Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Better Start for Beginners

As I noted a while back, the searches that lead folks to my website, as well as threads on model railroad forums, suggest that there are a lot of newcomers to the hobby at this time of year. In addition, many people seem to find their way back to the hobby around the holidays. That's certainly understandable and a positive thing – we need new (and returning) blood to keep the hobby going.

But we seem to have some challenges in helping these newbies find their bearings and get started. Often, these folks are led to an HO 4X8 from 101 Track Plans, an Atlas track plan book, or similar sources. Or worse yet, encouraged to download a CAD program and design their own layout.

I am asking myself if these are really the best paths we can offer to newcomers. The first part of this question is, should we be recommending that absolute newcomers immediately start building a layout? That's always been the "standard" procedure, but does it serve everyone well? Some of these newcomers don't even have an idea of what scale they wish to pursue, let alone type of layout, era, prototype, etc.

Could it be that some might actually benefit from some more exposure to the hobby before beginning their own home layout? This could come formally through club membership or informally by helping out at an in-process layout. They might learn more (and more quickly) if they weren't trying to figure everything out from scratch. And if they were part of a modular club, they could get hands-on experience and a chunk of layout that could possibly be used later at home.

And if they are bound and determined to build a layout as a first step, would these newbies not perhaps be better-served by being directed to one of the start-to-finish layout books such as Marty McGuirk's new N scale layout-building guide -- or a Model Railroader magazine project?

Even though I have been critical of the track plans chosen for some of these efforts (and still am frustrated by some of them), perhaps these soup-to-nuts guides are a better choice, track plan warts and all, than sending the newbie down a path that ends with a neglected half-finished Plywood Pacific covered in dust in the corner of a basement.

I've seen quite a few of those forlorn abandoned HO 4X8s over the years. And it makes me wonder if there isn't some better path. I certainly don't have the answer, but I think it's worth considering before we send another complete beginner down a layout-building path.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bending the Mold

The new layout project beginning in the January 2010 Model Railroader magazine doesn't exactly "break the mold" -- but there is some welcome bending of project layout practices. Dick Christianson's track plan is not strictly rectangular and it's designed so that at least the mainline curves are broader then the bare minimum for the scale. It's nice to see an N scale, modern era, western U.S. project as well.

The lack of staging is a frustration, and purists may be critical of the use of KATO Unitrack. But it's the kind of layout a newcomer can relate to and undertake without a lot of experience or background.

Kudos to Christianson and to MR for exposing their readers to something slightly new and different.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Searching for the Sacred Sheet

It is interesting to analyze the keyword search activity that brings visitors to my website. Each Fall for the last few years, the percentage of searches including some variation on the words "HO 4X8 layout track plan" increases significantly. This percentage is substantial throughout the year, perhaps 20% of all searches that lead visitors to my web pages.

But in the Fall, this percentage grows. For September, it was 38% -- and if the past holds true, it will grow to 45% or more into the Winter*. As a point of reference, just 8% of searches in September included variations on "shelf layout" and 7% contained variations on "switching layout".

Since most of those "4X8"-related searches lead visitors to my argument against the traditional "sacred sheet" HO 4X8 layout, one might wonder if these searchers leave frustrated. But rather than a "bounce-off" (the web marketer's term for a one-and-done visit that lingers only briefly on a single page), many of these visitors seem to spend some time on that page. And more than half look deeper into the site.

I draw two conclusions from these data points. First, the idea of the HO 4X8, for its many demonstrable faults, is deeply rooted in the prospective model railroader's mind. Decades of magazine articles and layout books devoted to the good ol' HO 4X8 have created the perception that it is the ideal beginner's layout. Of course, this is far from true, but it shows how powerful that notion has become.

[I assume that many of these searchers are folks who are beginning in the hobby or returning to it after an absence, since the percentage increases so noticeably leading into the year-end holidays.]

But secondly, there is also a strong interest in alternatives to the HO 4X8 layout, if those are presented on equal footing with the sacred sheet. One can see this in how deeply many of these "4X8" searchers go into my site.

The decades-old fascination with the HO 4X8 sacred sheet is strong -- many are drawn to it like moths to a flame. The commercial press recognizes this and has catered to that interest (or pandered to it, depending on one's perspective). But a large part of the attraction of the HO 4X8 is due to the perception of its suitability that is created by the commercial publications' past over-promotion. I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether the resultant cycle is virtuous or vicious.

I hope that my small effort to educate folks on the alternatives helps at least some find a path that better suits their needs than the one-size-fits-few HO 4X8. In the same floor space, alternative layout footprints usually offer broader radii, better access, more engaging operations, and improved scenic opportunities. I'm glad to be playing a small part in telling that story.

* Update: It was just over 48% in December, 2009. The desire for the Sacred Sheet remains strong.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

In Name Only

I repeatedly make the mistake of wading into discussions of Timetable and Train Order on Internet forums. TT&TO is certainly the flavor of the month in model operations right now. Many are attracted to it because of the publicity from some well-known modelers who are TT&TO enthusiasts.

That's fine, except that folks are now going through all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify naming whatever compromised and bastardized version of the operating rules they adopt "TT&TO".

