Getting the snip

Now that I have your attention, this is not about THAT “snip”.

This is about my decision to remove Kadee coupler trip pins from my rolling stock, and why. Kadee’s trip pins are intended to uncouple their couplers by magnetic action when placed over a permanent magnet, whether buried under the track, or placed between the rails. Kadee also offers an electromagnet uncoupler that can be placed under the track to present its two magnetic poles between the rails, only uncoupling cars when you want to uncouple them. Rapido Trains also offers its RailCrew remote uncoupler, designed to be placed under the track. All of these work well if installed per instructions. Kadee instructs that their coupler be installed on model rolling stock to present the bottom of the trip pin 1/32 of an inch or .8 millimetres above the rails. (In HO scale, this is close to the prototype AAR standard that real rolling stock has nothing less than 2 1/2 inches/6.25 cm above the rails, other than the wheels.)

The top of Kadee’s permanent magnet ramp is to be placed between the rails is to be placed 1/64 of an inch or .4 mm above the rails. Many modellers just place a Kadee coupler in the coupler pocket, put the lid on, and place the model on the track. Result–the uncoupling pin is often too low, striking closure rails on turnouts, modelled road crossings, etc. Often followed by derailment. If the pins are too high, there may not be sufficient magnetic force to part the metal pins on the couplers, making uncoupling impossible. It’s difficult for the modeller to place a ramp with its top precisely 1/64″ above the rails, and a manufacturer or modeller to install a coupler on rolling stock so that the bottom of the uncoupling pin is precisely 1/32″ above the rails. The coupler is a moving part, too.

But I’ve found a different way to uncouple Kadee couplers over the past few years. Nothing new about this; just new to me. I operated at a layout or two where we used a bamboo skewer to uncouple rolling stock, inserting the pointed end between the knuckles from above and twisting the skewer in a clockwise direction to uncouple. After a while, I became quite proficient at it. It’s easy to use skewers, and one can uncouple rolling stock very easily provided that one can reach the car or loco to be uncoupled. I resisted cutting those pins off for years. But I saw uncoupling pins constantly foul trackwork and recalled that in my career on the rails, I had never seen a piece of rolling stock with a huge curved 2 1/2 inch diameter steel rod attached to any of the millions of prototype couplers that I’d seen. It had become time to start a Kadee trip pin removal campaign on my rolling stock.

And the common kitchen item known as a bamboo skewer has become a very useful “shunter’s pole” on my layout and others.

Inserting a skewer between Kadee coupler knuckles. A simple clockwise twist parts the knuckles against spring action in the coupler assembly.

Two cars having been parted, this photo is to better show how the skewer is inserted in a coupler. It also shows how obtrusive that pin appears, and how easy it is to foul closure rails on turnouts with it if it’s less than 1/32″ above the rails. No, it does not look like an air hose. It looks like a big curved steel rod.

Kadee’s steel uncoupling pin is quite soft steel, and cuts easily with sidecutters. That little stub under the coupler head is not very obtrusive compared to the original curved thing. The coupler now looks more like the real thing, and won’t foul on trackwork any more.

While trying to cut the pin off a factory knockoff coupler on a True Line Trains car, I found that the pin was of a harder metal than Kadee’s, and pulled out of the coupler before I could cut it using sidecutters. Followed by the coupler falling apart. Why the original Kadee coupler is the preferred way to go on my layout, and many of my cars and loco’s are getting scale-sized Kadee #58 or equivalent couplers.

There is a prototype for using a stick to uncouple cars. Here is seen a UK shunter’s pole being used to couple cars together or uncouple them, using the hook on the end of the pole to raise the coupling links, and place on or remove from the drawhook of the other car.

