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.


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.