Some of these schemes are little more than sequence timetables that are set up to extend as trains run late. Others are Track Warrant Control in disguise … having none of the flavor of individual crew decision-making that so typify TT&TO.

But folks are obsessed with the Timetable and Train Order "badge of honor" -- so they call these weird hybrids "TT&TO" and are hyper-defensive toward any thoughtful consideration of what they are planning (or viable alternatives). No matter how much they corrupt the concept, they fight fiercely to keep the TT&TO moniker.

Bottom line, there are some circumstances of layout infrastructure, crew desires and capabilities, desired train densities, etc. that just don't work well with TT&TO in the model environment. But instead of facing that reality, these folks cling to the cachet of TT&TO -- even if in name only. Oftentimes, it seems to me they would be better off with another method of train control, even if slightly anachronistic for the modeled period, to more smoothly handle the high traffic volumes folks tend to run on model railroads. But no, it's TT&TO sine qua non.

I enjoy operating on TT&TO layouts (if the infrastructure and concept can support it) -- I've even helped set up TT&TO sessions on some layouts. So I've got nothing against TT&TO in principle. But it does bug me when people delude themselves and others with their ersatz schemes by labeling them "TT&TO". Choosing a train control method as a status-seeking exercise is a mistake, in my opinion.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Looking Back: the Ventura County Ry.

Things have been pretty hectic at LayoutVison Intergalactic HQ recently, so I haven't had time for a lot of blog posts. But I did finally put up another of my "might have been" layouts.

This one was based on the Ventura County Railway, which interchanges with the UP (formerly Southern Pacific) in Oxnard, CA. I lived nearby in Southern California at the time and it would have been a neat N scale switching layout in the oversized finished garage of the house I owned there (1989-1990 or so).

Click here for more on this track plan in my Layout Design Gallery

Bruce Morden wrote a great article on the Ventura County Railway in Layout Design Journal #26, Spring 2001, published by the Layout Design SIG. I reworked my design in 2001 for the article and looking at it again now confirms that it would have been an interesting layout to build and run, even if I would make a few changes if designing it today.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Slim Rails in Stages

It is great to see another of my custom layout designs published in the commercial press. The latest article in Model Railroad Hobbyist October, 2009 (issue #4) describes an HOn3 layout based on S.P's famous narrow gauge Keeler Branch (former Carson and Colorado). The track plan had to be designed in stages, since the room could only be occupied a bit at a time. Model Railroad Hobbyist is always free to download here.

Click here for a better view of this this track plan. For the full description of the track plan and operations, and great photos of the real-life railroad, download Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine, October 2009 (issue #4).

The article is thoroughly illustrated through the generosity of railroad historian and author Joe Dale Morris. Mr. Morris has recently published an extensive history of the last decades of the real-life line, Southern Pacific's Slim Rails in the Sunset: 1940-1960 (Southern Pacific Historical and Technical Society, 2008). The book is again available from the SPH&TS site or at dealers.

Unfortunately, I completed the design quite a while before Mr. Morris' book was available, it would have helped with some nagging questions. He is truly an expert on the topic.

The Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site in Laws, CA has preserved some of the equipment and buildings of the S.P. narrow gauge, and also generously made photography available.
The approval to publish photos of long-gone railroad scenes is sometimes very difficult to obtain. But when the copyright holders are as generous as they were in this case, it wonderfully enhances the final product.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

With Scenery, no Less

I've heard from a few folks over the years that they are building one of my published plans from an article or the website. My own small N scale switching layout has been done a couple of times in different scales.

Ben Earp sent along a photo of his recently completed version. Different era and locale, but it was fun to see what his version looks like. Modeling and photo by Ben Earp.

If any blog readers have ever built one of my published track plans or used a segment of one of my designs as a portion of your layout, I'd enjoy seeing a photo and reading how it turned out.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Power Failure

Why is there such a lack of decent-running affordable steam for Southern Pacific and Santa Fe in HO and N, yet the parade of Big Boys, 4-12-2s, and other oddball rarities (a Triplex?!) goes on and on? This question came up recently from one of my custom layout design clients. The neat transition-era California central valley HO layout we designed for him will lack decent SP and ATSF steam models appropriate for the layout's size and concept.

The conspiracy theorists (who are massively over-represented on model railroad forums) blame sinister plots dreamt up by evil marketers to force-feed us monster engines. But my technology marketing experience tells me that it's rare that marketing makes people buy something they absolutely don't want. I think the answer is simpler, but unfortunately still not hopeful for those looking to buy small-to-medium sized engines (especially of western oil-burning prototypes).

Let's take all the folks willing to buy a typical SP-style oil-burning 2‑8‑0, for example, in HO or N scale. Sure, there are plenty of SP modelers who would jump at one, but there's probably not a large general interest in the broader market. Just too plebeian for the masses.

SP 2‑8‑0 #2562 at West Oakland in 1954. Tom Gray photo from the Tom Dill collection. This locomotive is preserved and on display at the Arizona Railway Museum in Chandler, AZ. More locomotive info and photos here.

