So, About That Whole Realism Thing…

You may recall certain posts of mine where I talked at length about realism, and accuracy, and data, and getting all the duckies in neat rows.  I was quite adamant and dogmatic about all that.  And I still hold to that.

… um, except until I don’t…

So there’s this fictional model railroad out there, conceived and executed by a guy named Eric Brooman.  He’s a fabulous artist and modeler, and I’ve admired his work from afar for decades.  I had lost track of his efforts back around 2002 or so.  A friend of mine recently introduced me to a Facebook group that follows  his fictional railroad, the Utah Belt.  And it took me about three days to decide to build a locomotive to his specifications.  A couple weeks later, and, well, see the picture at the top of this page for the results.

That’s right.  On my super-realistic D&RGW railroad, I now have a unit that is completely fictional.  That fiction is plausible in Eric’s world, but it’s not real.  I have officially gone off the rails, so to speak.

But, you know what they say.

Rule No. 1:

It’s MY Railroad!



The Preeminence of Data

Nature abhors anachronism, although it makes for good Sci-Fi

Preface: Although this post is about model railroading, it applies to any sort of model-building hobby.  Whew.  Glad that’s out of the way!

You may have gathered by now that one of my main hobbies is model railroading.  In fact, several of my others tie into it, directly or indirectly.  And amongst model railroaders, there is a well-known maxim known as Rule No. 1.  Rule No. 1 states quite simply, “It’s MY railroad!”.  In case you haven’t ever been around model railroaders, they can be quite an arrogant lot.  The worst of them are what we call “rivet-counters”, those annoying people who delight in finding the minute flaws in other people’s work.  These people are avoided and vilified, unless of course you need to farm out a modeling project that you yourself don’t have time or skills or tools for.  Then, occasionally, they have a certain usefulness.

Anyway– Rule No. 1 was formulated as a defense against rivet-counters.  When someone tries to correct the errors of a fellow model-builder, at last resort one can always fall back on Rule No. 1, often followed by an emphatic expletive. Ultimately, it’s my hobby and I will do it the way I want to do it, dang it!  Rule No. 1 is useful, and realistic, and a great tool for ending an argument, because whatever else a rivet-counter may be, in his heart he acknowledges the jurisdiction of the rule, even if he feels compelled to display his superior knowledge about the other guy’s work.  It’s the 38th parallel of the hobby world; you simply do not cross it.

But, as it turns out, Rule No. 1 is wrong.  Flawed.  Untrue.  A veritable sham.  A big, fat lie.

What? you cry.  How can it be a sham?  It IS my hobby, isn’t it?  <grabs torch and pitchfork>

Your Honor, the defense would like to call its first witness.  Mister Name-of-the-Hobby, would you take the stand?  Thank you.  Do you swear to pretty much say whatever I want you to say?  Very well.  Now, sir, would you please state for the record, your name?


Isn’t that just your phony name?  I want you to tell us your REAL NAME!  Let me remind you that you’re under oath!

<squirms> Model railroading.

Louder!  So that the jurors in the back row can hear you!


Thank you .  No further questions.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we have just established that the name of this hobby is “Model Railroading”.  That implies that it’s building small models of real railroads.  If you’re not doing that, you’re playing with a toy trainset on the living room floor.  No, people, a model is a realistic and accurate representation of something else.  (Except for those “models” in the fashion biz, which are not detectably real in any sense of the word.)  So, therefore, a “model” railroad is supposed to represent a “real” railroad, accurately.  Even so-called Freelancers are building their fantasy worlds using non-fantasy railroad equipment, because if they didn’t, it wouldn’t feel convincing.  In fact, unless they create a convincing backstory for their free-lanced empire, it would be highly uninteresting.  So, even a made-up model is an accurate representation of a fantasy.  Yes, this sounds weird, but it is true.  I have to thrash this expiring nag so that I can move on to the real point I’m aiming at.

So you think it’s your railroad?  But the fact is, you are making a copy of someone ELSE’s railroad.  Somebody in the real world, with real trains and real employees and real stockholders and a real board of directors… and a real CEO.  And guess what?  It’s HIS railroad.  Not yours.

I can just see Mr. CEO telling the board, “See Rule No. 1, guys.”

OK.  Say I am trying to build a small version of something real (or fantasy). For now let’s stay in the real world. Well, we must now ask the question: How?  How do we know what to model?  Well, I like the Union Pacific / Santa Fe / Nickel Plate / Whatever.  Nope, not good enough.  How do you KNOW what to model?  Well, I bought this train online that was painted for the Rio Grande– that’s good enough, right?  Maybe not.  How do you KNOW?

One simple word: Research.

Refer to my previous series on building the USS Midway, and ask me how much RESEARCH I conducted in the course of that project.  Let me tell you, it was massive. More hours than I can possibly count!  Far more than I spent actually working on the model itself.  Like they told us in grade school: Do your homework.

“Oh come ON,” you say.  “Like, duh?  Isn’t that obvious?  OK, fine, I’ll go buy a book about this railroad I want to model.”  Well, that’s a good place to start.  After all, it’s hard to do actual research if you don’t know what questions to ask.  But there’s a lot more to do.

Let’s take the subject of anachronism, which is where you place two things from different times into the same scene, impossible in the real world but all too common in model-building and in Doctor Who episodes.  Say, a nascent model railroader and his buddy are having the following conversation…

I’m going to build a layout based on the Plywood Pacific!

  • When?

Starting today, I think.

  • No.  I mean, when in time are you going to model the PP?  What era?

Oh.  Well… I hadn’t really thought about it.

  • Well, what kind of equipment do you like?

Um, well, steam and diesels I guess.

  • You do realize that diesels replaced steam, right?  They usually didn’t run together much, except during the transition era.  And that would only be a few first-generation diesels and a few very late model steamers. You’d have to research the details though.

Oh.  When was the transition era?

