Friday, December 28, 2007

Make those backups today

For your New Year's Resolution, set up the equipment and procedures to back up your computer often. I usually run a backup every couple of days (daily if I've done a lot of work that day). I've just weathered a failure that left me without a computer for a few days. And of course, my backup was three days behind when the PC failed, so I'm redoing that work now -- and wishing I had backed up my data every day. As I will from now on.

Experience is often the best teacher, but usually the tuition is high.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Innies and Outties …

… or, "Six Blind Men from Hindostan"

It's amazing to me how a handful of "prophets of doom" can keep the pernicious "The Hobby is Dying" forum threads going, week after tedious week. Mostly I ignore them. Instead, I focus on my own modeling, which benefits from the greatest availability of products in the hobby ever, or on my clients' designs, which are often quite substantial undertakings that will demand the purchase of a boat-load of track components, rolling stock, electronics, etc., etc.

How can there be such different opinions of the state of the hobby? Some of it is certainly grumpy old men, reluctant to acknowledge the changing face of the hobby. Some of it may be naively optimistic current practitioners. It could be said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't over-simplify. But at the risk of overly broad generalizations, there seem to be two major forces in this debate: let's call them the Innies and the Outties.

Many of the Innies (and they seem to be a smaller group) share some of the same characteristics. They often pride themselves on being historians of the hobby, keepers of the eternal Ellison/Allen/Westcott flame. They know the model number and manufacturing history of all the Varney, Tyco and Athearn engines, which runs of Zamac bodies corroded, etc. Because of their long standing in the hobby, they've spent much of their time focused on getting stuff to work, finding parts, and scratchbuilding. It was the only way back then. They may have only a small layout, because it was difficult to find the time to build all the pieces needed for a larger layout before ready-to-run. They may have spent a lot of time crafting the perfect freelanced railroad name. In many ways, they've spent much of their time on solitary endeavors. In fact, the very characteristics of the hobby in the past may have generally attracted detail-oriented, independent, self-contained personalities. These folks are seeing the hobby from the "inside" -- and they are sure it is fading fast.

Then there are the Outties. Many of them came to the hobby, or returned to it, much later in its history. Due to the boom in ready-to-run (enabled by manufacturers using CAD for model making, et al), the basics of a layout are much more easily available than in the past. Many of these folks are focused on building complete layouts to share with others through articles, layout tours, and operating sessions. They are also focused outwardly on real railroads, because there is so much more information available than in the past. They may actively participate in on-line forums and go to train shows (much bigger now than in the past), and actively use the Internet to shop more globally than at the local hobby shop. Some current characteristics of the hobby serve to attract those with more gregarious, people-oriented personalities. These Outties seem to think the hobby is in pretty good shape.

Perhaps these divergent views are largely a matter of personality and perspective. The scratchbuild-everything-run-only-steam-take-only-film-photos segment of the hobby is in decline. Perhaps because the scratchbuilding skills aren't necessary any longer to attain an operating layout. The segment of the hobby that's primarily interested in detailed modeling may well have become smaller -- but it's not gone. Witness Max Magliaro's amazing N scale kitbash in the November 2007 - January 2008 issues of Railroad Model Craftsman -- or any Railroad Prototype Modelers meet around the country.

On the other hand, because it's much easier to build a layout that runs well today than in the '50s, more people are entering the hobby with the primary goal of building full layouts. Many of the layouts being built today, large or small, are far more complete than many of those of the '50s or '60s. And guess what? Their owners spent a lot more on those completed layouts, by any measure, than did the majority of modelers in 1956 … or 1966 … or anytime in the past. And although I hate to be a grubby materialistic weasel, from a commercial standpoint, spending keeps a hobby alive, not craftsmanship.

On this point, a "World's Greatest Hobby" webpage estimated the US model railroading hobby population at 500,000 and their annual spending at $500 million. This suggests that, on average, we spend a thousand bucks per year on the hobby. So it may well be that there are fewer model railroaders than in some "golden era" in the past. But we may each be spending more, even adjusted for inflation. From a marketing theory standpoint, even if there are fewer buyers, if each invests more, the market can maintain itself or grow nicely. In any case, the constantly expanding roster of available models suggests a market in expansion, not decline. Or at least, that's the end result for each of us as individuals working to build a layout.

So who's right, the Innies or the Outties? The answer won't be known for decades -- and most of us won't care a bit by then! Personally, I think the best approach is to fully engage in and enjoy the abundance the hobby currently offers us. More models, more roadnames, more information, more capability than ever. Much of it made possible by the pioneers, to be sure, but we can't be so averse to change that we reject and disparage the opportunities of today. In any case, it seems to me that the endless hand-wringing and despair over the hobby doesn't serve to attract any newcomers. And it should be in everyone's interest, grousing Innie or glowing Outtie, to bring new folks to the hobby.

John Godfrey Saxe's poem from the 1800s, "The Blind Men and the Elephant" is a familiar story to most of us. In it, six blind men encounter an elephant, but since each finds a different piece of the beast and cannot see the overall animal, each has a different -- and incorrect -- view of what an elephant must be. Perhaps it’s the same when it comes to the state of the model railroading hobby. In fact, J. G. Saxe's closing stanzas may say it best:

And so these men of Hindostan,
Disputed loud and long,
Each with his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And each was partly wrong

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

What's in a Name?

With apologies to the Bard of Avon (whoever he or she may have been), one of the recurring questions on forums and in casual model railroad conversations is what to call a freelanced model railroad. Although I personally find them trite and unconvincing, there still seems to be quite a following for the cutesy-poo names such as "Bumpkin and Booville Lines". Another group goes for dynamic sounding names like "Sidewinder Railway". And yet another subset chooses a name to yield a clever (or naughty) acronym (toilet humor seems, unfortunately, to be particularly favored here).

But most real railroads' existence depended on investors and customers viewing them as reliable transportation organizations. Although real railroad names were sometimes ambitious, even aspirational, they tended to communicate a business-like sense of purpose. Even if they never reached the end points their names suggested (e.g., "Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient"), these names provided a promise to which investors and the general public could relate.

I talked about synchronicity in my last post about model railroad layout analysis in terms of the track design and operations. And naming can certainly play a role as well for freelanced designs. A realistic name communicates purpose and can help anchor the layout in a place and time. But what makes a name realistic?

Bob Warren undertook a survey of 100 real-life railroad names from the classic era in the Layout Design News LDN-13, April 1995, published by the Layout Design SIG. Bob found that the majority (nearly 70%) had a geographical term in the name (Pacific, Atlantic, Central, Western, Eastern, etc.). 56% had a city name in the title, 29% a state name (of course, there were many combinations like New York Central).

More modern times have seen names that lean toward the anonymous acronym ("CSX", anyone?), yet even these tend to have geographical meanings and roots, even if only from the names of the merged fallen flags.

So when comparing freelanced names, "Utah Colorado Western" (Lee Nicholas' fine layout) just seems more compelling to me than "Higgleytown and Busterville". One feels like a real business to me, the other like something from a storybook. On the other hand, a freelanced layout depicting a struggling backwoods logger might well have a more modest name, suggesting its lesser aspirations. Maybe not something silly, but more "Sierra Lumber", as opposed to "California, Oregon, and Idaho".

When chosen carefully (mindful of the generalities of real-life names), a freelanced railroad name can communicate much about the imagineered prototype and its locale, era, and purpose. To me, that gives a freelanced line a head start in the viewer's mind and allows the track plan, scenery, and modeled industries to be viewed in context. Choosing the name of a freelanced railroad is fun, but it's also an easy place to go wrong.

Most of time I mention music in the blog, it's commenting about an entire album that I really enjoy, not just a song or two. Under the Covers, Volume 1, by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs (everyone's favorite Bangle) is not a breakthrough concept -- it's a collection of mostly-familiar late '60s covers. I actually bought the CD for my wife and didn't expect to be too excited about it. But the interpretation and execution of a few of the songs is just terrific. Their cover of Lionel-fan Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" is one of the coolest pieces of power-pop you'll ever hear. (Sweet's standout guitar work on this number is hardly an imitation of Young, much more of a retro revival.) A number of the other songs on the album just aren't my cup of tea, but the presence of a few standouts was a really pleasant surprise.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Track Plan Analysis, Part 5

I'll close this series on model railroad track plan analysis with some thoughts on three topics that are much harder to define objectively. If a plan has made it this far, there are few (or only easily correctable) mechanical flaws and we're ready to get down to very serious subjective analysis.

