Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Horse drawn trams in Morecambe

I’ve continued to sort through my father’s family archive and came across these two postcards of Morecambe, England. There’s no writing on the backs, and no printed dates, so no positive confirmation of when they were printed or sold, but my guess would be in the 1900’s or 1910’s. It’s a seaside town and from the looks of the first picture, one with horse drawn trams in an earlier time. They remind me of the horse-drawn trams that Vivien Thompson built in her Sept ’73 Model Railway Constructor article. There’s also some fantastic buildings in these pictures. The sign in the lower picture says ‘Midland Railway’ on the upper portion, and that looks like some sort of passenger shelter nearer the rails.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Impression-izing Bachmann's N-scale TTC PCC the Jedi way

Which leads us to the moral of this story - don't wait for perfection - just do the best you can NOW, with what is available NOW - that is the real way to progress.
Vane A. Jones, publisher of Traction and Models, dispenses some sage advice in the Office Car column of the September 1970 issue.

Do. Or do not. There is no try. 
Yoda, Grand Jedi Master, The Empire Strikes Back

Awhile back I bought a Bachmann N-scale TTC PCC streetcar. It ran quite well, but I wasn't satisfied with the way it looked. It seemed to ride too high - actual TTC PCCs look more low-slung - and the wheels didn't line up under the openings. I thought I'd have a go at trying to fix those issues.
[The door side of the out-of-the-box model]

And although I'm certainly not worthy to doubt the sage advice of one of cinema's greatest fictional characters, this project was all about trying. Maybe not in the half-hearted way that the Jedi of all Jedi was telling us to avoid, but in the more clear minded Jedi Jones, 'trying as a way to make progress', way. I knew this was new territory for me, and even though I wanted to get it right, this whole thing was likely going to be a learning experience whose lessons might be better applied to the next member of my miniature streetcar fleet.
[This photo of the real McCoy was sourced from John Chuckman's excellent blog, Lost Toronto. I won't try to say what version or iteration of a 1970's TTC PCC this is other than it's this sort of image that my mind says, "that looks right".]

I also realized this wasn't doing to result in a high-fidelity replica of any PCC. For that, a complete from scratch effort with a 3-D printer is likely the way to go. I was going for an impression of correctness, so that when the car went by on the track, it wouldn't trigger thoughts of how terribly deficient it was, but would pass-by without disturbing the force.
Here's what's inside the body shell. The interior is more-or-less completely filled with two chunky blocks of metal, which are screwed together and are used to provide weight and distribute power to the motor from the truck pickups. I had hopes of grinding or cutting down the height of the metal blocks, but no dice, the motor is flush with the block tops. However, those little tabs that hold the shell to the blocks were cut off with a Dremel cutter. I thought that they keep the body too high on the chassis, but once removed, they only drop the shell a little bit, but with them gone, I filled the corresponding slots on the shell so the body looked a little more real.
This is the back end of the body block unit. I cut off those end tabs to try and get the shell to slide further back and help right the wheel / body alignment problem. It helped a bit. What actually needs to be done is the blocks need to be unscrewed, taken apart and about a 1/4 inch needs to be cut off. Yoda would be hanging his head in disgust at this point because I chickened out on that step. I wasn't sure if I could re-assemble it and get it to work again. Even though this one runs well, when I bought it, of the three for sale, this was the only one that ran smoothly. The others hesitated, stuttered and needed prodding to get them to go. I wanted to make sure that at the end of this little expedition in streetcar customizing the patient still ran without issues. I was going to save radical surgery and running-gear tuning for another project. 
Well, after lots of attempts and tries, this is the finished mechanism block before re-installing it in the shell. All side and rear body tabs were cut off, the passenger images were painted over with black, and the trucks were painted with a loose mixture of Model Master Acryl British Crimson and Tamiya acrylic Deep Green. You can see I had a go at cutting back and shortening the back-end of the metal block, but stopped when I realized I should take the thing apart before going farther.
For completeness, this is the other side.
Since I couldn't reduce the height of the metal block housing the drive mechanism, I thought I'd try lowering the body a bit. I glued strips of 0.040 in. x 0.040 in. styrene around the shell's lower perimeter. I was cautious here as I thought if the strips were too big they would wreck the streamlined shape and make the shell too boxy. After making this modification, I think 0.040 in. x 0.060 in. strips instead of the 0.040 x 0.040 would give a better look, but I wouldn't go any further than adding a 0.060 in. wide strip. You can also see in the photo that filler was gooped into the slots for the side body tabs.
I did the same thing to the other side. You can see that if the strip gets too wide the step down from the doors will seem too great, so I think this approach of adding a lowering strip is limited.
The front of the out-of-the-box shell has a section scalloped out. It struck me as too deep, so I filled it as I wrapped the styrene strip around the front.
Wrapping the strip around the back completes the process. I let the strips dry for a couple of days and then proceeded to sand and shape them to get them to conform to the contours of the shell and look blended in. I think I only did a so-so job as I was too cautious. I'm still not confident working in this small scale and need more practice. Although, I was happy on the blending job on the T'rantula as it was the first built-up body shell I've made that looks more-or-less seamless, so I figure with some practice, these N-scale shells should get better.
The final step was to paint the smoothed styrene strips with a mixture of Model Master Acryl British Crimson and Model Master Acryl Stop Light Red and get the colours to blend with the rest of the shell. The windows were glazed with Micro Kristal Klear. Some loose washes of thin flat black and Tamiya Smoke were brushed on for a little weathering. I think the doorless side needs an advertising billboard, the black destination board needs a destination lettered on it, and the trolley pole should be some sort of non-black metallic colour to help with the overall impression, but those should be relatively easy things to add.

