Friday 24 December 2021

Christmas day a long, long time ago

At this time of year I always reflect on my own childhood and the sense of wondrous expectation Christmas used to bring. And from one of those Christmases came a lifelong passion for model railways that has rarely diminshed over the (many) following years. On this particular Christmas Day I received my first train set - a Tri-ang Transcontinental passenger car set (RS.34).

Dad and I set up the track on the carpeted floor of the lounge room and had hours of fun just watching the train with its blue and gold passengar cars rotate around the oval of track (which I think at the time was called System 4). Having already been exposed to the real railways on some steam tours and the odd photographic expedition with my father, as well as dad's collection of "Railway Transportation" magazines, I imagined the train to be the wondrous Spirit of Progress in all its glory. It made no difference to me that the models were not great replicas, or that the scale and coarse track profile were not prototypically accurate. I let my imagination take over and that was it.

I added to that train set growing up but never really had a permanent layout while living with my parents (albeit my dad had a plan to have a lift up layout on pulleys above the car in the garage at one stage that never came to pass). 

In my teens I was exposed to Australian prototype model railways - firstly through the Australian Model Railroad Magazine (as it was called at the time) which I first saw at the local model railway shop (Micro Models in Hornsby). Not long after, I made my first Australian model railway purchases - a couple of MRC and Friedmont kits bought from Casula Hobbies in Casula. Joe was so impressed that my dad had driven me all the way from Hornsby that he gave us a discount. Joe from Casula Hobbies remains a wonderful advocate for the hobby and a genuine trailblazer supporting Australian prototype model railways. In fact, I just took advantage of his Christmas special 5% discount - thanks again, Joe!

Locos and rollingstock from Mansfield Hobbies and AR Kits soon entered my collection and the focus on NSW railway modelling took hold. But it wasn't until many years later that I built my first permanent layout and managed to actually run most of the equipment purchased from the preceding years. It was the time when if you saw something you wanted come onto the market, you snapped it up before it was gone forever! It's fair to say that I have more than enough in the collection nowadays.

Since then we have had a tremendous explosion of local manufacturers bringing in detailed Australian model railway locomotives, passenger cars and rollingstock from China over the past 20+ years, as well as locally made products. These manufacturers are well represented in my collection, being from Trax/Powerline, Austrains, Auscision, Anton's Trains, Bergs Hobbies, BGB and BGM, Casula Hobbies, Eureka Models, IDR Models, Lloyds Model Railways, On Track Models, Southern Rail Models, SDS, Trainorama, and many more.

I still have that first Tri-ang train set as the photos show. It doesn't have much use other than to bring back some wonderful childhood memories. Thanks to my father and mother for introducing the hobby of model railways to me at Christmas time all those years ago.

Thursday 4 November 2021

History and the art of compromise

One of the fascinating aspects of model railways is establishing a sense of history. This is usually accomplished by setting a time and a place. However, if you read layout articles in any of the major model railway magazines, you will invariably come across the introductory "history" of the layout that sets both the time and place, but most importantly, the history and thus the rationale for the layout. 


The layout owner is providing an historical context from which the layout comes to life. Modeller's license is a broad registration of bending or recreating history to give credence to the model railway.  Indeed, creating a believable history (accurate or otherwise) is almost as important as creating the layout itself.

There are some layouts that have a very distinct and specific history, (including Jack Burgess and his Yosemite Valley layout, Tony Koester's Nickel Plate St. Louis Division, and Tony Wright's wonderful Little Bytham in rural Lincolnshire (check out Tony's book Modelling the East Coast Main Line in the British Railways Era). 

There are other layouts with a prototype history based on real railroads (such as the Rock Island Lines,  and Everard Junction) or fictitious railroads (such as Allen McClelland's Virginian and Ohio Railroad). In that broad category there are proto-freelancers and plain ol' freelancers. What unites them is a shared view of creating a history for their layouts encompassing time and place.

The combination of time and place has always been important to me which is why I love the historical context in model railway layout articles. Studying maps and researching towns and industries is great fun. I have taken considerable time and research to establish the historical bona fides of my US prototype layout set in southern Minnesota but which includes some significant "what ifs" just the same. That said, recent changes to my home layout have forced me to reconsider some of this history. 

