Why is?

Why is the backdrop attached to the layout?


I feel like it’s one of those assumptions we have just carried without question. At best we have either “no backdrop” or “backdrop”.

  • The forms that three dimensional scenery is composed of will never fade, blend, or “whatever” into the two dimensional form of the backdrop.
  • The way we render a scene within the layout’s plane is not like how we treat equal elements on the backdrop.
  • There’s always a seam where the two meet and eventually reality casts an impossible to ignore shadow on the sky.

The role of the backdrop is to extend the three dimensional model beyond its physical boundaries. Not only softening that hard edge where the plywood ends but also shadowing in a little more aesthetic context to inform the viewer in ways such as the season, the weather, or how we’re only occupying one plateau in a vast mountain range.

When I saw this image on Instagram yesterday I immediately wondered if we could physically separate the layout from the backdrop. A divorce for the better, to offer each partner a chance to be reconnected to their strength and actually make them both individually stronger and, having done that, make their redefined relationship stronger?

Common choices on materials and the way the scene is composed relate the physical form of the bench to the painting. (Translating the image: imagine the bench is the model railway “layout”).

Choices we make on the environment we present the layout in help us communicate to the viewer the story we are attempting to tell. I don’t question the need to use some sort of backdrop just the question of how it relates to the layout and why we needed to screw them together?

I have paintings and photographs in my living room that provide the same very important sense on context and story to the space. Screwing a painting onto the back of the couch won’t make it more effective. Likely, doing this makes the couch less comfortable and the painting unattractive. In my living room we’ve made decisions so the couch and the painting “go together” but creating space between them so we can relate to them as we should and having done so, created an environment in the room that makes it enjoyable to be in and no less about us.


Down. On its knees.


Built in 1958, fmnut filmed TVA number F3060 at work in 1996 and introduces this film with this description:

The last 6-axle FM built in the US was also the last to operate. Purchased new in 1958, this H16-66 “Junior Trainmaster” spent its entire career working for the Tennessee Valley Authority at its Gallatin coal fired power plant. It received a heavy shopping in the early 1990’s which included a completely rebuilt prime mover from Fairbanks-Morse. I was lucky to catch it in operation in April, 1996 as a new natural gas fired power plant was being constructed nearby.


It’s cold. It’s wet. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to work.

We’ve yet to find a way to make it feel that lousy in the layout room but to immerse ourselves in this moment we’d really need to feel like we just don’t want to go outside. There’s no way it’s not going to feel humid and, well, yucky. Every movement for the rest of this shift is going to be like we’re practising an interpretive dance based on a kind of profanity you can’t take back or apologize for. “F! Why does EVERY-SINGLE-THING need to be covered in mud and be slippery today!”


Favourite old pickup truck? Late 1970’s GM half ton. Aware that I had already made a commitment to that declaration it wouldn’t be until the early 1990’s when Ford released their ninth generation F150 and I would declare it to be my favourite new truck. Since then, I still think of those ninth generation F150’s as my favourite “new” trucks even though, in a few more years, they will qualify as classic vehicles. I guess we all get older eventually. I still want one. Two wheel drive. Regular cab. V8. Five speed gearbox. One colour: dark blue. Only custom feature might be a set of 90’s appropriate chrome rims, maybe. No reason for this tangent but I’m writing this post and at this point in the video a member of this generation of truck rolls through the scene and I thought this.


In real time this takes a lot longer than two minutes but the crew and F3060 have made their way from the plant down to the interchange. CSX have dropped a string of coal hoppers and this is where game play begins.


“We’ve been here before”. Those sanders on the engine aren’t any use if we can’t move at all so we’re on the ground helping with a bucket and a handful of sand spread on the rails. If we were believers we’d rely on the knowledge that our movements were always supported by a greater presence but we’ll need a shove not an embrace. On this shear cliff face we need a hand hold or we fall.


In our youth we’d just dump the clutch and tear out of the parking lot. We never thought about it. Speed and power could overcome anything. Bigger problem? More speed, more power. Overcome bigger with more.

Today all we’d have is wheel slip. We’re too far in and we’re older now. We’ve learned the cost of pride. We’re not artists, not in the traditional sense, but we act with a kind of learned grace that only results from dedicated practice. We’re not here right now to or not to start this train. We’re moving this train. Starting this train is my job. It is what I do. It is what I came here to do. We’ll bit into those rails and we’ll just keep digging in.








