Saturday, September 7, 2019


Morgan Turney & Jason Shron visit the M & M Sub.

One of the things I enjoyed best about the M & M Sub. was having visitors over.

While watching trains make their way around the layout, we had many enjoyable conversations.

One thing that was especially gratifying was welcoming friends who didn’t have layouts. Having a chance to run trains with them was always fun.

Some of them brought locomotives to see them run. This provided the M & M Sub. with some interesting visiting power. (See photos in this post.)

One frequent visitor was Morgan Turney, editor and publisher of Canadian Railway Modeller.

He was also the last visitor before the layout became a pile of lumber on the floor.

Which was only appropriate; he was the first person to visit my previous layout, the CP Rail Grimm Valley Sub., back in the early 1990s.

He also made one of the first visits before the M & M Sub. was built.

And now the layout is gone. But the friends I made through it have remained—along with the photos and memories of their visits.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Resto Gare: A Train Lover's Restaurant in Winnipeg

Where better to enjoy a great meal than in a passenger car?

Of course, the best place to do that is on The Canadian, traveling across Canada. But if you can't do it on a real train, you can still do it in a stationary passenger car in Winnipeg at the Resto Gare in St. Boniface.

That's what I recently did with my wife (for our anniversary).

The Resto Gare is located in the former St. Boniface railway station, built in 1913-14 for the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR).

In addition to the renovated station, the restaurant features fine dining in former CNoR passenger car #9647.

Built by Canadian Car & Foundry in 1914, it was acquired by the CNR in 1921. It became sleeping car #1458 “Trenton” in 1953.

It finished its service as CNR mechanical instruction car #15022.

I don’t know how or when it got to Resto Gare, but I do know I always ask to be seated in it when we visit the restaurant.

While sitting there, I find myself wondering who else sat in the car over its many decades of service.

Who were those people? Where were they going? What were their lives like?

In the early years they may have been immigrants, newly arrived in Canada and filled with hope and trepidation as they headed west to new lives in a new land. 

Later, they may have been vacationers, going east and west across the country and enjoying the fine accommodations the railway provided.

And now they are people looking for a fine meal, with some train ambience on the side.

So if you like trains, and find yourself in Winnipeg in need of a fine meal, Resto Gare is a great choice.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Great Canadian Model Railroad: Christopher Balestri’s Etobicoke Central Railway

Christopher Balestri has always been interested in the 1970s and 80s, so it’s no wonder the Etobicoke Central Railways is set in that timeframe.

“I’ve always had such a fascination with that timeframe ever since I was a kid,” says Christopher. “Studying slides and photographs [from that era] is a fascination of mine.”

Christopher traces his interest in trains back to his dad. 

It was enhanced by the large amount of railway activity in west end Toronto, where he was born and raised—places like Lambton Yard, the Junction, the Stock Yards, Kipling and the Obico spur.

“Modelling snippets of those locations truly keeps those memories alive for me,” he says.

Situated in a 16 by 33-foot room, the single-level “protolanced” layout is set in Toronto, mostly from the west end of the city.

“There are portions that are prototypically accurate but are combined with fictional aspects,” says Christopher, explaining the protolance idea.

“The look and style however is consistent and reflective of 1970s-80s Toronto.”

Christopher started construction on the layout in 2013. It’s about 35% complete, “with a long ways to go,” he says.

Railways on the ECR include CN, CP Rail, GO Transit and VIA, with a bit of TH&B as well.

Christopher uses Digitrax Zephyr DCC to operate the trains. 

There is also a PR3-Xtra computer control unit which ties into the Zephyr command station, allowing operation of the layout through JMRI software.

Layout operations are carried out primarily through order cards and occupation lists. The order cards are typed up on an actual typewriter (in keeping with the timeframe) and put into slots near the yard or roundhouse.  

Trains are made up in large yard next to the roundhouse, and locomotives then assigned to the various trains.

He has started experimenting with consist scripts in JMRI recently, which would make organizing trains rosters easier when in relation to detection points.

The time being modelled is late summer-early autumn. Christopher uses commercial products for the majority of his scenery, but also mixes in real materials such as sand and soil to the base layers.

One of the techniques he’s used is sifting and drying real earth in a conventional oven. After baking, the soil is completely dried out, looking similar to sand.

Most buildings on the layout are kits from DPM, Walthers and Atlas. They are slightly modified, with many featuring detailed interior scenes with lighting and figures. 

Each building also has custom signage or markings that are prototypical to Toronto buildings.

Main line track is code 100 code, while secondary routes are code 83. The yard is a combination of code 83 and code 70.

The benchwork is made up of 4 x 4 table frames bolted together. By using bolts and screws, the layout can easily be disassembled and moved, Christopher say, yet it is very stable.

Locomotives are from Athearn, Atlas, and Rapido. There are about 80 of them, and about 300 pieces of rolling stock.

As for the future, Christopher added a new expansion a year ago; he is planning to add an entirely new city section and large passenger terminal.

