Sunday, December 05, 2010

Steel Book Back in Print

The late Dean Freytag's book The History, Making and Modeling of Steel is back in print as a limited edition, available through Walthers. You can read my earlier post about this very useful book here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Playing with the Scioto Valley

My N scale multi-deck NYC Scioto Valley Division layout has been incorporated as a sample layout in the TrainPlayer program as one of their Fall 2010 featured layouts. [The other featured layout is also terrific: Vince Lee's compact Erie RR 28th Street Terminal layout from the July 2010 Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.]

TrainPlayer allows users to operate virtual layouts on their own computers, including a large number of published layouts. Users can also "draw" TrainPlayer tracks over any image or in their own designs.

It's a neat program and a few of my layouts have already been included in the software. It's always interesting to see how technology is broadening the model railroading hobby.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Double the Fun

It's always a pleasure to have a client's custom model railroad design project presented in the commercial press. This month it's a double treat as two projects are featured in the September/October '10 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist mediazine.

One article describes a substantial multi-deck N scale design focused on the New York Central, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Norfolk and Western in Ohio. In order to include everything on the client's wishlist, we resorted to some significant proto-freelancing. But the result is a very engaging layout.

The design includes a substantial yard, river port area, and an extensive steel mill area based primarily on the Walthers line of kits. Developing this design provided a reminder of how well N scale works to achieve a large number of operating elements comfortably in a moderate space (less than 200 square feet).

The other article is not a full custom project, but instead features my client's compact HO scale Central Vermont Railway design on which I consulted. This was a great example of what I call "Compressive Selection".

The client's original layout inspiration was the famous White River Junction, Vermont area, but I felt this was simply going to be too much of a good thing to fit into his restricted space in a high-rise apartment.

With some back-and-forth discussion, we were able to choose nearby locations of a more modelgenic scope which still incorporated many of his desired features. Then we worked together to tune his layout design for the greatest scenic and operating potential in the available space.

Both projects were fun to work on, with great clients, and it's a pleasure to see each of them featured in MRH.

My recent on-line listening has turned up two artists with fresh takes on very American musical styles -- though both hail from Sweden!
The Langhorns are a Swedish band playing classic instrumental Surf music that sounds straight from the beach. Which, strictly speaking I guess could still be true -- though the beach is somewhat nearer the Arctic Circle than most surf spots. The tunes from their CD Langhorns are melodic and easy-going.

The production is sometimes a little rough (and I might have eschewed some of the ambient sounds), but it's still a fun listen. Steve Leonard's (The Pyramids) classic surf tune "Penetration" receives a respectful cover here, showing that the lads from Lund have an appreciation of the past masters. But there are also plenty of original tunes which show the Langhorns to have creativity of their own.


As unusual as Surf music from Scandinavia might seem, how about Bluegrass and old-timey tunes? From an all-woman band -- with a cello! Sweden's Abalone Dots are playing dates in the US now and into the Fall. I heard their music somewhere on-line and then was a bit surprised to discover that they're not from Nashville, but from Stockholm! ("Abalone dots", by the way, refer to the fret markers on stringed instruments such as guitars).

The album Traveler is a great introduction to the Abalone Dots sound, which includes shimmering three- and four-part vocal harmonies. The group incorporates a very traditional Bluegrass feel into their playing and repertoire, which I guess speaks to the universality of music!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Summer Update

I'm looking forward to fall and the unofficial restart of the model railroading season. Sorry for the paucity of blog posts, between some family issues and the dreaded kitchen remodel, it's been something of a lost summer. This is one year that I'm very happy that summer is almost over!

Thanks go out to my patient clients, who have been extremely gracious. I've finished some very interesting track plan projects recently and more are in store for later this year, including two designs focused on some of the ultimate railfan spots in the US. Should be interesting!

The Layout Design Bootcamp I presented at the NMRA Milwaukee Convention with Seth Neumann and the Layout Design SIG seemed to be well-received -- thanks to those of you who attended and stopped by afterwards to say hello. Readers may download notes and references from the session at the above link.

Portions of the Layout Design Bootcamp will also be included in the Layout Design SIG's Layout Design Journal #40, to be published later in the fall. I've also returned to the Journal as editor beginning with LDJ-41.