10) Layout Vision

As I noted earlier, this is usually where I start when I ask prospective clients about their layout ideas, yet it comes late in the process here. Vision in a model railroad context is a little difficult to define. Some brief vision descriptions from layouts and plans I know well might include: "mainline Santa Fe in the Texas Panhandle", "a sampler of classic western railroad scenes", "shortline railroading in the Olympic Peninsula", "the Santa Fe in California in 1973", "terminal rail-marine operations in the '50s", "upstate New York in the depression", "making connections with convoys in WWII", "plausible setting for eclectic model collection", and many more.

Vision can include an idea of era, locale, economic health, and viewer and operator perspectives or job roles. Is the passage of flashy streamliners what you picture from looking at the track plan? Or decrepit backwoods make-do logging gear struggling up stiff grades? Far too many plans include a pinch of this and a soupçon of that, blending (blanding?) together into generalities without personality. Vision is challenging to define and even more challenging to reflect in a track plan -- but when it works, the effect on realism and engagement is amazing.

Extracting this vision from only a track plan is a matter of looking at track configurations, industries, likely scenery elements, etc. Long sinuous passing sidings and wyes for turning helpers suggest a mountain-climbing railroad. Tightly packed and complex trackwork reflects the expensive urban waterfront property on which it is built. Long tangents and "prairie skyscrapers" help set the scene for a granger line.

And within these broader schemes and definitions, there will be emphasis on certain elements. For example, a 4-track Pennsy mainline may serve primarily as establishing scenery for gritty parallel industrial trackage where lowly shifters dodge real or simulated mainline Clockers. The vision here is of the local work, not the glamorous varnish, yet the infrastructure of the well maintained mainlines helps accentuate and define the layout's industrial-switching focus by contrast.

The old model railroad track plan books often concluded the description of a particular layout with a line like " … or replace the grain elevator with a mine and sprinkle on some pines and your granger railroad can be a mining line in the old west!" Ummm … no. If you look at a plan and it would be easy to change its place, time and purpose merely by applying products from Woodland Scenics, that plan may not be reflecting a unique vision very well.

11) Story Telling

This flows naturally from Layout Vision and some may not find it especially useful to make a distinction. But to me, story telling comes from small vignettes, trackwork elements, or operating practices that help communicate the vision. A derelict interlocking tower and pulled-up crossing tracks communicate something specific about place, time, and purpose. A covered turntable or long train sheds with a siding for a fire train speak volumes about fighting grades (and the occasional wayward spark) in the high country. Milk platforms. LCL freight houses. Flood loaders. These kinds of layout elements express another bit of information about the layout vision.

Story telling, of course, is easier in terms of operation, by assigning job roles or even attitudes as does Jim Senese on his Kansas City Terminal Railroad. But I think well-designed vignettes and track configurations can also play a vital role. Layouts that tell stories well just "feel right", drawing the viewer and operator into the vision of the owner and/or designer.

12) Synchronicity

Simply stated, do all the layout elements coordinate and support the vision of the layout and the goals of the owner? For example, if the vision is recreating Timetable and Train Order operations, are there sufficient staging tracks, adequately and well-placed passing sidings, space set aside for dispatchers and operators, and enough mainline length to allow for orders to be written and take effect?

Twenty staging tracks at each end of the layout won't create a steady parade of traffic if there are only one or two places to meet and pass in between. Cramped aisles and impossibly long reaches to uncouple cars don't support a vision of two man crews simulating real-life railroad switching practices. If the vision is for a bucolic backwoods logger, how does that double-track mainline fit in?

In this final step, individual elements that may be perfectly fine on their own are considered together to see if they mesh into a coherent whole, and if that whole, in turn, is in sync with the layout vision and purpose. A lack of synchronicity is one reason I caution folks against blindly stringing unrelated prototype design elements together as a model railroad design strategy. Yes, it's hard to argue with the fact that you collected your station scene, yard, and industry trackage from real railroads. But if it’s a Northeast Corridor multi-platform station, a coal marshalling yard, and a paper mill, it's no better than cobbling together a motor from a Mustang, a tranny from a Cadillac, and a differential from a Jeep and calling it a well-designed car.

Insuring complementary elements in the overall layout is much easier during the design process -- obviously, it’s hard to analyze more synchronicity into the plan after the fact. But if I'm analyzing a plan that otherwise seems acceptable in all the forgoing characteristics, in this final consideration I don't want to leave out the vital step of making sure all the great parts form an even better synergistic whole.


Whew! That’s a heaping helping o' verbosity, to be sure. It was interesting (and a little surprising) for me to break down my layout plan analysis into these multiple interrelated steps in order to write them all down. I hope it was also interesting for you all to read them.

Index to all five trackplan analysis posts

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Track Plan Analysis, Part 4

We continue to move from the more mechanical to the more conceptual. If a track plan I'm analyzing has made it over all the forgoing hurdles, we're ready to see how it will function in fulfilling the builder's interests and goals. Today I am writing about two different four-element considerations, one most applicable to layouts designed for operation and the other more appropriate for a model railfanning, "fun running", or display layout.

8) The Four Cornerstones

I've written about the four cornerstones briefly in the past (I should get back to that web page and flesh things out a little), so I'll not belabor these points. I settled on these cornerstones by taking a look at a handful of layouts I really admired from magazine coverage or viewing in person. What made these model railroad layouts seem more realistic? Why were these more engaging to operate? The four main elements that kept recurring were Prototype Inspiration, Staging, Major Industries, and Interchange.

Prototype Inspiration

Lest someone get the wrong idea, I don't mean that every layout must attempt to replicate a particular real-life railroad. Quite the contrary, I view the question of prototype and freelance as a continuum, not a dichotomy. But virtually every compelling model railroad I've seen includes a heavy dose of prototype inspiration.

Most layout viewers and operators have some exposure to real-life railroads. I believe this background comes into play (perhaps unconsciously) whenever we view a model scene. Our understanding of the prototype provides a subtle yardstick that helps us analyze and judge a model railroad.

Many of the elements I've already discussed are part of this analysis (excessive switchbacks, too-short leads, funky yard configurations, etc., etc.). But there's also a basic underlying question: what's the purpose of this railroad? How does it earn its keep … is there a plausible reason for it to exist? Is there some sense of a flow of traffic from one point to another? Emulating real-life railroads, to some degree, offers a shortcut to this realism.


I've already written about staging in this series of articles (Point 3 in this post). I won't go through all that again except to say that my personal sense of realism usually goes up if there's a suggestion that what's happening in the visible modeled layout scene is interconnected somehow to a larger unmodeled world "beyond the layout room". Every layout concept does not require staging, but nearly all benefit from it.

Major Industries

Ah, the good old days of model railroading, when you could spot two boxcars beside a tiny structure (that would only contain about half the contents of one of those cars) and call it good. In real life, railroading is a large-scale business for the most part. Most real-life rail-served industries, even going back to the 1930s and earlier, dwarfed the railroad and the railcars. If these industries weren't physically big enough to build, warehouse, and ship in large quantities, they wouldn’t need a boxcar. Yes, there are exceptions. But the presence of a few large industries really helps justify the existence of a railroad and improves realism, in my view. If the plan I am analyzing has nothing but short two-car spurs serving generic industries, I feel it's a lost opportunity to anchor the layout in place and time.

Another aspect of this is the presence of signature industries. Yes, one could have a pickle factory in Southern California, but a citrus packing house would be more representative for much of the area. Ditto a large coal mine in western Pennsylvania. I remember when I first started looking at model railroad magazines in the early 1970s, I was amazed that so many towns on so many different layouts had a feed and grain outlet with the familiar Purina checkerboard. There didn't seem to be any of these around where I lived, but they must be pretty common, right? Somewhat later, I realized with a little chagrin that the industries found on many layouts of the time had much more to do with the contents of the Suydam catalog than with emulating real life.


