Monday, June 30, 2008

The Territory

The new Narrabri North layout is based on the New South Wales Railway "North-West Line," constructed from a junction with the Main North at Werris Creek northwest towards Moree and beyond to the Queensland border into cotton, grain, and livestock country in the late 1800's. The land is largely flat as a table-top, with scattered small mountain ranges in the distance. The area is often dought-stricken, but when the rains do come, the nearby Namoi River often floods, given the flatness of the surounding land.

Located around 300 miles northwest of Sydney, Narrabri, a town of around 6000, is the operating center of my layout, the junction of the mainline to Moree and the branches to the west. The railway facilities are actually located west of Narrabri proper on the branchline--this location is Narrabri West, and featured a small yard and a locomotive depot. With privitization of freight operations in the late 1980s, most of the yard was converted to containerized freight facilities and the engine facilities removed. Today, grain is hauled under contract to Pacific National, while the cotton and other containerized goods move in trains operated by Independent Railway of Australia, Patrick Portlink, El Zorro, and occasionally other contractors.

The whole story of railway development in colonial Australia is a fascinating one, the population centers of each state originally concentrated along the coasts and essentially isolated from one another. The railways were constructed not to foster national unity, but to aid in developing the states. Thus, there was no national goal to link one rail line to another, so standardization on rail gauge was of little importance. Queensland, for example, built their railways to 3' 6" gauge; New South Wales to the British 4' 8 1/2", and Victoria to a broad 5'3" gauge. This severely limited the usefulness of railways in transporting goods beyond state borders, and it wasn't until relatively modern times that interstate rail travel without a break-of-gauge was possible: a standard-gauge line was completed between Sydney and Melbourne in 1962, and it wasn't until 1969 that rail traffic could travel from Sydney to the west coast at Perth without changing gauges.
Such provincialism still exists, but since the 1980s, privitization of freight operations has been implemented, the states largely still owning the tracks themselves (most leased to the Australian Rail Track Corporation, a federal government agency responsible to mangment and maintenance of the rail lines themselves) and access to the network alloted to qualified operating companies--"open access" as we'd call it in the states.

The area served by the North-West Line is largely rural. The railroad was extended northwest from a junction with the Main North line at Werris Creek, reaching Narrabri in 1884 and extended north to Moree in 1897. A branch west from Narrabri was constructed in 1903 towards Walgett and eventually Merrywinebone. Traffic has always been based on agriculture; the region is a top wheat producing area, and since the 1970s cotton has become a major crop as well. Until the privitization of freight operations, trains carrying cattle and sheep to slaughterhouses near the coast were common as well. Into the late 1980s, the line was served by a daily mail train as well as an express passenger train from Sydney. Today, all that's left is the cotton and grain traffic, and a daily CountryLink passenger train serves the line as far north as Moree.

The North-West Mail trundles along north of Narrabi in the early 1980s behind a single 48 Class branchliner, an train of express and mail traffic (photo by the late Ron Preston, I believe). . .

During the era I'm modeling, the late 1970s-early 1980s, operations through Narrabri had continued much as they had during the era of steam operations (which had only ended in 1974 in New South Wales). Two passenger trains a day served the line. Freight traffic--that's "goods trains," in Australian--was relatively frequent, given the small size of the average train. True to its colonial roots, railways were still dispatched under rigid timetabling of trains; running times were to be adhered to, and train sizes were established by the tonnage specifically assigned classes of locomotives could be expected to handle over the line. In the late 1970s, as today, the backbone of freight operations was handled by the 48 Class Goodwin-Alco road switcher. Its light footprint was perfect for the thin rails in the area, and along with similarly-configured 47 and 49 class diesels, the 48's symbolized branchline operations on the New South Wales railway. Equipment was smaller in this era, as well--a modern aluminum grain hopper only carried 60 or so tons of commodity, and the two-axle S-truck open wagons (capacity 15 tons) and RU wheat wagons (capacity 24 tons) were still in service. Most trains were still under 1000' long. Perfect for modeling!