And as the household belongings slowly recede from the garage and the kitchen contents from the home office, I hope to actually work in some actual modeling later in the year. I know, I know, you'll believe it when you see it … me, too!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Free Lunch is a Stolen Lunch

I notice a trend lately of folks taking advantage of free trial offers of model railroad CAD software to plan their layouts. And I use the phrase "taking advantage" literally.

These folks are using a number of workarounds to avoid paying for the software. I'm not talking about open source or manufacturer-sponsored software such as XtrkCAD or Atlas' RTS, this is software from entrepreneur developers trying to make a go of it.

And I'm also not talking about a try-before-buy situation: these forum posters make it clear that they never plan to purchase the product (thanks to their "clever" workaround).

I recognize that there is a prevailing view, from music to movies to software, that it's just plain old-fashioned to pay for someone's creative output. Just download, man, otherwise you’re a sucker.

But these are small companies or individuals creating and marketing CAD programs. All the folks who so proudly trumpet their workaround techniques are stealing intellectual property from those hard-working developers (and encouraging others to do the same).

So just a thought, if you "love" the software so much and "use it all the time", please pay for it and support the people who've done the work for you. Or these products will disappear from being loved (and starved of funds) to death.


Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy WatersI've been in a bit of a blues/rock mood lately and discovered a great album on Pandora that I had completely missed when it was released in 1993. Paul Rodgers is one of rock's great voices, probably best-known for his work with Free and Bad Company. But his solo album Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters is an amazing listening experience.

It's a collection of Muddy Waters tunes with an all-star cast of guitarists, from Buddy Guy to David Gilmour to a mesmerizing Jeff Beck. Blues purists beware, these are not "authentic" covers of the original tunes, but completely new approaches that are more modern and rock-influenced in style.

Rodgers is in fine voice throughout and the guitarists are certainly inspired by the material and opportunity. Apparently the original record company folded around the time this album was released and it never received much attention, but it's certainly worth a purchase now that it is back in print -- please don't steal it!

(By the way, a gentleman named Philip Snyder has done an excellent track-by-track review of the recording on Amazon.com. Be sure to check it out if you visit the Amazon page.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Track Plan Book Survey Results

Ever so slowly, I am building up chapters of what could be a track plan book of my custom layout designs along the lines of John Armstrong titles such as Twenty Custom Designed Track Plansand 18 Tailor Made Model Railroad Track Plans(Kalmbach, each out of print).

Please note that I am definitely not presuming to place myself on Armstrong's level by any means, merely using the format of these books as a point of reference. They have always been favorites of mine.

This book would join currently available single-author track plan books such as Iain Rice' Shelf Layouts for Model Railroads, Bernie Kempinski's Mid-Size Track Plans for Realistic Layouts, and Lance Mindheim's self-published 8 Realistic Track Plans For A Spare Roomand 8 Realistic Track Plans For Small Switching Layouts.

While I would like for my book to be distributed by a major publisher, I recognize that this may not be possible and I may self-publish in the end.

I would expect that the book would contain fifteen to twenty track plans, along with perhaps an additional chapter or two on some design principles. Each track plan would be accompanied by text describing the real or imagined prototype and explaining the design. I am looking for your input on what might interest you. (And of course, if the first book is somewhat successful, there's more where those plans came from!)
Survey Results

Thanks to all of you who took the time to participate in the track plan book survey, which is now closed. There were 99 or more votes for each question, so I'm very pleased with the response. Here are the results, in case anyone is curious.

Would you purchase a book of custom model railroad track plans as described?
60% Probably yes
33% Possibly
3% Probably no
2% Definitely no

Nice to know that the majority is interested! Of course, this only includes folks interested enough to respond to the poll, so there is significant sampling bias.

What should this book cost at retail?
18% $20-25
51% $15-20
10% Less than $15
18% Depends on content and quality

I thought this might be the "sweet spot". This might be more challenging in self-publishing, but it's good to know.

What about layout sizes in the track plan book?
55% A mix of layout sizes in one book is fine
45% Prefer separate books for large and small layouts

This one surprised me a bit. My favorite track plan books include a range of sizes, but that wasn't a strong preference among respondents.

