Thursday, January 28, 2010

Selling Brass, Or The Effect of Time Passing

Athearn blue box locomotives on the CP Rail M & M
Sub.: Who would want to buy them in 10 years?

A friend of mine is dismantling his layout this summer, due to health issues. He plans to sell much of his rolling stock and locomotives. He shouldn't have trouble selling his freight cars—he models the 1950s, and his cars are exquisite models. But, as he acknowledges, he's going to have trouble selling his locomotives. Why? Most of them are brass, and the market for brass isn't what it used to be.

I can think of at least two reasons for the falling brass market. First, who can afford it? There aren't many people willing to drop over $1,000 on a single unit.

Second, why pay that much when you can buy great looking and running plastic steam locomotives at a fraction of the price? (And DCC ready or equipped, to boot).

But it's not just people with brass who will face challenges when it comes time to selling their model railroads. I can see a time when that will be my problem, too. In my case, it's not a matter of trying to sell expensive brass, but the opposite—tring to sell inexpensive locomotives and rolling stock.

The mainstay of the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota locomotive fleet are Athearn blue box units. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I acquired many of my locomotives, they were among the better running and looking models on the market. Today, of course, those units seem pretty crude next to more recent Atlas or Kato offerings. It doesn't help that none of them are DCC-equipped, either.

As for rolling stock, I do have some fine Atlas and InterMountain cars, but most of my freight cars are Athearn and MDC, with even some Life Like and Tyco thrown in. Again, as technology advances, these older cars don't stand up to more recent products.

All this to say that if I decide to sell my layout in five or ten or 20 years, people may prefer items that are much better detailed than what I have to offer. I might be lucky to sell my model railroad stuff for a fraction of what it cost, or is worth now.

Not that money is my main concern; I have never viewed model railroading as an investment. The hobby has paid itself back to me many times over in terms of enjoyment and satisfaction. My layout owes me nothing.

But, still, it is sobering to think that one day these models which I value so highly might be viewed as bargan-basement products—sort of like the way we view items made in the 1960s and 1970s today.

In the meantime, if you want some CN brass steam locomotives, I know someone who may be selling some soon.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Families and Model Railroading: A Compromise

The CP Rail M & M Sub. lifts its skirts
to show what's beneath: Storage!
Like many other married model railroaders, my friend Jason Shron (owner of Rapido Trains) has an understanding wife. Unlike other married model railroaders, Jason’s wife wrote about her husband’s hobby in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.

In an article titled “I wish I had a basement,” she writes about how she sometimes wishes she had a place for her kids to play, or a space for a rec room. But, she concludes, “as much as I envy those spaces, losing my basement does not mean as much to me as pursuing this ambition does to my husband.”

Of his efforts, which includes building a full-size version of a VIA passenger coach, she says: “I can’t help but be impressed. And yes, proud.”

Read the whole article here:

Her article, and the subsequent response on various model railroad forums, got me thinking about the relationship between model railroading and, well, relationships—particularly with our spouses and families.

In my case, model railroading has had a big impact. It influenced the choice of our two houses. To begin, it meant only a bungalow would do since that style of house has the largest basement. While house-hunting, the first place I always went was the basement. If I came up shaking my head, it didn’t matter how nice the kitchen was—we weren’t buying it.

Once in our houses, it impacted the amount of living space. In our first home, the layout took half of the basement (it was a small house). In our present home, it takes about one-third.

Of course, model railroading also affects finances; as a couple, we have needed to agree on a budget for the hobby, just as we would for anything else.

One way I have lessened the impact of my hobby on family life is by providing lots of storage space in my layout room. In essence, my layout is nothing but trains on top of shelf space—I started by building shelving, and then built a layout above it. Skirting--provided for me by my wife, as a birthday present one year--hides the storage space from view, and gives the room a neat and tidy look.

My brother-in-law took different approach; his Cougar River Subdivision (now dismantled) was one of the city’s largest layouts. But even though it was large, he lessened the impact on family life by constructing it on narrow shelves around the walls of his basement.

In his case, the layout went through the rec room, bedroom and other parts of the basement, but left lots of room for those spaces to be useable by others. (He went so far as to build his upper staging yard a foot below the ceiling, thus ensuring that the laundry area was still easily accessible.) See photos of his layout below.

In other words, it’s a matter of compromise—just like other things in families and life. In my case, it’s worked out fine. How about for you?

The family room: Room for the family and the
Cougar River Sub.

Another shot of the family room.

His son's bedroom. Wouldn't you have loved
to have had a room like that when you were
a kid?

