Saturday, August 6, 2016

American Technological Sublime: The Return of 611

A guest post by Gerard Fitzgerald

The year 2015 will be remembered by many people around the world as the year Norfolk & Western Railway J-Class (4-8-4) steam locomotive #611 returned to mainline running for excursions. 611 not only took to the rails in various railroad hot spots across Virginia and North Carolina but the locomotive even spent some quality time in various locales right here within the bounds of the James River Division. The locomotive’s journey last summer rekindled old memories for many of earlier fan trips in the 1980s and 1990s, and for a select few, 611’s nine years of service on the former N&W between 1950 and 1959. 611’s various travels in 2015 also created a brand new set of memories for those who had never before seen the 4-8-4 moving under its own power. For the record, the author of this blog post falls into the latter category, and truth-be-told, the sensory experience of 611 will probably never be forgotten. This brief photo essay recounts my thoughts about my experiences during two summers of 611.

Roanoke, Virginia: May 24, 2014

My first connection to 611 began on a hot and sunny day in May of 2014 when I drove down to the Virginia Museum of Transportation ( in Roanoke to see the locomotive off. That day the locomotive left the museum and was ferried down to the North Carolina Transportation Museum ( in Spencer, North Carolina, for an overhaul and refitting to make the engine mainline and fan trip ready. While much has been written about the history of the N&W J series in general, and locomotive 611 in particular, the crowds of visitors who assembled that day in Roanoke were aware they were witnessing the beginning of the rebirth of a native son.[1]

Sixty-four years earlier N&W Class Js 611-613 were constructed in the N&W Roanoke Shops making them the very last batch of steam passenger locomotives constructed in the United States. The locomotives were completed between May and July 1950 and began service just as the outbreak of the Korean War grabbed national headlines. 611 rolled out of the Roanoke Shops that May with a price tag of $251,544 dollars, 80,000 pounds of tractive force, 70 inch drivers, roller bearings, a streamlined design created by N&W’s Mark W. Faville and Frank C. Noel, and a top speed in excess of 100 mph on level terrain, making the machine arguably the absolute pinnacle of 20th century steam passenger locomotive engineering.

That last group of passenger locomotives only saw service for nine years and 611, through the kind intervention of among others –the late great R. Graham Claytor- was the only locomotive to escape the scrappers torch. It was ironic that the locomotive had to leave its birthplace for an overhaul but in the early twenty first century most people in Roanoke were just happy to see the 611 moving at all. The fact the locomotive would return in a year under its own power made a seemingly embarrassing tow by Norfolk Southern diesels acceptable in the short term.

As a historian of technology by training, and a model railroader by choice since childhood, I traveled to Roanoke that day not just to see the locomotive but also to people watch and observe. I was intrigued by the cultural response to 611 that had a public life and resonance far out side of southwestern Virginia. In graduate school I read David Nye’s American Technological Sublime, a book that examines the American preoccupation with large and complex technological projects such as dams and railroads. I was rereading Nye in my head that very hot day in Roanoke and thinking what 611 might possibly mean for the various people who made the effort to be there. In discussing the reaction of people present at the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge Nye wrote the following:

The sublime underlies this enthusiasm for technology. One of the most powerful human emotions, when experienced by large groups the sublime can weld society together. In moments of sublimity, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of community. The sublime taps into fundamental hopes and fears. It is not a social residue created by economic and political forces, though both can inflect its meaning. Rather it is an essentially religious feeling, aroused by confrontation with impressive objects, such as Niagara falls, the Grand Canyon, the New York Skyline, or the earth shattering launch of a space shuttle.[2]

As I watched 611 move out of the museum complex and onto the Norfolk Southern (former N&W) mainline that day, surrounded by hundreds with smartphones and cameras, I wondered if in 50 or 80 years the citizens of Mountain View, California will line the streets and highways bringing their children and grandchildren to witness the return of first Google pilotless automobile. I say this not to be facetious as the engineers, scientists, and technicians who have worked for years on this new technology (a number off whom are no doubt graduates of my Alma Mater) have much to be proud of. My guess is… probably no… for various reasons. The most important one being that there really is a power and majesty to a large steam locomotive running at speed, or sometimes even just standing at rest, which a hybrid drone/automobile just cannot match, no matter how path breaking technologies it contains. I will get back to you about this with a more definitive analysis of this question in 2065.

