Sunday, February 22, 2009

Choosing an Era

I'm often asked why I model the 1930's. After all, I'm only 40, I'm in high-tech, and I'm a bit lazy about reliability issues. Why wouldn't I be modeling the 1970's, or modern day? I could run nice, reliable diesel locomotives instead of balky steam locomotives. I could spend hours computerizing the layout so I had automatic signals and dispatcher control instead of avoiding the computers and electronics problems I normally like.

It's a complex question to answer.

First, modern-day railroading just wasn't that interesting for me. One obvious reason is that modern trains are big. The locomotives are big, the freight cars are big, and the industries that have rail service are big. Fitting those kinds of scenes into the space I have - either a shelf layout or a single garage layout - just isn't easy. Older trains are smaller, so I can model more.

Even if I had the space for long trains and big engines, I'm not a railfan. Spending a day going out to the tracks and watching trains run by isn't that interesting. Even worse, I grew up on the San Francisco peninsula in the 1970's. I grew up watching dirty, unmaintained Southern Pacific diesels going by, and watching all the industries disappear. The steel mills and warehouses in South San Francisco either got torn down or stopped getting rail service. The canneries and food processing plants of the South Bay closed. San Francisco's Bayshore yard turned into a ghost town as all the warehouses in San Francisco turned into office space, dance clubs, and outlet stores. There's just no romance for me in that era, so trying to model the SP in the 1970's just doesn't sound fun.

My strongest reason, though, is to learn more about and recreate my grandparent's world. I've seen photos from the 1920's and 1930's, and I like the reminders of California's agricultural past, and of a time when railroads were the new and modern thing. I can see the pictures of my grandmother and her brothers and sisters in Santa Cruz for the day; they've just driven down from Hayward, they're dressed up, and they look like they're having a wonderful time. What was the drive on Highway 17 like for them? What sightseeing did they do?

My mom's family was from Hayward. My great-grandfather came over from the Azore Islands in the 1870's, earned money as a shepherd for the Miller and Lux, and bought ten acres above Hayward in the 1890s which he planted in apricots. He lost two wives, then met my great-grandmother and raised four children with her. The family dried the apricots on the property; every year for the harvest, my great-grandmother would prepare food for the family and the workers they hired to pick, cut, and dry the apricot. This photo of my great-grandfather shows him proudly looking over a drying tray of apricots sometime in the 1930's. Those apricots would get sold to one of the dried fruit packers down at the railroad tracks; the packing houses in Hayward probably looked a lot like the ones I model in San Jose and Campbell. My grandmother even worked as a bookkeeper for one of the packers for a while. My great-grandparents' fruit ranch probably looked like every farm in the Santa Clara Valley. When I'm researching and building my models, I'm also learning more about the world my family came from.

I also see the pictures of what the Bay Area was like. In this case, my grandmother took a photo of one of her friends sitting on top of a "gravity car" on the Mount Tamalpais Railway. My father took me and my sister hiking on Mt. Tam pretty often when we were growing up; I hadn't realized then that my grandparents had gone hiking on the mountain too, or that they'd stopped and taken photos at places like the Double Bowknot where I'd walked by 50 years later. My grandmother would have ridden the Northwestern Pacific to visit relatives in Sonoma County, or taken commute trains on the Peninsula when they lived in Redwood City. A couple decades later, my dad remembers working in the Hunts and Del Monte canneries in the summer, and knows that he got paid well for unloading cans from boxcars and checking the fruit cutting machines.

It's all memories. It's learning about family and the world they lived in. It's learning about how the Bay Area's changed from agricultural to high-tech, and from empty spaces to wall-to-wall suburbia. It's knowing what kind of orchards occupied the space where our house is, and knowing the importance of Sunnyvale's historic apricot orchard. It's about understanding the San Francisco Bay Area during one of the other booms the area's gone through, from the wheat fields to orchards to industry to electronics to the Internet.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

How much difference could a few years make?

