Tuesday, March 6, 2018

St-Pie Layout Greenlighted

Some progresses occurred during the last weekend about the St-Pie Layout as we shall call it now. A few prerequisite conditions had to be met before we ever ventured into this project, namely finding suitable motive power. A successful trip to Van Horne Hobby in Laval, QC, last Saturday helped us secure a brand new Atlas B39-8 in LMX scheme equipped with a very old original QSI sound decoder… While the paint scheme will require some touch up to match prototype pictures, this is an excellent start for a project.

Once we got the locomotive, we bought a few grain hoppers to complete the fleet. Before visiting hobby shops all over Montreal area, we made sure to survey every rolling stock that could be seen on MMA St-Guillaume subdivision’s pictures. Grain hoppers are costly and we only wanted to purchase relevant material that characterized the road.

A few other items were also acquired, including a pair of Central Valley 150ft Pratt Truss bridges, a Lonestart grain semi-trailer and rooftop details for the future scratchbuilt grain elevators. In that respect, we now have everything on hands to make this project real.


Meanwhile, Jérôme has been fiddling with the track plan a little bit over the last week. I certainly think mocking up the layout on the floor was a great thing. While I’m a big fan of over-designing track plans, I know too well scene composition and operation must be tested in real life before committing to a final plan.

Using Google Earth and a measuring tape, Jérôme found out St-Pie runaround could only handle two grain cars at once. Yes, you read well… two cars in 2010. That may sound ridiculous, but it seems MMA deemed it was enough for their needs which is ideal for a small layout. Peculiar operation patterns are bound to happen. This discovery also has an unexpected impact on scene composition. Initially, we placed the grain elevators too far apart. But now, they are closer on the layout, making for a much interesting scene framed by two tall structures. It also means the lead track on the left side is now much longer, which is indeed a positive development.

Finally, another parameter surfaced: the layout must be fully independent from the walls (supported only by legs) and modular for ease of transportation is a move is required. I don’t see it as a constraint since it will be easier to build each module in the workshop and do the messy work there.

So now it’s time to rip some wood and assemble the benchwork… Meanwhile, back to Hedley Junction where I still have a lot to do!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

QSSR Mark IV - St-Guillaume Subdivision - MMA

When my friend Jérôme told me last summer operating Harlem Junction wasn’t very practical given his available space and time, we started to discuss what could be an interesting small layout that would capture prototypical operation, be visually engaging, relatively simple to build and manage. On top of the list was also minimal track maintenance and ease of staging impromptu operating sessions lasting anything between 30 minutes up to one hour. It is also interesting to note he favors short trains with a branchline flavour, which is quite useful for our purpose.

While these parameters are rather simple, they can make or break a deal quickly. Unreliable electrical pickup and too much track to clean can easily turn a nice idea in a nightmare. We’ve all experimented how small electrical failures can sour the most optimistic operator on earth, particularly when dealing with low speed switching. Furthermore, the more complex a layout is, the harder it comes to stage efficiently and quickly an operation session. This is another deterrent that should never be underestimated in the context of short solo operation.

A Premise

Jérôme being a real life railroader, he likes to take up operation challenges and find ways to accomplish a task. But don’t be fooled, it’s not a matter of complexity for the sake of it such as a switching puzzle like John Allen’s Timesaver. He prefers situation when you have to perform optimal moves given normal life limitation just as real railroads do. His request was timely because at the time, I was exploring ideas for a small HO layout at home based upon the same general ideas.

What’s interesting with Jérôme is that he knows what he wants, what works for him and what doesn’t bring him fun. For years, he bothered with grain cars until I built a large replica of Quebec City’s Bunge (now G3) elevator. It was a few weeks before we changed the club layout focus and thus, our grain cars never saw action since we purchased them.

It is also interesting to note Jérôme operates frequently our layout (and others too) which helped him to shape his personal approach to model railroader. It means he won’t ask for impossible things and knows how much action he can expect from a given design. It’s not a matter of speculation but rather taking decision based on experience.

