Friday, August 30, 2013

Death and the Model Railroader VII: R.I.P. Elmwood Hobby Works

(I don't often write about death, and especially not two posts in a row. But life sometimes just works out that way; this week there were two deaths in the Winnipeg model railroad community.)

Sometimes, when a favorite institution closes, people say it's "like a death in the family." And so it is for the model railroading family in Winnipeg as Elmwood Hobby Works closes.

At one time, Winnipeg had six hobby shops, two of them all or mostly trains. I visited all of them, but Elmwood was my hobby shop. It was the kind of place to stop by and meet your friends, see what was new and browse the used bin--I found many treasures there.

Elmwood was started by Hilt Friesen and Vern Gibson in 1997. It started small, occupying a corner of Hilton's House of Interiors--Hilt's interior design and drapery store.

Hilt and Vern in 1999.

The business grew, and soon the drapery business was being pushed into a corner until, one day, it was completely gone.

 "We started off small and we thought that was the way it was going to be," said Vern in a 1999 interview. "But people kept asking, so we kept providing."

The store in its glory days.

The store was always a little ramshackle, and the building was old. And Hilt was "character"--he had his quirks, mannerisms, opinions and ways of doing things that not everyone appreciated. But I got along with him just fine.

Vern left the partnership a number of years ago, and Hilt died unexpectedly in 2008. Ownership of the store passed to his widow and daughter, neither of whom had any significant interest in model railroading or in running a hobby shop. 

Slowly, like a patient with a chronic illness, the store began to wither away. Shelves and cabinets became emptier and emptier and customers fewer and fewer.

The store in the last week of August: Empty shelves . . .

Then, the week of August 26-30, the official e-mail went out: The store is closing. No final date has been set, but many people stopped by August 29 for what felt like a wake (even if the patient wasn't quite dead yet).

Even if Hilt's family had an interest in the hobby, they would have had a tough go of it--the Internet is killing many retailers, including many hobby shops. (A list of Canadian hobby shops in a 1995 issue of Canadian Railway Modeller shows 86 shops; in 2013 there are 51.)

Winnipeg is down to four, only one of which is all trains. That aspect of the hobby--the local hobby shop--is going away, and it likely isn't coming back.

The joint HO & N scale layout in the front window.

For me, the loss of Elmwood Hobby Works will be more immediate and personal; no longer will I have a hobby shop near my home to visit. No more bumping into model railroad friends on a Saturday morning or a Thursday night. No more checking out the treasures in the used bin, buying that tube of glue or track joiners or even a new loco (I bought a few there).

R.I.P., Elmwood Hobby Works. You will be missed.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Death and the Model Railroader, VI: R.I.P. Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor during his annual AVR Christmas display.

For model railroaders from across North America, no visit to Winnipeg was complete without a visit to the Assiniboine Valley Railway, a 1.6" scale 7.5" gauge riding layout located on a seven acre site at the home of Bill Taylor.

Bill, a life-long model railroader and long-time member of the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club, started the AVR in 1995. Today has a mainline run of  3,700 feet, with seven sidings and a station/clubhouse.

In addition to regular open houses from spring through fall, the AVR hosted special dinner trains, operating sessions and even was used for wedding photos. 

Wedding train on the AVR.

But the highlight for many Winnipeggers was the Christmas runs, when Bill decorated the railway with over 100,000 lights and offered rides through a winter wonderland. Money raised during the rides was donated to local charities.

"That was one of the highlights of his life," said his wife, Mary-Lou. "That was what kept him going." 

Bill built the AVR for a simple reason: To bring joy to visitors. But the AVR, and the Winnipeg model railroading community, is sad today. On August 26, after several years of struggling with various illnesses, Bill passed away at the age of 68.

Bill with dinner train patrons.

Right now, the future of the AVR is not certain. The annual fall dinner train has been cancelled, but the September open house will go ahead as planned. AVR members will be meeting in the next few weeks to determine how best to proceed going forward.

Of his wonderful railway, Bill said: "I like to share. We don't really own anything, we're just stewards of it while we're here. We share it and let the people enjoy it."

Bill (far left) with AVR members in front of the station.

Rest in peace, Bill.

Click here to see more photos and a video of the AVR. Click here to visit the AVR website. Click here to read an article about Bill's passing in the Winnipeg Free Press. For more in this death and the model railroader series, click on the label on the right.

At St. Croix, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Layout For Sale: $3.5 million (P.S. Comes With House)

Looking for a layout? (Or two?) Got a few dollars you don't know what to do with? Then this is your lucky day!

Tom Miller's amazing Fine Scale (Fn3) Denver & Rio Grande Western indoor layout and his outdoor Oregon Garden Railway in Sherwood, Oregon are for sale--along with his house, property and the outbuilding that houses the layout.

The outdoor layout is a two-mile 7-1/2" gauge railroad on the 20-acre property. It features a tunnel and an amazing trestle.


The indoor D&RGW layouts measures 45 by 90 feet and has 700 feet of track. The mountains rise up 12 feet, and the layout contains custom built structures, some with complete interiors and sound effects. Custom lighting changes the layout room from day to night over a 30 minute period.

