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.