On the other hand, a Big Boy appeals to many more than just the UP modelers. I've seen these monstrosities running on generic 5X9s, Maine Central layouts, everywhere. (And looking silly in the process, but that's just me.) And of course, thousands of Big Boys reside in boxes or on shelves because modelers just had to have one, but it won't run on the tight curves of their HO 4X8 (or they don't have a layout at all).

Our hobby seems to be intrigued by the biggest, the fastest, the most powerful. The manufacturers build these big engines (and multiple releases and competing models of them) because they do sell. More's the pity, but it seems to be the case.

So if I'm a manufacturer, which market segment will I go after: the badly-needed offering for a smaller segment; or the "me too" Big Boy that has a chance at a small piece of a larger segment? The flashy rarities seem the safer bet in our upside-down modeling world, where the mass market does not have an interest or understanding of the realism gained by modeling typicality. But I wonder if that's really true?

If just one myopic model railroad product manager would instead consider the actual trends in the hobby, they would see that the interest in accuracy in modeling rosters is growing. And this is especially true among those building operating layouts – which by their nature usually need more than one of a particular locomotive type.

No, there aren't as many modelers overall as in the "gotta have a Big Boy" segment, but there are fewer competitors. And each of the operating modelers would probably buy multiple copies of the mid-sized to smaller steam locomotives needed to fill out an operating roster.

Why do I believe this? Because modelers buy the diesel equivalents in very large numbers. SP 2‑8‑0 Consolidations were the GP-7s of their day -- and Geeps are popular year-in and year-out because of their usefulness on a variety of layouts. Yes, the odd (literally) DD40AX will sell, but tens of thousands more modelers buy Geeps.

So whaddaya say, model railroad manufacturers? How about one decent oil burning western prototype small-to-midsize loco?

No, I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Prototype designs are easier" -- Baloney!

One of the oft-repeated truisms about model railroad track planning is: "It's easier to adapt a prototype design than to freelance one". But I can tell you, that ain't always true!

I'm working on a few different designs right now. Some are fairly strictly prototype-based, others very freelanced. And the freelanced ones are a little easier. Here's what I mean:

In one design, for example, the real-life branch upon which the layout is based fits reasonably well into the somewhat challenging available space. And there's a terrific long stretch where a yard would fit so perfectly.

Unfortunately, it's not at all close to the relative location where the actual yard was located in real life. And no amount of contortion and contrivance magically transform the real-life branch. The design is working out OK in the end, but it's been a lot of work (most of it enjoyable).

On one of the freelanced projects, by contrast, I can move the yard to the best spot in the space relative to the room, to staging, and to other desired features. Because I have seen enough segments of real-life railroads and learned about how they work, I have a good foundation of knowledge for making the judgments about plausible locations for the various elements.

And that's the key -- for a neophyte without some background knowledge, freelance designs are more difficult to get right. So in that light, maybe the "Prototype is Easier" conventional wisdom is correct much of the time.

Programming note: Now that Fall is nearly here and readers' thoughts are turning back to model railroading, I'll be publishing blog updates more often again.

One of my favorite audio streams lately has been Texas Hellkitten Radio on Live365. The stream's motto of "… a little rockabilly, a little surf, a little blues …" is certainly accurate. It's interesting to hear nuggets from the past alongside more polished modern music that pays homage to those pioneers. And then there's the Psychobilly and Voodoobilly you just don't often hear that often anywhere. (OK, sometimes with good reason.) But overall, a fun trip to a Texas honkytonk -- without the smoke and the unnervingly sticky floor.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Talking Track Warrants

It was a pleasure to join the guys on the Model Railcast Show for another podcast (Show #76). While the primary topic was my recent article in the OpSIG's Dispatcher's Office magazine on Track Warrants and other operating forms, we also talked a bit about my bias toward layout designs that tell a story and a few other odds and ends.

Examples of Track Warrants and related forms from the Dispatcher's Office article are on my website.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The New 102

Kalmbach's recent publication of 102 Realistic Track Plans has much to recommend it. The track plans are generally much more practical than the chestnuts found in the 1950s‑era 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders, since many of them reflect layouts that have actually been built. Beyond the track plans, the additional planning tips that have been included are useful and reasonably up-to-date (although there's no mention of model railroad CAD).

Because of this, 102 Realistic Track Plans will likely be much more helpful to most aspiring layout builders than 101 Track Plans. Many of the plans include more-current ideas such as prototype inspiration, staging, interchange, and larger industries (my Four Cornerstones) – so they are more likely to get a newbie started out on the right foot.

The track plans are selected from designs published in Model Railroader, Model Railroad Planning, and Great Model Railroads in roughly the last ten years. It may be that this coincides with the change to digital creation of track plan art at Kalmbach. Each plan is accompanied by a brief information box with the original publication citation and some new comments by an MR Editor.

One of my designs is included, the N scale 4X8 Houston Port Terminal Railway track plan from MRP 2002. This design has been republished in multiple places by Kalmbach, I guess because of the 4X8 "sacred sheet" format. From an author's standpoint, I think the ideas in the Alameda Belt Line (MRP 2005) or Santa Maria Valley (MRP 2004) layouts are more engaging, but that's just my opinion.

