The Val Ease Central Railroad ©

Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos © Copyright Kalmbach Publishing - Model Railroader Magazine)

The Val Ease Central Railroad, a layout built to share by Jeffrey MacHan

Once upon a time...

...I was a lone wolf modeler, but not by choice mind you. For some reason, studies and career had prevented me from settling down in one place long enough to become part of the local model railroading community. This did not discourage me from laboring on an elaborate home layout that I attempted to take along whenever it was time to move to greener pastures. Unfortunately with each dismantling and reassembly of the layout it seemed to take more and more time to repair the damage and reach the point where I had left off. This process of taking two steps forward and one step backward made for slow progress on the layout. Nevertheless, after a decade of effort my creation was ready to show to the world as a home layout visit at a regional train meet. I felt like an artist at his first public show. However, the turnout was far below expectations and I felt unfulfilled. I wanted to share my passion for model railroading but the community would not come to me. Time to move on to plan B...

Takin' the rails on the road

Model railroading is not only the World's Greatest Hobby, it is a top notch stress reliever! At least it is for me. Planning and building a model railroad has always had a calming effect. In 1992, the frequency of business travel was starting to reach the point where I was no longer making progress on the home layout. Rather than take along a kit or other project to work on while far from home, I went one step further. I decided to think big, er small, no BIG!

My wife would wish me a pleasant trip thinking that the large black 20" by 30" hard side suitcase I was carrying was full of suits, shirts and underwear. The suitcase actually contained my prescription for executive stress relief during business travel. The ingredients were one Z scale starter set, one MRC 1300 transistorized throttle, one set of hobby tools, one power bar, a soldering iron, various structure kits, a 3 foot and 2 foot sheet of blue styrofoam insulation, white glue, rubber cement, ballast, foliage and ground cover materials, acrylic paints and brushes, a pocket multi-meter, a 10 foot long RS232 cable, a frequent buyer card at Radio Shack for electronic parts, wire and gadgets along with a large helping of imagination and no fear!

Since this project was never intended as a "serious" model railroad, I threw convention to the wind and had fun thinking "outside of the model railroading box". Little did I know that only four months after putting pencil to paper scribbling background ideas and drafting the future track plan, model railroading would take on an entirely new meaning to me.

A Star is born?

My little Z scale experiment took on a much greater role than simple stress relief following a stop at a club train show in Trois-Rivières, Québec in September 1993. After visiting the displays I asked the show manager permission to set up my suitcase on a free table. Fifteen minutes later the layout was up and running and surrounded by a crowd of admirers. The unscripted introduction of the Val Ease Central was a success...and a complete surprise to my wife who loved it to boot! With her blessing I began looking for other opportunities to show the layout, especially to the general public rather than model railroaders who tended to disdain anything with a lid. In November 1993 I made a trip to Montréal for the Sun Youth Charities Fall Train Show. Although I had been assigned a dreary spot at the end of a dark hallway on the third floor of the venue for the show, a rundown former school, word of mouth quickly brought large numbers of visitors up the 3 flights of stairs to see the "man with the suitcase". I was tickled pink when a television crew from a local station set up to film the layout and to ask me a few questions. Later that evening I was stunned to see myself and the VEC on a short segment on the National News bulletin. The next day, all day, crowds were 5 deep around the layout and I was hooked on train shows.

I was having a great time sharing my little layout and soon I became a regular on the local train show circuit, taking part in club events and charity exhibits in towns and cities across Québec. Curiously I had found fulfillment and comradeship in the company of strangers.

Starting to wander further afield, in the winter of 1995 my wife and I braved the North Eastern snows to exhibit at a Greenberg Show in Troy, New York. Much to my surprise, I found myself sandwiched between a Model Railroader HO project layout and the world famous N scale "Clinchfield" layout. It was a thrill to be in the same hall with these impressive portable layouts as well as the many modules provided by local clubs in O, HO and N scales. At the close of the event, the show manager handed me a check and a ribbon for 1st prize! There had to be some mistake. How could my modest creation beat out such great layouts? I learned that the prize was awarded on the basis of a popular vote by the visiting public. Cool! Layout competitions would subsequently add a rich dimension to my participation in major train shows.

