The McWetlog


Playing with Trains
Tuesday, April 25, 2006 at 8:47 AM | Books, Model Railroading |

Sam Posey’s Playing with Trains will not reveal anything new to anyone already involved in the hobby of model railroading, but for the general reader it’s a reasonably good, and evocatively written, introduction to the state of the hobby.

Posey, a former race car driver and a sports commentator, spends the first half of the book on his own model railroading history, from his childhood, with his mother helping him build his first layout, to his adulthood, when he hired someone to build his expansive Colorado Midland layout with his family. (My father read the book while he was visiting, and sniffed, as many in the hobby would, at the notion that he paid someone else to build his layout.)

The second half of the book is a new-journalism-style look at the state of the hobby, with Posey visiting a number of luminaries of the field — none of whom will be unfamiliar to anyone who’s been reading Model Railroader for the last couple of decades — and talking about their approaches. This part is a little light, a little superficial, but its great strength is crystallizing a schism in the hobby that I was only dimly aware of myself: the schism between the operators who focus on simulating, in miniature and in precise detail, the work — and paperwork — undertaken by real railroads (think Tony Koester) at the expense of scenery, and those focused on jaw-dropping scenery at the expense of realistic operations (think Malcolm Furlow, or even George Selios).

Most of us, naturally, are somewhere in the middle: we’d like to do more than run trains around in a loop, but we’d like to do more than run them on bare plywood. The Koester mode is in the ascendancy at the moment, to the extent that his book on layout design elements isn’t about the elements’ function in the abstract, it’s about replicating real things: for example, not about understanding how an interchange works in theory, but in copying a real interchange. This is a considerable change from the Armstrong mode, where understanding how real railroads work is the necessary first step, not simply slavishly replicating what really existed (without, I suspect, necessarily understanding why it existed).

Train accidents: fewer humans, more error
Monday, March 6, 2006 at 8:21 AM | Rail |

Are railway accidents simply the cost of doing business? The Toronto Star has a major investigative piece on railway accidents this morning. Derailments are up sharply since 2002 (but at about the same level as 1996), but the Transportation Safety Board only investigates a tiny fraction of the accidents. The railways more or less inspect and police themselves — relying on more on technology and less on visual inspections — which may lead to some managers putting profits and on-time performance before safety.

Canadian brass
Friday, March 3, 2006 at 7:38 AM | Model Railroading |

Van Hobbies, the Vancouver-based hobby shop and importer that was responsible for most of the brass models of Canadian prototype trains over the past few decades, is reportedly closing; the owner apparently wants to retire. When I heard this, I thought that it did not bode well for the future production of brass models of Canadian steam locomotives, especially Canadian Pacific engines (Overland has done a few CN brass steam engines, but nothing along those lines for the CPR, for which it has only done diesel models).

But I just found out that Division Point is setting up a subsidiary focusing on Canadian prototypes: in the works for this year are a J7-class CN 4-6-2 Pacific, a G3-class CPR Pacific, and a P2-class CPR 2-8-2 Mikado. There’s also a T4-class 2-10-4 for Central Vermont (a CN subsidiary) in the queue. More are planned, according to the page, including something that will no doubt be popular: a D10-class CPR Ten-wheeler.

(Van Hobbies put out a P2-class Mikado in the 1970s, but it doesn’t seem to have a particularly good reputation; my father has one and it’s given him all sorts of trouble. Personally, I’d rather see a P1, since they were all over southern B.C. in the late 1940s/early 1950s, and I never see one for sale; on the other hand, there are Van Hobbies P2s all over the place. But, realistically, it’s not like I could ever afford one.)

If you’re wondering what some of these things look like, Canadian Model Trains has pages for used Van Hobbies brass models of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific prototypes.

CN fined $75,000 for McBride accident
Wednesday, December 7, 2005 at 8:28 PM | Rail |

CN was fined $75,000 after it pleaded guilty to a charge related to an accident near McBride, B.C. in 2003: a trestle collapsed underneath a freight train, derailing the locomotives and five cars and killing the crew. (McBride is on CN’s Fraser subdivision, on the former Grand Trunk Pacific line between Edmonton and Prince Rupert.) Two other charges were stayed for lack of evidence. The Transportation Safety Board cited poor bridge maintenance as the cause; their report is here.