Would track plan art similar to that on my Layout Design Gallery web pages be acceptable, or do you expect more in a book?
42% Layout Design Gallery art is fine
43% Book artwork must be better
14% Not sure / Don't know

I did not know what to expect with this question, but obviously I will consider the need for "prettier" track plan art in any self-publishing effort.

How do you feel about reprinting my previously-published track plans in this book?
57% A few previously-published plans would be OK
36% No, the book should be all-new material
7% Not sure / Don't know

This result was interesting to me. If the book is released through a publisher, they may choose to include some previously-published plans. For a self-publishing effort, I see that I might want to include only a very few previously-published plans that are particularly illustrative of a general concept.

I also appreciate those of you who took the time to contact me directly regarding this poll, whether the comments were positive or negative. I was a little confused by the one fellow who wrote to tell me how much he hated my first book and he would be sure to tell his friends not to buy my next book.

Unless he somehow received my teacher's copy of The Pesky Puppy, which I wrote and illustrated as a class assignment in the 4th grade, I think he must have me confused with someone else.

And, no, The Pesky Puppy is not in my plans to publish.

Monday, May 17, 2010

One Track Mind

I've been doing quite a bit of work on operating ideas for my custom track planning clients lately. I didn't realize how focused I had become in my thinking until I stopped by the dry cleaners today with clothes in one hand and a laundry ticket in the other.

"Some to pick up and some to set out", I told the clerk.

… the quizzical look on his face told me he's not a model railroader.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Canadian Prairie Crossing

My latest article in the commercial press describes an interesting custom HO scale layout design consultation project. It's found in the May/June 2010 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist mediazine (always available free at the preceding link).

The client's concept, space, and even basic footprint had been well thought-out: a pair of proto-freelanced Canadian branch lines crossing in the Alberta prairie, with grain elevators the primary signature industries.

His original footprint ideas were for an around-the-room arrangement with a moveable benchwork section. Although that was certainly workable in the roughly 11 1/2' X 15' space in HO, I always like to at least try for a walk-in footprint. In this case, we were just a little shy on space and the client's original footprint was the better choice.


Click the image to see this plan in my layout design gallery

The MRH article includes some great photos of the region, as well as the track plan and a bit of description on the track planning process and trade-offs. There are even a couple of photos of the benchwork, which is well underway. It was an interesting project and I hope that readers will enjoy the article.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

More fun, no puzzle!

Readers who have visited my website will already know that I am no fan of switching puzzles such as the "classic" Timesaver or Inglenook. While they carry a railroad theme, too often the artificial constraints of these puzzles amount to no more than moving an empty slot around – like a sliding block puzzle.

More authentic operating challenges can be developed in small spaces by using the real-life challenges of "sure spots", seasonality, shifts, etc., as I mention in my web pages.

Sure spots, in particular, are often overlooked by newcomers to model railroad operations. Sure spots are specific locations on a track where cars are to be delivered. This might be a specific loading door, a grain dump, a discharge spout, etc. So with sure spots, a single track may have several switching positions. I used this to good effect on my small N scale switching layout and on many other layout designs large and small.

A good example of this on the prototype and a compact model is found on Jack Hill's blog page.

At first glance, this looks a bit like the two-turnout, three-track Inglenook puzzle. But two things make it different and realistic: enough length to switch out the cars efficiently; and sure spots for placement of commodities within specific cars.

The author is apparently a real life railroader, and his approach to modeling in a small space (in O scale, no less!) is to build on these prototypical challenges for engaging operations.

Sure spots can even add variety to a seemingly generic set of cars. Real-life railroader Jim Lincoln wrote about such a situation in describing a modern corn syrup transloading terminal in Model Railroad Planning 2010. Different grades and types of corn syrup in different cars must be switched in and out of the facility from a nearby yard. Similar activities take place with plastic pellets, chemicals, and grain in the modern era.

