Tuesday, January 31, 2012

RIP, Ernie Labovich, a Model Railroad Friend

My two cars from Ernie's old layout, the Cherry
Point & Western. 

My friend Ernie Labovich passed away December 1, 2011. In addition to being a skilled jazz musician, he was a model railroader. His layout, called the Cherry Point & Western. was named after the song Cherry Point by Neil Hefti--one of his favorites.

Ernie's layout, built in the 1960s and 70s, was a product of its time. It had low benchwork, tight curves, duckunders, lots of track filling small spaces. But as a newcomer to the hobby, it impressed the heck out of me; I always enjoyed visiting his layout.

Among other things, it featured a bandstand in a park; Ernie had rigged up a tape recorder (remember those?) to play jazz songs. He always liked showing it off.


As Ernie's health declined, he could no longer get downstairs, much less navigate the duckunders. When he and his partner moved to an apartment, the layout came down. He gifted me with two cars--both completely out of my era, but which I still cherish.

I made a short slide show of the CP Rail M & M Sub. in Ernie's honour, using a song from his CD "A Taste of New Orleans." You can watch it here.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bowser to Make Canadian SD40-2s

This is not the new Bowser SD40-2, but an
excellent kitbash of an Athearn unit by my
good friend Manny Jacob. I hope the new units
look this good!

I reported earlier that Bowser was planning to come out with a new Canadian locomotive. Today they announced what it will be: The SD40-2, in several Canadian variants.

All I can say is: Wow!

I also noted earlier that this is a great time to be a Canadian model railroader. With the recent announcements by Athearn of their CN GP38-2, InterMountain planning to bring out SD40-2s in all its phases, and now Bowser planning to do the same unit--not to mention all the great stuff from Rapido and True Line Trains--it's a really great time to be a Canadian model railroader.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

New CN Wide Cab GP38-2 from Athearn

Earlier this month I wrote about how this is a great time to be a Canadian model railroader. With Athearn's anouncement of a new CN wide cab Genesis line GP38-2, it just got better!

Athearn introduced its newest locomotive at the Amherst Railway Club's show on January 28. The first four units will be in Southern Pacific, MoPac, CN and Southern (high hood). Delivery is slated for late 2012.

But it's the CN unit that has Canadians excited. This is a great addition to the growing line-up of products for modellers in this country.

Click here to watch a video about the new units.

Photos by Jeff Shultz for Model Railroad Hobbyist.

Man, er, Model Railroad Cars Overboard!

Containers headed for Davy Jones' locker.

Most model railroad items are made in China these days, as we all know. They come to North America in containers on huge container ships.

Most of the time, the journey is uneventful. But every now and then a shipper learns that his or her shipment was lost at sea—never again to be seen.

That’s what almost happened to Jason Shron of Rapido Trains. Last week he learned that the Cosco Yokohama, the ship carrying a container of his passenger cars, lost 29 containers in the Pacific Ocean.

Luckily, it seems that his container was not one of the ones washed overboard. But what if it had? His wife, a noted Canadian author, suggested he write the following to those waiting for their orders:

“Dear customer. We have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that your container was unloaded on January 23rd. The bad news is that the vessel docked on January 25th.”

Lost containers at sea is not a rare occurrence. It is reported that over 10,000 containers fall off of container ships every year. Many of them float at the surface for months, posing a serious danger to vessels—especially smaller craft. Some make it to shore, but most eventually sink to the seafloor.

This container made landfall.

Container at the bottom of the ocean.

The most famous container lost at sea was the one that carried rubber ducks. In 1992, almost 29,000 of them fell off a container ship into the Pacific Ocean. They’ve been floating around the world on ocean currents ever since, with some washing up on the shores of Great Britain, 17,000 miles away.

Routes taken by the rubber ducks.

The spill actually turned out to be a boon for ocean researchers; the duck’s progress has aided their efforts to map various ocean currents.

Now if Jason’s trains had gone overboard, I wonder what beachcombers would have thought if HO scale passenger cars started washing up on various shores? Maybe Jason could send out another note:

“Dear customer: We have good news and bad news. The good news is that your order has finally arrived. The bad news is it’s in Australia.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

InterMountain CP Rail SD40-2 Units: Could it Happen?

A new InterMountain SD40-2; will they
make one in CP Rail, too?