  • Depends.  On the PP, that could be any time between say 1940 and 1958.  Pretty wide mix.  Lots of change during that time, too.

Great!  I have a Central Pacific 4-4-0 American that I want to run with a BNSF ES44C4.  I can do that in the transition era, right?

  • <starts banging head against wall>

But, the Plywood Pacific tycoon decides to do research and discovers that the 4-4-0 locomotive ran in 1868 and the ES44C4 was built in 2011.  He wisely concludes that these probably shouldn’t even be in the same house, much less on the same track at the same time.  He selects the late transition era to model, which will limit his choices of rolling stock and motive power, but allows him to run an occasional steam locomotive with his mostly-diesel fleet.  Anachronism averted.

So now we come to two real-world examples of how research sometimes looks.  A fellow Rio Grande fanatic and I recently started a conversation on the subject of the road’s GP40 fleet. These diesels are interesting to us because they were numerous, had long lives, came in several waves, and often received a number of modifications over time.  This last item was the subject of an ongoing discussion, where we started noticing odd little quirks on this unit or that, segued into trying to detect patterns, which led to noticing even more oddities and unique features.  Finally, I started to realize that what was needed was a “comprehensive” catalog of detail changes over time for the entire GP40/GP40-2 fleet.  So I began scouring the internet for images of each and every locomotive, all 103 of them.

I learned so much.  Now, keep in mind that the oldest of these locomotives was built in the mid-1960s, but some were not acquired until the early 1980s.  Shortly after that the Rio Grande merged with the Southern Pacific, and eight years later with the Union Pacific.  All of these changes of ownership meant that the locomotive fleet’s standards also changed.  We’re talking about appliances, mostly– headlights, horns, plows, that kind of thing that modelers obsess over.  But the biggest learning for me was to discover how many modifications were made by the Rio Grande itself, prior to any of the mergers.  Which, in turn, has implications for our modeling efforts.  It tells us what configurations of the locomotives can be run during particular time periods.  Research which yields data which drives choices and ultimately leads to better realism.  And that is one of our main goals, after all.

A second example involves contemporary Amtrak paint schemes.  For those who pay attention to such things, Amtrak has gone through five major schemes (or phases) on its western equipment since the 1970s; four since the inauguration of the double-decker Superliner fleet.  (I’m not talking about locomotives here; that’s a separate subject.)  The current scheme is called Phase IVb because it’s essentially a modified rendering of Phase IVPhase IVb consists of a blue stripe with alternating white and red pinstripes above it– two pairs in all. But it also has a half-width white strip above the top red stripe, something that Phase IV did not have.  Phase IVb was rolled out somewhere around 2006.  Now, at first glance it just looks like they just removed the large SUPERLINER script, but there’s a lot more to it than that– such as that little white stripe mentioned above.  However, at a distance the changes are not that significant…

… until you start looking closely.  And I don’t just mean the differences between the phases, but even the differences within the phases.  Thanks to my entry into the digital camera world in 2007, I obsessively take photos of Amtrak trains whenever I can. Lo and behold, I discovered that there are differences between cars wearing Phase IVb.  Why?  How?  When?


Long story short, I plowed through my photos and extracted data on car numbers, shades of numerals, shades of the Amtrak “Travelmark” logo, and most importantly the date and place of these observations.  Gathering this data allows me to, ahem, track the trends over time and see if they make any sense.

Why did I care?  Because I wanted to print some decals and re-letter some model Amtrak cars to match the modern era paint scheme, and I had to get it right, that’s why.  Simply recycling the art from Phase IV would have been a mistake, as it turns out.  The colors are just plain different, and there are variations.  (The IVb stripes are a different shade of blue from Phase IV.  The color of the numerals and Travelmark were initially light blue, but were difficult to see against the stainless steel car bodies, so they were gradually replaced with darker versions.)  Having the data enables me to create authentic artwork, and to apply it in authentic combinations to the model railcars.

The Data makes an accurate representation of Reality possible, and therefore more convincing. Plus, it gives you a story to tell to the visitors to the layout who ask, Why are the colors different on these two cars?

I know you’re dying to ask: do I operate my Rio Grande GP40’s with my Amtrak Phase IVb Superliner cars?  No.  I don’t.  That would be an anachronism, and therefore abhorrent.  But if I chose to do so?  Please refer to Rule No. 1.

It’s My railroad.


Winter Park Resort Shuttle Buses

The whole Middle Park region is served by these gray-and-blue buses

So, you may have gathered by now that I’m a committed model railroader.  I have a layout that takes my half of the garage (my wife parks her car in her half, something I actually understand on cold mornings when I must scrape frost off my windshield).  The setting is the rail line between Denver and Winter Park.  Turns out there’s a ski resort at Winter Park.  I know, I was surprised too.  And this ski resort is the hub of a vast, if scattered, array of condos catering to skiers.  And these skiers like to ski, which is done up at the resort.  Which means they have to get there. Which brings us to the subject of this post: the fleet of shuttle buses known as The Lift.  See what they did there?  It’s a play on the concept of ski lifts, which is something skiers need to get to the top of the mountain.  Very clever.  Especially since the skiers need the buses to get to the bottom of the mountain.

We first discovered these buses in 1993, the occasion of our very first trip on the erstwhile Ski Train.  Unlike the regular Amtrak trains, the Ski Train disembarked passengers right at the base of the ski mountain.  So who needs the bus, if you’re already at the resort?  We did.  Because, we’re not downhill skiers; we were headed down valley to the (also erstwhile) Idlewild cross-country facility.  Enter the shuttle buses, literally.  The whole Middle Park region is served by these gray-and-blue buses, which are free for the using.  The system has been funded by a consortium of businesses, headed by the resort itself.  From what I can gather, it’s been in place for about 30 years, though the system contracted somewhat in recent years, trimming the routes down to Granby and possibly others.  When we first became acquainted with it, the buses were uniformly of the school-bus variety, sans yellow paint.  As time progressed they added a few different, and more comfortable types, but the International buses have remained.  The one at the top of this post was pictured in December 2004.  More recent photos show that they’ve dispensed with the signage on the sides, but the overall scheme remains essentially the same.