Interestingly, 102 Realistic Track Plans is published as part of the "How to Build Realistic Layouts" series, rather than as a stand-alone book like 101 Track Plans. Perhaps the thought is to publish these more often, which would be welcome.

For future versions, there are a number of changes I would strongly suggest. The first is better attention to detail: there are some unfortunate cut-and-paste typos that are very confusing if one has not seen the original MR article.

Much more importantly, I wish that Kalmbach had been wiling to use the new text as a way to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of some of these plans. A number of the plans have flaws that would likely cause significant problems, such as too-sharp s‑curves on grades, an over-reliance on switchback industry spurs, and impossibly tight clearances for subterranean hidden tracks.

I understand that this is a tricky line to walk: too much criticism of a published design casts a bad light on the original planner (and on MR for including it). But the opportunity to provide more insight into the design process, trade-offs, and compromises is tremendous.

This new publication would also have been a chance to make use of some of the all‑new sections to highlight ideas that newbies find difficult to grasp but are nonetheless very important, such as staging -- but I recognize that there's only so much space that can be given over to expository text in a "track plan" book.

But those criticisms aside, 102 Realistic Track Plans lives up to its title in most respects. And it's a huge improvement over 101 Track Plans, in my opinion. I look forward to more of these. And I sincerely hope that Kalmbach will take advantage of future such publications to provide some background and instruction to readers through deeper discussions of re-published plans.

And while we're at it, might it not be time to re‑title the next printing of 101 Track Plans to alert readers to the realities (good and bad) of its content?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fixin' What Ain't Broke

When I was a young and enthusiastic first-time manager, one of my employees was an older gentleman originally from the Southern part of the US. After I described a complex new procedure we were going to put in place, he left the room muttering under his breath, "Fixin' what ain't broke …". As it turned out, he was absolutely right – the "old" way worked fine and my shiny new idea added nothing but complexity.

I often think of this when I read about people suggesting complex changes to the 4-cycle car-card-and-waybill (CC&WB) system. As regular readers of this blog and my articles in the Operation SIG's Dispatcher's Office (July 2007) know, I'm a big fan of the tried and true CC&WB. They are self-correcting, easy to get started and maintain, and they are used on so many layouts that most visiting operators know how to use them.

And yet, folks feel compelled to add more and more complications: three (or even four!) car card boxes for each industry, extra tags for cars that are still being loaded or unloaded, extra tags for cars that are off-spot, convoluted routing detail, etc., etc. Hey, if this seems like fun, knock yourself out! But the basic destination-based information on each cycle of the waybill can actually provide all of the car-routing sophistication needed with just one box per industry and reasonably complete information on the train instructions.

Not to say that there aren't some simple tweaks to the traditional system that can add interest. Bad Order, Icing, and Clean Out tags, for example, are simple to add but can enhance operating realism. And we should always be open to new ideas that provide a benefit in terms of easing reset overhead or improving the operator experience.

I find that many of the CC&WB permutations are suggested on Internet forums by theorists. They've rarely operated with CC&WB and have certainly never set up a session using the system, but they've got a lot of ideas for radical changes that are "needed". Maybe so. But "fixin' what ain't broke" might not be necessary when the basic system works so well.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Going Global

The Internet is an amazing thing. It's now possible to have one's attitude (and ancestry) questioned on forums all around the world! Before the Internet, it required people to actually have met me to form those kinds of opinions. Now that's progress!

I find it a lot of fun, actually …

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why I've Stopped Offering Advice

It's tremendously difficult for me not to try to help when someone posts to an Internet forum yet another mindless oval with an unworkable yard or a spaghetti-filled blob that should be called the Ragu Northern. But I've had to stop.

As the old joke goes, "Never try to teach a dog to sing. The results are poor, and it seems to annoy the dog." My endless exhortations for folks to step away from the CAD, learn some layout design principles, and develop a concept and vision for their layout before designing a track plan generally fall on deaf ears. (OK, there was one success recently, but it's the exception that proves the rule).

Instead, people just keep cranking out the CAD revisions – each new plan as infested with flaws as the last. Although the flaws often do mutate from revision to revision.

And what's worse, these neophyte designers often become understandably defensive about their precious track plan, no matter how hackneyed, impractical, or inaccessible. And then the forum chorus starts chanting, "Just build it, it'll be fine – it's your plan, do what you like" … talk about the blind leading the partially-sighted!

Anyway, finally, it's enough. As my wife often reminds me about other matters, "Byron, it's only 'help' if the other person wants it." So true.

Oh, I'll probably make an occasional exception for comments about published plans – not so much pride-of-poster-ownership there. Or I might suggest some better-thought-out plans for the same space from which the help-seeker might hope to learn. That way, I can perhaps accommodate my desire to be helpful without aggravating the help-seekers (and myself) so much in the process. We'll see ...

