Ideas and Inspiration

Wright’s Cove

This started with a post on the Atlantic Rails Facebook group. I wanted to learn more about National Gypsum’s gypsum unloading operation at Wright’s Cove. As a model railroader interested in design I have long believed this subject would be fantastic for a model railroad and I wanted to translate that interest into a conceptual design. As a railfan, I know it’s a subject that I love returning to. A constant procession of similar cars being moved through a load/unload point one car at a time by a dedicated switcher has become my muse for so many layout inspirations and, in this case, it’s exciting to explore one that operates every day, right now, so very close to home.

National Gypsum operates a gypsum mine at Milford, Nova Scotia and their transloading site at Wright’s Cove where the gypsum is stored and eventually loaded onto a waiting ship. While gypsum moves by rail between the mine and the unloader by CN train 511, National Gypsum themselves move hoppers around the mine and unloading sites using their own engines and crew. Most days start with 511 ferrying a dedicated train of empty hoppers from Wright’s Cove to the mine at Milford where they are exchanged for an equal number of loaded cars.

Above is a Google map that is focussed on the National Gypsum unloader operation at Wright’s Cove. You can easily toggle between this plain view and a more detailed satellite image of the same. Treat yourself and look up the same view in Google Earth to really get to know the site!

The map view of this place is pretty detailed and from it I sketched the above drawing. This was the drawing I posted to Facebook and I annotated it so as we discussed it, we could have common points to refer to. I applied those same points to an aerial photo of the same (photo from Google).

  • A is where empty hoppers gather to be picked up by 511
  • D and E are two double-ended sidings where 511 will place loaded cars
  • C is the unloading shed
  • B is a switching lead
  • F is a runaround track used to tie the scene together

Rolling stock

“By June’s end, Johnstown America Corp. plans to deliver 132 automatic-discharge hopper cars to National Gypsum (Canada) Ltd., which operates an open-pit gypsum mine in Nova Scotia.” That’s the opening paragraph in an article published in Progressive Rail announcing the new car fleet National Gypsum had purchased. The fleet is well-kept and they reflect very well on the company. Looking closely at the typical car you can see they are not only distinguished by their car number but many carry employee names – that’s a very classy touch.

Previous to the delivery of these cars, National Gypsum used a fleet of hoppers provided by CN. I recall seeing these and know I’ve photographed them in the 1990’s but can’t find printed copies of my photos (hopefully the negatives survive somewhere here at the house). The CN hoppers were unloaded using a rotary unloader so the change in the car fleet is significant not only in the ownership of the cars but in almost every way.

Unloading Shed (F)

Hoppers pass through an unloading shed that I marked as F in my diagram. Though the car types have changed as well as how they are unloaded the building itself has remained basically the same shape and style. Model railroaders will recognize that Pikestuff-style of architecture – take note of how easy it would be to create a model of this ease of translating the photos into a good model. Cars are unloaded here and the gypsum is moved by underground conveyor from here out to a stockpile, eventually into a waiting ship in the cove itself. This simple building and the process of feeding cars through it is the heart of this design project.

The switching lead (B) including the maintenance shed

The second building to consider is the small maintenance shed. Similar in construction to the unloading shed it’s used for routine maintenance of the car fleet. I really need to get back sometime and add a few more photos of this building to my collection. Again, even with a few photos it would be so easy to calculate the design of a credible model. Another trip to the Pikestuff catalogue?

The siding “B” is used as a switching lead that the crew will use when moving loaded hoppers into the unloading shed. If you’re looking at this track in an aerial view, it’s actually quite long. For the longest time, National Gypsum used a British-built Hunslet shunter on this site and when they were finished, until it was scrapped, the remains of this engine remained in the weeds at the far end of this track.

The engine


SW9 #506 currently presides over the hoppers of Wright’s Cove. It’s remote controlled and currently wears a very fetching black scheme with a sharp looking set of stripes on its nose. Despite how hard working it is, I have never seen it any dirtier than a light layer of grime as evidence of that day’s hard work. (David Othen created a wonderful resource of this entire operation and shared it on his wesbite which you can now see by clicking on this phrase, on Steve Boyko’s site – thanks Steve!) What a wonderful entry into kitbashing custom rolling stock is this engine? Fairly close to an original SW9 like you can buy in every modelling scale, from Z to G, with only some simple yet highly effective modifications like that cab roof – there I go talking myself back into what was supposed to just be a layout abstract, sorry.

Previous to the SW9, National Gypsum has used a variety of different engines. I’m considering things in the current era but it’s hard to resist the 1980’s and a time when the local engine was a little GE 45 tonner. (This link leads to a Steve Hastings photo of this engine – the photo is one of my favourites taken at Wright’s Cove)

How it works

“511 shoves the loads into tracks D and E each track holds 33 cars. National gypsum takes them a few at a time hauls them towards B and then shoves them through the shed to unload them and once unloaded continued to shove the empties in to track A where the next days 511 will pick up all the empties.”

“34 loaded cars are pushed up D, 32 are pushed up on E. The cars are pulled past the dumper building on B and pushed out empty on A to be picked up by 511/513”

“Chris Mears yes, they usually cut the drags in 9 cars and under (depending on how many cars are on the track, usually 9-8-8-9) and as the cars are dumping they go get another drag of cars.”

