My Railfan Five II: More railfan-y. More five-y.

Five years ago Eric, Steve, and I were discussing train pictures and I remember remarking how they could be passed across a table and without me saying a word, they’d be my introduction. From that conversation a photo series blossomed and it spread to friends who were kind enough to share five more photos on their blogs. This project is among the things I am absolutely the most proud of and so grateful for. Five years have passed since those posts and today, it’s February 5th. Yup, 2/5 or 5/2. Close enough. Let’s try this again to see what’s happened since the last time. Start the music. Roll the tape. It’s the My Railfan Five, the second edition. Same basic idea: five train photos from my camera; the only new rule being that they have to be from the last five years.

Five years ago, I started my post with:

“When Eric and I first started emailing back and forth about this challenge I remember thinking about just how hard it was going to be to narrow down to just five photos. Luckily, I’m a lousy photographer. Armed with that self-awareness, I don’t tend to take many photos so at least I’m not choosing from as many as I could be. So, given that excuse, here are my five”

Five years ago I didn’t have a cell phone and wasn’t living ten minutes from a favourite section of railroading. Picking only five has not been easy. In no order, let’s begin.

“You have plans tonight?”


That night in December 2018 when I received a text from a friend that teased simply: “You have plans tonight?” Over on CP their holiday train was moving across the country but something a little more personal was brewing in Moncton as 408’s crew began stringing Christmas lights along 408’s leader for the run to Darmouth that night. This was not official CN stuff so… Around 11PM I grabbed a coffee and piled into the car and headed to Truro. I hoped to get into town before 408 but they were already there, their switching completed, and they were waiting to head onto the main and for the last leg of their trip east. I watched them picking up speed as they passed Truro station. Back into the car and I paced the train out of town. I was able to get ahead of them by Brookfield but the most amazing moment of the night happened at Stewiacke where the track is right at the road’s edge and we paced each other, at speed. The wake of snow dusting up behind the engines lit by the Christmas lights was spectacular and impossible to describe. I met up with my friends in Burnside where we watched 408 working the small yard there and took turns grabbing photos. Was it around 2 or 3AM that we finally got into downtown Dartmouth to watch the end of their shift. This evening was a real gift of Christmas. Thank you

Coffee run


It was a beautiful morning walking along Halifax harbour into work. As I neared Alderney Landing I could see headlights approaching and then watched as 408’s light (engines only) power roll up and stop outside the Tim’s. A crew member dropped down out of cab and into Tim’s for coffee. “Was I really seeing this?” “Yup” Tray of coffee in hand and they’re back up into the cab and heading back into the yard to tie down the power. I thought of those stories you’d read and about the first time my father-in-law let me borrow his truck for an errand and how cool it felt to do something like this.

Just in time


February 2018 and I timed my coffee break to drop down trackside to photograph 511’s return to Dartmouth yard and photograph IC 2455. I’d been receiving some wonderful teasing about my “coffee break” posts from good friends and, when I posted this photo online I commented: “Back from coffee just in time to watch 511’s power arrive.”

Down in the comments on that post is this, that I still think is one of the funniest things and it still makes me smile and laugh: “Back from delivering 54 loads to Wright’s Cove just in time to watch Chris Mears arrive in Dartmouth.”

Thanks Michael. 100% solid gold material and I still laugh at that.

November road trip


Taylor, Steve, and I are on a road trip to see trains “on the mainland”. We tried catching (was it 408 or 407) near Oxford and doubled back into Moncton. We’re at Gordon Yard here. 5476 was the first SD60 I had ever seen and it’s working here as the Moncton yard engine. This was one of those amazing spontaneous trips that never seem to happen often enough (that’s my fault) but I will always look back on this day fondly. You guys are really great friends and I’m grateful for your friendship constantly. I think about this wonderful trip now when I’m back in Moncton, chasing trains, every time.

What’ll ya have. What’ll ya have


I didn’t set out to only pick photos from November or December but somehow that’s just how this worked out. It’s been so hard to settle on only five photos for this series but this one was one I knew, from the start, I would include here. We’re in Atlanta. We’re here for work but had a day to explore and we have done that. We have walked across the city and back and, filled with amazing food and great experiences, we’ll soon be boarding a MARTA train back to our hotel downtown. Atlanta wasn’t a place I ever imagined visiting but I’m ever so glad we did and I’d really like to go back, someday. In a way, that’s life, discovering now favourite moments inside experiences that you never thought you’d get to live. I was here because of Krista. I am still here because of her. I always say it because it’s true: “It’s all her”

I’m going to push my luck since it needs to happen. Picking five has been extremely difficult and I can’t close this post without adding in these. I’m going to add two photos and hope I’ll be forgiven by trying excuse this behaviour with a silly reason “Hey, we chose February because it’s month number two so adding two more photos keeps that alliteration alive”

Often my friend Darren and I exchange texts along the lines of “Have you seen 505 this morning?” A couple weeks ago he texted me to let me know 505 was on its way into Dartmouth and he was chasing it. We’d had quite a bit of snow the day before so it would be nice to catch the train in the snow. I took a quick break and headed down to the yard to meet up with him. Thinking I’d only be outside for a little I just left my sweater on but didn’t wear my coat. We waited and waited and no train. Damn, it was cold. Away from my desk anyway, I stopped for coffee and on the way back caught the train passing under the pedestrian overpass. Later that day, another text from Darren that 505’s afternoon trip was passing Woodside and I scurried over to King Street to catch them crossing the canal. It always seems this hobby is about the trains but that’s not true. It’s about the people, the trains are just part of the context.