Update 18 July: Based on notes from a couple of you, I guess the forgoing could have been clearer -- especially the title. I'm still posting occasionally on Internet forums and offering general layout design and operations suggestions. What I've decided to stop providing is comments on the specific details of a poster-provided plan. And I'm still offering custom layout design services to those who are interested, of course.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Alcos in the Alcove

There can be a lot of funny little nooks and crannies in houses. One of my layout design clients had a 5-foot-wide alcove where had set up a 24" deep plywood shelf. The original thought was to build an HO diorama in the space. But when the OK came for another adjoining shelf, the idea of an L-shaped switching layout took form.

The resulting design had to incorporate some specific kits and suggest a granger motif, so some challenging compromises and trade-offs were necessary. The resulting design is featured in the most recent edition of Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine (Q3 2009), always available for free download at the MRH homepage. You can also see the HO shelf switching layout track plan in my Layout Design Gallery.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Operating Forms Article

I'm pleased to have an article on Track Warrants and other operating forms in the most recent (June 2009) issue of The Dispatcher's Office magazine, published by the Operations SIG. Editor Bill Kaufman and Art Director Otto M. Vondrak did their usual fine job on my material.

The article covers the basics of Track Warrant Control (TWC), a couple of examples of the Track Warrant Form modified for model use, and some other forms that have proved useful in developing operating sessions. While TWC wasn't widely deployed on real railroads until the 1980s, I've had good luck utilizing it on model railroads set in earlier eras.

TWC is fast and easy to set up, easy for crews to learn, and doesn't impose special requirements on layout design, construction, or complexity (as opposed to TT&TO, which demands sufficient running length; or CTC, which requires a signaling system and associated electronics.) TWC is a great first step to get ops started on any layout, even if other traffic control schemes are contemplated for later. I'm all about reducing the MTTF (Mean Time to Fun) in getting ops started, and TWC is a great tool in that regard.

By the way, for anyone interested in model railroad operations, OpSIG membership has to be one of the best deals on the planet: memberships with on-line delivery of the magazine are as low as 5 bucks per year!

It was fun for me to see these ideas and examples in print – it makes the work to prepare an article worthwhile.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Caricature, Copy, or "Close Enough"?

I've been working on quite a few prototype-based custom track plans lately. I enjoy these projects, but it's always a matter of making trade-offs between what was actually there on the real-life railroad and what we have room for on the model. There are sort of three ways to approach the challenge.

The first way was used a lot in the 1950s and 1960s and can be seen in older plans such as those in Kalmbach's 101 Track Plans. Want Newark, New Jersey on your HO layout in ten linear feet? No problem: just put in a siding, two stub-end yard tracks, a couple of industry spurs, and voila!, it's Newark!

Of course, this is barely adequate for Newark, TX (on the Rock Island), let alone Newark, NJ. Yet this caricature style of "prototype" track planning persisted through even some well-regarded published plans -- and widely in general use. These highly abridged scenes didn't look very much nor work very much like the real thing, but it did allow the designer to claim 300 miles of the prototype in a spare bedroom.

The other extreme has come into vogue recently with the wider availability of prototype information. That's to simply scale down the prototype element by whatever ratio necessary to fit a copy into the allotted space. The real yard is two miles long and you have 15 feet in HO? No problem: just shrink the real thing by a factor of eight. So what if it leaves you with body tracks three inches long? It's an LDE, don't cha know. What could be more accurate than that?

Of course, the best approach requires a lot more thought, and that's why it sadly eludes so many designers. We have to decide what balance of "looks like" and "works like" best fits the available space and layout concept. And then work toward capturing signature elements that suggest the real thing.

On a project I am completing now, one of the challenges is a scene that was about half of a mile long in real life. It needs to fit in about 600 scale feet of benchwork between two curves. While a simple 4-to-1 compression would theoretically fit, it wouldn’t capture the personality of the signature elements, which include a truly massive industry, a very modelgenic station, and a couple of smaller typical Midwestern rail-served businesses.

Fitting it all in while including a bit of the street grid that helped define the real scene required flipping one spur to point west instead of east and placing a station on a curve. This allowed the track configurations around the large plant to more strongly resemble their real life counterparts.

One of the keys is modulating the degree of prototype fidelity around the typical layout. Signature scenes in key locales get more focus (i.e., space), while others are more heavily modified. This process requires a firm grasp of the overall concept and vision, which then serves as a reference against which to judge the many trade-offs required.

Borrowing from W. Allen McClelland's "good enough" modeling motto, this "close enough" approach allows us to capture the most appealing and engaging scenes and elements in a way that communicates the atmosphere of the real thing to viewers and operators. Modulating fidelity and referring back often to the guiding layout vision helps create realistic scenes in reasonable spaces.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Just the Same, Only Different!

I've had an interesting run of five spare-room-sized custom layout design projects recently. Although all were roughly 100 to 150 square feet in overall size, they spanned the country from the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania to the California desert and eras from the 1930s to nearly the present day.

While I'm usually too caught up in the design process on a particular project for much reflection, looking back now on the finished designs I am struck by the wide variety of ways to enjoy
model railroading. The choices and trade-offs required for model railfanning vs. operations vs. replicating a place and time (or balancing all three) makes for very different solutions to the challenge of a similar space. And all that is compounded by a variety of eras, scales, gauges and even design approaches (twice-around, multi-deck, etc.).