Along with staging, interchange with another railroad helps suggest the idea of a connection to a larger, unmodeled world. While I think connecting with a real-life railroad helps communicate the place and time, even for a freelanced model railroad layout, interchange with another fictitious road can also help. In fact, an appropriate interchange track might be the single cheapest and easiest way to add some realism and interest to a layout (OK, maybe after a Team Track). Since it's usually easy to add the suggestion of interchange in some way, the lack of an interchange track doesn't usually disqualify a layout I'm analyzing -- but I will agitate for its addition.

Now the four cornerstones are all well and good, but they are a little focused on model railroad layouts built for operation. After designing a few layouts that were intended more for model railfanning and display, I realized that there is another set of design elements that are important for consideration in layout plan analysis.

9) My PICS for better viewing

The PICS elements are named for their acronym. They consist of Plausible Scenes, Independent Vignettes (or views), Contours (of scenery) and Staging (again?!). While railfanning/display layouts can also benefit from the four Cornerstones above, the PICS elements are critical for more believable and compelling scenes.

Plausible Scenes

In a way, this is the railfanning layout version of prototype inspiration. Realistic scenes include few, if any, highly unusual or unlikely elements. Realistic scenes may include signature industries, scenery, plants, etc., but don't usually mix discordant features of many different places and times. Man-made structures are in keeping with the period, locale, and use (no grass huts in the Berkshires). As an example, spindly trestles that couldn’t hold the weight of the construction crew, let alone a locomotive, don't make the scene more realistic and engaging. Yes, this is somewhat more pertinent to construction than design, but a car float designed into a desert-themed layout is going to result, as Ricky Ricardo put it, in "Some 'splaining to do".

Independent Vignettes

Some layouts intended for model railfanning include multiple loops of track and multiple passes through some scenes. After all, the trains are the thing, to a great degree. But I think it's almost always possible to also include at least one vignette, viewing position, or isolated scene that provides a realistic, once-through view of the train. This one scene provides the viewer with an uncluttered, distraction-free opportunity to appreciate the scenery and the consists rolling by. Not many trackplans intended for model railfanning and/or display offer this kind of realistic scene, but many more could. It's definitely something I look for now in analyzing this type of layout plan.

Scenery Contours

Oh, the tortured topography conjured up by model railroad designers. Mile after scale mile of sheer rock faces or retaining walls. Improbably steep hillsides that still somehow support dense vegetation. Rivers with no outlet and lakes with no source. And snaking through it all, unrealistic contours for track and roadbed.

Weaning layout designers from their addiction to verticality is not an easy task … and it's not a new problem. Designs with more tiers than a socialite's wedding cake date back to the beginnings of the hobby. More realistic scenery contours require more space between tracks, or alternately hiding and revealing tracks to let different tiers take the forefront in different areas. Very often, this means fewer loops and less track for a given space, but I think this can result in more satisfying model railfanning/display layouts for both in-person visitors and photography.

And yes, Staging

It may just be me, but I grow weary watching the same crack consist orbit endlessly though even a well-designed scene. Adding staging to a model railfanning/display layout assures some variation in consists and minimizes the number of times cars and locos must be stored and re-railed. Staging can also subtly suggest that the parade of models relates to a broader world beyond the modeled scenes, adding realism. Most designers of this type of layout don't think much about staging, but it's definitely something I'm considering in analyzing their designs.


Another avalanche of words trying to describe considerations and judgments that are much more visual and visceral than verbal for me. But hopefully it’s useful and slightly entertaining. I'll wrap up the topic next time with some thoughts on vision (finally!), story-telling, and synchronicity.

Index to all five trackplan analysis posts


A number of my relatives and friends in Southern California have been affected by the wildfires, including some who have still not been able to return to their homes. Along with thoughts, prayers, and donations to the Red Cross and others, now would be a good time for each of us to consider our own family plans for dealing with a natural disaster.

I first heard the band the The Beat Farmers during another period of fires in the late '80s in Southern California. I listened again this week to Pursuit of Happiness. (This CD is apparently currently out of print.) A quintessential rocking blues bar band, they disbanded with the death of a founding member in 1995. Great, if beery, live shows and a handful of strong songs are the legacy of a terrific, mostly unheralded group from San Diego.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Track Plan Analysis, Part 3

For this installment, we'll assume that the model railroad track plan we are analyzing has made it over all the forgoing hurdles. With a lot of the mechanics covered, I start looking at how well the plan will work for its intended purposes.

7) Yard work never ends -- and that's a good thing

First and foremost, not every layout needs a traditional yard. Yards happen to be one of my favorite operational elements, so they're usually a high priority for me personally. But I've seen and designed some neat layouts without a textbook multi-track yard. A siding can serve the same purpose, allowing the crew to sort cars as needed for deliveries. For some small shortlines, a couple of interchange tracks with another railroad are the only yard available. And for a relatively small number of cars, destinations, and daily trains, that can work very well.

But most model railroaders want more action on their layouts than would be typical on prototype railroads. And yards are just plain neat, so most layouts include one or more. In analyzing these yard configurations, I start with a basic question. As I explained in my article in the recent Model Railroader magazine special issue, How to Build Realistic Layouts: Freight Yards, choosing the type of yard to model can make a big difference.

As seen in the image above, there are a wide variety of yard types found on the prototype, yet model railroader often are focused on "Division Point" yards. But real division points are often huge and another yard type might provide all for the same train make-up and break-down tasks that modelers desire. [I wrote a bit about the sometimes deadly urge for division point yards as one of my Eight Tricky Traps of Layout Design a few months ago.]

So I try to understand what type of yard has been intended in the layout under the analysis microscope. From that determination, I have an idea of what elements should be included and if the scope and scale of the yard is appropriate to its role on the layout.

A few basic things I look at are number, length, and the connections of yard tracks. A plethora of three-car-long body tracks may prove to be less useful than fewer, longer tracks, for example. While single-ended tracks are more space efficient for a yard, at least a few through tracks are also helpful. If a few of the classification tracks can connect directly to the main, this will be very helpful in actual operation. I also give a close look to any S-curves created in negotiating the yard ladder. And of course, my earlier check on rendering reality has already told me if the ladders are drawn too steeply or the ladder turnouts too close to one another.

Much of this analysis is naturally related to the type of yard being modeled and thus its purpose and role in the overall layout. Some elements that would be fatal in a through division point yard are completely benign in a branchline terminal, for example.

Next I will consider the mechanics of the overall yard design. Friend Craig Bisgeier's "Ten Commandments of Yard Design" is a very helpful introduction to these ideas. This useful checklist takes some unnecessary flack, in my humble opinion. Yes, it's true that not every prototype yard has a dedicated yard lead, for example. But these tended to be small yards with much lower train density than most modelers want to run. In typical model environments, a yard lead is usually a big help to keeping things flowing smoothly. All in all, I believe that most neophyte model railroad layout designers would have much better results by following Craig's advice than by ignoring it. [Maybe if Craig had called them "Tips" instead of Commandments, self-proclaimed experts wouldn’t feel so compelled to nit-pick ... but I digress.]

In particular, I'm looking for the steps that are necessary for a train to arrive, swap blocks of cars, terminate, or originate (depending on the role of the yard). How many steps are required? How many different backing moves? How often will the flow of through traffic be blocked during the process? This simple process of walking through these operations often flunks a yard that might otherwise appear to be well-designed at first glance. Sometimes the fix is simply adding or moving a crossover. Other times, it's a much more invasive procedure -- and the patient does not always survive. Many newbie model railroad layout designers lack any experience with actually operating yards, of course, so they're not able to walk through these steps, to the detriment of their designs.