The concepts of sure spots, seasonality, and shifts (among others) can make any small layout more interesting than just another switching puzzle. Breweries, paper mills, auto plants, and many other real-life facilities can be themes for interesting switching challenges without artificial puzzle frustration.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Model Railroad Aphorisms

In talking to clients and trying to help folks on forums, a couple of pithy comments have been springing to mind recently:

It's no fun if the trains don't run.

and

If not drawn to scale, it’s liable to fail.

The first speaks to the importance of reliability in considering design options, the second to the tendency some have for flights of fancy about what can actually fit in a given space.

Hokey? Yeah, I guess. But how many misguided newbie layout design train wrecks (literally and figuratively) might have been avoided with the liberal application of these two ideas?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Status through Standards?

A thread on one of the Internet forums reminded me of an interaction I had with a fellow a couple of years ago. His room was just under 10'X10', HO scale, double-track mains, transition era. Not a huge space, but workable.

Then he told me about his standards: only #8 turnouts would be permissible, along with a 36" minimum radius. His reasoning? It would be more like a "real railroad" and he wanted his layout to be recognized as uniquely realistic.

Okey-dokee. But one doesn't have to be a very experienced designer to see that there is darned little straight track left after placing 36" circles around a 10X10 foot space.

I suggested modulating his standards -- perhaps one scene with broad radii and turnouts and then using more compact standards elsewhere. Nope, that just wouldn't do for him. We both recognized that I wasn't the right person for the job and he continued his quest for a designer who could alter the space-time continuum.

Layout design standards should not be status symbols. Broad curves and #8 or larger turnouts look great – but in the more modest spaces typical of most model railroads, they create the need to significantly reduce the number and size of other layout elements possible.

If reducing operating potential or the number of railfan scenes in exchange for broader curves and turnouts is an acceptable trade-off, more power to you. But as John Armstrong noted, too large a minimum radius can be just as deleterious to a design as a minimum radius that is too small.

Standards should follow the concept, purpose, and space available for a layout, not lead them. That's why I hate to see folks with more modest spaces declaring #8 or #10 turnouts as their sine qua non even before developing their overall vision for the layout.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Kidding Yourself

I work on more layout designs and track plans than most people -- dozens and dozens, in fact, in the last six years. These plans are for many different spaces, concepts, and scales. And yet, I'm still sometimes surprised when I start a new project at how little of what my clients and I have conceptualized will actually fit -- when drawn to scale.

Curves, turnouts, straight sections to ease S-curves, horizontal and vertical easements, and on and on. Each of these takes more space than I would like. And certainly more than most people think.

That's why I just shake my head when I see what some people post in forums. They prattle on for months (or years!) about the fabulous layout design on which they are working: Steel mills, division point yards, car floats, auto plants. And all in 10'X10' in HO.

OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but only slight. Bottom line, if you haven't rendered the major elements to scale in some fashion, you're kidding yourself. That can be CAD, paper templates, or a to-scale sketching technique like John Armstrong's squares. Any of these can provide a quick (and usually sobering) reality check.

But these empire builders carry on, regaling their rapt forum audiences with tales of how great it's going to be. And they often illustrate their posts with photos of clutter-filled corners, stacks of unbuilt Blue Box kits, and horizontal "benchwork" surfaces piled high with soda cans, stacks of magazines, and other detritus.

Now there is a time, early in the design process, when it's a very good idea not to be constrained by scale. However, that's an early conceptual phase and reality must eventually be reckoned with.

So if you've been talking about your "design" for a couple of years, it's time to face the facts. If you haven't yet drawn your space and the major elements to scale, you're not working on a layout design; you're working on the idea of working on a layout design.

The Aqua Velvets' CD Nomad has been in heavy rotation lately at LayoutVision headquarters. A different take on modern instrumental surf music, with many of the tunes having a slightly darker tone (surf noir, if you will). Just for variety and whimsy, some other styles are mixed in, including what sounds like a rumba and a bit of reggae flavor. The playing is crisp and toneful, without the speed-for-speed's-sake that burdens some instro surf music.

And there are plenty of conventional surf sounds, too, played with a respect for the tradition but an eagerness to stretch a bit musically. The kind of surf music that might make you remember fondly those sunny days at Hermosa Beach -- even if you've never been out of Nebraska.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What He Said

I had an interesting project with a client a year or so ago. He was picturing a rectangular layout in a rectangular space that allowed only a minimum of space for rectangular aisles on three sides. Sound familiar?