I think the resulting layouts will serve well their specific builder's particular interests and desires. But not one of them would satisfy any of the other owners' needs. And in my mind, that diversity is one of the best parts of my job and our hobby.

The next projects in process and in the queue are larger and bring their own unique challenges. But the breadth of these recent track plans reminds me that even a layout in a more-modest space can have a unique personality and tell a compelling story.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Madera Flyer

I recently finished up an N scale layout design for a contemporary era shortline. One of the elements I wanted to include was a job that would require a shoving platform, since the real-life railroad serving as inspiration for this layout owns one.

For those unfamiliar with the term, these cars are used at the end of trains for long shoving moves to give the crew a place to perch. This role was once served by cabooses, obviously, but those have pretty much gone by the wayside in modern railroading.

Photo from Frank Orona's Railpictures gallery

As seen by the photo above, some of the shoving platforms are pretty spartan, with barely any shelter for the trainmen. Others are ratty-looking older cabooses that have had little tender loving care over the years. Sometimes these old cabooses are gutted and welded closed, so basically only the platforms are usable.

Photo from the Cabooses of Alabama web page

Then there is the Madera Flyer. In May of 2008 I was driving between Southern California and the Bay Area and stopped at the UP's (former SP) Fresno Yard for a few minutes of casual railfanning. A lone diesel appeared, moving at a fairly fast clip with a single car and what appeared to be a bright Armour Yellow caboose in tow. While the crew started organizing a train from cars in the yard, I maneuvered for a slightly closer look.

Emblazoned on the side of a very spiffy-looking caboose that didn't seem to be of either UP or SP origin were the words "Madera Flyer". Shoving platform, indeed! In searching the web, I found Alex R.'s interesting write up of the ex-MoPac caboose and its duties. (Photos above and below are from his blog.)

Modern-day railroading has lost much of the atmosphere and character many of us strive for in our layouts. But there are still some real-life railroaders who are proud of their traditions, craft, and equipment, and it shows in examples like the Madera Flyer.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

There should be warnings ...

There are some perfectly dreadful track plans being published on the Internet lately. If only these were required to carry a mandatory advisory:

If you won't stop the CAD for yourself, please, do it for the Newbees you are misleading.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Railfan Sampler

I've had the pleasure of having another article published in Issue #2 of the Model Railroad Hobbyist e-zine. The layout design project itself was a bit different from most for me in that it was a very specific railfan focus practically to the exclusion of any traditional operating elements.

There is one fairly large yard, but it's meant to be a place for consists to be changed or power swapped, not as a base of local switching operations. And the scenes are famous railfan locales (Tehachapi, Cajon, etc.) rather than the more common towns and industries found on many layouts. The overall layout is quite large, occupying a floor in a commercial building, but the effort to capture the essence of famous scenes like The Loop and the horseshoe curve at Caliente demands a lot of space.

Model Railroad Hobbyist is a free download here and you can see the track plan and read more about the design itself. While working on the project, I snapped some railfan style photos during a pass through the Tehachapi area on a "slightly intentional" railfan trip I wrote about here earlier.

You can also see two different approaches to large HO track plans featuring Tehachapi in my Layout Design Gallery.

It was an interesting project with a unique layout vision and concept and it's great to see it in the "pages" of Model Railroad Hobbyist.

Over the weekend I happened to pluck the Georgia Satellites' eponymous 1986 debut release from a teetering stack of CDs. AC/DC meets Allman Brothers Band in a torrent of power chords and 12-bar blues! I suppose many would consider the band a one-hit-wonder, but there's a lot more here than just the radio-friendly "Keep Your Hands to Yourself". Lead guitarist Rick Richards shows off his "Dixie-fried" chops throughout, and the tunes where lead singer Dan Baird and Richards join voices are particularly effective, such as on Terry Anderson's "Battleship Chains" and the turn-it-to-eleven rocker "Can't Stand the Pain" (aided and abetted by Richards' stinging slide work). Unfortunately Baird left the band after two less-successful later releases, but Georgia Satellites shows they were really on to something for a while.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Selective Obsession

We've often heard of "selective compression", the modeling concept of reducing the size of something (a structure, for example) to better fit the layout. A nine-bay factory building becomes five bays wide, for example. A concept I use fairly often is "compressive selection". This is choosing a smaller example of something because it's more achievable as a model. For example, if considering a mainline junction with a branch as a subject for a layout, I might focus on the branch and only suggest the heavily-travelled mainline for a more achievable scope.

But many folks fall prey to "selective obsession". This is where one idea, one element, one town, one industry becomes stuck in their minds and they refuse to consider any change. This leads to compromising the entire layout for this one prize, even though the end result is unsatisfying overall. The other elements are squeezed into less and less space; the operating connections become ever more convoluted; and any logical fit to the real-world exceedingly remote. Yet they hang on to that one idea, come what may.

This might be the guy who wants to handle forty-car grain trains on his HO 4X8, or the fellow who insists on a division point yard, even though it shrinks the rest of the layout so severely that the yard makes no sense operationally. Or the poor soul who clings desperately to an admittedly lousy design from an old book because he already built the benchwork.