Thank you to every single railroader who chimed in on my question. I’m still speechless to find the words to express my gratitude for the messages I received from those whose profession brings them into contact with the Wright’s Cove operation. Sharing notes like the above means the world to me. I wasn’t sure how to handle the above but I don’t want to risk getting anyone in trouble by attributing the above information back each source. Thank you, each and every one of you, for taking time out of your day to share this information. There’s no substitute for this quality.

As a model railroad

In the 1970’s model railroaders got really excited about “loads-in, empties-out” operations. They’d divide a scene with a vertical element like a mountain or backdrop and run one line of track through it. On one side, the coal mine, and on the other, the power plant. The idea being that a train could shove a cut of loaded coal cars into the power plant and the operator could pretend they were being unloaded. In real life that same cut of loaded coal cars was now appearing on the other side of the wall at the mine. A train moved across the railroad to arrive at the mine with empty coal cars and exchanged those for the ones the mine has been loading (remember the power plant?) and by playing the mirror image operation, completes the illusion. I’m hoping to leverage the same pattern.


Our operating session starts with the assumption that CN train 511 has shoved a cut of loaded hopper cars into sidings D and E in my drawing. In real life this might be 34 cars on one siding and 32 on the other. The key for this layout is that they move these cars through the unloader in blocks of 9 cars at a time. So, really, D and E only need to be 9 cars long.

Our engine hooks onto those 9 cars (it’s neat that in real life the engine is remote control just like in our model train). It tows the block of cars from D or E, through the track at F and onto track B (the lead track into the unloader). With the turnout thrown, they can position the first car in the unloader (C). When the cars were CN”s gondolas the one car to unload was placed inside and uncoupled, unloaded, then shoved outside by the next car. This simple three-step pattern to unload a single car is a few switching moves on our model railroad too. With the newer cars, it’s still only one car at a time but the cars remain coupled.

The hopper cars dump into a bin that feeds onto a conveyor belt that will carry the rock out to the stockpile or a waiting boat. This bin can only hold about four car’s worth of gypsum so every four cars, or so, the crew gets a break while the conveyor catches up and empties the bin. In our operating session we’ll practice positioning and unloading this single car at a time for the first four, then perhaps trigger a timer on our cell phones or maybe something mounted on the layout that counts down time while the pretend bin is unloaded. Mouthful of tea and a moment right here to be present in the heart of our operating session to savour just how fun it is to operate this layout. Our sound-equipped model of #506 is idling away, it’s sound decoder ticking over nicely and rewarding us for the extra time we spent on tuning those CV’s to be just right – gosh, that just sounds so nice just idling there. I like that. The timer clears the last of the rock from that fourth car and we shove ahead to empty the remaining cars in this cut. As we unload, we’re feeding cars onto track C in our diagram and these cars compile to become what 511 will pick up tomorrow morning.

In a literal interpretation we’d want to include all the tracks and sidings around this site but in this truncated version I’m proposing we consolidate tracks A, D, and E into one single siding. Picture a simple run-around loop where we model everything before the loader (B in the diagram) but by combining A, D, and E we create a neat variation on the loads-in, empties out scenario. Instead of a turnout connecting tracks D and E to the siding A we replace all with a pivoting siding like a sector plate. This sector plate need be only nine cars long. When we’re grabbing the next cut of loaded cars this track is aligned ‘behind’ the unloading shed. Once the last cars leaves the siding we swing the sector plate into position 2, to act as the track that will receive the cars from the unloader as they’re fed through. We pretend we’re unloading sixty cars but in fact it’s just the same block of eight or nine cars being fed through the same rotation as many times as we’d like to during this operating session. It doesn’t need to be a consistent nine cars either, we could just grab the first five or even just three if we wanted, leave the remainder in the track, and pretend they weren’t there.

In between operating sessions the arrangement of the actual site is very model railroad friendly with the whole operation set against the kind of tree backdrop we favour so much in model railroading. The ground is predominantly gypsum in various grades with low grass, mostly weeds, taking route in this industrial landscape. The operation is a year-round one and it might be very tempting to set this scene in winter?

The two buildings we need are plain these simple subjects contribute to the scene as equal design components not beacons for attention. I think they’ll contribute a human built element in a scene that is still, largely, natural. A modern industrial site, it’s not littered with “junk” but not devoid of fun details like the warning sign above that could be easily modelled with a reduced photo to recreate the face of the sign and a rail post in our model, as in real life. Between the mine and this unloading site, the trains operate on CN’s mainline and 511 moves like any mainline freight: fast. The cars are in good condition and in the background you can see rows of replacement wheels as evidence of National Gypsum’s commitment to maintaining these cars properly for the long term.


Model railroaders like to think that the difference of car types or their decoration are the only credible factors that contribute interest in a model railroad but our goal, in design, should be to create something emotionally accessible. Unloading sixty or so gypsum hoppers could be just as satisfying as a favourite record album or re-reading that book. Our model is no less accurately modelled and the operating session is set to a score of a single locomotive as it moves through the paces of its work. I can only see a balance here that suits the peace and calm that an operating session should provide to its humans. Something comforting and waiting to be absorbed without the chaos and stress of another round of Super Busy Hospital: 2. We invest so much of our lives in the creation of these models and we should enjoy studying our finished work. Animated during an operating session like this might provide one more relationship with our work as we are rewarded with an experience that gives us a place to watch our carefully-constructed models in motion.

“Johnstown America’s custom-built, rapid-discharge hoppers coming to Canadian gypsum miner” is the title of the article Progressive Rail published in June 4, 2003. Click here to read the article online.

