Sunday, November 16, 2014

Designing for scenes

 A 49 class working the Buggardine Goods slowly approaches a pair of fuel wagons on the Ampol/BP fuel siding. And, yes, if you look closely, you'll find there is an S-truck serving as a buffer car, per shunting requirements. This view is seen from an elevated position in the flour mill; the containers on the right are occupying the new cotton cooperative loading yard.

I've always thought there were three types of model railways: one that were designed to look great, with a lot of thought given in planning as to the visual aspect; those that were operationally interesting; and those that combined both elements.

One model railway that definitely offers both experiences of great operation and fantastic visuals, among several out there, is Ray Pilgrim's Bylong layout. The layout is incredibly engaging to operate, but to me what really sets it apart is Ray's eye for design: engaging the viewer and pulling them into scenes (which are expertly executed). Recently, Ray's blog featured a tasty selection of scenes on his layout. A few of these in the selection entitled "Bringing it Together" are wide views of swaths of the layout to put its design in context, but the majority of photographs were made not as if we were hovering 10 stories above the ground in a hot air balloon, but from ground level, as a gunzel would. The design of the layout is highly influenced by scenes inspired by railfan photography.

I'm going forward with Buggardine with the same emphasis as Ray, thought on a simpler, smaller scale: I want the operation to be smooth (don't want the process of the mechanical issues such as dirty track, rough joints and such to interfere with the operational inexperience) and as realistic as I can make it given my knowledge of the subject. But just as important, I'm designing the railway with several scenes that I hope operators will crouch down and put their eye at near track-level to enjoy while they're operating.

Here's a few scenes--in their early stages, again as I always say, mocked up to engage my own imagination and motivation to keep moving along.  These photos are on the terminus end of the railway, along the Oil Siding and parallel Mill siding.

 A tighter crop of the above scene, taken on the iPhone, which makes up for in convenience for a lazy modeler what it loses in picture quality (don't worry--when the scene is complete it'll deserve a retake with the "professional" camera). In distance is the livestock siding.

 Now shunting the flour mill, the 49 Classes approaches the confines where an empty wheat wagon is ready to be pulled.

Six Weeks On. . . 

Since returning from the east, I've been a busy mofo' with the railway. I've been highly motivated to get the layout up and running, and not let construction and my interest drag down buy doing "too much thinking." It's been about six weeks since I started reconstruction with the open grid portion of the railway coming down the hill into Buggardine. Having reusable layout tops for the station district and terminus portions (just needed to have the old sub-roadbed replaced) and not having to change the overhead lighting valance much really kept things moving along. I was able to salvage all the points I needed and about 75% of the track I needed (that new track was the Micro Engineering c70 flex I used coming down the hill).

This weekend, I finished the track work (still have a little to go in the loco depot, as well as fine-tune some points, file down a few rough rail joints, etc.), installed the last piece of .060" styrene backdrop (though it still needs bondo on the seams, primer and a first coat of sky), added Blue Point point mechanisms and rod-in-tube throw rods, put up the layout fascia,finished the wiring, and hooked up the DCC.

We have a (new) railroad!

It was exciting to watch a 47 class come through the wall out of staging with a full load of FWH and RU wagons and into Buggardine, then shunt the wagons and pull the releases and return to staging. Magical!

A week or two and I'll have a few of my mates over for feedback (ok--to show it off!) and to run a few trains.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

We (almost) have a new railway!

 Buggardine's small loco depot. The turntable arrived from Mr. Anton in October. I was a little skeptical how well it'd survive the three-week, 8,000 mile journey, but his packaging was simple and completely adequate. Thanks, Anton!

Since returning from a photo safari to hunt down rare Alco six-motor locomotives in the mountains of New York and Pennsylvania last month, I've made a real effort to put as much work as I can into the new layout.

So, I guess I can work fast when I'm really into it. I tend to work that way: obsessive about pursuits for awhile, then they can sit dormant. Like in the case of North Of Narrabri--almost two years. 

Now, the transformation of North of Narrabri into Buggardine hasn't been a tremendous amount of work, though it has involved taking down the entirety of the old layout and reclaiming chunks of it for use in the new project.

