Friday, September 30, 2011

Big Bang Theory, Model Trains and Aspergers and Autism

Many people love Big Bang Theory, the hit show about four scientific "nerds" and their relational and other challenges.

One of the key characters is Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a unique individual whose life is dominated by rigid devotion to a byzantine set of rules and routines--a signature characteristic of Aspergers Syndrome.

That, plus an interest in trains (both model and prototype).

One of the lesser-known aspects of some people with Aspergers or Autism is a fascination with trains. According to the National Autistic Society of Great Britain, a number of children with autism are attracted to trains because they like how trains are arranged in lines, how cars are connected, and the orderly and predictable nature of railways.

Thomas the Tank Engine is a special favourite for many children with autism; the friendly faces on the locomotives and cars helps them learn to express their own feelings and emotions.

(I wrote about this connection between autism and trains in 2009 on this blog; read it here.)

The show's producers deny that Sheldon has Aspergers, but they say they've been asked about it so many times they're aware of the subtext. When actor Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, was asked the question, he told Variety that "the writers say no, he doesn't  . . . [but] I can say that he couldn't display more facets of it."

(You can read an interesting article about Big Bang Theory and Aspergers and Autism in Slate Magazine.)

And now Sheldon's interest with model trains was more fully explored on Sept. 29 (see photo above). I didn't get to see the show, but comments on at least one model railroad forum seemed mostly favorable.

That said, I'm divided on whether or not Sheldon's fascination with trains helps or hurts the hobby. The fact that Sheldon is such a sympathetic character helps--he's sort of a man-child, a person who would certainly drive you crazy, but not because he is intentionally mean.

At the same time, the mention of model railroading on the show might also confirm in the minds of some that "playing with trains" is for those who are socially awkward, sort of nerdy, not completely well-adjusted.

In the end, it doesn't matter what people think--if you enjoy model railroading, all power to you. And it helps to remember that it's just a TV show. But TV, as we know, plays a pivotal role in shaping attitudes and opinions. In the end, who knows how this particular show, and this particular character, will affect the image of model railroading?

(Let's not forget that we've been down this road before; Gomez Addams used to regularly blow up his O guage model trains; read my post about it here and watch the explosion. Of course, that was a more innocent black-and-white age.)

Then again, we're better off than our friends who build and fly model airplanes. We just have to worry about a fictional character on a TV show; they have to deal with the real-world fallout from the recent attempt by Rezwan Ferdaus to fly a model airplane into the Pentagon. As one headline puts it: Model Airplanes A New Terrorist Weapon?

All things considered, I'd rather have Sheldon Cooper on my side.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Canada Central Layout Photos Posted

Michael Rozeboom was able to visit the Canada Central layout in Montreal recently. He posted a series of photos of the layout--which is slated to be dismantled in November--on Picasa.

Click here to see them.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Sometime at midday on Sept. 23, this blog passed 100,000 views.

Like I said when it passed 50,000 views in April, 2011, I am amazed and humbled by the attention it has received. After all, the M & M Sub. is nothing special. At best, I am workman when it comes to model railroading--not a craftsman.

What's been more invigorating, of late, is posting information and photos of other Canadian layouts--what I call Great Canadian Model Railroads. That's been fun.

Most of all, the blog gives me a creative outlet for writing. In real life, I do a lot of writing about hunger and poverty in the developing world in my role directing resources and public engagement for Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 churches working together to end global hunger. The blog is a welcome diversion from writing about needs overseas.

As the leaves begin to turn, I'm looking forward to finishing up some scenery on the layout, and maybe adding a new section to replace the parts torn down last year.

In the meantime, I hope to keep on writing and posting. Thanks for taking time to read these simple musings.

Great Canadian Model Railroad: Roger Traviss' Great Eastern Railway

Roger Traviss’ Great Eastern Railway (GER) was another Great Canadian Model Railroad—was, because it was dismantled in 2010.

The 12 by 16 foot layout, set in southern Quebec and northern Maine in 1958, was featured in Canadian Railway Modeller, Train 13, Track 1.

In Roger’s world, the GER was owned by the CPR and CNR, running from south of Montreal to New Brunswick, with lines running to other Quebec cities. The modeled line ran south from Montreal to interchanges with the New York Central in upstate New York.

Rail was code 70, most of the buildings were kitbashed or scratchbuilt and trees were made using the “puff ball” method.

There were over 40 steam and diesel locomotives on the roster; since Roger wanted to convey the idea that the GER had an actual locomotive fleet, he purchased two of any unit, with the exception of yard engines.

Everything was weathered, and most of the diesels received some aftermarket details. Roger used regular spray paint to paint locomotives and rolling stock (both automotive and hobby brands). For weathering, he used whatever was available—diluted paint washes, eye shadow, dry brushing, make up, etc.

Due to cramped aisles, Roger operated the layout alone, using a sequence schedule. About 16 trains were operated during a session.

