Saturday, February 26, 2011

Try Getting Around That Crossing!

No way to get around the crossing gates here!

Those of us who like trains will probably never be involved in a railway crossing accident. I know that I won’t; unlike some who race ahead to try avoid being stopped by a train, I slow down at railway crossings in the hope of being stopped by one!

But some people feel the need to try beat an oncoming train by going around the gates. Governments around the world encourage drivers not to do this. But some drivers need more than encouragement, as in the photo above, taken in an unnamed European country.

The photo got me thinking; has anything like that been tried in North America? All I could find is what they are trying on Denton Road, about 30 miles west of Detroit in Wayne County. In 2007, it became the first location in the U.S. to be equipped with unique retractable barricades that serve as warning devices at a railroad crossing.

When the crossing gates go down, barriers rise
from the road.

How does it work? When the railway crossing gate arms go down, the barricades rise from the pavement to prevent drivers from driving around lowered arms.

Another view of the barricades.
The project, which is still in the testing phase, encountered delays and was pulled offline in 2009. After repairs, it was put back into service in December, 2010. Testing will continue until spring or summer of 2011.

The barricades are part of a federal railroad crossing safety test sponsored by MDOT, the Federal Railroad Administration, and Norfolk Southern Railway, in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration.

Find out more about the project at,1607,7-151-9620_11057-181132--,00.html. Watch a video of how it works at

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Death and the Model Railroader I: Don't Wait For Tomorrow

Following the death of a beloved relative, Jason Shron, President and founder of Rapido Trains, wrote the following letter to subscribers to his Rapido Trains Telegraph.

It's a timely reminder to anyone who plans to build a layout—someday.

Death and the Model Railroader
If you are reading this, there is a very good chance that you are north of 50. And I don't mean you live in Saskatchewan. I mean that you are middle-aged or later.

There is also a very good chance (close to 100%, actually) that you have dozens of untouched model railroad kits or models in your basement/spare room/garage/shed/etc. I've been a model railroader since I was just out of diapers, so it's in my blood. I have boxes upon boxes of Rapido products that I have not even opened, not to mention TLT freight equipment, Walthers passenger cars, Atlas engines, undecorated brass steam generators, you name it.

Now, if you have a layout and you've been busy laying track or hosting operating sessions or making bottle-brush trees then you have a good excuse. But most of us haven't been doing any of those things. We've been reading magazines, surfing the web forums, hanging out at the hobby shop, building our collection. We haven't been model railroading.

The last week put things in perspective for me. My aunt lived a good life and died at a ripe old 87. But two days later, my friend's brother-in-law dropped dead at 40, leaving behind a wife and four young kids. Old or young, we can go at any time.

I've heard all the excuses: "I have no space!" - I built a switching layout along the walls of my living room when I lived in a tiny apartment in England. My wife and I compromised. She let me have the layout and I made it look like mahogany shelving so it matched the rest of the furniture.

"I have no time!" - If you have the time to read this email, you have the time to run some trains. How much time do you spend in front of your computer? I know I spend far too much time here. Why get dressed and go down to the basement when I can sit in my housecoat and check my emails instead?

I only released my first models in fall 2006, yet I have already seen Rapido products show up, unopened, at estate sales. Hopefully you see this email as a clarion call to get off your tush and actually do some model railroading. In fact, I'll end here. Go play with your trains.

Take care,


In summer, 2010, I wrote a series of posts called Lessons Learned. One of the lessons I learned from over 20 years of model railroading was Don't Wait Until Tomorrow. In it I suggested that, if you want to build a layout, "the right time to start . . . is now. You never know what tomorrow may bring."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bridge to Nowhere (or, How to Make a View Block)

A trio of GP38-2 units pulls a train under the
bridge to nowhere.

A simple way to make a stretch of track look longer is by breaking it up with trees, hills or, in this case, a bridge to nowhere. Anything you can place between the viewer and the train makes the distance between towns or scenes seem longer than they really are.

Another view of the bridge.
My bridge to nowhere is an Atlas girder bridge placed on a hill made of Styrofoam. The inspiration comes from Rennie, Man., where the CN transcontinental mainline crosses over the CPR transcontinental mainline. This is one of two places where the two railways cross in Manitoba; the other is in Portage la Prairie, located about 45 minutes west of Winnipeg. (At Portage the tracks cross at grade.)

What the bridge and view block looks like at eye level.
In this case, the bridge and accompanying hill creates a view block between the towns of Turney and Nance. I normally don't leave any rolling stock on the bridge; they were only placed there for these photos., Which is OK, since nobody I know has ever seen a CN train cross over a CPR train while railfanning at Rennie!