Selling a layout intact is hard--not only does it need to match the vision of the buyer, they have to like the house and the location, too. (I tried to do it once; no takers.) But in Tom's case, it might be a little easier. 

Click here for a tour of the house and property, including a ride on the outdoor layout.

Click here for videos of the indoor layout.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Half-a-million views--amazing.

That's how many views this blog has received since I started it in July, 2009.

As I said when the blog reached 50,000 views in October of that year, 100,000 in 2011, and 250,000 in 2012, I started writing about my layout and other train-related things because it gave me a creative outlet away from day-to-day work stresses and issues.

The idea that it would be viewed so many times never occurred to me as even a remote possibility.

But like the private owner's train on the M & M Sub. in the photo above, once the blog started rolling more and more people seemed interested in getting on board. Thanks for coming along on the trip!

P.S. And I got some good news from the good folks at Statcounter, who keep track of the number of views on the blog. Apparently all that comment spam the blog receives is not recorded, so the view count represents honest-to-goodness real people who are interested in trains.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Photo Magic (The Old-Fashioned Way)

Many things about the Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision is old-fashioned: I use DC, I still run Athearn Blue Box locomotives, some of my rolling stock is made by Life-Like, Lionel and Pemco.

So why not take photos the old-fashioned way, too? I suppose if I had Photo Shop, I wouldn't have to do this. But I don't. So, like photographers of old, I did the next best thing: I made a photo background for the photos on this page.

Without the photo background.

As you can see from the before and after, it does not a half-bad job. And it is less expensive (and technologically way simpler) than photo software.

To make it, I used a piece of blue Styrofoam I had sitting around, together with photo cutouts of some trees. A bit of masking tape and I was in business.

Pulling back the curtain to reveal the technique.

And another shot.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Canadian Pacific Railway Sees the Light on the Portal and Weyburn Subdivisions

A CPR train on the Portal Sub.

The CPR has seen the light—the light of signals, that is, on its Portal and Weyburn Subs.

The ex-Soo line, which runs from Glenwood Junction near Minneapolis, MN to Portal, ND, at the Canadian border, and then on to the railway’s transcontinental mainline at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, is the CPR’s busy connection between Vancouver, B.C. and Chicago.

Until now, it was also one of the busiest dark (unsignalled) lines in North America. And it was the inspiration for my CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Sub. layout.

This year the railway will add signals and convert the line to Centralized Traffic Control. This means that trains will no longer operate on the Subs. using track warrants, communicated to crews via radio.

It also means that switches will no longer be hand-thrown. Right now, when trains meet crews need to manually line switches in and out of sidings. When the improvements are completed, switches will be thrown remotely by dispatchers.

The improvements will add capacity and speed up operations on the line, which cuts through the heart of North Dakota’s Bakken oil field.

Although the M & M Sub. is located in Manitoba and Minnesota, I was inspired by a visit to the Portal and Weyburn Subs. in 2003 to also make the layout dark. As on the prototype, trains proceed by warrant from the dispatcher, and operators manually throw switches.

(The decision was also influenced by finances, and by my own technical abilities, or inabilities, in this area.)

Fortunately for me, the M & M Sub. is permanently frozen in the  early 1990s—no need to add signals and remote control switches. So unlike the prototype, my layout will never see the light.

Photo above by Steven M. Welch.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Putting the Die in Diorama: The Model Railroad-Inspired Art of Abigal Goldman

Earlier, I wrote about how Canadian artist Kim Adams used model railroad rolling stock in an art installation called Artist's Colony (Gardens), and how it was featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Now along comes Abigal Goldman, who uses model railroad figures and scenery materials for her unique art featuring miniature crime and murder scenes--with lots of blood and gore.

Goldman,a former crime reporter for the Las Vegas Sun,  was inspired to created the art, called Die-o-ramas, after seeing a model railroad, replete with scale figures, on the Web.

Goldman with her, um, art.

"I look at figures that are designed to, say, mow lawns or wave at a train and figure out some way for them to do something else," she told the The Huffington Post. (In a section called, appropriately, Weird News.)

Now working for the Las Vegas Public Defender's Office, Goldman says when she saw the model railroad layout she thought to herself: "Oh, look at all the little people! Wouldn't it be fun to have them hacking each other in half?" 

(A question you no doubt ask yourself many times when you are running trains on your layout.)

The 4 x 4 x 4 die-o-ramas feature corpses, shallow graves and improbable characters committing or experiencing mayhem, like the gunman in a pope costume, a decapitated man sitting next to his severed head, and a guy dispatching his victim with a lawn mower.

You may or may not be surprised to hear this, but her art is catching on; she has lots of orders for the die-o-ramas, which sell for between $90 to $500 through a Las Vegas gallery.

Some model railroad clubs have a special category for their shows where modellers make a diorama on a CD. Add a decapitated figure, some blood or an open grave and--who knows? Maybe you can call it art and sell it for big dollars.

You can see more of Goldman's model railroad-inspired art on her website at or at the Trifecta Gallery. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hanging Out at the Yard

I spent some time at the Fort Frances yard recently. I was able to wander around freely, taking photos of trains--being the owner confers a few privileges!

