Friday, December 29, 2006

We have liftoff

Yeah, it’s just a simple wall outlet. Two sets of plugs, one controlled by a wall switch and one always on. High on the wall above these, another switched circuit for layout lights.

But it's what's missing that's important … a clunky surface mount box and a load of previous-owner-installed conduit that was at the exact location I needed for the Oakland Harbor Belt's main staging yard.

For a number of reasons, this has taken weeks, even months, to be completed. But now that the job is done, the last external constraint to continuing layout construction is removed.

There's still a lot of day job work on the schedule, two huge layout design projects to complete, and a bunch of smaller design projects in the backlog, so there won't be a lot of time in the next couple of months. But I'm excited … time to get moving!

Currently listening to Soundgarden's A Sides. When you're contemplating a big construction project, you need big metal!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Notes from an accidental railfan

I hope everyone is having a pleasant holiday season. While returning from our Christmas visit to the ancestral homeland in Southern California, I had the chance to do a little accidental railfanning.

I grew up in Palmdale, less than a half mile from the SP (now UP) line from L.A. over Tehachapi *. As a kid, I often listened in the night to the passing trains blowing their horns for the crossings of Sierra Highway and Avenue P (yep, just a letter). During the summer we'd ride bikes into town and sometimes wait at the Sierra Highway crossing for a train to pass.

Then, as now, I wasn't much of a railfan. I do enjoy seeing real trains in their natural environment, but I generally have spent my hobby time in other ways. So much of what I like about railroading has passed out of existence that railfanning today's rail scenes doesn't generally hold a lot of interest.

But I thought it might be neat to travel home from Palmdale to the Bay Area along a different route than our usual path up Interstate 5. And what better path to take than to follow the passing trains to Tehachapi? (Sorry, no pictures, just words -- remember, I'm an accidental railfan. But here are some others on the web.)

We started out on Highway 14, which quickly leads to Mojave. Now made more famous by Pelle S√łeborg's articles in the model press, Mojave is a bit grittier and larger than suggested by his well-done layout. Most of the neat railroad buildings of my youth are gone, but the small yard was full of UP and BNSF trains, including some Norfolk Southern run-through power in a BNSF consist. The yard may have been more crowded than usual since we were traveling the day after Christmas.

Turning onto Highway 58, we were treated to our first train, running Westbound (roughly compass Northwest) through the sweeping curve near Warren. Double stacks and trailers-on-flatcars, with a four engine head-end consist including three different variations of the disappointing (in my view) orange and green BNSF livery and one glorious Santa Fe super fleet unit still in silver-and-red warbonnet. (Nope, still no photos)

The big cement plant at Monolith (others' photos here and here) provided the opportunity for me to share details of its history and function with my wife and daughter, whose complete silence indicated their rapt attention. Or not.

Through Tehachapi, we passed another BNSF train of stacks and pigs, again Westbound. Near the fabled loop at Walong, a very long UP train auto carrier train came into view, including some of the giant "Auto Max" cars I had not seen before in real life. Armour Yellow everywhere, no heritage power on this high-priority movement. And yet another Westbound UP container train just beyond the loop. A great show on a beautiful clear day. Since I am working on a design project right now that includes the loop, it was fun to have a reminder of how spectacular the area is in real life.

Eastbounds were in the hole all along the way -- obviously the Dispatcher was fleeting the Westbounds to get things moving on this day after the holiday.

A quick stop for lunch in Bakersfield (geez, those Happy Meals are sure an effective marketing gimmick!), then over the (compass) west end of the former ATSF yard. As we were working our way across the San Joaquin Valley on 7th Standard Road, we encountered the neat small industry (shown at left in a view from Google Maps) along the former ATSF line south of Shafter. This is a place called "Crome" by the Santa Fe, and "Hights Corner" on other maps.

I don't happen to have the Santa Fe CLIC Book for this area and my auto mates didn't seem so keen on a stop, so I'm not sure what industry is located here now, but there was still rail activity. Definitely a modelgenic size and the angled intersection of the streets and rail lines made for an interesting configuration. There also seems to be a bulk unloading facility running along the aptly-named "Santa Fe Way" road slanting from top-left to bottom-right in the view.