CN is not having a good week.

See previous entries: Two more CN derailments; What’s up with CN?

Two more CN derailments
Tuesday, December 6, 2005 at 10:12 AM | Rail |

Two derailments for CN in one day: seven empties jump the tracks in the Cheakamus Canyon north of Squamish (the fourth derailment in that area since August); and an auto carrier plunged off a trestle into the Fraser River between Richmond and Burnaby. B.C. opposition politicians are pissed, and CN’s argument that there are no connections between yesterday’s Cheakamus Canyon derailment and previous ones is increasingly farcical.

See previous entry: What’s up with CN?

Update, 12/7 at 7:55 am: CBC coverage of the second derailment.

Update, 8:05 am: More Globe and Mail coverage of the two derailments: “So far this year, CN has experienced 11 main track derailments on the former BC Rail lines, which is nearly double the five-year average of six derailments a year that BC Rail had prior to 2004.” And apparently the 80-car limit excludes trains with mid-train locomotives: the train that derailed in Cheakamus Monday had six engines and 125 cars.

Update, 4:50 pm: Another order from the federal transport minister: the 80-car limit now applies to all trains, even ones with distributed power in the middle of the train, between Squamish and Clinton.

Update, 9:00 pm: CBC News on the minister’s order. Is there any way to verify CN’s claim that it’s “the safest railway in North America”?

Update, 12/14 at 10:05 pm: Another order, this one upping the limit to 99 cars on trains with distributed power heading north (usually empty); there are some other restrictions and oversights. Bottom line, the feds are watching CN very closely along this stretch of track.

Update, 12/15 at 6:37 pm: Holy crap: 15 empties derailed last night on a short train near Fort St. James (on former BC Rail trackage, naturally). Not in itself significant, but you can bet that every single CN derailment, especially in B.C., will get media attention.

Train blogs
Tuesday, November 22, 2005 at 6:44 PM | Rail

I’ve been looking for railroad blogs lately, whether they’re about the models or the real thing. I’ve found a few so far. Dogcaught features railfan photography from the Pacific Northwest, which appeals to me; Trainblog’s focus has recently been on the San Francisco Bay area and Amtrak. The Australian Railway Blog, which has been dormant for a while, features photos of neat Australian motive power. I’ve come across a few others, but they weren’t as good. I’ll keep looking, and post results here. Recommendations welcome.

What’s up with CN?
Friday, November 4, 2005 at 7:49 AM | Rail

Back in August, when CN derailments in Alberta and British Columbia were all-too-frequent items in the news, I began to wonder whether something was up with CN in particular, rather than just random chance. After all, CN maintenance was blamed in a fatal Amtrak derailment on its old Illinois Central line and in a trestle accident in northern BC that killed a train crew. There were complaints, if I remember correctly, that CN’s lean maintenance program was finally coming back to bite them in the ass. (I’ll try to find a link.) Regardless, there was no definitive answer to the question at the time, though I’ve been waiting to see if Trains would pick up the story. (So far, not yet.)

Yesterday, there was another derailment on CN tracks — the third on the former BC Rail line north of Vancouver in the past few months. And in this morning’s Globe and Mail coverage, there’s at least a theory as to why it’s happening so often there: CN has changed operations in a way that makes railroading much riskier on that line.

Grant Young, former director of safety, rules and regulatory services for BC Rail, said the accidents indicate that something is wrong with CN’s operating procedures.
He said BC Rail restricted trains to two locomotives and fewer than 100 cars and had only two derailments in 15 years in the Cheakamus and Sunset Beach areas.
The train that crashed into the Cheakamus River in August, dumping a load of sodium hydroxide into the water, had 144 cars, pulled by five locomotives.
An accident in the area last month involved 122 cars, and the trains that crashed yesterday had 131 cars, with four engines in front and two further back.
Mr. Young said that if too much power is at the front, the engines can simply “straighten out the train” and pull it off the tracks.
Commenting on the 144-car train that crashed into the Cheakamus River, Mr. Young said in an e-mail: “BC Rail would never have allowed that train to operate in that manner as the outcome would have been totally predictable.”

