I tend to favour extremely minimalist layout plans. My current Victoria is a shelf layout with a single siding and even my most ambitious layout designs extend the run but seldom the complexity. I suppose I could call them railfanning layouts but that hesitation in my voice, when I think of how that term is often used, describes a layout that is switched on and left to run like a dishwasher, clothes washer, or like appliance–makes lots of noise and does good things well but not really something you’re making plans to sit back, watch, and lose yourself into engagement with.
Over coffee the other day, and again just now, I watched the above film on Youtube of a chase of Bay Colony’s 1701 shoving cement hoppers along their recently reactivated Millis Branch. GP9 shoving cement hoppers through rails we believe are still down there in the grass? Yup. Me? Interested. I can just watch video like that and need nothing more from the experience. I’d even wager that even though I feel so very attracted to the scene, recreating it as a model wouldn’t expand the value of this feeling–probably wouldn’t diminish it either but…
When we were still in Charlottetown I had sketched a layout plan for a wall in our living room. As layout plans go it was pretty basic but I got carried away anyway and drew it all out in Templot. Fourteen feet long and about six inches deep. This long thin shelf was intended to hang on the wall, probably on some sort of French cleat, so it would float unobtrusively within the room to not add more noise into an already saturated common space in our home. I have a similar space, actually, fortunately, several similar spaces, here in Halifax so keep wandering back into the idea. As track plans go this long thin thing, that I branded as The Shove, was simply a runaround loop at one end (about a third the length of the layout overall) and then a long line of track wandering alone to the other end of the layout. That operating scheme was basically what you’ll see in the above video on the Bay Colony: mainline railroad drops cars, we tow them into our runaround loop, then we shove them the length of the line (what’s left of our railroad) to where they’re unloaded. I pictured all this happening very slowly so railfanning melts into becoming lost time while watching this unfold at a pace so lazy you can get up and move around to appreciate that lone GP at work from several vantage points along the line.
As a sketch it looks like the above. When we discuss layouts like this, single siding or even one turnout layout variations, I think we tend to think of them as small things so understandably equate them with yard-long sections of test track. In this plan’s form I see drawing that line out endlessly and spinning this thread of fine silk into a textile that attracts experience. That place where we love to see…move.
Scene 1: Interchange
Reading the sketch from the top down we’re following the journey of cars dropped off by the mainline railroad. We don’t really have an interchange yard just the place where our track connects to theirs and they just shove into our track like any other customer on a single siding, anywhere else on their railroad, on any other day. Blue highlighter on their tracks
Scene 2: The Loop
The only two turnouts on our railroad bookend this loop track. It’s about a train length up from the interchange point which is good since it gives us enough room on both ends to run around our train or work cars on it from either end. Most of the time we can just shove the whole lot of cars as one block, just like the railroad dropped them for us, but sometimes we can’t place them all at once or it’ll make things easier on the customer if we order them here so the cars furthest in are furthest away and can be attended last. Most of the time we’re just shoving blocks of cement or salt hoppers into place but sometimes they get a different load in the same block and they want to deal with it later. Sometimes too, they’re ready to release some cars but not all on the same day so we can use this loop to balance what’s heading out against what’s coming in. It’s hardly rocket science in terms of complexity but sure makes me think we should maybe get a weed trimmer out to clear more crap out from around the rails because walking around down there, while we’re doing this dance, would be better if it was less like playing hide and seek in the tall grass. “Where did I leave that derail?”
Scene 3: Shade Tree, well, it ain’t The Engine Shed
We only cross two roads on the trip and Route 313 crosses here. We cleared some ground around here, by the railroad crossing, fenced it off, and it’s where our engine rests between work trips. While my chronology of a typical operating session started down at the interchange this is really where we’d start our work day since this is where the engine is. The area is fenced and gated at both ends so while we waiting for the idle to even out on the engine we unlock and move the big gates back since this is also the mainline and we’ll be running through here with our train shortly.
One of my all-time favourite posts on Eric Gagnon’s blog is Springtime in Millhaven. Absolutely I return to this post to reread it and daydream about model railways based on this operation since visiting it isn’t as easy as I’d like. Eric includes a photograph of an engine terminal like what I’m describing for this layout plan and includes a wonderful photograph. Yellow highlighter in my photo is the location of this engine terminal. Space by the road for a fuel truck to pull in and a place for my truck too.
Scene 4: The Customer Where We Go
The move from the interchange, to the loop, through the engine terminal and across Route 313, to here is a shove. Sometimes when I think of this layout I imagine we have some sort of shoving platform (old caboose, maybe a dead 44 tonner like East Penn uses at Manheim, whatever) so the tail end/head end crew have somewhere more comfortable to ride and a deck-mounted airhorn to play with as a reward for hanging on while we race earthworms on the trip east. That shoving platform is trapped when we get to the end of the line because we have no way of shunting it out of position but that’s fine. We wouldn’t need it again anyway until the next shove so it can live up here between trips. Brown highlighter shows the car spots on the other side of the other road crossing. Cars are received right on the former mainline here. The track deadends in a pile of crushed rock ballast. We still own beyond here but most of the year running in even just this far feels overtly ambitious. Enough space is cleared on both sides of the cars to work them (transload) but sometimes it’s easier if they’re sorted to group like loads together–that shunting I mentioned earlier.
Building, practicing building, sketchy model track is something I’m interested in. I like the way it creates a canvas for a story like this one. In watching the video linked at the top of this post and similar ones filmed on the Millis Branch I see an almost complete example of how I’ve been picturing this railroad. Stripped down standard gauge American branchline railroading like this isn’t unique to this Bay Colony operation. I had Claremont-Concord’s shove from Claremont Junction to the LaValley yard at Mulberry Street in mind when I first started sketching The Shove almost a decade ago. Though Ferrelgas is actually on a real siding, East Penn’s Manheim operation isn’t that different from this either. It isn’t even unique to here and I daydream equally of similar schemes based on the modern day Looe or St.Ives branches where I exchange GP9’s for DMU’s. The current layout plans based on Thakeham Tiles and like narrow gauge tramways are like this too.
Stripping down the noise of layout design to focus on a rhythm feels right and almost musical to me. Traditional layout design seems like a notebook of formulas to translate the sum of more into the space of less. I respect that craft and believe that learning to express how that is done is the kind of media our hobby just doesn’t have. We don’t need more catalogues of track plans but more books that discuss track planning and layout design not by formula but in terms for those who wish to read about it and contemplate what it is like to do that work. Stripping down the noise of the layouts I am designing for myself feels like a deliberate plan to breathe through my motions. That same plan to breathe would be crucial in yoga or running, in dance or playing a musical instrument, and is of no less value when thinking about how we’ll do other things we enjoy doing. In this space of breathe I see equal amounts of true “operation” but also languid moments of observation as the play alternates between “do what you’re watching” and “watch me do”.