Prince Street is now in its eleventh year. Doing this My Railfan Five seems like a really appropriate way to mark this anniversary and the time spent in the middle.

Thank you



Referring to Eric’s blog post introducing the challenge (click here):

Check out Steve’s post from the original series. I’m so glad we’re doing this again:

My original five are here: My Railfan Five

I have a series of links over on the right to some of the other blogs that we shared this experience with last time. Some friends of mine have been kind enough to play along again this go ’round. They shoot some amazing photos and they’re truly fantastic people and I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with. So, Eric and Steve, it’s your turn.


“Slow”ly occurring to me

Tom Waits, in an interview, once said something about a cheap:fast:good formula. In his beautiful drawl, he suggested that you could maybe get any two of those three variables; probably two, never three.

I’m building some turnouts for a friend. It felt so good to be asked and I’m flattered to be invited to help him with his layout. I know I can build these quickly but I’m not going to. Last night, I spent a couple of hours just on this component. Deliberate work and no time wasted but, equally, no experience wasted – I know, from experience, I can build a complete turnout in that same period of time but even if I had to redo one eventually they’ll be done and installed and I won’t get this time back. I can’t take any part of this for granted because, this time, only gets spent once. No matter what, I’ll deliver good track to my friend. Not just “good” for how well they work but how much I enjoyed making them.

This hobby, this life, is intended to be good.

Wright’s Cove

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling stock

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

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

Unloading Shed (F)

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

The switching lead (B) including the maintenance shed

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

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

The engine


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

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

How it works

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

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

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

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

As a model railroad

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



GP9 season. Any day. Any weather.

I make no secret of my enthusiasm for CN’s GP9rm fleet or how exciting it is to discover that train 408 has delivered another one to Dartmouth to work the local 500 series jobs out of Dartmouth yard, perhaps eastward to Autoport in Eastern Passage, or west to the Burnside Industrial Park. No matter the weather, it’s GP9 season and it feels good. For the last few weeks the most recent GP9 has been 4112 but, unfortunately, 4112 began presenting generator problems last Wednesday and it was added to Thursday’s 407 and sent west. A friend advised it might be time to say a prayer for 4112. Never left with only a single unit to use in Dartmouth, 4112’s former mate 9590 was joined by 4700 – itself not a stranger to the Dartmouth yard.

Equal to my interest in GP9’s is an interest in CN’s Dartmouth Subdivision. Since I tend to spend most of my time trackside along a very short section of railway I find that my experience alternates between deciding which times I’ll photograph the train and which times it’ll be okay to just enjoy being there and feeling the other emotional connections. Years from now I’ll enjoy having the photographs and they’ll be annotated with the memory of what an idling GP9 sounds like or maybe even smells like.

On Thursday, I watched 407’s power as it started building its train. I thought about this post, what I thought I wanted to say, and the images I’d selected for it. Sure I felt a certain kind of loss watching 4112 trailing 407’s working engines on its way out of town but I also felt a certain sense of learned familiarity with the place and what happens here. I have similarly powerful connections to other places and times along other railways but they lack this depth of experience with this particular place and I’m grateful for this.

It’s interesting that the three images are all of GP9’s and they are pretty much all feature the same style of composition. In this way the subject matter and composition become less important and in study, the surrounding details make themselves available for consideration. It’s interesting to look at the scenes with snow and observe how powerfully even a thin blanket of snow calms the visual noise of the railroad yard and reduce it to a few basic forms – for example.

When I first started visiting the Dartmouth yard in the 1990’s I was struck by just how powerfully it spoke to me as the subject for a model railroad. It still is just as good a candidate. Where before creating a model of this would be a way of reinforcing a connection now I spend more time with the same location. Both feel equally effective and it’s interesting to reflect on how well they serve the need to create an archive either as a model or as a series of photographs and memories.

This post is the third in an accidental series I think I’ll attempt to write. I’ll join these by this new category so if you click on the link that follows or the tag:

What I’ve found: 3 locations, 2 years, 1 phone.

Alco’s in the cornbelt

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

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

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

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

Yup, I’m pretty excited about this.

Read about the Indian Creek Railroad here:

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

“That sounds boring”

The invisible mill

St Leonard track in1

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

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

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

Hole in the sky at F – enter stage left

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

Derail (D)

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

Road crossing (B)

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

Fence (A)

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

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

St Leonard loading flatcars by the road

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

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

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

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

St Leonard track in1

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

Hamilton Kinnear July 2001 Scan0010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can you not be proud?

A little wall of foam bricks awaited me this morning. Each one is about 6x6x12mm and they’re beautiful. “Beautiful” not just for what they are but what they represent. My friend, JP, made these on a hot wire foam cutter. He started working on models last year as part of an interest in tabletop gaming. His enthusiasm and curiosity are powerful and wonderfully infectious and make me want to spend more time exploring found media to work in and try new techniques in finishing. We praise the hobbies, often citing the people as the greatest part. It’s true. Making things with our hands satisfies a basic human need to express ourselves. Having made things we’re rewarded with something we can share. I’m a confirmed believer in the idea that we impart energy into our work and by sharing the thing, we share that pride. It’s a beautiful wall of bricks and I’m a kind of proud that’s hard to describe that it got shared with me. Thank you JP!