A Prototype

Since last summer, I’ve been exploring the possibility to replicate a stretch of ex-CP track that was operated by the ill-fated Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway in the 2000s in Saint-Pie, QC. Called the St-Guillaume Subdivision, it used to link Stanbridge, Farnhman and St-Hyacinthe. What MMA operated was only a remnant of yet another former grandiloquent 19th century trunk line linking the St. Lawrence River and the United States to bring hay on New York City markets. It was destined to fail, which took about 150 year to happen.

The last Quebec South Shore Railway project was indeed based on St-Pie which is a small rural community with a feed mill and an impressive concrete grain elevator. This prototype is interesting because it is really focussed in terms of traffic, rolling stock and industries, while being easy to replicate in HO scale in a very standard spare bedroom. Among the prototype chief features are a nice Pratt truss double span bridge, a weed-infested right of way, short siding and a passing track that can barely hold more than 5 grain cars. If you add to that a sharp 90 degrees bend, you get something that can be reasonably be modeled without too much compromise.
St-Pie, QC (courtesy Google Earth)

You can have a better appreciation of the prototype with these excellent pictures shot by fellow railfans Jean-François Dumont and Frank Jolin before the line demise.

Most of you can recall I mentioned last summer I had another layout concept in mind that I would like to share with you. It was this project. A few reasons prompted me to develop this idea beyond just wanting to model Southern Quebec.

While Harlem Station is a neat layout, it proved to be quite overwhelming to operate for a single person, namely Jérôme. It also takes up a lot of space in his office room, making it not the best way to optimize available space. Furthermore, most of the time, you want to operate about 45 minutes or 1 hour, maybe less. Harlem Station is quite complex, but a small rural community is something you can interact with on a more frequent basis. Lance Mindheim often advocated smaller layouts were indeed more engaging to operate regularly. I fully agree with him, knowing how much my original QSSR layout has been to operate. When you put all that together, it’s no wonder I believe Jérôme deserves a layout better suited to his need.

St-Pie is thus interesting because it was located on a short branchline connecting St-Hyacinthe and Farnham, two large railway hubs in Southern Quebec. It served several farming communities along the road, including several grain elevator and feed mill. In fact, it was almost exclusively a grain hauling line. Pictures and railfanning trips helps us to understand trains were short, very short, often between 5 to 15 cars, but generally closer to five than fifteen. It was often operated with quite weathered and faded ex-LMX GE B39-8s.

Another interesting aspect of this prototype is how it is naturally framed in such a way it is visually interesting. You’ll notice most of the action is near the layout center portion which is well-framed by the bridge and the smaller feed mill. Track ends are also hidden in tree tunnels that are a both end of the layout, making for a natural way to hide them without complex contraptions.

From an operation standpoint, the line can be operated westbound or eastbound. According to Jérome’s recollections and pictures, St-Pie’s customers were all switched on northbound and southbound trips. This is interesting, because it meant the runaround had to be used half of the time. Better, that passing track was often clogged with extra cars waiting to be spotted. No need to say what seems to be a very simplistic layout can quickly turn out to be more than meets the eye.

A Project

To test the idea, we decided to “draw” the layout benchwork on the floor with masking tape. It was the best way to fine tune how track and structures would work together. Using turnouts, flextrack and foamcore structures, it also helped to compose scenes in a way they will look better and more realistic. Let’s be honest, you can fiddle with 2D and 3D planning all you want, but at the end of the day, scene composition has to be in real. With scale model or full scale. Somehow, perception with our eyes always differs from virtual perspectives. Though my training as an architect helps me to anticipate how things look in real life, it’s always a tricky exercise. Better work with real stuff, particularly when the design process has an artistic nature. Picture's subpar quality is due to a serious lack of adequate lighting in the room (which will have to be addressed when building the layout).

As for the layout itself, it will be built in three modules (left, corner and bridge) supported by legs. Since we hardly know the wall composition and don’t want to risk messing up with insulation and air barrier (this is a basement after all), making a self-supporting shelf isn’t the best solution in our case. Since Saint-Pie is a relatively flat “urban” setting, a flat benchwork will be more than enough. Water putty, papier-mâché mud and other such products will be used to add some relief to the scene. Noteworthy, MMA track was buried in the ground with almost no ballast remaining in sight. It was a common occurrence on MMA trackage, which was generally plagued with serious speed limitations. While a serious issue on the prototype, this makes our benchwork and track laying process simpler. I certainly wish to build up on experience gained when add ballast and weed to Villeneuve yard recently.