Long time readers of this blog know that I would like nothing better than a quality CP Rail SD40-2 unit.

My best bet would be Atlas, but they don't seem to going in that direction. Athearn has made one in CP Rail livery, but it is a generic model in Action Red.

But now there's hope: InterMountain has announced they will make the SD40-2, and that they intend to produce "every configuration" of this iconic unit in HO scale over the next few years. Right now, they are offering the unit in UP, SF, BN, ICE, CSX, NS, Pan Am and GATX.

Since CP Rail purchased hundreds of these units (it was one of the largest buyers), I am hoping InterMountain will make them for that railway, too--with the proper noses, headlight positions, bell, railings and steps. (I can always dream!)

I decided to ask the company if that was the case. The answer wasn't yes, but it wasn't no.

Here's what Richard Frazier of InterMountain said in reply:

"This was a very popular prototype and it is our intention to produce many of these models. Though the specific model you mention is not currently on the list, I would keep an eye out for future announcements."

So there's hope!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Warren Buffett: Model Railroader?

By now many people have seen the video of Warren Buffett playing the ukulele on Chinese state television during the Chinese New Year.

Most commentators have focused on his playing and singing--and wondering why on earth he permitted the video, taped last year for a charity dinner organized by a Chinese investor, to be broadcast in that country.

But I'm not interested in his playing or singing. (Even if the song is "I've been working on the railroad.") I'm more interested in what appears to be a Lionel train layout behind one of the world's wealthiest men. Is Warren Buffett a model railroader?

According to the Nov. 11, 2011 New York Times, Buffett "collects model trains." So maybe it's true--the video certainly lends credence to that report.

(He's also wearing a shirt that says: "Still plays with trains." Since he owns BNSF, that could mean the real kind, as well.)

Then there's this interesting tidbit; earlier I posted an article about an amazing 4,000 square foot O scale layout. Apprently, the person who owns it, and who prefers to be anonymous, lives in Nebraska.

Warren Buffett also lives in Nebraska.

Say, do you think . . . ?

Click here to watch the video.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The CP Rail Multimark

Last year I wrote a post about the CN “wet noodle,” on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. Since I model CP Rail, it only seems right to post something about that railway’s unique logo—the Multimark.
The Multimark was introduced in 1968. It was made up of a triangle to suggest motion or direction; a circle to suggest global activities (the CPR also owned an airline and ships); and a square to suggest stability.

The first Multimark on locomotives is known as the large Multimark; it covered the back of the units from the walkway to roof. 

Later, it was shrunk to fit from the walkway to the bottom of the grill. This is known as the small Multimark.
The large Multimark.

There doesn’t appear to have been an official date or time when the Multimark era ended; it just sort of faded away. The first unit not to be painted with a Multimark reportedly was GP7 1684 in 1987.
The Multimark logo was applied to everything from teacups to airplanes to ships to boxcars—the CPR at the time was more than a railway, owning ships, hotels, an airline and a trucking line. 

Each operating division had its own colour.

Here's how it looked on a ship:
And here's how it looked on an airplane:

In addition to the Multimark, CP Rail also colour-coded its freight car fleet. Green was for newsprint service boxcars; yellow for refrigerator cars, insulated boxcars and vans (cabooses); red was for general service boxcars, gondolas and flatcars; black was for open and covered hoppers; and silver for mechanical reefers. 

The photo below show the railway's publicity train during its cross-Canada tour. (Split apart at the Spiral Tunnels for photo purposes.)

The Multimark was also known by railfans as Pacman for its resemblance to the early video game symbol.

The railway released a booklet to illustrate how its logo and colour scheme would look on rolling stock. Here are a few pages:

Since I model the early 1990s, the Manitoba & Minnesota Sub. has a number of Multimark units (both large and small), no Multimark and CP Rail System (two flags) units, plus SOO Line, rent-a-wrecks and lots of rolling stock with the Multimark in various freight car colours. 

It’s another reason why I like modeling this time period.

Some of the images on this page from cprdieselroster, OKthePK and Old Time Trains.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Fine Summer Day at Peace River Bridge

I was going through some old photos, and found these from a summer day a few years ago. I was out railfanning by the Peace River bridge, catching northbounds on the M & M Sub. It's a good memory on a cold January day.

(This scene can only live in memory now. I dismantled this part of the layout a year ago.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Layout Progress: (re) Wiring

A simple way to attach feeder wires.

