“A picture is worth a thousand words…”

blog1968scenic10 east of wpg aug 22

“East of Winnipeg, 1968.” Photo by L.C.Gagnon, courtesy of Eric Gagnon.

This blurry image taken from the last car of CN’s Super Continental offers up a lot of information for the steam-era modeller.  Even in 1968, not much had changed here from a decade or two earlier.  Let’s look at this photo with an eye to modelling the right-of-way.

The perfectly levelled track laid with 39′ long jointed CN Sydney 100-pound rail is a testament to the hard work of the sectionmen.  These men used a long trowel to place a thin layer of ballast under the ties beneath every rail joint, which was then tamped into place using chisel-pointed tamping or “idiot” bars. CN’s practice on a line such as this had a section crew of two or three sectionmen and a foreman for every six to ten miles of track. They got to and from their daily labours using a gasoline-powered, two-stroke, single cylinder engined motorcar running on a train lineup obtained from the train order operator or train dispatcher via a trackside or sectionhouse telephone.  Behind their motorcar would be towed a lorry or trailer to carry rail and/or ties for changeout, or a small amount of ballast inside a dumping platform.

Lengths of rail for spot renewal were kept at each milepost on racks for immediate changeout when defects were found by the Sperry car or the sectionmen.

As well as the usual right-of-way Page wire fence alongside the track delineating the railway’s property line, return fences enclose the right-of-way on each side of the road crossing, running parallel to the road. They run from right-of-way fence to the right-of-way fence on the other side of the track, and cattle guards originally were run from the fence post nearest the track, across the track to the other fence post.  All visible fence posts are cedar, with the use of steel “T” fence posts not yet spread to this part of CN.  CN received permission from the Board of Transport Commissioners to stop maintaining cattle guards along many of its lines in the 1930’s, but in 1968 these return fences still stand to support them. Cedar fence posts take a while to rot out.

A gravelled road crosses the line at a planked crossing built to CN standard plans, not the concrete, asphalt, or rubber crossings in use today. As with most public crossings in Canada, “protection” consists of a simple pair of boards marked “RAILWAY CROSSING” bolted to a painted wood post.  The only concession to modernity is that the “signboards” are now aluminum extrusions, not the white-painted wood boards of a few years earlier.  The posts are obviously a longer version of the fence posts, just logs stripped of their bark and painted white.  The bottom part of the post has been dipped in tar to protect it from water damage over time causing rot–you can just see the black tarred part of the post above the ground.

Not visible but necessary are culverts under the road on both sides of the track connecting the ditches along the track. These could be wood, concrete, or more recently, corrugated galvanised steel pipe.

The ballast is pit-run gravel, not crushed rock.  CN and CP did not use much crushed rock, CP going so far as to indicate in its public timetables where it used crushed rock ballast on a few hundred miles of its lines–out of thousands of miles of railway line along the CPR.  Pit-run, or run of pit, gravel is similar to today’s No. 2 gravel used by landscapers and contractors for laying interlocking pavers and used as an aggregate in concrete.  Pit run gravel is a bit dusty and of varying size, but if washed at the quarry before shipping was considered the equal of crushed rock for use in track by the railways.  This ballast was usually buff-coloured, not the grey of crushed granite. It’s also finer than most commercially available ballast offered in HO scale.

Even from the back of the Super Continental at speed, there is evidence of spot tie renewal.  Notice the newer ties inserted along the track.  So many new ties have been installed that the track looks almost greasy from the combined effect of the speed of the train and the slowness of the camera shutter.  Ties are eight feet long, not the 8′-6″ or 9′ long ties used today.  With a maximum rail weight of 263,000 pounds per car in 1968 rather than the 286,000-pound maximum of rail cars in 2016, CN could and did use shorter ties in track.  And the section was still changing these by hand!  The use of mechanised “production” gangs to renew ties and rail was just starting at CN.

The roadbed profile is much less pronounced than the vertical scenery found on some layouts.  Ballast has been changed out over the years, and the old stuff ploughed off to the side of the track.  This had the effect of widening the subroadbed along the track.  Grass grows along the embankment, stabilising the roadbed against erosion.

The pole line along the right of the photo has three crossarms, indicating to me that it carried more than railway telephone and Morse code lines.  Other wires strung on the insulators would have carried discrete automatic signal circuit wires such as the common, DG and HG wires for each signalled block.  Wires for crossing protection devices such as flashing lights and wig-wags were strung on these crossarms.  Radio networks including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation used CN’s pole line.  Commercial CN Telegraphs lines were strung on the crossarms too.  This pole line design was a CN standard and can be modelled in HO scale easily using Rapido Trains’ ready-strung pole line.  Jason Shron even got the CN insulator arrangement correct on Rapido’s model!