To wit:
  • converting the railway from double deck to single deck
  • removing the helix, and eventually sealing the hole it left in the drywall
  • rebuilding the left side wall of the layout using open-grid construction (1 x 4" high-quality pine) and a 3/8" plywood subroadbed salvaged from the old layout on a 1:40 maximum descending gradient
  • removing the remaining upper deck benchwork from its brackets, lowering their maximum height to 50", and cutting them into 4 to 6-foot segments, reattaching them through end-plates with removable 1/2" bolt-and-washers to ensure the railroad can be removed and reassembled. This is different than a "portable" layout
  • rehang new .060" styrene backdrop
The  track plan on the new layout has changed somewhat from the quickie sketch shared in an earlier post, though the basic concept has changed. Most notably, the view from the edge of the layout is now towards the front of the station, looking across the railway grounds from the grain siding.

I'm pleased by how it's come together; it was most important to me to keep the railway looking open and uncluttered and true to its rural setting. Veteran NSW photographer Laurie Anderson suggested that with all the tall grass I'll be static-placing between the grain siding and the station district, I'll have to be sure to include several large snakes slithering in the weeds.

This weekend, I've just about finished the trackwork. There's all the fussy soldering and filing and adding switch controls, of course, but the dirtiest, dustiest part of the construction--benchwork--is essentially done. I tossed out all the acquired extra lumber and did a big clean-up of the layout room. Next up: switch controls and wiring.

I'm guessing I might be able to pull off a running night by early December. This might well coincide with. . . 

Another view of the loco depot. That's the mainline towards Mudgee heading up the hill in the background. Of course, needed to add the iconic palm trees around the turntable.

 The "up" view of Buggardine yard precinct. Loco depot in the distant left; silo siding, good shed, goods bank, water tank, platform (where the station will be). Lots of room for static grass (and HO scale deadly Aussie snakes).

Stepping back a bit with another photo from my drone copter. . .here's the down end of the yard (terminus behind me, with the parallel sidings into "downtown" serving the flour mill and oil distributors). Spur to the far right off the main track is the livestock siding.

Good News From Tom's. . . er, Bob's!
 Since it's been six years since I took advantage of the "Early Bird" pricing and forked over $660AU to Tom's TrainORama for three just-announced 48 Class, there hasn't been a ton of communication from the manufacturer on these models. Rumors, an update a couple of times a year--it hadn't been good as turmoil in the Chinese model railroad manufacturing industry has set this model back several years, necessitating several changes in factories, retooling, Shanghaied molds, etc.  I really wondered if I truly would ever see any models for the money I paid up front (something given the delays and trepidation, I'll never do again). 

On to 2014: Powerline had since brought out their own "ultimate" 48 class, and earlier this year we were teased repeatedly by Auscision, who finally announced their own version of the 48 class--and offered their own "early bird" pricing, running around production schedule of several other locomotives, it seemed, to try to kick the stool out from under TrainORama (now owned by Bob Cooke). So, stay with TrainO or go with Auscision?

I wondered if indeed TrainO still even had record I'd paid for these models. Maybe they'd arrive and, thanks to the sale of the company, somehow any record for my payment had disappeared. So I sent them and eMail. . .and waited. . . and waited.


"Hi Blair,

Yes everything is confirmed on our files - ie loco numbers, etc.

We will be in touch hopefully early December 2014 when they arrive.


So, THAT makes be breathe a sigh of relief a bit.  Good news. Maybe another month? We'll see.

Switching Command
 Ever since taking the plunge in 2000 or so into Digital Command Control, I've cast my lot with CVP Products and their "Easy DCC." Keith Guiterrez of CVP first launched Easy in a Model Railroader series, and much of CVP's engineering became the basis for the NMRA standards for DCC.  When it came time to purchase a system, "serious" choices in the US were Digitrax and CVP. There was the Lenz system (but it was "European" and us Xenophobic 'Muricans are suspect of anything not from the US or China), and I think either Bachmann or MRC had their own system as well, but Digitrax was anything but "easy" and the Bachmann/MRC systems were crude and not very well thought out. CVP is Dallas based, and was the favorite of our best-respected area hobby shop, so the decision was easy. It was also the choice of many of the best-regarded model railroads in the country I'd operated on.

Apart from adding a couple radio throttles I'd done little to upgrade my Easy system over the years--it still operates with its original software. But efforts last year to upgrade and debug some issues in the system went nowhere: CVP didn't return phone calls or emails. It didn't seem they wanted my business. And in the meantime, the landscape had changed in DCC. Now North Coast Engineering was a big player in the game with their iconic "potato-masher" radio throttle, and MRC had broken through to produce a well-regarded system very similar to NCE's. Meanwhile, CVP, while still in business, seems to have become stagnant. Even the best-respected hobby shop doesn't carry them anymore (though this probably seems to be as much about a personality dispute between the hobby shop owner and Mr. Guiterrez, long-time friends who'd apparently had a falling out).