In the photo above, a couple of SD60s await their next assignment.

A couple of SW9s rest between yard assignments.

Two southbounds ready to depart.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Backshoring: Hornby Moving Model Train Manufacturing Back to UK

Assembling locomotives in China for Rapido Trains.

Here's a new word: Backshoring.

Backshoring is the opposite of off-shoring, as in bringing home manufacturing that had been sent to places like China.

CNN International reports that Hornby, a British manufacturer of model planes and trains that once sent its manufacturing to Asia, is bringing production back to the UK.

It is starting with its Airfix model plane line, which will soon be once again made in the UK.

"It's a very British brand with huge heritage . . . once upon a time it was all manufactured here in the UK," says Roger Canham, Hornby chief executive. "Airfix actually went to India, but the marketplace is changing now."

Hornby's reversal is the latest in the trend of "backshoring" that has seen British businesses such as Topshop, Symington's, Caldeira, and DFS, all repatriating some manufacturing from China in the face of rising labor costs overseas.

Hornby isn't the only model railroad manufacturer to backshore production. A couple of years ago Marklin decided to bring LGB production back to Hungary and Germany from China.

A couple of observations:

First, rising wages in China and other Asian countries is a good thing. Nobody should have to work for slave wages, even if the salaries are better than what people could make at home on the farm. 

It's a good thing even if it means we have to pay more for the various goods we have come to depend on here in North America--the lowest price isn't always best, especially for the people who make stuff for us. 

(Plus, people who make more money in the developing world might be able to buy more stuff from us.)

Second, should we expect more model railroad manufacturers to backshore their production? Not necessarily, or at least not soon. 

A large company like Hornby might be able to afford it, but smaller manufacturers will find it more challenging, especially those who add more detail parts.

Last year Jason Shron of Rapido Trains tackled this topic. He noted that it took 7.5 hours to make one HO scale Budd "Park" Series dome-observation car. Labour costs in China for that car in 2012 were $12.90. 

That same car, made in North America, would cost $127.50 (at $17 an hour). Add in the other costs (tooling, overhead and profit) and that car would cost between $400-$500 retail in a hobby shop. How many of us would buy one? (VIA Rail is selling them for $100 each.)

Says Shron: "I would love to bring production back to North America, and if 3D printing continues to advance to the point where it better resembles a replicator on Star Trek: The Next Generation, then we can certainly bring production back here. 

"It will happen--I am sure of it--just probably not for a long time.

"For now, it is simply too expensive to produce a ready-to-run model of Rapido complexity and quality in North America, much as we would want to."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Beer and Trains

Google the words "beer" and "train" and you get lots of results--and not always what you expect.

One evening, I decided to search for information about trains that haul beer from breweries in Colorado--the so-called Beer Run on the BNSF's Golden Subdivision (which primarily serves to transport cars into and out of the Coors Brewing company).

As it turns out, that's not the only kind of beer train out there. And unlike the Beer Run, which transports beer in boxcars, there are other trains where beer can be consumed on board.

There's the LaJolla, CA Beer Train, for example. (Slogan: "Hops" Aboard the Beer Train!) Says the ad copy on their web page: "Join us on the Beer Train! Leave a low carbon footprint and enjoy ample tastes of local craft beers paired with the best of San Diego's food offerings.

The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad offers a beer tasting train. (Motto: "The ales go on the rails.") It features regional craft beers and food. It has a special run for Oktoberfest as well.

Still in Colorado, the Georgetown Loop Railroad offers a beer and brats train. 

Another beer train can be found on the Alaska Railroad, which features the Microbrew Express. (Motto: The best desingated driver ever: The Alaska Railroad.)

In Oregon, the Mount Hood Railroad operates the LaGunitas Oregon Beer Train. In Ohio, you can ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad's beer-tasting train. 

Modellers are not to be out-done; during the World Cup some football fans in Denmark didn't want to miss a moment of the action to get up and get a beer. So they built a model railroad to bring the beer to them.

In the Czech Republic, there's a bar in Prague that uses trains to deliver beer to customers; click here to see a video.

In 1993 Lionel made an Anheuser-Busch Budweiser Beer Promotional train set. Meanwhile, there are people who collect HO scale beer cars. Click here to visit the HO Beer Car Collectors Website.

Finally, Chicago once boasted what may have been the only model train store and bar: Zientek's Model Trains and Tavern. 

The tavern is reportedly gone now (the owner decided the cost of getting a license was getting to high), but apparently the model train store still exists at 22001 W 18th St. According to one reviewer, Zientek's is "like the living room and basement of a grandpa you never had." And at one time, you could also get a cold one.

Of course, there are also the special beer trains, sponsored by American breweries.

If this isn't enough, there's even a song titled Beer Train by Uncle Leon and the Alibis. Opening lines: "Beer Train! Coming around the bend. Can't you hear, all that beer, just a-rollin' and a-rumblin' down the line?" You can listen to it here on YouTube as Uncle Leon sings it on a New York City subway.

Finally, I thought I would create my own beer train. This being a Canadian model train blog, of course it would have to feature--what else?--a Canadian.