Saturday, March 22, 2014

Apocalyptic Perspectives and Dystopian Dioramas

Model railroading can be a lot more than an escape from everyday life. It can be a method of understanding and exploring much more challenging situations and conditions of our world. A rarely taken trajectory in modeling is the depiction of dystopic scenes of dark realities.

I came across the first of a handful of darker dioramas some years ago. It is the work of a Yale architecture student (probably graduated by now)  Peter Feigenbaum in his Trainset Ghetto installation. Plenty of graffiti and trash in a rough contemporary urban scene. The lack of scale figures makes it even more foreboding and bleak.
Bleak, barren and broken.
What do we get from modeling a gritty, non-romantic area of urban blight? Maybe it has to do with a deeper, more real, feeling of reality. The dark and ugly are often more vivid and touching events in our own lives that perhaps provoke much more emotional stimulation than the joyous occasions. This is definitely not a normal trajectory for modelers, but I suggest that it is just as satisfying, if not more so, than modeling the sentimental, happy, idyllic scenes of our childhood or romantic notions of better times past that are more fiction than fact. Peter's dirty reality is not the only one I've stumbled upon that plucks at the grim emotions of uncomfortable situations.

Thomas Doyle is another artist who uses scale modeling as his medium to explore difficult and transformational events that are often less than happy scenes. His artist's statement indicates he is after those deeper emotional moments.
My work mines the debris of memory through the creation of intricate worlds sculpted in 1:43 scale and smaller. Often sealed under glass, the works depict the remnants of things past—whether major, transformational experiences, or the quieter moments that resonate loudly throughout a life. In much the way the mind recalls events through the fog of time, the works distort reality through a warped and dreamlike lens.

Another artist James Cauty is dabbling in the scale model railroading medium shows us an extended crime scene. Police, investigators and a general environment of mayhem poke at the establishment through nicely detailed work of architectural modelers. He wants us to consider our relationship to authority in a large installation. The 'layout' is,
far from the rural idyll of old model villages, Cauty’s diorama makes a political statement about societal freedom and state control.
Collateral damage from the getaway chase.
A description of the installation:
A motorcade brings the queen to view the scene of the crime.
Thousands of police swarm over a scorched landscape tattered and torn by rioting and looting, every window in every building is smashed, vehicles are overturned, bridges and roads destroyed, power pylons are down, a burned-out church still smoulders. Above this post-mayhem scene of destruction, helicopters shine their searchlights on the battered landscape. Above the helicopters, a train rumbles past...
These art works are designed to communicate a theme or some sort of meaning beyond just recreating a part of the world. They are all dark in some way, whether through the topic, the execution or the exploration of uncanny emotions. They are all by artists and not modelers. While everything we build communicates about the conditions of the building process, intentional, overt and explicit communication through models is what transforms the pursuit from a pastime to an art form (or a design form).

The above examples are nominally works of art simply for the fact that they were produced by artists for art galleries. What happens if model railroaders build layouts in their homes that create a recognizable message about society?  Are they even modelers anymore, and are they now, instead, artists? A quick search of the Internet reveals on the UK N Gauge Forum that this approach is being taken up by at least one modeler.

The forum participant, Mr Grumpy, is attempting to tap into the dystopian visions offered in such movies as The Matrix, Blade Runner and 1984. His N scale modeling is intended to portray the "divide between rich and poor" with skyscrapers built on "crumbling slums below." His layout is still in construction, but his exemplary video from Final Fantasy VII indicates it is definitely headed towards gloomy futurism:

Off the top of my head for my own Hoboken Shore layout, I have a couple of items to possibly explore grittier sides of the rough Hoboken waterfront. One is at Bethlehem Steel during the union strike of 1947 (as seen in the photo below) when almost 42,000 workers on the east coast paralyzed the ship building yards.

Picket line of Bethlehem Steel strike of 1947
Also of note are the extreme signs of poverty found in Hoboken at the time due to graft and corruption of Mayor McFeeley's regime. Garbage collection was suspended at a point as political retaliation, and the large numbers of out of work immigrant merchant marines and large population of poor children roamed aimlessly about the streets. Almost every other building seemed to be vacant at the time, with squatters inhabiting half-crumbled structures. An article appeared in the US Camera journal (in the collection of Hoboken Historical Museum web site) that illustrates the dire situation of the city in the 1940s. The entire article is interesting and posted in its entirety in their online collections.