So I decided to change systems. I considered NCE, but I don't anticipate running more than a couple trains at a time on my railroad, and their wireless system was quite a bit more expensive than the MRC "Prodigy" system. True, MRC doesn't have ALL the features NCE does, but it doesn't cost as much, either. The fact that the new JMRI software has been written to finally give access to the MRC system helped push me in that direction.

I got the wireless Prodigy Advanced system the other day (through e-Bay--at a VERY good price, something you don't see on e-bay much any more), and so far, I'm quite happy with it. Rumors of the NCE-like wireless cab being difficult to operate with one hand have, for me, proven unfounded. I've ordered a second wireless cab. The system is so simple and compact. . .well, a lot has changed since the Easy DCC days, I guess.

 The new MRC system.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Progress is all downhill!

It's a start! Here comes the Buggardine Goods down the hill into Buggardine! Wheeee!

Well, check this one out, peeps!

Actually doing a bit of work on the Buggardine conversion, and have completed benchwork and hung a backdrop along the new wall of the railway in the past couple of weeks.  Even stuck down some (N-scale) cork roadbed and laid some C70 flex on there, and connected it through the wall to the staging yard.  No wiring done yet, but I couldn't resist from hooking up my old MRC ModelMaster 12v DC power pack and running a handy DC-capable locomotive up and down the tracks a few times. . . not an Australian model, however, but a newly-delivered addition to the "U.S. Collection," a Bowser C636 in Burlington Northern paint.  And it sure looked neat negotiating the s-curves!

But for this photo, I've mocked up what would perhaps be a typical goods train on this line (please excuse the Victoria Railways guard van on the rear--it was the easiest to pull out of the storage bin!). As I've written before, after even a little bit of progress in layout building, I'm usually hauling out structures or vehicles or trees or equipment and "mocking up" scenes such as this one. Doing this helps me as well conceptualize the scenery work ahead--for instance, there will be a short bridge across a creek and a rural road back where the 4th and 5th wagons are in the photo. And from this angle, I'm hoping a cutting and vegetation will disguise the hole in the wall.

This was the first time I'd used Open Grid construction (vs. L-girder), and just as the Kalmbach book said it would, it made positioning uprights to hold sub-roadbed a breeze. Another item that came in handy: a Husky digital level, which allows me to set the gradient of the subroadbed to a maximum 2.5% (probably averages out to 2.1 or so down the hill).

The backdrop is .060 styrene sheet, in this instance glued to masonite board in the corners. This helps the sheet keep its shape and not warp. The masonite backing will only be used in the corners and where sheets of styrene join.

You'll notice those gnarly nut/bolt/washers also: This is part of my attempt this time to make the railways sectional, if not portable. I'm hoping in 10 years or so, when we move from this place, I'll be able to save most of the layout.

So, kicking off fall with a bit of modeling. Got my Anton's 60' Sellars turntable now, so I'm pretty motivated to keep after it.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Welcome to Buggardine!

 A classic 1980 view by Chris Anderson of a Gwabegar-bound goods train between Ryalstone and Mudgee, with a 48 Class up front followed by an assortment of S-wagons, a bogie goods van, nad several flat wagons loaded with RACE containers. RACE was  a cooperative effort by several Australian state rail systems to pool containers for domestic less-than-carload shipments of traffic (think: United Parcel Service). These cars would be set out at Mudgee.

That's what I'll call it for now--the new New South Wales branchline terminal layout I've decided to plow ahead with.

I like a little bawdiness in my Australian place names. South Coast Rail has a whole epistle given to unusual Australian place names. (Burrumbuttock--there's a name to fuel the imagination. How about Coonabarabran? I'm mostly intrigued on that one given the Wikipedia entry on how it got its name: 
 "It seems no one really knows the source and meaning of the word Coonabarabran. It may derive from a person's name or from the Kamilaroi language word 'gunbaraaybaa' meaning 'excrement', translated earlier as meaning, 'peculiar odour', this possibly is a bowdlerisation. Another meaning is derived from an Aboriginal word for 'inquisitive person'."  Quite a divergent pair of choices. I'm guessing the former is the real story, and the Aboriginals just told the settlers the latter to appease them. But I digress.) Walla Walla doesn't even make the list!

