Friday, April 29, 2011

Allen Keller videos closes; no more Great Model Railroads videos and DVDs

I don't know about you, but I've been lucky enough to see some of North America's greatest model railroads: The Franklin and South Manchester; the Allegheny Midland; the Virginian and Ohio; the Stoney Creek and Western.

Well, not in person; I saw them on my TV through Allen Keller's Great Model Railroads series.

As model railroaders, we've benefitted for about 30 years from Keller's professional and enthusiastic documentation of some of the best layouts in the U.S. I certainly enjoyed watching them, and am grateful for his work.

I mention this because Keller has announced that he is closing down his business. Here's the letter he posted on his website.

Dear Customers and Friends,

For most of the last thirty years (whether for Model Railroader Magazine or Hopewell Productions or finally Allen Keller Productions) I have been privileged to visit and document some of the most outstanding model railroads in America. It has been a wonderful experience meeting the owners and showcasing what they have contributed to the hobby. Perhaps the best part of seeing all of these layouts has been putting them into a format that you could enjoy. So many customers have told me that they saw layouts they never would have seen and if they saw them in person the coverage and view would not have been as good.

A personal joy from this work is recording forever the railroads of some of the greats in the hobby. These Fallen Flags have been torn down or undergone drastic changes, but the originals still exist on Keller videos. That is a source of great comfort to me and I hope to you.

Now I have come to a point in my professional career and personal life when it is time to slow down. So I have stopped producing new shows at least for the near term and most probably permanently. I may from time to time re-edit shows using the material in the 67 Volumes I have done. But the bottom line is there probably won’t be any more new layout visits. I’m sorry for that, but all good things must come to an end.

However, I will keep the website open and continue to sell the existing shows. Janet and I thank you for your support over all these years.


Allen Keller

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We’re Number One!

That’s the finding of a survey by the Hobby Manufacturers Association. According to the Association, model railroading was the number one hobby in the U.S. last year, with sales of $424,770,000.

The second-most popular hobby, by sales, was plastics & die cast, with sales of $305,777,500. Radio control was third at $362,912,500.

Altogether, Americans spent an estimated $1.4 billion on hobbies last year, up from $1.3 billion the year before.

The full press release was posted on the Atlas HO forum.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Trip Back in Time: Video of the CPR in the 1950s in the Rockies

Ever wonder what it was like to work on the railway in winter in the Canadian Rockies in the 1950s? This short documentary from Canada's National Film Board lets you back in time as you ride a CPR F-unit leading The Canadian from Revelstoke to Field, B.C.

Along the way you meet the men who run the trains and keep the tracks open—the section hands, maintenance men, train crews and telegraph operators.

You can also view it on the NFB website.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Model Railroader Walks Into a Bar . . .

And finds a layout inside.

No, this isn't a joke. Such a bar really exists—in Japan. It’s called the Bar Ginza Panorama Shibuya Branch in Tokyo. The bar caters to model railroaders; customers are able to bring their own trains to run on the tracks. See photos below.

Here in Winnipeg, where I live, we have the Sushi Train, a restaurant that uses a G scale train to deliver food to patrons.

Other cities have something similar; as in the photo below.

Since the layout in the bar looks like it's a loop, it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase: "I think I'll have another round."

You can view the Japanese website for the bar here.

Also click here to read about Zientek's hobby shop in Chicago, which used to be both a bar and a model train store. (The bar is long gone, but the hobby shop remains.)

Thanks to detroitterminal, who posted a note about the model railroader’s bar on the Atlas HO forum.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Religion and Model Railroading

This being Good Friday/Easter and Passover, my thoughts turn to the similarities between religion and model railroading.

For some, of course, model railroading is a religion. They worship at the altar of St. John of Allen, St. John of Armstrong, St. Tony of Koester and St. William of Walthers.

I’m not talking about them. I’m thinking about the rest of us, who take our hobby seriously—just not that seriously.

Here are a few similarities that occur to me (as someone in the Christian tradition).