David Othen’s web page is an authority on the history of this operation:

I memtioned this Steve Hasting’s image earlier, it’s wonderful:

Chris Lyon produced an excellent video on this operation. Check it out on Youtube:

I have referred to CN’s train 511 above. 511 is dedicated to this gypsum service and is the train number assigned to the daytime movements. Gypsum can move by night and when this happens the train is 513 running in the same pattern.



Alco’s in the cornbelt

I am pretty excited to stumble across this blog on Model Railroad Hobbyist (by that Jack Hill):

Jack Hill used to publish on his New Castle Industrial Railroad blog:

The NCIR blog remains one of my favourite sites and it’s been influential, inspiring even my last operational layout.

In reading his blog post on MRH, linked above, I see something exciting that I’ll really be looking forward to. Maybe just because it feels like Tom Johnson’s superlative INRail project and also like the many exciting farmer-owned shortlines that dot the current railroad scene. Surviving RS11’s like the Indian Creek Railroad’s former Southern Pacific one.

Yup, I’m pretty excited about this.

Read about the Indian Creek Railroad here:

I get excited like this about this style of railroading such as in this previous post:

“That sounds boring”

The invisible mill

St Leonard track in1

I’ve driven from “the East” to Montreal so often now. Along that road are two places that seem to have inherited a certain special significance. I’m not sure why and, by now, it’s too deep to question and both are in St. Leonard, New Brunswick. On one of my first of these trips I stopped at the Tim Horton’s in St. Leonard to buy a coffee. Returning to the car I switched on the radio and heard, for my very first time, both NPR and Garrison Keillor’s radio show The Prairie Home Companion. The second place is in the same town: the Irving sawmill just west of town. You can see it easily from the highway. The railway crosses under the road to serve the mill and you can see, peeking out from behind the mill, railcars at the mill. I always hope to catch the sight of a train serving the mill but, so far, no luck. So, in the span of one town, the stored emotional memories of these two unrelated things that I look forward to reuniting with, each time I’m driving through. Last time, though, I didn’t just drive through. I stopped. I left the highway and I went in.

Most of the sawmill, certainly the business end, borders the road that takes you from the Trans Canada Highway but still there’s a sense of how the road bisects it. Most of what’s on the other side of the road is storage for wood chips created by this sawmill that will be loaded into railcars and shipped to other plants, somewhere else, to be made into other things. In the opening photo at the top of this post, I’m standing on this road, the mill is to my back and I’m looking along the rail line toward town. The rich scent of cut lumber is the air, joining occasional snow flakes, saw dust, and the sound of trucks doing important truck work like you do in December.

St Leonard layoutplan1Back in the car, the above layout plan came to me. No turnouts and yet, I think it really works so let’s give this a try and see how it works. (I may as well apologize now for the above drawing is a photograph of the drawing and not a scan so it’s just not that good a quality of image that I’d prefer. I’m paying the price of being too lazy to plug in the scanner and I’m sorry. I hope it’s still legible enough to aid this study.) I’ll explain the drawing relating the following notes to places marked on the drawing and have labelled a number of them by letter. The main scene – the scenic area that is the layout proper – is the space between points F and A in the above drawing. When we adopt the typical theatre analogy in model railroad conversation The Train is the actor and it is here too, even on this layout with no turnouts and just one line of track for The Train to move back and forth across the stage on. For a story to work, we need some obstructions that force the actor to react and to punctuate the experience and these are: the derail (D), the road (B), and the fence (A).

Hole in the sky at F – enter stage left

Operating the layout always starts from the off-stage “staging yard” at G on the drawing. The train breaks through the sky (the backdrop) at F and appears on stage. Now, the play begins.

Derail (D)

The real sawmill is accessed by only one track that crosses the road and immediately fans into a variety of sidings for each part of the sawmill. Before it can enter, the train must stop at the derail (D), a member of the train crew must drop onto the track, and remove it so the train can proceed. In just about every modelling scale larger than HO these days we’ve figured out how to make a working model derail and ours will need to as well because the action of stopping our model train at this point not only replicates the prototype action but also is the first part of our play’s script. With the derail open, our conductor is back on the train and radios back to the engineer: “Shove ahead two cars.” Our model derail works just as the real one does and for our operating session to “work” the model must interact and we actually use it.

Road crossing (B)

The operating rules stipulate that before the train can occupy the crossing: it must come to a full stop before the crossing and wait until the crew are assured the crossing signals are active and the crossing is free of traffic. Once these steps are confirmed, a member of the crew must flag the train into the crossing as protection. It was fun listening to our model train enter the scene from off stage. I always enjoy the sound of a diesel engine “loading up” from stop to shove its train into action and these same joys are repeated again here: stop, wait with only the sound of our paused train at idle, the grab a notch on the throttle and it’s a hard shove forward. The model road crossing is marked by crossing lights and our model ones work. The point of including them is to add the break in the movement of the train while we await their activation so automated sensors are not needed. For this to be a success we just need a simply toggle switch that we flick On or Off to activate the crossing signal – letting go of the throttle to do this interupts the flow of the session in a way we enjoy.

Fence (A)

Of course before we can even consider entering the mill property our crew must actually open the fence that borders it. The mill is busy with movements of trucks and tractors and there are people everywhere. Our train will need to enter in carefully so its movements do not threaten the delicate environs of this place. Returning to our operating rules from the railroad we must check with mill’s representatives before unlocking the gate and entering the site. Our pause at the crossing (B) is made longer by the added step of opening the fence (A). Yup, the fence needs to work too. Just as have actually removed the derail, turned on the lights, we need to add to the game or play by actually swinging open our model fence.

