Author Archives: Simon

About Simon

Work out what you want, then get on with it.

…and Standards

Engineers talk about tolerances, the degree to which a component can vary from a specification – and also whether that is plus, minus or ±. These two things, the specification and the tolerance, are the very definition of standards. The finer (smaller) the tolerances, the finer the standard and the greater the precision. Simple. But the standard is the standard, and the tolerance is the tolerance, regardless of the degree of precision.

And here, I think, lies the problem. When people hear or see the word “standards” they automatically add the qualification “high”, or even “very high” even if it isn’t there. But let’s be clear, even if you buy things off the shelf, they have been made to a standard: to ensure maximum sales potentials, track will have defined standards for gauge and flangeways, and wheels will have defined back to back and flange profiles. These can be defined in various ways, such as “track gauge equals check gauge plus flangeway” and “back to back equals check gauge minus glance width”, but the point is, by buying off the shelf, a modeller has already implicitly accepted these standards, albeit unknowingly in many cases.

Finescale is about accepting the degree to which perfection is unattainable. Whilst “exact scale” may be used to set an accurate track gauge, etc, the physical world of engineering tolerances means that is not fully achievable. This is liberating, as it points to the need to allow for a degree of imperfection. Finescale is therefore all about setting standards: not just for track and wheels, but about everything: level of detail, contemporaneously correct details, etc. It’s an attitude of mind. This acknowledgement and definition of standards is the definition of how we wish to achieve our aims. And the measure of success is gauged against these standards. And this is where the pitfalls lie and misunderstandings arise.

  • This is an entirely personal and individual choice: what works for me may not work for you.
  • Similarly, not consciously adopting or defining standards is a perfectly feasible alternative: if buying off the shelf works for you, then by all means do so, but please don’t think you have avoided having standards by accepting someone else’s.
  • The fact that I have defined my personal standards does not mean I think I am in any way “better” than anyone else. It’s just my way of doing my hobby. If you resent my active choice of standards, that’s says nothing about me but a lot about you.
  • Working to a tighter degree of tolerance takes more time. I might achieve “less” in terms of quantity, but that’s not what I want.
  • This in no way contradicts the “good enough” concept: it is entirely congruent with it.. I am not building an operationally-focused “basement empire”, so replacing cast details is fine by me: that’s how I enjoy my modelling. If I had the space and desire for a large operations oriented layout, I would be using RTR equipment, modified, repainted and weathered to be sure, but everything would be subordinate to the aim of creating that dream, which has to be balanced against the time I have available.
  • As a corollary to all the above, what works for you in your circumstances probably won’t work for me in mine, so please don’t force your secret of success on me, or tell me that it is the only way to happiness.

Fundamentally I get more from satisfaction than from fun. This takes more time, but is much more enjoyable.

This post, and the last two, was inspired by Mike Cougill’s recent post on inspiration, whose wonderful blog continues to a haven for the sane, rational and thoughtful amongst the hobby.

It’s About Time…

This blog, I freely admit, operates to no known timetable and is a bit like the proverbial bus service: you wait ages for a post and then two turn up at once! I can only blame myself as I did promise (threaten?) another one and at least one person is waiting to see it. (Thank you, René, for pricking my conscience!)

Another word for a hobby is “pastime”, literally a way of passing time. As such, there doesn’t have to be a defined end point, there is no requirement to “finish” anything, just so long as one is passing time in an enjoyable way (otherwise this is not a hobby, merely a chore). I suppose I could stop there, because ultimately it really is as simple as that, but there is a slight paradox as it also isn’t as simple as that!

To elaborate, the simple definition of passing time in an enjoyable manner applies in our case to the whole bundle that makes up railway modelling – however you define that end process, be it creating a layout, operating to a timetable, building individual models, etc. So, to use an example, René Gourley’s 24 year and counting project to model Pembroke in Proto:87 is by any measure a successful way of passing time, the more so in that the project still has many years to go, and will continue to provide opportunities for him to pass time for many years to come with many personal achievements along the way – which is what hobbies do. And at the end of this lies the enjoyment of operating a layout which authentically replicates a real place at a real time: fulfilling that goal is the end target, which is why the definition here is simple.