Our travels then took us briefly on Interstate 5 until we could leave the hordes behind for a scenic jaunt through Coalinga (no search there for remnants of the SP, though) and on to the west on Highway 198. Just before joining Highway 101, I took a side trip through the burg of San Lucas on the former SP Coast Line. A large concrete elevator had attracted my eye in the past, but the industry seems now dormant. One forlorn and rusty covered hopper was spotted at another industry in town, so perhaps there is still some rail activity here.

Night and the rain began falling at about the same time, so that put an end to even my (very) casual railfanning. With relatives and friends in So Cal, I've traveled from north to south and back again many times in the past. I've sometimes focused on areas along the way that represented specific modeling interests, like the SP/ATSF Sunset Railway and the route of my proto-freelanced Midland Pacific. But my experience this week suggests that maybe I should have a slightly more open mind on my next trip …. and get out the camera! That is, for any trip I make without my family of reluctant railfans.

*For more on railroads in the Antelope Valley, I recommend Phil Serpico's book Railroading through the Antelope Valley. John Signor's fabulous Tehachapi book, along with Serpico's, gave me a real appreciation for what was passing by through those years of my youth.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sellios gets real

It was interesting to read about the changes George Sellios (of Fine Scale Miniatures fame) is making to his Franklin and South Manchester layout. OK, I'll start with the disclaimer: Sellios is an exquisitely talented modeler and I'll never come close to his skills, not that I feel the need to do so (thankfully, or I'd never have the guts to build anything).

I have read most of the Sellios articles in the commercial press; I even bought his book on the Franklin and South Manchester. But to be honest, I never really enjoyed the pictures; and I sold the book shortly after buying it. I never could identify what it was that bothered me, sort of a hyper-reality that I have found vaguely disquieting.

After reading Mr. Sellios' article in the December, 2006 Model Railroader magazine, I've finally put my finger on what's bugged me. It's certainly not the execution of Sellios' modeling, it's his vision. And not the semi-run-down-cusp-of-the-depression vision that some have criticized. Instead, it's the way the scenes are compressed, almost as if looking through a telephoto lens.

When we look at a real scene, our minds highlight the interesting bits (tracks, a train, a station building), but don’t focus on the relatively non-descript space in between. We sense that the space is there, but it's not remarkable. However, it's that very unconscious sense of the empty space that clues our minds to the realities of the scene.

Artists talk about the idea of negative space. The concept that what is not shown helps to create context and interest in what is shown. The empty space around an object helps create the interest in the painted or sculpted object itself.

Many of the scenes on the Franklin and South Manchester contain all of the elements that one might see in viewing a real scene, but they are compressed, even amplified. They're too close together (at least for me) -- there's not enough "negative space". The clutter of a 500-foot-deep scene in real life is compressed into 80 scale feet of model railroad.

Sellios notes himself in the article that he has un-detailed some areas to make them look more realistic -- removing crowds from station areas and wall-to-wall clutter from loading docks. The new scenes are still a trifle too condensed for my taste, but they are certainly more realistic to my eye.

I guess it all goes to show how individual are our tastes and how unique is each of our visions. That's something I really enjoy about our hobby and look forward to exploring as my own (much more modest) layout building continues.

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Currently Listening to: Skip, Hop, and Wobble by Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer. Acoustic "newgrass" music (and much more) with a kick. I've become such a fan of Dobro through listening to Jerry Douglas.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Another new design in the gallery

I've been so busy with day job and model railroading projects that I have not spent much time on the website. But I did just add a short note on an interesting little design for someone here in the Bay Area. This was one of those rare cases where the benchwork ( a series of narrow shelves tucked in a corner of the room) absolutely had to be laid out first and the N scale layout designed around the benchwork. (And no, I haven't changed my mind -- "benchwork first" is still a Tricky Trap. This is one of those exceptions that proves the rule.)

All the same, the owner was interested in a real location (the Sacramento Northern's Yuba City Yard). No way to fit it all in, but I think we came up with a pretty good plan that's under construction now. You may read all about it here.