Update, 11/5 at 7:55 AM: Today’s Globe and Mail reports that the federal transport minister has ordered CN to run trains of no more than 80 cars in that area; he’s also threatening CN with a public inquiry into their safety record.

Smiths Falls field trip
Tuesday, July 26, 2005 at 8:16 PM | Rail

Last Friday we took a trip to Smiths Falls to take a look at the local railway museum and do a little railfanning at the CPR yard.

A quiet evening
Wednesday, January 19, 2005 at 11:55 PM | Model Railroading

The television stayed off tonight; we’re contemplating getting rid of cable (television only; no way we’d give up high-speed Internet) so it’s good to see if we can manage it. And, wonder of wonders, I stayed off the computer for much of the evening.

Instead, I worked on a few model railroad freight cars: adding grab irons to the flat car, which is quite the detailed model; and slapping together a few Athearn four-bay coal hoppers. The latter only required three screws; the rest snapped on and there was no glue required. I painted the weights, which I thought might be too visible — they’re on the outside ends of the hoppers — but from above you can barely see them at all.

Two hours hunched over little models, working with fine tools, is not good for my back, though. I’ll have to do this more frequently for shorter periods of time.

Railroad photo albums
Thursday, October 14, 2004 at 10:29 PM | My Photos, Personal, Rail

My father’s been visiting since last week, and the three of us have been doing the train thing like nobody’s business. On Saturday we went to St-Constant to visit the Canadian Railway Museum and oohed and aahed over the vintage railway equipment. Unless you are also the sort of person to ooh and aah over such things as a Fairbanks-Morse Trainmaster or a Canadian Pacific Royal Hudson, you wouldn’t understand. As is traditional, I took a whole whack of photos.

Then on Monday we took a ride on the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train. Packed with tourists, many of whom from tour buses — it’s the fall season after all. It’s run with Swedish equipment, from the two locomotives — a 1909-vintage 2-8-0 Consolidation class and a 1960s-vintage diesel, presumably there for backup and support — to the rolling stock. Reasonably comfortable, though the animation was a bit overdone. Track conditions kept the train quite slow: 32 km covered in 90 minutes. Once again, I have photos.

On Tuesday my father and I went off to Lark Spur Line — the largest model railroading store in the area — and came away with a few model freight cars each. Lark Spur is really good for freight cars. We’ve been building things ever since. I was working on a flat car earlier tonight; now Jen and my dad are working on wooden kits of a CPR caboose and refrigerator car.

Still to come: Railfair on Saturday, after which we all may well be heartily sick of the subject.

The Franklin and South Manchester Railroad
Tuesday, September 21, 2004 at 10:12 AM | Model Railroading

For decades, the ne plus ultra of model railroad scenery and scratchbuilding was John Allen’s Gorre and Daphetid Railroad. But, since his death — and the subsequent loss of his layout in a fire — was in 1973, few photos of this masterpiece have made it online. (There’s a fan page and a mailing list.)

But this is not the case with what is generally seen as the G&D’s spiritual successor, the Franklin and South Manchester Railroad. Its creator is model-builder George Sellios — making craftsman kits is his day job — and scores of his incredible model structures are the highlight of this layout. (Occasionally, wags note, you may see a train on it.)

There are literally hundreds of photos available online on various fan sites. (Figuring out which, if any, of these sites is quasi-official I leave as an exercise for the reader — I gave up.)

John Armstrong
Friday, August 6, 2004 at 11:19 PM | Model Railroading

Model railroad author and layout designer John Armstrong, whose classic Track Planning for Realistic Operation left me in awe when I read it earlier this year, died last week, the Model Railroader web site reports. Armstrong, who was in his eighties, has been an icon for decades; the waiting list for his layout designs — which were always great fun to read about — was, from what I’ve heard, quite substantial.