Lessons from Uncle John

I’m a member of an informal group who meet up occasionally to operate a couple of layouts. One of these layouts is Davin Heinbuck’s Santa Fe Slaton Subdivision. Set in 1992 Texas, his HO pike offers a chance to operate decent train-length model trains over a mainline in part of the world that I’m not terribly familiar with. But the mixed freight, intermodal, and unit train consists make for some great operation. MRC DCC is used, using either MRC controllers or via the Engine Driver app on one’s mobile phone. The yard at Temple, Texas is the hub of the layout, with yard assignments working both ends of the yard, switching cars and serving local industries.

Sixteen or so of us met up in Davin’s basement yesterday. The first half of the session had my Brother on the railway, VIA Rail locomotive engineer Terry on the east end yard assignment, with Terry running the double set of Santa Fe loco’s and I organising the switching. Terry and I go back a long way to when we worked braking together at VIA in the late 1980’s. I don’t think that I’m that good at switching, but I did faff around on the lead for a number of years as a yard (switch) foreman and helper in Hamilton, Oakville, and London East yards with CN, so maybe I got along okay with the real thing. Switched some cars, had a break, switched some more cars and switched some industries around Temple. Then a dinner break for a nice repast prepared by another VIA engineer and friend, Jordan. As with many home pike operating sessions, Rule G was held in abeyance. Its enforcement would have been a fruitless endeavour anyhow with Davin’s nice supply of craft beers and other bottled liquids….

After dinner, Davin had invited anyone attending to bring their own model loco’s for a run on his layout. I brought a couple of the Midland Railway’s to try out. Both because I’d not had a chance to run them much other than back and forth over a dozen feet of layout and an 18 inch radius loop of test track in my basement, and I also wanted to get some practical experience with what these loco’s could pull. The Campbellford Sub had two doubling grades in steam days. I don’t want every grade to be a doubling grade for my steam loco’s.

First loco that I tried out was an old Broadway Limited USRA Heavy Mikado. Bought cheap a few years back at a local train show, it’s fitted with QSI sound and DCC. It also does not have traction tires, compared with later BLI models. I gave it and the other loco’s couplers a quick glandhandectomy before leaving home, cutting off most of the Kadee coupler gladhands, using sidecutters. Many modellers have gone this route, using a sharpened bamboo skewer to part knuckles on the couplers from above when switching. That large wire gladhand on the Kadee coupler never looked like an air hose anyway.

Broadway Limited USRA Heavy Mikado. I want to play around with this to Canadianise it with all-weather cab. The tender may see some changes, and I’m considering a huge honking Coffin feedwater heater on the smokebox, just to be different. But what can it pull, and how well does it run?

Placed this on the layout in a staging yard, coupled on to a cut of about fifteen autorack vehicle carriers, and started to pull. The last car got out of the yard track as the drivers started to spin wildly. Most of the train was now on a 1.5 to 2% grade. Well, this isn’t going to work. Shoved the cars back into the track, and tried a shorter train of seven cars. Much better. It actually made a couple of loops around the layout over a couple of hundred feet of track with this train. Davin’s trackwork was good for even this loco; the longer fixed wheelbase of steam can demonstrate to modern diesel modellers even newer ways to put wheels on the ground. BLI must have come to the same conclusion that I did. This loco needs some help if it’s to pull better on typical model layouts. BLI’s workaround was to make its later steam loco builds with traction tires on some of the drivers. Not sure if I’m a fan of this. There are a few other solutions that I’ll describe later.

I’d also brought an Atlas S-2.

Atlas S-2 idling in Temple East yard. The frame and drive is Atlas’ China-produced recent production, part of an Erie Lackawanna S-2. The cab and body are from a probably forty-year old Atlas yellow box Roco-made loco that I painted and detailed up for the Midland. Some fitting and fettling still to be made, and glasing added. Weathering would be nice too. These things were often quite filthy from smoke and oil leakage.

Once again, placed this loco on the layout, coupled onto some cars, and found out that seven cars again was the magic number on the 1 and 2% grades of the Slaton sub. I’ve not compared it with the Roco-made Atlas loco’s that I have on hand, but one of them is due for a tug-of-war with this to determine which has better pulling power.