After dissembling a large section of the M & M Sub., I had wires to reconnect. At first, I thought it would be easy--a few reconnections and back in business. Wrong!

All layouts, we know, have gremlins. They usually only come out when company comes to visit. Some gremlins hide in the trackwork, mischievously derailing trains in places they never derailed before.

Some hide in locomotives and rolling stock; normally reliable engines and freight cars suddenly develop problems--the locos won't go, or the freight cars decide not to stay on the tracks.

My gremlins hide in the wiring. Fortunately, they never come out when company is around. But whenever I do anything to the wiring--such as move a wire--they become extremely agitated and offended. (It's as if I disrupt some mysterious natural balance.)

That's when normally reliable wiring doesn't work anymore. That's also when you'll find me underneath the benchwork, chasing down the problem (and cursing under my breath).

So I shouldn't have been surprised at what happened when I disconnected wires to four blocks while taking down the centre penninsula.

(Editor's note: "Blocks" are things that model railroaders who use DC--otherwise known as Dinosaur Control--use to power their trains. If you are under the age of 20, ask your grandfather.)

Suddenly, blocks that worked fine before the changes stopped working, including blocks nowhere near the now absent penninsula. Fortunately, I was able to find the problems with a minimum of effort, and soon had things back up and running again.

Since I also installed some new trackwork on the new lower level, I needed to add new feeders. There is a school of thought out there that maintains, with near-religious fervour, that feeders should be soldered to every section of flextrack. No doubt, this works fine. No doubt, too, it takes time.

I have discovered that three feeders per block is sufficient--one at each end and one in the middle. That way, if a joiner fails somewhere along the line, power will get to the track one way or another. (DCC may be another matter.)

One thing I have to admit, though, is that I can't solder to save my life. At least, not neatly. My early attempts to solder wires to tracks resulted in unsightly blobs that were impossible to hide or disguise. I needed a better way.

I found it with track joiners. What I do is put a small piece of track upside down on the layout, or any other flat surface. I attach a joiner, then solder a feeder wire to the bottom of the joiner.

When I want to attach it to the rail, I either drill a hole (through the plywood) or poke a hole (through Styrofoam) and drop the wire into the hole. I connect the wire to the main feeder below the layout with a marette wire connector. Best of all, it's practically invisible (see top photo).

It's a simple solution, and serves me well. As a bonus, nobody can see my lousy soldering.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Chinese Factory Closing: Athearn Confirms it is Affected

Athearn has confirmed that is one of the companies affected by the closing of the Chinese factory. The following has been posted by the company on their Facebook page:

"As one of the oldest brands in the model railroad industry, Athearn has close ties with most major railroad model manufacturers. Unfortunately, from time to time a supplier may be unable meet their obligations, and despite their best efforts be required to discontinue business. We are saddened by the recent loss of one of our close manufacturing partners, and their several hundred workers that have now received their pay but lost their jobs.

"We believe our remaining manufacturing partners, our relationships with them, and our combined capacity will certainly allow us to meet all future market requirements. However, during the short term we do expect some product delivery dates to slip, so please stay tuned to our Facebook site while we do our best to keep everyone up to date on this very fluid situation.

"We do expect to deliver our Genesis DDA40X, Genesis Bay-Window Caboose, our next run of SD70ACe/SD70M-2s, and several other products in the first half of 2012, in addition to making some VERY exciting new product announcements in the coming weeks ahead."

Some Photos from the M & M Sub. (or, no Tebow Miracle)

I was going to watch the Broncos-Patriots playoff game last night, but it was clear pretty early on that there would be no Tebow miracle. So I decided to take some photos of the layout instead, experimenting with various intensities of light and wide angle options. The results are on this page.




Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chinese Manufacturer Closes: Update

An update on the Chinese factory closing: One report indicates that one of the companies caught in the closing is Athearn. If that’s true, it could mean delays as that company seeks to find a new source for modelsnot to mention trying to get its hands on products that are already made, but not shipped out of the now-closed factory.

Closure to bring production back home?

One common thread on the forums where this closure is being discussed is the hope that rising costs in China will prompt model railroad manufacturers to bring manufacturing back to North America.

On the Canadian Model Trains forum on Yahoo!, Rapido Trains founder and president Jason Shron discounts that notion. According to Jason, it will never be economical for economical for manufacturers to bring production back home.

