Random Thoughts

I can’t find this book

2018_04_17 18-10-28

The seed for every model railroad is its plan. The plan can be a scope defining the theme or a procedure that will guide its construction but without “the plan” there is nothing. We make synonymous terms like layout design and track planning. How we execute the creation of the plan is as different as each of us. Why we do it connects us like a language. Nourished by the media of layout construction the layout plan flourishes into a fully formed layout. The best layouts, we agree, were born in good planning.

One of my all time favourite art gallery shows presented Hamilton’s collection of Art Deco structures by exhibiting the original architectural drawings created for the construction of each. These drawings were all drawn by hand. When we draw this way we leave evidence of our humanity in each line each time that line projects past an intersection with another line and in the smudges on the page from stray graphite caught under our hands as we move about that drawing. Those marks connect us through time to those designers and looking at these drawings you see them as each building’s designers did and you share a moment with them. The title block on each page assigns a designer, by identity, to each design but those marks on the page breathe life into these things showing how their hands passed across each page and the beauty I see is from that evidence of life where this paper was touched and how those lines were guided.

A few years ago we attended a presentation on Canadian typography. This presentation was an education on the history of Canadian type designers offered by one of its members. It left us with a beautifully crafted book created of their work. I love the way the book was designed to make a bold presentation of each style and then provide each designer with a place say something about the time, the type, or themselves. Each designer was given full control of how each typeface would be presented and what story they wished to share so as you leaf through the book it’s like moving through a room of people at a really good party: the constant is the book’s form but the change is the personality left on each page. When typography is presented this way it is releases the beauty of type from the practicality of its purpose: to tell a story or convey an idea when voice or action isn’t possible.

I would like to have a book like this for model railway layout design that takes away the physicality of the layout and spends time with the designer and their influence on our hobby. Where before we might consider a plan purely in analytically terms like certain curve radii, turnout sizes, or passing siding lengths, this work considers the plan simply as what it is in the terms of its presentation and asks: Do I like the presentation of the idea?

In a way, model railroading is like the world of fashion. Just as a fashion designer almost trademarks their mastery of the colour red, a thin line of yellow thread against black leather, or a particularly attractive hemline, we can develop a history of our hobby in terms of those popular designers and their influence on what and how we create in this hobby. Even if we don’t own a direct example we see evidence of that designer’s influence in other work. The stark, efficient style of a Mindheim track plan that will be used to stage a celebration of Miami’s amazingly rich and vibrant railroading scene is so easy to distinguish from the classical pen and ink style Wild Swan apply to the presentation of an Iain Rice design. So strong are their individual design aesthetics that it no longer matters what they are creating we can still pick out their design by the way that designer stages each scene, arranging components within it, and even how they draw the parts like a turnout joining two tracks in the plan. Their influence is not just in how it inspires a new generation of model railroads created but their style becomes our design primer as the place where you and I learned track planning and layout design, their published plans are the toolkit we draw from.

In my library, scattered among the books I keep, are examples of designer’s work I admire. I think it would be so completely enjoyable to collect it all together in one beautifully bound copy. Something I could savor over a nice glass of wine. These designs spread across pages as the muse of contemplation for the joy of studying another artist’s work. This book is a collection of favourite designers and it is a catalogue of their style presented in their voice. It doesn’t exist, or at least I can’t find it, and I would like to purchase a copy. Since I can’t reconcile my desire to have this book with its non-existence, perhaps it’s time to declare my interest in it. I have a suite of layout designers whose work I am a great fan of. I can see a two-page wide spread showing just one plan. Style of presentation is the designer’s decision as is how they use this full spread and then turning the page provides two more pages for the designer: page one is a smaller presentation of the same plan and its companion page shares the designer’s notes:

Paper? Pencil or ink? Computer? Why?

Design is a negotiation between things that you can change and things you can’t. You chose this plan and I suspect that within it there’s a place that you’re particular proud of the way you proposed a resolution to one of these situations. Can you tell us about it? Not how well it crams something into the space but did you create something in this plan that made you feel like you grew as a designer when this happened?

