the dream of idle days

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”.

Categories: How I think, model railway design, model railway inspiration

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9 replies

  1. Lots to consider Chris. Because space is a premium for all but a few of us, conventional wisdom suggests getting the most “play value” for your buck. The consensus definition of play value is “operations density,” a.k.a. busyness. What if we need to pause and consider that distance run is a part of play value, too? The best layouts tell stories. Railroad stories are most frequently about conquering obstacles of time, geography, and limited resources. A layout with a sense of distance run gives you a sense of achievement for that reason.

    • It seems like that longer run is every modellers dream and every modellers complaint. I arrived at this approach from realising my space is limited and then looking within it to better understand how I related a sense of space and movement through it; asking “what does motion look like?”

      The bigger conversation brings us back to interrogating what “layout design” means and how it is itself a technology that we use to interpret the ambiguous idea that started as inspiration and filled our hearts and imaginations so fully that our hands needed to form materials into a miniature tribute to that. So much of our current design process has not moved with the times and still sits comfortably in a methodology now generations old. That would be fine but the world we exist in has changed so have we. The models we collect, whether we scratchbuild or buy as finished pieces, have evolved too. They’re more complete than they’ve ever been. That sense of “complete” for the models is in the details rendered on them, the accurate soundscapes they’re capable of generating so they “sound realistic”, and the way we’ve evolved how they’re controlled so they don’t just sound right and look attractive but they move in a way we want to watch.

      Sound does not scale. Neither does time. Our model trains now exist as miniatures but they’re not removed from reality so that neither sound nor time scale means to treat them well we could explore design that allows them to breathe and move more comfortably for all parts of their expanded identity. Decades ago we’d joke how one end of our train was in one town while the other end was still occupying the track in the previous town. We could ignore that because an operating session creates a myopia that blocks out that incongruity. But it’s no longer that simple. We can hear how our train is too big for its space. Now that they finally run nicely we also notice how rarely we really see them in motion because the noisy design styles we still favour still distract us from linear motion to processing the series of transactions that constantly command our attention at each turnout. We’re still treating layout design as a different hobby from the one where we collect the models.

      I arrived at this style of layout design from trying to look at the statement I made when I bought the model and how I intended to enjoy it. All those ways I hoped to play with it and all the experiences we hoped to share. This approach works for me because it connects design of the space and the contents of the space in an effort to create harmony within a compromise. It’s true design because it incorporates obstructions and adapts to work around each of those points to make features of them that only further enhance the end product. Plans like these that I keep pushing around my plate feel true to those kinds of original statements but also recognise that my time trackside is fixed to a place. My local railroad is Canadian National. I seldom move beyond a few fixed points so, really, even though CN is a huge railroad I enjoy it in a small space. I keep returning to watch the real railroad perform within this small space so “small space” alone isn’t the fail point so perhaps to model more realistically the next point for interrogation is complexity. We think we’ll be bored if our layout doesn’t do enough and yet I know how complete I feel just watching CN at work here no matter how little they do–why doesn’t that same feeling come home?


      • Excellent question. I work with 1:1 scale trains, yet the experience of watching a train crew do their thing is distinctly different. The muse only occasionally shows up in my work and it certainly doesn’t follow me home very often. At work, I’ve experienced what you describe where your sense of the world shrinks to the task at hand and the environment in which that task unfolds. Switching in a yard a bit like working in a life size exhibition layout. Trains appear at random from beyond the yard as if from staging. All the while, your sense of awareness shrinks to the yard itself. On a train moving over the road, that myopia shrinks to the size of the train, and sometimes even the cab as the world goes by outside. I chafe at the overuse of the word “minimalism” and I prefer the notion of essentialism. There’s something essential about the moments you’re describing. Perhaps it’s the pursuit of the elusive muse that drives us to “maximize our use of space and ultimately thwarts so many of us in the end – self sabotage by FOMO. I have long been enthralled by Ben King’s Timber City & Northwestern. It’s more track than you’re describing, but it is a cameo nonetheless. It possesses a sense of place and it tells a concicse and complete story. It appears to lack little if anything and it was the fruit of a lifetime spent on the hobby. Is our boredom actually an indicator of excess? We don’t lack for opportunity, and maybe we dull our senses with the excess? Strawberries taste sweetest when you’re abstaining from sugar. It’s the person who devours a box of cookies who devalues the individual cookie. 🤔

      • I love the places this conversation is going. Thank you for your investment into it.

        Minimalism, esssentialism, and so on. Stepping back into my career perhaps another term here is scope. We traditionally apply scope as a navigational aid to determine the size of a staging yard or when fitting new trains into our model scene. There’s a kind of scope for experience that’s perhaps what we’re talking about here too. That fear of missing out seems to be when we’re at our most naked state. We see it in questions in seemingly every forum where we worry we haven’t designed in enough. Model railroading is a craft hobby about making things but it’s also an experience hobby about how it feels to do things and that’s no different than attending a concert. We can enjoy music performed by any artist of any style. We buy tickets and look forward to those next shows for a time of being enveloped in how good it feels to experience that favourite artist doing your personal favourite thing. We don’t hesitate to buy those concert tickets because it prevents us from seeing other performances or because of the concerts we’ve seen in the past and we could treat design like that too. In this place, in this layout, we are designing both a path for our trains to follow, a script they’ll act out, and places they’ll perform in, but we’re also planning for an experience we’d like to enjoy.