We had a lot of discussion on the layout footprint and we were able to encourage him to accept a more "organic" shape. In this case, sort of a "boomerang" or "kidney" outline that fit into one corner of the room.

The curving benchwork gave him more room for construction, operation, and maintenance. And I thought it certainly a lot more interesting visually than yet another monolithic rectangle layout.

Although he had to work out some interesting challenges in construction (for example, adding a third L-girder a la Linn Westcott), my client reports that construction is well along; track is laid and wiring is underway.

And how does he feel now about that curvilinear benchwork? In his own words, "… it looks a lot better than a roundy-roundy rectangle!"

[Watch for the layout plan story in a future issue of the commercial press …]

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Double (Track) Cross

For the majority of readers who visit this blog (thanks, by the way), this post is of no particular use.

But I see this error over and over again on user-posted track plans, so if it helps only one or two folks before they permanently fasten down their track, it's worth it.



The top configuration in the drawing above is often seen on newcomers' double-track ovals and other areas where double tracks curve into a set of crossovers.

Because the tighter inner end curve feeds directly into an opposing crossover, it creates a possibly troublesome S-curve, especially when shoving longer cars through. The alternative arrangement on the bottom of the drawing offers the same routing flexibility but creates much gentler S-curves.

Note that the same problem can develop when newcomers place an off-the-shelf double-crossover too close to a tight curve, not realizing that one route creates a significant S-curve.

Yeah, I know it's kind of a basic point -- thanks for indulging me.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Does this yard make me look fat?

Some questions are basically unanswerable; the stereotypical classic is when your spouse asks, "Do these pants make me look fat?"

I have been reminded of these types of unanswerable questions in the last few weeks on various Internet forums. Folks post a track plan for a yard (often a simple mechanical transcription of one of John Armstrong's plans from Track Planning for Realistic Operation). Then they ask, "Is this a good yard plan?"

I dunno. Maybe. Maybe not.

There are quite a few facts not yet in evidence. Where is this yard located in relation to staging, junctions, branches, and other yards (if any)? How many trains will this yard serve in a session? In which direction will most trains run? Will this yard originate or terminate trains? How many trains? What types of trains? How much classification is needed versus simply block swaps? What era?

Without the answers to these and other questions, there's really no way to make an accurate judgment about the suitability of any yard design for a specific layout.

Of course, this doesn't stop the self-proclaimed forum experts from adding their two cents, advising various additions and changes that may (or may not) improve that yard's function in a specific layout.

While the classic Armstrong designs are better than 98+% of what most modelers dream up on their own, I hate to see this kind of unanswerable yard design question receiving so many pat (and patently incorrect) answers.

The right answer ("It depends, let's look at the rest of your layout design and your operations concept.") won't satisfy the typical immediate-gratification help-seekers -- but it is the reality of plausible, efficient, and engaging yard design.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Plans of Steel

Over the years, I've had a few requests for layout designs that included some elements of the steel industry. While I have gleaned enough from back issues of the Railroad Industry SIG's publications and articles published in the commercial press to do a decent job, a couple of recent projects have demanded a more intense focus on the steel industry.

So I'm really grateful that the NMRA arranged for the reprinting of Dean Freytag's The History, Making and Modeling of Steel. It also helps that the book is very focused on the Walthers steel industry models in HO scale and N scale, since most of my clients want to at least start with these kits as a basis for their modeling.

(Between the time I started writing this blog entry and today, I discover that the book is sold out at the NMRA -- sorry about that. Perhaps interested readers will be able to find it from other sources or through inter-library loan.)

One of the nice things about Freytag's approach in the book is that he offers a lot of variations. Whether the modeler's preference is for detailed prototype replication or something more casual, lots of space dedicated to the steel industry or just a corner of the layout, Freytag offers useful advice for all. And he offers these suggestions in a positive and encouraging way that many modelers will find motivational.

Another very helpful part of the book is its focus on explaining in some (although not excruciating) detail the steel making process. Even this modest amount of background makes obvious the flaws in many steel-oriented published track plans.