I opened with an example I chose from the designs I’ve previously posted on this blog simply because I felt that in a blog post about design I should actually show an example. Where, at the time, I probably presented this in terms of how it fit into a space in our home or how I envisioned it as a means of expressing a vision of railroading that was vivid in my imagination I am now sharing it as an example of a drawing that I know I simply like looking at.

I have been sketching layout designs for most of my life. Not all become fully-formed formal design projects and fewer still were ever realized in lumber, foam, and flex track. In the last few years I have been cataloguing more and more of these designs so I can return to them to identify themes even within my own work that are almost constants: A certain arrangement of compound curves and complimentary lines that most of my designs emerge from; I also realize I draw right-handed plans where I intend to turn to the right to see the rest of the scene and I find I don’t draw as many where I’d turn to the left. Do you?


I have an extensive portfolio of design that was created on a computer and for formal work never question this tool in this application but it’s a bulky and clumsy device during the conceptual phases of design where my energy needs to be expressed quickly to vent the idea efficiently without waste and my pencil moving over paper is an unbeaten athlete in this race.

Maybe it’s the start of something. This is the book on layout design; for the layout designers who start on paper and screen. Maybe next time a companion book for those who find it easier to express their vision in live media. More efficient to vent their creative process immediately in lumber, foam, and flex track, than to start on paper first.

For certain: I can’t find this book but I’d collect it if I could and nowhere in this book are my plans.

The broken view / the overlap

I’d been playing around with some simple lines on a piece of paper. Representing lines of track, I imagined what it would be like to run trains in this place. As I pushed my pretend trains around I realised how much I lacked a sense of their movement. At first I thought I might simply build two independent layouts and alternate their use: Perhaps one day I use the scene that represents the place where the big railroad provides cars and on another day exchange that scene with the other one, the one that hosts the act in which we deliver the cars to the customer.

Then I wondered: could they live in the same place? Maybe overlap?

end view

In plan, it looks like this:

plan view

I build a lot of model railroads that exist in basic rectangular volumes. I find enticing the idea of breaking that front line to introduce a curve.

end view2

With some time this morning I made some coffee and formed these views to help explain the idea. While the above view is not the one I considered first, I now imagine standing here and like the way that way the foreground takes interacts with the distant view.

(To help explain things I propose the following set of sketches. I’ve reduced the entire installation to a monochromatic view and will colour the subject in red to focus the conversation.)

Scene A: The reason

1 load unload

Occupying perhaps two-thirds of the scene’s face this scene is highly detailed and focused on why the railroad exists. Maybe it’s where we deliver the coal to, load the potatoes from, or the terminal of our interurban empire.

4 switching load unload

Standing here to operate a train in this scene we find that it wraps around us to focus our attention on the railroad’s purpose. I’m amused with the idea that in our peripheral vision we can still relate to our origin but it’s “far away” and it’s not immediately obvious how we got to here from there. In this scene we see the train interacting with its purpose.

Scene 2: The interchange

2 interchange.png

Lesser detailed, this scene’s priority is to act as the origin for movement into the layout. Note how it wraps around behind the major scene allowing access to re-rail a derailed car and how it invites you peek in behind the curtain to interact with the model. Both sides of the backdrop are decorated with a sky and even a horizon’s scenery.

2b interchange backdrop.png

I can’t always see the engine but don’t need to since at this place we’re watching the train being exchanged – one set of cars for another. Our attention shifts from the arrival of a locomotive to the work of its train.

5 switching interchange

When we’re operating a train here, we stand centered in this space and  while we could look to the side to see where we’re going the act of doing so is not unlike looking further down the road. With no scenery or track connecting the two areas we can’t simply go there by moving a little bit. Clearly, we need to travel further.

Scene 3: The broken plain

3 broken plane

Using a cassette, sector plate, or like means of off-stage track that is only added when we need to move a train from the background scene to the foreground this is the wall we break through – that “hole in the sky”.