This first experience at an American train show provided some key lessons. In order to capture the attention of visitors, it was readily apparent that I had to choose a more recognizable (i.e. US) road name and to develop a strong "branding" for the layout. I eventually settled on Union Pacific which was my personal favorite and seemed to satisfy just about everyone. As for the identity issue, I began the never-ending development of the Val Ease Central Railroad theme.

By far the most gratifying aspect of my train show experience was the time spent talking with kids and adults of all walks of life, cultures and nationalities about the interest of model railroading and the challenges of Z scale. The layout became a catalyst for many enriching exchanges. I would often relinquish the controls to small hands belonging to excited kids who had never run an electric train before. Because my layout was set up on an ordinary 30" high utility table with no crowd barrier, small children and handicapped adults could get right up to the edge of the layout. Being able to see the delight in the faces of these fans more than made up for the rare accidental collision between trains and fingers.

The discussions I had with people returning to see the VEC at shows gave me ideas for improvements and additions to the layout. Soon I began work on a second suitcase and the urban industrial Val Ease East joined Val Ease West, the more pastoral themed original layout. Although the 2 cases were conceived as stand alone layouts, the public soon made it clear that it would be much more interesting if they were connected together. I accepted the challenge. After 2 months of effort that involved designing and building a bridging section, splicing in 2 turnouts, rewiring the controls, adding a third throttle and devising a foldable backdrop, the merger was completed and trains were running from edge to edge of the railway. Now that the VEC had two municipalities and multiple car switching opportunities within its boundaries, it had suddenly graduated from a layout to a railway and a world of possibilities.

The year of living dangerously!

A telephone call one summer evening put in motion almost 8 months of frenzied work on the railway. The curator of the Québec Museum of Civilization wanted my layout as part of a major exhibition being planned to showcase world miniatures. Called "Zoom sur les miniatures", the show ran from April 1997 to April 1998. The layout had been built to share and that is exactly what the museum wanted for the exhibition. Technicians prepared a timer and sound effects mechanism which would allow the trains to operate for the public. The museum also produced a video in French and English where I explained the attraction of model railroading as a hobby. The video was transferred to videodisk and was integrated into the exhibit to showcase the human artists behind the miniatures on display. P> The exhibition and the Val Ease Central were hits. Over 385,000 visitors made the show one of the most successful exhibits ever produced by the museum. I learned that the layout was in almost continuous operation 7 hours a day, 6 days a week for 12 months. Fortunately, the technicians had been instructed to service the locomotives every week and thanks to Micro-Trains Lines who supplied the four F7s, there were no problems to report.

I realized from this experience that a model railroad could be considered more than a craft but a work of art, a multi-dimensional animated sculpture with light and sound that combined to tell a story. Intuitively the changes I had been gradually making to the sound effects, structures, landscape, trees, details and overall finish of the layout were contributing to create an "experience" that seemed to immediately grab the attention of visitors.

It may be art, but is it good?

If it had been up to me, I would have spent the entire year at the museum but real life stepped in. I had been transferred to Vancouver, British Columbia, and while separated from the VEC, I kept myself busy playing with ideas to build on the layout's success. While exploring the requirements for the NMRA achievement program on the net, I realized that the VEC incorporated all of the elements to qualify for the AP Golden Spike Award. The paperwork completed, I arranged for the judges to visit the VEC in the museum. Although the Golden Spike recognized the minimum required elements for module judging based on a checklist, it did not provide a scorecard to allow me to compare my work with my fellow modelists. I resolved to put the VEC to the test.

Shortly after retrieving the VEC from Québec, I began to participate in regional train shows in the Pacific North West. For the first time ever, I took part in Great American Train Shows where I enjoyed sharing the railroad with thousands of new visitors. The VEC became a regular sight at GATS and NMRA shows within a day's drive from Vancouver, BC.