At this point, it was time to take the thing for a spin around Tor-N-to to see if it still ran.
I breathed a sigh of relief.

Tor-N-to is still more-or-less just a collection of Kato Unitram track pieces I've been playing with. The idea behind Tor-N-to is a work-in-progress from thinking about omni-circulatory layouts, and reading lots of old model railroad magazines. 

At first I was reading that old stuff just for the E. L. Moore articles, but I soon became interested in the other things those old pages had on display. It seems that every so often in the ‘50s and ‘60s articles were written to try and convince readers that trolley systems were good things to model, if not in whole, at least as an adjunct to their main layout. Frankly, as a streetcar enthusiast, even I didn’t find those articles convincing. Their arguments were marginal at best.

My interest in streetcars, especially the TTC, is laced with generous heapings of nostalgia, which is also the driving force behind many mainstream modeller’s pet obsessions. You’re either interested in them, or you’re not. There’s no case to be made based merely on the technical attributes of the prototype or models. People might develop an interest from seeing streetcar layouts in action, from photos, or their own memories, but it’s not a case that can be argued. I grew up riding TTC buses, streetcars and subways in order to get around Toronto. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Toronto had the most extensive and still operational streetcar system in existence in either Canada or the US, and it was used by a wide swath of socio-economic classes. I’m not suggesting it was some golden age of candy, rainbows and unicorns, no, merely that it was, and is, a unique urban transportation experience in North America, and has left me with generally pleasant memories of a certain time and place. That strikes me as a sounder basis for a layout than an argument that trolley systems are more suited to modelling rail transport than other subjects because they can handle tight radii track or really do run on electricity.
Even so, it’s still not possible to build the whole thing. Judicious choices are required. Maybe a particular street or run. For me, I’m looking to replicate some sort of feeling or impression. Some sense of the place. Some things that interest me. Some things that should be idealized. I think streetcar layouts, especially a TTC or Toronto inspired one, are tricky because they involve lots of buildings and urban scenery. And not the usual rundown, wrong-side-of-the-tracks material. We’re talking more every day, commonplace, well maintained stuff that most people would encounter in their day-to-day activities. A Toronto inspired layout  wouldn’t be well served by an over reliance on Walthers, DPM, or Woodland Scenics products, so considerable scratch building and kit bashing might be called for. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that most streetcar layouts might be more oriented to building and structure modellers who like that sort of thing. I think a key distinguishing feature of a model streetcar layout is that it’s place oriented instead of rail vehicle oriented.