So, back to the model railroad. A prominent feature of my layout is the Winter Park area, including part of the town formerly known as Hideaway Park (now simply Winter Park). Since the buses are such a prominent feature of the area, I thought that I should like to model some to decorate the layout.  Accordingly, since the mid-1990s I have slowly accumulated HO-scale school buses, with the intent of repainting them.  A year or so, I finally got around to it.

Two models of buses, prior to application of signage so you can see the signboards. Note the ski racks below the signs.

There are a few considerations that must be dealt with before one busts out the airbrush. These include:

  • Source photos. These are remarkably hard to come by, unless you make a trip there and photograph some.  And then, all you’ll get is contemporary views. As it turns out, the best photo I could find is a slide that I took myself (at top, again).  Google images will get you three or four more, and that’s about it.
  • Graphics.  The buses had a sign on each side and a modified version on the front above the windshield, a red stripe, and all the usual safety markings.  You’re not going to find any of this stuff from the usual decal vendors (except the red stripes).
  • Sign Boards to support the signs.  Notice those ribs on the sides of the buses?  Yeah, they cut a piece of sheet metal and bolted it on, so that the signs would be flat.  You need to do that for these buses.
  • Ski racks. On the door side there are racks for stowing skis so people don’t have to wrestle them down the aisle.

Fortunately, a few years ago I discovered the Testors decal system, and am fairly good with Photoshop Elements.  Basically, in the proud tradition of Colorado, I rolled my own.  I created all the “The Lift” graphics, stripes, Emergency Exit and Emergency Door signs, no-right-turn sign, and license plates.  I printed all this on white-back decal paper.  Next time I am doing a sheet of clear decals for something, I’ll do the bus numbers too (4 per bus).

Once I’d cobbled together some ski racks and signboards for my buses, I disassembled the bodies and primed and painted them.  The bodies are medium gray and the roofs are dark blue– my shade of blue is very dark, but I don’t really care that much.  I also masked the grilles and the lights.  Once the paint was dry, I peeled the masking and applied the decals, and voila!  Resort Shuttle buses.

Buses at the Hideaway Park condos
A pair of buses, going in opposite directions, are seen in upper Hideaway Park. The Bluebird bus on the right is pulling out of the parking lot after making a drop-off. Over to the left some residents are viewing a large outdoor nativity.

Of course it’s a little more involved than that, especially since the decals aren’t separated like typical commercial ones and you have to trim them right down to the art, no border allowed.  But I mass-produced three of them so it wasn’t horribly difficult.

The Lift drops off some passengers
Side view of one of the buses, a Bluebird. In the left background, an International passes by.

Incidentally, the numbers on my license plates are accurate for specific buses.  Yeah, I’m that OCD.

Now I have three buses in the motor pool, just about right for the amount of scenery I have to cover, and I’m tickled at how they turned out.

Three Buses
Here’s the three buses I painted and decaled for service around Winter Park.

Incidentally, if you are interested in painting some of these for your own needs and need the decals, drop me a note in the comments and I can help you with that.


Backdrop Painting 101

How many of us just nail up a piece of hardboard and start slinging paint at it?

Most model railroads do not exist on an infinite plane.  Rather, and especially with modern layout design philosophies, they represent something closer to a series of dioramas placed end-to-end.  Personally, I fell in love with the diorama concept as an impressionable lad on visits to places such as the Denver Museum of Natural History, or the visitor centers at Mesa Verde and Dinosaur National Monument.  The Denver museum’s dioramas tend(ed) to be rather larger in scale, but the concept is the same: a foreground consisting of a three-dimensional recreation of the subject, and a two-dimensional backdrop painting to convey the illusion of depth.

Depth is what we’re after, here.  Whether you’re building a display for a naval vessel, a B-17G, an Astin Martin, or a model railroad, the backdrop is key to making the eye believe that the exhibit exists in a larger world than it actually does.  Accordingly, it behooveth the one who modeleth to acquire certain skills that pertaineth to creation of said backdrops.  And that is our purpose in this series: to learn how to create convincing backdrops behind our model scenes that enhance (not detract from) them.

In this installment we’ll start at the beginning of a backdrop project.  Next time we’ll have a look at the application of these concepts to a specific situation.  You non-train people, bear with me and just substitute language applicable to your discipline in place of all the railroad-related items.  The principles are the same.

As always, I start with certain assumptions.  First, I assume that you are not a professional artist of some kind.  I assume this because, if you are such, you will probably tear me to shreds, and frankly I’m not sure I can bear that.  So, for our purposes you agree to at least pretend that you are not already an expert artist.  Good enough?  Good.  Second, I assume that you are capable of holding a paint brush or at least a pencil.  Third assumption is that you have some idea where your railroad exists in the world– even if your world is imaginary.

Now, for the steps.  Planning is key, not to state the obvious.  But how many of us just nail up a piece of hardboard and start slinging paint at it?  Before you go any further, the first step is to put down that there paintbrush, pardner!  Set back a spell and listen to a tale from a man called Jim…

First thing you need to do is to stop, think, and visualize your scene.  You’ve built some benchwork, laid and electrified your track, maybe even crafted some landforms.  This tells me that you’ve decided on a location for the scene.  It’s on the plains.  Or it’s in the desert.  Or it’s at milepost 23.6 on the Moffat Line.  Wherever it is, you have defined where the scene exists.

Now that the scene has been located in space, you need to locate it in TIME.  This may or may not be obvious to you, so let me elaborate.  Take a moment and look out your window.  Now, what time is it?  Where’s the sun?  It’s causing objects to cast shadows.  Where do they fall?  How long are they?  What’s the sky look like today, and how’s the weather?  What time of year is it?  Now, step away from the window, picture your scene, and write down its time-based attributes.

Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, the weather doesn’t change much on most model railroads.  On mine it’s always winter, so I designed my scenes to reflect typical December-to-February conditions.  Your choice will have a lot to do with how you proceed with your scenicking, not just how the backdrop will appear.

Once you select a time of year, I’d strongly urge you to gather a selection of photographs taken around that same time.  Even if you’re not reproducing a real scene, find or take some photos of something similar, for the rules of light and shadow are the same regardless.  If you are building a real scene, it is even more imperative that you do this.  Obvious?  Probably, but there are practical reasons for this.  More on this later.

Next, you must build the physical structure of the backdrop.  There are a few choices you can make, so let me discuss my efforts for a moment.  I have built basically three scenes on my layout requiring backdrops.  Two are corner scenes and have curved backdrops; one of these was later extended so I had to add on about 16 feet of additional scenery.  Options are driven by requirements; the curved sections were built using Masonite (hardboard); the extension of the Moffat Tunnel “diorama” was built using foam-core board, and after my sad experience with that, I went back to Masonite for the Front Range section.  For that part I also chose to try jigsawing the horizon and placing skyboards behind it.

So, what are the requirements that drive your options?  I’ll enumerate a few; you can probably think of even more that apply to your situation.

  • Distance from the average viewer, and height of that viewer’s eyes.  This influences the height of the backdrop (i.e. if it’s set back 36″ from the edge of the layout, you may need to make it fairly tall).
  • Support options.  Will it attach to a wall, or must it be free-standing?
  • Shape: flat, or curved?
  • Budget: how much do you want to spend?
  • Domestic: are you able to hammer, saw, screw to walls, and otherwise disturb your household and/or neighbors?  If you live in an apartment, your landlord may have something to say here.
  • Width of scene.  If it’s less than the width of available materials, you might choose a pre-cut material such as foam core rather than a more elegant lumberyard solution.  (Joining backdrop sections can be challenging.)

Back to my experiences.  First of all, using Masonite for the curved backdrops was entirely satisfactory.  Just be sure you have adequate framing to secure it.  It also proved to be good for the long Front Range backdrop– I cut the top edge, you may recall, and that gives my mountains a hint of three-dimensionality that is sometimes hard to get from a flat painted surface.  Masonite is durable and flexible.  Just be aware that it can get rather heavy in large pieces, and can chip or separate with handling if you’re too rough.  Foam core, on the other hand, seemed a perfect solution for a huge section that was wall-mounted.  That is, it was perfect until I airbrushed it with diluted Acrylic paint for the base colors.  The next day when I inspected the dried paint, I found that the moisture had caused the boards to curl over!  It’s like un-ringing a bell; it can’t be undone.  Well, almost can’t be done.  It turned out I had some pieces of 1/2″ trim in my spares pile, and nailed these along the upper edge of the warped foam-core boards to bring them back into a semblance of flatness.  Misting the boards with water helped them relax a bit.  Moral of that story: don’t get foam-core very wet, and I strongly recommend that you secure all edges of it until your paint is good and dry.

Okay, now that you’ve decided on a material, cut it and attach it to the backside of your benchwork.  As mentioned, curved pieces must be securely attached.  However, remember what I said about requirements and options?  My Front Range section actually goes down the middle of my garage, and I thought it wise to make it removable.  So, I built some slots on the back of the scene and slid the backdrop down into them.  This is easy since I can walk right up to the back, but there’s an unexpected implication of this: when building your foreground scenery, you cannot attach to the backdrop.  Plastered hills cannot “lean” on the board, although if you’re good you can shape them to touch it when everything’s installed.  Did I mention that I’m good?   🙂

I did say that we’d do a project in the next installment, so I will try not to get ahead of myself too far here, but there are a few general things you’ll do anyway.  The first of these is to prime the surface.  I’d use a white latex wall primer.  This way your colors will work when you get to that step, and you’ll also be able to see your sketch lines.  Next, referring to your photos or sketch, draw the outlines of major landforms or skyline features such as tall buildings.  Anything that’s a major terrain feature should be sketched, but the most important one is the horizon.

And this brings me to a discussion on point-of-view and how that influences your backdrop.  Any good painting essentially displays the subject from a particular spot, or point of view, and all the picture’s perspective supports that.  (Unless you’re trying to screw with the viewer like in some Escher drawings!)  But a backdrop on a railroad can be seen from any of a number of vantages, and this is a real disadvantage, so to speak.  Here’s the problem.  Let’s say you have a structure like a ski lodge or a row of storefronts.  The facades do not present much of a problem, as they are probably parallel to the surface of your backdrop.  But what about the side walls?  The roof?  Draw it so that it looks right from one angle, and it will look wrong from another!  Go back and look at the header image of this article.  The tops of the ski lodge buildings are painted to look right if one is a certain height– like mine– and if I’m standing so that the physical structure to the right is presented at the same evident angle.  But if a small child views it from below, then he cannot see the top of the blue building whereas the tops of the brown building stick up awkwardly.  It detracts from the realism, and there is no perfect solution for this.

If you’re interested in my opinions, here they are.  First, do your best to find what you think is the most common viewing angle, and design the perspective from there.  Second, if there’s a way to make the painted structure tall enough that the roof can’t be seen from any angle, so much the better.  Third, if at all possible, place such structures as far into the distance as possible; this reduces distortion of the perspective.  If that’s not possible, I would suggest that you cut the facades from foam core and fix that to the backdrop, giving a hint of three dimensions, and not show any side or top surfaces.  I’ve done this with the pillars on my model of Union Station and it is surprisingly convincing.  But just realize that no backdrop can perfectly represent three dimensions in two, as viewed from every angle.  This is my strongest argument against using enlarged photo montages for backdrops.