My next yard test is related, and that is to try to get a sense of capacities and flows through the yard. Will the yard operators be able to keep up (if dedicated) and/or can the through train crews do their work efficiently? If not, the yard is going to be a chokepoint for operations. In both the Model Railroader special issue I referenced earlier and here on-line, I've highlighted a number of tips that can help keep yards flowing smoothly. Some are design related, some operations-related. But when I analyze a track plan, I'm trying to understand the impact of the yard configuration on the generation and flow of traffic and if there are any subtle roadblocks to efficient operation.

My final yard check is the basic appearance and "railroadiness" of the yard configuration. Compound yard ladders are very space efficient, for example, but tend to be rare on the prototype where crewmembers would need to cross tracks repeatedly to throw switches. Sometimes these complex yard ladders are the only way to make a yard fit, but I think it can detract from the overall appearance. This is pretty subjective, but I think most people have seen enough photos of real-life yards to have a sense of this.

Whew! That was a lot on yards and I'm afraid I've only scratched the surface. Again, this took much longer to write about than to actually analyze a plan. We'll talk about Cornerstones and PICS next time.
Index to all five trackplan analysis posts

I love slide guitar in all its forms: bottleneck, pedal steel, lap steel, dobro, etc. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that it took me the longest time as a kid to figure out how players were making those sounds come out of a guitar (in my defense, it was pre-MTV). I was listening again this weekend to a fabulous collaboration album, The Word. Blues artists the North Mississippi All Stars teamed with absolute newcomer (at the time) Robert Randolph on pedal steel and producer / jazz keyboardist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin, and Wood) for this powerful album of gospel tunes inspired by the "sacred steel" guitar tradition of some black churches. The playing is exuberant and exhilarating. Since this album, Randolph has become established as a commercial artist, releasing some other music I enjoy. But in my opinion, none matches the pure joy of The Word.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Track Plan Analysis, Part 2

Continuing our track plan analysis discussion, one person asked me why I didn't focus earlier on layout vision and concept. After all, it's the first thing I ask about in the questionnaire I suggest for new clients. And when designing a model railroad track plan, it is the most important issue in my mind, by far.

But in analyzing an existing plan, I don't usually get there until a little later in the process. Bear in mind that it took me a lot longer to write about the first three steps (see earlier post below) than it does to go through them on a particular plan. A lot of this is intuitive for me at this point and I tend to jump around between these steps, not follow them rigorously. OK, back to our discussion.

4) Reality-based rendering

Whether hand-drawn or computer generated, a number of overly-optimistic errors can creep in. Track-to-track spacing, S-curves, impossible grades, unworkably tight turnout angles, and curves not meeting tangents at right angles can all be problems. Tracks too close to the benchwork edge or a wall also crop up quite often. I'm not looking for one small error; this is often systemic with a particular plan.

One thing that I see quite often lately is errors in plans drawn with general CAD programs. Sometimes the turnout angles are correct, but they've been drawn impractically close to the next turnout. In real life, it requires space for the points, so turnouts can't be lined up like sardines in a can.

The commercial press often uses general drawing tools to render the beautiful track plans seen in the magazines. These track plans sometimes contain many of these errors, since they are developed from author inputs of varying precision.

5) Train capacity, flow, and balance

Here I am looking at the overall scheme. In anything but the smaller plans, I'm trying to understand if there are sufficient passing tracks in the best locations to allow the desired traffic to flow. In double-track designs, the location and orientation of crossovers is the key factor. I'm trying to get an idea of what the typical and maximum train length can be, how many trains in motion at once, etc.

Friend and fellow former Layout Design Journal editor Joe Fugate has adapted formulae originally published by Dr. Roy Dohn (Model Railroader, June 1968) for this purpose. [Joe published these in LDJ#21, Fall 1998 and on-line here.] I find this mechanistic approach does not work well for me personally, but it is a way some have found useful to look at capacities and flow.

I prefer to look more qualitatively, considering the typical train length (what has been called a "lineal" by some). Where does a train of typical length fit, where may two trains meet or pass, how far apart are these locations, etc. Again, it took a lot longer to write these paragraphs than I spend on this element when considering a typical plan. But it scuttles more than a few plans whose meet/pass points are too few, too short, or too clustered.

For plans with staging, I am also considering at this step whether the number and length of the staging tracks is in balance with the passing sidings or meet/pass areas between crossovers. A ton of staging may not do much good if only two trains can be operated across the layout at once because of a lack of meet/pass points. Staging tracks much shorter than the typical meet/pass points are also an out-of-balance signal.

6) Leads, runarounds, and switchbacks (Oh, my!)

Yep, another pet peeve. The persistent overuse of switchbacks by model railroad layout designers sometimes makes a plan look busy but operate poorly. A recent published design requires five back-and-forth moves to serve one industry.

More generally, I am looking to see if runaround and lead lengths are consistent with industry track length, rolling stock and motive power length, and if many switching moves require blocking a busy mainline or moving a lot of previously placed cars at unrelated industries.

A surprising number of newbie plans contain no runaround or an unfeasibly short runaround. Or they have an 18" switchback switch lead to serve a 48" long track hosting three large industries.

This is one of the areas where I must fault the commercial press. They publish designs with these failings over and over again … it provides a very bad example for aspiring designers.


Whew! A lot of words so far for steps I usually do pretty quickly. But perhaps it will suggest areas to consider when analyzing plans on your own. Next installment: yards, Cornerstones, and PICS.

Index to all five trackplan analysis posts
My wife and I had the good fortune to see Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris in concert last summer in support of their All the Roadrunning album. After a fabulous solo vocal by Emmylou, Knopfler remarked to the audience, "There is only one … Emmylou Harris". I absolutely agree. She has been a favorite artist of mine for decades and I believe she is doing some of her best work now. I listened again this week to Red Dirt Girl, an album that showcases an artist still at a high point in her musicianship, but with the wisdom and strength that comes only from the experience of life's lessons learned. Moving, haunting, atmospheric … there is only one … Emmylou Harris.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Track Plan Analysis, Part 1

"Don't ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to." One of rock's more clever lines, penned by Peter Green in the early days of Fleetwood Mac. This phrase has been echoing in my mind recently after a couple of experiences trying to help newbie layout designers on the Internet.

Regular readers will already know my concerns about the simultaneous proliferation of cheap or free CAD software and weak layout designs on the Internet (some CAD, some pencil and paper). Undaunted, I still occasionally find myself trying to help people with their ideas (yes, I'm a slow learner). So both on-line in the forums and off-line in private emails, I've tried to offer design advice.

The outcomes are almost always disappointing. I think it's often a case of mismatched expectations and experience.

There's one group of folks posting designs who are looking only for adoration of their "baby", not for advice on how to make it better. Good luck getting these savants to incorporate needed changes. Another group possesses very little background on model railroad layout design principles but insists on pressing forward with their own design regardless. These situations can be very frustrating, because there's no common language to use: if the newbie doesn’t know what constitutes a runaround or a switchback, it's darn-near impossible to help them understand what you're trying to point out.

A final group just isn't serious about what they post. After many helpful respondents offer advice, the original poster replies, "Oh well, I'm not moving out of Mom's condo for at least two years anyway, so I'm not really sure what space I'll have." Thanks a bunch, Junior!

I enjoy helping people, but the individual interactions often seem unsatisfying for both parties. So what to do? Perhaps an answer is to spend a little time and effort in a few blog posts describing what I look for in analyzing a plan, in print, on-line, wherever.

I've written indirectly about some of these ideas before, in earlier blog posts about the 8 Tricky Traps of layout design (here, here, and here). But this is looking at things from the other way around: how to analyze a model railroad track plan when considering it for long-term enjoyment, space efficiency, ease of building, maintenance, and operation, etc.

I'll list these ideas in a (very) roughly sequential order, but I don't follow this order rigidly in my analysis. I might skip around if there's a glaringly obvious shortfall or an evident highlight that merits priority focus. I'll present the first three ideas in this posting, with more to come in future blog entries.

1) See the space, not a table

Typically, the very first thing I like to understand when considering a model railroad layout design is the space it will occupy. What's the overall size of the room, how does one enter the space, where are the windows and other obstructions, etc.