Denominations. There are over 40,000 of them in Christianity. There are fewer in model railroading, but for some the differences are just as important.

Ecclesiastical bodies. For Roman Catholics, there’s the Vatican. In model railroading, it’s the NMRA.

Dissent. Just like in the Roman Catholic Church, not everyone agrees with the Pope. Ditto for model railroading—not everyone likes the NMRA.

Protest. Following the 2003 NMRA convention in Toronto (the infamous SARS convention), a break-away group formed: The Canadian Association of Railway Modellers. It wasn’t like Luther nailing the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, but CARM was created as an alternative to the NMRA for Canadians. It's sort of like Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century, but without all the wars.

Beliefs. Do you believe in modeling from the prototype, or are you a freelancer? Do you believe in operation, or running in circles? Do you believe in a model has to be accurate down to the last rivet, or in good enough? Yes, I see those hands. Are there any more?

Sacred spaces. The Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, the Ganges in India, the Western Wall in Jersualem, Mecca—just a few of the sacred spaces for religious groups. For model railroaders, sacred spaces would include the Spiral Tunnels in B.C., the Tehachapi Loop in California, Grand Central Station in New York, and dozens of other places to watch trains.

Meeting places. We used to call these hobby shops. You remember hobby shops? They were places where model railroaders would gather for fellowship on a regular basis, often on a Saturday morning, and then to receive sacraments like a pack of Kadee couplers, Woodland Scenics ballast or the latest magazine.

Community. Good religions build community. Model railroaders also have communities. They’re called forums. Some of them actually do build community. Others . . . well, I’m not so sure.

Heresy. Just like a good religion, model railroading has its heresies. For some, it’s heresy to mix eras—to run a Big Boy and an AC4400 on the same layout. For others, it’s heretical not to weather. For some modern modelers, it’s heretical to put graffiti on rolling stock. For a few, it seems like it’s heresy to actually have any fun.

Mystery. How does DCC work, anyway? Does anyone really know? Or do we just pray and hope that those mysterious unseen waves of information move like their supposed to?

Persecution. Don’t think it exists? Then you don’t know any N scalers.

Evangelism. Religions that don’t want to die need to seek new converts. So does model railroading. We keep hearing that the hobby will die if we don’t attract more young people. Magazines and the NMRA keep encouraging us to reach out.

Fights. What’s a church or synagogue without a fight? I’ve seem some dandies in model railroad clubs, often over the smallest things—just like in church.

Holy Scriptures. Model Railroader, Railroad Model Craftsman, N Scale, Canadian Railway Modeller—each scripture has its followers, and detractors. Some think each word written in them is the Gospel truth, others see them as inspirational guides, a few think it is all made up.

And finally, the apocalypse. What’s a religion without a good end-of-the-world scenario? Ditto for model railroading. For some, it’s the end of kits and the take-over of Ready-To-Run. For others, it’s the prices, the lack of youth in the hobby, rising prices, or limited runs. All portend the end of the hobby—if you believe they are right.

Can you think of any to add to the list?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Back Together Again

New trackage on the upper level. The old roadbed
can be seen in the background.

It took a while, but the CP Rail M & M Sub. is back together again.

Those who have visited this blog before will know that I dismantled a portion of the layout in December, 2010. The removal of the cntre penninsula "orphaned" the two staging yards, and disconnected the two levels.

Everything is back together again; I can once again run trains from between the upper and lower staging yards.

While happy to once again have something to do on the layout, the changes necessitated a couple of less than desirable things. The curves are tighter, for one thing (26 inch minimum now), and I needed to extend the upper level over the lower level quite a bit. (I'll have to add some lights to illuminate the lower level in this area.)

Grades in the new helix are also a bit tougher than I want, but I can still run 16-20 car trains, depending on the power I use.

There's still the usual fiddly work to do, such as smoothing out rough spots in the track. But rail traffic has returned to normal.

Next up: Adding the fascia, and scenery—the part of model railroading I enjoy the most.