We’re not going back. No one is going to walk this train and cut into two sections.


Not going to happen.


Ever had a fight with someone you cared about that was your fault? Ever wondered which nuance of your actions it was? Sure, it got bigger, but at first it was something subtle you did or didn’t do. Just a moment of regret that blossomed into a tear. A decision so tiny yet full matured you’d relive it over and again until the healing protected you from it and you could move on. The video keeps rolling and if you’ve let the volume drift upward you will hear F3060 starting to surge. The train is moving. Is it tense in that cab? Did the sand really help? More throttle? Less?


As the video rolls on into the second minute since we started starting this train and the camera pans to the left. We see the two engines CSX needed to get these cars here. The crew are still working F3060 and the train is moving. What’s that line about old age and experience?


The train is underway. We’re only moving those hoppers from the yard, where CSX dropped them, into the plant where we’ll unload them. “Underway” isn’t like road speed on the mainline but it’s clear the work of our job is done. From here onward the day continues as these first minutes have passed.

As I progress with work on the layout I am looking for ways of expressing my attraction to its inspiration. Models are models. The methods we use to create them change but outcomes remain easy to describe. Our motivations? Not so easy.

Why we do what we do is harder to describe.

What we are hoping to achieve is harder still.

How can I express to you, by the medium of modelmaking, a thing that I connect with so powerfully?

(When is easy since it’s every time I touch my work and Who is easier still since it’s by me)

I’m trying to create something mundane. I have this vision of a completed work that removes grand attractions and instead invites a closer relationship. As an operating model it should be so simplistic that it creates a void that invites one to lean in an listen to the sight and sound of the model. As a static installation it should be equally so, so that it provides a place to practice refinement of my skills and in the outcomes of my work opportunities for nuanced distinction.

This is the sort of video I’d share on Facebook. Prince Street on Facebook provides an easy way to “share” the video from my phone which works since it allows me to place a video somewhere that I can easily return to it. I find it difficult to compose a thought on Facebook so I try to include basic notes there so that if I return to it I have a record of what turned me on, then. I’m hoping this post illustrates how I always hoped the two sites would play together. This site, right here, is always home.

I swore in this post and I’m sorry. I can’t not address that. I never swear in type and I try not to in spoken language either. I’m not afraid of these words or their application but respect that for some they are offensive and my respect for our friendship is greater than a word and as an expression of my respect for that friendship I challenge myself to not give in. Sometimes, I still think the word even if it goes unspoken.

“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.




Riley Triggs’ DYNAMO

The first time I watched the above video it caught my attention but it’s taken some time to settle in before I really started to “get” just how very smart an idea it is. It’s unlikely I’m going to say much new or of value from here on out – not that it will dissuade me from writing anyway – so stop reading here and just watch the video. I’m sharing the video as I close out my thoughts on fitting big layouts into small or non-existent spaces as part of my More Than Micro series of posts.

We spend a lot of time discussing the art of “selective compression” in the hobby. We edit buildings deciding how much we can cut out to make them fit and we do the same to shorten lengths of track and even the trains themselves. The challenge is deciding how much fat we can trim before we’ve made the thing unrecognizable. Focussed on a set of standard module plans he describes how to model much more railway than could traditionally be placed in the room. Doing so allows us to stretch past the practical limits of the room’s walls.

That same dynamic nature also allows us to easily adapt the railway to various operating schemes too and the layout can always be the right size for the number of fellow operators we have at any time to help run the thing.

Armed with schedules and a plan of types of operations he’d like to model, Riley prioritizes the movements of the railway as the primary decisions guiding the design of the layout. We rely on that theatre metaphor a lot and I can’t help but wonder if what Riley describes isn’t the closest I’ve come to someone really finding a tangible interpretation.It feels like staging a ballet and I like it. Speaking of research, I find it’s been so much easier to find records of train movements and consists than it is to find a photo of the back wall of a station that burned to the ground twenty years ago. Riley’s approach really plays to the value and strength of this reality and might be a fun perspective to start from.

When we first set out to model a railway, we approach that design with a certain set of goals. As we lay track and run those first trains we are afforded a chance to test our understanding of the real thing in the miniature copy we’ve created. What happens when we learn that, in doing so, our interests mature and we’re left curious to explore something different from the same stretch of railway? Riley describes an opportunity to allow the layout to mature with our interests without having to start completely from scratch and the layout matures directly as our interests do.