For example, the new simplified layout has changed direction. The previous version had east to the left and west to the right (which therefore had some intrinsic problems) but now direction is reversed, with east to the right and west to the left. As a result, the traffic pattern has also changed. And, because the main line is much shorter with less towns, the sense of "going somewhere else" is somewhat reduced as a train has only three towns to traverse instead of seven.

All this has meant a slightly different story to the previous version of history I had so assiduously developed over time. At first, this irked me a lot. I had done all this research and now it was being compromised. But hang on - I'd already "compromised history" with my "what if" scenario. My layout is based on a "what if" the CNW had not abandoned a particular branchline and had actually maintained it until purchase by the DME in 1986. 

I'd already compromised history by extending my layout period from 1995-96 to 1995-2000. That's a five year gap in which a lot happened in the real world with consequences for my layout. CNW joined Union Pacific, and Burlington Northern and Santa Fe merged. There were also some locomotive lettering changes - DME became Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern. If I was modelling a later period, I'd have to include the addition of the Iowa, Chicago and Eastern (ICE) with the DME in 2002 allowing for a new combination of locomotives. I'd been running unit trains out of Marshall (MN) from the Minnesota Soy Co-operative (MSC) complex with Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) and MSC tank cars despite the fact that ADM didn't purchase MSC until 2002, albeit with a 30% stake in MSC in 1997. And Vera Sun (founded in 2001) with its ethanol facility at Aurora (SD) hadn't been built yet but I run a few of those cars as well.

So where does that leave things?

I think where this leads to is the fact that railway modelling is a set of compromises. Even prototype purists have had to compromise somewhat. No matter what, there are compromises. What is different, however, is to what extent is the compromise and does it make sense to both the layout builder and the operators? And it is here where the historical context for the layout becomes critical.

I confess that creating a believable history within the geography and economics of railroading in model form is one of the most encompassing aspects of the hobby for me. Perhaps it's more in the "thinking space" than the "doing space" (something that close railway modeller friends will chide me for), but it also gives me a greater sense of realism (in my mind) and purpose to what I am doing. And this is what adds to the enjoyment of model railways more than anything else.

How important is "history" to your layout?

Tuesday 31 August 2021

Back in the saddle

Firstly, thanks to everyone for their kind words of encouragement after last month's post. It was very pleasing to receive such support and sage advice. As a result, I have made a number of changes to the layout (and continue to do so), removing the second deck and much of the overall complexity to make things much more achievable, albeit at the loss of a significant length of run. I took the advice of a number of people, as well as from this publication by noted model railway builder, Lance Mindheim.

I was initially going to give a book review (something one would expect from the armchair), but I'll just comment on a couple of points that were relevant to my situation. The first thing I had to change was what I had initially thought of as my vision for the layout.

Essentially, my vision was based on my experiences in the US visiting and operating on very large layouts (some exceedingly large by Australian standards) with lots of operators. These layouts had long runs, often double-decked, and in massive basements. They had lots of towns and industries and many were wonderfully scenicked and landscaped. Even some of the "smaller" model railroads had lots of operating potential, with regular operating sessions (well, before Covid-19 struck), and a regular crew of good mates to run trains with. Lastly, and I conveniently forgot about this, all of these layouts had many helpers in the construction and operation of their basement empires. 

For example, Stephen Priest's massive layout, the Santa Fe St. Louis Division (see Railroad Model Craftsman, April 2019), had regular mid-week sessions where ten to twenty modellers would turn up to work on the layout. Can you imagine that? Ten to twenty people each week coming over to help you build and scenic your layout! Of course, Stephen is a NMRA Master Model Railroader and so are some of his friends, but still, building a HUGE layout (50' x 78') required a LOT of work. All those helpers certainly increased the achievability of the layout within a shorter time frame than otherwise the case.

Clearly, all of the above circumstances did not translate to me. It was what I wanted and it was my vision for the future, but it was not realistic or achievable within the context of my situation.

As Clint Eastwood famously said, "A man's gotta know his limitations". And this also crosses over to time, ability, and capacity to construct a model railway given that all three have inherent limitations. In Lance Mindheim's book, he warns of being bogged down as the modeller becomes "engulfed and overwhelmed because they underestimated the magnitude of their dreams". Quite....