The laundry area: Room for the washer and dryer,
plus four levels of the layout. (I told you it was big!)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Overview of the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision

In December, 2009, Railroad Model Craftsman published an article about the CP Rail M & M Sub. Find that article below.

You can find a trackplan here.

Photo tours can be found here (lower level): And here (upper level). 

Note: Since this article was published, I have made some changes to the layout (took down the centre penninsula). You can read about the changes by using the following links:

Getting (re)started in model railroading
Going, going, gone
Laying Track
More progress
Layout progress
Layout progress: Done, sort of
Hiding the hole
Hiding the Hole, Part 2
Before and After on the layout (old and new photos of the revised peninsula)
More Progress (Turing from Blue to Green)
New Bridges on the M & M Sub.
Getting Closed to Finished


It’s the early-1990s. Rail traffic between the U.S. and Canada is booming. A lightly-used single-track, unsignalled line from Winnipeg to the U.S. Midwest suddenly finds itself deluged by a steady stream of unit coal, intermodal, forest products, grain and mixed freight trains travelling between the two countries.

For Railway Traffic Controllers, it’s a headache—too many trains trying to use too little track. But for railfans, it’s a delight to see train after train make its way across the prairies and through the rugged Canadian shield.

That’s the scenario on my HO scale CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision, a freelanced layout inspired by two real-life north-south lines: The CN line (ex-Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific) between Winnipeg, Manitoba and Duluth, Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario, via the Ontario border town of Fort Frances, and CP Rail’s Weyburn Sub. from near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Portal, North Dakota.

The layout

The double-deck layout occupies a 17 by 20 foot basement room; an adjacent 5 by 11 foot storage room contains two 12-track staging yards and part of the trackage that lifts trains between the two levels. The benchwork is L-girder construction on the lower level, with 3/8ths plywood and inverted ceiling tile for the subroadbed.

Two inch thick Styrofoam is used for subroadbed for the upper level. Roadbed for the mainline is 1/8th inch thick sheet cork, cut to width. Layout heights vary from 61 to 64 inches for the upper level; the lower level is 43 inches off the floor. Space between the decks is 14 to 16 inches.

The point-to-point mainline is about 230 feet in length; a connecting track between the mainline and the staging yard creates a loop on the lower level. Track is all Atlas code 100, and the maximum grade is 1.5 percent.

All but one curve is 30 inches in radius or larger. The maximum siding length is 20 cars, plus two locomotives. Conventional DC is used to power the layout; the mainline is controlled by a dispatcher in the storage room while the yardmaster controls all the trackage in Fort Frances and the yard approaches.

Era & Operations

By setting the layout in the mid-1990s, I am able to run my favourite units—SD40-2s. That time period also means I can run a wide variety CP Rail schemes: Multimark, no Multimark, twin flags and SOO units in the classic white and red or candy apple red liveries.

I lightly “Canadianize” the units by adding headlights to the nose and putting the bell above the cab. Most of my locomotives are blue box Athearn, along with some newer Athearn, Kato, Atlas and Proto 2000.

Modelling that period means no cabooses. But that doesn’t mean you won’t t find any on the layout—they occasionally appear in the middle of freight trains, on their way to off-line scrap yards. The big “D” (for Derelict) on the side leaves no question about their ultimate destination. (Click here to read more about new uses for old cabooses.)

Modelling the modern era also means large industries and graffiti. The largest industry on the layout is the Peace River paper mill, at about 10 feet in length, with five tracks for spotting cars and a two-track yard. Several other industries are 24 to 30 inches long. For graffiti I use gel pens, creating various words and patterns on the sides of freight cars.

Although set in the modern era, evidence of the past can still be seen in filled-in turntable pit in the engine terminal. I made the pit by gluing cardstock in a circle to represent the old concrete edge, then using grass to fill in the old pit area.

As for operations, I settled on the line between Winnipeg, Duluth and Thunder Bay because it offered the “Y” pattern I was looking for. This allows trains to drop off and pick up cars headed for either line in Fort Frances, and the base of the “Y,” as well as for the Peace River Railroad shortline and local industries.

Train movements on the layout are governed by a sequence schedule; since I mostly operate alone, it can take me a week or a month or more to run through the sequence. Each train has a list that indicates which cars need to be dropped off and picked up in the Fort Frances yard for forwarding to various on and off-line destinations. The yard switcher serves industries in Fort Frances, while the Peace River paper mill has its own switcher.


