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.