Sunday, April 12, 2015

10 Questions For Chris Mears

Railroad magazine used to have a regular feature highlighting an "Interesting Railfan". I thought I would run a similar series with some railfans who have agreed to participate. I'm asking each railfan 10 questions, some standard and some customized for the particular person. I hope you enjoy it. (Read the rest of the series)

Chris Mears is the second person I've interviewed with the "10 questions" format (see all). Chris is another railfan I have never met but I have been reading his blog Prince Street for some time and I really admire his modeling work and his blogging style. He has been quite active with producing 3D model railway designs. He very kindly answered my 10 questions below.

Photo by Steve McMullin

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I never know how to answer this question. I was born in Ottawa but for most of my life I've lived in Prince Edward Island. I'm married and have two kids. Like many of my fellow Islanders I've lived a somewhat chaotic professional life that has, thankfully, often complemented itself. 

2. Why do you like trains?

Trains have always played such a strong role in my life and from such a young age that I don't think I ever had a moment where I discovered the hobby; it was just always there. My Dad had discovered the hobby of model railways a couple of years before I was born so I grew up in a house where I had regular exposure to the hobby. Railfanning and real railroading were interests that developed out of the initial model railways interest for the way they extended it. I feel like, for me, the hobby stands as my most proficient means of self-expression; it provides sanctuary during some of the more difficult times in my life; in a variety of ways, I'm grateful for those times when I could participate in this hobby and feel like I was part of something when I felt like I just wasn't anywhere else.

3. Where’s your favourite place to railfan?

I'm so envious of those folks lucky enough to go trackside on a regular basis. Living here on Prince Edward Island, getting trackside isn't always easy and tends toward sporadic. Though I harbor a strong affection for Canadian commuter railroading, when I go trackside lately it is seldom to see or watch mainline trains. I tend toward shortline and like styles of railroading. I really enjoy exploring what remains of the industrial trackage around Moncton. For many, many years now I can't imagine a trip to Halifax that didn't include time spent in Dartmouth to chase trains working past the Alderney Landing ferry terminal. Last year I started to really discover the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia and I've been making a stop at their headquarters in Stellarton a part of trips lately.
My friend Shawn Naylot and I were out chasing trains this day. I believe we chased this one in from Emerald Junction and at this point, the train is in Charlottetown and just behind the University of Prince Edward Island. Shawn pulled the car over at the crossing and we lept out. He knew what he was doing and remains a railfanning hero to me. I admired then and still today everything he did and so wanted to be like him. So focussed on the urgency of the moment I didn't realise the depth of the snow-filled ditch and in I fell. None of that slowed the train and I frantically crawled out. Snow covered and frozen I dug my old 110 film camera out of my coat pocket and tried my hardest, shivering fingers and all, to take the shot. You can see Shawn's excellent photo in Allan Graham's book. I took this one at the same time. Every time I see this one I remember that day and how grateful I am that Shawn included me on so many of those trips. It's a terrible photo from a technical perspective but it's the best I've ever taken in terms of representing a moment and who I am.

4. If you could railfan anywhere, anytime, where and when would it be?

My thoughts wander not far from where I'm typing this in terms of location but to another time altogether. Allan Graham's book includes a set of photos Bob Sandusky shot along the Murray Harbour subdivision of a winter mixed train working the western end of the Murray Harbour subdivision here on the Island. Trackside on that chase would be my first stop with that borrowed time machine. Sure it's January on the Island, but the promise of 70 tonners and mixed trains is too great to ignore. If I could really push my luck I'd probably move ahead a few months on my second trip to the spring to catch the first potato rush of the year. I'd love to know what it was like to chase work extras led by armies of 70 tonners trying to respond to the demand for refrigerator cars. Yup, in the end this question wasn't hard to answer at all.

5. What’s your favourite railway?

I grew up trackside along my Dad's N scale Sorry Valley Railway. I can't help but think that you were looking for a "real" railway but this was the one that taught me about railroading and it provides a lens through which I've interpreted everything I've learned since. 

You probably wouldn't have to hang around me for long to see a couple of strong contenders for this title in my many interests. I love railroading here on the Island and can't see ever tiring of discovering a new photo, story, or piece of paper. Reaching beyond the Island, I love Canadian commuter agencies like GO and AMT. As with Island railroading, these would represent the other major elements in my railroad photo and paper collection. Finally, and rounding out the pack are a few operations I'll never tire of: Maine's Aroostook Valley, New Hampshire's Claremont-Concord, Alberta's Central Western, and Saskatchewan's Southern Rails Co-op.

6. On your blog you talk a lot about the minutia of railroading. What interests you about that? 

I just take it for granted. Until you asked, I'll confess I'd never thought of my approach in terms of "why?"Almost more than any other of your questions this was the one that held me up the most and the one that I'm most keen to explore further. Since I can only hang onto this email for so long, I'll try and start my answer here and hope to learn more about it in the time to come.