Charlottesville, Virginia: June 3, 2015

To be honest, my initial encounter with 611 in Roanoke left me intrigued but rather underwhelmed. This changed in a dramatic fashion when 611 made it way north to Charlottesville from Roanoke via Lynchburg on the old Southern, now NS mainline between Washington and Atlanta, on a dreary and very rainy June day. While I occasionally find myself trackside photographing trains, I am not really a “railfan” and do not own a scanner nor do I frequent many of the online chat groups where enthusiasts shadow trains and specific locomotives like military intelligence operatives. As such my approach to 611 was to essentially “wing it” which has always worked out well enough in the past.

Once 611 arrived back in Roanoke on May 30th to begin excursions I followed things online as best I could and hoped to catch it going northbound and southbound when it passed through Charlottesville on its journey to Manassas for the first weekend of railfan trips. A friend told me that 611 would be leaving Roanoke around 7:00 AM on June 3rd for Manassas via Lynchburg and my initial calculations had 611 passing through at the C&O/Southern (CSX-Buckingham Branch RR/NS) crossing around 10:00 AM. I arrived at 9:00 AM in a terrible downpour to secure a good spot for photography. There was only one other person there, a local high school student who had arrived sometime closer to 6:30 AM because he was so excited about 611 he couldn’t sleep. We had a long but ultimately satisfying day.

The bad news, which was also initially confusing as 611 just did not appear with each passing hour, was that the train would not arrive until about 3:00 PM. The heavy rain did not let up until 2:45 and was in fact so bad Internet and phone service was spotty at best making it difficult to track the train although that improved later in the afternoon. The good news was we were eventually informed that 611 would be STOPPING!!! in Charlottesville to pick up a VIP. That meant the possibility of getting a series of photographs depending upon the weather, the crowd I anticipated might show up, and most importantly how long 611 might be staying.

As it turns out the locomotive stayed about 20 minutes, which may have been the best and most exciting slice of railroad time Charlottesville has seen in decades. Being out of the loop I was not even sure 611 would be under its own power when it arrived, and yet the first time I saw the locomotive it was under a full head of steam pulling a long line of varnish headed to my favorite local “railfan” spot. Life does not get much better. Seeing and hearing 611 come into view really was breathtaking and I was glad I had the forethought to stay in the moment and enjoy the scene and also keep taking photographs.

It was my hope that day to photograph 611 at it crossed the CSX/NS crossing which was the one photo I most wanted regardless of weather. However, that was dependent upon how many Norfolk Southern folks were around when 611 finally arrived because to shoot at the right perspective would involve the dreaded T-word. As I discovered July 4th weekend, NS personnel bent over backwards to accommodate railfans and anyone else with a camera standing trackside –which sadly some people abused anyway- but I did not know that while standing in the rain on June 3rd.

In the final twenty minutes before 611 arrived the station parking lot and work area near the track at the diamond filled up with NS vehicles and with people arriving with cameras. Just as many arrived with their families for what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Lots of rail fans poured in too in the last few minutes and what had been just two wet guys with cameras expanded slowly to about 20 people and then suddenly grew to a hundred or so. With about 15 minutes to go I was thinking I had never seen so many NS employees before anywhere, much less in Charlottesville. As the crowd of railroad personal and civilians like myself grew and I realized taking a diamond shot was probably impossible, which was fine, since I was still well positioned to get some kind of useful photograph.

What happened in the final 10 minutes before 611 arrived made me a lifelong fan of Norfolk Southern. Having staked out a spot at the end of the platform I was the first photographer in line for a shot. Until I wasn’t, and another person with a camera went around me and set up his tripod right in front of where I had been standing. When I asked him to move I just received a dirty look. I was going to start arguing with this person when a NS employee pointed at me and told me to come over to the parking lot. At that moment I was not only frustrated and angry, but I thought I was probably going to be the only person who was reprimanded that day and took no photographs at all. This was particularly devastating, as I had waited for six straight hours in the rain. Regardless, I walked over into a large group of NS people hoping I was not in too much trouble but was extremely doubtful as to my predicament.

