Thursday, August 27, 2009

New Use For Old Cabooses

A couple of vans on their way to the scrapper
on the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Sub.

Since the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Sub. is set in the early to mid-1990s, there are no cabooses (or vans, as we call them in Canada) at the end of trains. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find them on the layout—you will. They just aren’t where you’d expect them to be. They are in the middle of trains, on their way to the scrapper.

In this case, the cabooses from around northwestern Ontario and southern Manitoba (the area I model) are being gathered up and are traveling over the M & M Sub. to off-line scrap yards. The cabooses I use are from various manufacturers, and don't look anything like the real ones (something that will change once the new vans from Rapido Trains come out).

To show that these cabooses have been stricken from the roster, I simply run a white line from a dry transfer set or gel pen through each car’s numbers. I also add the letter “D,” for "Derelict."

But where should derelict cabooses on their way to the scrapper be placed in a train? Photos of the prototype suggest they can be located in the front, middle or near the end—it doesn’t matter. A retired CN employee confirmed this, saying that there didn’t seem to be any rules regarding placement of cabooses in consists when he worked for that railway.

At first, seeing cabooses in the middle of a train looked strange. But I got used to it, just as I got used to not seeing them on the end of trains.

P.S. Thanks to Adam Meeks for pointing out that there are restrictions on caboose placement in a train. It seems a caboose headed for the scrapper could indeed be placed at various points in a train, provided the tonnage did not exceed a certain amount of tonnage behind it. (See his full comment below.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Canadians Say "Railway," Americans Say "Railroad." Well, Not Always.

Ah, the good 'ol Burlington Northern Santa Fe 
Railroad—er, Railway.

When it comes to talking about a certain kind of transportation system that uses rails, everyone knows that Canadians say "railway" and Americans say "railroad."


Well, yes, sort of.

It's true that Canadians say "railway," and our two largest rail companies are Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railways.

And it's also true that most American rail companies are called "railroads," as in the Union Pacific Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad, Indiana Railroad, etc.

But, after that, it gets a little more complicated.

When it comes to proper journalistic use in Canada, the Canadian Press prefers “railway,” and the Globe and Mail's Style Book states that “railway is the Canadian term.”

Down south, the U.S.-based Associated Press tells journalists to write “railroad,” but it also advises them to look up the actual names of railroads first.

And good advice that is. Although Canadian rail companies prefer the word “railway,” Americans are not as rigid about what term to use.

A quick check of past and present lines in the U.S. shows that over 175 U.S. rail-related companies use, or used, the word “railway” in their name.

And these aren’t just pint-sized shortlines like the Arizona Eastern, the Central Midland or the Columbus and Greenville.

The big ones use it, too—lines like the Great Northern Railway, the Northern Pacific Railway, Norfolk Southern Railway, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Kansas City Southern Railway and the Florida East Coast Railway.

And not only that; if you want to know about trains in the U.S., what do you consult?

The Official Railway Guide, which has been published in that country for more than a century by the National Railway Publication Company of New York City.

But Canada isn’t a model of consistency in the railway/railroad debate, either.

The Canadian Railway Museum, south of Montreal, invites people to visit what it calls the largest collection of railway equipment in the country. And who runs it? The Canadian Railroad Historical Association, of course.

Meanwhile, CN provides community grants through its CN Railroaders in the Community Program. And let’s not forget that Canada’s most famous train song is the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, by Gordon Lightfoot.

And what do Canadians who enjoy our train-related hobby call ourselves? Not model railwayers (a term found on some British model railway sites), but model railroaders.

Our layouts aren’t called model railways, either (again, as in Britain), but model railroads. And here in Winnipeg, where I live, I belong to the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club.

At least the only Canadian magazine devoted to our hobby has it right: It’s called Canadian Railway Modeller. ( And our home-grown modelling association (our version of the NMRA), is called the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers. (

When it comes to the railway vs. railroad question, it appears that only Buster Keaton managed to sidestep the issue.

He called his 1965 silent comedy about travelling by speeder across Canada The Railrodder.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Who Needs Model Railroad Magazines?

The last few years have not been kind to the North American model railroad magazine industry—gone are Mainline Modeler, Rail Model Journal and Model Railroading. The only three left that appeal to all scales are Model Railroader, Railroad Model Craftsman and Canadian Railway Modeller. All three have experienced falling circulation in the past decade.

But who needs them, anyway? After all, we have the Web—anyone can publish anything (look at me). But I would argue there is still a special place for magazines, and it’s not just because you can’t take your computer into the bathroom.

In the world of academia, there are things called refereed journals. These are publications where articles are reviewed and evaluated by experts in the field before publication. This ensures that ideas and research described in an article are sound and of high quality.

Something like that occurs when articles are submitted to model railroad magazines. Experts—the editors, who are also model railroaders—evaluate the articles or photos to make sure they are worthy of publication.

For an author or photographer, being published in a model railroad magazine is a special experience. It means that your ideas or photos have been judged by others who are expert in the hobby and found worth sharing with others.

How do I know that being published in a magazine is special? Two ways: First, Although people usually share the good news that their article or photograph has been accepted by a model railroad publication, few (none?) give a shout out when they post something on a forum or Web page.

Second, I’ve experienced it myself, both in the model railroad world and in other publications. There’s no feeling like seeing your work on the printed page.

I also know what it is like on the other side; I am the very-part time Associate Editor of Canadian Railway Modeller. In this capacity, I help solicit and edit articles; I get a lot of satisfaction from working with authors—most of whom have never been published before—and helping them see their layout or model come to life in the pages of the magazine.

Of course, we now have Model Railroad Hobbyist “magazine,” a Web-only publication that seeks to bridge the gap between magazines printed on dead trees and the digital age. I like what I see so far, but I personally find it to be too long—I spend my working hours staring at a computer, and don’t have the patience to read 50-60 pages on the screen in my leisure hours.