Becoming too locked-in to anything too early in the design process restricts your flexibility and creativity just when you need it most. Balance is the key. When you find yourself resisting logical ideas and alternatives because you say to yourself, "But I can't give up Chicago!"; you may be a victim of Selective Obsession.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Progress is Being Attempted

There's finally a small bit of progress to report on the N scale Brooklyn Basin Oakland Harbor Belt layout in the office. My friend Bart Thurber and I (and the trusty laser level) installed the wall brackets that will support Brooklyn Basin and the lower deck layout early in February. Not much has happened in the meantime, since our whole family has been down with a nasty virus. But it's great to have a bit of visible evidence that something is developing.

Bart does the precision eyeball work below while I prepare to supply the brute force with the drill motor

What's going on the lower deck, you may ask? We'll talk about that next time.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

"Ye Knows too Much"

OK, I admit it; I'm a big fan of Disneyland. I think the same is true for many model railroaders, because the idea of creating the world in miniature is common to both. I was thinking about one of my favorite attractions, Pirates of the Caribbean, the other day while working on a design project. At one point, a voice intones a warning that goes something like this:

Perhaps ye knows too much. Ye’ve seen the cursed treasure, ye know where it be hidden. Now proceed at your own risk! These be the last friendly words you’ll hear … you may not survive to pass this way again!

It's not surprising that this particular project brings these words to mind: it's a fascinating prototype, the client has lots of detailed background information, but there's just no way that we are going to get all of it into the available space. Sometimes the more one knows, the more difficult it is to leave anything out. Indeed, many folks I talk with are afflicted with "analysis paralysis" – they know so much about their prototype that they can't decide how to begin.

Often, a big part of my job in working with a client on these prototype-inspired projects is to help with the process of prioritizing and trade-offs. What will meet the client's interests best, whether that be replication of favorite scenes, operations that suggest the prototype, or some compromise. "Knowing too much" can indeed be a curse, me hearties.

On the other hand, a deep understanding of the prototype can create serendipitous opportunities for capturing an element of the prototype in a perfect spot. On a recent project set in the Colorado Rockies, I remembered a segment of the prototype where the tracks curved around a series of swampy areas on fills and short trestles. When an empty spot in roughly the right location became available, I was able to drop in this atmospheric scene.

Another danger of knowing too much is that it can make you want to know more. And with the vast proliferation of prototype information becoming available in books, magazines, and online in the last twenty years or so, there will always be more to learn. How do you know when to call it "good enough"?

The key, as is so often the case in model railroading, is finding the right balance. And that, unfortunately, is a personal value for each of us. My client on the project that kicked off this "knows too much" reverie already recognized the dangers himself, because he included in the background materials an article by John Edwards (no, not that one) from the January 2003 Railroad Model Craftsman. Edwards laments that in the process of learning so much about his prototype, he was also learning all that he didn't know – and he almost came to feel he didn't know anything.

Hopefully, Edwards found the right compromise for himself, as I'm sure my client and I will find for this project. And after some twists and turns through the pirates' lair, we'll pop out into the sunlight at the end. Yo ho, yo ho, a designer's life for me …

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Track Plan Articles

I'm pleased to have two articles published this month in the commercial press. By coincidence, each of the articles deals with a smaller shortline or terminal prototype, each of which was once under wire! Each of the layouts was also designed primarily for switching operation by a small crew.

The Visalia Electric (VE) is the subject in Kalmbach's Model Railroad Planning 2009. The VE was a Southern Pacific subsidiary that once operated interurbans under wire, but later was a freight hauler primarily serving the citrus growing areas near Exeter, CA. The layout design is for a fairly large basement, but with the odd protuberances and access needs typical of these spaces. As John Armstrong often recommended, a long room-filling spiral proved the best way to capture some signature prototype design elements and use the space efficiently.

Joe Fugate's new Model Railroad Hobbyist mediazine issue #1 features a design for the Hoboken Shore Railroad (HBS), an interesting little terminal shortline serving shoreline industries in its namesake New Jersey city by the Hudson. This little railroad had both car float and on-rails interchange, unique industries and operation, even a setting with some topography. The layout design is the third HBS track plan for this client, who had to deal with some (happy) changes in life circumstances and domiciles along the way. The layout was a bit compressed to fit the spare-bedroom-sized space, but managed to capture some of the signature scenes and a flavor of the prototype's operations.

You can also read more about this HO switching layout track plan on my web site.

Writing for the commercial press is always a lot of work, but I seem to enjoy the finished product enough to do it again (and again). I hope you'll enjoy these, too.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

That Empire Has No Clothes

One thing that frustrates me when I see folks ask for layout design help on the Internet is the apparent unwillingness, or inability, for people to give direct, constructive, negative feedback. It's almost as if we've all been so conditioned by the Little League everybody-gets-a-trophy attitude that we are afraid to offer people the "tough love" they need to make their plans better. (Full disclosure: if not for everybody-gets-a-trophy, I would have received darned few in my meager athletic career). Instead, it's "attaboys" all around, even when the plan offered for comment has serious flaws.

