Sunday, February 28, 2010

Before And After

Before . . .

While looking at some old prints of my layout the other week, I came across this photo of the penninsula when it was just benchwork. As you can see, I used good old L-girder benchwork, with 2 by 4s in the middle to help hold up the middle and upper levels.

Below find a photo of what it looks like today.


Friday, February 26, 2010


I was going through some old prints the other day and came across this photo of an "oops!" It was taken in Flaxton, North Dakota in 2003. The GP 35 belongs to the Dakota, Missouri Valley and Western (DMVW), which operates in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The unit was still running when I took the photo, but no crew members were around; a railroader told me later that, in all likelihood, they had gone to a nearby restaurant to wait for the re-rail crew to show up.

Just goes to show that it's not only model railroaders who experience derailments now and then.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Land Of Nod

The nod-under on the M & M Sub. The swinging gate
for the lower level is open.

In the Bible, the land of Nod is the place where Cain was exiled after murdering his brother Abel. In popular use, the Land of Nod is a place of sleep, as in to “nod off.” It’s also used as a way to describe agreement, as in nodding your head to say yes.

For the CP Rail M & M Sub., it refers to the way visitors nod their heads to get into the layout room.

My first layout, the CP Rail Grimm Valley Subdivision, was a traditional around the walls, or donut style, layout. Entry was gained to the donut “hole” by crawling about three feet underneath the benchwork.

Suffice to say, it was no fun, not to mention undignified, and I think I still have the scars on my back from coming up too early.

As a result, I was determined not to have any duckunders in my new layout. But a nod-under? That would be OK.

The lower level, with the swinging gate closed.

The upper level is about 62 inches high at the entrance to the layout room (157 centimetres for us Canadians). For all but the tallest adults, it means that people only need to nod their heads to enter the room.

That said, when visitors come over I put a paper sign on the nod-under that says "Duck!" It hangs an inch or two below the bottom of the upper level so that people can feel the paper if they don't nod far enough, or come up too early on the other side.

The lower level is about 43 inches high (109 centimetres); only a limbo dancer could get under that! For this reason, I built a swinging gate so people can get in and out of the room unimpeded.

Originally, it was just going to be a piece of 2 by 4 with track on it. But then a friend offered me a fabulous bridge, so I dropped the 2 by 4 about four inches and redesigned the gate to represent a river.

A simple bolt holds the gate in place, and joiners are slipped over the tracks to align them on the far (non-swinging) end.

On the swinging end, they simply line up with the track on the benchwork. Wires carry electricity to the tracks on the bridge.

Why a swinging bridge and not a lift-out? The main challenge with a lift-out is that, after you lift it out, you have to put it someplace. The swinging bridge simply swings out of the way and stays there.

(A drop-down or lift-up bridge would do the same thing; in fact, I use a drop-down bridge across the door to the storage room.)

If you come to see the M & M Sub., it's OK with me if you nod-off. In fact, I prefer it to banging your noggin' on the upper level benchwork!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hobbies And Work

GP38-2 #3021 switches a scratchbuilt
wood grain elevator at Turney.

A Canadian model railroad manufacturer is looking for a "full-time train guy" to work in customer service. The job entails dealing with customers, fixing trains and traveling to train shows. For a model railroader, it sounds like a dream job—get paid for doing your hobby!

Or maybe not. At least, that was my experience. Back in the 1990s I scratchbuilt a couple of wooden grain elevators for my layout. Later, I made one for a friend as a gift. Some local model railroaders who saw them asked me to make some for them--for money. So did a local hobby shop. Foolishly, I agreed.

Why was it foolish? Until that point, making grain elevators was fun. It was something I did in my leisure time. It was a way to relax. There were no deadlines; it would be done when it was done.

But now it became a job. And, like any job, it had deadlines. The people who ordered them were not just my friends; they were now my customers. And customers want to know: "When will my elevator be done?" The pressure was on.