Plus, you still can’t take it to the bathroom.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Remembering My Father On The CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision

EJLX 2009 awaits its next move in the Fort Frances,
Ont. yard.
My dad died in February. Although he was never a model railroader, he indulged and encouraged my love of trains. From wind-up to Lionel to Tri-Ang to HO to N, he bought me trains for birthdays and Christmas (along with my mother, of course). He built my first train table—a wobbly 4 by 8, when I was just a boy. He was a terrible carpenter, but I didn't care—I had a place to build my “empire.”

Although he is gone, I can remember him whenever a certain car glides by on the CP Rail Manitoba and Minnesota Sub. It’s a former Milwaukee Road covered hopper, painted out and re-lettered EJLX 2009 for Edward John Longhurst (2009 being the year of his death). It's not the only memorial car on the layout; I also have DRDX 7104, an ex-BNSF covered hopper made in memory of David R. Dyck, a good friend and fellow model railroader who passed away in 2004. (71 was the age he died, 04 was the year.)

DRDX 7104 sits in the Fort Frances, Ont. yard.

The practice of naming towns and buildings on layouts in honour of friends and family is longstanding; in my case, the towns of Nance, Ritchie and Turney all are named for model railroading friends, as are buildings such as Ken’s Model Trains, Epp’s Bibles & Books and Hiebert’s Gun & Tackle. (All of them still very much alive, thankfully!)

Lettering cars as a way to remember friends is not as common, but is easy to do. And it can be prototypical, too; the prototype today has a seemingly inexhaustible list of private reporting marks—you name it, you can find most any combination of three letters followed by an “X.”

Making the cars was easy: All that was needed was some masking tape, spray paint (gray or red primer) and CDS dry transfers. Neat, straight lines are not essential; see the prototype for examples.

In the case of the two cars mentioned above, both EJLX and DRDX are prototype reporting marks—the first belonging to Geo-Energy Ltd., the second belonging to the Duredo Company (John H. Grace Co.). I don't know if either company has or had covered hoppers, but it doesn't matter; it’s my railroad, and I can give cars any name or marks I like.

Patched and re-lettered rolling stock is common on railroads today. In this case, these two patched and re-lettered cars were fun to make, and help keep alive the memories of two people who were important to me in a variety of different ways.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Recession and Model Railroading

There may be a recession, but things are still
busy on the CP Rail M & M Sub.
There’s a recession going on, as most of us know. But you wouldn’t know it from all the new releases from model railroad manufacturers.

This seems contrary to conventional wisdom; surely spending on unnecessary items like trains would go down in a recession—right?

While some modellers may well be cutting back spending, economic downturns have not spelled disaster for the hobby industry in the past. Although the effects of the current economic troubles will vary from person to person and business to business, it is generally accepted that economic downturns don't hurt businesses that cater to hobbyists—at least, not as much as they hurt some other businesses.

Why? Economic insecurity may cause people to cut back on big-ticket items, like a Caribbean vacation or a new car. But they still need something to do during those long winter evenings—a $25-$50 model kit can fill the bill nicely; so can settling down for an evening of reading with your favourite model railroad magazine.

In fact, some people involved with the hobby industry have said that poor economic conditions actually help them, since hobbies become more important to people on a budget. Said one: "Although it’s early days, we’re expecting a good second half to the year. We continue to see the traditional model and hobby brands as being a safe haven in downturns."

Across the ocean, the same seems to be true. Last year, the British model and hobby internet retailer Ontracks reported a 67 percent increase in sales, despite overall "negative retail growth and falling consumer confidence.” Another British toy and hobby manufacturer, Hornby, is enjoying rising sales this year, something that company executives said showed its resilience to recession.

Another factor that affects model railroad sales is demographics. Most modellers are in the 50 and above; this means that they usually have more stable employment and greater disposable income.

As a result, one manufacturer told me, hobbies that cater to younger people, like RC cars, have big peaks and valleys (depending on economic conditions). The fluctuations in model railroad spending are less severe.

This isn’t to say that manufacturers of model railroad items aren’t keeping a close watch on their bottom line—they are. Uncertain times may cause them to choose to delay new projects that require large outlays of cash, at least until better times are forecast.

As for me, I wish all of model railroad manufacturers the best, and hope that they can successfully ride out these uncertain economic times. I’m afraid, however, that I’m just not doing my bit to help—with a nearly completed layout, and all the locomotives and rolling stock I need, I’m not buying much, if anything, these days, and don’t expect to be buying much in the near future.

But if anyone brings out a ready-to-run CP Rail Red Barn, or a chop nose GP9, I may just change my mind.

Observations About Model Railroading After 20 Years in the Hobby

A train crosses the Rushing River on the CP Rail
Manitoba & Minnesota Sub.
2008 was the 20th anniversary of my return to model railroading. I left the hobby in 1976 to go to university, selling my small collection of N scale trains to help finance my education. I came back in 1988 when I built my first “real” layout, the CP Rail Grimm Valley Subdivision. That layout lasted six years before we moved to our present house, which is home to the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision.

Over the past 20 years I’ve learned a few things about model railroading, including the following.

1. You can do it. Today my layout is almost done, and I am quite proud of it. But 20 years ago I was as uncertain as any newbie about how to build a model railroad. Not everyone will be able to build a layout as large as mine, but everyone can build one, if they want. It’s not that hard; with help from friends, how-to books and magazines, anyone can learn how to build benchwork, lay track, do wiring, make scenery, weather rolling stock, scratchbuild structures and many other things.