“I’m excited for the continued expansion plans,” he says, adding “I hope to have the new section fully operational in the next few months.”

You can see more of the Etobicoke Central Railways on YouTube, Instagram or in Off The Tracks, December, 2018 issue.

Watch a video of the layout, and read more, on MetroLinx News.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Empty Room, or The End of the Line (Until the Next Layout)

Well, it’s gone.

All that’s left is an empty room, some piles of lumber in the garage (awaiting a friend who will pick it up for his new layout), and memories—lots of memories.

All told, it took about a week and a bit, not full-time, to take it down. The last pieces were disassembled yesterday.

While unscrewing the layout, I had a few thoughts. Starting with, why did my younger self use so many %&$#@*&#! screws!

One thing for sure: That old layout was solid. It was never going to fall down. If two screws were good, my younger self thought three were better. Four was pure bliss.

Second, I’m glad I (mostly) followed the time-proven advice to screw up from the bottom, not down from the top.

Except for one or two places where I clearly lost my mind, all the screws were easy to find (although not always easy to get at with this getting-older body).

Third, the wisdom of DCC occurred to me more than once while undoing all the DC block wiring. There were a lot of wires under the benchwork! That was an afternoon of unscrewing and pulling all in itself.

Fourth, I thought about modellers who are looking for the best glue to glue down cork and track. If I have any sage advice for them, it’s this: Whatever you glue down you are going to have to pull up someday. Don’t make it too hard on yourself.

In my case, I didn’t use any glue, except for diluted white glue to hold down the cork, track and ballast. When it dried, I removed the track nails. It never moved for 25 years—I consider that a win.

Best of all, taking it up was (mostly) a breeze. Spray with water and then pull the track out of the ballast. Except for a few pieces of cork that clearly didn’t want to leave, it came up easily.

Fifth, the shop vac is your friend! There was a lot of ballast on the floor and on the layout after the track was removed. But the shop vac was up to the task.

Sixth, it’s great to have a friend who can use the lumber. I’d hate to see it go into the dump. Since much of the wood was in my first layout, that means it will be part of three layouts, at least—maybe more.

Now I’m in the dreaming stage for my next effort, a 17 by 21 foot L-shaped shelf switching layout. The old layout is barely down and I’m already dreaming . . . .

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Obituary for a Model Railroad

If an obituary was written for a model railroad, like it is for a person, what might it look like? Maybe like this.

CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision, 1994-2015

After a long and healthy life, the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision passed away on July 19, 2019. It was 25 years-old.

Born in 1994, the double-deck layout filled a 17 by 21-foot room in a Winnipeg, Manitoba basement.

Basically complete by 2010, it was then significantly altered when the central peninsula—which featured three-levels of tracks—was dismantled and reduced to a single level.

It remained in that state until this year, when plans to move in a year or two resulted in it being taken apart. 

During its lifetime, the M & M Sub. was honoured by being featured in Canadian Railway Modeller (several times), Railroad Model Craftsman (twice) and once in Model Railroader (about its unique use of tree bark for rocks).

Information and photos about it was also included in two Kalmbach how-to books by Tony Koester: Model Railroading from Prototype to Layout and Designing and Building Multi-Deck Layouts.

In addition to being part of many open houses sponsored by the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club (WMRC), the layout was also on the tour schedule for the 2000 NMRA Thousand Lakes Region Millennium Express, the 2005 Golden Rails national convention (marking the fiftieth anniversary of the WMRC), and the 2010 NMRA Thousand Lakes Region Steam on the Prairies convention.

It was also featured on a blog of the same name, and is featured on a YouTube channel with dozens of videos about the layout.

The layout was not without its eccentricities. At a time when most everyone else is using DCC, it remained committed—some might say stuck in the past—to DC (Dinosaur Control).

It also wasn’t embarrassed to use Athearn “blue box” locomotives, even if it was more likely in recent times to find units from Kato, Rapido, Atlas and more modern Athearn pulling trains.

It was similar for rolling stock. Although higher quality items from Atlas, InterMountain, Accurail and others were found in consists, so too were offerings from Athearn “Blue Box,” Roundhouse/MDC, Lionel, Tyco and Bachmann—with new wheels (if required) and weathering. 

One thing the M & M Sub. really enjoyed was having people over, especially children. Nothing beat seeing a kid’s eyes light up when he or she was handed a controller and told to run the train.

Over its lifetime, the layout provided much enjoyment and satisfaction for its owner, and hopefully for many of his friends. It will be missed.

Predeceased by the CP Rail Grimm Valley Sub. (1988-1994), the M & M Sub. is survived by a few hundred of pieces of rolling stock and locomotives, several hundred feet of track, a couple dozen structure, and over 700 trees—and lots of memories.

Tributes in its memory can be made by running a train, patronizing a local hobby shop, reading a model railroad magazine or inviting a child over to your layout to run some trains. 

That, plus raising a glass of your favorite cold beverage.