As I've been building my layout, I've also been looking at historical documents from the 1930's to figure out what to build. What stations were busy during the 1930's? Where were signals installed along the line? How many passenger trains ran through Los Gatos? I've looked at old employee timetables for some of the facts, picked details out of books for others, and made wild guesses for other details. I'm not being too picky about sources; when I found a 1939 timetable excerpt hanging on the wall of the Santa Clara depot, I used its schedule to plan what trains I'd run during operating sessions.

A 1939 timetable? That's only seven years later than the 1932-or-so era for my model railroad. How inaccurate could it be?

Well, I got a chance to find out. Bruce Morden visited my layout a few weeks ago, and asked the simple question: "Is the Vasona Branch really what that piece of track was called?" I told him I didn't know, and I'd been hoping to see a 1932 timetable so I could learn for sure. A couple weeks later, Bruce sent me copies of pages from a 1928 and 1932 Southern Pacific Coast Division employee timetable. I've been poring over them ever since in hopes of learning something about the small bit of the world I model - the branch line starting in San Jose, continuing through Campbell, Los Gatos, Wrights, and Glenwood.

I've found that even in the short time between 1928 and 1939, a bunch of little details changed on the layout. The way the track was controlled changed, signals were added, branches and spurs removed, and trains added and removed.

First, start with the question of the name of the layout. I chose the modern name for the branch of track - the "Vasona branch". The line's last stop - Vasona Junction - gave the branch its most recent name. But in 1932, it was the "College Park - Santa Cruz branch" because the line broke off the main line at the College Park station (near Bellarmine High School in San Jose's Rose Garden neighborhood). The original main line turned east there, crossed over the top of downtown San Jose, then headed to Los Angeles by heading south on 4th Street. The Santa Cruz branch instead headed south past the modern-day Diridon Station, then turned southwest towards Los Gatos and Santa Cruz. In 1939, the main line followed the old branch from College Park to San Jose's Diridon station, and the former "West San Jose" station became the "San Jose" station. The 1939 timetable shows the branch now being called the "San Jose - Santa Cruz" branch.

Second, there's yard limits. Railroads are very strict about when a train is considered to have "authority" to run on a stretch of track. Generally, a train running on a main line must have approval from the central dispatcher to run on that track, and must be able to get out of the way of any trains with higher priority. In some places on the railroad, either the amount of switching to be done is too great, or permission from a central authority too troublesome. For example, in a railroad yard, the crew would go nuts if they had to send a telegraph message each time they blocked the main track. For this reason, railroads declare some tracks to be in "yard limits." Permission to run on these tracks only requires permission from a local yard master, and all trains (except passenger trains) following those tracks must assume that another train might be on the main track, and go appropriately slowly. (All trains must still get out of the way of "first class" passenger trains, and passenger trains can travel at a higher speed speed on main tracks in yard limits.)

Parts of the San Jose - Santa Cruz branch were considered in yard limits, and were owned by the yardmaster in San Jose. This may have been because the tracks were infrequently used, or because the switching was heavy. Strangely, the range of yard limits varied over time. In 1928, it only stretched from San Jose past the canneries to the Western Pacific crossing a mile down the tracks. In 1932, yard limits stretched from San Jose all the way to Los Gatos. In 1939, yard limits was pulled back to only go from San Jose to Campbell.

The choice of yard limits matters because it affects game play on the layout. With yard limits, trains can run without explicit warnings, and can be told to just "stay out of each other's way." If the trains had to rely on a dispatcher, freight train crews would need to ask permission each time they wanted to leave a town, and couldn't just "avoid" other trains they encountered. I've typically been running everything from San Jose to Vasona Junction as "yard limits", and require trains only ask for permission if they go further on. Now that I know how much yard limits vary, I'll need to think whether the Vasona Junction approach still seems reasonable, and whether extending or shrinking yard limits might be fun.

Third, there's the question of signals. Signals add animation to the model railroad and give me a chance to play a bit more with electronics than I might otherwise do. I'd learned from pictures that the whole railroad line from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz had signals, so I added signals on the upper deck a few years ago. What about on the lower deck? Did signals ever go beyond Vasona Junction?