2. It still takes work. We have it pretty good today, what with ready-to-run locomotives and rolling stock and pre-built structures. But to make a layout you still have to actually cut the wood and lay the track and make the scenery. That means doing some work. Yes, model railroading is a hobby, not a job. But like anything else worth doing, it takes some time and effort if you want to get good results.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. In this hobby, there are no dumb questions. The main reason those of us who have been model railroaders for a long time know anything at all is because a) we asked questions when we were newcomers; and b) we made mistakes. (Did you know you shouldn’t use solvent-based paint on Styrofoam? Ask me how I know.)

4. Remember the rule of Good Enough. It’s easy to get completely paralysed by articles and videos of magnificent layouts—I could never do that, so why bother? But each of us can live by our own rule of “good enough.” I don’t have time or interest to make sure locomotive handrails or stirrup steps are the right thickness, or cars are exactly prototype. I’m not embarrassed to run Lionel and Tyco cars or Athearn blue box locomotives. My goal is plausibility, not realism—would a viewer find that my layout reflects what he or she might expect to see on a CP Rail-themed model railroad set in Manitoba in the mid-1990s? If yes, then that’s good enough for me.

5. Choose an era and railway. One of the easiest ways to get distracted and lose interest in the hobby—and spend lots of money needlessly—is to be unfocused. One of the easiest ways to be focused, I found, is to choose a railway and era to model. In my case, it’s CP Rail in the mid-1990s in Manitoba. This decision has saved me a lot of money. That great-looking SD90MAC? Don’t need it—it doesn’t fit my era. Ditto for that glorious new steamer. Staying focused not only lends credence to your modelling efforts, it allows you to walk out of a hobby shop with your wallet intact.

6. Enjoy each stage of the journey. Some people can’t wait to get a layout done. But I found enjoyment at each step of the process (except, maybe, for wiring). Now that my layout is almost finished, I find that I miss building scenery and laying track. I miss the feelings of satisfaction that resulted from completing a new scene. Each stage brought its own form of satisfaction and accomplishment.

7. Don’t be afraid to show off your work. I had been working on my layout for several years before I dared to show it to someone from the local model railroad club—I was so afraid people would think it wasn’t any good. But the compliments and advice I received encouraged me to invite more people over to see my layout. No matter what size or stage your layout is at, and no matter your skill level, you have already accomplished something that many people in this hobby never do: You have built a model railroad. And that is worth celebrating.

8. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Lots of people say they are going to build a layout—someday. As in, someday when they have more time; someday when they have more money; someday when they have more room; someday when they are retired. The problem is that “someday” may never come. There are no guarantees in life, including no guarantee that we will have more time, room, money or health. If you want to build a layout, start now. (Remember the adage about the best time to plant a tree: 20 years ago, or today.)

9. Enthusiasm comes and goes. One thing I’ve noticed about model railroading is that is impossible to always be interested in the layout. Some months I can’t wait to get to the basement to build something or run trains; other months I hardly go in the layout room at all. That’s normal—you can’t be enthusiastic about model railroading all the time. That said, there’s no better way to get something done on the layout like scheduling an open house, even if that just means cleaning up the train room and getting trains running again.

10. Buy local. Sure, things can be bought cheaper on the Internet. But hobby shops aren't only sources of product—they are places where you can go to get great advice from accomplished model railroaders, not to mention couplers, washers, detail parts, paint and dozens of other things you can't easily get off the Web.

11. And finally, if you model Canadian railways, subscribe to Canadian Railway Modeller. Not only is it the best source of information about Canadian model railways in Canada, it’s the best option to get your work about Canadian model railroads published. For more information, go to

It’s now 21 years since I got back into the hobby. I can say that it has been good to me, and good for me. Model railroading has provided me with hundreds of hours of enjoyment. It promises to provide many more.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Overview of the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision

A pair of those new AC 4400s makes an appearance
in Ritchie, Man. on the CP Rail M & M Sub.

Note: Since this was written, some changes have been made to the layout. Click here to see them. Click here for an overview with photos that includes links to other posts about the changes.

Since this blog is titled the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision, I suppose I should say something about it! For a video tour, visit An Overview of The CP Rail M & M Sub. on YouTube at


The double-deck layout occupies a 17 by 20 foot room, with a 5 by 11 food storage room that contains the helix and staging yards. It represents a cross-border route from Winnipeg to Duluth, Minnesota via Fort Frances, Ont. (a route that is, in reality, operated by CN; watch for a future blog on fiction vs. faction). It takes about nine minutes for a train to traverse the 230-foot long point-to-point main line, which is fed by two six-track staging yards at either end.


The lower level is L-girder style construction, while the upper level is made from two-inch thick Styrofoam suspended from the wall. The roadbed on both levels is cut from 1/4 inch cork, bought in rolled sheets at a local home renovation store.


The layout uses conventional DC (or Dinosaur Control) and locally-made walk-around throttles to control the trains; four trains can be operated at the same time. The main line is controlled by a dispatcher in the storage room, while all of the tracks in Fort Frances are controlled by the yardmaster.

None of the switches are electrified, except for a few in the staging yard, and there are no signals. In this I am following the practice of one of his favourite prototype routes, the CPR’s Weyburn Sub. between Moose Jaw, Sask. and Portal, North Dakota. This busy single-track main line is dark (unsignalled) and all the switches are thrown by the train crews.


The layout is set in the early to mid-1990s. This is a time when the SD40-2 is still king; the newer AC 4400s have not yet begun to make an appearance. This allows me to run of CP schemes—multimark, no multimark and Twin Flags, along with SOO line units in white and red and candy apple liveries.

Motive Power & Rolling Stock

The motive power is mostly Athearn blue box, with a few Kato and Proto 2000 units. Rolling stock is a mix of Athearn, MDC, InterMountain, Atlas, Accurail, Walthers, with some Tyco and Life-Like thrown in.