From US Camera Vol IV, No.2
And equally ripe for dystopic modeling is the tough harbor life as seen in On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando, where apparently there were lots of longshoremen beating up each other. Far from the cute or funny scenes of overturned apple carts or skinny dippers normally found in a model railroad, I am contemplating these dark depictions to accurately portray how awful life was in this area of New York Harbor. It would be misleading not to model these scenes that were so important to the culture and environment in which the Hoboken Shore Railroad operated during the 40s and 50s. Certainly not the glamour and polish found in streamline passenger trains and glorious stations one more often sees in layouts and railroad press, but I wish to present a rather dirty, poignant slice of a hard everyday existence of which the railroad was a part.
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy gets pounded by mobsters On the Waterfront (Horizon Pictures, 1954)
This is definitely an underrepresented niche in the hobby that occurs in isolated instances in a few layouts. I think both dark modeling and the broader genre of artistic modeling bear some more thought in the pages of this blog at some point later. Meanwhile, there are a couple of recent examples of prototype opportunities to explore darker railroading topics.

A common occurrence these days are (old) tank cars from the Bakken Oil Fields making their way precariously through communities across North America while pipeline construction is catching up to the new oil shale deposit production. This catastrophe happened in Lac-M├ęgantic, Quebec, Canada recently, when a train with 72 tankers full of crude oil is parked uphill in Nantes, and through a series of unfortunate events, ends up 10 kilometers away exploding and burning in Lac-M├ęgantic.

I have seen plenty of firefighters and fire trucks on layouts fighting car or building fires, but I don't recall having seen a model of a railroad accident. (Feel free to point me towards any examples in the comments section!) The discussion of dark layout subjects is simply to illustrate the idea that not all layouts have to glamorize what is in reality the very dirty, rough and dangerous business of railroading.

Another instance of a prototype event that seems to beg to be modeled for a contest model or RPM meet. From an email circulating through the railroad community:
CN train that hit a log truck on the Redditt sub (between Winnipeg MB and Sioux Lookout ON) at Sunstrum, ON (mile 38). Lead unit was the 5146 a GMDL SD40. Seeing the truck on the crossing before hitting it with the train, the engineer hit the deck below the window level and the head end brakeman ducked down behind the wall and door under the middle windows, that leads down to the nose of the engine. Both made it out alive. There was glass everywhere, the pulp logs loaded cross wise on the truck, penetrated into the cab including through the number boards.
Quite an amazing image, and equally amazing the crew wasn't killed. I haven't seen anyone tackle a modeling project such as this.

Why don't we see more modeling of disasters and unpleasantness? I think one answer is rather simple and straightforward: why would a 'normal' modeler want to spend a lot of time ruminating on a layout that was dystopic? That certainly couldn't be a happy retreat from the hassles and tragedies of everyday life, which is a big reason to have hobbies in the first place. I think that there is, however, satisfaction and respite in creating more challenging layouts with unpleasant or uncomfortable topics, and there is an equal sense of recreation to that pursuit.

There are also benefits for the final product of the layout itself, whether it is dystopic, idyllic or somewhere in between, if we approach creation of it from a more considered perspective of an artist or designer.

I believe that layouts that have a carefully conceived theme or thesis statement are generally better off than those that do not. In more general terms, and with dark and grittiness aside, there is a lot of room for layouts having identifiable themes and theses to be less craft-focused and more artistically focused. There are a lot of distinct situations available for such modeling found in many varied kinds of prototypes.

Getting the look of a railroad accurate is a technical pursuit, but getting the feel of the railroad is a more artistic endeavor. To be thought about more is why this more artistic approach would be beneficial, and how a rigorous thesis statement could help make decisions and provide productive focus for the modeler. It has everything to do with the process producing a better outcome. Simply put, it is identifying what effect you are trying to achieve beyond making a model look like its real life prototype. What is your layout's thesis statement? This may not be part of your current process, but it deserves a little consideration.

Speaking of process, I see that the glue is dry, so I need to get back to laying track.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Film Friday

My good friend Gerry has uploaded videos of rail action around Virginia, and he is starting to get some pretty nice results using non-exotic equipment. This is a favorite of mine (so far) because of the tension between the trains moving in opposing directions, the truck on the right moving in reverse complete with warning beeps, and the stoic, motionless station that bears witness to it all. Nice composition and action in a short vignette. I feel that there is a satisfying poetic expression in all this.

He's already got a quite nicely formed and consistent collection going, and I recommend that you subscribe to his YouTube channel as he adds more of these smartly framed fleeting moments of contemporary railroading.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Thank you notes - a physical interaction with the layout

Thank you notes on official PoNY letterhead.
I assume everyone writes thank you notes after they participate in an operating weekend - my mother certainly would expect it! The time and effort that a dedicated group of modelers who are willing to share their layouts with strangers should be acknowledged in some way - be it a phone call, email or note. I prefer to hand write physical letters as a small gesture that says I understand the effort they went through, and that I care enough to spend a fraction of that amount of my own time and effort in return for the enjoyment they created for me.