Many plans are drawn and presented without any indication of the space which they occupy. And very often, these are drawn as one or a couple simple rectangles. For example: 6'X6'; two sheets of 4'X8' plywood in an "L", a 12'X12' monster with "Prairie Dog Village" pop-up holes, or the "sacred sheet" HO 4X8 (and regular readers know how I feel about those!).

I'm willing to bet that 9 out of 10 times, designing a model railroad layout solely to fit building material manufacturers' preferred sizes of sheet stock is a mistake. It's easy to see that a more-interesting layout will fit in the same sized room as will a 4X8, once one considers the aisles necessary for construction, maintenance, and operation.

It's certainly more challenging to design a layout that makes best use of the available space, but the rewards of greater long-term interest and better access make the extra effort worthwhile.

While considering the space, I also think about aisles, duckunders (if any), and overall reach required. Lots of plans flunk out at this stage, or require substantial rethinking and rework.

2) Thematic schematic

A model railroad schematic is the unwinding of the track plan to show the relationships between the various elements and connections. When I consider the schematic of a plan, I am looking first to see if it is logical and comprehensible (not the same thing!). Next I am thinking about what themes or concepts this schematic can support from an operating and/or model railfanning standpoint.

The image below is John Armstrong's Pennsylvania and Potomac from 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders.

When we unwind this plan into its schematic, we discover that it's basically a continuous-run with a reversing connection.

With this type of schematic, it's possible to support a decent amount of operation, even in a relatively small space. Layouts with a lot of odd alternative routings and short-cuts can be hard to understand and operate and may not prove interesting in the long run.

I don't always sketch out the schematic when looking at a straightforward track plan, but it's a step I will take when trying to analyze something more complex. Since many designers either don't understand schematics or don't bother to check them, many plans are offered up for discussion (or even published) with inherent routing flaws.

3) To stage or not to stage

Personally, I like staging. I include it in most of my designs because I like the idea of trains leaving the visible layout to go "somewhere else" and for trains to arrive on the visible layout from "somewhere else". This gives me the feeling that the visible modeled scene in front of me connects with, and is influenced by, the larger unmodeled world.

Having said that, I'm not one to insist that every model railroad track plan requires staging, although many more could benefit from staging than are drawn with it. It depends on the owner's desires for the layout. An interest in operations or model railfanning seems to me to suggest staging, while a layout designed instead primarily for display of models might not suffer through lack of staging. (And some model railroaders just can't see the point of placing any track where it's secluded or hidden.)

What I am looking for in this step is to see if the owner's desires are reflected in the plan. Assuming there is staging, I am next looking for accessibility, capacity and the flexibility in the way the staging connects to the fully modeled scenes. Are the staging tracks sufficient in number and length to support the owner's desires and/or rolling stock inventory? Can trains from staging run only one way around the layout with no way to return?

I recently saw an HO layout design posted with a number of staging tracks that appeared to be about 18" to 24" in length. Unless it's an interurban or streetcar layout (and this was not), those clearly aren't long enough to be useful. Yet the design was greeted with the standard "Great, you’ve got staging!" litany of comments from the forum peanut gallery.

Track plans that survive this first round of analysis pass on to the consideration of more subtle, but equally important, elements. More on those later.

Monday, October 01, 2007

You're not an expert if …

One of the things I find just plain silly is the large number of people on Internet forums who believe that they can present themselves as expert modelers by parroting certain stock criticisms or truisms that they feel denote expert status. As a public service, here are seven of these tired bromides … none of which mark you as an expert modeler.

Criticizing Model Railroader magazine does not make you an expert modeler.

No, it’s not perfect for everyone, but MR is the "big tent" that serves most of the hobby pretty well. Yeah, yeah, we get it, you're telling us you're much too advanced for MR magazine. We just don't believe you. Or care.

Unstinting loyalty to Athearn Blue Box does not make you an expert modeler.

Good grief. There are lots of terrific models on the market today. Some of Athearn's products are fine … some, with their warped car weights and meat-grinder drives, are better left as a hoary memory of the past.

Worshipping at the altar of Allen (or Ellison, or Westcott, et al) does not make you an expert modeler.

Being a groupie doesn't impart any special status to your modeling. Especially if it closes your mind to the myriad different approaches and concepts that can inform and improve your modeling and enjoyment of the hobby.

Complaining about prices does not make you an expert modeler.

No, it's not the world's cheapest hobby. But allowing for inflation, model railroading gear is a better buy relative to the past than are homes, gasoline, and automobiles. (Here's a tip: complaining about the price of cars doesn't make you Jeff Gordon, either).

Denigrating newbies and casual hobbyists does not make you an expert modeler.

Still haven’t started your layout because you haven't yet tracked down the names of the porters in all the Pullman cars operating over your stretch of mainline on April 9th, 1955? Your dedication to prototype authenticity is awe-inspiring. But it doesn't impress me to hear you rant about the guy who's actually building and enjoying something, albeit with some anachronisms. In fact, complaining about that guy's lack of modeling rigor just makes you sound like a bitter twit. Yo bro', it's a hobby!

Constantly predicting the death of the hobby does not make you an expert modeler.

These self-appointed Jeremiahs of the Johnson Bar harp incessantly about the impending death of the hobby, brought on by the proliferation of ready-to-run, the horrifying influx of unwashed masses who don't know their John Allen from their John Armstrong, and the fluoridation of public water supplies. Not that these folks ever do anything to bring newcomers into the hobby. Oh no, they've got much too much on their plate defending the hobby from the rabble who just want to build layouts and enjoy the process.

Kvetching about ready-to-run does not make you an expert modeler.

Face it, pilgrim, the hobby has changed. Models today are much more detailed than even 10 to 15 years ago. Way back when, RTR models were just kits that someone had assembled … now they are engineered for efficient production. Not everybody has time and skills to whip up an SP C10 2-8-0 MacGyver-like from two old tin cans and a roll of solder. But they can still build a great layout and that's a fine thing. And if you insist that scratchbuilding everything is the only true way to model railroad, have at it! Let us know how the armature-winding is going …

Of course, the people who need these tips the most won't see themselves in this list. They'll just stay in the group I like to call Doggedly Fretting about Unimportant Stuff (DFUS). In case you're wondering, that acronym is pronounced "Doofus".

Note: This post in no way is meant to criticize people who make the investment in time and effort to improve their skills, scratchbuild, and/or research the prototype. I find their efforts appealing and motivating. I have also found most of the true expert model railroaders I've met to be helpful, inclusive, and embracing of change. Unlike most of the DFUS crowd.

Warren Haynes has long been a favorite. Another member of the extended Allman Brothers family, his brawny vocals and smooth playing are a nice complement. Gigs with the Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead(!), his own Gov't Mule, and solo make him one of the hardest working guitarists in rock. I enjoyed listening to Gov't Mule's The Deep End (Vol. 1) this weekend, which saw the surviving members of the original band teaming with a legendary roster of guest bass players, vocalists, and guitarists. The results are nicely diverse and it's interesting to hear some legendary players inspiring, and inspired by, Haynes and drummer Matt Abts.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lost weekends

I've never been a big partier, so the title is not referring to some dissipative debauchery. Instead, it's describing the handful of weekends I've spent infatuated with a change in direction of what I plan to model. Most of these have been brief divergences driven by some off-hand discovery, article, or idea.

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1997, my plans were to build a proto-freelanced shortline/secondary mainline based on the proposed-but-never-built Midland Pacific. My layout design and operating plans for the Midland Pacific were covered in detail in the Layout Design SIG's Layout Design Journal # 35, December 2006.

Within a few years, I shifted concepts to a prototype-based Bay Area plan focused on San Jose and environs. I worked on this for a couple of years, until one day while on a walk I realized that San Jose was ten pounds of sugar in the five-pound sack that was my garage. The only way I could get all the things I really wanted into a layout was to proto-freelance. This led me to the Oakland Harbor Belt (OHB) layout currently under construction in the garage. I remain happy with this concept and I'm looking forward to it slowly taking shape.