I understand Bernie Kempinski has a book on the steel industry in the publication process and I'm sure that will be a good resource as well. But I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge Dean Freytag's excellent scholarship and spot-on writing tone, perfect for the modeler. Hopefully the book will become more readily available again.


I've written before about Allman Brothers member and recent Eric Clapton sideman Derek Trucks. I've been enjoying the Derek Trucks Band's most recent album, Already Free. Although the jazz and world music elements are still evident in Trucks' fabulous slide guitar sound, this album seems to me to have more blues and rock influence. Whether it's the easy acoustic shuffle that phases into a driving electric rock riff in "Down in the Flood" or the greasy slide that powers "Get What you Deserve", many of the tunes show a bit more muscle this time out.

Also welcome to my ears are the vocal contributions of Clapton bandmate Doyle Bramhall II (who also wrote and produced some songs on the album) and Trucks' talented wife Susan Tedeschi. While I enjoy regular vocalist Mike Mattison, I find the variety of vocal styles really accents the wide range of Trucks' playing in this, my favorite Derek Trucks album to date.

Monday, February 01, 2010

MRP 2010 -- The "Lost Photos"

I am very pleased to have two of my layout designs featured in Model Railroad Planning 2010. The first track plan is part of a very interesting article on the Richmond Pacific Railroad (RPR) by lead author Bill Kaufman.

The RPR was the subject of our Layout Design Challenge at the Bay Area SIG Meet in 2006. Different designers prepared versions of the RPR (or its predecessor Parr Terminal RR) for presentation and discussion at the meeting, in one of three defined areas. The MRP article combines a discussion of today's RPR with a number of those layout designs and a brief description of each by the designer.

My own contribution is a portable N scale switching layout based on the Parr Terminal and sized to fit on two standard folding banquet tables. Editor Tony Koester and the team at Kalmbach did a great job of turning a slightly clumsy collection of materials into a well-presented article.

For my second article ("Dallas on a Door") … well, let's just say that not all articles go even that smoothly. The compact N scale design captures key elements of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas ("The Katy" or M-K-T) in downtown Dallas on a hollow core door in N scale. Neat prototype, great client, nifty compact switching design. So far, so good.

But finding photos to illustrate the article proved to be much more difficult than expected. There were plenty of images on-line (like the one to the right). But locating photographers, clearing copyrights, and obtaining high-quality versions of the images proved daunting.

In the end, Kalmbach had to substitute some on-file material to help illustrate the article. Frustrating! (Now, I'm sure it's not just me that Editor Koester is writing about in his MRP 2010 editorial when he admonishes prospective authors about having their photos lined up before submitting. At least, I hope it's not just me!)

Anyway, since the material is available for linking on the web, I've prepared a web page on my site that has some great photos of the area that I hope will be a fine complement to the article.

Oh, and sorry about that, Tony!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Track Plan Triage

For about the last year, I have been working on a web-based introduction to track planning and layout design. Because this is a low priority and I've been busy with clients' projects, it may be another year (or more!) before it's published.

But as part of this effort, I've been thinking more about what newcomers to the hobby and to layout design are really asking for when they pop up on forums and elsewhere looking for help. (I'm talking about absolute newcomers here, not folks who've been around the hobby for a while and have learned about their own preferences, even if they don't yet have a layout.)

What makes a layout interesting varies

Like many others, my tendency is to try to help these complete newbies understand what makes a layout more engaging in the long run and explain why an oval with one siding and two spurs may soon prove tedious. As I've said before, I've seen a lot of these "Plywood Pacifics" gathering dust in a corner of the garage or basement after their builders abandoned them due to an excess of boredom and a shortage of fun.

My take-away is this: For many people, there needs to be more than just the most basic layout to offer interest and challenge to make the hobby rewarding in the long term. So my advice to newcomers has always been oriented toward pushing them in the direction of more potential and flexibility in a layout selection or the layout design process.

But I must recognize that not everyone needs the long term challenge of a layout designed for purposeful operations or even realistic scenery. Some people really do want to watch a couple of trains orbit around and around. Maybe occasionally build a new train in the yard or drop off a car here and there, but mostly just watch trains running round and round.