Overall, this layout is quite focussed yet has some interesting challenges. The project small scale make it suitable to hone my scenery and structure building skills while providing Jérôme with something he can be proud of. To my knowledge, nobody ever attempted to create a MMA layout and given the company’s abject reputation after Lac-Mégatic events, it’s arguably everything except a popular road. That said, it still has a lot of character from a modelling standpoint, which is why I think the St-Guillaume Subdivision is worth a try.

Track plan with real structures

Help Needed - In Search of... Motive Power

By the way, we are actively looking for an Atlas HO LMX GE B39-8 (or B-40) with the red nose to operate this layout. They are quite hard to source, but I wouldn't be surprised some are sitting indefinitely on collectors' shelves or in unsold inventory. If you have any information regarding that model, let me know!


I’m not planning to turn this project into a regular feature of this blog. Coverage will be sparse and it’s not my goal to unveil it until it reaches a level of completion I’m proud of..

Friday, June 30, 2017

Light & Structure

Yesterday, after few experimentation, I built the lighting rig for the layout. I came to the conclusion I needed two LED strips to get a decent amount of lighting and to avoid unwanted shadows on cars displayed on the main line.

The rig is made of a piece of wood with a beveled side. Another small slightly angled piece is added for the second LED strips. To help dissipate heat and often a better surface for gluing the strips, I applied an aluminium duct tape on both piece after gluing them. I don't have confidence on the strip adhesive thus I added CA glue to make sure the bond was good.

In case of failure, I made sure the lighting is only screwed on the fascia and can be removed easily for maintenance of replacement. So far, I only one strip is alimented but I already have a nice level of light. I'm also quite happy the warm white LEDs really provide an excellent color render.

I also started to build the feed mill cardboard core. As I previously said, the LEGO bricks building help to determine a few things and now I can proceed with the real structure. But I must admit my fear became reality: the feed mill is quite high and when I take picture, I easily see where the sky ends. I suspect I'll have to make the backdrop at least 4 inches higher to make things looks good. It means the shadow box will have to be expanded accordingly. I'm not sure how I will do it, but I suspect I'll regret not making the backdrop higher. On the other hand, I'm quite happy with the proscenium opening, thus it's really the back drop height that is the problem. I've also thought about adding a blue sky ceiling as another less intrusive option but I'm not sure it will be visually very interesting.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Back to the Basement

After a few days, I decided to cleanup the basement and make room for working on the module. After clearing the workshop, I was able to set the layout on a table to be accessible from all side while working out the wiring and lighting.

Over the years, I found out the working condition and location have a huge impact on my motivation. Poor lighting and cluttered rooms aren't winning condition and they quickly wear off enthusiasm. For this reason, the module is now resting on a table and can be worked on while sitting comfortably on a chair. That makes tedious or precise work more enjoyable to perform.

Meanwhile, I've been looking  for pictures of St-Pie on railpictures.net. Friend Jean-François Dumont and well-known photographer Frank Jolin published many pictures of the last years of operation under MMA tenure. It is truly fascinating and inspiring. The short but colorful grain trains are quite a sight, including the MMA locomotives which would be nice weathering projects in themselves.

MMA 8569 (train 811) ready to switch St-Pie
MMA 8546 (train 811) passing by Moulée St-Pie Inc.
MMA 8546 (train 811) switching St-Pie grain elevator
MMA 8569 (train 811) pulling a few cars near Canrobert Station

Pictures also give a glimpse at how operations were handled. It appears Moulée St-Pie was switched at the same time as the other town elevator by the train bound to Farnham (East side). On the other hand, for the sake of visual interest, I planned to switch the layout from the west. My motivation was because the grain elevator better frame the scene from that side and there is also a loading/unloading door on the warehouse which adds a second car spot to the layout. If switched from the east, this part of the layout wouldn’t be easily accessible or visible.