But along the way, I've had ever-so-brief dalliances with other ideas, locales, eras, even scales. There was the one long holiday weekend (while my family was out of town) spent feverishly on the computer wrapping an HOn3 Hawaiian-themed proto-freelance layout into my garage space. Operations would have been somewhat limited with no interchange, but at least my HO-chauvinist friends could have read the car numbers. I decided I liked the OHB better, but I did get the germ of an idea for an article out of it, slated for publication soon in the commercial press. So that weekend wasn't really lost.

Another model RR crush was on the Central California Traction (CCT), an eminently modelable traction line turned diesel shortline. (Fan site here, the RR's official site here) This one was pretty serious, dropped only when I decided the lack of suitable models in N scale for the period in which I wanted to set the layout was going to be too difficult for me to overcome. Friend Dave Stanley has since written a terrific book on the CCT with Jeffrey Moreau. Fortunately, the book had not been published when I went through my brief CCT obsession, or who knows where I would have ended up! Once again, the focus was not wasted, because later I had the chance to do a custom proto-freelanced HO design for a client based loosely on the CCT and the neighboring Sacramento Northern.

One other weekend fling was with the Modesto and Empire Traction. This is a very neat little shortline that does some pretty big-time railroading in a few miles of industrial park in central California. In the end, my interest in rail-marine brought me back home to the OHB, but the idea of shoehorning some tight HO curves into the garage for a couple of Bachmann 70-tonners was good for some heated doodling. Eventually cooler heads (and some radius reality!) prevailed.

This last affair came to mind this month with the article by friend Trevor Marshall in the October 2007 Railroad Model Craftsman. Trevor does a great job outlining the present-day M&ET and offering a neat Free-Mo based layout design concept. It's a two-part article, so I am really looking forward to next month's issue. This is a very modelgenic prototype, especially for contemporary or near-contemporary layouts. No tangible results yet from my M&ET infatuation, but there is that long, empty wall in my office … and there are still some 70-Tonners around ….

Each of these brief flirtations has ultimately strengthened my focus on the OHB. The explorations of different eras, themes, even scales helps bring to light the reasons I made the choices and trade-offs that led to this concept. Hopefully these lost weekends will be fewer in number (and less intense in severity) as construction continues, but I'm glad for the perspective they brought along the way.

This weekend's guilty listening pleasure was Un-Led-Ed by Dread Zeppelin. Yes, a reggae band fronted by an Elvis impersonator doing Led Zeppelin covers. I can't explain why I enjoy listening to it … and I have even less justification for why I bought the CD in the first place. It was LA, I was young .... (alright, younger) This is definitely a once-per-decade listen -- but I liked it! (Talk about a lost weekend …)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Too common to name

Thanks to the Discovery Channel, most of us know the word describing animals that are active at night and rest in the daytime (like most bats, for example) -- it's "nocturnal". But is the word for being active in the day and resting at night on the tip of your tongue? It's "diurnal". Because I was a biologist once (a long, long time ago), it's a word I know well. But for most people, it's not a regular part of their vocabulary.

Why is that? It would seem that the word (diurnal) that describes our own mode of life would be more common to us than a word (nocturnal) that describes a foreign mode of life. The reason it's not, I submit, is that some things are almost too common to notice, remark upon, or even name. But those common things make up most of our life experience. The exceptions are memorable, but the common occurrences, sights, and experiences make up our definition of normal life.

"So how does this relate to layout design, operations … or really, to anything I care about, Byron?" you may ask. Simple. When we build a layout or design an ops session, I think it's easy to become focused-in on something unusual, something unique. Some amount of that defines the character of a prototype or a place, to be sure. But too much emphasis on the exceptional can give our layouts or op sessions an air of unreality.

This came to mind recently looking at Jim Boyd's photo of an Illinois Central E6 passing through Rockford, Ill. in June 1965 in the October 2007 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman (page 47). The subject of his photo is obvious, the relatively unusual (by that time) E6 on the point of the Land O' Corn. But there are a myriad of details in the rest of the photo that scream -- OK, whisper -- "reality". The longer I looked at the photo, the more these became obvious: signs hanging from storefronts; some windows open, some closed; access ladders; power poles; etc. While the rare E6 is interesting, the humdrum details make the photo look real.

If we were asked what we noticed about the photo, most of us would be hard-pressed to name a lot of these everyday elements -- they are so common we filter them out. But they are worth the extra effort to think about and include in a design or ops session. Layout Design SIG founder Doug Gurin and others speak of "modeling typicality", and that's excellent advice. And of course, it's possible to overdo these details into a cluttered mess that overpowers the viewer. The typical is not always easy to appreciate, or easy to capture, but its ubiquity makes it an important consideration.

An "eye for the usual" sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it's modeling the things that are "too common to model" that gives a scene life.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Preview of coming attractions

Friend Bart Thurber has already contributed substantially to my Oakland Harbor Belt layout. He's researched the locale and railroads that served it during many dusty hours in the Oakland Library's archives, joined me for study jaunts to see what's left of the prototype railroads in the area, and been a strong supporter of the concept.

But now he's really gone above and beyond … building his own version of a key element of the OHB. Alice Street Yard was the Santa Fe's outpost on Oakland's inner harbor, a pocket yard served only by car float from Richmond. (For more on Alice Street, refer to W.W. Childer's fine article in The Santa Fe Railway Historical & Modeling Society's Warbonnet, Third Quarter 2001.)

Bart's done a great job of squeezing an HO representation of Alice Street into a spare-bedroom-sized space. He was kind enough to invite me over to operate (or was it that I was there and invited myself to operate …). The layout is still in its early phases and Bart has yet to apply any of his fine modeling skills to the structures. Most of the industries are still mock-ups, but I had a very enjoyable time working the yard, team tracks, freight house and associated industries in response to the arrival of a couple of car floats (actually cars Bart interchanged by hand from storage drawers beneath the benchwork).

For a nearly-new layout, things ran well and we had only a couple of very minor hiccups. It was terrific fun actually operating for a change while Bart busied himself with the "hands-on" interchange and working the nearby SP tracks with another throttle. He's taken the time to add a coat of earth-colored paint and sprinkle a bit of ground cover. That, along with the industry mock-ups, was more than enough to put me in a fun railroadin' frame of mind.

Even better, I was essentially "test driving" a section of my own layout years before I will get to that phase of construction. During my planning, I've wondered if switching on my own depiction of the Alice Street Yard would be varied enough to hold an operator's interest. After this preview of coming attractions, I think it's going to be great. But, Bart, I might need to do some additional research … umm … maybe I'd better come by and operate some more …

Gavin DeGraw's 2003 album Chariot is a well-produced pop package. That description might put some people off, but I have enjoyed listening to it lately. Crisp but unpretentious guitar work by Michael Ward (Ben Harper, Shelby Lynne, Wallflowers) sets off DeGraw's vocals and keyboards while adding just a touch of Keith Richards-style bluesy greasiness to "Chemical Party" and a driving southern rock feel to "I Don't Want to Be". DeGraw's voice flows easily from a slightly gritty Black Crowes-esque vibe on the latter to a soulful strut on "(Nice to Meet You) Anyway". Yeah, the teens swooned for the "Chariot" video and know DeGraw from One Tree Hill, but I don't hold that against him.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A pleasant surprise

I've written quite a bit in my life: marketing and business plans, technical documentation, ad copy, articles on technology, ghost-written book chapters, even the odd model railroading article. But it was a neat surprise to open my copy of Model Railroader's How to Build Realistic Layouts: Freight Yards special issue this week. Obviously, I knew what my article "A Baker's Dozen Yard Ideas" would include -- I wrote the text and prepared some of the rough illustrations. But Andy Sperandeo and the folks at Kalmbach matched up portions of the text with file photography and new illustrations that added a lot to the piece. It's rare that I write something and feel that the final result is significantly better or more engaging than what I submitted, but in this case, it surely was.

The rest of the magazine is pretty interesting, too. I don't know if these special more-than-a-magazine-not-quite-a-book issues sell well from a marketing standpoint. But it was a real pleasure to see my work showcased in this one.