        Ben King’s layout! You and me both. I loved seeing his articles in Model Railroader and his dedication to this work is beautiful. In his work his dedication to pursuing his interpretation of that vision was so strong and it focussed his work into something that I could just never tire of looking at. Wonderful reference point we share in common.


  2. I love reading posts like this, and I love imagining layouts like this and how I’d enjoy building and running them. Todays super detailed super sounding locomotives and cars actually run well enough to be shoved slowly down modelled poor track (not poorly modelled track), an experience to savour, as it cuts through the static grass…

    This is experiential in a different way to mainline freights or tail chasing layouts. This is perhaps influenced by our appreciation of the aesthetic, developed by first hand experience of tracks up close, overgrown, slow moving. For me that was Bristol harbour as a child and today the Llangollen a railway in the valley. What was it for you? The island railway perhaps?

    This scheme, bar the modelable GP9 and track, reminds me of Lapeer too…

    • Absolutely Lapeer belongs in this conversation as an example of this kind of railway.

      Your questions make this such a personal conversation and I love it. This hobby is a personal thing. We are all connected because this is always a very intimate, very personal, conversation we are participating in. We like model trains. Something inside us all is attracted to that. Our arrival at this place connects us completely.

      Stripping back the design like I have been exploring through miles of ink sketching and redrawing this layout plan, over and again, feels like that “stripping” isn’t about having less but enjoying more of it and reinforcing the connection points so what I am creating feels as pure a tap as the thing that brought me here in the first place. My model train sets have been collections varying in the volume of quantity but always have similar feelings of inadequacy that perhaps are more symptomatic of greater issues in my life I needed to face instead of salve with the distraction of the hobby. Prototypes like the ones we’re talking about feel more personal because they are both real railroads, active in their lives, but doing so despite being imperfect examples of their identity. It’s easy to see the mainline railroad like we might see the popular people and see them as such complete and functional versions of humanity and then retreat into listing our hidden deficiencies compared to their mastery, only to see our situation as less. Just how like learning that I can see myself as beautiful I can learn to see equal examples of pure humanity in these stripped down railroads that might not otherwise be afforded the privilege of being the popular railroads we should be modelling the way we should be modelling them.

      Maybe it’s the longer we’re alive the more we see the stories we tried to tell and the weight of still not knowing how to tell a most important story we still can’t express? What would I tell if I only had one last chance to say it one last time? These layouts are like “why can’t I ever say what I want to be heard saying?”

      I love the idea of continuity between what we connected with and how it’s not defined by a particular formula. No doubt you see some common elements shared in the story of your experience with the Bristol Harbour Railway and today on the Llangollen. Is it possible that what connects you is less tangible but when you’re there you feel it’s presence and that familiarity makes it feel right.

      I was first a model railroader then a railfan. Because I started so very young it was the media that informed my sense of what I should value in railroading so that, more than anything, made the Island railway attractive. In the era of my “growing up” the media ritualized the value of old Alco’s (we had MLW but close enough) and branchlines–the Alco’s in Vermont we should all want weren’t really so different than the MLW’s in PEI that I had. I imagined how this connected me to the community I felt I was a part of. As my life afforded me the privilege to experience railroading in other ways I don’t doubt that the things I felt most desirous were echoes of that same original paradigm. Finally(!) making it to Vermont; Finally(!) making to see the Maine “two footers”; all like checking off life experience lists to feel like I belong.

      Trains are probably all the same. I’d probably watch a gantry crane in motion if it’s running on rails. There’s just something about the way rails guide machines that appeals to my wiring. I like the pattern of predictably and it satisfies me. “First a model railroader” but I do enjoy railfanning as a different hobby today. It’s now that I relaxed away from chasing only things to going to see any things that I appreciate how great modern railroading is and equally, how good, my old appreciation of railroading my my foundational years still is.

      We should talk about this more.


  3. Hi Chris,

    You had me with the opening shot of that Bay Colony Geep in the WOODS. Are there tracks under there? Then the 567 sounds really carried the video. Of course, the variety of cement cars was interesting, too.

    We have a perhaps similar operation here where CANDO switches the former CN Millhaven Spur. Not as neat a unit, but a similar sort of focused operation with a narrow variety of car types. If country music is ‘three chords and the truth,’ then this type of switching is ‘two men and the cars’.

    James’ Lapeer fits in indeed well with this. Great example.

    Thanks for all your thoughtful restraint and not serving us the Olive Garden bottomless Spaghetti Bowl!


    • …which is tricky because I do love pasta. I also used to like pasta, so my opening like is something I have in mind in the current and pasta tense. Sorry.

      Your Millhaven posts are certainly inline with this kind of inspiration and would be a great example. What I like even more about examples like your Millhaven is they’re in Canada so it’s an inspiration we don’t have to leave home for. I wonder how many similar operations there are like this here in Canada. I feel like I’m getting too nuanced in my query because this would be different than a customer having an engine to do things like move cars through a grain elevator’s loading point to an operation that requires a bit of run from where the cars are left to where they’re needed. Another example that I should have referenced in my post and that you and I have talked about before is the Casco operation in Cardinal, Ontario. That Casco (Ingredion?) operation would itself be a superb model railway and is certainly a real life thing I really want to get back to.



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