Enough people had asked me when I was going to add another suitcase to the VEC that I started to design a track plan that I hoped would enhance it's operational qualities. Expanding the layout to 3 suitcases offered the additional benefit of providing the square footage needed to meet the NMRA Scenery Certificate requirements. In the summer of 1999 I unveiled a center module called, curiously enough, "Centre Val Ease". CVE added the industrial infrastructure that justified the very existence of the railway. A mine, a sawmill, a chemical plant and a port contribute to generating traffic over the line. The village of Upper Centre Val Ease came into being. The new trackage included a hidden loop that would serve as a holding block for long distance travel as well as for switching the new Val Ease Port Authority. Thinking of someday completing the coding on a car forwarding program and a switch list generator, I incorporated a digital 8 to 1 fast clock in the CVE control box. It looks great and works too!

The complete three suitcase VECRR still fit inside the family car and still sat comfortably on an 8 foot banquet table at train shows. Set up time had stretched to 45 minutes since I followed a strict check list in order to assure dependable running of 3 trains. Packing up the layout usually took anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes depending on the number of visitors who dropped by after closing to chat. The Val Ease "transportation" system included an ingenious collapsible dolly with a hinged set of weight-bearing wheels that could safely carry all three suitcases, the tool box, 100 feet of coiled electrical cord and the train show exhibitor's best friend, a large roll of 3" duct tape. Just in case of emergency, we packed two folding chairs with padded seats to provide a "cushy bottom" and a well stocked cooler to limit absences from the display area.

Although the public often showed their appreciation for the layout with popular vote prizes, I was not so fortunate in my first judging at a regional NMRA meet. I came face to face with the harsh reality of high level judging when I came up 2.5 points short for the AP Scenery Certificate. Swallowing my pride, I carefully considered the improvements suggested by the 2 Master Model Railroaders who were part of the jury. Within a few months, I had produced a new larger hand painted backdrop, crafted hundreds of new trees and installed light standards and poles in logical places. The effect of these changes were dramatic both from the point of view of judging but also on the appreciation by the public.

This experience with NMRA judging reinforced one lesson that I had already learned. The Val Ease Central had to continue to evolve and to improve not only in order to satisfy my desire to learn as a modeler but to keep the layout fresh for the public. Very often I would be greeted by visitors who had returned to train shows year after year to see what had changed on the VEC. Some changes were major, some minor but the fans of the VEC seemed to spot them all.

The 2001 train show season was especially successful and rewarding for the Val Ease Central. Capitalizing on the abundance of excellent suggestions from fans and NMRA AP judges, I decided to give the VEC a makeover in preparation for the module competition at the National Train Show in Saint Louis, MO. Having finished 2nd in the Module - Individual category in San Jose, CA in 2000, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I worked on the details and the finish of the layout up until the last second. I even prepared a printed version of the documentation for the judges. My goal was to improve on my score from the previous year and to pick up some new pointers from the Master Model Railroaders on the jury.

The announcement of the winners took my breath away. The VEC had not only greatly improved in terms of points but had won the coveted "Best of Show", the top prize of the competition. This was a proud moment for me as a modelist and as an ambassador for model railroading. For the first time ever, a Z scale layout had taken the top prize at the NTS. It is a moment that I will always treasure.

It is hard to describe the feeling when I present the VEC to train show crowds as the NTS 2001 "Best of Show". Sure, I have worked hard to craft a quality miniature railroad. The real pleasure comes from seeing the thrill and excitement in the faces of the thousands of "passengers" both young and young at heart who have ridden with me on the Val Ease Central over the years.

More to come

I started out by taking the Val Ease Central on the road but in reality the VEC has taken me on an exciting and unfortgettable journey. The journey continues to this day as the railroad built to share puts smiles on the faces of model train lovers both at home and abroad.

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