“For tooling and injection, the costs are not that different,” he says. “The issue is assembly and decorating. To do this here will increase the price by a factor of two or three. Who is willing to pay $100 per freight car so it has a ‘Made in Canada’ label?”

Return of kits?

Another common thread is that maybe this will herald the end of manufacturers making mostly ready-to-run in China, and a return to kits.

Says Jason: “If people want kits, then manufacturers will supply them. If I thought I could cover my costs, pay my overheads, and have 15% left over for profit by making kits, then I would make them tomorrow.”

But, he goes on to say, “here are some cold, hard numbers. Our new meat reefer has sold very well. We have offered a fully undecorated kit, an undecorated but assembled car, and a painted and assembled but unlettered version that will require one evening of decal application—an easy job.

“The combined sales of all three of those kit or kit-type items equal EIGHT PERCENT of our total sales of meat reefers.”

If modelers want to keep retail prices really down, the only option is an undecorated kit, he says. “Basically inject the parts, stick them in a box, and send them to customers. But not many people want that.”

Adds Bill Schneider, formerly of Branchline Trains, and now on staff at Rapido: “The issue of kits vs. RTR comes up regularly on numerous lists and always seems to start a heated debate. [But] in today's market rolling stock kits just don't sell enough to make them worthwhile producing in large numbers, and certainly would not survive as a stand-alone project.

"The demand from the hobby market (shops and consumers) for highly detailed kits that take more than three minutes to assemble is just not there. If we (Rapido) had to rely on kit sales without an RTR option in today's market then I think that I would quickly be out looking for work!”

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chinese Manufacturer of Model Trains Closes; What are the Implications?

A large manufacturer of model railroad products in China has closed. The closure will be felt throughout the hobby, as explained by Jason Shron of Rapido Trains below. It will also adversely affect thousands of Chinese, who lost their jobs.

Here is Jason's message, sent out today:

Hi all,

A large Chinese supplier of model trains closed down today. This factory employed 3,000 people and was a major producer for North American manufacturers.

This is the second large supplier to shut their doors in two years. It will no doubt contribute to delays across the industry as that factory's clients try and move their production to other, overworked factories.

The reality is that model railroad price increases (averaging 10%-25%) have not kept pace with cost increases in China, and it is often difficult for the Chinese suppliers to stay in business while meeting the demanded price point from their major North American clients.

Our industry is currently tied to Chinese production, as southern China has developed the special skill set required to produce model trains. Bringing the manufacturing back to North America would cost even more, and there are no reliable model train factories set up yet in places like India.

So I think we're looking at tough times ahead in our industry: more delays and even larger price increases. At some point many modellers will say "that's it - this hobby is too expensive!" and leave. With lower sales, the prices will increase more. So this could be the beginning of an escalating negative spiral.

So far, Rapido has largely been spared from most major cost increases, but I have been warned that our costs are going up soon as well. That being said, we are looking at ways to avoid getting caught up in that negative spiral and keep our quality high and prices competitive. I will keep you guys informed of our progress.

3,000 people in China have just lost their jobs a week before Chinese New Year. Not a good day.

Best regards,


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Great Time to be a Canadian Model Railroader

Coming soon: The SW1200-RS

It's a great time to be a Canadian HO scale model railroader.

Not only do we have homegrown companies like Rapido Trains and True Line Trains bringing out great passenger cars, vans (cabooses, for Americans), and unique Canadian locomotives (hello GMD-1!), we also have American manufacturers producing great new Canadian products.
This includes Bowser, which brought out their ALCO C-630M in CPR, CP Rail, BC Rail, CB&NS and CN liveries; Atlas, with its CN GP40-2 wide cab; and InterMountain, with its CN SD40-2 wide cab—not to mention all that great new Canadian rolling stock.
And not only that; we can look forward to more great releases in the future, with True Line planning to make a CPR SW1200-RS, and an ALCO RS-18u. Rapido is planning an MLW FPA4 and FPB4, and I’m told that Bowser plans to bring out yet another well-known Canadian prototype (no word on which one). Athearn, meanwhile, plans to do the CN GP9.

All of this is pretty remarkable when you consider the small size of the Canadian model railroad market. According to one informed estimate, there are only 8,000 to 10,000 serious Canadian model railroaders—about five to seven percent of the North American model railroad market.