Lower level trackage. I need to add some lights
under there!

Bowling (and Model Railroading) Alone

In the 1990s, Robert Putnam noticed a curious thing: The number of Americans who went bowling was increasing, but participation in bowling leagues was declining. What did it mean?

Answers to that question were found in Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital (updated in 2000 as Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community).

Drawing on nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century, Putnam showed that Americans sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know their neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with their families less often.

And, of course, they bowl alone—more Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues.

Putnam suggested that TV and the Internet were partly to blame, along with two-career families, suburban sprawl, generally busy lives and generational changes in values.

Thoughts about Bowling Alone came to me during an online discussion about the state of model railroad clubs today.

People who participated in the discussion noted that many clubs today have experience a decline in membership. My own club has a relatively stable membership of 87, but that’s down from the over 120 or so who used to be members.

I can think of a few reasons for the decline, besides those mention by Putnam.

First, there are fewer young people in the hobby—as older members pass away, they are not being replaced.

Then there’s the ubiquity of all those ready-to-run models—the need for how-to clinics, which once were the staple of many clubs, aren’t needed as much anymore.

And, of course, there’s the Internet. If you have a question, you can just post it inline. There’s no need to wait for the next club meeting, or even to join a club.

No post about the decline of clubs would be complete without a nod in the direction of club politics, not to mention some of the unique personalities that call the club home. But that’s true of any organization you are apt to be part of.

Of course, clubs aren’t for everyone; there are still lots of “lone wolf” model railroaders. Some people are just more comfortable enjoying the hobby alone.

I value my club. It’s 56 years old this year. It’s seen its ups and downs. But I always tell new model railroaders to join. It’s a great place to learn more about the hobby, borrow books and DVDs—we’ve got a great library—and get access to home layouts.

I hope it doesn’t disappear.

Do you belong to a model railroad club? Why? Why not? And how is your club doing?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Death and the Model Railroader: II

              Michael Howe, aka Smudgeloco

“An excellent modeler and a true gentleman on the forum.”

“One of the good guys here.”

“One of the nicest people on the forum.”

“A sad loss for the forum and model railroad community.”

“His good nature made this forum a better place, to say nothing of his wonderful modelling.”

Those are just a few of the comments on the Atlas Forum about Michael Howe, aka Smudgeloco. Michael passed away April 10, following a lengthy illness.

Like most people I converse with on model railroad forums, I never met Michael, and I certainly can’t say I knew him. But reading all the tributes written about him made me think that’s the way we’d all want to be remembered when our time comes.

RIP, Michael.

You can see Michael’s modeling here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


50,000 views . . . that's how many times pages on this blog have been viewed since I started in July, 2009.


Like most bloggers, I had low expectations when I started the blog. Since I like model railroading, and I like to write, it seemed like a natural thing to do. All I wanted to do was create a visual and written record of my layout, along with my thoughts and reflections about the hobby and a few other things. If anyone else wanted to read it, that was a bonus.

As it turns out, the blog has become like my own mini-magazine or book. Very few modellers can be like Tony Koester, and have a publisher create an entire book about his layout. For most of us, a blog will have to suffice. And that's OK.

Of course, 50,000 views is nothing compared to what many other blogs and websites get. But it's still pretty big for me.

What's really cool is being able to share my modelling with visitors from around the world. My layout may be in a basement in Canada, but people from the U.S., Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Russia, New Zealand and Switzerland can "visit" it.

Some people say that the Web will be the death of model railroad magazines. As someone who works very part time for Canadian Railway Modeller, I am not unsympathetic to that view. Yet very few people could ever hope to be published in the model railroad press; there aren't enough magazines, or enough pages, to hold everything that could be said about the hobby.

Plus, most of us aren't modelling at a high enough calibre to receive that kind of editorial attention.

That's where a blog comes in. It gives me a creative outlet, and a way to share my modelling with others. Unlike my regular writing at work, it's also a release, a fun way to use my gift that isn't scrutinized, discussed or debated. Nobody writes a letter to the editor about my blog saying I'm completely and utterly out of my mind!

