Grain (commodity)

“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.




More layout reflections

Last night I posted some reflections on my first operating sessions on Prince Street and since that post I had a few other thoughts I figured I’d share. Perhaps these will be of use to someone else fooling around with a similar project.

Foam core as benchwork

I’m not the first to try this material and it’s something I would use again in the future. I had some on hand already but even if I didn’t it’s regularly on sale in stores here in Charlottetown and a typical twenty by thirty inch sheet of 3/16″ thick foam core sells for less that five dollars. Compared to dimensional lumber or plywood this is an appreciable savings. Of course, cheaper is seldom any guarantee of better so why else did I use it?

Easy to work with. One of the big casualties of our move was my workshop in which typical wooden model railway benchwork would have been constructed. I don’t regret the house purchase and will have another workshop someday. In the meantime I am working in the house and most often alongside my creative family at our dining room table. Dining room tables are great for popsicle stick bridges, colouring, painting and cutting with craft knives. They are not the place to set up one’s table saw. Ever. I wanted something that I could work on and the foam core fit this ticket perfectly. I did protect the table surface with a sheet of scrap Masonite. As for tools I used a break-off knife and a long straightedge from my workshop. The material cuts easily and cleanly.

Foam core is light. I only wanted to build a small layout. Even at it’s current size of six by thirty-six inches it’s actually still bigger than I had wanted. Focussing on storing and moving a small layout around one of the big details I thought about was finding something lightweight and again, the foam core delivers.

It’s not a perfect material. Every time I work on the layout I catch myself resting an elbow or arm across it. It’s not fragile but it does not do as well as lumber or plywood in compression so it’s best to avoid any motion that could compress the material. As far as sagging or warping, I don’t think it would be much different in these aspects even compared to wood. It’s important here to remember though that the perspective here is small layouts so wood sizes would be comparable.


My track is handlaid using code 40 rail on a mix of PC board and styrene strip ties. The PC ties are from Fast Tracks and in my opinion are the finest quality ties I’ve ever used. Traditionally modellers use wood for the non-PC ties and usually because we’re obsessessed with choosing the same material as the prototype used. In N scale wood’s grain is just too big and by contrast actual grain, when scaled down, would be invisible. What I needed was dimensional consistency and I found that in Evergreen styrene strip. Once painted I don’t think the track is going to look too different from wood tied track. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see here eh?!

Since my layout was so small I actually drew and printed a full-sized template showing track locations. Of everything I would do again exactly the same way this is one example. My template includes tie locations and this was really helpful. It’s also nice that some basic scenery features are included, albeit in two dimensional format, which helps mask the bare state of the layout currently.

I think my only regret was that I didn’t cut the isolating gaps in the turnout’s PC ties before building the turnouts. I waited until the turnouts were glued in place on the layout to do this and it was a real pain to do properly and in some cases I really messed up some ties that will need repair later on. “Do it right the first time…” and “…learn from this…” I tell myself.

Would I go with the handlaid code 40 rail again? Yes! I enjoy buildig trackwork anyway so I do have a bias. The finished track compared to traditional code 80 N scale track looks much better and really is much more scale-like in appearance. I’ve been asked about flange tolerances and have been trying out different pieces of rolling stock to test this and, so far, nothing has failed. The big savings here is in the lack of spikes so we have the full 0.040″ height of the rail for the flange. I have some old Minitrix steam engines I’ll have to dig out to see if they work on this track. Otherwise, so far, so good.


I don’t mind wiring. It always amazes me how much time dissappears in a fog of solder and copper during this phase on layout construction and this time was no different. I’m sticking with traditional block wiring for now as it what I’ve always done and I just don’t have the money to invest in DCC right now. DCC would still require the same number of feeder wires but I would have avoided all the wiring that is related to controlling each of the four isolated track sections. I can’t believe how much wire is now strung under the layout.

Ah, controlling the isolated sections. This is the first area where I wished I hadn’t done what I did. I had this vision of using some of those pretty little slide switches from Radio Shack to turn tracks on and off. I’ve included a picture of what I built: essentially a bank of four of these that looks a lot like a household electrical panel. The big problem with the design is the switches are just too close to each other and I have to really pay attention to making sure I only move one switch at a time. It wasn’t cheap either and I figure I spent about $15 on this idea in total. While not as pretty, I should have used a trusty old Atlas #205 controller for this function. What I’m really snickering at is knowing that in the attic I have two of these already so instead of spending what I did on an alternative I could have used something better for free.


I have a few tabs here on this website and I think I’ll put something more formal about the layout on a new one. I’ll try and streamline my rambling into something more efficient and I’ll take some decent photos of progress. Sort of a layout article.

Everything aside though, building Prince Street has been so much fun so far and I am looking forward to continuing to work on it. It has been a very long time since I built my last layout and I don’t really remember having as much fun as I am now so perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder. If you’re sitting around without a layout at home you really should have a go at building one. This year I adopted a “if I have time for TV I have time to build model railways” attitude and I’m proud of what I’ve created in this time alone.

Thanks for reading this far. Cheers.

JVL 12 switching CSX grain hoppers at Graham Grain in Terre Haute, IN

In my last post about Prince Street as a grain terminal, this is sort of what I had in mind. It may sound silly to ask but I don’t know: are the cars switched in any particular order based on the type of grain inside?


Prince Street as a grain terminal?

I’ve been working on Prince Street and had always thougth of it as a suburban station. I’m pleased with how well it works with my interests in Canadian commuter trains. If I didn’t elect to finish it in this theme it would also support operations similar to those passenger and mixed train operations from right here at home in Charlottetown in the late-1950’s. I have enough rolling stock to make a decent start at any of these options.

It’s snowing like crazy here in Charlottetown right now and I’ve just come in from some preliminary shovelling to make room for what will accumulate over night tonight. I have a decent mug of tea and thought I’d surf through some favourite blogs to see what is new and interesting. Scrolling down through Lance Mindheim’s blog he had a really great post essentially deconstructing a well designed model railway scene featuring what looks like a large grain terminal. I probably have the industry wrong and I apologize for that. If you have a moment check out his post:

The content on Lance’s blog is superb and always well worth reading. It can be a little frustrating to link to particular articles and the one I am referring to was posted on January 31 and was titled: “The Foundations of Realism”. Notice how that bulk terminal features a classic inglenook track plan. I couldn’t help but notice how well that might work with the layout I’m building. I’m only just daydreaming but I could re-stage Prince Street’s scenic treatment to transform it into a modern day grain terminal. It might be fun to model the present day. I have never built a “modern” layout before and this will be fun to think about.

Grain box cars article

Hi. I was driving back from Summerside today after a great trip to their Farmer’s Market. I was thinking a little about the old CP grain box cars and I figured I try searching around the web for some more background. I found this great article:

The article also solved a mystery I’d been curious about too. I was curious about the cars both CP and CN had with the yellow wheat symbols painted on their sides. Apparently, at some point, the Federal Government created a program to rebuild the railway’s large fleets of the old cars and when each car left the shop this symbol was painted on the side to identify it as being a recipient of work under this program. The article above had some great photos including one of an older stacked lettering CP car with the wheat symbol too.

Neat stuff. Great find.