Okay, so now we have the primed backdrop installed on the layout.  Now it’s time to have another discussion on what you will paint, before you paint it.  This discussion can be summarized as:  Light is Everything!  Everything.  Absolutely… everything.  Remember talking about the time of day and year and stuff like that, up above?  Now it’s time to get really really specific.  You must decide where the sun is, at this moment.  That will dictate which sides of objects are highlighted and shadowed.  It dictates where shadows fall on the ground (yes, you will paint those!)  It decides how bright, and how sharp, your scene is.  It also influences how you place your layout’s floodlighting, which is a subject for possibly another post.  The only way to avoid this decision process is to decide that it’s night.  So, go get a bucket of black paint and use it on the backdrop.  You’re done.  Wasn’t that easy?

Oh wait.  It’s daylight.  Dang it.

So, did you ever wonder why sundials aren’t perfect tellers of time all year long?  Or why that one scene in National Treasure, where they find Benjamin Franklin’s glasses behind a brick at Independence Hall, just doesn’t work in the real world?  Because of that whole the-axis-of-the-Earth-is-tilted phenomenon.  In other words, the Sun is not at the same angle at 9:00 AM in January as it is at the same time on June 20th.  Not even close.  And this is why you must decide on a season, preferably a month, and a time of day, for your scene.  A funny characteristic of light beams: at our distance from the sun they are effectively parallel.  This means that all shadows hit the ground at the same angle. This is actually a good thing, because you can make a template to help you judge this.  Easiest thing in the world, so long as you know how high in the sky the Sun is, and what angle relative to your backdrop it is.  Do a little three-dimensional geometry (see previous post on the usefulness of geometry) and cut out a right triangle with hypotenuse cut at the sun’s angle).  Use that when you start painting shadows and such.

Oh, and one other thing.  Which direction is north in your scene?  All else hangs on that.  (South, if you’re in the southern hemisphere…)

I made a few references to perspective above.  In case you never had Art Class in 7th grade, I’d suggest that you google up the concept of perspective and get more familiar.  As it turns out, there are two very different types of perspective that we will utilize in our scenes.  One is what I will call the vanishing-point concept, and the other is that of distance perspective.  So, the vanishing point refers to a place in the far distance where all lines parallel to our line of sight converge.  It’s Infinity, kind of a visual black hole.  Turns out that drawing objects is a little more complicated than that– there may be two or more such points arranged along a horizontal line, for example– but it will help you get things closer to real appearance.  Look at any photo and you will observe this.  See the header photo above and study the brown lodge for a moment.  I purposely shot the photo standing in a location where the perspective was most convincing.

The second concept, distance perspective, is simply the recognition that the further things are away from you, the more air there is between you and it.  Air is not clear.  Big surprise, huh.  Being about 78% nitrogen, it’s actually quite blue, and sometimes contains other particulates or vapor that make it even more murky.  That’s why distant ridges covered with green trees actually look blue, or gray, or black.  Your distant palette will be in faded blues and grays.  Nearby forests and objects will be much closer to true color, so for those you would break out the ocher and reds and greens.  Again, see the header photo and you can see how I utilized this concept.

Now, go back to the scene you’re building.  Study your photos if you have them, and decide on the depth of the scene.  How distant is the horizon?  How close are objects in the picture?  A deep but distant scene will have relatively flat perspective. A close scene will have noticeably different object sizes from foreground to background.  You will use the vanishing-point technique to get the sizes and positions right.

So that was a rather lengthy introduction to the subject.  Next time we’ll bust out the paint and brushes, and make a mess.  Stay tuned.  actionroadlogobang

Track Geometry, or Two Parallel Lines

What they don’t teach you in geometry class is that low-grade 5/16″ plywood has a mind of its own, especially if it has ever gotten wet.

Navajo Mine Railway Track
Jointed rail on the Navajo Mine Railway

Of all the math courses I took in junior high and high school, the one in which I actually got decent grades was geometry.  I suspect it’s because the subject made sense.  It wasn’t dealing in the abstract but instead it had immediate real-world applications.  (Apologies to all the math teachers out there; I get it that you have to be able to crunch the numbers before you can apply them.)  In fact, that geometry class may have been my favorite one at Fairview High, despite the teach’s terrible 1970’s comb-over.  I mean, really.  When you can see shiny scalp between the bryl-creamed strands of hair, who exactly do you think you’re fooling?

But I digress.  Geometry, and especially trigonometry, have proven more useful in my world than almost any other subject I learned in school.  Yeah, I got mediocre grades in English!  A person can use trigonometry to build stuff.  That and an understanding of the concept of pi are sufficient tools to design things like, say, a model railroad.  Well, that and a few carpentry skills, which I picked up from my dad and my other favorite class, wood shop.  (Why not two favorites?  Why choose between pizza and a hot fudge sundae?  Gimme both, say I!)

What they don’t teach you in geometry class is that low-grade 5/16″ plywood has a mind of its own, especially if it has ever gotten wet.

So let’s fast-forward about 21 years after my graduation from high school. One week the family was out of town, so I used the evenings to throw together some benchwork for a layout expansion in the spare room. My design called for using the conventional cookie-cutter method to create the subroadbed.  I visited Hacienda, came home with all the requisite materials **, and stockpiled them on the back porch for the following day when I would start cutting.  Unfortunately the next day it rained while I was at work. Not to worry, I said to myself; the wood will behave if I use sufficient supporting risers between the subroadbed and the supporting 1X4 framework. I should have worried.

(** Why use such thin plywood for decking?  Because, in turning a helix, it enabled me to reduce the grade just a smidge since the structure above the lower levels was a bit thinner.)

Turns out, my materials had acquired some new un-flatness, and I was never really able to completely train it out of the wood. Plus, thin plywood doesn’t warp consistently in every direction anyway; it actually does have a bit of a grain.  And here’s the thing: laying tight-radius track on a grade with reverse curves is a recipe for disaster anyway. Throw in a few unplanned humps and dips and you will never reliably keep a train together. It’s like installing multiple yard humps out on the mainline; those Kadees just slide apart. (Hm, a model hump yard with scale retarders?  Who wants to give that a shot in 1:87?  I can tell you, the hump part will work just fine!)