The daddy longlegs railway
Monday, August 2, 2004 at 10:46 PM | Railroad History

It didn’t operate for long (1896-1900), but the Brighton Electric Railway is hands down the weirdest interurban railway that ever existed: the tracks — two of them, 36½-inch gauge — were designed to be under water — 15 feet of it! — at high tide, and the trains ran on 23-foot-high stilts. Via Jerry Kindall.

PEI Railway
Monday, June 21, 2004 at 5:21 PM | Railroad History

Along the Line: Photographs of the PEI Railway. An online exhibit with not nearly enough information for a rail nut. Begun as narrow gauge but rebuilt to standard gauge somewhere in the mid-1920s or so. Via Plep.

More track planning software
Friday, May 21, 2004 at 7:02 AM | Model Railroading

RailModeller, now at version 2.1, is another bit of model railroad track planning software for the Mac that I hadn’t heard about before — i.e., they don’t advertise in MR. Will investigate. (via MacNN)

The sociology of model railroading
Friday, May 7, 2004 at 1:15 PM | Model Railroading

The Sociology of Model Railroading: I’ve been meaning to blog this lengthy essay on the social dynamics of this hobby — everything from local clubs and shows to the NMRA to Model Railroader and the other magazines (lots about that) — for some time. It’s taken a while to process, and I’m afraid I have nothing profound to say about it except that (1) it’s interesting and opinionated and (2) I think a lot of its observations are applicable across most hobbyist organizations.

Small layouts
Tuesday, May 4, 2004 at 12:31 PM | Model Railroading

Micro layouts for model railroaders: a collection of model railroad designs for extremely small spaces. In the short term, I have no space; in the medium term, I’ll be lucky to get a spare bedroom or den. So small layout designs are of considerable interest to me. Iain Rice’s Mid-sized and Manageable Track Plans has been interesting; I plan on picking up his Small, Smart and Practical Track Plans soon. I need to figure out how small switching layouts work.

VIA points the way for the blind
Friday, April 16, 2004 at 11:38 AM | News, Passenger Rail

The Canadian Transportation agency has slapped down VIA Rail for its shoddy treatment of a blind passenger. Despite codes on John Benjamin’s ticket that indicated that he was blind and required assistance, VIA personnel left him to fend for himself — even pointing (!) to show him when he asked for assistance, and dismissed his disability as minor.

The full text of the decision is here, and bears reading. Here’s the money quote:

The Agency notes VIA’s statement that “VIA hopes that if this situation should ever arise in the future, that Mr. Benjamin will make his disability known to the person to whom he is speaking so that there will be no confusion as to the assistance that he needs”. In view of the evidence submitted by Mr. Benjamin, the fact that he requested services in advance of his travel and the fact that Mr. Benjamin was using a white cane, the Agency finds that the notion implied in VIA’s statement that Mr. Benjamin is somehow responsible for VIA’s failure to provide appropriate assistance is totally unacceptable. In this regard, the fact that Mr. Benjamin was using a white cane should have clearly demonstrated to VIA’s personnel the nature of his disability and the assistance he required. Also, the Agency finds that there was nothing more that Mr. Benjamin could have done to ensure that VIA’s personnel received the information that they required concerning the assistance he required due to his disability. The Agency also finds that VIA did not provide any evidence to justify why Mr. Benjamin was not provided with the appropriate assistance but was instead left unattended and uninformed despite repeated requests for assistance.

The CTA has ordered an apology, training and procedural changes, but it seems to me that dismissals ought to be in order for the staff who pointed things out to a man with a white cane. I mean, really. Come on.

CPR steam
Tuesday, March 23, 2004 at 7:38 PM | Railroad History

Steam Locomotives of the CPR is a little incomplete and has a few niggling errors here and there that I can spot, but it’s an impressive, ambitious work in progress, with lots of detailed information and photos of preserved (if decrepit) locomotives.