It's a big change from when I got back into the hobby in 1987, after an 11-year hiatus. Back then, there were very few Canadian products available. In fact, one of the main reasons I model CP Rail is that there was much more of that railway available in HO scale than any other Canadian road back then. (Having grown up a block from a CN branchline in Ontario, I am more naturally inclined toward that railway.)

As one poster said on the Canadian Model Trains forum on Yahoo!: “Never in the history of HO modelling have we been so fortunate to have such an abundance and variation of new quality Canadian-detailed products, either already delivered or on the drawing table."

Amen to that!

Photo credit: Michael Taylor

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Craigellachie Kid, or the Boy in the Picture

Can you spot the boy in the picture?

It’s one of Canada’s most iconic photos—the driving of the Last Spike to mark the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway on Nov. 7, 1885 at Craigellachie, B.C.

The famous photo shows a crowd gathered around CPR financier Donald Smith as he drives the fabled spike. But who is that boy peering at the camera from behind him?

His name is Edward Mallandaine, and he’s known in Canada as “the boy in the picture.” And now he’s also the subject of a book of the same name, by Ray Argyle.

Says Argyle of The Boy in the Picture: “The book recounts Edward's leaving home to volunteer for the North-West Rebellion, only to find the uprising quelled before he can reach the prairies. His real adventure begins when he catches on as a dispatch rider carrying mail and supplies by horseback across the unfinished gap of the railway in British Columbia’s Monashee Mountains. That puts him in the right time and place to be part of the driving of the Last Spike.”

There's that boy again.

On the day of the great occasion, 18 year-old Mallandaine squeezed his way to the front of the assembled crowd for a better view. In so doing, he not only watched history happen—he became part of it.

Fifty years later, he recalled that historic day:

"Soon there remained but a single rail to be laid . . . The spectators, numbering probably 50 outside of the workmen, intently watched each spike as it was driven. Finally, there remained but one more spike to be driven. It was partly driven in and a hammer was given to Sir Donald Smith to drive it home.

“Everybody cheered; the locomotives whistled and shrieked; several short speeches were made; hands were shaken, and Major Rogers, the discoverer of the pass named after him, became so gleeful that he up-ended a huge tie and tried to mark the spot by the side of the track by sticking it in the ground."

Mallandaine’s story was first told in Pierre Berton’s book The Last Spike: The Great Railway 1881-1885. But Argyle knew him when he was a young boy and Mallandaine was an old man—Argyle’s family rented a house from Mallandaine in Creston, B.C., a mountain town he helped to found in 1889. The young Argyle was entertained by Mallandaine's stories of life on the wild Canadian frontier; The Boy in the Picture is the result.

Mallandaine—also known as the Craigellachie Kid, after the site of the Last Spike ceremony—died in 1949 at 82. But the photo lives on, and so, too, does his story in Argyle’s book.

(Mallandaine’s quote is from Canadian Railway Stories: 100 Years of History and Lore, by Adolf & Okan Hungry Wolf.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Sometime on New Year's Eve, this blog passed 150,000 views.

Compared to many other popular blogs, 150,000 views is no big deal. But it feels significant to me. I'm grateful and humbled that so many people want to read my ramblings.

As I said when this blog reached other page-view milestones, I started it just for me--a way to chart the progress of the M & M Sub. and indulge in a little bit of fun writing. (As opposed to the kind of writing I do for work--which is also fun, but in a different, employable sort of way.)

It was, as a friend noted, sort of an online book or magazine about the layout or, at the very least, a simple record of its progress.

Along the way I decided to post photos and information about layouts made by others, along with prototype information. A few philosophical musings about photography, what Chinese workers think about model railroading and mandalas were thrown in for good measure.

At its most basic, this blog is a way to say that anyone can make a great model railroad, no matter their skill or finances. The CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Sub. is pretty simple--no DCC, no sound-equipped locomotives, no code 83 track.

I don't worry about fidelity to prototype (plausibility is my goal), and I'm not embarrased to be running Athearn Blue Box units, along with an assortment of rolling stock from Tyco, Like-Like (the older kind), Lionel and others (along with the newer RTR models).

For the last 17 years, the layout has given me something creative to do, and occasionally kept me sane. And the blog has been a hobby within a hobby, also providing an outlet for creativity and, maybe, my sanity too.