Also, since I am modelling the early 1990s, there are no cabooses, although a few can be seen in the middle of trains—headed for off-layout scrap yards.


Operations consist of trains traveling between Duluth, Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. The line sees unit coal, grain, piggyback, double stack and forest product trains, as well as mixed freights which drop off and pick up cars in Fort Frances. Additional operational interest is provided by the Peace River Paper mill, which occupies an eight-foot long area; the mill, which has its own switcher, receives cars twice each session to spot in the five mill tracks. There is also a local that serves 12 industries in Fort Frances, and a wayfreight that switches an interchange and seven industries along the line.

The line also hosts VIA’s The Canadian, detouring from its usual route on CN. Every now and then it also sees a private owners’ train, made up of a colourful mix of passenger equipment from various U.S. and Canadian railroads.

Operations are governed by wheel report system and sequence schedule. It can take me several days or several weeks to run the schedule. (I mostly operate by myself.) Sometimes—many times—I just like to run some trains.


Scenery is made from extruded Styrofoam, carved to shape. I like this method Because it is less messy than using plaster, and also because it allows me to make below grade scenery effects—with Styrofoam it is possible to carve out gullies, ditches and undulating ground, just lie on the prototype.

As for covering the Styrofoam, I don’t use plaster or any other kind of mud or goop. Instead, I just paints it using a mix of brown, grey and black paints, and then add ground foam. The rock work is made from tree bark, which he gathered along the banks of Winnipeg’s Red River after spring runoff. (Look for a future article in Model Railroader on this subject.)

Model Railroad Philosophy

My philosophy of model railroading is GEF (pronounced “gefel.” It stand for “Good Enough For Longhurst.” (Others call this the “three-foot rule.) To me, it doesn’t matter if locomotives don’t have the proper number of louvers, the right-size fans, the correct length nose or any other such thing (although I have lightly “Canadianized” some of my units by adding a nose headlight and raising the bell above the cab windows).

My modelling will never win any contests; I’m OK with that. I’m striving for plausibility, not realism—if visitors come away from the layout thinking it looks like they are watching CP Rail operations in the early 1990s in Manitoba and Minnesota, I’ve achieved my goal.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Last Ballast Ceremony?

A train enters the layout from staging near the site of
the "last ballast." Can you spot the final one?

We all know about a last spike ceremony—the ceremonial driving of the last spike on real and model railroads signifying the end of the laying of the mainline. But what about the sprinkling of the last ballast? That’s less common, I bet. But it’s what happened in January on my CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision.

I began the layout in 1994. The mainline was completed a number of years ago, after which I began scenery. It took a while—15 years—but I finally got to the end of the line, to the last bit of track that wasn’t ballasted. It was about six feet long, running from the upper level town of Ritchie into the upper staging yard.

I had delayed finishing this area for a long time; it seemed there was always something more pressing that needed to be done. But over Christmas I began painting track, finishing scenery, installing the last bit of fascia and building a bridge to hide the hole in the wall leading to the staging yard. And then I started ballasting the track.

The completion of the ballasting of the mainline was a poignant moment. It made me think back to when I installed the first L-Girder so long ago. Back then, the room was empty—nothing but lumber and boxes of model railroad items. Now it is filled with an almost-completed layout.

As I sprinkled on the ballast, I thought I should maybe hold a “last ballast” ceremony. But there was one problem: How to tell which piece of ballast was the last one?

Since I didn't know, I just poured them all on and then, after a moment's reflection, poured myself a cold one.

A Visit To the Northern Lights Model Railroad Association in Grand Forks, ND

Last summer, our family went on its annual back-to-school shopping trip to Grand Forks, North Dakota. Luckily for me, the visit coincided with a club meeting night at the Northern Lights Model Railroad Association (NLMA); while everyone else went shopping, I went to see the layout, located in the Heritage Village in East Grand Forks.

The NLMA began in 1987. Its first layout was modular, and was set up in various locations until the early 1990s, when they relocated to a mall in downtown Grand Forks.

They remained there until the flood of 1997; being on the second level, they were spared water damage, but the mall was itself was torn down following the flood.

Following the flood, the club received a $10,000 relocation grant from the U.S. government; together with other donations, club members used the funds to purchase two garages and moved them to Heritage Village. They bolted the two garages together and named their new home the Casey Holt Junction, after the son of a club member who had been tragically killed in a car accident.

The club building, which measures 58 feet by 26 feet, has a 32-foot by 17-foot train room, a meeting room, a telegrapher's office with a bay window and telegraph equipment and a bathroom. The club also has 300 feet of track alongside the depot, which is home to a former Great Northern steel caboose. The club has also installed a working block signal along the tracks.

The club is located at the intersection of 20th St. NE and 5th Ave NE in East Grand Forks. For more information, visit

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Of Tibetan Sand Mandalas And Model Railroading

A Tibetan Sand Mandala.

What do model railroads and Tibetan sand mandalas have in common?

A sand mandala comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Monks and devotees spend weeks or months creating amazingly intricate images out of millions of grains of coloured sand. When done, the mandala is ceremonially destroyed, swept away to symbolize the transitory and impermanent nature of material life.

Hmm . . . that’s not very different from building a model railroad, except for the part about ceremonial destruction.

The fact of the matter is this: A model railroad, no matter its size, will not last forever. Take my own model railroad, for example. The double-deck layout, which occupies a 17 by 20 foot room in the basement of my home, looks so permanent. And yet, one day, it will end up as a pile of lumber on the floor. All the years of work making benchwork, laying track, creating scenery, planting trees and everything else will be for naught—it will be gone.

It is—to sound all eastern and mystical—the way of all life, and of all model railroads.