Our operating sessions opening act is that first movement across the stage from F through to opening the fence (A) and entering the sawmill property – represented on the drawing but completely off-stage and is actually the other hidden staging yard at H. In a fast version of our operating session we just traverse this once and switch it all off and just walk away.

St Leonard loading flatcars by the road

The real sawmill has a gate to open but is not actually fenced from the road. On our narrow shelf we can assume either projects past the border of our scene. It doesn’t matter which option we choose. Interesting, at the real sawmill the day I visited, was the loading of bulkhead flatcars with finished lumber on one siding that is happening almost immediately inside the mill, after entering the property by crossing the road.

Deeper into the mill there are sidings for delivering or loading any imaginable variety of things a modern sawmill produces or needs such as the woodchip loading spots that appear in the above photograph.

In the drawing I propose a traverser or sector plate style staging yard in the hidden, off-stage, sawmill at H. There are no turnouts here, none are needed. In an operating session the layout could be operated like a popular Inglenook with the train shunting cars among at least three sidings at H. It would be no less satisfying shunting in this fashion than any of these popular shunting puzzle style operations. If we’re purely operating this layout it won’t matter that half is scenicked and half is not since our attention is divided by the joy of listening to our sound-equipped models moving through the scene, the validating joy of perhaps even using one of those exciting ProtoThrottles, and sorting through the cars we’re adding or subtracting by our switchlist on the sidings at H.

When the layout is stored the two staging areas (“wings”) are not attached and are stored (who cares where right now) so all that is visible is the original and detailed scene spanning between F and A. It’s a subtle, perhaps even mundane in the most satisfying way, diorama we can proudly display in our home. This scene is enveloped and is a defined by the container it lives inside that provides a built-in lighting valance and the flanking vertical walls of the backdrop.

St Leonard track in1

I’m repeating the opening photograph again to provide information on what is provided in our scene. The end and back borders of our scene are the same variety of trees that will someday be the food of the sawmill. Setting the scene in early winter, such as on the overcast day I visited, softens the colour palette so when the scene is viewed from further away it’s visually easier to digest. The dark green of the evergreens is countered with the pile of sawdust and plowed snow that shows on the left side of the above photo. I never considered how sawdust would spill from the just-loaded cars leaving the mill but there was a beautiful line of it bordering the track. In our model we need that as a signature or defining detail. That derail(!) What a chance to add one very beautifully modelled thing in our scene. It’s bright target marking its location. Like a sentry guarding the gate of a mighty castle it controls the start and points in our play – an operating session hasn’t truly started until the derail stops our train, while the derail is opened, and the play isn’t over until the derail is returned to its protective position.

Hamilton Kinnear July 2001 Scan0010

It’s a common question we ask, when considering a new track plan: “Is it enough?” and there is no prescription anyone can offer to treat that symptom. I was always first a model railroader and later a railfan. As I spend more and more time trackside I know how content I feel as I study or observe the railroading unfolding before me. I never question that joy and return, these days almost daily, to the same place on the railroad to watch the same scene unfold and to restore that same sense of calm satisfaction. I know it is enough there and can’t avoid the temptation to consider the same connection at home, in miniature. (The photo above is one I took at my original haunt, a place I could never, never ever, spend enough time at: the west end of CP’s Kinnear Yard. I loved being there and watching that trio of sw1200’s at work and love is not too strong a word here. I was never poor, never hungry, never alone when I was here; it was sanctuary and I could go there and be there and while there, nurture the chance to be here. I never said thanks out loud but I was never any less grateful. Thank you CPR.)

Youtube video from Trevor Marshall showing the working S scale derail on his Port Rowan layout:

James McNab uses both working derails and a hinged fence, both must be cleared, on his HO scale Grimes Line layout. Check out this Youtube video of his to see both in action:

This link should open a Google map of the location of this sawmill in case you’d like to visit sometime:

Matthieu Lachance really sparked my imagination when he proposed this no turnout layout design concept and I like crediting my exploration of the concept back to his work. Check it out on his blog here:

In 13th and North, Mike Cougill has created an important and powerful exploration of this concept. The blog on his OST Publications page contains a number of posts on this project, its evolution and direction, but I’m recommending you jump in here because he’s included an annotated visual in this particular blog post that will remain one of my all-time favourite presentations:

I’m fascinated with this concept and believe it has a lot to offer as a design concept. I think this is my first post on the subject:

“That sounds boring”


The Indian Creek Railroad is just under five miles long. It is operated by its parent, the Kokomo Grain Company. It owns one locomotive: a former Southern Pacific RS11 that the ICR bought in 1982. Described as an “agricultural products company” Kokomo uses their railroad to move stings of railcars in and out of their facility in Frankfort, Indiana.

The Wikipedia article I am paraphrasing above is about as brief. There’s just not much story to tell about a railroad like this or their lone locomotive that feeds an endless loop of cars through a single customer. Drag ’em out. Shove ’em back. The track is damned near a perfect straight line punctuated by only a few turnouts. The locomotive is flat black. Wearing various shades of this season’s lease fleet grey, the parade of covered hoppers duals with plains landscape that begs a sense of “we’ve gotta get out of this town”. Yet somehow I feel something in this scene that attracts me. I have expressed this attraction before but failed to find the right words to express or communicate this here and I’ve been trying to find the words I missed before.