The all-important "Givens and Druthers"

There's a phrase used in model railroad planning, "Givens and Druthers." I have no idea what a druther is, but the concept is to basically outline several goals one is attempting to reach with the design of a new railroad.

Here's mine:
  • Faithful representation of the Northwest district of the New South Wales Railway, circa 1978-80
  • Around-the-wall benchwork, protruding no more than 30" into the middle of the room, allowing the middle of the room to be used to family activities
  • Double-deck design to maximize space
  • At least two rural switching locations with "crossing loops" (passing tracks)
  • Staging in adjacent bedroom
  • Helix connecting two levels with 26" radius curves, no more than 2.5% gradient
  • Small mainline/branchline junction, yard and locomotive facilities on upper level
  • Ability to accomodate trains up to 6 1/2' in length, which will represent a typical train of the era on this section of the railroad
  • Opportunity to eventually implement some form of staff-system operation per the prototype
  • Lighting valence above upper level, and lighting under each deck to provide dramatic layout lighting in otherwise darkened room during operating sessions
  • Thin profile benchwork on upper deck to maximize separation between levels (ideally 16-20")
  • Utilize untraditional methods of roadbed and scenery (i.e. stacked and sculpted ceiling)
  • Apart from a few locations, standardization on hand-laid #5 turnout geometry
  • Once benchwork is completed, rest of layout room must be clean and habitable for use by the rest of the family.

Why the change to Aussie modeling?

Changing of the Guard: NSWGR 47 and 44 Class locomotives cozy up to a Walla Walla Valley HH660 shortly before demolition of the WWV layout began. . .

By the end of January this year, I'd decided to make the switch to modeling Australian prototype. The idea to try something "new" in my modeling pursuits had been percolating for a while. I had been true to modeling the WWV since 2002 or so, when my small bedroom-sized freelance Pacific Northwest shortline layout morphed into a representation of the WWV--the concept was so close to begin with anyway that it was no big decision to do so. These were the first layouts I'd built in "adulthood." I'd dabbled with modeling over the past 20 years, always in HO scale, and building everything from Western Maryland F-units to Delaware & Hudson U30C's to Burlington Northern C636's and Milwaukee Road GP9s.

But it was the WWV that my modeling was most associated with (the layout was even featured in Kalmbach's Great Model Railroads a few years ago). The last version of the WWV had grown from a 10 X 11' bedroom in our previous home to a 19 X 17' bonus room in our current residence. The layout design was a faithful adaptation of the WWV's track arrangements in its two major towns, and included an active interchange with Northern Pacific as well as a parallel Union Pacific branchline that allowed three two-person switch crews to keep busy for a couple of hours on operating nights. It was an even better layout that the last one, and certainly very keen on intense operations (sometimes the switching gymnastics would completely stymie guest operators).

Which all begs the question "why switch? why completely abandon a layout, a knowledge base seven years in the making, over 100 very detailed and specific freight cars, and a carefully designed operating plan to model something you know nothing about--rural railroading in New South Wales, Australia?"

And a good question it is.

All I can call it is a "seven-year itch." I felt I'd largely gotten to the end of the road in researching the WWV itself. I had a lot of work ahead on the railroad, scratchbuilding many structures, scenery, etc., as well as the construction of a small peninsula allowing some rural running between my layout's two major towns. So it wasn't like the layout was done.

Our two sons are growing up quicker than I'd expected, too--and though our house is plenty big, I began to realize that the bonus room was too big a space to be fully devoted soley to my hobby pursuits. If only the layout would only hug the walls, allowing for the middle of the room to be free for use by the rest of the family. . .

