Click here for a better view of the HO City Belt switching layout
Rick Mugele is a real-life railroader (now on the BNSF), and for years he has cranked out amazingly compact designs that challenge conventional thinking and stretch the envelope of what's possible. By 1995, when I encountered his City Belt design in a back issue of the Layout Design SIG's Layout Design News (LDN-8, August 1991), I was beginning to realize that model railroad operations could be a lot more engaging than I had imagined. Mugele's article described the real-life concept of "sure spots": cars aren't dumped willy-nilly into sidings, rather in many places they are required to be placed at a particular door, over an unloading grate, or below a discharge spout. The City Belt was provided as an example, based on real–life industries in Oakland and Richmond in California served by the (then) ATSF.
As compact as it is, the City Belt layout contains a couple of dozen "sure spots" – offering the same operations interest as much larger layouts that lack this added sophistication and realism of precisely spotting cars as on the prototype. This small layout includes key realism-boosting features that are lacking in the majority of the switching layout designs proliferating unchecked on the Internet (and even in the commercial press).
These all-too-seldom-seen desirable features include interchanges and yards – places for the loads and empties to travel to- and from. Industries are (relatively) large, with multiple tracks and multiple spots on many of those tracks, just like the real thing. Even in these tight quarters, there are no double-ended switchbacks that would require one industry to be emptied before another may be switched. For example, the "Safeway Lead" (my designation) extends into the lower right corner to allow room to work without disturbing cars already placed at other industries. And a pair of run-arounds allow everything to be shuffled as required to be placed into spot order for the facing- and trailing-point industries.
It took me a while to fully appreciate another interesting feature: Mugele's use of double-sided backdrops. Combined with the different levels of trackwork, it allows a clever and efficient "overlap" of layout space. For example, the lead into the Safeway building passes below the visible yard directly above it and the Safeway complex's walls form an industrial building bay at GATX as well as creating the backdrop between the scenes.
Beyond these design elements, Mugele's City Belt radically changed my thinking about operations. Besides just transportation (moving cars in trains), there was also the idea of distribution: efficiently picking up and placing cars at individual industries. And the idea that cars came from, and went to, "somewhere else" was clearly more realistic than moving a car from the vinegar plant three feet to the pickle factory and back again. I could see that even a small urban-themed layout could offer operating enjoyment by replicating some of the tight quarters and intricate switching of the real thing. (And Denton's Kingsbury Branch a couple of years later just added fuel to the fire!)
As much as I admire the City Belt, it's probably packed a bit too tightly to be practical for most builders as drawn. Curves wind down to less than 15" radius and grades are a stout 4 to 5% or more. But building this same layout in a 5'X8' or 5'X9' in HO would allow one to ease many of these issues and improve accessibility to the hidden track. Or, as suggested by Frank Jozaites in LDN-8, the yard could be swung off to the side as a shelf on an adjoining wall, a very nice improvement if space is available. In N scale, the layout might fit well on a hollow-core door (and would be a real improvement over many of the switching layout designs proffered for that space).
The most creative layout designers not only render innovative track plans, they show us ways to make whatever layout space we have more engaging and satisfying. Rick Mugele certainly falls into that category, and his City Belt still inspires me today.