According to the timetables, signals only existed from Vasona Junction to Santa Cruz in 1928. There were no signals along the Los Altos branch between Mayfield (California Street in Palo Alto) and Vasona Junction. Some time between 1928 and 1932, signals got added to the West San Jose to Vasona Junction branch. This work would have occurred as the Southern Pacific was rebuilding the San Jose main line to run around the west end of San Jose. I'm surprised that the signals were installed in Campbell but not on the Los Altos branch; the Los Altos branch got more of the fast trains and was the connection to San Francisco, while the San Jose to Los Gatos branch was a slower track with lots of industries and fewer passenger trains.

So do I add signals all the way to San Jose? I'm leaning against it. Signals take a lot of work to install and build; they're fragile, and there's usually so many freights working on the lower level that the signals would constantly be red. I'm willing to reconsider this at some point, but for now I think I'm going to keep the signals off the San Jose - Los Gatos line.

There were a few other interesting facts I grabbed from the timetable. In the 1928 timetable, the Campbell station entry has the notation "TO-R" next to the name. This indicates Campbell was a train order station, and a train register book existed. A train order station has an operator who can relay messages between the dispatcher and passing trains. Trains on the timetable usually don't need train orders; the timetable gives those trains the authority to run along a particular piece of track. Train order stations are much more important for extra trains not on the timetable. Extra trains need to get telegraphed orders from the dispatcher explaining where they can run, what trains have priority over them, and where meets will occur. The fact that the station agent or telegrapher in Campbell had to prepare train orders suggests there may have been a lot of trains going by. There wasn't as much traffic elsewhere; on the Los Altos branch, the only train order stations were at Mayfield and at Los Gatos. Once a train got onto that line, orders couldn't be changed til it got to the other end. Because yard limits only stretched from West San Jose to the WP junction, trains likely would have needed orders at Campbell.

Not all freight trains are extras; the 1928 timetable also showed one freight train, #202, on the schedule. It ran on Tuesdays only from San Jose to Campbell and then disappeared from the timetable. Because of its disappearance, I'd guess it turned aside at Campbell and went on the Almaden branch towards New Almaden, then probably returned to San Jose by following the other part of the Almaden branch towards the main line at Lick (now near Capitol Expressway and Monterey Highway).

The train register book is our reminder that the Almaden branch existed then. A train register book is kept at a junction between two lines, or at a place where trains can start or end. When a train passes, it writes down the time it passed. If another train is supposed to wait until a specific train has passed, the crew can check the book to see if the track is clear. In our case, if our train coming from Los Gatos to San Jose is supposed to wait until train #202 passes Campbell and goes on the Almaden branch, our train can check the book and see if #202 has signed in. If not, our train waits til #202 passes. If #202 did sign the book, we can continue to San Jose knowing the track is clear.

The Almaden branch disappeared in the early 1930's. The 1932 timetable shows that Campbell is no longer a train order station, and no longer has a train register book.

A final tidbit from the timetable is that the 1928 timetable shows fewer passenger trains to Santa Cruz than the 1932 timetable. That's really surprising; by 1932, the depression had reached bottom, and the SP was closing stations and cutting trains. I'm curious why there were so few passenger trains in 1928; did the SP cut back because of competition from the new highway over the mountains, then increase trains as fewer people were able to drive? It's just another mystery to explore.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Now, that's one way to find some projects...

Now that I've started this blog, I want to make frequent updates both so it'll be interesting for readers and so it'll keep me working on models. I rushed out tonight to take pictures of one of an almost-complete building (PG&E's generator plant in San Jose), brought the photos inside... and just got annoyed. Lots of details in the photos were wrong - a telephone pole was crooked, the SP tool shed looked like it was sitting in front of the weeds (instead of actually in use, etc.

I gave up on those photos and decided the scene deserved a bit more work. Actually, it gives me some nice inspiration; I've got a building I want to photograph and a scene that doesn't look right. Why don't I just promise myself I'll spend a couple evenings getting the scene better and ready to photograph?

Stay tuned to see if I actually fix up the scene...