About this time, co-worker Lance Lassen returned from a vacation to Australia last fall, bringing with him great photographs, experiences, and several HO-scale models of Australian prototypes. . . including a beautifully modeled Goodwin-Alco 44 Class for me! I'm a sucker for Alcos, and the fact that these are still operating down under today really piqued my interest. I read a few copies of the Australian foamer mag "Motive Power" as well as several books Lance had returned with, and I began to see how modeling a prototype on Australia would be just so. . .wild. . .that it might well be an enjoyable modeling challenge.

One of the books Lance returned with, Ron Preston's "48 Class: Backbone of the Railway"--about the branchline diesel workhorse on the New South Wales system--narrowed my interest to the Northwestern NSW branchlines in the Narrabri area. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to find trackage maps of the area, photographs of the rail facilities, and get in touch with a retired railroader and modeler who worked into Narrabri in the late 1970s and early 1980s--my period of interest. Colin Hussey provided me an amazing amount of information about how the railroad operated--from the traffic hauled to the types of cars used, to how the staff system of train control works, and even throwing in a bit of history on how the state railway suffered as a political football. Colin was kind enough to scan several pages of freight and passenger schedules of the period as well. Other Australians on internet discussion boards have been just as friendly and helpful, providing photographs and videos of the Narrabri area, and answering scores of questions in addition to just being cheerleaders for the project.

Lance has caught the Aussie bug as well; he didn't rip his whole railroad down and start over, but he converted his existing railroad to more closely resemble operations out of Werris Creek, NSW circa 2005, concentrating on the climb over the Liverpool range and the 'banker" locomotives shoving grain and coal trains over the 2.5% grade.

Lance and I are certainly rare birds--as far as I know, we're about the only model ralroaders in the United States concentrating on Australian railroads, which means hobby shops here in the States have virtually nothing we need (other than track!) for our Australian modeling. It pretty much all needs to come from overseas, via pricey postage, purchased mostly on-line. (And while Lance and I are among the few in the US, Australia is crawling with modelers of American railroaders, and their hobby shops are filled with American models. Go figure!)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

This is the start. . . .

of a new blog about the creation of my HO-scale model railroad, based on the New South Wales Railway in the late 1970's in and around the rural farming community of Narrabri, a few hundred miles northwest of Sydney.

One unusual feature of this model railroad is that it is located in Fort Worth, Texas, US of A. . . I'd guess that of the 200,000 or so model railroaders in the United States, less than a half-dozen of us are active modelers of Australian prototypes (there might be a few more out there who have pieces of Australian model equipment, but don't necessarily model Australian railroads themselves).

None of this would be possible, I think, without the internets. From 10,000 miles distance, it would be nearly impossible to keep track of what models are available from Australian manufacturers, and gathering information overseas by traditional land-and-sea mail would be extremely time-consuming. Thankfully, I've been able to make contact with several very helpful modelers and railroaders from down-under who've been more than generous with their time and materials they've gathered themselves over the years. And thanks to ebay auctions and manufacturers and hobby suppliers who don't mind dealing with the hassle of shipping merchandise overseas (and dealing with paypal or credit cards), I've been able to get a good start on equipping the railway.

My previous model railroad project, on the Walla Walla Valley Railway of Washington and Oregon, kept me busy for seven years. This railroad too was an obscure operation (I'm assuming that not many readers know much about the railroading in Narrabri, New South Wales, either!) and much of the time "working" on the railroad was actually spent in historical research of the prototype: how trackage was arranged, what customers were served, how the railroad was operated, what kind of railroad equipment was used on the WWV, etc. I'm only guessing that the Narrabri North layout will be just as research-intensive, as not only am I modeling a section of railroad I know NOTHING about, but it is a foreign railroad as well, and despite basic similarities in equipment and basic mission, railways in New South Wales are operated far more like those in Great Britian than they are in the United States! The WWV railway is subject of a dedicated website; I've decided to blog the NSW Narrabri North project.

So, check back in occasionally as I update this blog with observations and reports on the progress of my journey to Australia, set in a 17 X 19' room!