The gentleman from NS introduced himself, his son, and asked if I was the fellow who had been standing on the platform all day in the rain. I replied that it was in fact me.[3] He invited me out of the rain and mentioned that he had seen me down at the tracks on number of occasions before and noticed I was always safe and mindful of railroad property. He gave me a chance to shake the rain off my hat and camera case and introduced me to some of the NS people that were there. At this point I was confused and worried I wasn’t going to get a good photo since I would now be positioned behind everyone on the platform. On the other hand I was relived I probably wasn’t going to railroad jail. Finally, this man looked at his watch and said 611 would be there in 4 minutes. He also said that since the platform was now extremely crowded with people it might be better if I accompanied him out to the crossing where all the NS people were gathering as he thought a shot at the diamond might make for a good photo.

The series of photos I took of 611 crossing the diamond a few minutes later are not the best railroad photographs I have ever taken but they are among my most cherished.

Aside from the kindness and forethought of a stranger, I have to say I was also overwhelmed in the next few moments by 611 itself. The locomotive was, of course, streamlined but also more powerful and brutish than I expected and completely different than the machine I had seen pulled out of the museum in Roanoke a year earlier. Under her own power, belching smoke, and with a deep bellowing whistle that must be heard in person to be fully appreciated, I now understood that 611 was, for lack of a better description, a linebacker of a locomotive.[4] Here was a machine that could pull passenger trains through the mountains at speed, keep to the timetable, and not look back.

As I shot photographs of 611 from both the Amtrak platform and the Main Street Bridge I was reminded not only of David Nye’s perspective but also the writings of the late David P. Morgan.[5] In addition I remembered why I had started “playing” with trains as a very young boy. A number of the children present that day seemed awestruck by 611 and a few carefully poked at it with a finger and then quickly withdrew. If I were six I think I would have done the exact same thing.

Roanoke, Virginia: July 2-4, 2015

Having witnessed 611 up close in Charlottesville, I looked forward to the big excursion weekend in Roanoke over July 4th weekend. It is truism that one cannot see the locomotive if you are riding many cars behind as a seated passenger. I was fine with that as I planned one day of riding behind 611 and one to two days of being trackside with my camera. Although to be fair the sinusoidal nature of the N&W mainline in many of the mountains south and west of Roanoke gives a photographer more chances to capture the locomotive than one might think, something I discovered a few years back on an excursion to Bluefield.

I arrived at the former N&W hotel complex on the afternoon of July 2nd so I would have relatively quick access to 611 over the rest of the weekend. As it turned out I chose the correct day to be a passenger as July 3rd was overcast and rainy. My day began at 6:00 AM when I awoke to try to catch 611 coming down from the engine terminal as it brought the train in facing EB to go to Lynchburg. I took some good photos and was amazed how many people were already out and ready to track 611. That morning I took The Powhatan Arrow excursion 98 miles from Roanoke to Lynchburg and back that ran from 8:00 AM to noon. My accommodations were deluxe as I earlier wound up purchasing a ticket for a Great Northern full dome car. My seat next to the window afforded a wonderful view of all the trackside sights. Not being a native Virginian I am always interested in observing rail lines and countryside that are not easily accessible and found the trip quite interesting and very enjoyable from an observational standpoint.

That morning trip was also memorable for two other reasons. First, I was able to witness the large number of people almost continuously trackside along the 611 route, many in places that indicated NS was being especially open minded about photography all weekend. The most impressive vantage point was a farmer who had a cherry picker on his property, and who looked down on us from a considerable height as we passed his property. The second thing I recall is, I believe I was the only person in that car who had not attended Virginia Tech, or so it seemed. After turning on the wye in Lynchburg we returned to Roanoke although not before surprisingly slipping quite badly a few miles out from the station.