The pole nearest the camera is braced by two guy wires to prevent its falling over.  Even though the track is level, notice how the pole line undulates to follow the surface of the surrounding topography.  With the use of hi-rail trucks still in the future, the signal maintainers get around also via motorcar on line-ups from the dispatcher. On the car will be their linemen’s spurs and belt for use in climbing poles to get at the wires, as well as wire and signal supplies. Motorcars, cabooses and baggage cars carry battery-powered drop phones with a sectional pole to allow the phone to be connected to the dispatcher’s phone wires in emergency, the location of dispatchers’ wires on each pole line being indicated by a diagram in the employee timetable.

To the left of the track beyond the crossing is a flanger warning sign.  This tells the operator of the flanger to raise the blade with which it ploughs snow from between the rail rails to raise the blade before it strikes the crossing planks.

A challenge is offered to us to model this scene properly on our layouts.  A scene which was so common across Canada.

With thanks to Eric Gagnon for the use of his father’s photo in this post.

“So over the mountains and over the plains
Into the muskeg and into the rain
Up the St. Lawrence all the way to Gaspe…”

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy.





Here’s what we want to model.

IMG_1991And here’s what is the most popular track in the model rail hobby.

Track is likely the last facet of the model rail hobby to attain any sort of realism.  Part of the reason for that is the use of oversize rail when scale-sized alternatives are now to be found. Every time that you deviate from the prototype, you take away a bit of the flavour of it.  Some deviation is necessary–I’ve yet to see practical live steam or working diesel-electric locomotives in ratio 1=87.1 HO scale. (Yes, I know about Hornby’s OO scale live steam locomotives, but I digress.)  As for the size of the rail that we install in track on our layouts?  This is a slam dunk to model accurately or close thereto with what’s available these days.

Lindsay yard track detail

Look at how light this rail appears in this Lindsay yard photo–which I am using yet again.  I reserve the right to milk it some more….  The rail nearest us is standard 80-pound-per-yard rail; the three tracks further from us, 100 pound rail.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 2.53.44 PM

Bram Bailey and I compiled this chart years ago for the NMRA.  Not the whole chart is presented here, but what I need to explain my choices of rail for the Midland Railway is presented in this screenshot.

Modelling in HO scale, we see that based on prototype rail height of 5.750″ to 6.156″ height , 100-pound rail scales out to between 66 and 71 thousands of a inch high.  To those not familiar with model rail expressions, “code” is the rail height in thousands of an inch high.  Code 70 rail works out best for modelling 100-pound rail in HO scale.  Especially the American Railway Engineering Association (AREA) 100-pound standard rail used on the Campbellford and Midland Subdivisions scaling out to 69 thou high in HO.  A few manufacturers make or have made Code 70 rail, so it’s just a matter of choice, with Micro Engineering rail in both weathered and bare nickle silver being easily available to me. the latter is useful for soldering turnout parts together, while the weathered stuff makes it easier to model rusted and oily rails.

CN/GTR standard 80-pound rail is 5 inches high, corresponding to 57 thou high.  Code 55 rail is not perfect for HO, but as close as I can without rolling my own. What’s more, it’s also useful for modelling 56-pound Grand Trunk rail and 70-pound rail, both of which found use on parts of the line that I will model.  Many yard tracks and branchlines that I can model near to Lindsay were laid with 80-pound rail.  Micro Engineering Code 55 rail in weathered and non-weathered varieties again work for HO scale.

Also present on parts of the line that I will model are CPR Standard 85-pound and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 85-pound rail.  This scales out to 60 and 61 thou high respectively.  What to do here?  Micro Engineering doesn’t make this rail.


Clapham Junction UK, February 2016.  Note the lightweight third rail elevated above the running rails. 

In 1965, Roger Miller sang in “England Swings”—

“Now, if you huff and puff and you fina’lly save enough
Money up to take your family on a trip across the sea
Take a tip before you take your trip; let me tell you where to go
Go to Engeland, Oh…”

My daughter was on university exchange in Spain.  So it was that my wife and I wound up in the UK in early February to meet her, travelling on part of Network Rail’s extensive third-rail electrified system south of London.  That third rail is of a lighter weight than the running rails.   Most UK outline modellers use Code 100 rail (just like US outline modellers) for the running rails.  To model that third rail, an ad in UK magazine Model Rail revealed that Peco offers Code 60 flat bottom rail in 24 inch lengths, product number IL-1.


A visit to my local hobby shop revealed that yes, they could order some of this rail up for me.  A few weeks later, from “across the sea” arrived six packages of Peco code 60 rail.


As for visiting the UK and taking in some of the rail system, I recommend that you find an excuse or make one up.  It was an enjoyable way to spend a few days.  Not being a Roger Miller fan, I much prefer Electric Light Orchestra’s take on trains to London.  I even snared a cab ride on the Eurostar for the last forty minutes into Paris.

“Let the music play on down the line tonight”—