Conclusions. 1) Our group always has a fun time. 2) Some weight on either of these loco’s will materially improve their pulling power on grades. The interesting part is how to add it. There are few places to hide it on the S-2, but the Mikado has a few places to hide more weight. Articulating the tender to the frame of the loco is another trick that was used by a UK club to improve pulling power. But the added weight on the rear needs to be balanced out by weight at the smokebox end. If there was a way of equalising the drivers and lead/trailing trucks to spread loco weight more evenly, tractive effort MAY improve. But the winner will be to keep grades as light as possible on the layout. 3) Many production RTR loco’s don’t have enough weight to produce decent tractive effort. Why running model diesels in MU is so popular on layouts. Or I dig out a few of those Model Power FA/Sharknose drives from the 1970’s, installing DCC and putting them under Proto shells. Those things are excellent pullers, with a huge can motor and a smooth drive. 4) It’s very practical to cut off gladhands on Kadee couplers, relaying on skewers twisted between coupler knuckles from above to uncouple cars. I’ll be removing gladhands as I place rolling stock on the layout in future.

Who is Uncle John? You may have heard or read of Uncle Sam. The Union Pacific Railroad is to this day known as “Uncle Pete”. The Santa Fe Railroad was assigned the moniker “Uncle John Santa Fe” many years ago.

To Davin, Jordan, and everyone in our group, I look forward to our next operating session. With thanks as always for your hosting and arranging this, gentlemen!

Retirement means more modelling time.

Lindsay locomotive engineer Algar’s last trip in 1959 Courtesy Wayne Lamb.

Although this blog is about modelling a railway line between Lindsay and Belleville, Ontario, I’ve paid the bills by working as a brakeman, conductor and locomotive engineer with Canadian National Railways for 35 years. Starting as a new brakeman in Hamilton, Ontario in July, 1987, I am making my last run from Sarnia to CN’s Macmillan Yard north of Toronto on this Saturday, 17 September, 2022, to return on Sunday.

I’ve learnt a lot about the railway over the years and been compensated reasonably well for it. Now it’s time to get back into some serious modelling. I hope to have more to write about soon. There’s model railway to build, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

Track in Santiago Yard

Three yard tracks ready for trains, but each is a bit different from the others. Green tags are reference points for locating cosmetic joint bars.

Santiago Yard was laid down by the Grand Trunk in the early 1900’s, and taken up by CN in the fall of 1964. As I was four years old at the time, I hadn’t the opportunity to get any photos. And the yard has few photos published of it, if any. I had to work from some conjecture to build the yard in a plausible fashion.

What I did was plan and build the yard with some knowledge of GTR/CN practice. A CN 1948 property plan gives some basic information, such as distance between track centres. The tracks were closer together than modern specifications. In the days of small freight cars, and trains moved in yards by men giving hand signals from a perch on the running boards of cars, this was not a major impediment.

The three yard tracks known as No 1, 2, and 3 Siding were spaced 12′-9″ apart. Regulations taking effect two decades after this yard was laid required that new yard tracks be spaced 13′-6″ apart, but this of course did not apply to existing yards, “grandfathering” Santiago Yard’s track spacing.

Rail laid in the yard originally would have been GTR standard 56# rail in 33′ lengths, same as on the main track. Tie spacing for yard tracks in a yard like this was usually 16 untreated cedar ties to a 33′ length of rail. Rail joints often spanned two ties, so the track builders often tried to get the ties under the rail joints close enough together to support both ends of a rail joint.

The use of heavier cars and locomotives made possible by better train airbrakes of the Westinghouse “K” and “AB” brake systems resulted in wheel loads that broke 56# rails under cars and locomotives; heavier rail was needed. Cedar ties were unsuited to the heavier axle loads made possible by better braking systems. So just about any track seeing regular use received upgrades, often using secondhand “previously worn” aka “PW” 80# and 85# rail 33′ long from main track which itself had been upgraded to 100# or heavier rail in 33′ or 39′ lengths. Creosoted ties replaced cedar. I chose to model this in my 1956 rendering of Santiago Yard.

