The Val Ease Central Railroad ©
Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos © Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)
Last Spike: The Animated Railroad
Portable, modular and permanent home layouts take on a whole new dimension once
they move beyond tracklaying and we start to add scenery. We have now stepped
into the realm of reflecting the world beyond the rails and wires of our tiny
trains. The world we create may be inspired by real places or be the product
of our imaginations or a fusion of both. With scenery, we are filling in the
blanks with an impressionistic depiction of our life experiences. Scenery adds
colour to our miniature world but add animation, and our layouts come to life.
On a very broad scale, animation can be considered to be any technique of
layout design that gives the impression of human or natural "activity". This
may involve static as well as active scenes. Animated scenes also draw
attention to places that visitors might not explore otherwise. Let's consider
various animation techniques used in Z model railroading and the Val Ease
This is the most basic and obvious means of animation. In fact, as soon as
there is a train running somewhere on the railroad, we have added motion to the
scene. For most modellers and visitors, train movement is an important visual
element. At shows, the VEC always has at least one train running at all
times. Since the VEC is designed for 3 train operation, another train may be
doing switching while the second takes on water or fuel and the third glides
slowly over the rails. This is the scenario with only one operator. With two
operators, it is possible to enjoy switching maneuvers from two control cabs
while one of the three trains runs continuously. Occasionally the switching
crew or crews have to wait to let the "through" train pass.
The key to a pleasing visual scene with train movement is "realistic" speed.
Slower is better, in my opinion. Trains racing around a layout appear toylike
and actually detract from our goal of a life like impression. Fortunately,
recent Z locomotives are made better than ever and others, with mechanical
upgrades, can operate at close to prototypical speeds.
Many modellers like to include movement off-line. I have had the pleasure of
seeing many imaginative techniques used by fellow Z scalers. Rob Allbritton
has a chair lift moving skiers up the mountain on his Swiss Z-Bend Track
layout. Dieter Nolte's Red Rock, Texas layout provides several moving elements
such as rotating wind mill and helicopter blades and a series of realistically
rocking oil pumps. Other layouts have animated circus rides and automatic
crossing gates. Although I have not seen them myself, I have even heard of a
layout with automated roadways with vehicles cruising along them. You can
probably think of many other possibilities.
Unfortunately there is no room on the VEC for the mechanisms for these kinds of
animated scenes (a rotating wind mill would really look good on Val Ease West
behind the barn). However, the VEC makes use of another technique in our
The VEC suggests human activity using lights, smoke, sound and depth of
detail. These visual and auditory clues to activity are presented in a layered
fashion, that is, visitors notice the simulated rotating lighthouse beacon from
a large distance (10 - 20 feet), then as they move closer to within 3 feet,
their attention is drawn to smaller, more intimate scenes. The flashing red
Christmas tree beacon on the top of VEE Station draws the eye to the details at
the rear of the left-most module. The blue-white flash of a weldering torch
gets visitors even closer, to within inches of the front edge of the layout, as
they bend down to peer inside the VEC car shop. If they look closely, and most
kids at shows do, they will notice 3 workers standing around the welder.
Interior details can be made out during the short welding flash sequence.
Use vignettes to tell stories
Now that the visitor has gotten close to the layout, they begin to look for
more details and small scenes or vignettes. They usually spy a young couple
enjoying a romantic moment seated at a flickering camp fire. As they look
further back up the trail they then see a hunter and his dog making his way
toward the secret meeting place. This is when I share with my guests that the
owner of Val Ease Summit Lodge, the man with the shotgun and dog, does not
approve of his daughter's choice in boyfriend. The young man is not likely to
get caught this time, though. He came by motor boat which is tied up nearby on
the river bank, just under the railroad bridge.
Other vignettes on the VEC are based on my real-life adventures during several
summers as a lineman for the Canadian National Railways. Next time you get a
chance, look for me stuck up a telegraph pole being yelled at by my foreman.
Or find me sitting on top of a signal box while mamma bear rounds up her cubs a
short distance away. And be careful backing that boxcar onto the Val Ease Port
Authority yard lead because you certainly don't want to knock me off the
trencher I'm operating. (really did happen!). There are more vignettes that
are still waiting to be added to the VEC. I'll tell you all about them as they
come to "life".
Although not visible from a long way off, the thin wisps of smoke rising from
smoke stacks in VEE and CVE clearly signal to visitors that something's
happening on the layout. The wafting and curling smoke adds movement and
dynamic energy to the scenes. I use small capacity Seuth smoke generators
which don't require much voltage to operate. I power them using inexpensive
selectable voltage wall transformers. Larger units can be installed on your
own layout or module to produce as much smoke as wanted. But I feel that less
is more. I guess that's why Z appeals to me.
Depth of detail
Lighted and fully detailed interiors are also important elements that add
interest and please many visitors to the VEC. People are often surprised that
I have gone to the trouble of placing furniture, figures and lighting inside
the miniscule open areas that are only visible from less than a foot away.
Then again, the whole point of bringing people in close is so that they can
discover the vignettes and the stories being told on the layout. Most show
layouts in the larger scales have lots of detail but visitors are almost always
kept back from the layout by crowd barriers. This is an understandable
precaution on long modular layouts where it is impractical to keep a close eye
on every linear foot of the installation. However, visitors can approach the
VEC under the watchful eyes of two crewmembers, one stationed at each end of
the layout. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions and even operate the
Life is noisy
A train show it is often a difficult place to effectively use sound to add the
unseen elements of a lively countryside, town or industrial area. One must
compete with the horn and whistle blowing of other displays as well as the
contribution of crowd noises to the general din. However, sound can and should
be used to create the illusion of activity and movement. Each module of the
VEC is equipped with a small tape player running a 60 second endless telephone
message cassette tape. The background sound effects vary depending on the
module. In VEE, the sounds I have mixed onto the tape include a jackhammer, an
electric motor revving up to speed and the thump of a hydraulic press along
with a sprinkling of traffic noise. Played at a low volume, the sounds can be
heard from a distance of a few feet and provide proof that we're in the
vicinity of an industrial area where unseen labourers are hard at work.
Centre Val Ease offers the sounds of screeching sea gulls along the dock of Val
Ease Port Authority. And it should come as no surprise to visitors to Val Ease
West to hear the various farm animals that can be spotted both inside and
roaming outside their pastures. A compact FM radio tuned between stations
provides the "sound" of water rushing under the old trestle bridge and between
the boulders along the creek. The speakers for these sound sources are hidden
inside structures or embedded in the foam base board, always pointed to project
the sound toward the listener.
Bringing life to a layout is the goal of most modellers who reach the final
stages of scenery and layout construction. It is important for a miniature
country or cityscape to come alive even when the trains are not running. The
presence of human activity can be recreated on our layouts through the use of
modelling techniques that include mechanical motion, animated lighting, smoke,
sound and depth of detail. Bringing your layout to life using any or all of
these animation techniques is all part of the FUN of model railroading, and
remember, "don't look for perfection, perfect the look".