Not even the most famous layouts survive. Tony Koester’s Allegheny Midland, Allen McClelland’s Virginia and Ohio, David Barrow’s Cat Mountain and Santa Fe and John Armstrong’s Canandaigua Southern are all gone, as are other pioneering layouts such as John Allen’s Gorre and Daphetid, Cliff Robinson’s Marquette Union Terminal (the only one on this list I was able to visit, back in the mid-80s when I lived in Dallas, TX), Whit Towers Alturas & Lone Pine and Frank Ellison’s Delta Lines, to name just a few.

Some were dismantled because their owners wanted new challenges; others came down due to changing circumstances or death. All we have left are some photographs, some articles and, for a lucky few, a piece or two of rolling stock, locomotives or buildings.

(I don’t know about you, but when I heard that the Allegheny Midland, the Virginia & Ohio, the Cat Mountain & Santa Fe and the Canandaigua Southern were gone, I felt a sense of loss—these were the layouts I had “grown up” with in model railroading. Reading about them shaped my modeling, and inspired me to strive for even greater proficiency as a modeler. Their dismantling almost felt like a loss in the family, or the departing of a good friend.)

I’m no stranger to dismantling a layout. I took down my first layout in 1994, after working on it for six years. The destruction, necessitated by the need to move to a larger home, was not totally unwelcome—like many first-time layouts, it had some serioius flaws. And yet, it was sad to see it go, and amazing to see how quickly it went; after spending a week removing the track, buildings and scenery, it took three of us just about an hour to reduce it to a pile of lumber on the floor.

Even though I realize that my present layout will, like my first, also go the way of all model railroads, I’m not deterred. I happily spend hours doing fine detailing—making the ballast look just so, moving a tree an inch to the left, sprinkling a bit more ground foam over there. Like the monks who make sand mandalas, I too labour on, although I expect my “artwork” to last a lot longer than a few days or weeks. (So far, it’s been 15 years.)

One day, the CP Rail Manitoba and Minnesota Subdivision will be gone. Perhaps it will be because I want a new challenge. Maybe it will be because of a move, or for some other reason. Whatever the cause or date of its demise, I will look happily back at the many enjoyable hours I have spent on its creation—and maybe even absorb a lesson or two about the transitory nature of life.

A photo from my first layout, the CP Rail Grimm Valley Subdivision. Gone, but not forgotten.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Choosing A Region, Railway and Era for the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Sub.

Locomotives in different early-1990s schemes on the
M & M Sub.

The CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision is set in the early to mid-1990s in Manitoba and Minnesota. Why that railway, time and place? And why choose to fix a model railroad in time and place at all?

My choice of CP Rail is sort of accidental. I grew up in a CN town in southern Ontario--a CN branchline ran near my house, and I never saw a CP Rail train until I moved to Winnipeg. You'd think that would fix my decision on which railway to model, but when I got back into model railroading in 1987 after an 11-year absence, there were more inexpensive CP Rail models on the market than CN. Since I wanted to model a Canadian railway, that fixed it.

Why Manitoba and Minnesota? It's partly because I want to model the region I live in, and also partly because I want to model cross-border traffic--have some unique American freight cars in the consists. Plus, I model a line running from Winnipeg to Duluth, Minnesota. (More on that in a future post.)

Why the early to mid-1990s? That's partly because I really like SD40-2 locomotives, of which CP Rail had many. But it's also because I really disliked the newer power when it came out--I found the AC4400s and the SD70s and higher to be, well, ugly. (I've since grown more accustomed to them, but they still aren't my favourite units.)

By halting my layout's time period at 1995, I can run a couple of the newer AC4400 units, which were introduced about that time. But the mainstay of my fleet are the ubiquitous SD$0-2 locomotives, along with GP38s and SD60s.

Another reason for choosing this time period is that I can run a variety of locomotive schemes--multimark, no multimark, Twin Flags, plus SOO white and red and "candy apple." I can also run some unique units, such as a patched KCS unit or a Union Pacfic SD40-2 with the red CP Rail on the sides. (More about my roster in a future post.)

In the end, it all contributes the plausibility I am striving for in my modelling--I want the layout to look like it is a certain time and place. Keeping railway, era and region in mind helps me achieve that goal.

Finally, there is the financial reason for fixing a layout on a railway, date and place. No matter how good a model looks, if it doesn't fit the railway, place or era I model, the wallet stays in the pocket.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Of Rail Yards & Tourism: A Visit To The Folkston Funnel

The CPR yard in Winnipeg: A "horrible scab"
or a tourism opportunity?

Like others who like trains, railway tracks and yards aren't seen as unwelcome instrusions--but not everyone feels that way, including a Member of Parliament from Winnipeg. After reading his comments, and an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, I wrote the following for the Free Press in February, 2008. Scroll to the bottom to see photos of railway action in Folkston, Ga.

Could Winnipeg's CPR rail yard--that "horrible scab," in the words of MP Pat Martin--be a tourist attraction? That's what Josh N. Nodelman wondered in The 'ugly' truth, (Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 22, 2008).

"Instead of moving the CP yards, we might reframe them as an attraction, a focal point of pride instead of a barrier," he wrote. "Why not provide a warm public observation deck like the airport does, with interpretive components?"

It sounds crazy. Who would want to look at trains?

Tens of thousands of people, as it turns out.

In places like Folkston, Ga., and Rochelle, Ill., people once viewed the trains that passed through their towns the way many Winnipeggers view the CPR yards--as a nuisance, a blight on the landscape. But today, people in those two communities see them in an entirely different way as thousands of railfans come from all over the world to watch trains travel through their towns.

Take Folkston, for example. I called Claudia Burkhardt, director of that small town's Chamber of Commerce.