Cancelling the International
Sunday, March 21, 2004 at 12:25 PM | Passenger Rail

It’s probably the first time that long-haul passenger service between two large cities has been discontinued in favour of better local service, but that’s just what Amtrak and VIA have done: they’ve discontinued the Chicago-to-Toronto “International” and replaced it with local services whose schedules do not coincide: Amtrak with a service between Port Huron, Michigan and Chicago that leaves early in the morning and returns in the evening; VIA with a Sarnia-to-Toronto train that more or less replicates the old train.

Usually the traffic between larger centres supports local service, but it seems that the long border delays between Port Huron and Sarnia were driving everyone batty. VIA is touting its new train as better and more reliable — have they been getting complaints about the Amtrak Superliners? (I took them on that route once; they’re not great.) Amtrak relies on state subsidies from Michigan for that route; they needed to provide better on-time local service to maintain that funding, I gather, and the border delays were no doubt adding to the problems of dodging scheduled freight runs. (A late passenger train loses its priority and just gets later, as I discovered.)

(See previous entry; via forums)

Preserved steam locomotives
Friday, March 19, 2004 at 1:26 PM | Railroad History

Lists of surviving steam locomotives — whether operational, on static display or in the process of restoration. A whole whack of them are at the Canadian Railway Museum in Delson, Quebec (just outside Montreal), though I won’t be able to visit until they reopen in June.

Crossbucks, lights and wire
Monday, March 8, 2004 at 8:52 PM | Model Railroading

Details are where the fun is. One of the things Jen and I have been discussing about a putative model railroad is little animated detailed bits — crossings, traffic lights and so forth. Chances are, we’ll have to go shopping at Berkshire Junction at some point: they do crossbucks (in Z scale!) and other bits of lighting trickery, as well as some elastic telephone lines which is supposedly better than stringing thread from pole to pole.

Sn3, part two
Saturday, February 14, 2004 at 5:34 PM | Model Railroading

Finally, a few Sn3 links from today’s mucking around. Two local projects: Bill Scobie’s Rio Grande Southern and Chris Butler’s Goose Lake short line. And another supplier — British this time — that sells Sn3 kits. (See previous entry on Sn3.)

Local model railroading clubs
Saturday, February 14, 2004 at 4:57 PM | Model Railroading

Model railroading clubs in eastern Ontario that I’ve been able to locate so far. Today was surprisingly productive in terms of finding them; I hadn’t been able to do so before, somehow.

Update 2/16:

Rail posts at The Map Room
Saturday, February 14, 2004 at 4:48 PM | Rail

A couple of railroad-related posts at The Map Room, noted here for the sake of completeness in the “Rail” category.

European trains and more
Friday, February 13, 2004 at 9:36 AM | Model Railroading

I spent a good chunk of last night — at least the part after Survivor — noodling around Euro Rail Hobbies’s web site. They’re an importer of European model trains, and their site is one big magnificent catalogue.

I enjoyed clicking through the site and recognizing various locomotives. I spent quite a bit of time on trains in Europe: more individual trips, though, since the North American trips have been longer (and slower), I’ve accumulated more hours here. It got me thinking: if model railroaders in North America model the stuff they’re nostalgic about, why shouldn’t I do the same with what I remember fondly about trains — the European rail network?

Jen noticed that I was lighting up more over this stuff than I had over the usual late-steam-era stuff that is most popular in the hobby, or even the narrow-gauge geared steam (Shays, Heislers, Climaxes) that has been the focus of my attention. No, it seems that what I want is funky-looking electric trains from the SNCF, SBB and DB. Especially the Swiss ones. With model catenaries — the site is full of model catenaries. Neato.

But the European trains are different. Märklin’s got some digital AC locomotives that appear to run on a proprietary powered third rail, and I’m not sure whether the DC locos are adaptable to the NMRA’s DCC standards, to say nothing of being able to run on North American track. HO is a scale (1:87), not necessarily a set of operating standards. As I’m prone to say, Must Investigate Further.

Other rail links that have been accumulating:

Track planning on the Mac
Tuesday, February 3, 2004 at 9:31 PM | Mac, Model Railroading | 1

Most model railroad track planning software is Windows-only. Empire Express 1.5 runs on Macs — including OS X — and is relatively simply to use, but limited. For one thing, it doesn’t appear to handle grades and separations. This is important if you’re hoping that the track on top will clear the track beneath it, or if you’re trying to keep your grades under control. (I’m doodling with ideas of geared locomotives and logging railroads, which means grades can go nuts, but still.)