Speaking of streetcars, I shy away from the word traction; trolley and tram aren’t too bad, but I’ve never heard TTC streetcars referred to as trolleys or trams, just plain streetcars, and most civilians have no idea what traction is other than a state you’re put into after serious bodily injury :-)

I might go out on a limb and propose that model streetcar layouts are radically different from model railroads. Sure, there are similarities much like there are similarities between automobiles and motorcycles, but it might be more productive to think of model streetcar layouts as being a separate breed instead of a poor relation to model railroads. So, instead of trying, as those old articles did, to convince model railroaders to take up model streetcar systems and argue about what makes them worthy of their attention, maybe it’s better to abandon that approach and think of model streetcar layouts as their own class of thing. I haven’t gone too far yet with this line of thinking, but I think it might be an interesting path to walk along for awhile.
Possibly the term ‘model railroad’ is one place to start. Looking at a phrase and teasing out what it means by interrogating individual words seems like a turn away from pleasant adult conversation into the pit of nerdish quibbling, but such a brief detour might be useful at this point. Today, the mainstream use of ‘model’ in ‘model railroading’ is meant to imply that the thing in question is a small scale representation of an actual railroad, either currently existing or historical. It’s something that captures the detail and sense of a real railroad and can be operated as the real thing might have operated.  This is an excellent goal and many important innovations have been achieved as a consequence of its pursuit. But, sometimes I wonder if it might lead to point where progress is no longer possible. At that point there will be lots of fascinating layouts, incredible feats of technique and creativity, but this might be a point where surprising and delightful developments no longer occur. That path, the path that model railroading is on as presented by today’s model railroading press, might not be completely the right direction to follow for a model streetcar system. For example, the detail and density and energy of the streetcar’s ‘natural’ environment might not be well represented. Maybe some mix of impressionistic plus abstract plus realistic modelling is needed to capture those traits and keep the artifact doable. And a model streetcar system might blend in one of the other meanings of ‘model’; namely, the one that suggests that the artifact is something to be used as an example to follow or imitate. As cities can be crucibles of new ideas, a streetcar layout might represent things that could be as well as things as they are, since cities are often also mixtures of old and new and future side-by-side.
Did the streetcars and subways of the TTC drive and determine many of the unique characteristics of Toronto, or was it the reverse? It’s a point I can’t answer, but it would be key to developing a layout that has the feeling of the city. Can that feeling survive in the current era? I don’t know that one either.

Omni-vagancy is another unique characteristic of a model streetcar layout. This aspect alone makes it fundamentally different from a modern model railroad design. There are likely other unique concepts to these types of layouts - it'll be fun figuring them out.

Model streetcar system? Is that a good name for this new thing? It doesn’t roll off the tongue like model railroad or model railway does. Some thought is needed. Well, lots of thought is needed on this whole idea. For now it’s back to the damp and musty pages of Dagobah in a model railroad galaxy far, far away :-)

Friday, June 26, 2015

E. L. Moore in the 21st Century: One photo summary?

[Introductory photo to E. L. Moore's article Slim Gauge Carriage that appeared in the September 1961 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman.]

Although I was educated as a linguistic theorist, I like being an art critic better, because anyone who disagrees with me can go look at the thing itself and decide for him or herself about the justice of my argument.
Dave Hickey in Orphans in the Storm, an essay included in Pirates and Farmers.

Throughout this series on E. L. Moore I’ve been quite biased: I’ve focused on works that have exerted some sort of gravitational pull on me. This has been a Jupiter of a photograph. It appeared in the September ’61 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman as the lead photo for Mr. Moore’s article, Slim Gauge Carriage. I first saw the photo last year when I finally got a copy of the magazine, and since then I’ve gone back to it a number times, orbiting with regularity over the months. Objectively, it’s not spectacular, there’s no giant red spot, weird vortices, or psychedelic coloured bands. In fact, it’s rather plain, even a little blurry on the old pulpy paper, and certainly doesn’t equal modern model railroad photos in technical excellence, but it has a few things to say.

First, there’s the obvious message: it shows the finished carriage described in the article.  Well, Mr. Moore could have simply shot some side and end elevations to do that. He didn’t. He staged a scene, and once down this path he jettisoned the purely pragmatic approach and opened things up to his imagination.