"No, more operation"

This became even clearer to me a few months ago when a fellow emailed me asking about "adding more operation" to one of the layouts in my layout design gallery. He is a friend of a friend, so I invested some time in suggesting adding more staging, or looking at additional car-spotting challenge with "sure spots".

But he seemed puzzled by my suggestions. "No," he said, "what I want is more operation -- more trains running at once." Then the light went on for me. When I suggested that we add a second main-line route so that he could have two trains orbiting simultaneously, he was thrilled and happily went off to build.

Track plan "triage"

So perhaps what's needed when we offer advice and suggestions to an absolute newcomer is to do a sort of triage on the request. Somehow we need to determine which requesters really will be happy in the long term with two trains running laps like obsessive-compulsive Olympians and which ones are asking for that only because they've never been exposed to the more engaging alternatives.

Some folks (probably a small minority, but maybe not) simply need to be pointed toward a decent multi-loop plan, offered a brief description of the more interesting alternatives for future reference, and then encouraged to go forth and orbit. Weighing these happy loopers down with discussions of staging, operations, and LDEs is probably not helping them enjoy the hobby the way they wish to enjoy it.

Others, whose interest may be piqued by opportunities for realistic scenes and/or purposeful operations, should be encouraged to look beyond the simple ovals and dogbones for a layout design that will offer more long-term involvement.

That process of triage, of quickly sorting the different help-seekers from one another, is the challenge -- one I haven't yet fully thought through. But perhaps all of us who offer advice to newcomers should try to be more sensitive to where these newbies are coming from and to whence they aspire. One size does not fit all.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Black Diamonds and Beer

My latest article in the commercial press is a track plan for a modern-era shortline in N scale. The Schuylkill Haven Railroad is a proto-freelanced modern-day anthracite hauler in east-central Pennsylvania.

The model layout is inspired by the real-life regional railroad Reading & Northern (RBMN). Proto-freelancing offered some welcome flexibility in combining attractive elements from the good-sized regional into the available space.

The track plan, photos, and a description of the design are found in the January/February 2010 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist media-zine, always free for download here. View the track plan in my Design Gallery.

The design is based on a hybrid loop-to-oval out-and-back schematic, with key industries (coal tipple and truck dump, a plastics manufacturer, and a large brewery) located on branches from the main continuous running track. The RBMN operates tourist passenger service on some parts of its system, so that's also an option for some variety.

My client was already wisely looking at along-the-wall designs (rather than rectangles) when he contacted me, so the final design makes great use of the layout space. It was a fun project to develop with him and it's great to see it "in print" in MRH.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Theory vs. Practice #1 -- Yard Leads

The first in an occasional series of postings on what Internet blowhards say vs. what has actually been found to work. [Many of these "experts" haven't built their layout yet, of course, so they are free to opine without the inconvenient reality of experience.]

Theory: Many real-life railroad yards did not have separate yard leads, so they don't belong on model yards. Anyone who uses yard leads is simply following what other modelers have done like a bunch of brainless lemmings.

Practical experience: After one has helped build layouts, design layouts, and operated on many layouts, one will observe that most model railroaders run much larger numbers of trains in a given period of time through a given physical plant than would the real-life railroad. Yard leads are thus a concession to this density of traffic, necessary to keep these high levels of traffic flowing through yards and onto our always-too-short main lines.

The presence of yard leads on many successful layouts is an indication of their utility, not a case of mindless lock-step copying.

Verdict: Except for very low-density one- or two-train-per-day branch lines and terminal switching layouts, yard leads are often worth considering to ease traffic flow and allow more operators to have more fun on a given physical plant in the model -- especially given our short main line runs.

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Hey, if you want to model bollixed-up yards and have your operators standing around twiddling their thumbs, more power to ya'. I'd rather have the traffic flow -- call me crazy!

Don't know what constitutes a yard lead?


A yard lead extends the opposite direction from a yard ladder, allowing a switcher to work without fouling the main. Note the crossover that allows trains to enter/exit the yard from the main.

The yard lead may connect back into the main at the far end (to the left in this sketch) to allow an additional path into and out of the yard when things are congested, but that is optional.

  Craig Bisgeier's site explains in more detail.