Another view of the bridge.Another way to make a view block is with a tunnel of trees. That is, plant a row of trees in front of the tracks, as well as behind them, as in the photo below. It is also an effective and easy way to obscure the tracks.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

B.C.'s Thompson River Canyon Down Under

Here's another great Canadian model railroad—in Australia!

The Thompson River Canyon is portable N scale layout created by Rod Warren and Vic Fitzpatrick. It is based on the CPR and CN lines through B.C.’s scenic Thompson River canyon.

The layout, which has received several awards, is featured in the latest issue of Canadian Railway Modeller. (If you like Canadian railways, you need to subscribe.)

You can also see a video of the layout at

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Best Way to Enjoy Model Railroading?

A scene on the CP Rail M & M Sub. layout.

Is a layout really necessary to enjoy this hobby? That was a recent thread on the Canadian Model Trains group on Yahoo!

The consensus was no—and I agree. There are so many ways to enjoy model railroading; building a layout is just one of them.

But building a layout is still, in my opinion, the best way to enjoy it. It is, it seems to me, the ultimate goal of this hobby. Unlike some other kinds of model building, our model trains were built to move.

Model trains that sit in a display case look great, but I want to see them run.
The conversation on the Yahoo! group produced some interesting thoughts. One person who works at hobby shop estimated that 60-65% of his customers don’t have a layout. (Although many intend to build one “some day.”)

Another person chimed in that his layout is DCC: “Display Case Central.”

A third suggested that maybe there is a market for “highly detailed models that contain no motors or electronics, therefore cutting the overall cost down while allowing shelf modelers the opportunity to better fulfill their hobby in a much more economical way.”

I wonder what others think: Is there a best way to enjoy model railroading?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Ghent Altarpiece, Model Railroading and Seeing With the Brain

Does that forest really continue on into the background?

In an earlier post about photography, I wrote about how photographs conspire against our modelling by forcing us look at a single scene.

While some photos are amazing (see the amazing modelling and photography of Josef Brandl), much of the time they only serve to remind us that our model railroads are, in fact, models.

Model railroads, I wrote, are best viewed following a train around a layout. When we do that, our brains fill in the gaps, based on what we see in our peripheral vision.

Our brains tell us that the scene the train is passing through keeps going and going into the background; a closer inspection would reveal that it is only a cut-out from a magazine or calendar taped against a wall.

It’s all about illusion, in other words—sleight of hand, or sight, in this case, diverting our attention away from the areas that would spoil the fun and show us that it is, in fact, only a model.

Until now, that was my own theory. But now I have scientific and artistic support to back it up.

The famous Belgian Ghent Altarpiece, a series of paintings started by Hubert Van Eyck and completed in 1432 by his brother, Jan Van Eyck, is considered one of the first and finest examples of realism in art.

When created, it was a completely new way of painting that emphasized an exacting depiction of people and nature.

The Ghent Altarpiece

But is it really so exacting?

In the Nov. 29, 2010 New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl writes about what he saw when he was able to examine the masterpiece close up.

Viewed from a normal viewing distance, the paintings sparkle with realism, he noted. But when viewed more closely, he could see that the images—which look so convincing from a few feet away—are really quite economical.

“Each of the hundreds of pearls that fringe Mary’s robes is just a dollop of gray hit with a spot of white," he writes "From a distance, it exudes pearlescence.”

Mary from the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Van Eycks, he went on to say, "understood that realism doesn’t require verisimilitude, but only just enough visual cues to exploit the mind’s credulity.

"We know now, from brain science, that seeing is not a direct register of what meets our eyes but a fast mental construction that squares sensations with memory and desire: What we believe and wish reality to be."

Studies at the University of California confirms this. What the eye sends to the brain are outlines of the visual world, sketchy impressions that make our vivid visual experience all the more amazing.

"Even though we think we see the world so fully, what we are receiving is really just hints, edges in space and time," says Frank S. Werblin, professor of molecular and cell biology.

The brain interprets this sparse information, probably merging it with images from memory, to create the world we know, he added.

We see not just with our eyes, in other words, but also with our brains.

And what does this have to do with model railroading?

When we watch a train move past a backdrop on a layout, or through a gorgeous scene, our eyes send a message to our brains telling us that we are "seeing" trees and rocks and buildings and rivers, or that the scene continues into the distance, and it is filled with trees and fields and buildings or whatever.

Our brains, knowing what trees and fields and buildings and rivers look like, matches that information with images and memories of those things and—presto! We "see" them. as if they are really real.

Photography, like seeing the Ghent Altarpiece close up, enables us to focus closely on a scene and see that they are only photos on the wall, or models of trees, thus spoiling the effect.

At least, that's the way it looks to my unscientific brain.

There are buildings behind the station . . . or are there?