Riley has clearly put a lot of thought into his idea. I’m quite grateful he produced the above video so he could share them with us. I think he’s developed something quite smart and I’m intrigued.

Thanks Riley!

You ONLY eat there?

Once upon a time we had neighbours who were passionate ballroom dancers. They were good too. They probably still are. I remember the stories of when they’d move all the living room furniture completely from the room so they could use the full floor to dance. I even remember, once, hearing a story of how they’d sold a pile of the furniture to make moving it out of the way easier – and therefore dancing too. It all seemed so wildly unconventional and was really the first time I had met someone who used their home as they needed to. This isn’t a story about prioritizing the use of space in the house but a vague attempt to say how, in terms of the home, I prefer a space that can be used for more than just one thing.

In my previous post I showed a couple of videos of FREMO modules built by the America-N club in Germany. I described renting a room in which to set up the modules. For that to work, I had to have somewhere to store railway between operating sessions. If I have the storage worked out, all that is really need is somewhere to set them up. That final space is really only something that you need when you’re actually using the layout. Could we just borrow that space from somewhere in the house while we’re between basements – so we can set up our miniature mainline and enjoy railroading on a bigger scale than just switching one town. To that end, I grabbed my trusty tape measure and went for a walk around the house.


Model Railroader magazine would often host a Layout of Month constructed in a spare bedroom. “Spare” either from a child who has just moved out or “spare” by design – we just bought one extra for the trains to grow up in. As often as I’ve read a great article about a nice layout created in this space I feel like I’ve read about how “something came up” and now the railroad was being dismantled and the owner was hoping he’d someday have the chance to build a new layout…if…and if…and if. We have a bedroom sort of like that right now. I’m reluctant to permanently install something there but the above drawing shows how a set of modules could be arranged to use the space around the perimeter of the room. Since the layout proposed is based on modules that can stand free of the walls and be moved or even put completely away between operating or work sessions it’s easier to propose something that blocks things like closet.

LayoutSpace0001Continuing to walk around the house, I arrived in the living room. We can’t offer to move the furniture from our living room but the next land of opportunity and promise I thought I could offer as a venue, in our home, was the dining room. With a bit of clever shifting to push tables and chairs to the walls, we could fill the biggest room in our house with FREMO modules.

Both layouts were proposed to host operating sessions with more than just one operator. Aisles become the great planning factors and it was those basic dimensions I laid out both of the above schemes. In the space not provided to the people, I placed the modules. Each concept might offer something for two to three operators. Unable to reach outside my comfort zone of small-scale railroading I proposed schemes where the operating session is focussed around the interplay between operators as they pass blocks of cars off between each other. I’ve shaded each operator’s territory in a distinct colour and then provided a bit more shading (in blue) to help show the room each operator might call his own without having to trip over the other guy. I was surprised by how much layout I could fit into these spaces. I tend to only think of my layouts as much smaller ones, in the more traditional and at least mostly-permanently installation style.

Have I found myself in this desire to build a large home layout? Not yet. This has been fun and I’m looking forward to where these thoughts could lead. It’s an enjoyable question.


This post is a part of a series of thoughts. Building a larger layout is still the dream of so many but I don’t believe we’re always blessed with the space to realise that dream. I started these posts as a means to work through some options. I never expect to break any innovative ground but just to think about it out loud. Read the other posts in this series by clicking on the “More than micro” category or, to the same effect, the link below:

The Waldbahner option

The above layout belongs in this conversation.

It’s something that could share space with other uses where space is at a premium. At its heart, it challenges the rule of dedicated installation space. Based on an innovative approach to modular design, I like how the overall layout can be modified to suit various operating schemes where the factors go beyond just the length of the operating session to how many car spots or how long a run between stops.

As built it’s narrow gauge and focussed on logging but I can’t help but think that the basic idea could just as easily sustain a theme of heavier mainline operations.

This sort of thing.

Desirée Gallant is one of the most fascinating creative people I know and likely ever will. The first couple of times I typed that sentence it sounded like “most gifted artist” and I still mean that but her gift runs deeper inside. She has a way of coaxing life from the work. To encourage it to stand proudly from the page. It’s a gift that extends beyond her paintings. That gift extends to subjects to which she has turned a camera, not so much to record but the way that those subjects were or to somehow involve them in her story but to help them find a voice that speaks through her lens. Her work touches me and it is with great pleasure that I have a photograph of hers to use here, to open this post. Thank you!