Roger is planning a new layout. The new GER will be based on the Allburgh Yard of the Rutland and will be housed in a new 10 x 32 foot room.

In an e-mail, Roger said that it took him about 15 years to reach the stage seen in the photos. Taking it down really wasn't a sad moment, he said, since he had felt for some time that it had reached its final development.
More photos of Roger's layout below, at and on Photobucket.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder at The Forks in Winnipeg

Downtown Winnipeg is home to The Forks, located at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. It's a crown jewel in the city's downtown, containing a beautiful minor league ball park (with the CN mainline curving around the grandstand), shops, a children's musuem, walking paths, outdoor stage and, soon, the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

Here's how it looks today.

Here's how it looked about 40-50 years ago.

I like what The Forks has become, but I sure wish I could have been around to see it when it was still a railway yard!

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Train Length on the Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivison.

A 19-car train on the M & M Sub.

Earlier I wrote about how trains in Canada are becoming longer. But how long should HO scale model trains be?

As long as possible, some might say. But how long is that?

It depends on a few factors. If you are modelling a lazy branchline, short trains look fine. But if you are modelling a busy mainline, like I am, then you want trains to be as long as possible.

On the Manitoba & Minnesota Sub., the average train length is 18-20 cars—that’s as long as they can be, given the size of the sidings. It also looks right, given the room size: The longest wall is 21 feet, and a train that length pretty much fills it.

By most layout standards, that’s a pretty long train, although it’s not as long as what my brother-in-law could run on his old layout, the Cougar River Sub. On that large triple-deck layout, average train length was 25-30 cars—very impressive!

A train slips behind the trees. 

One way to make a train seem longer is to make it pass behind scenery—to break up the scenes it runs through. On my layout’s upper level, I accomplish that through the use of trees, hills and an underpass.

Despite these efforts, I still have to admit that it doesn’t look quite right: In real life, two SD40-2s could pull way more than 20 cars. Once again, it’s a matter of compromise—either that, or start modeling steam in the 1950s, when trains were shorter.

Some years ago, I remember Jim Hediger of Model Railroader writing that any HO scale model train of about ten cars looks long. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that almost all non-model railroad visitors comment about the length of my trains. So maybe I’ll just go with that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Great Canadian Model Railroad: The Port Kelsey Railway

The moment I first saw Tim Warris’ Port Kelsey Railway, I knew it was a great Canadian Model railroad.

At the time, the layout wasn’t finished. (How many ever are?) But the level of detail, and the thoughtfulness that went into its creation, was evident even at that stage.

Tim—owner of Fast Tracks, the acclaimed maker of great templates for handlaid switches and other trackwork—kept a blog about the layout from 2003 until the layout was dismantled in 2006. We were able to feature it in Train 7, Track 1 of Canadian Railway Modeller. (It was also in Model Railroader.)

The layout was double deck and point-to-point. It was named for Tim’s late grandfather, W.C. Kelsey. It was set in 1936, in a “typical” North American location.

The layout began as a module in an apartment in 1992. When Tim moved into his own house, it was incorporated into the larger home layout.

Complex trackwork was always a fascination for Tim, so it’s no surprise he incorporated plenty of it into the Port Kelsey Railway. In fact, it was while building scratchbuilt turnouts on the layout that the idea for Fast Tracks was born.

Today Tim is working on the Bronx Terminal, a unique portable layout that is an excellent platform for displaying the Fast Tracks concept.

Click here to read the original blog about the Port Kelsey Railway, and click here to read about the Bronx Terminal.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Friends of BNSF Website Launched

BNSF 5353 in Wenatchee, WA looks like it needs a friend.

You can be friends with people on Facebook, and now you can be friends with BNSF on the Web, too.

The railway has launched a new website dedicated to "providing exclusive content to people and advocates interested in the Class I or freight-rail transportation."

The Friends of BNSF website provides members with access to articles, documents, photos and videos, including items from the Class I’s historical archives, such as authentic maps and documents, and classic brochures and advertisements.

You can find it, and sign up, at The first 10,000 to register get a free 2012 BNSF calendar.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Canada Central Layout in Model Railroader: View It One Last Time

I just got my October isssue of Model Railroader, and was delighted to find an article about the Canada Central, the layout owned by the Montreal Railroad Modelers Association.

In reality, it's a memoriam, of sorts; as reported earlier on this blog, the layout will be dismantled in November. (After 38 years in the same location, the club lost its lease.)

In the meantime, buy the issue and enjoy this magnificent layout one last time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Train Length: How Long Can They Go?

This CPR train is over 4 kilometres long.

Anyone who has gone railfanning lately—or been stopped at a railway crossing—knows that trains are getting longer. But how much longer?

Up here in Canada, intermodal trains on the CPR have grown from 63 cars in 2008 to 90 cars in 2010. The railway hopes to reach a goal of 105 cars per train.