(Parenthetically, I have also been a bit surprised that a few folks don't seem to know that a "baker's dozen" is thirteen. When I was a kid, it was common for one additional donut or other baked treat to be included when a dozen of the same item was purchased (this carries on for donuts at our local purveyor). In this era of pre-packaged foods (and healthier eating!), perhaps it's not surprising that the phrase is less well-known. Interestingly, the baker's dozen seems to have originated in England out of a fear of penalties for selling a customer short.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Three sides to every story

I had a fun meeting with (hopefully) a future layout design client this week. He's getting close to finalizing a new layout space, excellent modeler, knows his prototype really well, has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish. And that prototype is new to me, fairly unique with a lot of character. All in all, a project I am genuinely looking forward to.

Generally, I think he and I share the same overall concept and vision of the layout. But even so, we have significant differences of opinion on the inclusion of some scenes over others. (Needless to say, the client always has the final choice, although I try to make my case well in the discussion.)

It is always fascinating for me to see how two relatively knowledgeable people can take the same prototype, givens and 'druthers, etc. and distill different visions of a layout. Our vision for a layout design is influenced both by the way we see and by the way we visualize -- two words that seem the same but are mirror images of one another.

His vision comes out of many years spent studying and admiring the prototype and designing his own earlier successful layout. There are towns and scenes he wants because he wants them. More justification isn't possible -- or necessary. Those towns are the sine qua non* of the prototype and region to him. At the same time, from my outsider's perspective, there are different towns and scenes that hold a particular appeal because they communicate something especially unique about the prototype. Well, and OK, a couple of them just fit better in the space.

There are three sides to this story: the historical reality of the prototype -- where it went and what it did; my client's heartfelt vision and visceral understanding of the line; and my own inclination toward choosing scenes that tell a unique story of the prototype and era (and oh by the way, will fit!).

The creative tension between these "three sides" of the story will ultimately result in a better layout. And selfishly, the challenge and reward in coordinating these many different elements is what makes layout design so much fun for me.

* from the Latin: "Without which, not; an indispensable condition"

My musical listening has finally moved back into this century with Steve Morse's Major Impacts. Morse is an incredibly gifted guitarist, beginning with the Dixie Dregs, then his own solo career, with some time out as "hired gun" guitar slinger with later-day incarnations of Kansas and Deep Purple. (Those two gigs alone tell you something about his range.) Major Impacts is unique -- Morse plays his own original tunes written and performed in the style of his major influences. Thus, there's a song in the style of the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, etc. (not covers, but original compositions). In a couple of interesting cases, Morse links some performers together in a single tribute, such as Jeff Beck/Alex Lifeson (Rush)/Eric Johnson. Listening to these multi-artist-inspired tunes is very interesting because one hears not only their influences on Morse, but on one another. And the Leslie West (Mountain) inspired tune sounds like Morse is channeling West's heavy licks note for note and tone for tone. Amazing instrumental virtuosity!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Change is choice

When I moved to the Bay Area, I had the pure dumb luck to pick a house a few miles away from custom layout builder Rick Fortin. Those of you who have seen some of my articles in the hobby press know that I have helped out a bit with construction and op sessions at Rick's layout over the last eight or nine years.

The quality with which Rick builds is an inspiration, and I've learned a lot just by being around the layout. But I still learn new lessons. A few days ago I dropped by while Rick and mutual friend Ted Thorson were reworking scenery as part of a project to put a connecting shortline into its first phase of operation. Rick has been extensively reworking sections of the layout roughed-in just a few years ago to create more realistic scenery profiles and add operating elements.

For many people, the thought of cutting into (even roughed-in) scenery is daunting. But Rick is always willing to make changes. This acceptance of the work required to make changes opens up many new choices, even for sections of the layout already in operation. One lesson learned for me is recognizing that every decision isn't "once and for all". If you're willing to make changes, it provides more choices in the future.

And that, in turn, helps diminish the "paralysis by over-analysis" so many of us experience.

Perhaps not the kind of guy you'd want your daughter to marry, but the late Warren Zevon had a keen eye, rapier-like wit, and certainly knew his way around a hook. While some of the lyrics are a little disquieting, A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon is a lively look inside his mind and a time travel trip to the '80s. Nifty slide guitar and lap steel parts by Waddy Wachtel and David Lindley and that bright country-tinged production heard often in the era made this a fun listen this afternoon.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What's it worth?

Those Mastercard commercials are so ubiquitous that they've become shorthand in our culture. You know, the "insect repellent, 5 dollars; allergy medicine, 6 dollars; not spending your vacation scratching and sniffing? Priceless" commercials?

I was reminded of that as I surveyed my not-very-quickly-building layout domain in the garage. Because I changed the plan significantly post-first sawdust, I had to change the staging yard from one side of the garage to the other, then change the location of the loop in staging from one end of the yard to the other.

Throughout, I was trying to keep the forlorn and lonely body tracks of the original staging shelf. This led to an increasingly challenging series of mental and ladder gymnastics to try to make everything line up, even though I had flipped the whole thing end-for-end and side-to-side.

Then I realized, what was I actually saving? A piece of homasote and some flex track. Now it's true I hate to waste ... growing up with two parents who lived through and remembered vividly the Great Depression will do that to you. Oh, and I am what you'd call ... er ... stubborn.

But this had gone past frugality to stupidity. So in one swift motion, before I could change my own mind, I backed out the handful of screws holding homasote to plywood, broke the thing into chunks, and stuffed it into the trash can.

Not having to live for years with an earlier mistake? Priceless.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

And now for something (not) completely different …

You know how sometimes friends who know of your interest in trains, but not the specifics, call you up about an article they've seen or an event that's happening in the area? That's always a kindness, but sometimes it's really tangential to my own hobby interests, like a display of a model of Lincoln's Funeral Train made entirely of Popsicle sticks or something. But once in a while an event that seems outside my main interests can still be engaging.

A non-model-railroading friend called to ask if I had heard about the EUROWEST 2007 train show at the Hiller Aviation Museum* in San Carlos, CA. Well, I've ridden trains in several European countries, but it's not a major point of my modeling interest. However, I did need a break from room (i.e., garage) prep and benchwork construction, so off we went.

I'm glad we did. Some neat modular layouts organized by members of the European Train Enthusiasts, including both Northern California and Southern California contingents.The photo is from last year's layout displayed by the So Cal group (Rick Anglin photo).

A local modeling acquaintance I happened to see there had his modules in the Nor Cal Meter-gauge HO layout, which had some neat features one does not often see in modular layouts. One of these was the ability to have a grade from one end of the layout to the other, facilitated by leg-height adjustment of up to a foot on each module and end loops. A couple of the modules had appealing curved track arrangements, and the group uses an interesting concept of "station" and "scenery" classes of modules. Station modules have sidings, industries, and local controls, while Scenery modules have only the main line passing through.

It was a refreshing inspiration to see trains running through nice scenery (even if the prototypes were a bit unfamiliar), especially since some of the tedious construction tasks I'm working on now seem far-removed from actually operating trains of my own. I'll never be one to say "trains are trains", but this slight departure from my norm was fun and motivating.

*The Hiller Aviation Museum was also interesting in its own right. I grew up in the center of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff test-pilot universe near Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California and my Father was in the aircraft industry, working on such famous planes as the A-1 Sky Raider, B-58 Hustler, F-104 Starfighter and the SR-71 Blackbird, among others. But I was surprised to find out how much aerospace history was also made in the Bay Area.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


As my friend and modeling conscience Mike asked, "Was that loud thump I heard the sound of you falling off the 'No Forum' Wagon?" Yep, guilty as charged. But hey, in only a couple of days back I've already managed to:
A) Get in a ridiculous argument with a notorious provocateur (I won, by the way)
B) Provide some detailed advice and references on a track planning question that was answered with "oh, yeah, thanks anyway ... I decided to build some models instead ..."
C) Receive a couple of testy emails for my dislike of "sacred sheet" HO 4X8s
D) Fire off outraged email screeds to perfectly innocent volunteers about others' use of forums to promote for-profit endeavors in an unseemly manner
... and ...
E) Do a couple of other things that I'd rather not talk about.

Yessirree, it's just like riding a bike ... some skills you never lose ...