The scene strikes me as pure Moore, which is weird because there are no buildings  - the things he is most famous for – in the scene. It’s pure Moore because it’s easygoing, carefree, relaxed, and has a dose of humour.
[Detail of the lead carriage.]

Look at those passengers. Lying on the benches. Feet up. Sleeping maybe. Relaxed.

And stashed between the benches of the lead carriage: looks like maybe a couple of bedrolls wedged between one pair, and a barrel wedged between the other. A cask of wine? Whiskey? Bourbon? I’d be surprised if it was filled with nails :-)
[A load of canoes strapped rather loosely to a flat car.]

Behind the carriages is a flatcar loaded with canoes with an intrepid passenger sitting atop the stack to get a better view of what’s up ahead. Canoes. Cask. Bedrolls. Maybe they’re heading to a fishing hole. It seems like a vacation, not a business trip.

The picture’s a small story. It’s all composition. There’s no fancy lighting, colours or contrasts going on. What there is, is in the content, but it isn’t a, “hey, isn’t this a high fidelity model”,  it’s more of a, “hey, look’it what these guys are doing”. It’s a model of a story. No doubt fictional. Maybe utopian. The model is there doing its job to show what’s being built in the article, but it’s doing that job while doing E. L. Moore’s other job: storytelling.
[Looks like everyone is asleep in that middle carriage.]

On the technical side, Mr. Moore has integrated the backdrop into the scene almost seamlessly and has added smoke from the locomotive’s stack. It takes place on a bridge, possibly to add a bit of drama. Lolling around on a small, open-sided carriage, or on top of a shaky stack of canoes, seems a little more dicey when the train is rumbling across a wooden trestle than on nice, flat ground.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Removing pedestrians from a streetcar track old school style

It starts off all nostalgic and sentimental, and then beginning around 1:25 it takes a turn for the weird... and then continues on as if nothing had happened.

T'rantula rides again!

The T in T'rantula doesn't stand for Tesla because even though it's a green machine there is nothing environmentally friendly about this gas-guzzling monster.
The model went together fairly easily and all the parts fit with a minimum of flash to be removed. The above photo shows it up on its wheels awaiting the engine and windshield.
The double-blower engine is the most prominent feature of this model, so I thought I should add ignition wires to the distributor since that part was front and centre. The kit's distributor unit is made of two parts: a body and cap. I discarded the cap and drilled out the body to accept the wires. 
The wires are some leftovers from packages I bought from Model Car Garage a number of years ago. I used red and black because I didn't have enough left of either colour, so I went with 4 red and 4 black. The wires were bundled together and glued into the distributor body with some medium thickness super-glue.
Some holes were drilled in the engine to accept the wires - the positioning is all guess work, nothing prototypical or accurate. They're held in place with some Krystal Klear.
Jumping ahead a bit, you can see how that side of the engine looks when the whole thing is seated in the body.
I did the same procedure on the other side. There's nothing fancy about this engine. Other than ignition wires, there weren't any other after market details added. The only detailing was merely painting various components. Ok, well, the ends of the exhaust pipes were drilled to open them up.
You can sort of make out the opened up exhaust pipes in this view from the back. There's also a packed-up drag chute glued to the back of the cab.
The kit comes with a deployed drag chute - that's it in the photo above with an N-scale figure. It might make an interesting passenger shelter for a streetcar turn-around. Although, now that I see it, it might be better in HO than N.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Buildings in Miniature

This book is intended for those modellers, the individualists, who want to go out and sketch or photograph their own buildings, and yet are not quite sure which would be the best way to start building them.
G. Iliffe Stokes opens his classic book with a few classic words.