Funny to see how real-life operations, again, change my perception of a scene. To decide, I will have to build a grain elevator mockup and move things around until I find what fits best my space. Also, problem such as backdrop and roads can be tricky and kill the illusion.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Space VS Place

The layout benchwork is complete and it was time to move it in my office. It now sat on a small shelf, at a comfortable height to operate when I'm sitting on my chair. For the first time, I can now start to see the project from the intended perspective...

Before building anything, I still have to install LED strips and prepare some conduits to operate accessories. Installing the NCE Power Cab module is also an important future step. I generally have a tendency to neglect the mechanical aspect of my home layouts and it's a good occasion to do it right.

But there is more than mechanical and electrical components involved. As said by Marty McGuirk recently, a layout should tell a story, whatever it is... and a story doesn't need to be complicated and convoluted to be compelling. I'd like to come up with a big one for the feedmill, but it is mundane. All we know is that a medium-sized feed mill in an average rural town gets a few loads per week. The train serving the town is minimal, slow and somewhat lazy. There isn't a lot of job to do and you do it according to the rules. Since there's no hurry here, better safe than sorry.

Going so minimal may shake one's confidence because we are used to try to justify everything when building and describing a layout. Be assured I freaked out at some point and had to fight the urge to add a proverbial team track to the layout. Fortunately, I put that idea aside, preferring to stay true to the prototype. That layout isn't about "operation" but about switching a few cars at a rural feed mill in late summer under the harsh sun at the height of the day. That's the story. Once you know that, you can start to frame and build up the layout according to your vision.

I've also came to the realisation I should stop to think small layouts are a transitory step before reaching the dream layout stage. I probably will never have the space to make anything significant in term of rail miles. But I know for sure trains are fun to watch, even from a single spot. Railfanning every grade crossings at the speed of light in car isn't as impressive as waiting that moment of the day when you hear the whistle and come see the action. It's no longer a matter of space, but rather a matter of place... In that regard, small layouts are better at framing a place because we focus our effort on what counts rather than compromise while trying to fit as much as we can. And don't get me wrong, a place don't necessarily needs to be minuscule to be modelled... it is independant from the space available.

How will that translate on the QSSR? I've got no idea, but I know I already framed the place where the story is told... all the rest is a matter of development and directing. And that's the moment I'll see if I can transcend my modelling skills and start painting on a canvas.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Progress and LEGO Mockup

I'm glad to announce the module and it's fascia are completed. Everything was sanded down, primed and sanded again to get a nice smooth finish that will look good in my office room. I wasn't sure about the color to use, but finally settled down to the tried and true black as so often used by British modellers. Honestly, I'm quite happy with the result and can't wait to add the last coat this evening.

I also decided to make a scale mockup of Moulée St-Pie feed mill. Honestly, the structure probably date back to the 1950s and is far larger than our usual grain elevators. The main building is a tower with a 50ft x 50ft footprint flanked with two other 50ft x 50ft warehouses.

I wasn't eager to waste material making a mock up so I decided to use LEGO bricks and make one as close as possible to the prototype. Honestly, it turned out far better than I thought. I was also able to use a LEGO rolling door as can be seen on the real building. It would make a very interesting feature on the layout and I'm actually thinking about including LEGO parts inside the final structure. I suppose it could be activated with a fairly simple hand-activated mechanism.

However, all things being good, I must admit the structure looks quite tall and I'll need to adjust the dimensions a little bit to better fit the space available and make sure it looks good.

As a side note, I consider one could use LEGO bricks to make sturdy structure cores. Aftermarket parts can be bought at good prices online and would ensure building wouldn't warp. Being plastic, you can glue styrene and other materials to it just like we do with styrene cores. I don't know if it would be economically viable with Moulée St-Pie, but it wouldn't hurt to try something out.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Module

The baseboard and fascia are now progressing at a decent pace which means going small is also a way to ensure progress is steady and rewarding. That may sound cheesy, but it's an important motivational factor. That should never be underestimated.

I'm also starting the assembly of a Sunset Valley garden train switch stand to operate the Peco turnout. The idea is not new and was pioneered a few years ago by Trevor Marshall on his excellent S scale Port Rowan layout. This is probably the most prototypical way to operate a turnout and I'm certainly eager to try it out. It makes sense on a small switching layout where every prototypical moves are reproduced to bring life to the models.