"Wait a minute until the train goes by. I can't hear you and you can't hear me until it's gone," she said, the sound of crossing gate bells and a train horn filling the telephone line.

After about 30 or so seconds, silence returned.

"There," Burkhardt said. "It's gone. Now how can I help you?"

With between 40 and 60 trains roaring past her office every day, interruptions like that once were annoying, Burkhardt admits. But ever since the town built a special train-watching platform beside the tracks, her view has changed.

Today the little community of 2,200 near the Florida border attracts about 20,000 railfans every year to watch trains on the busy CSX mainline that bisects the town.

"It's been a real economic boon to our little community," she says. "It's good for the restaurants, motel and bed and breakfasts--a lot of railfans stay here."

She estimates the railfans spend more than $500,000 in Folkston annually.

"It's really put us on the map," she says.

Indeed, it has. I, for one, would never have visited the town if it weren't for my own interest in trains. When an opportunity arose to visit nearby Jacksonville, Fla., a year ago, I made sure to set aside a day to go there.

I enjoyed the covered platform, erected by the town in 2001. It contains chairs, benches, ceiling fans, picnic tables, lights, a barbecue, maps of the tracks leading into town and bathrooms. The town also installed a sound system tuned to railroad radio transmissions; railfans who use the platform can always tell when trains are coming.

Before they built the platform, most people in the town thought the trains were a nuisance. Train watchers were seen as being interesting and unique, at best, and maybe downright crazy at worst.

"A lot of people thought this was the biggest waste of money," Folkston Mayor Dixie McGurn said in an interview. "I think they're seeing it differently now."

Folkston was inspired to build its platform by the experience of Rochelle, Ill. The town, located about 110 kilometres west of Chicago, was the first community in the U.S. to create a place especially for people to watch trains.

About 100 trains a day use the busy mainlines of the Norfolk Southern and Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads, which cross in the town of about 10,000. The volume of train traffic had always attracted train watchers. In 1997, the town decided to capitalize on the interest by erecting a platform and small park on an elevated parcel of land near the crossing.

As in Folkston, the platform and park provide various amenities for train watchers, along with speakers carrying railroad radio transmissions. There are historical displays, including an industrial switch engine built in Rochelle, and it has a small gift shop where people can buy railroad memorabilia, film, batteries and snacks.

"We get between 30,000 to 40,000 people a year," says Clarke Renard, who works at the park's gift shop. "In summertime, the place is packed."

Although Renard couldn't provide an estimate for the park's economic impact on the town, he says, the local hotels and restaurants really appreciate the added traffic.

But would it work in Winnipeg? Daryl Adair thinks it might.

Adair, owner and operator of Rail Travel Tours, says that people from around North America already come to Winnipeg to see trains, gathering near the CPR yard to watch the railway action.

"There's a little-known sub-culture of railfans," he says of those who take his tours. But, he adds, they aren't the only ones interested in Canada's railways.

"The baby boomers are starting to explore their heritage," he says, explaining that many of the boomers who sign up for his tours say they've seen all the tourist destinations in Canada. "Now they want an educational experience -- they want to learn more about their country."

He thinks Winnipeg could take advantage of this interest by creating places to watch trains that contain interpretative plaques and signs. He notes the city already boasts railway attractions that draw tourists: The Prairie Dog Express, the Winnipeg Railway Museum and the Transcona Historical Museum.

Other Canadian communities are taking note of the growing interest in railways, he adds. Capreol, Ont., and British Columbia's Revelstoke and Port Edward are using the tracks through their communities as tourist attractions, and so is Portage la Prairie, where the busy CPR and CN transcontinental mainlines cross. Portage has an ambitious plan to create a railway park near the old CPR station.

"Many people know of Winnipeg because it is a hub for rail activity," Adair observes. "But we could do more to capitalize on our railway heritage."

Back in Folkston, Burkhardt admits not everyone is convinced the train platform is a good idea.

"They think it's crazy," she says. But, as the number of railfans visiting the town grows, and as they spend money there, more and more of them are "seeing the light."

And it's not just the light of a train coming down the tracks. Or, maybe it is.

The train watching platform in Folkston, Ga.

A CSX freight roars through Folkston.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reality Vs. Plausibility in Model Railroading

Two SD40-2 units pull a train upgrade on the M & M Sub.

With the great ready-to-roll models being produced today, it's possible for our model railroads to look increasingly more like the prototype--correct fans, hoods, doors, louvers, wheels, handrails and other details all add to our ability to make our modelling look as good as possible.

But despite the tremendous strides being made by manufacturers, our model railroads will never look realistic, in my opinion.

No matter how "real" a photo of a layout looks, there is always something to let you know that it's just a model--the size of the couplers, size of the rail, the ties, rail joiners, trees, grass, etc., not to mention the figures (which rarely look realistic, as far as I'm concerned).

For this reason, I don't strive for realism in my modelling. (I couldn't achieve it, anyway, even if I tried.) Instead, my goal is plausibility: Does a scene look believable? Does it look like it could really happen in real life?

There are various ways to create plausibility. Good scenery helps, as do good looking structures, backdrops and trees and some generous weathering.

Sticking to one railway, era and region also makes a difference; an AC4400 running beside a steam locomotive, a mix of roadnames from across North America, or a mixture of rolling stock from the 1940s to the 1990s will undermine any effort to make a layout look plausible.

I'm resigned to the fact that my layout will never look realistic. But if it makes you think that you could be seeing CP Rail in the prairies and Canadian shield in the early to mid-1990s, I've achieve my goals.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

How the Railway Came to Winnipeg

VIA's The Canadian leaves Winnipeg for its 
eastbound trip to Toronto. Morgan Turney photo.