After two years of searching I finally found a copy of G. Iliffe Stokes' Buildings in Miniature - $20 from an online bookseller here in Ontario. It's more like an extra thick pamphlet than a paperback book, but it's beautifully designed and put together. I think it was published in 1958. About 1/3 of it is photos and charming line drawings. The work is excellent. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Monday, June 15, 2015


The rain, sun and heat mix we've been getting so far here in very late spring has been in just the right proportions to make the landscape intensely green. That small stretch of track near the Pleasant Park level crossing is part of the same line Debra and I travelled back in January on our trip to Toronto. It's nowhere near as bleak as it was 6 months ago. The wild flowers in our backyard are reaping the benefits too.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Our Home and Miniature Land

Last night on CTV news I saw a fascinating report on a new attraction that is being built in Mississauga: Our Home and Miniature Land. It’s a vast HO-scale layout of Toronto with plans to model other parts of Canada, including Ottawa. It’s amazing. I wish them much success, and I’m awaiting the day when its open to the public.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Cambridge Guided Busway

I came across this video at Treehugger. It struck me as an interesting cross between a streetcar and bus system. Here in Ottawa, there is a transitway dedicated for city bus travel, but it's more like a traditional road, nothing like this.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

American Folk Art Buildings

I learned about the collection described in this book, American Folk Art Buildings: Collection of Steven Burke and Randy Campbell, via this New York Times article, which was the aha! moment behind the E. L. Moore folk-artist-as-model-railroader idea.

There are all sorts of model buildings and small buildings in the world. This collection focuses on those made by non-professionals who don’t make them for a living and build for personal reasons. There aren’t things like architect’s models, doll houses, birdhouses and so on in the collection. As well, most of the pieces date from roughly the late 19th century to around 1950. The book itself has high production values: glossy pages, and all photos are colour, well lit and sharp.

The models themselves span a wide range of architectural types from houses to stores to churches to businesses and so on, and have made use of wide variety of materials in their construction. It appears that a few were likely used at one time as scenic accessories on model railroads. Being an E. L. Moore aficionado I looked for obvious examples of his work, but didn’t find any. It's an extensive collection, and makes it clear that making small buildings was a pastime for many people even though it wasn't a mainstream hobby - it was a strong, although lesser unknown tributary in the popular culture.

An important thing that comes across in this book is that the owners of this collection have worked hard to display the models to their best advantage. I especially like how they often use a white column or pedestal to bring a piece up close to eye level. The common practice of displaying small models on waist level tables, layouts, bookcases and other types of readily available furniture has the advantage of being low-cost and convenient, but usually doesn’t do justice to a model, and by extension, its maker. Again, the owners of this collection have clearly spent a lot of time and effort on optimizing the viewing experience. I think that makes a great difference.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Studebaker Lark?

Back in May I happened to see this car in a Target parking lot in Buena Park, CA. Although the front end appears to have seen some rough times, overall it's still looking good and fixable. An internet search suggests it might be a 2-door Studebaker Lark wagon which was introduced to the market in 1959.

If a phone rings in the forest

The Zen guys have a lesson in the form of a question. It goes something like this, if a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear, does it make a sound?

Here’s an easier one. If a phone rings incessantly in a backwoods trolley shed, will it ever stop? Answer, only if I pick it up.

Once I had turned on the power and phone, the phone began to ring as I was starting to bring my gear inside. I tried to ignore it and hoped it would stop. I hoped very hard. I wasn’t looking for conversation. After a dozen or so rings it was clear the caller was in for the long haul. I put down what I was doing, switched on the shed’s inside light, and walked to the phone on the back wall. I answered with a weary, “Hello.”

“Hello, Ed?”

I recognized that woman’s voice. For an instant I hoped it was grandma calling from the great beyond for a chat. No such luck. But, I surprised myself. I was glad to hear Leslie’s voice.

“Hi Leslie. How you’ve been?”

“I’m good thanks. What’s up with your phone? I’ve been calling your number all day, and this is the first time I got a ring.”

“I forwarded it to my trolley shed. I just turned the phone service back on.”

“That’s nice. I didn’t know you had a place in the country.”

“I inherited it a couple of years ago. This is the first time I’ve been up here.”

“Interesting. How are you doing?”

I looked at the corner where grandma used to stored the captain’s chair. It was there of course. I figured I’d sit. It was my vacation after all. 

“I was fired last month, but I’m doing ok.”, I said in a matter-of-fact way.

“Fired? I’m sorry to hear that.”