Several months ago I created a custom letterhead for the PoNY to use for courtesy cards and thank you notes that would help make writing thank you notes easier, so that I was more sure to do it in a timely manner. I used Adobe Illustrator to create the logo and return address, and I print from a PDF file, which is easier to do than opening up Illustrator every time I need to make one. I just print on my own home printer on thick card stock, and I use envelopes with a string tie that makes opening even more of a tactile experience. An ink stamp of the railroad's rooster mascot Pony, customizes the envelope.

It is a first draft that will be refined and maybe offset printed when I get it the way I like it. Besides being a useful and fun thing to do, it helps establish the layout as its own thing that exists in this world apart from me.

The physical letterhead gives the layout I'm creating more gravitas, so that it is less my own private mental construct and more of a real thing that others can approach without my having to be an intermediary translator. For me, this is a significant way to think about how things are created form the layout. I put this in the same category as a physical interaction with the layout, and I treat it as a considered interaction just as important as being able to reach a switch or a read a town label in a satisfying manner.

This is also another opportunity to create a mood and a narrative about the layout that helps frame people's approach to my little world I am creating. The rooster hopefully adds a bit of whimsy and character, and the red envelope reinforces the red in the logo and is an auspicious symbol of happiness and well wishes of gratitude, good fortune and appreciation.

Besides, as I continue to grow up, I realize my mother was usually right about such matters, and it makes me feel good to let others know I appreciate what they do.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Prairie Rail 2014 - Part 2: Kevin Leyerle's OKT-MKT

Crew reports for duty
Full scale crew for first session of the weekend. Howard Gillespie (far right foreground and a layout owner, too) was a tremendous help. I missed seeing his layout this trip, but I will definitely keep an eye out for his Seaboard Air Line rail-marine operations.
First up for Prairie Rail 2014 for me on Friday afternoon was Kevin Leyerle's OKT - MKT layout. Kevin's layout is housed in a basement (being from Texas, I'm of course, jealous of the notion of having an actual cave for a man-cave), and it is a superb layout to operate. With the help of Howard Gillespie, the full scale crew settled in quickly and began a fun operating session only a little behind schedule.

Layout diagrams in every town make for great reference all through the session for visiting crews

I signed up for a yard job at El Reno at the west end of the layout after no one else jumped in. Yards are always more fun for me because of the high operating time to session length ratio. A yard is almost always busy from start to finish, and I feel like I get my money's worth in playtime this way. The downside, however, is that I didn't get to chat much with anyone. El Reno is off in a secondary space, and I only saw people as they passed through my yard when things were busy. No worries, though, as it is sometimes really nice to just play with trains off in the corner by oneself.

El Reno yard - my home for the evening. Standard car cards and boxes with an appropriately-sized work shelf made the process for working comfortable. A dispatcher's sheet with highlighted events of my concern made prioritizing and strategizing several moves ahead possible. (iPhone panorama)
The yard at El Reno is double-ended with a couple of A/D tracks and about 4 classification tracks. Trains to the North and South on the OKT arrive and depart here transferring cars between the OKT and Katy. My instructions form the shift boss were to send everything destined for the Katy East and anything I didn't recognize the name for to the OKT. This worked fine for awhile, but then I mishandled several cars setting them up for the interchange that were actually going the other way. It took me several moves to sort this out, which kept me behind the eight ball the rest of the evening.
Across the aisle from El Reno - I confess I have no idea what that town is, but I know there was a fair bit of activity going on behind me most of the night...
El Reno on the left, and some mystery town (I think this was Council) to the right. When your head gets buried in a yard, the rest of the layout might as well be invisible.

Opposite view.
Portland Ave in Council

I thoroughly enjoyed the equipment in El Reno. I was given a choice between a sweet little leased Southern Pacific unit and a highly detailed and weathered double lash up of Katy locomotives. I decided that using the home town power was the appropriate answer, and I'm glad I did.  They were smooth-running and I loved the sound provided by a layout-standard SoundTraxx decoder.

One of the unique features on Kevin's layout is the use of the brake function for operating. For this, the momentum is turned way up, and it becomes necessary to pay more attention to the operation of the locomotive itself while trying to learn the railroad, keep up with the job and keep an eye out for traffic headed your way.

This all forced me to slow way down in my moves. Some of it was the information and coordination overload, but at the beginning, most of it was just getting a feel for the locomotive. When set up with braking required, you can run up the rpms before releasing the brake, get to your desired (slow) yard speed, and then shut the rpms down and glide from one end of the yard to the other. It was really a unique sensation! Much more realistic than slammin' and jammin' cars together. Then, while coasting in neutral, you can play the brake to come to a very precise and gentle nudge to couple up with a car.

Standard car cards and card racks helped a lot for this visitor. The directional sorting cards were life-savers!
It takes focus and concentration to do this, and it makes running a locomotive more of a challenge. I bet most people wouldn't like this - I can hear a chorus of, "I don't want operating to be like work", but this is more like a video game type of fun. I found myself really tuning in to the sound of the locomotive in order to get a better sensory idea of what was going on. Hand-eye coordination also really comes in handy using the break function, and coupled with the aforementioned items, this single feature makes the entire experience more realistic, involved and enriching. And because of all that, I found it quite fun. I enjoyed it, and I will suggest this is a desirable way to operate here in town...