Partly it's an unwillingness to ruffle feathers, but part of it may just be a lack of attention or experience on the part of those giving advice. I see this again and again. A plan is posted, unfortunately with serious flaws that will impact reliability, operating enjoyment, or appearance. The comments start rolling in, some of which may even be on topic. But a day or two and twenty comments later and nobody has addressed the obvious lack of concentricity of the double-track curves or the 2-foot long HO staging tracks intended to hold twenty-car trains. Just like the story of the "Emperor's New Clothes", nobody seems willing, or able, to state the obvious.

When someone (like me) finally does mention these issues, our empire-builder is frequently (and understandably) crestfallen. Rather than depend on a forum Geek Chorus, I often encourage these neophyte designers to build their own understanding of layout design through layout tours and study before tackling another CAD revision. Few take that path, unfortunately, instead opting for the ear-tickling pleasantries dispensed by their forum mates.

To use the psycho-babble terms du jour, that's enabling, not empowering. If we are going to offer help to these folks, we owe it to them to invest a little time and focus in our study of their plan – and to have enough integrity to tell the truth respectfully.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

No Visible Means of Support

Over the last few years, I've had the opportunity to design a number of multi-deck layouts. Sometimes one of the major challenges is figuring out how to hold the dang thing up. The areas around the walls are straightforward, of course, some sort of bracket usually works well. But the island and peninsula areas can be a bigger puzzle.

This becomes even truer when I'm working with upper and lower decks somewhat independently. It's easy to make a change on one deck, forget to reflect it in the other at the moment, and only discover much later that you've created "no visible (or invisible) means of support".

There are oodles of doodles on the Internet where layout design neophytes posit extensive gravity-defying multi-deck islands and peninsulas. Not only does the 3D model railroad layout design CAD allow these folks to draw untenable decks, but also to view them from impossible angles. This makes these unbuildable designs appear deceptively practical.

But it's not just limited to layout design tyros. I've been involved now in a couple of large layout projects where an otherwise innovative design lacked only one thing: a way to support the upper deck! Eventually, these layout owners resort to all manner of skyhooks and other appurtenances when the ¼" wide masonite backdrop on the lower deck proves unable to bear the weight of a few hundred pounds of plywood and plaster. How much easier it would have been to design in proper support from the beginning – but even experienced designers hate to give up lower deck real estate for upper deck stability.

For my own part, I've learned to use CAD to my advantage. I often use a straight or curved studwall to support backdrops and upper decks in island and peninsula areas. Once the general footprint of the design is defined, I'll draw in a rough location of the studwall in its own CAD layer. By keeping this layer visible and on top of the other layers most of the time, I avoid paining myself into an overhanging corner (to mix my metaphors.)

Multi-deck designs have been a great addition to the layout designer's toolbox. But applying multi-deck concepts thoughtfully includes always keeping track of what's holding them up.

I've written before about one of my favorite streaming Internet audio channels, Devlar Surf Sessions on Live365. Modern instrumental ("Instro") Surf music includes such subgenres as Spy, Space, and Tiki along with terrific band names such as the Atomic Mosquitoes, the Aqua Velvets, and the X-Rays. I thought this stream was being discontinued, but I've had the good news that it will carry on. So an even heartier "Thanks for the cool waves, Dude ", to programmer Ray Dukes. Definitely worth a listen.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

"What Size Shirt Should I Wear?"

Ridiculous question, right? Why would an adult ask someone else what size clothing to buy for themselves? It's a matter of personal preference and what fits, isn't it?

And yet, similar questions are asked and answered again and again on model railroading forums. For example: "What scale should I choose?"; or "What railroad should I model?" Some of this is the inevitable impact of new people joining the hobby – as many do at this time of year (and that's a good thing).

Back to our shirt analogy, I think it's important that these newcomers get the best advice we can give. After all, a bad fit, whether in the collar or on the layout, is uncomfortable. But because it's really about personal preference, I wish folks would be more inclined to give advice that encourages the questioner to explore his or her own preferences by seeking out layouts to visit and trying equipment on for size in a hobby shop or at a train show. That would be better than the N supporters touting 1:160 and the HO fanatics proclaiming the superiority of all things 1:87.1.

There are benefits and limitations to every scale and gauge combination. So helping folks explore the alternatives to let them choose their trade-offs would be a real benefit. Having said that, I have no patience with the whiners who lament, "Well I really like O scale, but it's so expensive … and HO won't fit in my space … and N is too fiddly … and maybe S but there is so little available". That's often just a bored cry for forum attention and unfortunately does not often enough receive the stony silence it deserves.

When people are truly looking for guidance (and not just for eyeballs), I hope we can all think of helpful things to suggest that would give newcomers ways to experience the pluses and minuses of the scale(s) they are considering with a minimal investment of time and money. Handling equipment at a train show or hobby shop, building an inexpensive kit or two, visiting club layouts, etc., etc., would give these folks a better idea of their own preferences and interests. That should help them find the best "fit" for their long term comfort and enjoyment.