Monday, October 30, 2006

Tricky traps # 1-4

I wrote last time about the "Tricky Traps" that ensnare many folks who are trying to design a layout. This time, I'll highlight a few of the most insidious. No surprise, these first few are all issues I've raised before, so there's also more to read on the web.

Tricky Trap #1: The 4X8 Freeze-Out

OK, you knew this one was coming, right? The commercial model press' over-emphasis of the HO 4X8 is one of those things that most everyone has come to accept, but I submit it probably does more harm than good. More often than not, these high-profile HO 4X8 plans are based on very tight radii and offer only limited operational interest for the long term. And because so much space in the commercial magazines is devoted to the 4X8, more imaginative concepts are frozen-out and newcomers are not exposed to them.

I've talked to so many people who became disenchanted with the hobby after starting an HO 4X8 and finding little reason to continue. The ironic thing is that 95% of the time (or more), something more fun, more space-efficient, and more expandable will fit in the available footprint when one considers the aisles around the "sacred sheet".

Let's face it, the only reason the sacred sheet HO 4X8s remain popular is that people are too afraid to cut a little wood. The commercial press is likewise afraid to try anything new, and so this Tricky Trap goes on and on … and on. And if you think this rant went on and on, check out this link for more on how I really feel about the HO 4X8 ….

Tricky Trap #2: The Siren Song of the Switchback

Yes, there are switchbacks on real railroads. Rarely. And mostly on logging and mining lines where they are used to gain elevation in steep terrain. But there are a couple of hobby "names" who sprinkle every one of their designs liberally with the most sinister variety … the industrial switchback with industries on both wings. These are exceedingly rare on the prototype, but to see these published designs, one would think it was the most typical thing in the world. And of course, novice designers follow suit.

Sure, these make a layout look busier, but the prototype avoids them because they are so inefficient to switch … especially if cars from one industry must be moved to switch the other. But neophyte designers don't have the background to analyze this configuration, so they over-use this model stereotype. It doesn't help that some commercial magazines seem reluctant to second-guess what the "names" have done, so these poor layout design practices turn up again and again. Speaking of turning up again and again, yes this is one of those tired topics I've written about before

Tricky Trap #3: The CAD-too-Soon Catch

Yes, I've done this topic to death. But it's still one of the Trickiest Traps because it seems like such a good idea. Nevertheless, jumping into CAD without some layout design background is almost always an oh-so-easy slide into an unworkable design.

Tricky Trap #4: "La Brea" Benchwork

The Rancho La Brea Tar Pits* are world-renowned. These natural asphalt seeps trapped millions of animals over many centuries in a death trap of sticky goo. How, you may ask, could this possibly relate to benchwork? Simple -- just think back to how many times you have seen a posting on the Internet along the lines of:
"I've designed/built all my benchwork and now I'm trying to find a track plan to go with what I've already designed/built. Any ideas?"
Um, yeah … got a sawzall? Once a benchwork design is finalized, on paper or in plywood, it becomes very difficult to change. That's just human nature. Usually, that benchwork is fiercely rectangular. Unfortunately, railroad tracks tend to curve and flow. See the incongruity?

In my opinion, designing benchwork first is one of the very worst ways to design a layout. And that goes double for benchwork schemes that dictate an identical set size and shape for each benchwork section. Designers are then constantly fighting to avoid benchwork edges when laying out turnouts and the like. I'm not against sectional benchwork, mind you. Great idea, if the sectional benchwork adapts to the track plan and not vice-versa.

Now there are exceptions. Modular benchwork that will be used with others to build a larger layout is a great way for groups to build efficiently or for an individual to be part of something larger. The best of the modular formats, such as Free-mo, allow a lot of flexibility in the design of each section, with only the interfaces specified. And it's true; occasionally the odd shape of a room or existing furniture or cabinets restricts benchwork flexibility. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

So don't be stuck in the Tricky La(yout) Brea Tar Pit Trap of pre-defined benchwork before beginning design. In most cases, benchwork should follow and (literally and figuratively) support the emerging design, not dictate it.

Ok, so those are the first four Tricky Traps.

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*Coincidentally, there is a connection between the La Brea Tar Pits and railroading. When the Alta California Mexican land grants were being sold in the late 1800s, the Rancho La Brea area was purchased by one Major Henry Hancock. The family grew rich from oil drilling, mining the asphalt and (especially) from selling the surrounding land (yes, that's the Hancock of Hancock Park). Henry's son, G. Allan Hancock, took a large portion of the family fortune and used it to purchase the struggling Santa Maria Valley Railroad, into which he also sunk substantial funds over the years, making it one of the best-equipped and maintained shortlines in California. A railfan at heart, Hancock fils kept the steamers running in regular service longer than they should have, making for one fascinating railroad. In fact, it's only recently that the railroad was finally sold by the Hancock Estate.