What distinguishes the locomotive at the grain elevator is that once the locomotive is hooked onto the train, that’s it. Doubtless, this is also why the hobby of model conveyor belts just hasn’t gained the mass market popularity that model railroading has. For The Operator, model railroading is more than just model trains. The factors of their layout include miniaturizing and replicating the relationship the railroad has with its customer. The Operator gains an initial high from completing a puzzle and a second high when their actions please the customer. You feel good and you have proof of the good job you did in that stack of waybills in your hands.

Scott Thornton posted the above video in 2015. I’m not sure how often I’ve watched it but the count is probably enough to qualify as “regularly watch it”. My first question was: how could we design model railroads that showcase model sound?

  • Starting the train from a dead stop…then straight to eight;
  • Shut down the throttle and coast to the next cut of cars;
  • The train is heavy and our locomotive is “down on its knees”;

Any of the above three scenarios could be replicated with a simple length of straight track on a tabletop. During a typical model railroad operating session it’s very difficult to find the time to really enjoy what it feels like to just watch our models move through a scene or listen to that wonderful sound system. We’re too busy ordering car cards or negotiating the next few feet of trackage rights. We’re too busy. Something has to be ignored and it’s probably our actors so that we can focus our attention on the work. Like on the Indian Creek, I’m not planning much in terms of track design. Despite its proposed ten foot length it’ll have about two turnouts and only one of which I really need in a typical operating session. That operating session is not made more enjoyable by the complexity of the moves but from joy of watching it unfold. I’m hoping to compose an operating session the way we might compose a song based on a pleasing arrangement of notes in a sort of “model trains as a miniature orchestra” sort of way of thinking. The first of the design objectives for track planning is based on this theory of composition that places the trains on the stage like musicians. In process steps it’s advancing the next hopper into place but what this does is invite us to indulge one more time in how nice that sounds. To do this: Track design that facilitates pleasing aural experiences.

  • Track or siding lengths long enough to coast down;
  • Track or siding lengths long enough to place enough cars to provide a load to start;

Just as that first design objective prioritizes the track planning to create an environment where the right combinations of locomotive sounds can be played I want a space where I can enjoy watching the models move. The above video is from fmnut’s channel on Youtube and features a vintage Alco switcher leased to Continental Grain by Relco. With my head buried in a switchlist there’s little time to look up and watch the train move through the scene and how nice it feels to watch that movement. It’s a strange thing to be operating a model railroad for four hours and be unable to recall what the models looked like.

We have added supplementary steps to represent real life activities like setting brakes on the cars and made meaningful advancements to easily add more trains on one piece of track than we’ve ever had before. At the core of our current methodology is the belief that there is a divine relationship between the number of turnouts, car moves, and joy. The length of the operating session, in time, is still determined by the number of car moves but excluded from this calculation are the extra steps of setting those brakes, ringing the bell, or blowing the horn. To provide a unit of time to blow the horn, we could exchange that for perhaps a car move. The net amount of actions remains constant yet now they are distributed between changes in the train’s consist and how the train is operated. Without this balancing I find the operating session takes on a sense of urgency that’s easy to feel and hard to describe.

At places like the Indian Creek Railroad the operating plan is so completely stripped down that it doesn’t demand attention to distract me from the stress of my day. Instead it promises something that works in a more meditative way. Before the operating session begins I have invested in time considering the movements I want to act out in this one locomotive narrative and once the operating session begins my attention is focussed on the stage; the actors as they move through their story. It’s a musical of sorts scored by the orchestra of a vintage locomotive and acted by a cast of railroad equipment moving through their dance – perhaps more ballet than theatre?

In citing the Wikipedia entry for the Indian Creek Railroad I suggested their story was simple. Mundane? Yes. I like that.

The promise of a single locomotive pleases my minimalist sensibilities. So often we read a comment reacting to the price or some other attribute of the new model as being troublesome because that modeller “needs” a hundred of that thing. I’ve been through that and these days I really mean it when I remark that I’d be happy with one really nice operating model locomotive. For me it’s an opportunity to invest time in learning how to appreciate the model. For example: I have only limited experience in tuning a DCC decoder and less in model sound and considering this one model locomotive, what a wonderful platform for that education.

If I were literally modelling the Indian Creek there’s a story that runs richer than the Wikipedia entry suggests. ICR’s lone RS11 started out at work for Southern Pacific. Kokomo took over operations on the Indian Creek in 1980 and this engine landed in 1982. The above video was taken in the l998. A locomotive is a machine and even in these sixteen years can you imagine what it has been like relying on it alone to move those hoppers. That’s a story of a relationship maturing over time. Each time I see the model I would remember that story.

I am planning a colour palette for the whole layout that spans from the fascia, across the scene, and affecting each component of the layout. Indian Creek’s RS11 wears a humble coat of flat black. I hope most of the hoppers on the layout wear neutral tones but wouldn’t mind the occasional pop of Illinois Central orange or Grand Trunk blue but out of respect for the host, even those brilliant colours muted by the passage of time. Since 1980 little has changed on the Indian Creek but it doesn’t take much to wonder how the hoppers themselves have changed. Certainly, the rules of how we operate trains have changed to. Other modellers have adopted means of changing the era of their layout and I think there’s potential here to consider this in my project too. Moving the layout from one harvest to another we might do so to explore the effects of a bad crop, the challenge of finding enough cars, etc. These are the stories we’d consider and the evidence of these we’ll see in the hoppers the big railroad delivers to us before the operating session begins.