The other problem compounding the enormity of the task was the garage itself, not an ideal environment especially in winter. While I do have insulation in the roof with a ceiling, some draft prevention around the garage doors, and an Aldi reverse-cycle air conditioner that I think I have fixed for some reliability (RTFM....ahem), it takes a while to crank up the heat to work in the garage comfortably. Consequently, stepping into the garage for the odd 15-20 minutes of work rarely happened. In addition, all the garage tools and paraphenalia added to the visual clutter (along with the modelling clutter on my second deck) to give the room that air of utter despondency!

Lastly, sometimes we can be too clever by half. I had a good idea of the trains and sequencing I wanted to run and this involved a lot of trains and some yard complexities which I figured I could sort out without too much trouble. There were four hidden staging areas and while I have the cameras and a screen to deal with this, I was never fully confident it would actually work in practice without causing undue stress. That was one thing I should have remembered from operating on layouts in the US - it can be very stressful at times and this was, and is, a truly unpleasant feeling. Sure, the hidden staging could have been overcome with cameras and informative control panels, but was all this complexity and possible angst actually necessary? Was I trying to find solutions to problems I actually didn't need? The answer was a resounding yes. I have removed two of the four hidden staging yards with one more to go! The fourth staging area will remain, but no longer totally hidden. In addition, I simplified the main classification yard, going back to Google Earth to check on a similar classification yard on my prototype to make sure my simplified version was believable...and yes it was!

I could go on but I'll finish up now. Suffice to say, I have been spending more time on the layout on weekends and in the evenings than ever before. It is still cold at times but I am more prepared to set up the heating beforehand knowing that I will go into the garage and actually accomplish something instead of being stuck by the enormity of the task. Reducing the complexity of the layout, and making the layout more manageable and achievable within the accepted limitations, means more time and energy (both physical and electrical) to progress the layout for a more enjoyable outcome.

This blog isn't really about building my layout, but I think my experience might be of value to others who are considering building a large layout and who may also need some encouragement. So, thanks everybody.

Saturday 31 July 2021

Finding the model railway mojo

Over the past few months I've lost interest in model railways. I don't read as much or watch Youtube train layout videos. My layout in the garage languishes despite the bottom deck being completely functional and operational (OK, it is often 4 degrees Celsius in there but that's no excuse!). Conversing with other railway modellers has diminshed markedly. Ripping up the layout and housing the cars sounds like a very good option indeed.

  Finding the right levers to bring back motivation can be difficult

Recently, I did some research for work on motivation in the workplace. As I read a wide array of articles, there were some common themes that nagged away at me as I passed by the garage door each day. These themes were as follows:

  • Being bored with your routine
  • The sense that the job is all too much 
  • Not being satisfied with what you’ve done
  • Comparing yourself to others 
  • Feeling stressed about what you’re doing

Now for a hobby, these themes are pretty counterintuitive. The purpose of a hobby is to alleviate all of those motivation killers. But motivation does lapse from time to time and we need a way to get our mojo back. How to bring the "hobby" back to being a "hobby"?

If I review my readings on motivation again, I get the following answers:
  • Remind yourself of the purpose and reset your focus if you have to
  • Check your environment (i.e. change or improve your environment)
  • Get back to small tasks instead of focusing on the grand outcome
  • Similarly, it's the doing not the end in itself that makes the hobby so interesting 
  • Realise there is an ebb and flow in what we do (i.e. don't be too hard on yourself)
  • Celebrate what you've already achieved
  • Start something new to find new motivation that can remind you what it feels like
I'll report back next month to see how things are going.

Wednesday 30 June 2021

Scars in the Country with Andre Brett

A few weeks ago I attended a talk called Scars in the country by Dr Andre Brett at the National Library of Australia. The talk was about the historical development of railways in Australia and New Zealand. Besides being an energetic speaker, Dr Brett was full of fascinating insights into the early decades of the Australasian railways.  


The talk was recorded and a transcript is provided, alas, without the maps and photographs (many sourced from the National Library, like the one above). Nevertheless, I think this talk is well worth a listen (or reading if you prefer, but you'll be missing out on Dr Brett's enthusiastic narration).

The talk had the following project scope: the role of railways and colonisation and economic growth, the demand railways generate for resources, the interaction of railways with water and dry environments, the challenge of mountains and finally reflections on the environments railways themselves created for passengers and workers.