View of El Reno from the East. The crossing bells got a bit old when I was trying to sort cars from this end. Next time, I'll use the West ladder more...

A functioning lock out feature for the road crossings. I tried to get it to time-out, but I think I kept triggering it by moving back into the yard ladder too far. I gave up, but interesting feature nonetheless.
Staging below El Reno. Didn't have too many conflicts with departing or arriving trains since the throat was out from under the yard. Interesting use of polychromatic paint scheme on the support legs at staging. I think it works.
There was also a nice little switcher (maybe an SW or NW...) available at the grain elevator that really helped make quick work of shifting cars around. The variety of using a different locomotive was good. Scenery was straightforward and supportive of operations. Everything was neat and nicely detailed and finished with lots of autos and trucks, structures and topography. The Katy green fascia is clean and functional.  I'm a fan of the green and yellow Katy scheme, which is very similar to my Hoboken Shore livery colors, and it works well to define the layout and flavor the environment. It is, however, an intense green and might become overwhelming in this large quantity with daily exposure. :)

Entry lift-out with trestle
El Reno was a bit difficult to operate as a visiting crew. It has only a few class tracks, so a couple of tracks need to be stacked with multiple destination groups. This made blocking out of the question for a newbie, and it also required a higher level of planning and more consistent work. Not fully remembering the train destinations and order or call times also hurts efficiency for a rookie.

S&S Feeds
The main yard at Oklahoma City
Card sortin'
Some GRR (Georgetown Railroad) limestone gravel cars headed back to the quarry in Georgetown, TX.
The dispatcher's desk
The call board sign up sheet
Lloyd, Kevin and Bill
Standard Iron and Metal and a concrete industry
The Katy crossing
Nathan, Lloyd, Bill, Kevin and Eric(?)
I will offer that El Reno yard is good for the intermediate to advanced visitor, or a "3" on a scale of 1=easy and 4=challenging for first-time crews. One more session here, though, and I would drop the difficulty rating down to a very comfortable 2.5 - challenging enough to be interesting, but not overly taxing or frustrating, since everything is clear, well thought out and presented.  

As I didn't get to experience the rest of the layout, my overall comments may not be as valid as they could be, but having said that, I think that this is a superbly operating layout. The operating scheme made sense, the instructions were clear with plenty of reference materials, the neatness, consistency and craftsmanship of the layout made for a distraction-free environment, and the host was gracious, patient, and genuinely interested in how the layout was being interpreted by a visiting crew.

Kevin is a class-act and has created a great layout in the amazing model railroad town of Kansas City.

Stay tuned for Part 3 coming 'soon'.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Prairie Rails 2014 - Part 1: Overview

Of course there is snow on the prairie in February, but certainly not enough to have any effect on Prairie Rail 2014 weekend. The organizers picked a nice hotel in a good location on the south side of town, and check-in, banquet and handouts were all superbly accomplished with no glitches or omissions. The group in KC really are a class act when it comes to hospitality, generosity and graciousness. Plus there are some damn fine layouts to operate!

I'll post more on the layouts later on, but here is an overview in images of some of the people and things that made up a fantastically fun weekend. I hope I get the chance to come back soon!

Jack O. may never see this picture on the world-wide Intertubes, but it will always remind me of his great stories and funny running commentary on the weekend. I ended up driving most of the weekend, and it was nice to have the entertainment!

The banquet was held in the Bottoms, which is a place ripe for redevelopment. Some great old industrial and warehouse buildings with painted signs galore. The steak dinner was at the Golden Ox.

Inside the Ox, another great auto companion and navigator most of the weekend was Lloyd, who came from Chicago and filled me in on the history and lineage of Prairie Rail and operating in general in the US. Note to self: I need to find the articles he wrote about the TP&W for a friend at work who has an interest in the line.

The young Mr Willer in yellow who patiently helped all of us out finding our way around the SP&S Ry on TT&TO!

The "EN OX" had decent food, but the location really stole the evening sited next to the Cattle Exchange building (below).

Horrible photo, but a really grand monument to the importance of cattle to the city.

Kemper Arena in the background. Someone said they were thinking about tearing it down...
We had to try out the Mexican food restaurant at the airport on our way out. They didn't do too bad a job, but it is hard to beat Tex-Mex in the ATX. Surprised to see the range of the nine-banded armadillo extend all the way to KC. Must be global warming.
Oh, and there were railroads, too. More on them later as I organize my photos and thoughts a bit further. This is from Bob Willer's SP&S Ry. My peddler freight sneaking around higher class trains in a TT&TO session.