A less simple aspect is the individual steps along the way, for the way is not a straight line and twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. It also includes uphills and downdales plus more than a few blind alleys. Some of these activities are not, at the time, an enjoyable way of passing time, indeed they may seem like a waste of time! Viewed on their own, it is easy to see such events as a lost hour, evening, week, month even years, but I refuse to see it like that. Everything here is valuable: whilst it is tempting to think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, it really isn’t and blind alleys remind us that this isn’t so. Also, even if we don’t achieve what we thought we might achieve, we will at least have tried out new ideas or practiced new skills and we have an opportunity to review what we did and gain insight into why it didn’t work out. Hopefully we do that. As the song begins, the road is long with many a winding turn. But as the Chinese sage said, even the longest journey begins with but a single step.

Individual steps may turn out to have gone in the wrong direction and need retracing. But they are not a waste of time, providing the journey as a whole is moving forward, then there is progress and the time has been usefully and (mostly) enjoyably, passed.


I have come to realise that S scale presents a difficult conundrum. It can be hard to make progress (even harder to initiate it) when so much personal commitment to the future has to be made. It’s a kind of inertia – once it gets going, I suspect it keeps going. But once one has tried S and found it to one’s liking, it is hard to “go back” to anything else. It’s obviously not for everyone – some like the detailing possibilities of larger scales, others the “train in the landscape” opportunities of N, still others the commercial availability of H0/00 and finer things in 4mm scale – but when it bites, it really does bite. I am talking here about genuine modellers who are interested in creating an authentic scene, not those who just want to play trains. The vision in S has to be long term, and the progress can be very slow. I suppose it’s the difference between fun (immediate, transient, requires regular novelty to sustain, hence basement empires and constantly buying new equipment) and satisfaction (somewhat distant long term, enduring enjoyment of what one has).
I shall be returning to the matter of how long it takes and why that isn’t a problem very soon…

Shortline Inspiration: Update on North Stratford

I have previously mentioned the North Stratford Railroad Corporation, and in a discussion on interchanges on RMWeb, I posted an abbreviated history plus a diagrammatic view of the station.


Although this represents a specific location, there are general principles at play here. Although the interchange track appears to be of limited length, only coping with 6 cars, that figure refers to the unencumbered track, clear of any turnouts. In practice, the CNR can drop off more cars (empty 40′ box cars and some feed in hoppers for Agway at Coleford), pushing them down the tail end of the former MEC trackage, as long as their own power does not go off its own track. Any local traffic for the short spur near the depot needs to be switched by the NSRC.

Similarly, an arriving NSRC train can come in on the main, run round, then push its full loads onto the empties, and pull them clear of the interchange, putting them into the NSRC loop if necessary, before placing its train of full boxcars (and any empty hoppers) onto the interchange road. If necessary, it may need to use the recently acquired train to push the loads clear of the turnout for the CNR to collect, without going onto the track itself (I am sure blind eyes were turned at times!)

The NSRC ran once a week, but on two days. I know that sounds odd, but on a Tuesday, the loaded boxcars were switched away from the plant, and replaced with empties that were waiting. On Wednesday, they took the loads down to North Stratford, coming back with empties which were placed ready for the next week.

In MEC days it was simpler, as the branch train came up the CNR making use of trackage rights.

In any era, this presents interesting operating potential, and with the CNR served by storage loops and the NSRC by a couple of storage roads, it would make for an interesting oval layout in its own right, whether for the prototype roads, era and location or for anything else.


In a round-robin Email between a small group of friends (whom I like to think of as “The Unusual Suspects”) Matt LaChance, not even speaking in his mother tongue, came out with several superb insights, not least of which was this:

I’m still looking for my personal approach to this [for the] Temiscouata project even though I know deep inside all the key ingredients are there. Making a good layout right now would be easy, but making it a special layout with personality, that is something else. I have a blurry vision in my mind, I can almost feel on my neck the slightly chilly wind that sweep the St. John’s River valley, but have yet to translate it on the canvas.

Now, isn’t that a grand, poetic way to view the creation of a Model Railway?

That’s my emphasis, but what a great phrase, “a special layout with personality”.

When you think about it, isn’t that what precisely (and yet indefinably) defines a great layout?