No 1 Siding is Peco Code 60 rail to represent 85# Algoma rail. No 2 and No 3 Sidings are Micro Engineering Code 55 rail to represent CN or ARA/AAR standard Dominion Iron and Steel 80# rail. Both were very commonly used in Canada.

Ties in place for yard tracks, ready for ballasting and rail laying. The roadbed is stained grey to make it more difficult to discern areas of missing cinder ballast, should I miss a spot or two.

No 1 and 2 Sidings were laid entirely with wood ties, the rail to be spiked to them. No 3 siding uses a PC board tie every fifth tie, the rail being soldered to the ties.

The Code 60 rail for No 1 Siding was cut from the supplied Peco 24″ lengths to represent five 33′ lengths of rail; I plan to install cosmetic joint bars in time. I wound up with pieces of rail about an inch or so long as leftovers. Likewise the Code 55 rail for No 2 and No 3 Sidings were cut to a length representing seven 33′ rail lengths. These were joined with the appropriate rail joiners, soldered together to suit the rail length needed between turnouts on each yard track, then laid down. Rail spiked in place used mostly Micro Engineering “Micro” spikes; I found some difficulty driving these with a pair of needlenose pliers at first, but eventually developed a feel for spike driving that resulted in maybe bending one out of six or so as I tried to drive them.

Sighting down the rail is what I feel the best way to lay rail (or flextrack) straight. Spike halfway down one rail first. Then spike again halfway between the centred set of spikes and half of that, and so on…. I had spiked about every fifth tie when spiking was finished. Complete full spiking on one rail before laying the other. If rail is not laid straight, there’s only so many excuses about bad track that you can offer. Afterwards you’ll just hate it every time that you look at it. Do it right the first time, and enjoy.

If you’ve used wood roadbed and need to straighten spiked rail, place the blade of a flat screwdriver against the side of the spike in the direction that you want to move the rail. A small–SMALL–hammer directed against the end of the screwdriver handle will move the rail slightly. This works well on wood roadbed. If you’re using Homasote, Tentex, or Sundeala board, good luck. These soft paper-based materials probably won’t like your doing this, and your trying to correct rail straightness in this fashion will surely damage the roadbed. The problems probably will return in time. I had this problem with a layout built decades ago where I used Homasote roadbed. And it’s one of many reasons why I prefer wood roadbed.

With one rail fully spiked down and straight, it’s a simple matter to gauge with your preferred track gauge off the spiked rail, again starting at the centre of the length of the second rail as you did the first.

Soldering Micro-Engineering Code 55 rail in place on PC board ties for No 3 Siding. No 1 and 2 Sidings are completed.

No 3 Siding used rail soldered to PC board ties for stability. I can be a bit clumsy, and I don’t want my wayward elbow or hand to remove rails from the ties if I were to spike them instead of soldering them.

When I laid the wood ties for this track, I left a tie out of the tie space in my tie jig every fifth tie. The wood ties were laid down per usual on a drawn tie-end line, then the PC board ties laid in place on the roadbed in the missing tie spaces. After ballasting, I cleaned the PC board tie tops using a sanding stick. A small dab of rosin flux paste was applied using a small Microbrush. A hot 35 watt iron transferred a small dab of standard 60/40 electronics solder to tie tops in the area that the rail is to be laid. If there’s too much solder on one tie, it’s easy to pick up some of the excess using the iron and transfer it to another tie top not yet tinned.

