Scene Planning - Chūō Along the Kanda

My next layout is still very much in the back-of-a-napkin planning stage. I’m thinking about what goes into it more than the details of how I realize that. I have several things I know I want: multi-track urban commuter railroading, “layered” scenery with water, roads and railroads crossing each other at different levels, and prototype scenes from the core of Tōkyō. But just exactly what that means hasn’t fully come together yet.

One thing I do know that I want is a riverside scene or scenes along the Kanda river. This is a small river, running east to west and ending at its intersection with the much larger Sumida river in the center of the city. Near the eastern end it passes just south of the famous Akihabara district. A four-track mainline runs west along its south bank for a mile or so (about 2 km) before turning southwest along a different waterway and ultimately disappearing into a tunnel and turning north into Shinjuku station.

The railway along these two waterways lies in the center of Tōkyō, between the eastern and wester sides of the Yamanote line loop, which passes through Tōkyō station on the eastern end and Shinjuku station on the western end, and it serves as a shortcut across the middle of that line. Originally this was part of the Kōbu Railway, built in the late 1890’s, although portions were completed shortly after nationalization of the railways occurred in 1906. This can be seen in the largely wooden construction of the stations, with complex riveted girderwork in places.

Detailing A Viaduct Station I

After a fairly long break, I’m working on a model railroad again. I’ve returned to work on the One Point Five Meter Line, my compact (1’ x 5’, or 30 cm x 150 cm) light-rail line layout for displaying my structure models. See that page for the track plan. See my Display Layout link for other musings about this layout. See my Urban Station page for a detailed construction log for this building.

The first order of business is to get the track down, but to do that, I need to install the station at the “urban” end of the layout that supports the track on a Viaduct. This is a Kato Viaduct Station Entrance building with one of the associated “shops” buildings, supporting two lengths of Viaduct Platform 248 mm (9 3/4”) each in length. While you can buy a large set for this (23-125) it has parts I don’t need, so instead I’m using two smaller sets (set 23-230, the Viaduct Station Entrance, and set 23-231, the Viaduct Station Shops).

These are pre-assembled structures, but I want to detail them, which includes adding lighting, interior details Kato omitted, and paint. I also need to modify them so I can run wires through them up to the track, as well as to the underside of the viaduct they support.

More Hilltop Work

Work has progressed. I finally finished getting the backdrop photo attached to the backdrop, and the latter attached to the layout table. This was not without a lot of awkward contortionism to get the darn thing bolted in place. Perhaps I would have been better off disconnecting the whole return loop end from the rest of the layout, so I could turn it and work somewhere other than in a two-inch slot up against a concrete wall. But while that’s possible by design, it’s REALLY hard in practice, and I decided I didn’t need to do it. And in the end I didn’t, although I’m not sure I actually saved any real time.

The backdrop looks pretty good, even in person. It has just the right level of detail, and the sizes are acceptable (perhaps a bit too large, but I don’t think they’ll be too obtrusive). The faded/hazy color and low-resolution of detail looks just right.

Mocking Up the Hilltop

It’s very pink, but with a bit of imagination you can see the forested hill rising behind the houses, which will have a small Shinto shrine tucked in amongst the trees, with a stairway down to street level, a very typically Japanese scene. This mock-up was part of my final refinement of the design for the Hilltop Scene. I’m not quite done, but I’m beginning to accept that I have a sound idea for what I want to do.

Village Construction

The title might be a bit overdone, but I’ve moved from the “thinking about it” stage to the “building mockups” stage. It’s still planing of a sort, but it feels more like construction. I was ready to start cutting styrene a couple of days ago, but now I think I need a little more contemplation and review before I do that.

I’ve also started taking apart the buildings to prep them for painting, although I’ve realized that I need to adjust my positions slightly, which has diverted my attention from that work. I’ve also started working on my detailed design for the roads and intersection, which is partly what’s caused that re-think about posiitoning.

After more research on road sizes, summarized on the Roads and Highways prototype page, and a good deal of thought about the actual size of my roads, summarized on my Cars and Roads modeling page, I started drawing a 1:1 scale graphic of the road in my layered drawing program (Omnigraffle). My hope is to replace some of the layers with photographs of concrete, asphalt, and similar, as well as adding in details like manhole covers, and then print the final version as either a decal or photo that would be layered onto styrene. Using styrene as a backing has one benefit for use of a decal: printers can’t print white, so decals leave that color clear. A decal applied to white-painted styrene will look correct even if it contains white lines. I may use a similar technique to create the sidewalk as a separate item, although I’m also considering just using painted “tile” sheet styrene and applying separate delays for things like manholes and “braille” safety strips at crosswalks. Read More...

Planning the Village II

Eighteen months on from the first post on this topic, and the scenery in my Village area hasn’t really progressed, but I’ve turned my attention back to it, and am close to having a final layout of buildings. I think. From here, things should start to move. The overall design hasn’t changed: still a broad avenue with commercial buildings up the middle, two typically-narrow side streets, with businesses mixed with residences on one side. The exact selection of buildings, and their placement, has evolved though.