Variation 1: Drawing into the scene

6 possible removable staging

Scene 2, by its area, inherits a lesser visual priority. Further the view of the train is limited since much of it is behind the backdrop of Scene 1. If it’s the place where our train exchanges its cars for another set could we add a removable length of track to provide those cars into the scene?

Nothing new here as the idea of removable staging is so apparent in the hobby. It has a place here too. As with many of my recent designs I use staging here to provide only cars in contrast to the section at the opposite end of the layout that is required to move the train from one scene to the other. I suppose if I really wanted to get carried away this length could take advantage of my Matchbox idea and it could slide into the main body of the railway between use.


The camera


I’m constantly impressed by the camera on my iPhone. Even, as I’ve just learned, when it tries to help and does something spontaneously right and wrong, taking the picture it wants instead of the one I thought I was taking.

In the above photo, I’m looking straight into the setting sun while these two GP’s make up tonight’s 509 – the Dartmouth to Autoport train.

In the instant that I pressed the button to take this photo the camera instantly changed the light levels. The sky is washed out. In doing so, look at all that cool detail in the engine’s paint. The way the paint is fading, door by door.

My photo would have been overexposed. My photo is… The camera took a different photo. Together we’ve created something neat.

And in doing so, reminded me of what it was like to be shooting on film, in a time before digital cameras, and still only learning how to take a photo.



You just have to be there

I know, my affection for photographing and sharing pictures taken near Alderney Landing here in Dartmouth is obvious.

I am so drawn to the complimentary lines in views like the above. I find places that offer patterns like these attractive and even calming. I don’t know why, I just do. Perhaps it’s that I see a strong architectural relevance here in the way that all the man-made elements repeat a parallel line that converges almost as if to a common focal point. Further that while everything man put here agrees to this pattern, the natural elements do not. There’s a contradiction that to me feels fundamental and standing here feels powerful. And good.

And the train passes through here so often that it’s easy to practice photographing in this location to test it.

Scrolling through the many photos I’ve taken at or near this particular location I noticed something that distinguishes time trackside from the hobby of model railroading: When I’m trackside I don’t get to choose between things like the best way to interpret the scene as a miniature. I just have to be present and enjoy it. That’s a quality I find attractive in the minimalist approaches to model railways.

I wonder what the minimum number of decisions a modeller could make and still complete a layout is or what they are?

I wonder how that completed work would compare to our current, decision-heavy, approach in terms of the experience for the creator.

Is there really a link between the work and the satisfaction?


That was fun

Just before Christmas a friend telephoned to ask if I might be able to help fix a broken turnout. The piece of track was a brand new Shinohara double-crossover.

Above is the “before” photo showing the issue: simply that the solder joint that bonds that missing point to its throwbar had failed and the point fell out. The point itself was still in great shape so the repair was certainly easy enough.

Just one tiny solder joint later and this second photo shows the completed repair. Like any job, I feel like I spent most of the time practising the setup for the work and the actual soldering took about three seconds time. Since I opted to “repair in place” I was rather proud of not melting any of the plastic parts. Just a bit of minor surface work softening directly under the work which I cleaned up and the scribed the molded grain lines.

I’m really honoured to have been asked to help out. Immediately this helps a fellow modeller but while packing up my tools I couldn’t ignore how satisfying the work was. Helping out is just something I want to do but doing so actually reminded me that I do still enjoy the hobby. That last bit has a value beyond words. I’ve been doubting my future with the hobby quite seriously lately so it was nice to have such a well-timed reminder that there might still be something here for me.

Thank you


And one more

Sure. Yeah. Take selfie down at the Dartmouth yard and use that as the Christmas photo for Prince Street.

I mean, it sounded like a good idea at the time.

Merry Christmas


Good morning

Thank you for reading this far, listening when I needed to vent, and encouraging when I needed that sense of community. Thank you for being my long distance pen pals and making this place feel like a part of home.

Take care