So, there will be no double-decked dual Walla Walla railway this time. I'm sticking to New South Wales, and proto-freelancing a rural branchline terminal. I'd been kicking this one around for quite awhile after seeing railway models in Australia based on this concept. Bowen Creek quite comes to mind. And most recently, Burrowa. I like the idea of a sun-baked, drought-stricken nowhere little town in central New South Wales. Call it late 1970s, when rural traffic was in decline. The franchise was on shaky legs. The inspectors weren't as regular out on the far reaches of the territory, so the paint is peeling, the weeds and high grasses are taking over the roadbed, and without steam, those Sellars turntables are starting to get a little balky in their operation.

I scaled back ambitions from Narrabri this time. I'm hoping that by concentrating on the visual and operating experience of such a branchline terminal, I can accomplish my goals. I'm still striving for operations, but realistically I know I'm somewhat of a lone wolf (with a few other wolfs time to time for company) and need to have a railroad that is fun to build and scenic, doesn't require an overwhelming amount of rolling stock or locomotives, and can be operated by two or three--or even one.

So, welcome to Buggardine. Okay, bad joke--but the original name, Dilgonga, was even more double-entrendred.

Where is Buggardine? The name is influenced by Baradine, on the Gwabegar line. I love the Warrambungles, and the idea that grain trains came off the plains and down the canyons of this rugged piece of New South Wales. I didn't want to be constrained by an actual prototype, so le's forget for now that Gwabegar didn't exist, and Buggardine did.

 Another 1980 Chris Anderson view, as the 4853, an earlier series 48 class, wheels 10 empty S-wagons and a GHG guard van along the Gwabegar branch near Yearinan with a Baradine-bound goods train. Light rail and minimal ballast!

It's a small town, maybe the council seat of the shire. To the south and west are the jagged Warrambungles. To the north and east, the flat plains of the wheat belt. A thrice-weekly goods train calls here, the timetable bolstered by conditional extra schedules for wheat, occasionally livestock movements, and depending upon contracts, containerized cotton extras (the cotton industry, as it has in the nearby Namoi region, has recently taken root in the area, and containers are loaded on a newly-paved apron adjacent to the old flour siding).

The infrastructure is typical of rural NSW locations: station, loading bank, light crane, goods shed. A silo. Livestock pens. There's a weed-grown track leading to a 60' turntable and unused coal stage, and near there, a decaying bunk house for crews that no longer stay in town. A stationmaster's home, water tank and ganger's shed complete the terminus scene; two parallel sidings run into town, serving two oil distributors and a flour mill, and the aforementioned new loading area for cotton containers.

Just outside of town, on a separate dead-end siding with a run-around track, partially obscured by trees and rising hills, is a new, modern wheat board high-throughput grain elevator complex, visited in season my tandem branch line locomotives and the new WHX/WTY wheat wagons.

Completing the scene is a panorama leaving town, dropping down into the Warrambungles, a peaceful scene across the paddocks where sheep and cattle graze.

It seems doable, and given the right amount of "restraint," I have the room to keep the layout uncrowded and believable.

 Just a sketch, but. . .you get the idea.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Emerging from a cloud of (probably toxic) dust.

 How I started the morning: destruction as a form of art. . .

Spent most of this weekend tearing down North of Narrabri. It's not really gone--somewhat careful demolition (you can never be too careful!) to recycle whatever assets of the old layout has allowed me to be "sustainable" (in the modern parlance) and not toss too much unwanted lumber out the upstairs window.

Seriously. After removing most of the lower deck, I was able to open the windows, letting the sunshine into the layout room for the first time in 5 or 6 years. My 10 year old son, Ian, exclaimed that he "didn't know there was a window there!".

It's tougher to tear down a model railroad than it is to build it. In my case at least, construction was problem-solving-as-you-go. And in the heat of wanting to make progress, construction proceeded not in the most logical, linear fashion. Meaning that lots of times, screws were driven in from the top side of the benchwork instead of below. Why is this important? When it comes time to tear that mother down, you'll discover that the screw heads you need access to are buried under the scenery. Something I mean to remember each time--but rarely do.

In the meantime, it's a godawful mess--as bad as it was the last time I tore down a layout, the Walla Walla Valley, back in 2008. Worst part is the dust from the pressed paper ceiling tiles used as sub-roadbed. It's like springtime in Lubbock in here. Everything is covered with a layer of white dust. I always ask myself why I insist on the ceiling tile--why not use pink foam? I guess with the foam I'd just be trading white dust for pink staticky dust.