So, to you, thanks for visiting. It's a pleasure and a privilege to have you stop by and visit the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision.

And please feel free to come back.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Watch a Wooden Grain Elevator in Action

Ever wonder how a wood elevator (prairie giant) worked? Ever wondered what they looked like inside? Want to see the elevator operator install a grain door, move an empty 40-foot boxcar by hand (using a ratchet-like device, called a pinch bar), then load it? And then move the loaded boxcar, also by hand!

Check out this great National Film Board documentary here. (It is available for sale or download.)

The elevator is located in Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan. It's abandoned, but still standing. (See photo above.)

The documentary was made in 1981, but it shows how elevators worked for decades, including using good old pen and paper (no computers).

If you model the transition era in the U.S. midwest or Canadian prairies, a time when grain was transported in 40-foot boxcars, this is for you!

(Photo above by Johnnie Bachusky from

Friday, April 8, 2011

Jackson Street Roundhouse

Last summer I had a chance to visit the Great Northern Railway’s historic Jackson Street Roundhouse in Minneapolis.

The roundhouse, built in 1907, is home to 15 locomotives, 31 passenger cars, 25 freight cars and nine cabooses. Some of the locomotives and passenger cars are in use on the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway, a tourist line in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, it was closed the day I was there—it's only open two days a week. Although the roundhouse was closed, I was able to wander around on the outside. See photos below.

Click here for more information about the Jackson Street Roundhouse.

Great Northern 454A.

Milwaukee 502.

The turntable.

Navy 10106

SOO 693 has seen better days.

Armco B-71, a Westinghouse "Visibility Cab" Switcher.

Northern Pacific 1264.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Facing Up To Fascia

Track, scenery, wiring, buildings, locomotives, rolling stock—all things that are part of building a layout. But what about the fascia?

The fascia is one of those things we probably think about last, if at all, when creating a model railroad. Yet it plays an important role in making the layout, and the layout room, look finished.

My fascia is 1/8th inch hardboard, or Masonite (which is what we also call it up here in Canada). It’s light, and bends easily around layout corners.

When I ordered my fascia from a local lumberyard, I paid extra to have them cut 4 by 8 sheets into six inch strips for the top level and 12 inch strips for the bottom. That way I got clean, straight lines.

I fasten my fascia to the benchwork with screws. I painted it flat green to match the ground cover.

On the top level, the fascia follows the contours of the subroadbed. To make it match, I first carved out the contours (in the two-inch Styrofoam), then fastened each strip to the benchwork. Using a pencil, I traced the contour onto the fascia, then cut it with a jig saw.

After fastening it back on the benchwork, I filled the gaps between the fascia and the subroadbed with cheap spackling paste. Some paint and ground foam hid the patchwork.

I also left tiny gaps between the strips to accommodate movement—the humidity in Manitoba varies greatly from winter (very dry) to summer (when it can be very humid).

The fascia also provides a place for place names, so operators know where they are on the layout.

For me, a good fascia makes the layout look complete and finished. Plus, it provides a place to hang the throttles!

Another Great Canadian Layout: The CPR Central Northern Subdivision

There’s an old joke that the older we get, the more appealing O scale becomes. That was certainly true for George Myer. In 1997, George’s eyesight began to deteriorate; today he is legally blind.

But that didn’t stop the avid model railroader from staying in the hobby—he just switched from HO to O scale, and kept going.

George is the proud creator and owner of a gorgeous two-rail O scale layout called the CPR Central Northern Subdivision. The layout resides in a 22 by 20 foot room in George’s Winnipeg basement. Set in the late 1960s to early 1970s, it finds CPR trains traveling though fictitious towns and scenes in southeastern B.C.

George's great layout will be featured in the next issue of Canadian Railway Modeller.

Jason Shron of Rapido Trains enjoying an operating
session on George's layout.