To get here, I finally mapped out the ground I had to work with and put that into a drawing program, then I created outlines of the footprints of each of my candidate buildings, and set to work trying different arrangements by dragging the outlines around on a second layer above the drawing. Layered object drawing programs are so useful for exercises like this; I used Omnigraffle on the Mac, but anything with basic shapes and layers should work similarly.

Along the way I finally decided that the Tomix gas station, as much as I liked the model, really wasn’t going to fit. I’d somewhat realized that last year, which is one reason work on that structure had halted last summer. I may reuse parts of it, although I anticipate scratchbuilding most of the new gas station, which will be sized to fit a spare corner. I also had to abandon plans to use one of the more traditional brown wooden residence/business buildings made by Kato, as they just didn’t fit anywhere.

I also decided, based on purusing Google Earth views of the banks of the lower Sumida River, that some of the oddly-shaped corners could be used as small parks with trees, and perhaps recreational equipment for children, as that’s how such gaps are used in the real world.

Model Railroad Photography IIIb - The Camera

Well, that didn’t take long. After my post a couple of weeks ago about the advantages of cameras with smaller sensors, I continued looking at what was available, and quickly discovered that RAW-capable point-and-shoot cameras were much more common now than they had been even two years ago. At the same time, cameras with tilt-and-swivel rear LCDs were rather rare. And then I stumbled across the Samsung EX2F. And what I found was compelling enough to get me to buy one (it helped that they’re on sale at present, significantly marked down perhaps in advance of a new model).

Now Samsung isn’t a name that comes to mind when you think about cameras, or at least not when I do. They’re a big company with a lot of different lines of business, but I think of them (outside of major appliances) as a smartphone company. And many of their point-and-shoot cameras are smartphones-without-the-phone with better lenses.

But the EX2F is something different, although it clearly shares that genealogy. It has a number of features aimed at “enthusiast” photographers, and its performance (in RAW anyway) has been rated very highly by professional photographer reviewers (like this one). Nothing is perfect, particularly in a device that’s as much of a compromise as any small-sensor enthusiast-oriented camera has to be. The camera has both good and bad. I think the good parts outweigh the problems or I wouldn’t have put down close to US$350 for the camera, memory card and accessories.

Model Railroad Photography III - Cameras

Once upon a time, I thought I understood layout photography. Throw a bunch of light, point the camera, and take a picture. I seem to know less now than I did then. And while that’s probably a good sign that I’m learning, I do feel like I’m going backwards.

My current concern is depth of field. Without getting into the technical definition, that’s the extent of the region in a photograph that appears to be acceptably in focus. While it would be nice to have the entire image in focus, typically either the nearest or furthest-away portions will be somewhat out of focus. In the photo above, the wooden ruler close to the camera is out of focus, as is the far end of the red ruler, so my depth of field here is somewhat less than 12” (30 cm). And that’s viewed from a distance as a ~660 pixel-wide image. Seen in larger form (e.g., the 800 pixel versions I post in my photo album), the depth of field should appear even more shallow.

Modeling Subways

I realized that my subway material was scattered over several pages, and I didn’t really have anything that tied them all together. Also, some of the pages were a bit out of date. The main page is the Subway Line page. I’ve updated the outdated material, and here’s a post to describe what I was trying to do, how I went about it, and what I’d do differently next time. I’ll link to other pages in the text below.

A subway isn’t something you find on a lot of model railroads, but then most model railroads are focused on freight operations. Even ordinary railroads back in the steam era had underground stations (New York’s Grand Central Terminal has 44 platforms, all underground). Property costs in modern cities make it even more likely for structures to be built above the tracks, partially or wholly covering the station. Boston’s Back Bay station used to be above ground, largely in a cutting, but today is mostly out of sight below ground except for the entrance building and ventilation stacks.

Despite the high property values in Tōkyō today, most of the stations are surprisingly at or above ground level. In part that’s because the rail lines’ growth came after dense urbanization, so elevated lines were a more practical solution for expanding them. The city does have subways, and most of them use the same gauge track and same voltage power supply as the above-ground commuter lines, so some of these subways provide access to the city center for suburban commuter trains. Several subway lines have underground stations below or near surface line stations, to allow transfers.

I’ve used that as an important aspect of my modeling to capture the “layered” feel of urban railroading. Cities rarely exist on a single level, even ignoring multi-story buildings. There are often below-ground open plazas and hidden shopping arcades, and highways and rail lines exist and cross on multiple levels. Cities aren’t flat, and models of cities shouldn’t be flat either.

Camera Car

I’ve long wanted to take some “engineer’s eye” video of the layout, both because I think it’s more immersive, and because close-up views help to reveal weak areas in the visual design of the layout. At first I considered buying a train with a pre-installed camera (Kato has made one in the past) or buying the wireless camera and installing it myself. I actually ended up buying a camera, but never doing the work to install it, because it was clear that there were a lot of compromises in the system.