Upon our return I was forced to detrain but was told by a car attendant to stay at the front of the line so I could access a good seat. His advice was quite useful, and in half an hour I boarded the train a second time, now in a more standard coach, for the afternoon excursion. The Pelican, or at least a much shorter version, ran the most picturesque and exciting part of the entire excursion summer, from Roanoke, Virginia to near Radford, an 84 mile round trip that included the famed Christiansburg grade. The 4-8-4 Js were designed in part to conquer that particular grade with a long string of heavy mail and Pullman cars in tow, and over July 4th weekend 611 did not disappoint. The excursion ran from 1:30 to 5:30 PM and the power of the locomotive was readily apparent to watchful passengers who tracked speed and distance the old fashioned way by counting mile markers –which I did- or using up to date GPS software on a laptop- the approach used by my seatmate. Although the weather was miserable all day, the number of people trackside was amazing, and it seemed every person in the county was out in Christiansburg. The trip was also useful as I was able to choose possible places to railfan on July 4th.

July 4th dawned as foggy and miserable as July 3rd. Although by late morning the sun finally came out, and by the time 611 returned from Lynchburg with the morning excursion run, photographers were able to capture 611 under a full summer sun. I was lucky enough to be trackside, too. My first attempt to capture 611 on the way to Lynchburg was perfect…until my line of sight was blocked by a hotshot double stack train on an inside track that closed the gap and destroyed my chance for a photograph with only seconds to spare. Luckily things improved as the day progressed. Between the morning and afternoon runs I was able to get some wonderful photographs and video of 611 in downtown Roanoke. That afternoon I managed a truly wonderful photograph of 611 descending a mountain grade at speed near Glenvar, Virginia on the return leg to Roanoke That image was the photograph I had hoped to get when I purchased my ticket for the weekend many months earlier even though I had no idea when I arrived where or when I might be best placed to try shooting it. While that photograph is one I am very happy with, the most lasting memories I took from 611 this summer were not captured on film.

Conclusion: The Technological Sublime

Let me conclude this essay by sharing with you my two most substantial and unforgettable memories of 611 from this past summer aside from that act of kindness in Charlottesville. Interestingly enough, neither experience involves direct contact with the locomotive itself, although the memories of both encounters is fresh and are more real for me in many ways than any photograph that I took of 611.

The first event took place on Saturday of the July 4th Roanoke fan trip weekend. After riding behind 611 on two different back-to-back excursions the day before, I went trackside with camera in hand to try to capture the majesty of 611 out on the former N&W mainline. I drove north along the outskirts of Roanoke to the small town of Vinton, Virginia hoping to catch the return trip that morning from Lynchburg. I stopped and parked my car on a quiet side street in front of a home near a grade crossing. As I pulled in that morning, I wondered if I might be trespassing in some way, or maybe just giving the perception of trespassing, as the road seemed both public and yet also private. In the back of my mind a question of perhaps parking elsewhere persisted.

As I walked over to the grade crossing to get a line of sight for a photo I noticed an elderly man coming over to me quickly from the house near where I had parked. His expression was difficult to gauge although I was already reaching for my keys to move my vehicle and starting to apologize before he could say anything. He asked if I was there to photograph 611. I said yes. At that point he began to speak, and I began to listen. He told me 611 had gone by earlier on the way to Lynchburg and had never looked finer. He motioned towards the house and mentioned he had his grandson visiting in addition to many other family members, and he had wanted them all to see 611. He explained he had worked for the Norfolk & Western as did his father, his grandfathers, and many of his uncles, and that one of the latter had probably helped build 611, if not some of the other J’s. Some had retired from N&W while others had retired from NS. He noted he had never expected to see 611 run again and was thankful that the opportunity was presenting itself that July 4th weekend.

After a while I asked the gentleman if it was OK to park there, and he said that was fine, and I could stay all day. He wished me luck and hoped I got some good photographs. I asked him if he would like me to send him a set of the photographs later, assuming some of what I was hoping to shoot that weekend came out. He smiled, spread his hands wide gesturing towards the space between his home and the tracks and said he was thankful for the offer but he didn’t need any photographs. With the unobstructed view of the NS mainline from his front porch, I had to agree.