Okay, now move forward another decade. We’ve moved to a new house and I’m rebuilding the railroad in a larger space, using many of the components from the prior installation. This, of course, means that I’ve incorporated the same warped roadbed in the construction. Truth is, I never operated the former version enough to realize how bad the track geometry problems were. Now, however, I have a much longer, fully ballasted mainline and I’m operating longer trains with (this is significant) a lot of 86′ cars. Turns out, cars less than 50′ are Labrador retrievers, pretty forgiving of squirrelly operating conditions. An 86′ flatcar, on the other hand, is a rich sorority girl; it wants to be treated like a little princess or it uncouples, or goes off the rails. I had a whole yard full of prima donnas.  So, what to do? Go our separate ways, or fix the relationship?

This is where it’s useful to ponder the seemingly-obvious fact that we’re modeling actual railroads, only smaller. Real railroads face similar challenges, although they’re usually smart enough not to install a 40-degree curve on a mainline! No, they have track geometry problems of their own. Take a look at the header photo, which I snapped of the track at my former employer.  What solutions do real railroads bring to the problem?  Well, two immediately come to mind.  One is to contract a rail grinder company to visit and to smooth out the railheads.  Another is to get the section gangs or other contractors to level the roadbed, lifting track when necessary, and get everything more-or-less on the same plane.  It turns out that the first solution is tough to employ on a widespread basis in scale applications, whereas the second holds far more promise. And that’s where I am going to spend the rest of our time today: how to level out your track by lifting and re-ballasting.

Okay, first a couple of assumptions. First, I use flextrack, basic old Atlas Code 100 in my case, but any flextrack will do for this. You must be using some kind of flex track or scale “panel” track; hand-spiked track is beyond our scope.  Second, I’m ballasting my track and so must you. The type of ballast is up to you. On my railroad I go mostly for a darker shade to represent the D&RGW’s slag and scoria that they used for years. It’s a blend of 50% commercial black ballast and 50% coarse sand.  In other words, sand that’s roughly the same size as the commercial ballast. Third, I’m using mostly cork roadbed, because it’s easy, firm, and has a good profile. It’s also possible to use craft foam cut into strips; I actually use large sheets of this to underlay my yard trackage, but use multiple strips to elevate mainline bypass tracks around the yards.

Other tools and materials?

  • A short straight-edge, such as a small level, between 8″ and 12″ in length.
  • A tack hammer.
  • A nail set.
  • An inexpensive chisel.
  • A medium-soft paint brush
  • Track spikes, something a little longer than normal since we are lifting the track higher than normal.
  • A bottle of white glue such as Elmer’s (don’t go with the cheap dollar-store stuff!!!).
  • A squeeze bottle for diluting the glue, such as your previous Elmer’s bottle.
  • A spray bottle, such as you might use for plants or laundry or training the cats. Just be sure you tell your wife that you’ve borrowed hers. A better solution is to purchase your own dang bottle…

Now that you have all that stuff in a pile, let’s examine your track. First of all, you probably already have some idea where the problems live, but I’d suggest the following: assemble a short train of long cars, such as piggyback flats. These are best because there is little in the way above the deck line and you can most easily observe the action of the couplers. Now, run the train slowly around the railroad, walking with it and observing any bobbing of the ends of the cars. See if there are places where one car’s coupler lifts away from the adjoining car. Sometimes it’s obvious and other times it may take a few runs. Once you identify the spot, mark it somehow.  You’ve found a high spot, which means that on one side or the other is a sag.  The sags are what we must locate, and this is where the straight-edge (your short level) comes into play.  I use a level not because of its leveling features, but because it’s thicker than a ruler. This aids you in the process.

Place the level atop the railheads at the high point, and move it each way, eyeballing it from the side. You should be able to see where the track dips away from the straight-edge.  Go out some distance in each direction from the high point. This can be tricky if it’s on a curve and even more so on a curving grade, as there’s a helical shape introduced into the track now. More on this later.

So, now you’ve found a sag.  This is important since it’s far simpler to lift a sag than to undercut a high spot.  We will focus on dealing with the sag.

Assuming that your track’s been nailed down already, here’s what you do.  Take the chisel and whack chunks out of the plywood.

No.  No.  I’m only kidding!  That is not what you do.

(Take 2) Locate any track nails in the area, take the chisel, rest it on the railhead, and use its sharp edge to gently lift the nails up from the sub-roadbed. Yes– we are using the chisel as a crowbar. Once you have loosened all nails in your sag, gently loosen the track from the ballast.  I’m assuming here that you had glued the ballast when first installed. Sure, you could just demolish the first ballast installation, but that’s really not necessary.

— And here’s where I am going to take a giant step backwards and pretend that I was smarter back when I first installed the ballast. Here’s the secret: you can do all of this before you put the ballast in the first time! Saves much time. If you haven’t yet ballasted the track, simply adjust this process.  You’re smart and I’m confident that you can manage it.

OK, back on track, so to speak.  Now that you have your sag loosened, you want to try to get the railheads as level as possible, longitudinally and laterally. (Also, it’s kinda important that you don’t work on too much track at a time, lest it drift off alignment.)  Okay so far?  Now you have a loosened piece of track hovering above the roadbed. Take a Dixie cup full of your preferred ballast, and gently sprinkle it down the center of the track  Not much, mind you.  Just enough to work between the ties and get under the track. Work this in with the brush, tamp by gently tapping on the track, and re-check things with the straight edge. Wash, rinse, and repeat as necessary until the track has been leveled across the sag (without creating a new hump. That would be defeating the purpose, you see). Once it’s to the desired grade, ballast outside the rails, being sure to fill any voids caused by lifting the track.

