Thursday, October 29, 2009

One of the Thin Places

The ancient Celts called them “thin places”—places where the space between heaven and earth, or this life and the next, were thin enough to let people get a glimpse of the other side.

I was in such a thin place last April—for a railfan, at least. That's when I traveled through the old Central of New Jersey Railroad terminal in Jersey City, across from Manhattan.

The terminal is a gateway to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and then to New York City. It’s mostly empty now, but until 1967 tens of thousands of people transited through it each day.

Built in the 1880s, the terminal's opening coincided with the largest period of immigration in U.S. history; from 1890 to 1915 9-12 million immigrants were processed through nearby Ellis Island, entering the country via the terminal.

By the turn of the century, the terminal accommodated between 30,000-50,000 people per day on 128 ferry runs and 300 trains. In 1914, the train and ferry sheds were enlarged to accommodate the growing numbers of commuters; the train shed, which still stands today, housed 20 tracks.

It’s all mostly quiet now, except for tourists and school trips headed to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The tracks are pulled up, and the platforms and roadbed are derelict and overgrown. But as I stood there in the sunlit concourse, and listened really quietly, I thought I could hear the voices of those millions of people who had streamed through the terminal in days gone past, headed to work, home or to new lives in a new country.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What Makes a Model Railroad Great?

The 2009 issue of Great Model Railroads is out. The layouts in it are truly great.

I really like this annual issue; I've been buying it since it first came out. But every time it comes out, it makes me wonder: What makes a model railroad great?

Looking at the magazine, you'd come up with different reasons: Size, detail, prototype fidelity, scenery. All would be correct, plus some more I haven't thought of.

But in my mind, the one simple thing that makes a model railroad great is that it gets built at all.

This is no small feat. Along with room and money, building a layout takes time, skill, energy and discipline. The last item is often not appreciated as much as it should be; if you're going to make a model railroad, you have to get out of the armchair. That can sometimes be very hard to do.

The fact is this: Building a layout isn't easy. Maybe that's why so few model railroaders seem to be able to do it.

To me, it doesn't matter how big the layout is, or how good the scenery looks, or how well it runs. The mere fact that someone actually took the time to make it makes it great in my books.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Video Guidelines

Someone recently asked me if I was a professional video-maker.

"Hah!" I thought. Me, a professional? I'm nothing but a rank amateur. My equipment consists of a Canon A590 digital camera and Windows Movie Maker--hardly top-flight stuff.

But, upon further reflection, I realized that I have come up with a few guidelines for making layout videos--guidelines that, I think, make my videos somewhat watchable.

1) Use a tripod. Always. Nothing detracts from a video like a jerky camera.

2) Keep it short. Three to four minutes, maximum.

3) Keep each scene short. Like on TV, where they switch the scenes every few seconds to keep watchers engaged, layout scenes should be kept short, too. This keeps the action flowing and keeps people watching.

4) Tell a story. The easiest story to tell is that of railfanning--pretend you are a railfan on your own layout. This could mean setting up at one location and recording whatever comes by, or going to several different locations as you follow a train. How do you like to watch trains? Do the same with your model railroad.

5) Good lighting is important. Since that isn't always possible in layout rooms, some cameras allow you to adjust the lighting to make darker scenes brighter.

6) Use good transitions. I like to use a fade, and I often like to let one scene run over the other.

7) I like to use music. I find that even an average video can be made better with a good soundtrack. I like jazz, so that's my music of choice.

Does it work? It works for me, and apparently for a few others. And that's all that counts.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


SW9 7400 does some switching at the
Fort Frances yard.

In February, 2007, I posted the first video of my layout on YouTube. On Oct. 19, 2009, I reached 100,000 views.

Of course, 100,000 views is nothing compared to the millions of views garnered by some videos, but it's still pretty remarkable for videos of model railraods and trains, in my opinion. (And, no, it's not me clicking on them 100,000 times, as my family likes to joke.)

Actually, making layout videos has sort of become a
hobby-within-the-hobby for me. I enjoy setting up shots and trying to tell a story through a video.

As for equipment--nothing special here. I use my Canon A590 digital camera and Windows Movie Maker to make the videos.

Along with the videos of my layout, I have posted videos of some railfan trips I have taken, and videos of other layouts here in Winnipeg.

You can see my videos on my YouTube channel at

Two Great N Scale Layouts in Winnipeg

Although I model in HO scale, I really like N scale. I especially enjoy the long trains and magnificent vistas that are possible in that scale. There are days, I must admit, when I am tempted to start over in N.

Here in Winnipeg, where I live, we have some great N scale layouts. Two of the best are WinNTrak and the Mitchell Modellers, two portable layouts that can be seen at various shows and malls. I shot videos of both layouts at our Oct. 17-18, 2009 Winnipeg Model Railroad Club fall show.

You can see the WinNTrak layout at

You can see the Mitchell Modellers at

Monday, October 19, 2009

Autism and Trains: A Special Connection

Until last spring, I had no idea there was a connection between autism and trains.

Then a family with an autistic child came to one of my layout open houses. I didn't know he was autistic at the time--to me, he was just a young man who liked trains.

Later, I received an e-mail from the young man's father. In it, he thanked me for the visit, and noted that it was a highlight for his son since he was autistic.

"I don't know if you noticed anything about the boy with us (I say boy, but he's 18), but he is autistic and seeing your layout made a huge impact on him. He was very happy and wouldn't stop talking about it."

