Port Rowan post-mortem

Trains meet in St. Williams during what would be the final formal operating session on my Port Rowan layout.

Now that I’ve lived without Port Rowan for a couple of months, I feel comfortable writing about the layout from the perspective of what lessons I learned. Port Rowan was satisfying. it was a successful layout. Still, there’s always room for improvement. By identifying what worked – and, equally importantly, what did not – I should be able to build an even more satisfying layout this time around.

Picking the right subject helps

More than anything, I treat a layout as the price of admission to enjoy the company of like-minded modellers. What you model – what what era, what location, what traffic – plays a major role in who you socialize with in this hobby. But still, nothing determines your crowd quite like your prototype and your scale.

Before I modelled Port Rowan, I built a layout in On2 based on the Maine two-foot gauge railroads. While it was enjoyable, it was largely a lonely pursuit. I had a couple of close friends who would join me for work or operating sessions – and a couple of close friends online – but most of the modellers in my community really had no interest in what I was doing.

Just some of the great people I’ve met through modelling in 1:64. Several members of the S Scale Workshop are not present for this photo: we should really do something about that sometime!

The change to Port Rowan in 1:64 converted some casual acquaintances into good friends. It started with the wonderful people who make up the S Scale Workshop. But it also included others who are interested in the Canadian National in the steam era: For most of them, S scale was terra incognito but the CNR gave them an entry point into my hobby. I liked the new people I got to hang out with, and my good friends from my Maine On2 days didn’t mind that I’d switched focus.


The lesson for me going forward is to continue to build something to which others can relate. Maine two-footing was interesting but so far in the weeds that it was not approachable for many – certainly not many who were not already enamoured with narrow gauge railroading.

Port Rowan placed the railway in context

In pursuit of engaging operation, it’s tempting to fill the available space with track from facia to backdrop. I resisted this with Port Rowan: I was modelling a rural area and wanted to show the railway as part of its environment. So, the layout included large patches of “nothing”: meadows, cultivated fields, orchards, forests, and so on.

Meadows are fast and easy space-fillers, and really put a rural railway into context.

It worked. Really well. Combined with the slow speed of branch line railroading, the layout provided a real sense of “going somewhere” and was definitely anchored in a specific time and place. And the track that wasn’t built – the extra spurs for switching – wasn’t missed.


When planning my next layout, I will continue to provide room around the track to give the railway context.

Port Rowan was fun to run…

The last formal operating session on Port Rowan actually took place in November 2019. If we’d known about the coming pandemic, my friends and I would have run more sessions. The layout ran well from the outset, so the things I did to ensure that are things I’ll carry over to the next layout.

Most of those things are technical in nature – like running one or two drop feeders to every piece of rail, standardizing on one manufacturer’s wheel sets and then tuning my track to work with those, and so on.

But I also embraced “the modelling of the job”, which added a lot of value to our sessions. Jobs were run with two-person crews to separate out the responsibilities into engineer and conductor roles. Instead of car-cards, I used scaled down prototype waybills. These were kept in miniature bill boxes at each station, and used by the conductor to write up switch lists. Track switches were hand thrown using garden-scale switch stands for control. I produced an employee time table that provided a mix of prototype atmosphere and operating tips. Locations were well-signed, and included milepost numbers for all significant features. And so on.


I’ll continue to do this on my next layout.

I was the engineer on the last official freight extra as we worked our way west through the Lynn Valley.
Stephen Gardiner checked the bill box at St. Williams as the last official conductor on the layout.

… but operations were also limited

That said, Port Rowan’s limitations made themselves apparent whenever company arrived.

When I designed the layout, I figured I would operate it by myself 90% of the time. Another 9% of the time, I’d have one friend over for an ops session – maybe 2. The reality was very different.

Once I built the layout to a certain point, it was rare that I would operate it solo. If I had time for the hobby, I tended to invest it in building things, rather than running trains. I would use the layout as a giant test track and photo diorama for my latests projects but that was about the extent of my solo operations.

And then when I did have company, it was rare that I would have just one friend over. More likely, I would end up hosting 3-6 friends. When that happened, the layout – designed to support one train at a time operation – just did not have enough jobs for everyone.


The lesson learned is that my next layout should support a wider variety of operations – from solo ops (because occasionally I do want to do that) to more co-ordination between crews. I don’t want a layout that requires a crew to run, but a layout that can accommodate them would be nice. In addition, since I like to spend my hobby time building things, having a layout with some form of automatic operation (whether that’s shuttling back and forth, or continuous running) would be a bonus.

Modelling the end of the line lacked variety

This is related to the limited operations possible on a one-train-per-day branch line terminal. My layout represented the final three miles of a much larger system – running south from Hamilton on Lake Ontario to Port Rowan and Port Dover on Lake Erie. Along the way, the mixed train I modelled would cover more than 60 miles in each direction, across four subdivisions (Grimsby, Hagersville, Cayuga, and Simcoe).

Those 60+ miles took the mixed train past heavy industry, light industry, and typical small town customers like coal dealers and feed mills. The trains on this line served stone quarries and gypsum mines, required helpers to climb the Niagara Escarpment at one point, and crossed paths with other CNR subdivisions and the lines of competitors such as the Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo, the New York Central / Canada Southern, the Wabash, and the electrified Lake Erie & Northern.

There was an incredible variety of trains, equipment, and operations to be encountered on this journey – yet almost all of this variety happened “off stage” on my layout.

Before he passed away in 2012, my friend Rich Chrysler was modelling the line from Hamilton to Port Dover in HO scale. Here are a few photos I took of his layout before it was torn down in 2013, that provide a suggestion of that variety:

The freight shed and team yard in Hamilton was always a busy place. The shed was the sixth-largest on the CNR at the time.
All trains headed south out of Hamilton had to negotiate the street running on Ferguson Avenue to reach the Niagara Escarpment.
Rolling through Rymal, the 2-6-0 in charge of this freight is just about finished with the climb out of the Lake Ontario basin, with aid from a 2-8-2 in helper service. The Mikado will cut out at Glanford and run tender-first back to Hamilton.
The Daily Effort to Port Rowan carried an extra passenger car to Caledonia to pass to a Dunnville Sub passenger train. It also collected its LCL car from the Caledonia freight shed. This boxcar was brought up from Hamilton earlier in the day by the Jarvis Turn.
Leaving Caleondia, trains crossed the Grand River on an impressive bridge.
At Hagersville, the CNR met the Canada Southern, a New York Central subsidiary. The CNR also served large stone quarries here.

At first, I viewed the tight focus of Port Rowan as a good thing: I was new to S scale and wanted to manage my commitment. As I grew more comfortable with the scale, that narrow vision became limiting. I have many piece of equipment – from the diminutive scale test cars to the massive CNR T3 2-10-2 – that have no place on the final few miles of a sleepy branch line.


The lesson here is, now that I’m comfortable working in S scale I can consider a layout that supports a greater variety of equipment and more trains. It’s a fresh challenge and a new opportunity.

I’ll write more about this in a future post…

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and retired amateur shepherd who trained a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

8 thoughts on “Port Rowan post-mortem

  1. Trevor, I have always enjoyed your perspective on Port Rowan and your fine layout. This post mortem is another of your examples of clear minded, well thought out and useful information. Thank you. I can’t wait to see your next post mortem entry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Trevor
    I am sad for the loss of an old friend. The passing of Port Rowan will leave a void. Your story has shown me the essence of branch line modeling.
    I look forward to your new adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

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