Now, we fix it all in place.  Mix some glue about 50:50 with water in the small squeeze bottle.  Gently spray the track with the spray bottle to moisten things.  Using your squeeze bottle, flow the glue mixture into the ballast, thoroughly saturating it.  Be sure you saturate it all!  Now, go away and do something else for a day or so.

After the ballast has hardened, gently push the track nails back into place.  If you didn’t move anything, they should find their former holes and go right in.  You really don’t want to pound on anything at this point, but you can use the tack hammer and nail set to seat any stubborn nails if absolutely necessary.  But remember: be gentle! And accurate too, let’s not forget about that. The nails are not really holding the track down now; that’s being done by the ballast and the glue.

Polish the railheads to remove any extraneous glue or haze, inspect for any stray chunks of ballast that might interfere with a flange, and send the test train back over the spot.  You should notice a marked improvement.  Chances are, there will be other sags and humps, sometimes revealed by fixing one like this.  I had to lift an entire section of track, two or three feet long, to deal with a serious dip. Just fix whatever you must, until your trains stay on the rails better.

The result: You will be so glad you leveled your track. It makes such a difference. actionroadlogobang

A comment on superelevation. This, for those who may not be familiar, is simply the technique of banking railroad track on curves, much as in Nascar or at Indy, right? It seems like a really good idea, so I tried it on my railroad.  Um, it was a disaster. Here’s why: I’m dealing with pretty tight radii, down to 24″ r at times. I know, I know, curves that sharp look terribly unrealistic, but space constraints are a reality.  Well, if you think about superelevation, you are essentially laying track around a bowl. If you have long cars such as 85′ passenger cars, auto racks, or pig flats, what happens is that the trucks lean up so that the outboard axles are pushed higher. Combined with the fact that the trucks are already turned to the side, the outer ends of the trucks will probably hang up on the underside of your car and derail. If you superelevate a curve on a grade, it’s even worse–it’s like climbing a corkscrew.  I ended up abandoning the effort, removing all shims from my track and reverting to level track. In some ways it would almost be better to lean it out than in, at my curvatures! Sub-elevation?  Hm.  But no, I draw the line at some things.  I would not recommend superelevating any curves at less than about 48″ radius in HO scale, proportionally adjusted for other scales.

Safety, Macro and Micro

The other day I happened to check my Facebook feed for activity in a group I belong to. This group is dedicated to the (memory of the) Denver & Rio Grande Western. Anybody who knows me or has been to my site knows that I’m a huge fan. Anyway, there I was scrolling through the activity, when lo and behold I saw an image that I recognized. It was of the side of a GP40 with a serious scrape along the cab side. Aha, methinks (methought?), that’s a photo from a web page on my site. I had a brief glow of satisfaction that someone had linked to my material, until I began to read the comments.  Uh oh, it turns out that there was some dispute about the description of the accident being documented on my web page.

Now, this particular page was about an accident that occurred in 1992 in the Spanish Fork Canyon in Utah. I was not present; I did not witness it; I am (or was) actually pretty ignorant of the geography where the incident occurred. Rightfully shame-faced, I corrected the description that had been given me by the contributor of the material, apologized to the troops unit by unit like Patton, and then fell on my own sword. Pretty neat trick writing a blog entry after falling on one’s sword, huh? I’ll explain how that works later.

I don’t know about your brain, but mine has an annoying habit of jumping all over the map sometimes. The online brohaha over the incident at Sheep Creek got me thinking about other train wrecks, which jumped me over to the eastern slope of the Rockies and back to 1991. One night in September, an eastbound manifest was coming down South Boulder Canyon when it came around a corner and into a massive rockslide. The resulting collision sent two locomotives down the side of the mountain and killed two career railroaders. I still have newspaper clippings (remember those?) that my mother sent to me, complete with color photos and suitably-somber text. This dreadful accident happened along one of the most picturesque segments of the Ski Train‘s route, so we often passed over the site. I would always look for the memorial on the west portal of tunnel 26 and point them out (again) to the kids and wife. Somber stuff indeed.

Never satisfied with being just a little somber, my brain then rewound back six more years to an even more terrible accident, this one on the BN just east of Broomfield, Colorado. In case you don’t recall it, two trains collided head-on underneath the US36 overpass, killing five crew and destroying the bridges. Curiosity being what it is, I googled the wreck and ended up reading through the NTSB Accident Report.  The whole thing.

Wow. Talk about grim reading. Talk about a needless tragedy. Talk about frustrating. The whole thing was avoidable, as most accidents are when proper procedure is carefully followed. You can read it for yourself, but it was a maelstrom of human error, carelessness, inattention to detail… a classic Swiss-cheese scenario. You know, this is where you stack several pieces of Swiss cheese together and try to see through it.  Most of the time you can’t see through it because the holes don’t line up; at least one slice is solid right there. But every once in a while… the holes line up.

When enough steps are missed, processes not followed, processes not sufficiently comprehensive, people too careless, if enough factors are out of whack, the holes just might line up and you have a catastrophe. Although not a railroader, I spent 25 years working in the coal mining industry. I don’t know how often people think about it, but there are a lot of ways to kill and maim when humans build and operate huge machines built of steel, digging in massive piles of earth (or under it). So, the company pounded SAFETY into our heads.  Safety before production. Safety above all else. Your number one priority is to return to your families safely. Maybe your company wasn’t like that, but mine– props to BHP Billiton– made it a religion. Sometimes we’d roll our eyes at the perceived excess, but despite that the concepts and practices found their way into our heads. Even so, occasionally someone would go apostate and pay the price for it.

Dude, you say, stop being such a bummer. Quit preaching to me! OK, fine, but here’s an application I bet you hadn’t considered: scale safety. Let’s think about a model railroad for a few moments. Like the real thing, it has: Wheels. Track. Freight (more on this below). Operators. Risks. Investment. Lots of time and money that went into it. Owners. Even customers, if you think of your layout’s visitors as such.

