Sunday, June 27, 2010

Model Railroad Lessons Learned #4: The Importance of Railway, Era and Locale

A typical scene on the early to mid-1990s CP Rail
Minnesota & Manitoba Subdivision.

Unless you’re Bill Gates or Warren Buffet (who can buy his own real railroad), you don’t have unlimited funds for model railroading. You have to set a budget, and stick to it.

Unfortunately, sticking to a budget can be tough. There’s always some great new locomotive or piece of rolling stock coming out—something you just have to have. What to do?

My solution was to choose a railway, time period and locale. In my case, it’s CP Rail in the early to mid-1990s in western Canada.

How does this help me stick to a budget? Easy: If it wasn’t seen on CP Rail in the early to mid-1990s in western Canada, I don’t buy it. This mean that all those wonderful new steamers and modern diesel locomotives can stay on the shelf at my local hobby shop—and my money can stay in my wallet.

Some decisions are easy: No SD90s on my layout—too modern. But rolling stock poses a different challenge. When a new item in CP Rail livery comes out, I check the build date. If it fits my timeframe, I research where it might normally have been found on the real railway; if it wasn’t seen in the area I model, I don’t buy it.

Along with saving money, sticking to an era, locale and railway enhances plausibility. If you wouldn’t see Santa Fe Warbonnets in Manitoba in real life, why would you expect to see them on a model railroad? That livery is one of the best ever made, to be sure, but it would look wrong on the M & M Sub.

Of course, when it comes to how you enjoy the hobby, everything is subject to rule #1 of model railroading: It’s your layout—you can run whatever you want. But it seems to me that choosing an era, railway and location not only saves money, it makes the hobby more focused and challenging.

As a bonus, it also means you won’t have to rent a table at a local flea market to sell off all that stuff you bought, but never run.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Model Railroad Lessons Learned #3: Good Enough

Is the building, road, track, locomotive or car in this
photo perfect? No. But it's good enough.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire didn’t have model railroading in mind when he came up with that quote—but it certainly applies to our hobby.

In life, Voltaire suggested, pursuing the best or perfect solution may end up doing less actual good than accepting a solution that, while not perfect, is effective and gets the job done.

The most famous proponent of this less-than-perfect, or good enough approach to model railroading, is Allen McClelland. It’s a variation of the three-foot rule—the rule that says that anything that looks good from three feet away is good enough.

In his book The Allegheny Midland: Lessons Learned, Tony Koester expands on McClelland’s philosophy.

“As long as I supplied enough context for the viewer to see that he or she was indeed visiting central Appalachia in a given time period, my time could be better spent on doing other things rather than super-detailing or finessing the Good Enough parts.

“When it was all said and done, the entire railroad could have been Exhibit A in the world of Good Enough.”

Joe Fugate, creator of the magnificent Siskiyou Line layout, said something similar on a discussion board about making realistic looking switches.

“The more fiddly you make doing everything on your layout, the more you make it unlikely it will ever happen,” he wrote. “For a large layout, Allen McClelland’s good enough principle is not just a good idea—it’s the key to actually accomplishing something.”

Good enough has also been my philosophy with the M & M Sub. That was partly based on time and money available to build the layout, but also on my own skill level—I simply wasn’t able to reach the lofty heights attained by other more skilful modelers. Plus, my ultimate goal was to build a working layout; I didn't have time to be finicky.

(Of course, the longer I was in the hobby, the more skills I acquired and the more my concept of good enough changed—what was good enough when I started in model railroading isn’t good enough today. But I still don’t worry about achieving perfection. If I did, I wouldn’t have gotten anything done.)

My goal for the M & M Sub. is plausibility, not perfection. Like Tony, if a visitor finds 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, that’s good enough for me.

To paraphrase Voltaire, I never want the perfect to be the enemy of the good enough.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Model Railroad Lessons Learned #2: It Takes Work

Under construction: The CP Rail M & M Sub. getting

If the first lesson learned is that anyone can build a model railroad, the second lesson is that it still takes work.

Compared to model railroaders of a previous generation, 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, screw it together, lay the track and make scenery.

Work, in other words.

I wonder if that's why so many model railroaders never actually build a layout. Sure, they want one, and many say they plan to build one—some day. But that "some day" never seems to come.

Same scene a few years later: Coming along.

I remember long days and nights cutting lumber, making L-girders, screwing benchwork together, cutting roadbed—all before laying a single piece of track and running a train. Was it fun? Not really. Was it worth it? Absolutely: The CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision would not be possible without it.

Yes, model railroading is a hobby, not a job. It's supposed to be fun, and it is. But like anything else worth doing, it takes time and effort to get good results.

Hard work, in other words.

Done. Total time elapsed: About 12 years.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Model Railroad Lessons Learned #1: Anyone Can Do It

A scene from my first layout, the CP Rail Grimm
Valley Subdivision.

Reading Tony Koester's new book The Allegheny Midland: Lessons Learned, made me wonder what lessons I have learned over my 22 years in the hobby.

Looking back, I can say I have learned a few things, although none of them are nearly as deep or thoughtful as Tony's. But I have picked up a few lessons and tips while building two layouts; over the course of the next few postings I'll share a few.

1. Anyone can do it.

Today my layout is almost done, and I am quite proud of it. But 22 years ago, when I was ready to build my first "real" layout, I was as uncertain as any model railroad newbie could be.

I had no carpentry skills to speak of, and knew almost nothing about wiring, scenery or any of the other things needed to build a layout. All I had ever built before was an HO scale 4 by 8 layout on a sheet of plywood as a kid, and a tiny (and not very successful) N scale layout on a small table as a teenager.

