issue of overlapping track lines but also a bridge that doesn’t go back to the land.

I’m not going to lie. It’s really exciting to see how well The Overlap works to represent West Lebanon and how, in this presentation style, a layout based on West Lebanon could be started. I already have a strong personal connection the real railway and this has empowered that with a kind of agency realised. I can trace my pencil along those lines of track and imagine a trip across the river to exchange hoppers and I can imagine a variety of different angles I can watch that movement across the bridge. Because the mainline to the unloading shed travels behind the backdrop I can imagine lining it with some mild insulation to mute the sound of the engine only slightly. So, I can almost hear the approaching train but not yet see it. Gosh, what a tease! On stage again my attention moves to watch it shove each car into and through the unloading shed. There are at least three distinct experiences packed into this plan and I feel like its design moves the operator into the correct place and discourages standing still.

Unpacking West Lebanon and recasting it into the frame of The Overlap has been an exciting project. It feels good to explore the concept in practical terms and really “see” it as a potential model railway. I think it would be an exciting opportunity to create a model for presentation. I like how its layered presentation style connects both scenes in a simple literal way but frames their context so one isn’t crowding the other. By traversing the scene completely twice we double the length of the layout and our star, 104 or the GP, plays its lead role as it moves about the stage, exposing more of its character as we observe its work.

As we watched both designs mature it was fascinating to see details of each other’s influence in our work but yet still how each is individual and representative of our different styles.

This ‘joint’ approach, an explosion of creativity and bouncing ideas across the North Atlantic has been a great deal of fun, I know I’ve really enjoyed both exploring the prototype, discussing and considering it’s modelability as well as some ‘new to me’ abstract layout design concepts and how to apply them in this scheme. To me, if I was starting with a blank canvas and no existing North American stock, this would be near the top of the list… you don’t need a whole heap of money and time invested to model a complete operation, yet can have a truly unique and enjoyable model, that even better is interesting to look at even when not operating.

We consider this hobby as a way to express an idea in a tactile form we can share with our friends. Design has the potential to be more than a stylish synonym for track planning and it should be more than fuel consumed in the course of building a model railway. As a language considering how humans relate to one another and the world we exist in, it can also be a platform to explore the boundaries of the model railroader’s imagination.

What do you think? We’d love some audience participation! Should Chris and I write more of these sorts of posts? Should we do a podcast? A YouTube channel? Go on tour?!! Whatever the feedback, we’ve both had a heap of fun. Thanks for reading, as ever, more soon…

Read James’ full post over on his blog and while you’re there check out Kinross (his layout based on Prince Edward Island and also his superb British industrial layout Pont-y-dulais: https://paxton-road.blogspot.com/2021/02/west-lebanon-and-conversation.html

Categories: Claremont & Concord, hilton & mears duo, model railway design

Tags: , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. You had me at ‘cement-y goodness’.

    It is usually frustrating to read articles in the model railroad press that discuss all the hardware: control system, wiring, scenery, but none of the software: operation, car routing, service design. Such an omission and it doesn’t seem to change. Until now!

    I’m a modeller who needs to know which car goes where and why – prototype or model.

    I really like James’ illustrations. Combining photos with the drawings and calling them infographics underestimates their impact, but for my short attention span brain, they work, whatever we call them. I also know that Chris takes a back seat, or overlap, to no-one as a layout scene designer. So this collaboration definitely works.

    I think this is an excellent use of long-distance collaborative efforts. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    • James’ artwork is beautiful. I love seeing them and strongly encourage a visit to his blogs to see more of it. His drawing style is so full of life that you can relate to it as if it were already a tactile thing.

      Building on your comments about software (at least I hope I am): I like to complain about binaries in model railroading like HO or N, CN or CP, steam or diesel. Another binary appears in how we approach layout design where one half is to create something so immersive as a game that it is like working for the railroad. I’m looking for that design that makes me feel like I do when I’m trackside. Not just watching trains but imagining what they’re doing and quietly hoping for an invitation to climb into the cab to live out that dream. Because I spend time trackside and want to learn about what the real railroad does I’m often scripting a narrative while watching the real railroad go about it’s business (“Those must be bilevels, yeah, they’re gonna need to dig out that tri before they start unloading.” or “That must be 407’s power today.”). As railfans we depend on those hypothetical constructs as we predicts where the next good photo might come from (“if they do X I’ll want to be standing at Y aiming Z to photograph K”). I am trying, in my designs, to recreate that same feeling of invested observation. I don’t just want to watch a model train moving passively, I want that layer just under the surface where I’m aware of its purpose but not so consumed by serving that activity that I’m removed from the joy of it going about it’s work. We do something like this with music: we but albums to listen to in the car, we learn to play those instruments so we can attempt to recreate that favourite recording, or in the middle we study the work as a way of immersing ourselves just a little deeper into how good it feels to listen to a favourite piece of music played.

      Reckless abandon. Speaking of which I could really use another coffee. Gosh I hope sometime that coffee is in Kingston and we have a chance to pick up the conversation again.


  2. As I sat trackside today, enjoying 6 CN freights in 60 minutes, I thought…this type of ‘article’ is Kalmbach’s MRP used to be like. The current issue is more and more like GMR. MRPReminiscing…


    • That’s one massive compliment. I bought this year’s MRP as I do every year because I’m an easy sale on anything that seems to consider the hobby from the planning or design conversation. I really enjoyed this copy and it’s earned a place on my shelf.

      I wonder if part of the issue with MRP is that the articles are still written from the limited language of the hobby. MR, GMR, and MRP should be the perfect trio but the magazines themselves just don’t talk to each other. It bugs me that GMR and MRP often feature layouts that haven’t appeared in MR. I would like GMR and MRP to be a deeper dive, specialized to their particular audiences, discussing things that MR just can’t get as deep into. That MR is the satisfying plate but GMR and MRP are places to savour things only consumed as tastes before.

      This post was easy to keep on track as a design thing because that’s what James and I were talking about. Neither of us needed to burden the conversation with things like benchwork or how many drops of soap to put in the ballast water because, in our conversation, we were trying to work out how the design should work; why we made the choices we did and our rationale.


  3. As I said over on James’ blog, I loved the back and forth and the evolution of the track plan. Genius.

    • Throughout this, I kept thinking how much I enjoyed the process. I’m a believer that we transfer emotion, good or bad, into what we make (I started believing that when I started making bread because it always knew how I felt). I love that that sense of how enjoyable this process was is now radiating outward from the blog posts we created. I was so worried about what I was putting in and never thinking about what it might be broadcasting out. I really want there to be more conversation about why we make the decisions we do and how our signatures or personalities are left in our work and I hope this post is the first in a series that is a part of that conversation.

      • Transferring emotions into what we make… interesting. I never really thought about that. At first it seems a little too “woo woo” for me but I can see merit in that. Hm.

        I love hearing about the thought process behind things. It’s easy enough to say “I did X then Y and now here’s the result” but why did you do Y and not Z?


  1. Small layout success… (Another Hilton & Mears Duo) – Prince Street

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