I feel like, in model railroading, we often promote the design of the layout using the cliché of "model railroading is theatre where the trains are the stars and the layout, the stage". I love this metaphor but reducing it so simplistically just isn't enough for me. I feel like we need to do more for those actors and with that stage and treat model railway design as representing the relationships the railroad has with the world in which it exists. When I'm trackside I'm as absorbed in the total environment as I am the subject I've gone to see. I can't hear a vintage diesel shoving hard against its train without the sound of ties popping or rail squealing underneath. The combination of these elements becomes one and the same experience. I've been trying to find ways to model railroading during the time after its fate had been decided. I think this involves more than short trains and bad track but haven't figure out what it is either. 

7. You’ve been placing model railway designs on Shapeways for 3D printing. How has your experience with that been so far?

In a word: Exciting!

An example of Chris' work on Shapeways
3D printing has provided me with a means of producing a number of parts that I found difficult to make and also some that I always thought someone should make. Like no other opportunity, it's provided me with a near-perfect opportunity to marry my experience in design with my history in model railways. I can't begin to describe how proud I am of the product line and the reception it has received. I'm so thrilled to see my parts being used in others' models. I'm even more thrilled by the way they've played a small role in opening up new parts of Canadian railroading. Last fall, I had a chance to watch a HO scale RSC13 that Taylor Main built. That model used some of my hood parts and rode on trucks that used my 3D printed sideframes. The model looked amazing and was such a tremendous example of the potential that could be realized. (Chris' store)

8. Do you think model railroaders need to be amateur historians as well?

I don't think it's an option. I think we approach this question from the purely prototype modeling movement and qualify our relationship with it in those terms. We group ourselves by labels like "freelancer" or "prototype modeller" and the rest takes care of itself. I believe that history is itself a record of what we were and the story we're writing about how we got to where we are today. Everything we do contributes to that thread including that which we create. Despite our best efforts to avoid it, we create a history layer the moment we start building the model railway. Everything we do represents a point in our lives and growth we experienced. It doesn't take long for us to look backward and reflect on the history of the model railway layout itself. Going beyond the layout's construction and this direct history, the story we're weaving into that miniature world evolves with time too. Again, we create history. We install scenes on our layouts, like "women hanging laundry" or a working coal mine and regale in showing those off to our friends and those visiting. It's then that we become the storytellers that historians do as well. Finally, we build a layout to inspire memories of our own past. Even if we never directly recreate that, we are injecting history into our work. I don't think it's much of a leap from the history we're creating to the historical work we're trying to avoid.

9. Can you share any projects you’re working on, e.g. future Shapeways plans or books?

I feel like I'm always starting out on a new layout venture. For me, each one has been a fun exploration of a concept or idea I felt I could only explore through the medium of the layout. That said, I'd like one of these ideas to hold enough promise to have it inspire a maturation in its execution. I worry I'm undermining the potential of the hobby in terms of those who see my work never reaching a more traditional level of completion. With so much of myself invested in these concept pieces, I need to produce some completed work. I want this for myself.

I keep imagining ways to grow my small product line on Shapeways into other production methods that extend the work I've completed so far. My Shapeways production has focused on supporting Canadian model railroading. It's a wonderful platform for short-run work but it is limiting in terms of production and media. I really want to better formalize my contribution and would really like to see the platform I'm building flourish into a proper company offering finished models. I'm at a point, professionally, where I'm ready to reconcile my day job with my experiences from the hobby industry - it's just finding the right balance. I'm excited about the progress firms like Rapido and True Line Trains have made and I'm eager to be a part of that conversation. 

I've had so much fun working on my Prince Street blog over the last five years. I feel like I'd like to extend past the blog and see where it could go. I don't know how to navigate that evolution but I want to extend some of the blog's threads into something more formal. I'd love to explore things like podcasting or even publishing.

10. Video or still photography?

This is difficult. I don't think we're comparing two equals.

I'm attracted to video for the way it creates a record of the entire scene. It extends photography in a way no other media can. I recently watched some Youtube footage shot along the Sandy River Railroad. It was silent and in black and white but still brought to life Maine narrow gauge railroading in a way I could have never imagined. It was exciting.

I believe photography asks more of the viewer and in each photo I see more than the subject. We have the photographer trying to frame a story they're trying to expose and in the resulting frame we have something we can share in. Where video can show me in real time how a scene evolved that photo asks me, as the viewer, to make the extra effort to build the story around the scene in a less passive way. 

I think that both have the potential to complement each other. As I mentioned above, archival film stitches together my interpretation of the photos and stories I've collected. In some ways, perhaps it validates my interpretation of that story. I don't think it's the medium that I prefer, but how the artist chose the appropriate one to communicate that story back to the audience. If they chose the right one I'll "get it" and that makes it the right one for me too. 

To see more of Chris, go to:

Thank you, Chris!

Read more "10 questions" interviews.

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