My “final” and most lasting memory of 611 actually took place before the July 4th excursion weekend at the desk in my home office where I am sitting at the moment. This was the week following the Manassas excursions as 611 passed through Charlottesville southbound to return to Roanoke via Lynchburg. I had a writing deadline that week and could not take time out to try to photograph the locomotive again. In addition the exact day and time of the return trip were unknown to me.

My home in Charlottesville is very close to the grounds of the University of Virginia and is not only one block from the CSX/C&O Mountain Subdivision -which I can see out the living room window in winter- but is also less than a mile and a half from the former Southern/NS mainlines. There is a large hill behind my place, and I rarely hear NS except very late at night although there is a lot of heavy mainline traffic. That day, lost in thought analyzing the environmental history of World War I, I was reading and typing with the window open and making progress. For a moment the world became still and quiet, and I suddenly heard a far off rumbling. I thought it was CSX but realized this was a different sound that was recognizable yet unfamiliar. It was 611! The locomotive was making good time and I could make out the sound of the running gear. Suddenly the whistle blew, and I could hear the locomotive quite clearly even though it was not very close. For a few minutes the locomotive grew ever louder as did the whistle and eventually the echoes faded completely away. And there I was, still sitting at my desk next to the window.

Before I wrote this essay I had “remembered” and replayed that sonic encounter over and over again in my mind and had assumed it had occurred after I traveled to Roanoke for the excursion weekend. It turns out that hearing that locomotive, which to me really was technologically sublime, occurred before I took hundreds of photographs in Roanoke and spent time behind 611 as a passenger. Seeing 611 down at the Charlottesville station in June was special for me because it was surreal to see the locomotive in my hometown. As it turns out having the locomotive “present” in my home, if only for a minute or so, is even more special. Hopefully 611’s return provided similar experiences for others.

[1] The most useful standard text on Norfolk & Western steam locomotives remains Lewis I. Jeffries’ 1980 N&W: Giant of Steam that was republished in a revised edition in 2005. This book has a wonderful chapter long analysis of the J series including detailed discussion of locomotive research and design practices, construction information, and of course passenger operations. For introductory information on 611 a Trains Magazine Special Edition entitled 611 in Steam was published in 2015 that contains past articles on 611 design, the history of earlier fan trips, and insightful coverage of the current restoration program that got 611 moving again. Finally the Norfolk & Western Historical Society has just published a book coauthored by Tim Hensley and Ken Miller that examines the 611 fan trips in the 1980s, 1990s, and in 2015 called 611: Three Times a Lady.

[2] David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994) xiii.

[3] My high school friend had decided to photograph at the end of other end of the platform well past the Main Street Bridge and so might have remained unnoticed.

[4] Afterwards I was told by others that whistle on 611 is a refit and not correct. This may be true. I am not a N&W steam acoustics expert and to make matters worse have never heard those O Winston Link LPs. Regardless, 611 sounded pretty impressive to me each time I encountered it in 2015. I understand that the whistle for the 2016 fan trips will sound much closer to the original item.

[5] For a YouTube view of 611 leaving Charlottesville that rainy June day please see the following online:

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Marker Lamp Vol 61 Nr.3 is up and HUGE!

Because of a couple of backlogged articles and meeting minutes, etc., the latest ML I was able to put together is over one hundred pages long. Don't expect this every quarter, but the fantastic work of Associate Editors Bob Batson and Speed Muller along with frequent contributors like Blake Bogs and Jeff Palmer and regular contributors Roy Stockard, Duane Richardson and Peter Kazmir are making this happen. Drop them a line and say thanks!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Layout visit | MKT/MoPac by Steve Nelson

I recently visited Steve Nelson's excellent recreation of his boyhood corner of Missouri in HO scale. The following description is what we use for our annual layout tour materials and gives a good overview of what Steve is creating.