The rail base is cleaned of blackening by drawing the rail over a sheet of 400-grit wet or dry sandpaper. Once the base is as clean as I can make it, I place a small dab of rosin core paste on each solder-tinned patch on the ties. The rail is immediately placed on the ties, held down with an aluminum tool (a rod with a slot cut in the end of it), and soldered to the tie tops as shown in the above photo. To straighten the rail, I heat the rail with the soldering iron and push it in the direction needed using the aluminum tool. Again, the second rail is laid and gauged true after the first rail has been laid straight. I seldom have had to add solder to make a solid joint, and this method is very economical with solder. It looks good, too.

The PC board ties were cleaned of rosin flux using a small No 1 paint brush and a small bit of lacquer thinner to remove flux residue. The ties were then painted to suit the colour of the adjoining ties; some ties I took the easy way out and painted a near black to represent new crossties. I still have to add the cosmetic joint bars and paint the rail, but…

Three yard tracks are in place, and it’s time for a fun photoshoot.

The end result of my work? I’m very pleased with it.

Modelling creosoted timber

Experiments in wood colouring to simulate creosoted timber. Is there a one-shot process? Here I’ve tried using several different art inks and wood stains on three different types of wood. Softwood from Mt Albert Scale Lumber, hardwood dowel, and bamboo skewers.

I’ve had the good fortune to study the prototype railway for decades. I don’t model what others model, starting with the rail line of my choice, and have developed modelling techniques over the years on my own. I try to model what I see, not what others do.

True replication of tie and treated timber colour is an issue which has bedevilled me for decades. I sought out various ways to replicate this since the 1970’s. My very first layout had a little bit of handlaid track, using balsa ties, coloured with redwood stain. I had little money for the hobby, and Dad had this can of stain hanging around for some reason. I knew that this did not replicate creosoted ties, but hey, it looked better than the black ties of the Tri-Ang track elsewhere on the layout! (And I cut an open Dutch door in a Tri-Ang OO/HO CP Rail “Park” dome car that I had–even in 1973, I wanted to model the prototype.)

A few years later, instructions in a Juneco wood bridge kit cited the “Jack Work” method of staining wood for modellers. Simply put, one part black leather dye, and thirty parts rubbing alcohol. This gives a nice greyed wood finish, and I was quite pleased with the effect. I still use this for wood model structure and rolling stock parts before assembly, and keep some “weathered” stripwood of various sizes on hand, which already are treated using this technique.

Note the colour of these ties in track on the CN Hagersville Subdivision near Onondaga, Ontario. Grey, yes, but there’s a lot of brown in these ties, too. When I look at bridge timber, it has similar colouration. Just staining ties grey is not good enough for me.

I tried different methods to impart some brown AND grey colour into “creosoted” timber for my modelling.

Using coloured inks and stains to replicated creosoted timber. Three types of wood are used–hardwood dowel, Mt Albert Scale Lumber stripwood, and bamboo skewers.

A few trips to hardware and woodworking stores supplied me with various Minwax stains. A trip to Curry’s Artist Materials got me some dyes to try out. Above are the results of my applying these various stains and dyes to samples of different types of wood.

The dyes have issues of their own; some are water-soluble. This can cause issues with dye running later on when using water-based glues, etc for scenery use. Alcohol-based dyes and oil-based stains win the day for potential stability. And the colours, while some are quite good, appear still monochromatic to me.

Then it occurred to me that creosoted timber has at least two colours in it; the base wood colour AND the black coal tar creosote almost overlaid over the wood colour.

But how to replicate this?

Some authors have opined that one can stain wood with the Jack Work method leather dye and alcohol, using black and brown dyes. I tried it. It doesn’t work very well, in my opinion. Why? The alcohol in the black or red “stain” washes out some of the previous colour, resulting in a wishy-washy “sort of” brown with grey tones. It’s also flat, while much creosoted timber that I’ve seen has often shiny spots to it.

I first stain the wood using a mix of these two Hunterline wood dyes. I currently prefer about 2/3 Dark Brown and 1/3 Burnt Umber; the Burnt Umber tends to be a bit reddish.