I started making grain elevators as a way to escape the pressures of life—not add to them. But now, instead of looking forward to building the structures, I dreaded and resented it: It was one more thing that had to be done this week or that night.

After filling my contracts, I vowed to never again make anything model railroad-related for friends for money. Help someone with their layout? Absolutely. Build a structure as a gift? You bet. But do it for cash? No way.

Some people manage the transition from hobby to work successfully; all the power to them, I say. But, for me, hobbies and work don’t mix, and I intend to keep it that way.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Photo Gallery Created on Flickr

Photos of the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision are scattered throughout this blog. But now I've collected a bunch in just one place on Flickr. Click here to see the photos.

Click here for an index of blog postings.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Layout Height, or Remember When You Were a Kid?

An eye-level view of a train entering Ritchie on
the upper level of the M & M Sub.

Did you have trains when you were a kid? If you did, they might have been set up on the floor, as mine were. If you were like me, you probably got down flat on your stomach on the floor more than once to get a railfan’s eye view of your trains.

Even though we are are grown up now, we still like to get that view from time to time--the traditional helicopter view of a layout is fine, but sometimes you just want to get down to their level and pretend you are really part of the scene.

Since the M & M Sub. is a double-deck layout, I can get that view every time I run trains--on the upper level. The upper level varies in height, with about half of it at 62 ½ inches (or about chin height for me), to 65 ½ inches, or just a bit above my eye-level.

What I see when I view the action just outside
of Nance.

For shorter visitors, this does pose a problem; I have a couple stools in the layout room for just that reason.

Of the two heights, I think 62 ½ inches, or about chin-high on me, is best. The town of Ritchie is three inches higher in order to elevate the upper staging yard above the track re-entering the layout room.

(Arriving at a layout height for an upper level is an interesting challenge. It involves decisions about the height of the lower level, the space between levels and the most workable height for the upper level—each one affects the others. In my case, I didn't want the lower level to be too low, and I also needed to provide enough space underneath it for family storage. Subsequently, I built it 43 inches off the floor. I also wanted a good amount of separation between levels; on the M & M Sub. it varies from 19 ½ inches to 21 ½ inches.)

The photos below provide examples of the upper level views—and how high they are relative to myself (at 5 ’10).

A view of Ritchie; that's Nance across the room.

A view of the scene just south of Nance.

Before anyone asks (again), am I worried about trains falling off the layout from that height and being smashed to pieces on the ground? Maybe I should, but no. It has never happened, or come close to happening. It is possible that a stray elbow could knock something off, but that's never happened, either. (Any work or switching at that location is done with the aid of a stool.)
Click here for an index of blog postings.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Tribute to Stafford Swain

A scene on Stafford Swain's CNR Whiteshell

If you are a Canadian model railroader, or if you appreciate accurate and prototypical models of rolling stock or locomotives, one person you need to thank is Stafford Swain.

Swain, a Master Model Railroader from my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was foremost among those who set the bar high when it came to fidelity in model railroading. His attention to detail was not limited to trains, however; he brought the same high standards to buildings, trackwork and scenery on his transistion-era HO scale CNR Whiteshell Subdivision.

Best of all, Stafford loved to share what he discovered; over the past 35 years or so he published over 80 articles in every major model railroad magazine.

Due to ill health, Stafford will move this summer into a condo. This means that his legendary layout will also be taken down. I was privileged to be able to visit him in January for an article in an upcoming issue of Canadian Railway Modeller. The issue should be out sometime in March; look for it in your local hobby shop, or subscribe today.

Stafford's layout will be on display one final time May 28-30 at Steam On The Prairies, the NMRA Thousand Lakes Region convention here in Winnipeg. If you want a chance to see a legendary layout, and meet a living legend, register today!

Click here for an index of blog postings.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New Index For The CP Rail M & M Sub. Blog

I like Blogger, but one thing it lacks is the ability to include an index (as far as I can tell, at least). So I made one of my own; Click here to find it on the Welcome & Index page; you can also use the link in the About Me section of the blog.