When I consider my fascination with the idea of constructing a model railroad designed around the big grain elevator I see only potential and an enriched operating experience.

The simplified built environment provides a place to invest in the quality of the models I’ll build. Those models can be iterative. “Iterative” is a buzzword I feel I’ll be using a lot on this layout. I’m excited about not completing the model and moving on but having something I can return to and rebuild. “Now that I finished. How would I do it differently if I did it a second, third, fourth time?”

I have an opportunity in this layout to really invest in my education as a model railroader in new (to me) fields like control and sound. By prioritizing these in even the track design I am investing in a platform where I can really explore the potential of layout design for sound equipped models.

Feeding a string of grain hoppers, one at a time, across an elevator is repetitive but not that much different from any other switching. It’s still a loop of stop the train, position the car, start the train again. The car types are more homogeneous and there’s fewer turnouts to through but I’ll argue as much work.

It’s not that I don’t want operating this layout to feel like work but I want it to feel less like competitive problem solving and more like creating an experience that is therapeutic, bordering on meditative. A pleasure to operate by the quality of the operating experience and not a sense of achievement from yet more paperwork fulfilled.

I’m still not sure I’ve communicated my thoughts here but this was sure enjoyable to write. As I often end: thank you for making it this far with me. I appreciate it.





I’m so excited to write about the new layout. This is not that post. I’m not writing as much as I want to and these posts are not in order and I’m sorry. Bear with me. We’ll get there. If you’re on Facebook, I post regular updates on the Prince Street Facebook page with the intention that they will seed longer format posts to better document my work. In this post my plan is to focus on a design concept I’m exploring in this layout.

  • It is built on top of a bookcase.
  • The layout is modular but what does “modular” mean to me?

A bookcase is a box. Like the traditional “shelf layout benchwork” the bookcase is between eight and twelve, maybe even fourteen, feet long and a foot deep. It’s about four feet high (well, maybe, a little taller). The bookcase is the foundation on which the layout lives. I’ll confine this layout to the bookcase so that no part extends beyond it and our design is then a conversation to explore how we use the space inside the box. (i.e. on top of the box, the layout rests on top of the bookcase)view 1

That cold grey slab is the top of the bookcase. Even in its simplest interpretation the layout, shown here in green, is a broad arc. Freed from the demands of structural elements it adopts a concave form that invites the viewer to enter into the scene. What if we cut into this form?

view 2 first cut out

We’re already used to the idea of a modular model railroad where modules are added end to end to form a line of modules. What if we added modules in front of or behind to supplement the scene?

Shown in red is just such a module. I don’t need it at all to enjoy operating model trains. Its profile matches the layouts surface as would the scene itself. It simply extends the scene forward and provides a foreground that the trains will operate behind. Perhaps if I was taking photos of the layout this might provide additional foreground to help frame that scene and it certainly provides supplementary contextual data to help communicate my vision of this scene to the viewer.

view 3 second cut out

At this point the term “layout” starts to refer to both the core and the supplementary elements. This “core” should still be considered the area shaded in green. It is where the track is placed and through which the main electrical elements are run. To operate the layout, I need only the core.

We’ve been adding modules in front of or behind the layout to expand the scene where additional real estate supplements the story we are telling in our composition. What if we cut more precisely into the core to place structures?

This variation on the scenery-only module brings another opportunity. When the layout is initially under construction the focus will be on the overall composition. I might not know final details of structures. A module such as this, limited to one model building, could be first constructed to be little more than a massing model, a silouhette of the building to come. As the layout matures and interests shift the original module is removed and replaced with something finished to a higher presentation style.

view 6 structure callout

The modules share a common recipe for landscape textures and colours; the fascia is always a consistent colour. The smaller module with the building has a contrasting colour for its fascia. This is used to accent a prominent structure or key element in the scene the same way a spotlight draws attention to the main actor on a stage.

view 7 structure callout with tag

Our eyes are attracted to this moment of contrasting fascia and I wonder if we could actually apply a label to the fascia as an aid to the operator. If this is the salt unloading shed why not tell the operating where it is so they can spend their attention on positioning the next hopper’s bay doors to drop that next load of road salt.

The bookcase addresses basic structural form. Freed from structure the layout now is stripped down to only a basic element just to hold the track. As scenery is needed it is added when it contributes to the story for that time. It’s a form of minimalism and this is where I’m headed. Thank you, as always, for actually reading this far.

A side. B side.

cassette 20180611

Last winter I built a set of three turnouts. It was mostly an exercise in “just do something” fueled by some lengths of rail and a few mugs of tea. I built them with the above layout’s track plan in mind. Well, that plan and thinking I could create a home for an Austerity tank engine that I sort of bought in a moment of National Coal Board in the 1970’s, steam-inspired weakness.

There’s no novelty in this plan. Why I wanted to share it was for the vision of how it’s played with (Sorry, “operated”). Play is based on two operators. One at A and one at B. There’s only one engine. The number of cars is irrelevant.

  1. When play starts, the engine is “on set” already.
  2. A and B flip a coin to see who starts. The result of this coin toss determines who drives the engine first and who calls the first play to execute.
  3. A takes the engine to move those cars.
  4. Once A is finished with his shenanigans he hands the throttle to B. A’s turn is done and the roles switch.