Meanwhile, CPR coal trains have grown from 124 cars in 2008 to 129 cars in 2010; the target is 152. Potash trains have grown from 124 cars to 142 cars; the target is 170 cars.

Mixed freight trains have also grown, from 86 cars to 105 cars; the target is 115 cars. Grain train length has remained steady at 114 cars; the railway is aiming for 168 cars.

To help it determine maximum train lengths, the CPR uses software called Train Area Marshaling that allows it to model its trains before they are even built.

The software helps it simulate the sort of in-train forces trains would experience across its entire network, taking into consideration things like the actual curves and gradation the trains will encounter.

The software then determines the ideal weight distribution by recommending strategic placement of loaded and empty cars, and the best locations for remote locomotive sets (distributed power).

The software is so good the CPR thinks it will be able to increase the length of its coal trains to 250 cars.

Over at CN, that railway has been testing 200-car trains in the Maritimes. In northern Ontario, on its trans-continental mainline, it plans to lengthen sidings from 6,000-7,000 feet to 12,000 to 14,000 feet to accommodate the longer trains.

Up until the 1990s, the average freight train in Canada was about 5,000 feet (1.54 kilometres) long and weighed 7,000 tons. But it is now not uncommon for trains to be 12,000 feet long, and sometimes as much as 14,000 feet (more than four kilometres).

The railways love the longer trains, of course—they reduce the number of trains they need to run, the number of people they need to employ, the wear-and-tear on track and the amount of fuel they use.

The longer trains have caught the eye of Transport Canada, which has launched a six-part study with an eye on developing policies for how these longer, heavier trains are assembled and run.

With information from the Feb. 26, 2011 Financial Post. Photo credit: CPR.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Athearn Blue Box, New Power and other Labour Day Weekend Thoughts

This Labour Day weekend I've been "labouring" on the layout--doing some fine-tuning, finding and fixing bugs and cleaning the layout room. I've also enjoyed watching my new units run in their first "revenue" service, as in the photos above and below.

One thing I discovered is that my trusty old Athearn Blue Box SD40-2 units aren't quite up to it when it comes to mastering the new, steeper grade in my helix. (The result of changes to the layout; see Going, going, gone.) They can pull 12-14 cars no problem, but they really struggle with the 18-20 that is normal on the M & M Sub.

This is not the case for my Kato, Atlas, Proto or newer Athearn power. They have no trouble at all surmounting the grade.

One option is to replace my Athearn Blue Box with newer power--something I am slowly doing. But there are no easy-to-obtain replacements for CP Rail's SD40-2 units. (Atlas--are you listening?) In the meantime, I've decided to go back to the future, as it were.

Back when I started the layout, I didn't own enough powered units for all the trains I wanted to run. (Due to lack of funds.) I compensated by using non-powered units, which were much cheaper. I used two powered units to climb from one level to the other, but a powered and non-powered unit to come down.

I'm doing a variation on that theme again. This time, I'm using my Blue Box units for trains coming down from the upper level, and the newer power for going up. Locomotives are switched between levels by hand in the staging yards. (The upper and lower staging yards are located above each other.)

Once again, necessity is the mother of invention. Or maybe I found a labour saving device on this Labour Day weekend.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Unusual Non-Model Railroad Items For Your Layout

An old printer cartridge makes a unique load.

What's the most unusual or creative non-model railroad item you have used for your hobby?

For me it would be whiskers. One day--back when I still had black facial hair--I dumped out the contents of my electric razor and thought they sure looked like scale-size cinders. I collected subsequent emptyings and placed the contents trackside. They looked OK, even if the supply was a little limited. (With my gray hair today, this doesn't work as well.)

Then there was the time I tried dryer lint to make thick grass. I sprinkled on ground foam, thinking it might look half decent. Wrong! Too bad, though, since dryer lint comes in an almost limitless supply.
A less strange, but still unusual non-model railroad item is in the photo above--and old printer cartridge. In this case, it's really old; I think it comes from an old dot matrix printer. (Remember those?) I'm slowly adding bits and pieces to make it look more like a realistic load--a transformer, perhaps.
Other non-model railroad items I have tried include kitty litter for rip rap; tops off spray paint bans and other containers for roof vents and stacks; old-style artificial Christmas trees for fir trees; and straws for pipe loads.
A friend used the insider container of a Kinder Egg, the children's chocolate egg with a toy surprise inside, to make a unique large compressor-type load. Americans who want to try this will have to smuggle their Kinder Eggs in from Canada, though; they are illegal in the U.S.

When I posed this question about non-model railroad items on the Atlas HO forum, things people said they used included fake eyelashes for splash strips on trailers; Scotch tape rollers for tanks; and Grape Nuts cereal flakes spray painted black, silver and gray for a scrap metal load. (Just make sure you don't have mice!)

What are the most creative or unusual non-model railroad items you have employed?