The topics in the Index are arranged by The Layout, Tips & Tricks, Railfanning & The Prototype, Other Layouts and General Ruminations & Reflections (a catch-all).

Monday, February 8, 2010

Helper Action on the CP Rail M & M Sub.

GP38-2 #3036 pushes hard to get that train
up the grade.

Helpers are never needed on the CP Rail M & M Sub. The old guys know just how much a normal consist of two units can pull. But then management sent a too-heavy train west. The old guys said it wouldn't work, but did they listen? The result: A helper had to be added at Fort Frances.

When I heard the news, I grabbed my camera and headed out. Bonus: #5447, the ugliest unit on the roster, was in the consist!

View the video at

A no-music version is at

Friday, February 5, 2010

The More Things Change . . .

Cover of the 1954 20th anniversary
issue of Model Railroader
. . . the more they stay the same. I was idly flipping through the 20th anniversary issue of Model Railroader the other day (published in 1954). In an article celebrating the advances in the hobby, it was noted that "the big story in model railroad marketing in the past 20 years is the growth and expansion of the local hobby shop."

"In the early years," the article continued, "almost all hobbyists had to rely on mail order buying. Now almost all of us are a few minutes or a few miles of a hobby shop."

Skip ahead 56 years and it's back to the future; today many model railroaders use the Internet for their supplies, and the local hobby shop is becoming a thing of the past.

The same article noted the growing number of ready-to-run and pre-fab items and wondered if they had "gone too far . . . was the ready-to-use equipment and the too-easy kit harming or helping the hobby?"

Like Yogi Berra famously stated: "It's déjà vu all over again."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Regular Layout By A Regular Modeller

A regular train crosses a regular bridge over a
regular river on the CP Rail M & M Sub.
After I posted a note on a forum about my layout being featured in the December issue of Railroad Model Craftsman, someone wrote: "Excellent article and some nice modeling too. I'm glad to see RMC do some articles on ‘regular guy’ layouts.”

“Regular guy . . .” That phrase is interesting—and true. When it comes to life and model railroading, I think I’m about as regular as they come.

For starters, I’m not rich. I do have a fair-size layout and collection of locomotives, rolling stock and accessories, but none of it was bought all at once. It was carefully and frugally obtained over a period of 22 years; much of it was purchased used at flea markets or private sales. (The original ready-to-run.)

I’m also not particularly skilled, especially when it comes to carpentry or wiring. I just followed how-to books, and solicited the advice of friends. If the layout works at all, it’s through trial and error (lots and lots of errors).

The layout itself is pretty regular, too. For one thing, it’s DC (Dinosaur Control). For another, most of my locomotives are Athearn Blue Box. Rolling stock is regular, too; only about a third of my cars have metal wheels, and I happily run cars made by Athearn Blue Box, MDC, Tyco and LifeLike alongside cars made by InterMountain, Atlas, Proto 1000 and Walthers.

My track is all Atlas Code 100. None of the switches on the visible portion of the layout are electfied. I use Caboose switch throws or homemade springs to hold the switches in place. (Read about how I make and use them at

When it comes to operation, once again, nothing fancy. I use conventional cab control and blocks; rotary switches affixed to two panels (mainline dispatcher and yardmaster) are used to direct power.

None of my locomotives are superdetailed, although I have lightly “Canadianized” a few by moving the headlights to the nose and the bell to above the cab windows. Ditto for rolling stock: No contest quality items here!

The "water" on the layout? Paint, covered with gloss medium. Nothing special..

I am kind of proud of my scenery, but it's pretty basic, too—no elaborate or highly-detailed town or city scenes. I stuck with mostly rural scenery, since that is what I thought I could pull off most convincingly.

In other words, the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision is a regular layout built by a regular modeler using regular skills with a regular amount of dollars. Or, as I like to tell others, the CP Rail M & M Sub. proves that if I can build a layout, anyone can.