Cars can remain between plays on A2, AB, or B2. I mentioned being able to ferry stock around by using the cassettes at each point. The cassettes can be used to move the engine from one track to another. This would be useful if you had to pick up cars at A1 and deliver them to B1. You’d need to runaround from one end of the train to the other so you could place the cars on A2, then move the engine from A2 to AB to complete the runaround move. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t cheat and move the engine from one end of the layout to the other but then, what would be the fun in that anyway?

Where we might typically add operators to a model railway to expand the diversity of roles I liked the idea, here, of instead exchanging their roles in determining what happens next. Equally, seated opposite each other and sharing equally in the play it sort of feels like sharing a meal together. Hosted on tabletop maybe completes the metaphor in my imagination.

As for inspiration, I can’t add words that would communicate the vision better than this wonderful video from Gandy Dancer Productions.


Back to the matchbox


It started with an idea based on a simple box of matches. (Before I get much further in, bear with me while I wander. It’s okay. I’m old. I do these kinds of tangents all the time.)


I’d had this idea: “Traditionally, a model railway remains fixed in place. If we need that extra length of track, we achieve it by adding to the layout by attaching staging to a free end like a pier jutting from the land out into the sea. In this case, I propose moving the layout out of the way to make room for the extra track we need. This is made easy by mounting the layout on a set of drawer slides built onto the top of the integral storage unit. It slides open and closed like a matchbox and in doing so, both reveals the trains stored inside and also evolves the plan from static diorama to operating model railway.”

Before I’d even talked about the matchbox, I proposed a tightly framed shadowbox of a layout. Even though it was never more than a series of sketches I still enjoy looking at this series of curated views of the scene to watch an imaginary first generation GP placing a few grain boxcars at the elevators.

One idea that did move beyond a series of sketches was the above. It became a massive foamcore mockup. Did I mention my curiousity to explore a tightly-framed view?


One by one, a series of ideas that invite me to look around my living room and wonder what I could store in something like an IKEA Billy bookcase. Of course, the problem with “in a bookcase” is, well are, those gable ends.


Something like the simple view above would fit ever so nicely in the volume created inside a bookcase’s shelf. In the above drawing, as in traditional layout construction, the layout is constructed as one complete unit and the layout is fixed into this volume, early on in construction.


What if the layout, instead, was built on a set of drawer slides?

The frame stays nested inside the bookcase. When the layout is simply on display, between uses, it fits nicely in the envelope of the bookcase. The biggest challenge with the layout is always when it comes time to interact with it and gaining reasonable access from the top. So, as I asked, if it could be slid out you’d have full access to the top so you could uncouple cars, fix some scenics, or attend to a wayward detail.


Freed from the confines of the bookcase, this is where I recall the matchbox-inspired idea that I opened this post with. The layout emerges from its frame like a drawer. Once opened, a wing that was previously tucked inside the main body of the layout is open as another drawer to extend the length of the layout. Over top of the drawer, you could rest of a storage cassette to extend the running track on the layout.

When you are done, the storage cassette is tucked into the drawer “wings” along with the leftover railway cars. Those wings are slide back inside the layout. Then, wings safely stored inside, the railway itself slides back into its frame. It’s a bit coy in its presentation and that playfulness? I think amusing its creator is something a model railway must do.

As a concept, it feels like a great way to use up a collection of drawer slides and indulge in some puzzle box construction. As much as any of that this serves the opposing needs of the static diorama and the operating model railway; most of all my personal need to create a tailored envelope not only for the scene but to contain all the “stuff” that follows a model railway around so I’m not left with a shelf filled with clumsy looking rolling stock and a rummage sale of loose parts.

Most of all it feels like an idea that belongs here.

I’ve referenced some previous posts throughout the above. Here’s some links back and in the same order as I’ve presented them above:

The Matchbox first appeared in this post:

It reappeared in this post, which I think did a superior job of illustrating the idea:

The prairie scene was revealed in an untitled post here:

That massive foam core mockup? Check it out:

Manheim Industrial Railroad

Just some random photo links I’m forwarding to myself for the someday file and a tea break well spent.

Each link follows the same format:
Photo caption as a direct quote


Bob Kise CR 7567 North Heading up the old Cornwall RR connection

Seth Eberly East penn rail way had to bring in the Middletown & New Jersey # 2 because Tropical storm Lee washed out the trackbed.

Seth Eberly M&NJ #2 idels away after just shifting some tank cars around at farrel gas.

Paul Koprowski After many years of working in upstate New York as the only active locomotive on the line, Middletown & New Jersey 2 now lives a quieter life of shifting tank cars at the East Penn’s Manheim operation.

Paul Koprowski The only markings left that tell of this unit’s history with the Middletown & New Jersey Railway in upstate New York.

Paul Koprowski The East Penn Railroad’s Manheim operation has received some new power in the form of ex-SP B30-7 7874. Built by GE in 1979, it was moved here from the ESPN Lancaster Northern line to work with MNJ 44-ton 2 on former Reading rails. Seen from the Manheim Community Park which borders the tracks.

Kevin Painter ESPN 7874

Kevin Painter MNJ2

Ken Sherta This switcher is used by an oil company to move cars on a spur that was the Lebanon branch of the former Columbia & Reading.

Matchbox (part 2?)

I wanted to revisit my earlier post that introduced a model railway design that I had named “The Matchbox”. The vision for that design remains clear in my head but as I re-read that post I wonder if I could have done a better job of explaining the basic idea?

Hopefully, the following illustrations and text will be helpful.