Model Railroad Photography II - Basic Postprocessing

In the previous installment I wrote about actually taking the photograph. Today’s post is about what to do next. You can, of course, use the JPEG just as it comes from the camera. But in most instances, that won’t give you the best photograph. What I do varies from image to image, and most require very little work, but “very little” isn’t none. Read More...

Model Railroad Photography I

Most people build layouts to see or run trains, but increasingly we want to share that with people who can’t see the layout in person (or we want to hide the messy bits and show off the good stuff). But taking a photograph of a model railroad layout isn’t as easy as pointing a camera and clicking away. It is, of course, easier with a good camera. But mostly it depends on you understanding what the camera needs to take a good picture, what you can do the take the best picture, and what you can do after the fact to clean it up. Today I’m going to write about the first two parts: preparation and taking the photo. I’ll have a subsequent posting about image processing.


It’s been two years since I last wrote about catenary, the wire above the track, which is a long time considering that my modeling is all about electric trains. In a real electric railroad, catenary is a vital component: without it there would be no power, and trains wouldn’t run. There are some model trains that can run off overhead power. But in Japanese models, the catenary is non-functional, merely a bit of scenic window-dressing. In fact the major manufacturers sell model catenary poles, but no kind of wire to string between them.

Almost Scenery

If you look at the River Crossing scene now, you’ll see grass and shrubs alongside the tracks. Yes, spring has come early to Sumida Crossing, and there’s ground cover on the hillside above the Village area.

This may not seem major to you. After all, ground cover isn’t exactly rocket science. It’s probably one of the easier aspects of model railroading when you come right down to it. But of all the different aspects of model railroading, it’s the one I absolutely hate. Unlike buildings or track, it’s not precise. And since it uses glue, there’s really no second chance. Like painting a picture, if you make a mistake all you can do is paint over it. There’s no “undo” with ground cover. So getting to the point where I’m ready to take that step is a major milestone for me. The River Crossing scene and its scenery is far from done, but this feels like real progress, at least to me.

Hybrid Design and Temporary Scenery

There’s a “right” way to build a model railroad: build some subroadbed structure (often plywood screwed and glued in place, sometimes foam held together with glue), add roadbed (paperboard or cork are typical, a type of foam rubber is also used) held in place with wood glue or similar, attach track (held in place by silicone caulk, or temporary nails), and apply ballast (crushed stone or artificial granular substances) glued in place with diluted white glue. Make sure the track works, protect it with tape, wax paper, and other things, then add scenery of carved foam, plaster cloth or other material, paint it, glue down ground scatter, shrubs and other scenery, and plant buildings in places prepared for them.

This approach produces everything from the basement-filling layouts typical of North America, to the smaller layouts found in Europe, right down to the switching layout-on-a-shelf more typical of the space-constrained builder (common in the U.K., but hardly limited to there), as well as modular layouts that only get set up at club meetings and shows. Smaller layouts often use a box structure for the subroadbed rather than the more material-efficient approaches (like L-girder) used in larger layouts.

It is, effectively, the collective wisdom of decades of western modelers (North American and European in particular), promulgated in books, magazine articles, and today web postings. And it’s not a bad approach; it’s the collective wisdom because it works and has proven itself capable of producing long-lasting and reliable model railroads. Read More...

Tunnel Roofs, Castings and Track

Just a brief update: For the last month or so I’ve been working on the Subway roof that carries the Rapid/Shinkansen tracks along the front of the Riverside Station scene, above the subway tracks at the front of the table. That’s now been “finished” (WS inclines glued where needed, plaster and roadbed applied over that, all painted) and it’s supporting the tracks quite nicely. The decision to use 2mm sheet styrene turned out to be a good one. The track here is a bit hard to visualize (and some of it is missing in the above photo), see the track plan for a diagram.

May 2010 Status - Carving Foam

Time marches on, but it seems to be crawling on the banks of the Sumida. The hillside covering the subway has made little apparent progress over the last month, going from squarish blocks of pink foam to carved, but still pink, sections, which only just received a first coat of primer (and have yet to be glued in place).

Temporary Bridge and Expressway

In trying to plan out the shape of the hillside that separates the large river from the two lengthwise scenes, I started laying out the road that will cross over the hill using white posterboard marked with lanes using black pen. This worked pretty well, and led to the idea of constructing a temporary bridge over the river using gray-faced foam core marked with fine-tipped paint markers I found in a local arts & crafts store. Read More...

February 2010 Status - Upper Level Beginnings

The “village” section of the River Crossing scene has been painted, with cork and basic ground cover (plaster cloth) applied. Much remains to be done, including the stonework of the embankment against the river, before scenery is likely to progress beyond this. But the goal of hiding the pink foam here, and getting the track in place, is done. Read More...

First Scenery

The last couple of weeks have been mainly spent on the initial scenery for the “Village” part of the River Crossing scene. This consisted of carving and gluing foam, making and painting bridge abutments, laying plaster cloth (seen above) and filling in various gaps, applying a stone texture to the face of the sloped sections of embankment, and laying cork where the track goes. Read More...