Until 2005, a lightly-used and unremarkable CPR branchline ran near my home in northeast Winnipeg. What most people didn't know is that the line was the reason Winnipeg became the province's largest city in the first place. I wrote this piece for the Winnipeg Free Press on August 27, 2005.

I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a city created by the railway—in this case, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Because the CPR chose to cross the Red River in Winnipeg, this city became the biggest in the province, and the provincial capital, as well.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The original plan called for the railway to cross the river to the north, at Selkirk, Man. How the railway ended up crossing the river near the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers is a tale—a tale of two cities, if you please.

It all goes back to the late 1800s, when the Canadian government began building the transcontinental railway to link east and west.

Plans called for the new line to go through Selkirk, which was considered a superior location for crossing the Red River due to its stable riverbanks and safety from floods.

Unlike Winnipeg, which had flooded seven times in the previous 100 years, Selkirk had not experienced any major flooding, including during the disastrous flood of 1826. This made it a perfect place for the railway to cross the river.

The people of Selkirk were elated; it was poised to become a rich community. Says the city’s website: “The proposed crossing created a boom town in the autumn of 1879, complete with frenzied building.”

About that time Winnipeggers, realizing that their community would be reduced to a backwater if the railway stayed on its more northerly course, sent delegations to Ottawa to persuade the government to change its mind.

To sweeten the pot, the city offered $200,000 toward the construction of a bridge across the Red River at Winnipeg. It also offered to exempt the railway from taxes on any railway buildings or grounds in perpetuity.

In 1881, the CPR accepted the offer. The line, which was headed toward Selkirk, was abruptly turned south toward Winnipeg, following the Red River until it crossed it near the present-day Louise bridge in the downtown core.

According to Fred Headon, author of the book The Railways of Winnipeg, Volume One, “the deal offered by the city of Winnipeg—for free land for the station, yards and shops, no taxation in perpetuity and a bridge over the Red River—was sufficient to re-direct the main line southward.”

The coming of the railway, he says, “guaranteed a population explosion, commercial dominance and rapid industrialization.”

And that is what happened. The coming of the railway caused land values in Winnipeg to skyrocket. And the city grew; by the early 20th century, Winnipeg was the third largest city in Canada, with a population of 163,000.

But while Winnipeg boomed, Selkirk languished.

Writing in 1911, a Selkirk resident bemoaned the decision to run the line through Winnipeg, noting that it “sounded the death knell to Selkirk as a great metropolitan area.”

He went on to say that “many mistakes have been made in the settlement of Manitoba and the Northwest, but none that will cause so much eventual regret as the failure to build the city of Winnipeg at Selkirk.”

Selkirk is still smarting from the loss. “Unfortunately, the crossing was wrestled from Selkirk by political manoeuvrings of Winnipeg speculators,” it says on its website. “This devastated the town and, in August, 1881 . . . the town was almost deserted.”

Today, the CPR still dominates Winnipeg, with its huge yard and shops dividing the city from north to south—all of which it pays taxes on, the original agreement having been rescinded some years ago.

As for the old right of way—the one that transformed Winnipeg and sidelined Selkirk—it’s gone now, torn up in 2005.

Today the old line is a walking trail, and I bet that few people, if any, realize that it is responsible for the creation of the city of Winnipeg today.

For more information, see Railways in Winnipeg, Volume One by Fred Headon, or read more about this tale at the Manitoba Historical Society website at

The 1891 map below from Natural Resources Canada shows the old line that turned south toward Winnipeg and bypassed Selkirk in light blue. The bolder blue line is the present mainline, which angles toward the city from when the CRP straightened out the line with the Molson Cutoff.)

Model Railroad Tip: Which Glue To Use?

One thing every model railroader has to use at some point is glue. And sometimes you have to glue different things together.

For example, what's the best glue to use you want to attach plastic to styrofoam? (Lepages Epoxy). How about metal to plastic? (LePage's Metal Epoxy or J-B Weld; clamping can make the difference between success and failure.) What about plastic to wood? (Goop.)

All this information, and much more, can be found at (Motto: "Because people have a need to glue things to other things.") At the This to That website you can find out what glues to use for various materials. The site also provides helpful hints (e.g. it's a good idea to clean metal with steel wool or sandpaper before gluing, because rust never sleeps). It also provides non-toxic alternatives whenever a toxic glue is suggested as being best. The materials covered include wood, plastic, styrofoam, glass, ceramics and others.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

An interview with Jason Shron of Rapido Trains

One of the people I count myself lucky to be friends with is Jason Shron, founder of Rapido Trains. It's been great to follow the progress of the company from the start, and to watch it flourish and grow. Earlier this year I conducted a short interview with Jason about Rapido Trains. In the photo above, Rapido's UA Turbo visits the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision during a visit by Jason to Winnipeg in 2008.

In 2003, Jason Shron was doing a Ph.D. in art history at the University of Birmingham in England. Like a true railfan, he incorporated railways into his studies; he was researching the effects of early railway development on the depictions of the 19th-century landscape, with a plan to become a professor of art history.

He was supposed to be concentrating on his studies, but all he ever thought about was VIA trains. He abandoned his studies to start a model railway business—Rapido Trains Inc. This may be a loss for the art history world, it's been great for model railroaders—we’re the ones who are benefiting from all the great products he's produced.

Jason, 33, is married to Sidura Ludwig, an accomplished novelist from Winnipeg. They live in Toronto and have two children: Boaz, 3 and Dalya, 1.

When did you start Rapido Trains?

Jason: I started it in 2003 while in England, incorporated it in November, 2004 and went full time in spring, 2005.

What's your Winnipeg connection?