The modeled portion of the railroad is from the Rocheport Tunnel east of Franklin, MO to Parsons, Kansas. The layout will closely follow the MKT prototype track plan and operating practices in the region during the fall of 1966. The layout is linear with double-ended staging yards. The bench work is 100% complete and 240 feet of mainline track and 220 feet of yard track have been laid. Scenery construction is 25% complete including the Rocheport Tunnel, the Missouri River Bluffs covered with 900 trees, a corn field with 4500 individual stalks, and a scratch built model of the pony truss bridge at the east side Franklin, MO. Trains are now running on 240 feet of the main line track which includes crossing the mock-up of the large Booneville Lift Span Bridge over the Missouri River. Recent additions: 1.5 (scale) acres of soybeans and a working drive in theater.

I think this is Steve orienteering in the back woods.

Recreate versus Represent

I hadn't been out to Steve's in several years and there has been a lot of progress. A good amount of scenery is in, and it convinces me that it will be a fantastically crafted and executed landscape for running trains. Steve is a master at trees, which is fortunate because he will have thousands of them, but more so, he is becoming a master at recreating exquisite realistic features in the landscape.

We talked about his approach to modeling scenery, and we mused that usually modelers represent features in the landscape, but Steve's approach is to recreate features, which leads to a more accurate and convincing presentation. I might attribute this approach to Steve's engineering background, which shows a tendency towards attention to detail, intolerance of inaccuracy, and a matter-of-fact approach of modeling exactly the way something is built or looks. I'm very excited by his attention to this difference. As he gave me the grand tour, I saw examples of his methodical modeling in every scene.


The only tunnel on the Katy, which Steve created from topographic maps. He enlarged the map to full (HO) scale and overlaid it on the layout to recreate the cut and tunnel contours.

The main line is made from actual crushed and sifted material from the modeled area. Curves are super elevated, there are sections of code 83, 70 and 55. Steve believes that the difference isn't worth the effort of dealing with transitions. 
Steve uses prototype photos to scratch build his industries. This industry is actually the prototype for a Walthers (?) kit, and Steve can just modify the roof on the kit to have an accurate model on his layout - lucky.
Steve generously admitted that he should have spent some more time designing the layout and not just figuring it out as he went. In this town, there is an operational challenge that didn't become apparent until Steve started thinking about how to operate the town. I think we came up with a good fix that will be fairly easy to implement. It will still be an above average challenge to operate, but once one understands the process of transferring pulls and puts through a short run around and into a forthcoming temporary storage track towards the edge of the layout, it'll be fine. 
Hikers and pockets of wildflowers. Roads are rolled flat just as real roads are, which helps the realism.

Steve and his daughter measured the prototype bridge on a family trip, and he faithfully recreated each rivet.
Photos of the prototype mounted on the fascia above the model further drive home the realism Steve is able to achieve. It also adds context so the viewer can more fully be immersed in the character, flavor and tone of the landscape.

Over thousand stalks of corn (or some large number like that). The scale is impressive.
It is harvest time, which means longer trains filled with covered hoppers.

If I remember correctly, this is an oil loading platform - vegetable oil.

Scratch and bashed models are all over the layout. 
Great work on the road. Steve rolled the pavement and spray painted the striping. The orientation of the buildings and angle in relation to the edge of the layout is very dynamic, and really emphasizes the trackage running through the scene. The lights are 1960s prototypical street lights from Brawa (if I remember correctly). The photometrics produce very believable glow and throw onto the buildings and street under blue rope light night skies.

Steve went out into the world and measured the parking spaces as well as the width of the striping before creating a mask and spray painting the street stripes. 
Steve scratch built the water tower because commercially available products are only a few inches tall. He used EZ Line telephone thread for the tension wires, which makes a huge difference in recreating this tower. He inserted the line through the gusset plates and tied back on itself. Really delicate and realistic.

My camera can't capture it, but the interior of this gas station is replete with equipment and furnishings in a very effective way. Interior lights come on with the room's blue rope light nighttime lighting and allow excellent view of the details inside.

Lots of signage visually populates the scene. The main signs use Miller Engineering scratch building components to light up computer-generated images.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly is always playing at the drive-in.
Two movie goers in a stylish auto.

Steve explains how he researched and constructed the drive-in. A lot of his modeling happens before breaking out an X-acto knife. Research not only gives him an accurate blueprint for building his models, it also provides greater understanding to the cultural, technological and relationship to the larger context of what he models. That research makes building and viewing such models a much richer experience that goes beyond just having a good looking model.
The overpass at Franklin is busy.

