Ideas and Inspiration

“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.

 

Chris

 

Cake

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

003_Welthölzer_anagoria

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.)

matchbox2-2

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?

billy-bookcase__0252328_PE391160_S4

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.

Matchbox2-1

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.

Matchbox2-2

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.

Matchbox2-3

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: https://princestreet.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/the-matchbox/

It reappeared in this post, which I think did a superior job of illustrating the idea: https://princestreet.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/matchbox-part-2/

The prairie scene was revealed in an untitled post here: https://princestreet.wordpress.com/2017/02/27/8539/

That massive foam core mockup? Check it out: https://princestreet.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/1-2-3-4-the-mockup-edition/

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:
Photographer
Photo caption as a direct quote
Link

Chris


Bob Kise CR 7567 North Heading up the old Cornwall RR connection
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=3439215

Seth Eberly East penn rail way had to bring in the Middletown & New Jersey # 2 because Tropical storm Lee washed out the trackbed.
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=3037565

Seth Eberly M&NJ #2 idels away after just shifting some tank cars around at farrel gas.
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=3038849

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.
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=3273456

Paul Koprowski The only markings left that tell of this unit’s history with the Middletown & New Jersey Railway in upstate New York.
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=3273458

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.
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=4824473

Kevin Painter ESPN 7874
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=4825190

Kevin Painter MNJ2
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=4825191

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.
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=3638332

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.

matchbox2-1

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.

matchbox2-2

“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: https://fillmoreavenueroundhouse.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/staging-cassette-mk2/

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:

https://fillmoreavenueroundhouse.wordpress.com/category/tech-layout-concepts/

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:

https://fillmoreavenueroundhouse.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/express-car-ops/

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:

https://fillmoreavenueroundhouse.wordpress.com/2016/01/17/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.