Jason: I first stayed in Winnipeg for a couple of days in February, 1996, on my way to Churchill. I spent all of my savings at the time on a trip to Churchill to ride in ex-CN steam-heated equipment. I arrived on The Canadian only to discover that the HEP equipment had arrived. The station master told me they would put steam on the next run if I stuck around for a couple of days. So I stayed at a cheap hotel in downtown Winnipeg, spent a lot of time walking the streets and at the library, and went out to Churchill two days later. I fell in love with Winnipeg.

When I met Sidura, at York University in 1998, I couldn't stop talking about how much I enjoyed winter in Winnipeg. I was the first Toronto guy she had met who hadn't made fun of "Winterpeg" as soon as he heard her mention it. I lived in Winnipeg in the summer of 1999 and the summer of 2000. I've been back several times a year since.

What kind of layout are you building?

Jason: I am building a double-deck layout of CN's Kingston Sub between Toronto and Pickering (lower deck) and Kingston and Brockville (upper deck). The layout's physical plant is set between 1977 and 1982, so Spadina Yard and roundhouse comprise over a third of the lower deck. Since I am a fan of all VIA trains from 1976 (VIA-CN) to the present, I plan to have a roster of VIA equipment throughout its history so I can have some more modern operating sessions on occasion.

My emphasis is on VIA operations: switching Spadina and Union, mainline running between Union and Brockville, and switching Brockville. There will be little if any freight on the lower level. Eastbound freight trains from the York Sub staging join the lower level at Liverpool Junction, just before entering the helix to the upper level. Most of the freight action will be centred on Manitoba Yard in Brockville and on the CP interchange there.

As my love is riding VIA trains, rather than just watching them (I almost never go railfanning unless there is a ride on VIA involved), I am converting half of my basement into a full-size mock-up of a VIA coach. I am fortunate to have plenty of surplus VIA equipment such as seats, windows, upholstery and carpet.

The layout room preparation will begin this spring, but I have been working on the train car for over six months already. It should be finished in 2010 or 2011.

What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you have faced in starting your company?

Jason: The biggest challenges have been financing and quality control. Model trains is a very capital-intensive industry. You need to spend thousands on tooling costs (not to mention overhead and advertising) before you bring a product to market.

Quality control has proven difficult because I have been pushing the envelope on what can be done. Your average passenger car has 50-100 parts. Rapido cars have about 200, and most of them are tiny pipes or valves under the car. It is hard to ensure that everything is put on straight or that enough glue is used to keep the part attached without having a big visible glob of glue showing. It's very tricky.

One of the biggest challenges in manufacturing model railroad items like passenger cars is matching the paint on the prototype. Why is that? What do you do to meet that challenge?

Jason: Paint is very subjective. One person tells me he thinks our colours for a given paint scheme are correct, and another guy tells me they are too dark, and another guy tells me they are too light. The reality is, all of these people can be correct, for a couple of reasons.

First there is the issue of scale. A full size paint chip will often look too dark on a model, because when we look at a model we are effectively looking at a real train through several hundred feet of atmosphere.

Then there is the issue of matching paint colours. Ignoring the fact that colours changed due to weather, sun, etc., often the colours straight out of the paint shop varied depending on when it was painted and where. There are easily half a dozen different shades of VIA blue, all of them accurate.

We try and go with consensus among modellers and/or the views of the relevant historical association. While a lot of people request that we simply match models out there, if a historical association gives us real paint chips that are completely different from what is out there, we will often go with the historical association's colours.

Our biggest challenge when it comes to paint colour has been VIA yellow stripes and CN light grey. I think we've finally solved both of those issues, and all future cars will have much more consistent colours.

You have said that one of your favourite things is making the extensive under body details on your passenger cars. Why is that? Why bother with something that so few people see?

Jason: Because they are there. I see our models as faithful recreations of the real thing. I won't add piping that's hidden in the walls or floor, but the under body details---things like AC equipment, poop chutes, steam pipes, etc.—are what made real passenger cars work.

When I was a kid I would buy skirted models of passenger cars and rip off the skirts to make more accurate VIA models. When I did that, I was always disappointed by the paucity of detail under the cars. Being a VIA fan, this detail was always very apparent when standing on the station platform. I try and recreate those memories in HO scale.

Why did you want to make a model of the Turbo?

Jason: A model of the Turbo has been a dream since I received my first HO scale train set at the age of four. This model has been a real challenge, and has taken several years to develop. Here’s a hint to prospective model railroad manufacturers: for your first powered model, don’t choose the most complex model train ever made. Because no Turbo was preserved, I see the model as the closest thing we will ever have to a preserved Turbo. This means that the bathroom sinks have faucets, even though they are entirely invisible. Even the cab controls are based on the real thing.

Your products have received a lot of praise in the model railroad press and on Web forums, but also some criticism. How do you handle the latter?

Jason: Honesty. When we screw up, I admit it, apologize for it, and try to make it right. We are very good about answering customer questions and complaints in a timely manner. If everyone is happy with our models, we're happy.

What are the biggest challenges facing a manufacturer of Canadian model railroad items?
Jason: The size of the market. The only way we can afford to make Canadian passenger cars is to paint the cars into numerous fictitious paint schemes. We're honest about this. If someone asks if he should get my baggage car in Erie or the Intermountain one, I tell them to go with Intermountain. Ours is a more detailed car, but it's a model of CN's baggage rather than the Erie's. The Intermountain car is based on the Erie baggage car.

What advice would you give to someone who thinks they want to become a model railroad manufacturer?

Jason: The old axiom is that if you want to make a small fortune in model trains, start with a large fortune. You need very deep pockets or very wealthy investors to be a successful model train manufacturer. If I said you should budget half a million dollars to get started, I wouldn't be exaggerating.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club Lantern. For more information about Rapido Trains Inc., go to

Morgan Turney, editor of Canadian
Railway Modeller (l), and Jason Shron
of Rapido Trains visit the CP Rail
M & M Sub.