The yard is going to be a center of activity for operations.

Photos and maps of the prototype are used to faithfully recreate the track alignments and scenery.
The Katy tank at the Franklin turntable.

The mock-up of the large Booneville Lift Span Bridge over the Missouri River is good enough to call a finished model. People have offered to buy it after Steve is finished with it. Made out of black core foam core, it is a very convincing model. The final version will include a working lift section and will add operational interest to crossing the river. Nicely sited at a15 or so degree angle to the front of the layout. It emphasizes the length of the bridge and provides a very well composed presentation of a signature piece on the layout.
Long crop rows positioned parallel to the layout make the rows look even straighter. Using the relationship of elements to the edge of layout is another tool in the composers toolbox.

Real, chopped up soy beans (if I remember correctly).
The creek bed is very realistic because it is very carefully made to be uneven.

A model of Steve's house and train building are going to be on the layout complete with a model of the model layout. I'm pretty sure this will cause some sort of subspace time warp distortion and the Enterprise will fly through with phasers blasting (in HO scale). 

Aisle No.2 is going to be filled with large industries.
A temporary interlocking tower protects the MoPac - Katy crossing. The final model will be a faithful reproduction of an actual tower.

Rolled road with painted stripes. The road material is from the sands of Iwo Jima.

Stretchy EZ Line on the power poles and sun flowers protected by a guardrail.

I will categorically assert that this is the best cow pasture I have ever seen modeled. The cow patties are coffee grounds, but only because Steve's wife won't let him use actual cow chips. The color of the stock pond is dead on.
A very large plant is being scratch built here. Unit trains will swap out dozens of cars at a time. 
A power plant will go where the trees are temporarily placed. Coal from the mine on the other aisle will swap loads and empties each session.

Mine equipment cleans up waiting for the big mine to be built.
Dual 200' span scratchbuilt bridges over a slightly muddy river complete with cast plaster abutments. 
By the end of my tour, I was completely spoiled by the realism and attention to detail already on Steve's layout. He is about half way done with the scenery, but it already feels like a finished layout because the scenes are so complete. I will poke Steve a little here because he should have been operating already, but he is afraid that will bring his modeling to a halt. There is only so much modeling time to slice up, and I don't blame him for wanting to keep the momentum going. I think he may find, though, that operating is going to beg him to make some track plan changes and force some scenery redoing. Not a problem, though, as Steve routinely will tear out a section of scenery if it isn't good enough. Anything he does tear up for track realignment will quickly be put back together, and I bet it will be even better than what was already there.

I am inspired by Steve's work to recreate and not just to represent the landscape, trains and operating procedures of a very specific place and time in railroading history. His research and attention to detail are very good examples of modeling to engage. The effort and care he expends in trying to understand how things work and relate to each other add another deep layer of modeling that is indicated by visual evidence in great looking models. On Steve's layout, beauty is not truth, but it is often a precursor to it. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On the Relationship of CVs, Thesis statements, and Place

HBS 700 cleaned up and ready to tackle the mean cobblestone streets of Hoboken, NJ.
A recent long email thread between modelers in Kansas City and Austin has centered around CV settings for realistic operation of locomotives. The concern has been to accurately set momentum, braking, and sounds properly to achieve the feeling of running an actual locomotive. This feeds directly into a running conversation among several of my modeling friends about the central organizing principle of layouts, or the thesis statement, that governs decisions about the construction and operation of a layout. Like anything in life, I believe having a central conceptual basis, or reason, for what you are doing with your layout makes your endeavor more cohesive, focused and helps it communicate your vision and intent more clearly.

I will concede that a majority of modelers may believe that a rigorous conceptual basis for a model railroad takes the fun out of the pursuit, because the enjoyment comes from doing whatever seems like fun at the moment. I can not stress enough that I have no problem with spontaneity and undirected play at all as a fun way to practice model railroading. (See my Fall 2013 LSR Marker Lamp editorial in vol 59, number 4 where I talk about modeling to escape versus modeling to engage.) But, suspend your disbelief for a moment if you think that modeling to engage sounds too much like work, and please think of it as just getting really involved in playing.