The problem with the chair in the corner was that the corner was around 72 inches away and the phone ‘s receiver had a 12 inch cord. Hmmm. I carefully studied the row of chunky buttons along the bottom of the phone. One had a little picture of a speaker with some waves coming out. I pushed it.

“I did alright. Two years severance with benefits.”

“What happened? And, you know you sound like you’re at the bottom of a well.”

“I’m on speaker.” I pulled the chair over to the phone, sat down under the phone and let the receiver dangle from it’s embarrassing cord, ”It’s a long story.”

“Are you still there?”

“Yeah, just getting a chair.” I sat there, chair leaned against the shed’s back wall, staring across the covered trolley and outside the open double doors. My eyes followed the shed’s track to the woods. “It’s a long story, but after days of interviewing me - interrogating really - they tried to figure out if I was as dirty as Adams - and if I had pushed him on the track - and then relieved me of my duties once they were convinced I was just some sort of unwitting patsy. Luckily, a friend of mine had a friend, who had a friend who was a labour lawyer. That guy got me two years severance, with full benefits to boot, as long as I signed in blood that I wouldn’t discuss any of what was going on with anyone, especially the media, or got involved with anything to do with any more investigations into the whole mess. That was all fine by me.”  It made me feel better just blurting it out to somebody.

“Maybe we have a problem then.”

“Oh yeah? How so?”

“I wanted to ask if you’d come with me to Dr. Ellesmere’s lab at the U of T to pick up the fusor we left with her.”

“You don’t need me. I’m done. And they’re probably watching you. No doubt they’re still watching me.”

“She said she had something she didn’t want to discuss on the phone.”

“They’re probably bugging our phones too.”

“You’re really paranoid.”

“We’re discussing this on the phone. My phone and your phone. It doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“Sic your lawyer on them. You learned how to be an investigator at that place and I might need your help. Meet me at the front doors of the physics building Wednesday at 9.”

There was a click. It was so loud I could have sworn it made the dangling receiver jump. 

She didn’t say if it was 9 am or 9 pm. I guess I’d have to find out for myself.

Part 5 of this spine tingling series can be found here.

Paul's Rocky Ridge Station

Paul Zimmerman sent me this picture of E. L. Moore’s Branch Line Station that he built in N-scale a number of years ago. He used shirt cardboard for the project and it looks good built with that classic material. Cardboard is far more economical than balsa given how ubiquitous it is around the house. Each week our recycle bin is filled with lots of different types. I think Paul got the colours to match Mr. Moore’s description quite closely, 

Since I like green I painted my station a faded green, diluting with thinner; the inside of the office is an undiluted green. Window trim and the doors are boxcar red, and the doors have a yellow trim. The platform, roof and freight room interior were given a wash of raw sienna in turpentine, which is about what I would call "natural".
[E. L. Moore concludes his Branch Line Station article, from the April '64 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman, with some painting instructions.]

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Transferring the trackplan to the panel

After a little bit of head-scratching, I decided on how to transfer the Elizabeth Valley Railroad trackplan to the layout panel. That's the end result in the opening photo with some buildings placed for scale.
That's the 2' x 3' trackplan before getting started on the transfer.
I started by drawing a 6" x 6" grid on the panel with a Sharpie pen to match the grid on the plan.
I then taped the plan to the panel and used a circle punch to cut holes at various places. I just carefully pushed the punch into the paper until a hole was cut. Each hole was then marked on the panel with a Sharpie pen. At first I thought I could transfer the plan to the panel by sandwiching a graphite sheet between plan and panel, and then trace over the plan with a pen. I tried it, but the plan didn't transfer. The cork had too much give, and no marks could be left by the graphite paper. 
If you look closely you'll see all the dots on the panel - but you have to look close :-)
That's a close-up. A dot cloud in this view.
At this stage I connected the dots with help of the plan, a ruler, spline, and the good, old Sharpie pen. The grid makes it a little easier to figure out how to connect the dots when you're comparing them to the plan.
And that's what it looks like with all the dots joined. I'm expecting that once I start laying down the track, I'll have to make some adjustments so that things roll smoothly, so the plan is just a starting point to get the general positioning right.