CN Freight Train

Amherst, NS, March 22, 2010

I’m drawn to a very localized style of railroading that easily translates into a smaller footprint and, more importantly, I prefer small model railways. I’m fascinated with the way they showcase their builder’s profound understanding of their inspiration and how hard it is to hide that relationship when it’s not there – I guess it’s the honesty that they convey whether we like it or not. It’s easy for me to advocate for things like this because I’m just making myself feel good inside by providing advice that might be little more than expressing a moment of self-validation. In these very small footprints I can imagine individual stories rich enough to invite me in and to live inside their moments. Of course, were more room available it could easily be incorporated. Not to welcome other stories or model railway sub-plots but for the way that more room could compliment and extend the initial vision. Like a second great kiss, somehow as good as the first.

But I know that’s just me. It’s with that sense of awareness I wrote my initial comment on Mike’s blog post and then reflected on in my own post last night. I didn’t then and don’t now want any of this to sound like criticism or negativity aimed at those who have pursued the basement empire. The direction I’m hoping to take this set of posts in, is to discuss the idea of modelling railroading where the context in which the railroading occurs demands a stage larger than we can sustain, either because we lack the resources to invest or the space to house this grand vision.

The big prototype

Desirée’s photograph is of the lead engine of a massive Canadian National freight train. It depicts a train that is hard to fit into the space of the four square foot micro layout no matter how small the scale. Standing trackside with my family as this train hammered past it’s hard not to be affected by sound, the vibration, the rush of wind; all the various parts of watching mainline railroading. No model train will ever match that feeling but we can create a miniature that provides queues to trigger memories of these moments and our rich imaginations can easily fill in the missing parts. That is, if we have the room for that large a train.


Where in Desirée’s photograph we’re provided with a train that just doesn’t fit, what happens when the train fits perfectly fine with our design criteria but the place where it is found does not? I’ve always felt that the hardest part of modelling Canadian railroading was not just finding models of the trains but communicating the distance that the trains covered in their daily operations. Sure, we can model the train at its destination but if our inspiration is finding the train out on the line we have a challenge: All that nothing takes up a lot of room.

On Prince Edward Island we have a railroad that provides the examples of the required short trains and even the small venues – to suit the smaller space. What I find so fascinating about Island railroading is the way that it prepared for and supported the potato harvest. With limited track and a finite number of cars to move the harvest the successful Island model is realised during the operating session in how we represent the almost perpetual re-staging of cars to respond to the needs of the farmers using the various public sidings. Space here is required not to represent the long trains. Neither, to represent the “nothing” but to count the number of local sidings and move the fleet around without feeling like one is just shuffling cars from one yard track to another. (I’ve picked the home team for this example but I’ll wager the local prairie branchline or coal hauling line in the Appalachians was playing the same game too.)

The big model

Elsewhere I’ve been proposing the hypothesis that model railroading itself has matured to the state where it no longer requires a direct connection to real railroading to survive – that we have so many examples of great model railways that we can draw inspiration from that we never need to learn about real trains at all.

Building on that idea, I believe an attraction to the hobby exists in the promise of camaraderie it offers. I enjoy participating in operating sessions on large model railways and consider myself so lucky to be able to have been offered these opportunities. To feed these, we need the layouts themselves. Ever the gregarious host, what if our desire is to host these bigger parties? Where? How?

Now what?

I’ve wanted to have this conversation for a while now. I think it’s an interesting one and I’ll take advantage of the blog to at least voice my questions and to think out loud, albeit over the keyboard, on the subject. As I bring my second post on this particular subject to a close I think I have a better sense of the question. I do expect to refine the question further as I attempt to reconcile what I’m thinking to what I’m writing. So, with two blog posts now completed on this subject the initial question becomes two:

  1. We don’t lack ideas for how to use the space we have. We don’t lack the interest of those passionate about providing examples of what we could use the space we have for. How do we learn to understand our relationship with our inspiration so that we know how to best represent it in miniature?
  2. We have evolved so far in the hobby in terms of the quality and accessibility of the models yet our exhibition of them remains still largely fixated on the rule of private and permanent installation. Where that paradigm can’t be negotiated we must find a compromise. How?

I’m only considering this as a design challenge and a conversation to that end. I’m not trying to find an answer for my own situation, it’s just something that I’ve been thinking about and a conversation I’d like to be a part of.