Sn3 Yukon trains from New Zealand
Tuesday, February 3, 2004 at 8:45 PM | Model Railroading

S scale (1:64) has always struck me as kind of neat — though, since I’ve never even so much as seen an S-scale model, only as a concept. From what I’m told, it’s a modeller’s scale, for people who like building things from scratch. No surprise that narrow-gauge (Sn3) is popular in this niche; what’s surprising, though, is a company offering models of the White Pass and Yukon RR in Sn3 scale — based in New Zealand. Go figure.

1:12 scale and beyond
Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 9:23 PM | Model Railroading

I’ve wasted spent a good chunk of the afternoon learning about large-scale model and miniature railroads — the sort that you run outside. They range from 45-mm gauge (G scale, which varies from around 1:20 to 1:32) model trains to full-on miniature trains as big as three-foot gauge, which is equal to some real narrow-gauge lines in operation. These aren’t model trains, they’re miniatures.

In between, though, are big trains that, rather than drawing current from the rail like a model train, are self-powered, either by internal batteries, gas engines or even real steam. And you straddle the little cars and ride them, with seats mounted crazily atop box cars or gondolas. The smallest of these is 1-inch scale (1:12 scale stock on 4¾-inch gauge track) which, one of its proponents argues, is big enough to ride, but small enough that you can still lift the locomotives and rolling stock if they derail.

That proponent — Rod Johnston, the husband, I believe, of For Better or For Worse cartoonist Lynn Johnston — also owns a company that sells 1-inch-scale kits and runs a layout on his four-acre property in northern Ontario. This company specializes in trucks and couplers. And here’s another 1-inch-scale layout being built in southern Nevada.

Finally, some links to miniature railroads.

Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 8:43 AM | Rail

Books from the British Railway Modellers of North America provide the sort of photographs that model railroaders need to do proper research of the real (“prototype”) thing. Curse my father for pointing out this web site. (The “British railway modellers” are two expat Brits living in Calgary who’ve been putting out these books for decades.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 6:14 PM | Rail

James Bow takes a skeptical look at monorails and their proponents (see also his follow-up post): essentially, his argument is that monorails generally do not enjoy any special advantages over light rail or subways. An enjoyable and thoughtful read.

Model railroading or railfan blogs?
Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 6:03 PM | Model Railroading

Invoking the lazyweb. Are there any topical blogs out there that deal with model railroading or railfanning? I haven’t been able to locate any so far through a cursory Google search.

The perfect store
Monday, January 12, 2004 at 1:26 PM | Model Railroading

In Renfrew Saturday to do a little shopping, and we finally had a look inside Rick’s Hobbies and Aquaria, which we’d been eyeing every time we went over to do our banking (unfortunately, the nearest Scotiabank for Jen and Bank of Montreal for me are in Renfrew).

It turned out to be better than we had hoped: a store that was dedicated purely to the proprietor’s hobbies — just the sort of store one dreams of doing. And, like someone I know very well, there are a lot of hobbies on display: aquaria, birds, reptiles (lizards only, alas, because of freakouts in-store), model cars and rockets, strategy games and — of course — model railroading.

Now I grew up with a model train layout in the basement — my father’s in the midst of building his fourth (I think) layout at the moment — so I’m by no means unfamiliar. And damned if I don’t have enough hobbies on the go or on semi-hiatus at the moment — not that I lack the time right now — but, so help me, I actually started thinking about it.

Oh, shit. I know where that’s going to lead.

Fortunately for all concerned, I have no room — and a model train layout would be well down the list of priorities, after the piano, a space for Jen’s artwork, etc., etc. Still. Can’t help but think that a layout based on Japan, or South America, for a change, would make for an interesting research project …

Note: Entries prior to November 2003 did not have categories assigned to them, and are not included in category archives; please consult the monthly archives.