Above is the basic idea. Borrowing a dimension inherited from a wall in our apartment, it’s footprint is six feet in length and nine inches deep. I’ve shaded in the major construction components to provide some initial bearings. For the sake of this exercise, let’s not get too bogged down in details like the size of individual elements and focus instead on how the design works.

“layout” (red)

As the name implies this is our diorama representing the complete scene; track, trains, and all. The complete area is scenicked and finished to a presentation standard.

“staging drawer” (brown)

Equal in area to the complete footprint of the layout, the staging drawer is deep enough to store rolling stock inside and is open along the top.

“fascia” (grey)

Wrapping around the exposed faces of the layout, the fascia covers the complete front expanse of the layout. When the layout is in the closed position, this completely hides the horizontal seam between the two layers and the secret buried deep inside.


“backdrop” (blue)

Equal in length to the layout and reaching to about twenty-four inches above the finished scene.

“valance” (black)

The valance frames the top of the layout and also contains the lighting rig.

“cassette style switching lead” (white)

Instead of storing the cars loose, they are pre-loaded onto cassette-style staging units. Complete cassettes are stored inside the staging area within this matchbox’s envelope.

The staging drawers, valance, and the backdrop remain fixed (e.g. “to the wall”). They do not move. So, in terms of how the layout changes during an operating session:

  1. The layout is opened up by sliding it out into the hallway
  2. A cassette (containing a train) is selected and lifted out of the staging drawer
  3. The cassette is attached to the end of the layout and left in place until the end of the operating session
  4. Once in place, the cassette bridges over the staging area
  5. At the end of the operating session, the cassette is returned to the staging drawing
  6. The layout is slid back into the original closed position

It’s really that simple.

Traditionally, a model railway remains fixed in place. If we need that extra length of track, we achieve it by adding to the layout by attaching staging to a free end like a pier jutting from the land out into the sea. In this case, I propose moving the layout out of the way to make room for the extra track we need. This is made easy by mounting the layout on a set of drawer slides built onto the top of the integral storage unit. It slides open and closed like a matchbox and in doing so, both reveals the trains stored inside and also evolves the plan from static diorama to operating model railway.

matchbox2-3 end drawer

As I noted, I based this idea around a plan that was six feet in length. At most, I would expect to only need to open it up to add about two feet of additional length (i.e. where that staging cassette is attached). That leaves a space at the other end of the board where a second drawer could be incorporated. It could be used to store more trains but I suspect it would be better utilized as a placed to store those tools I use most often.

matchbox2-4 front drawer

Instead of the drawer opening from the end, it could just as easily open from the front of the layout. If I were storing tools inside, this might actually be the better idea since it could open directly over my work table.

I find the idea of sliding the model railway around novel and amusing. What I find attractive about the plan isn’t so much borne of this amusement as it is the way that the design provides places to store extra models, tools, and materials. Typically these find places on shelving near the layout but they often look cluttered. In this design, they are tucked cleanly, invisibly inside. Between uses, all that is shown to the casual viewer is the model set.

Rick de Candido has written two really neat blog posts in which he presents some terrific suggestions on how staging cassettes could be built. He presents an idea that not only makes it easy to move an entire train but to do so in a way where the cars are protected while in flight. Even my modest cassettes are in the range of twenty-four inches in length and I feel that is approaching about as long a cassette I could safely maneuver without accidentally dumping everything on the floor. Check out Rick’s blog posts by clicking on this link:

I’ve had a lot of fun playing around with these sketches. I hope this article has been useful in helping to further explain the idea.

“I am not a layout designer…”

The posts all start with a variation of the phrase “I am not a layout designer”. Each time Rick de Candido presents an idea that is unique, yet undoubtedly draws from the experiences he’s gained from building the Fillmore Avenue Terminal and what he’s learned about his own relationship with the hobby. You can see the family resemblance in broad, aesthetic terms but it’s clear that none of these ideas is a simple rehash of a common theme like: shelf layout done three ways.

The conceptual plans all seem to be grouped into a blog category titled Tech  – Layout Concepts and if this all goes to plan the link below not only invites you to his blog but loads this particular series of posts:

Elsewhere on the site are a series of articles, each devoted to describing one type of train operation on the layout. I enjoy re-reading these articles and often think that they could stand as individual layout design studies. A favourite among these is the one in which Rick writes about managing express cars received from trains that have just arrived or are being prepared for the next train out:

Through detailed text and annotated with terrific photos, articles like the above describe how a layout could be created based on only this extract. Each time I’ve read Express Car Ops, I’ve caught myself thinking just how fun that job would be to hold at Fillmore and, equally, just how fun this alone would be if this was all the layout I had at home.

This style of writing is something I wish we were treated to more often in the hobby. The railroad, both real and in model form, is a community of activities. As with any community there will be stories that we are attracted to and that draw our attention in. In doing so, we’re invited to get to know the greater story on a more personal level since we’re provided a chance to relate our story to the one we’re discovering.

Maybe not a layout designer like the ones we typically get in the pages of the latest track plans book but I’m grateful for that. We could use more people that aren’t.

Thanks Rick. You’ve created something really good both in the model railway and also the website dedicated to telling its story to the rest of us. I appreciate the work and have always enjoyed checking in.

A close runner-up in Fillmore extracts that I think would make a superb layout would be an extract based on the activities Rick describes in Service Train – Coal:

This train serves to deliver coal to the coaling station and boiler house in the scene. That detailed coaling tower would make a superb signature scene instantly identifying the story of the layout and each operating session would be devoted to the acts of a single shunting engine, moving coal hoppers around.