The talk is full of interesting facts and stories. For example, Dr Brett spends some time talking about railway sleepers and the relationship between between railways and forests. In particular, the decision-making over the types of wood and locational factors for success or otherwise, was fascinating. And the story about the "stolen cow" near Christchurch's Addington rail workshops was a cracker!

For railway modellers, the talk is just another important reminder about the significant physical relationship between railway development and the landscape. The railways naturally had to face the environmental conditions of the time but they also changed the physical relationship in which they were constructed and maintained. This relationship was contextualised by economics, politics, and engineering. As Dr Brett says, "the land and climate forced railways to adapt, experiment and innovate".

I thoroughly recommend this talk and thank the National Library of Australia for making the talk more widely available via audio and text.

Sunday 18 April 2021

Inspiration from the NSW Rail Museum

Sometimes you need to get out of the armchair and breathe in some fresh air and steam locomotive smoke! And that's exactly what I did yesterday at the NSW Rail Museum at Thirlmere.


Even though I am a longstanding member, it has been many years since I last visited the NSW Rail Museum. I naturally had heard about the modernisation of the museum and all the fantastic work undertaken by volunteers over the years. However, it's not until you see the scale and scope of the museum that you really get a full appreciation. There are locomotives, passenger and freight rollingstock, and even a wonderfully restored NSW railway pay bus.


In addition to the collection itself, and the steam rides on the loop line over the recent NSW school holidays, there is a special immersive display on the history of locomotive 1021 (Cardiff) which is very impressive. The museum facilities are top class and I was pleased see a large number of families about enjoying the museum and all it has to offer.

The highlight of the day was the 40 minute steam-hauled trip to Buxton and back. Locomotive 2705 did the duties. At Buxton, an enterprising railside business was doing a roaring trade selling jacket potatoes with butter and sour cream - delicious! Upon return to Thirlmere, 2705 runs around its train in preparation for the next tour.

It was a great day. I look forward to making future visits and spending more time at the Museum.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Exhibitions - yes/no?

Yes. I am pleased to report that the Canberra Model Railway Expo is going ahead this coming weekend, 27-28 March. The expo will be held at the UC High School in Kaleen as in previous years.

Layouts on show will include Binalong, Charlestown, Ebor Vale, Ettamogah II, Gaye Saint Edith, Goulburn, Gunning, Kookaburra Park, Mungo Scotts, Tannochbrae, the Molonglo Route, Wingello, Yendys, and others.

Photo: "Binalong" from the Epping Model Railway Club

Commercial outlets will include Anton's Trains, Austrains, Burfitt Tools, Casula Hobbies, Eureka Models, Eurohobby, IDR, Kerroby's, SDS Models, Trainworld, among others.

No. The proposed Epping Model Railway Club's 2021 exhibition at Rosehill Racecourse on the Queen's Birthday long weekend in June is off. Unfortunately, the decision to call off the exhibition was made too late to amend the advertisement in the current issue of AMRM. It is disappointing but understandable given the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, these uncertainties affect interstate visitors and potential exhibitors as well as locals who can ill afford last minute lockdowns.

For those of you who can make the Canberra exhibition this weekend, I look forward to catching up with you (socially distanced, of course).

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Advertising posters for your model railway

Advertising signs and posters are a great way to set the scene and give a location a sense of place and time. Signs and advertising accompanied by era specific vehicles and people can provide visual context and enhance the believability of your model railway.

We can use commercial decals or signage within structure kits of course. But for more unique offerings, finding suitable images is very possible using the internet. We can also be on the lookout for suitable images when travelling around the countryside (covid-19 permitting), as I discovered on a recent visit to Boorowa and one of the local pubs.


There are other sources of signage and advertising when going through antique stores (subject to permission) or second-hand stores. And libraries remain a useful resource for searching as well.

Recently, I received an email from the National Library of Australia alerting me to the Australian advertisement poster collection they have collected and preserved over time. A sample of early posters can be found here with a link within the story to the collection accessible via Trove

Enhancing a model railway with signs and advertising suitable for the location and time period is a very good way to create a realistic and believable scene.

Addendum: A few hours after posting this blog entry, I came across this Youtube clip about weathering billboards that might be of additional interest. It's from a Youtuber I follow and he has some other interesting modelling techniques based on a small switching layout he constructed. Very nice!