Once I figure out this moderation thing, I'll be right as rain, I just know it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Ignoring the log in one's own eye

A recent article hyping one of the computer-based operating programs slammed car cards and waybills as being a "model railroad thought". Meanwhile, the author of the article apparently sees no irony in the fact that in order for the computer-based system to work properly and still allow conductors and yard masters some autonomy, these operators must constantly be feeding their moves into a networked computer. Yep, just like the real railroads did back in the 1950s. No wait, real railroads didn't do that in the '50s … or the '60s … or even the '70s, in a lot of places.

I guess a 1950s conductor typing away at a computer keyboard while looking at a glowing LCD display doesn't qualify as a "model railroad thought" ...

Everyone has their own preferences, interests, and corresponding compromises. It's a shame when partisans of one scheme or another choose not to be even-handed in what is ostensibly a non-commercial article. What is there to fear?

"Every day, in every way ...

… I'm getting better and better." Interesting aphorism, huh? Has sort of a '60s-'70s vibe, like "Have a nice day" and "I'm OK, you're OK". But in fact the saying and the concept are quite old, as I learned while re-reading a favorite book, The Lying Stones of Marrakech by the late paleontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould*. This self-help concept was developed in the 1920s by French physician Emile Coué, who found that patients who repeated this positive phrase daily along with receiving medication did better than those who received only medication.

Gould contrasted Coué's idea of incremental day-to-day improvements with the history of science, which tends to develop in discontinuous "bursts". Interesting how model railroad projects seem to benefit from both types of development: the half-hour-a-day squeezed out of a busy schedule as well as the multi-day building binge. (The latter usually in response to some sort of external deadline.)

Hopefully you're doing better at both the "every day, in every way" projects and the "big burst" projects than I've been able to manage recently. But the decks are reasonably clear this weekend, so I hope to make some progress. I'll let you know.

*Besides being a ground-breaking scientist and one of the best essayists in history, Gould was also distantly related to the railroading Goulds, Jay and George Jay, whose robber-baron efforts helped shape the railroad landscape of the late 19th- and early 20th century. Arguably, it's train related.

While building benchwork in the garage I've been listening to some older CDs that provide the right kind of intensity for the task. A fun re-discovery was Living Colour's 1988 album Vivid. Heavy guitar riffs, powerful vocals, and a solid funk-infused rhythm section. The group disbanded in 1995, but apparently has reformed for some concerts recently. Always one of my favorite music videos, although the late-'80s fashions are a tad dated (who would have dreamed Body Glove shorty jumpsuits weren't going to take off in the mainstream?)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sometimes it's bugging you for a reason …

Before I started designing layouts for others, I thought the process of layout design was inevitably fraught with roadblocks. But in the last few years, I've noticed that designing layouts for others is sometimes challenging, but there's always a way forward. I'm much more likely to be stymied working on my own design, however.

I think this is because there is always a process of concession and compromise in layout design. When working with someone else's "givens and 'druthers", it's relatively easy to prioritize between conflicting elements. But deciding which of my own precious desires to toss overboard is still challenging. And sometimes I make a decision on my own design that nags at me.

One of these was my plan for ATSF's Alice Street Yard*. This "pocket" prototype served a clutch of customers along Oakland's Inner Harbor with tracks that were otherwise unconnected to the Santa Fe except via a car float from Richmond. The Alice Street trackage, quite compact in real life, was spread out over an area about half-again the scale size of the real thing in twisting and turning things around in the garage. Holy selective expansion, Batman!

And it has bugged me.

So it's back to the drawing board for Alice Street. I'm not sure exactly where it's going to end up, maybe as a "Sklylobe"† over the car, but I feel more comfortable now that I will be exploring the essential cramped nature of the prototype.

Thanks for visiting, see my latest posts here

*Alice Street was covered extensively in W. W. Childers' article in the Third Quarter 2001 issue of The Warbonnet, the Santa Fe Railway Historical and Modeling Society's excellent magazine.

†I wrote about the Skylobe concept in the
LD SIG's Layout Design Journal, issues #28 and #35.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The (slightly) intentional railfan

A few months ago I wrote about my "accidental railfan" trip along the joint UP/BNSF Tehachapi crossing. As you may recall, I was not well prepared: no camera; less-than-interested car mates; etc.

Well, I had the chance to travel through the area again and especially since I am working on a design that features the area, I thought I would be a little more serious this time. OK, but not too serious. It seems the family needed the digital while I was gone, so I bravely set out with an old film snapshot camera. First stop on the way down to So Cal: Caliente, a key element on the layout project.

After getting my bearings, a quick look around and I spy a decent spot to get a bird's-eye view. Climb up the hill and I hear flanges squealing. Real railfans go out all day and never see a thing; I bumble onto a train in the first five minutes. Oh yeah, and the camera's down in the car. Nuts! It was great though, you shoulda seen it.

Anyway, I realize this mixed BNSF manifest is on its way toward the Loop … and as it happens, so am I! Back in the car, return to the Freeway and jump off again at Keene, wind along down to Tunnel 9 on the famous Loop. This time I take the camera with me. The sun is on its way down, so there won't be a long wait one way or the other -- either a train will arrive or it will be dark. But soon enough I hear airhorns in the distance.

In the late afternoon light the same train I saw in Caliente is curving around the entrance to Tunnel #9 and the Loop. Quick photo or two and a friendly (I hope) horn blast from the engineer startles me as BNSF Techno-Toaster 4868 wheels its train of reefers, tankcars and coal or coke hoppers around the Loop. Oh, yeah, and I took the requisite crossover shot. OK, I'm still not sure I'm cut out to be a modern day railfan, but that was pretty neat.

On the return leg to the bay area, I decide to be a little more organized about this. With a photo or two at the Loop already in the camera, I want to focus on some other areas. Couple of quick photos in Mojave to capture some neat things that might not be there for long (like the sign at White's Motel) and I see a BNSF train headed out of town toward Tehachapi. It's not often that I have seen a loco defaced with graffiti, but this GP-35 has received a vandal's unwanted attention.

On up over Tehachapi on a beautiful spring Sunday (mid-May). Returning to Caliente, I drive around for a few establishing shots that I need for the track plan. I was surprised to see a few cars parked at the (closed on Sunday) Post Office and a couple of guys standing around talking. Locals, I guess -- maybe this passes for an outing in Caliente on a Sunday afternoon.

Then I head just outside of town to my vantage point from a few days before. OK, this is a pleasant afternoon eating a sandwich the Moms packed in the shade of an old oak, but this railfanning outing seems to be more like a solitary picnic sans train. (Yes, I'm a wimp -- I did say I was only a slightly intentional railfan.)

But then, airhorns. A BNSF TOFC (Trailer on Flatcar) train is working its way into Caliente. I catch it across the valley as it pulls in from the site of the former Tunnel #1/2. Soon the full train is laid out around the curve as BNSF 4597 rolls by my sidehill perch.

Just after the train pulls out of town, I start to do the same. Roaring past me at the intersection are the three cars that were parked at the Post Office. Railfans! (The intentional variety, no doubt.) From the layout design project, I know the BSNF train is headed to Bealeville, which I'll cross on the road out of Caliente.

The more serious railfans are long out of sight as I wind up the hill to Bealeville. When I arrive, they are nowhere to be found, until I look up on the nearby hills where they have perched, tripods at the ready. Within minutes, the TOFC train we saw in Caliente has arrived, stopped, and dimmed its headlight. And in the other direction comes the same mixed consist I had seen earlier departing Mojave. This quick photo of the resulting Bealeville meet was the last on that roll of film, so my railfan excursion had come to an end. (My more serious railfanning comrades raced off to parts unknown to bag their next ream of images.)

All in all, a lot of luck, some very pleasant time spent in pretty country, useful research for my client's project, and a few photos to remember it all by. Not bad for a somewhat-less-accidental railfan …

Thanks for visiting, click here to see the latest posts

Currently listening to Appalachia Waltz by Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Conner. This instrumental music has a timeless, evocative, instantly nostalgic feel that really needs no description except to say that it is truly beautiful.