Getting that note made me curious about the autism-train connection. As it turns out, it's not uncommon, as I learned from a conversation with Sandra McKay, Excutive Director of the Autism Society of Manitoba.

“A large number of children with autism are fascinated by trains,” she said. “There are even computer programs that use trains to help them develop emotionally.”

A little while later, the link became more personal when a friend told me her four year-old son, Jon-Paul, had recently been diagnosed with autism.

I asked her if he liked trains. The answer was a resounding yes. He likes trains so much, she said, that they have to be sure to drive past railway tracks whenever they are driving around town.

Playing with trains, she told me, “is a calming activity” for Jon-Paul, she added. "Not only does it help him regulate his emotions, but we can capitalize on his interest in trains and use them as a learning tool."

According to the National Autistic Society of Great Britain, a number of children with autism are attracted to trains because they like how trains are arranged in lines, how cars are connected, and the orderly and predictable nature of railways.

Thomas the Tank Engine is a special favourite for many children with autism; the friendly faces on the locomotives and cars helps them learn to express their own feelings and emotions. (You can read the article at <

With this special link in mind, I was happy to recommend that the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club, of which I am a member, select the Autism Society as the recipient of proceeds from this year's annual fall "Great Canadian Train Show." (We had previously donated proceeds to the local children's hospital foundation.)

It's always gratifying to help a family in need. It's even more special when we can link our hobby and the needs of parents of children with autism. As my friend says: “Getting a diagnosis of autism for your child can be devastating. There is a steep learning curve to understanding autism, so families facing this diagnosis need all the support they can get. The club’s support is very welcome.”

Anyone else out there have any experience with the autism-trains connection?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Cougar River Subdivision—Gone, But Not Forgotten

Two scenes from the Cougar River Subdivision.

The Cougar River Subdivision is no more.

In September, Ken Epp dismantled his signature HO-scale layout in Winnipeg, Manitoba. First to go was the upper staging yard, followed by the helix. More bits and pieces were taken down over the next few weeks.

Over the course of about a month, a layout that took over 20 years to build was gone.

Of course, this isn’t unusual—nothing lasts forever, including model railroads. (See my blog post, "Of Model Railroads and Sand Mandalas.") But it still was sad to see it go.

For me, the end of the Cougar River Subdivision was a bit closer to home—Ken is my brother-in-law, and it was my privilege to help him build parts of it. It helped cement our relationship, and provided material for conversation at many a family gathering.

What made the layout special wasn’t just its size—although, with a 530-foot mainline on three decks, it was large. What made is unique was how Ken put all that layout into a 1,200 square foot basement, but still provided space for the rest of his family.

By running the layout along the walls, Ken left room for a recreation room, pantry, bedroom and work area. Also, by keeping the benchwork narrow—most of lower level was about 10-12 inches wide, with the upper levels only 6-8 inches in width—the layout didn’t intrude unduly into the living areas.

The loop-to-loop layout, with its nine-scale mile run, began in a lower staging yard and ran around the outer walls of the basement. It then used a helix in the pantry to climb to the second level, which followed the first level around the walls. It then entered the pantry a second time to climb to the third level, which ran only around part of the basement before ending in the upper staging area.

And when I say “upper,” I mean upper—the upper staging tracks were suspended from the ceiling in the furnace/laundry area, 79 inches above the floor. Together the two six-track upper and lower staging yards could hold about 450 cars.

Altogether, it took about 25 minutes for a train unimpeded by meets or switching duties to traverse the layout from the lower staging yard to the upper.

Scenically, the layout didn’t represent any one area of Canada, but rather included mountain, prairie and Canadian shield scenes. Trains were all Canadian, and reflected a mixture of eras from the 1950s to now.

Train lengths were 25-30 cars, and four trains could be run at a time on the DC-controlled layout. All movements were controlled by a dispatcher, who was located in a small specially-built room underneath a mountain scene. Operators simply watched the signals and stayed in touch with the dispatcher via two-way radios.

And now the big question: Why was the layout dismantled? It was a combination of things: Ken and his wife are thinking about moving, and want to prepare the house for sale. But it was also because he was ready for a new challenge—N scale, anyone?

The Cougar River Subdivision will be featured in an upcoming issue of Canadian Railway Modeller. You can also see videos of the layout by clicking on the links below:

Layout Overview.

Lower Level.

Upper Levels. 

Photo Tour. 

Coal Train on the Cougar River Sub.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Railfan Visit to Elkhart, Indiana

In October a business trip took me to Elkhart, Indiana. Every day, for three days, I went downtown to the station after work to watch action on the Norfolk Southern mainline to Chicago.

Elkhart is a great place to railfan, with lots of action and plenty of public places to watch the trains.

Elkhart is also home to the National New York Central Museum.

I've posted a few photos from that visit on YouTube at


Railfanning in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba

Portage la Prairie, Manitoba is one of two places in the province where the CN and the CPR transcontinental mainlines cross, and the only place in Manitoba where they cross at grade. It's a great place to watch CN and CPR action, and well worth its designation as a railfan hotspot.

I've posted some photos from a September, 2009 visit at


Railfanning in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Part II

Along with railfanning Horseshoe Curve and other Norfolk Southern hotspots in southwestern Pennsylvania in September, I also spent time in Connellsville, Pa. watching the parade of CSX freights.

I've posted a selection of photos on YouTube at

You can read Part I of my trip, and find a link to the photos, at