So what?

OK, maybe your layout is a few Tyco cars and a bunch of snap track nailed to a sheet of plywood. Mine is not. I probably have north of fifteen thousand dollars tied up in this. The other day I did a count and I have over a hundred locomotives! Some were pretty expensive, where others may be cheaper but have fifty or a hundred hours of my time put into their construction. This isn’t even counting hundreds of freight cars and my handcrafted passenger equipment. Add in trackwork, scenery, yada yada and I’ve got an enormous investment tied up in this scale world with which I amuse myself. Given that, should I not perhaps take some thought to protecting it?

We painstakingly recreate real-life equipment in miniature. We study traffic patterns and try to reproduce them in our miniature kingdoms. Heck, I even have a dispatch form that I fill out to control traffic movement in certain operating scenarios. I know people who have radio headsets and crew chiefs to manage operations. Why not put a little effort into scale-sized safety practices?

Let’s elaborate. Say that your scale-sized engineer has just climbed up onto the lead unit. In real life he and the conductor (post-1986) are running air tests, checking train orders, and any number of other tasks. But we, the model railroader, just hit the throttle and take off. But wait! Where exactly am I taking this train? Is the track clear? Have I bothered to verify switch alignments? Have I inspected my train? Do I pay attention to it while it’s rolling to make sure nothing’s dragging a wheel? Maybe we need a procedure or two to make sure our ducks are aligned before we highball outta town.

And what if you haven’t run the railroad in a few weeks?  How do you know that you didn’t leave something undone, or hidden?  Maybe the cat has paid a visit. Maybe somebody bumped the layout and derailed a few things. Maybe you left a set of pliers in the middle of North Yard. Maybe an inspection of the property is in order. First.

I have dozens of coal hoppers. In recent years I’ve gotten lazy (or bold) and have begun to use loose coal loads in a lot of my cars. Actual coal, some of it– a benefit of working for a coal mine is that you can acquire coal. It must be crushed and screened, but that’s for another post. Anyway, what if I forget that I’ve left a second train behind my helix, and sideswipe it with a dozen open-top hoppers full of coal? Well, that’s a risk.  Or several risks. One risk is that you’ll have a LOT of scale-sized coal spilled all over creation. Ask me how I know about this.

Other risks can be as simple as dropping that $175 Kato locomotive onto the cement, or breaking off those tiny little details that took you hours to install on another piece of rolling stock, or shattering some assembly that can only be replaced after hours of online hunting. My time is pretty valuable; how much is your time worth to you?

Do you have any rail that perches above a precipice? Have you ever run any cars onto the tile from four feet up? Maybe (especially in trouble spots) we should install some mitigating controls like a net, or a piece of plexiglass, or some other barrier. I know that I’m long overdue for some risk management projects.  They’re not as interesting or exciting as creating some scratch-built wonder, but they might protect one you’ve already made.  You never think disaster will happen to you… until it does.

No, we’re not likely to kill anybody with our scale railroads. But there’s plenty of risk to manage. Initiate a little operating discipline, and your next open-house might be a whole lot less embarrassing!

Oh, and as to falling on one’s sword?  It’s best if certain practices are kept

So He Must Have Used Up His Website’s Free Disk Allocation?

Well, kinda.

So, I was updating my website the other day. It’s a basic, self-maintained, technologically-obsolete place that I use to display my train photos. You know, railfan stuff? (For the Brits: trainspotting pictures…)  There’s a section there all about my model railroad. And in that section there’s an index page.  And on the index page is… well, a collection of short ramblings.

Kinda like a blog section, but… shorter.  Like I said.

Well, as Gru would say:  “Light bulb.”  If it’s a-gonna act like a blog, then by gums it oughta BE a blog.

Which brings us to this.  This, being the screen you’re reading at the moment, dear readers.  (See how I pluralized that?  I have great faith that at least two people will eventually read this!)  This is the inaugural entry for my blog.  A blog about model trains and possibly the big ones too.  I guess it depends on how I’m feeling on whatever future day I sit down to write about this stuff.

As with any good project, it’s good to have a think at the get-go about scope.  After all, if the Hubble guys had had a better approach up front, maybe their scope would not have required corrective lenses. I want to see everything 20:20 before I launch this sucker! Focus, end-user!  So, here’s a shot at describing scope.


See?  That was easy!

Now, on to the Mission Statement.

“A model railroad in every basement or garage”

(Dang, I’m knocking ’em out of the park like the Cubbies today.)

Well, if it worked for Bill Gates with computers, why not for miniature railroad enthusiasts?

… but then, speaking of Brits and trainspotting, I have a thought about that movie, The Railway Man.  You know, the one with Colin Firth?  Excellent show, but there’s a cautionary tale if I ever saw one.  If you haven’t seen it, the basic idea is this: You have this nice young feller / bloke in His Majesty’s Army, who is a self-described railway enthusiast.  (It’s a true story, more or less).  He has the bad luck to be captured at Singapore by the Imperial Japanese. He’s herded off to captivity, but he ends up with a relatively-unbrutalized job as a POW.  All until his railway enthusiasm gets the best of him.  Here’s a suggestion: if you’re ever a POW, don’t ask too many questions about the local rail lines and then draw a MAP about it!  They might misunderstand your intent.  When they do, and the Japanese did, that whole unbrutalized situation can turn around fast.  Yep, the Railway Man became brutalized, extensively.  Bad luck, indeed.

And why am I bringing that up?  Because it’s like this.  We model railroaders / train enthusiasts / railfans / foamers are not a well-understood species by the populace at large. You may have noticed this yourself. A few people might be mildly interested in your obsession, but most will stand at a distance and roll their eyes and mock.  Your mission is to recognize the glazed look in their eyes and move on.  Trying too hard to infect them with your flanged-wheel zeal could get you waterboarded.  Just saying.  It happened to Colin Firth, and you’re no better than he is.