The scenery on the layout is made from extruded Styrofoam. In addition to being able to make realistic-looking hills, extruded Styrofoam also makes it easy to model below-grade effects such as gullies, ditches and undulating ground. Planting trees is a snap; just poke a hole with a nail and insert the tree. For ground cover, I just paint the Styrofoam with a mix of brown, grey and black latex paint, then add ground foam.

Most of the rocks are made from tree bark, which I gathered along the banks of Winnipeg’s Red River after spring runoff. Tree bark is great for rocks because a) it’s pre-coloured; b) no two pieces of bark look alike; c) there’s no mess or clean-up; and d) it’s free. That’s a hard combination to beat!

I affix the bark to the Styrofoam with white glue, using nails to hold it in place until the bark dries. Once dry, I remove the nails and fill in the gaps with joint compound. Then I paint the area around the rock and add ground cover.

The trees are made from a variety of local weeds and plants, including Sedum and Spirea. I spray paint them black and brown; when dry, I use hairspray and ground foam to make the leaves. The water is made from Ceramcoat black/green and deep green paints, with a final coat of Gloss Medium.


The layout is mostly rural, so I use photos of real trees for most of my backgrounds. After printing the photos, I enlarge them on a colour photocopier. Using a sharp hobby knife, I cut around the trees and affix the copy to the wall. In urban areas, I use photos of real buildings, or copies of buildings—both model and prototype—taken from magazines like Model Railroader. This includes photos of buildings from advertisements, but also from the layouts of others; someone who knows where to look can see a building from John Allen’s Gorre & Daphetid Port area on my layout.


Over my years in the hobby I have met a lot of people who think they can never build a layout. I am living proof that it is possible—I was as unskilled as any when it came to carpentry, wiring, track laying and scenery. With time, patience, good how-to books and help from other members of the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club, I have been able to create a layout that has given me almost 16 years of enjoyment so far, and which promises to provide many more years of future satisfaction.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti Earthquake

This is a blog about model railroading, yet today my heart is breaking for the people of Haiti.

The magnitude of the tragedy in that country is overwhelming; if ever there was a country that didn't deserve this, it is Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

One of the blessings of living in Canada, the U.S. or Europe is being able to enjoy a hobby--that is a luxury unknown to billions of poor people around the world. A donation to your favourite relief organization for Haitian earthquake relief would be a good way to help people in Haiti, and to show your gratitude for the many blessings we all have received--including the blessing of a hobby like model railroading.

It's the least we all can do.

P.S. I spent the bulk of my career in international relief and development, including in Haiti. I do not have any word yet about friends I used to work with in that country.

Update: On Jan. 15 I learned that my friend and former colleague, Jean-Claude, is alive. I await additional information on other friends in that country.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Video: Switching the Yard at Fort Frances

Fort Frances is a major division point on the CP Rail M & M Sub. All trains change crews there, and many drop off and pick up cars. On this video you can watch yard switcher SW9 #329 pick up cars from a mixed train going from Duluth to Winnipeg, and add new cars to the consist.

You watch the action by clicking play on the video below, or go to You can find more videos of the layout on YouTube at

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Extreme Weathering

CP Rail #381165 in its weathered "glory."

When True Line Trains brought out its CP Rail slab side hoppers, I just knew I had to get one. But the car couldn't be in pristine condition on my early-1990s era CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision. The prototype was built in 1959; by the time it finished service in 1994, it would have been extremely weathered, as in the photo of #385816 (below), built in 1965 and pictured in 2009 in Squamish, B.C.

CP Rail #385816 in Squamish, B.C. in 2009.

My preferred method for aging and weathering freight cars is--wait for it--SOS pads. These abrasive kitchen aids are designed to "clean from A to Z" according to the box they come in; they are also pretty handy for removing lettering from rolling stock, or aging a car.

The model before weathering. In the foreground:
The piece of SOS pad.

I start by cutting a small piece off a pad. I wash out the soap, and let it dry. Next, I gently rub it on the area where I wish to remove the lettering. After a short while you will notice the paint beginning to disappear; you can keep rubbing until you obtain the desired effect. Be careful; you can take off all the paint if you don't pay attention (not a terrible problem in extreme weathering, mind you).

In this case, I wanted the car to look very old. I also wanted to it to look grimy and dirty. After rubbing off some of the lettering and markings, I used a combination of chalk and water paint to make it look as well-used as possible. I used the photo of #385816 for inspiration; I was not trying to duplicate it.

It took a number of tries to get the effect I was looking for, but now my CP Rail slab side hopper looks like it belongs in the latter part of the 20th century, having served well--even if it didn't receive very much TLC in its later years.

Another shot of the model.