The helix was generously donated to a UP switchman in town who could use it for his layout he hopes to build in the future. Lower level lighting and a chunk of excess NSWGR rolling stock ended up with my mate Lance Lassen. About half of the rest of my Aussie stock was offered up via Facebook, and all of it so far has either been sold off or spoken for. I'm guessing my asking prices weren't e-bay astronomical. I hope the new recipients of the models are happy with their purchases.

So this begs the question I get a lot now: So, are you done with modeling Australia? Are you going to do another version of Walla Walla Valley? I've been coy in the past, repeating the "conceptually linked" line one layout designer used in Model Railroad Planning to justify a two-level layout, with two different railroads, not physically linked. "Conceptually Linked?" Well, in addition to the Walla Walla in Washington State, USA, there's a Walla Walla in New South Wales. . . served at one time by the NSWGR. Could THIS be my next layout?

Stay tuned!

 By the end of the day: a bit tidier. . .and a clue as to what's next . . .

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The End. . . for now.

Not the beginning of the end--rather, the end of the beginning!

The End of a Model Railroad is rarely something to celebrate, and the case of North of Narrabri is no different.

Readers of this by-now semi-annual blog about building North of Narrabri have well noticed the lack of updates; those times I have updated in the past few years, it's mainly been to assure my dwindling number of followers that I'm still in the game, just not working as intently as I did before.

So with the deepening layer of dust on the layout from lack of use, inspiration and progress (measured at 115 scale centimeters at last count), it became obvious that as time went on, it was becoming tougher and tougher to get back on that modeling wagon without some big lightning bolt of inspiration to bring me back in there.

My kids had largely taken over the train room, which I don't really begrudge them, as one of the early tenants of the layout's design was to open up the room for use by the rest of the family.

In the past couple of years, though, other interests in my life have emerged to edge the modeling from priority status. We did a bit of remodeling of the house, which certainly diverted time and money from the model railway. Last November I acquired a 1966 Ford Thunderbird, which while not needing much work at all, called me either to the garage downstairs to troubleshoot the constant little nags, or to the open road to enjoy such a vintage piece of Michigan Steel.

And lastly, the acquisition of a new, smaller, lighter mirrorless Fuji X-series camera system has rekindled one of my earliest loves: photography. It was my photography interest which grew as a result of my initial railway interest in the mid-1970s, and eventually provided me 10 years of employment as a photojournalist. But photography for the sheer pleasure of making images of things that struck my eye became less and less of an occurrence once I left the profession to become a railroader in 1994.  Since starting a family, the only times I went out of my way to make photographs were family events or for railroad photography--and apart from trips to Australia in 2009 and 2012, I'd done very little of that. The Fuji cameras made photography fun again, and I'm fully vested in once again exploring my visual creative side.

Stifiling my layout progress were a couple of issues: the age of my DCC system (Easy DCC from around 2000), the unresponsiveness of CVP, the system's manufacturer, to respond to requests for help on upgrading the system; and the continued delay after delay of TrainORama to deliver three 48 class I'd ordered in February 2008. True, they're ONLY locomotives, but this was a layout based on Narrabri, and without the signature locomotive on the railroad. . .well, it just wasn't motivating to  not be able to run a full program of trains on one of my rare operating sessions.

So, I decided to start anew. I might be back working on a layout early next year, or it might be a few years. I'm not going to let a hobby pursuit drag me down. It'll happen when it happens. In the meantime, I can scale back some benchwork, remove other portions (and repair holes in the drywall I'd punched to situate a helix), and just not worry about model railroading for awhile.

The 40-or-so hand-built turnouts will likely be recycled on Lance Lassen's Tocumwal layout; I'll be thinning out my rolling stock collection by about 40%. And I'll get on with these other pursuits.

What might replace Narrabri? I'm leaning towards a streamlined, one-town layout that will extend along two walls of the existing railroad room, with a benchwork around 50cm deep. I'd imagine it being a mix-up of Coonabarbaran and Wee Waa: a modern high-thruput grain operation, the older concrete silos "downtown." A traditional stock, loading bank, goods shed arrangement. A small passenger station with thrice-weekly 620/720 service. A couple of oil spurs. A siding for containerized cotton. And a weed-grown loco servicing facility with small armstrong turntable. The era will be the same as Narrabri was: mid-1970s to 1980.  Hopefully, but the time I get back to this new layout, those 48's will have arrived--from TrainO, from Auscision--hopefully from someone.

So, while this is an ending, it isn't THE END. It's just a break. And when I come back to it, it'll be fun and exciting and something I will devote the time to.

Thanks for all your interest in North of Narrabri! Your own work has served as an inspiration for me and a benchmark to aim for.