I still remember how I felt before building my first layout, the CP Rail Grimm Valley Subdivision. I recall looking at my empty basement room with a sense of anticipation and dread: Excited to get going, but deeply afraid I couldn't pull it off.

Yet I did pull it off—twice. With help from friends, how-to books and magazines, I learned how to build benchwork, lay track, do wiring, make scenery, weather rolling stock, scratchbuild structures and many other things.

Did I make mistakes? You bet—lots of them. (You can't mix oil-based paint and Styrofoam, for example; ask me how I know.) But they were temporary bumps in the road, and opportunities to learn new lessons.

Not everyone has the space to build a layout as big as the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision. But I'm convinced that everyone—no matter their skill level—can learn to build a layout, no matter how large or small, if they want.

I'm proof of that.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Allegheny Midland: Lessons Learned

I just picked up a copy of Tony Koester's new book Allegheny Midland: Lessons Learned. I've just started reading it, and have enjoyed it immensely thus far.

One of the reasons I bought the book is because I sort of "grew up" in model railroading with the AM. When I came back to the hobby in 1987, it was one of the layouts I followed in the model railroad press (along with the Virginian & Ohio and the Ohio Southern, the latter which provided many helpful tips for building my double deck layout).

I knew I could never achieve what Tony achieved, but his layout inspired me to try my best to create a plausible and top-notch model railroad. My efforts were rewarded in 2000 when Tony was in Winnipeg for a model railroad convention. He stopped by to see my layout, offering compliments on my achievements to that point.

Now that this book is out, I can re-live my memories of reading about the AM.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Steam on the Prairies #3: The Assiniboine Valley Railway

A highlight of model railroad conventions in Winnipeg is a chance to ride the Assiniboine Valley Railway (AVR), a 1.6" scale 7.5" gauge “layout” located on a seven acre site at the home of Bill Taylor.

The AVR was started in 1995; it currently has 3 diesel locomotives, one box cab locomotive and several steamers, plus 39 cars. The tracks are aluminum rail on wood ties and ballast. The railway has 6,400 feet of track; the mainline is 3,700 feet long with seven sidings. A 24’ x 12.5’ station serves as a club room.

The railway winds through an aspen and hardwood forest; it takes over 25 minutes to travel over the entire line, including waiting for meets. In addition to being open on summer weekends, the AVR hosts an annual dinner train and is open during the Christmas season for the popular holiday light display.

In addition to riding the trains, visitors can also operate the AVR; during each convention Bill and the AVR gang hold an operating session, where you can throw switches and spot cars at "industries" along the line.

If you're ever in Winnipeg, check out the AVR!

Click here to “take a ride” on the AVR; Click here to visit the AVR home page.

(This is the last in the series of posts about Steam on the Prairies. Thanks goes out to Paul Ullrich and Ron Einarson of the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club for organizing such a great event.)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Steam on the Prairies, #2: Layouts of Winnipeg

Winnipeg is a great model railroad town for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the number of home and club layouts in the city.

Altogether, there were 20 layouts on display during Steam on the Prairies, the May 28-30 NMRA Thousand Lakes Region convention. (There are, of course, many other layouts in town, but not all were open for the convention.) The layouts ranged from N to O, and included a working display of 1930s-era Marx trains. A few are pictured here; more photos can be found on Flickr.

Click here to view a video of Ron Loewen’s beautiful O gauge fall in Pennsylvania layout.

Another reason why Winnipeg is such a great model railroad town is the number of hobby shops that sell trains; we have six, one of which is trains-only and another which is mostly trains (some plastic models). The others all have train sections. What other city of 650,000 can boast that many hobby shops? (Especially in this age, when so many people buy online?)

Then there’s the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club, which hosted the convention. At 55 years-old, it is one of the oldest model railroad clubs in Canada.

Of course, being a major railway town helps, too; Winnipeg is host to the transcontinental mainlines of CN and the CPR, and a BNSF branch. It is also 45 minutes east of Portage la Prairie, where the CN and CPR mainlines cross at grade. Being home to the Prairie Dog Central excursion railway, which utilizes one of the oldest operating steam locomotives in North America, is a bonus.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Steam On The Prairies, #1: The Prairie Dog Central

Prairie Dog Central #3, built 1882, ready for
its convention run.

The May 28-30 NMRA Thousand Lakes Region "Steam on the Prairies" convention in Winnipeg was a great success! 146 people registered; compared to other regional conventions, likely a small turnout, but large for the Thousand Lakes region.

In addition to the usual clinics and layout tours, "Steam on the Prairies" featured, well, steam on the prairies. The convention included a ride on the Prairie Dog Central (, one of the oldest regularly scheduled operating steam-powered trains in North America.

The convention special was headed by 4-4-0 No. 3, built in 1882 in Scotland for the Canadian Pacific Railway. It pulled a combination car and three coaches; none of them were built before 1913.

The PDC also owns GP9 #4138, built in 1958 for the Grand Trunk Western.

The afternoon started out sunny, but later it poured buckets; after dropping convention participants off at the Hitch n' Post, a restaurant along the line, #3 went back to the station for water. But the coal in the tender turned to porridge; the crew could barely keep steam up. The GP9 was used to bring convention-goers home from a banquet.

Over the next few posts I'll share more about the convention. More Prairie Dog Central photos below and on Flickr at

GP9 #4138 brought convention-goers home.

Coach #104, built in 1906 by the Crossen Coach
Company for the Canadian Northern Railway.

It rained buckets during the trip! #3 is turning
on the wye during the downpour.