What works for me is to stain the wood a brownish colour first. I let it dry well, and then dip or brush onto the wood thinned Minwax wood stain. This is a solvent-based product, so does not affect the wood colour previously imparted by the alcohol-based Hunterline dye.

Sample wood piling using my two-part method. From the left is softwood stripwood, then hardwood dowel, softwood, and hardwood again. It appears that further Minwax stain thinning will be needed for the softwood strips; as they take especially the stain quite well.

A quick result of some experimentation. I thinned Minwax “Jacobean” wood stain about 50/50 with turpentine. You can use Varsol if you like. Turpentine is not the cheapest solvent on the market, but when my wife doesn’t mind the scent of stripwood drying after staining, that’s worth something. Using Minwax stain straight out of the can will result in both wood that is too dark, and glossy–certainly not what real creosoted timber looks like.

The hardwood dowel looks good, with some more dilution required for the softwood strips as the colour is a bit on the dark side. But the hardwood has that nice mix of black and brown that I’ve seen on real bridge timbers. You’d be correct in inferring that I am going to build a wood trestle or two in future.

Earlier experiments in wood staining using Minwax stain; the ties at the bottom of the photo were laid in Santiago Yard.

But the primary driver of coming up with this technique is a desire to build the next part of the layout, connecting Lindsay’s Durham Street yard with Santiago Yard. It involves the “Black Iron Bridge” over the Scugog River, Trent Canal and the CPR line to Lindsay and Bobcaygeon. So far, I’ve cut and stained 162 scale 10″ x 12″ 13′ long bridge ties to get ready for the part of this project.

Looking north along the CPR and the Scugog River to Lindsay’s “Black Iron Bridge” on the CN Campbellford Subdivision, 1930’s. Durham St yard and Lindsay station are to the left, Santiago Yard is to the right. Library and Archives Canada, Mattingly Collection.

Those ties? Well, I DO like how they turned out!! The random length is correct; these were often of varying lengths, the only prototype requirement being that they be at least 13′ long and 10″ x 12″ in cross-section.

Bridge ties waiting for a bridge to put them on. I’m still thinking of adding some more brown colour to them.

Derail diversion

It’s been a year since I’ve written anything about my layout, so it’s more than time to continue.

Santiago Yard had a downgrade from the west end of the yard to the Scugog River “Black iron” bridge. I was told by a local in Lindsay of it being protected by derails in the yard tracks so that cars would be derailed away from the main track–he’d seen these derails do their job in the late 1950’s.

So I needed a set of derails at the west end of Santiago Yard for my 1956 layout.

CN 1938 Standard Instructions for Applying Derails

GLX Scale Models ( makes a working derail in HO scale; his part 3D-DUR-10 consists of 3D printed ties incorporating a derail base, a length of brass wire for a hinge, and two derail blocks, one for each direction. The modeller uses the block appropriate to the direction that the car is to be derailed to.

The GLX model is similar to the commercial Hayes derail used by railroads all across North America. The 3D prints are an unpainted white plastic; I used a weathered black for the ties, a rust colour for the derail base, and yellow paint for the tops of the derail blocks.

GLX Scale Models’ 3D printed derails assembled and placed in track. These were carefully fitted to the site so that the block moves freely.

It was necessary to sand down the 3D printed ties a little to place the tie tops at the same height as the adjoining ties. I found that standard NMRA RP-25 wheel flanges hit the inside of the derail base, as well as pilots on locomotives hitting the derail block when in the non-derailing position. Some trimming was needed to correct these issues, especially since these are used with Code 70 and Code 60 rail rather than more commonly-used Code 83 and 100 rail. When the derail blocks moved without binding, I epoxied the ties of these devices in place. This was followed by ballasting.

Derail in place on lead track to No 2 and 3 Sidings. The derail on the top of this photo is on No 1 Siding.
The derail has been tested, and works well!

More to come!