A huge part of any game and even undirected play involves a set of rules, or constraints, that make the game more fun for everyone, even if you are the only one playing, because how are you going to know what you are doing or if you are doing it well or not without rules? For me, having that central organizing principle or thesis statement is rule number one. Without knowing what I am setting out to do, how will I know if I do it or not? There may be several types of theses possible, but I would say that they are all sub categories of a very large catch-all bucket of categories that involve the idea and communication of the qualities of place.

On my layout, I am still developing my thesis, but the trajectory has something to do with conveying identity and the relationship of customer and railroad. Being a short line railroad, the Hoboken Shore had intimate interaction on a daily basis with its customers. My questions for this are, how could one model this closeness, and how can personalities come into play? On the Waterfront, which was filmed along the HBS right of way, provides an excellent example of the turmoil and roughness of the moment in time of the environment surrounding the HBS. I'd like my layout to impart some sort of understanding of this, and what it may have been like to work on a railroad in that particular place. Because of this trajectory, it becomes necessary to focus on the operator as individual within the context of 1950s Hoboken. 

The HBS was already waning on the heels of its busiest time during WWII. There must have been a malaise settling on the town and railroad as things were falling apart all over the Mile Square City. The mayor owned the local garbage collection company, and when decisions weren't made to his satisfaction, he refused to pick up trash for several weeks until the decisions were reversed. Graft, corruption, and general New Jersey politics led to empty buildings, dirty, malnourished children roaming the streets, and general hard times while the rest of the country was enjoying a post-war boom. It was so bad, that the mayor enacted a law that made it illegal to photograph the city during this time.

Capturing the idea of a place is a topic of an excellent blog post entitled "Power of Place" I read recently from Mike Cougill at his OST Publications blog. In it he explores the notions of place and the challenges of modeling them on a layout. He says,"in modeling, we give scant notice to how the railroad and community grew together. We only give a cursory acknowledgment of how the railroad fits the landscape and in turn, is shaped by it." We do tend to become fixated on the stuff and techniques of the layout instead of the overall effect we are trying to achieve. A 'can't see the forest for the trees' sort of thing, but I believe that creating an idea of place is the central reason behind creating any layout.

The place of Hoboken in 1959 is what I am modeling, so what does locomotive sound have to do with this? Simply and directly, the pace of operation for switching multiple industries in an urban setting is necessarily slow, so I want to make operation about the little things that were apart of the everyday movement of goods and products around the waterfront. This was what the railroad crews had, everyday things in small quantities that made up their entire lives. No varnish whizzing by at speed, no thundering Big Boys belching steam, nobody to really notice what was going on except for the people they dealt with everyday at the coffee factory, the shipyard, and the piers. The world was a small one connected to the globe, and it was these individual sounds that made up the ebb and flow of the aural scenery. 

It is easy to get sucked into tweaking CV settings on a locomotive just for the sake of getting the sound right. My driving interest, though, is to provide user feedback that makes prototypical operation easier and more enjoyable for the operator on my layout. Keeping this in mind while performing a seemingly isolated task of CV setting is important to me.

So hearing the small, but can-do nature of the revving of a 44-tonner before it moves is modeling the character and the reality of the Hoboken Shore Railroad. It wasn't glamorous, it wasn't pretty, but it was specific and part of the everyday experience of the individuals of the railroad, and that's important in supporting the thesis about the place that I am recreating on my layout. This small sound detail directly helps the central conceptual basis for my layout to communicate the particular place of Hoboken, NJ and how the railroad fit into it. For me, this makes for loads of fun, even though I am focused, rigorous and deliberate in my play.


For a great example of a strong, central thesis, see the layout of Jim Senese of Tulsa, OK. He has a clear intent for operators explore the interaction of multiple railroads with differing personalities on his "Kansas City Terminal RR" layout in Model Railroad Planning 1998.

I think place is a great topic for further exploration and conversation. I'd like to hear from you if you know of modelers who make place an important part of their layout.

This first appeared in Vol 61, Number 1 of the Marker Lamp.