Monday, November 27, 2006

101 reasons for a change?

The book 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders (Kalmbach, 1956) is deservedly a classic. The designs include a few neat early offerings by John Armstrong and some very skillful illustrations, most by editor/author Linn H. Westcott. 101 Track Plans is a great time capsule of layout design thought from the period. In fact, I believe the only updates since the initial publication are the addition of a paragraph on N scale (which did not exist as a commercial scale at the time the book was written), the inclusion of N scale in the size calculations, and a succession of new cover art.

Of course, there has been some progress in design thought in the last 50 years, and many of the designs in 101 Track Plans suffer when viewed in light of these new ideas. Many of the designs are based on the "Prairie Dog Village" system of scattered access holes for construction, operation, and maintenance. Most people today would find it troublesome to crawl under the benchwork and pop up over and over again. Many, even most, of the designs require built-in-place hand-laid track to fit as drawn, with very tight radii that don't work well with models of prototype equipment built since 1956. And many of the plans have inaccessible areas that would be out-of-reach if built as drawn. Of course, newer design ideas like multi-deck benchwork are absent, as well.

Unfortunately, Linn Westcott's clever renderings make each of the designs look good. Much better, in fact, than they would look if executed in plywood and plaster, in my view. But these plans are offered up to hobby newcomers without any disclaimers or suggestions in the book. And I think that does a bit of a disservice to both the model railroading neophyte and to these classic designs.

I think it would be great if there were a more modern equivalent of 101 Track Plans*. Many of the plans published in Model Railroader and Model Railroad Planning would be good candidates for a new book that explored current layout ideas along with the classics. I think there is still a place for 101 Track Plans, but it should be in the context of the times. Simply re-titling the book "101 Classic Track Plans from the '50s" (or something similar) would help newcomers understand where these designs fit alongside current thinking.

I enjoy reading through my copy of 101 Track Plans for a nostalgic view of the hobby, so I am glad it is still in print. But a bit of context could help newcomers avoid 50-year-old mistakes.

* A year or so after I wrote this blog entry, Kalmbach did indeed come out with a new book/magazine, 102 Realistic Track Plans. You can read my thoughts on 102 Realistic Track Plans here.

Currently listening to: Devlar Surf Sessions on Live 365 . Gotta love that reverb!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Saying my final good-byes to the Midland Pacific

Before I began working on the Oakland Harbor Belt concept for my layout, I was focused on a secondary mainline / branchline proto-freelanced concept called the Midland Pacific (MPC). I discussed the MPC briefly in an article in the Layout Design Journal (LDJ-28, Spring 2003). The real-life MPC was actually promoted in the early 1900s and a few miles of track were laid before the railroad vanished without a trace. It would have run from the Bakersfield, CA area to Port Hartford (now Avila Beach), as did my imagineered version. An article with a more complete discussion of the MPC is in production for an upcoming LDJ.

I had worked on the MPC concept for a few years, including buying appropriate equipment as it became available. Since I worked on the MPC concept for so long, that was an extended period of purchases. Many of the locos and rolling stock acquired for the MPC do not fit the OHB, so I've been selling them via eBay over the last few months. But the current "for sale" batch really signifies the end of the MPC concept. The MPC would have crossed and interchanged with parent Southern Pacific at Pismo Beach on the SP's Coast Line. I had envisioned a parade of SP through trains, including the famous "Overnight" freight service and the legendary "Daylight" and "Lark" passenger trains. Even though the limited-run nature of N scale is often frustrating, I had managed to acquire suitable consists and motive power for all of these trains.

But there's really no place on the OHB for any of these trains, except as static backgrounds for photos behind the Santa Fe Alice Street Yard or the Howard Terminal. The SP will still be represented on the OHB, of course, but it's the grittier workaday locals, not the glamorous mainline rockets. The Overnight cars went first. (For one thing, they are in more regular production now, so in the back of my mind I thought I could always replace them.) Then various other locos and cars went on the auction block.

But now it's the Daylight. And the Lark. These beautiful models from Kato are not "rivet-counting" accurate for the SP by any means, but their colorful liveries speak of an era and a place far better than words or (my) scenery ever would. Visions of these trains have been with me for a long time, through several layout plans and dreams: San Luis Obispo/Cuesta; Ventura County Railway (LDJ-26); the MPC; and the short-lived San Jose and environs concept.

Even though I'm a terrible pack-rat, there's only so much space even I'm willing to set aside for storage of models that won't fit on the layout. Sale of the ill-fitting equipment is also financing most (or all) of the track I'll need for the OHB. So I know this stuff has got to go. But like the end of any relationship, the parting is stirring up bittersweet thoughts of what might have been.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Tricky Traps # 5-8

Following up on my earlier entry about four Tricky Traps of layout design, here are another few to consider.

Tricky Trap #5: The Peril of the Prototype

Hey, wait, Byron, this can't be a Tricky Trap! Why, following the prototype exactly must be the best way to design a layout -- right? Sometimes … not so much. You see, the problem with most prototypes is that they are just so darn big. Relatively speaking, our layout spaces are pretty puny by comparison. So we can capture, at best, only a tiny sliver of the prototype when we set out to plan a layout.

We may copy a particular arrangement of tracks without knowing how they were operated by the real railroad. And that means that we may not know that a crucial element to the way the real railroad worked was to use the passing siding ten miles down the line as a runaround to make it possible to switch our chosen town. Sometimes changes are needed for our cramped space, relatively higher amount of traffic, or the realities of model railroading. One of those realities is that we cannot reliably "kick" or "drop" cars in the smaller scales, which leaves out many maneuvers common in the steam- and early diesel eras. So there are times when additional tracks or different configurations are needed on the model to make for a smoothly working layout.

In short, copying the prototype is a good place to start … but the resulting plans need a careful going-over with an experienced eye to insure that they will work as a model railroad.

Tricky Trap #6: The Published Plan Pitfall

Oh, the horror! The litany of errors in published plans is lengthy. Sometimes it's sloppy rendering, but often it's simply overly-optimistic planners. Curves are drawn much sharper than they are labeled. Impossibly abrupt turnouts (how about a #2!?) would never work in real life. Track-to-track distances are much too tight. And on and on.

This happened before the era of widely available model railroad CAD, of course, but it also happens now and will probably happen as long as track plans are published. Hope springs eternal in the eager neophyte modeler, only to be dashed when the first turnback curve sprawls inelegantly over the edge of the benchwork.

Track plan drawings of already-built layouts are not immune from this Tricky Trap, although there is, of course, empirical evidence to suggest that something fit in the available space. The best published plans, in my view, include the brand and model of turnout used in the design, or if hand-laid track is required, make note of that fact.

Tricky Trap #7: Devilish Division-Point Desire

I've been doing layout designs for friends and clients for a while now. But it never ceases to amaze me how many people begin their recitation of "Givens and 'Druthers" with: "I'd like a Division Point Yard of course, two coal mines, a steel mill, etc., etc. …". All in 14X16 feet. In HO. When I ask them why a Division Point yard, they say, "Because [insert well-known model railroader name here] says that's what makes a proper layout."
Well, OK, Sparky, but Division Point Yards for the most part are really, really big. And in the steam and early diesel era, they typically carry with them a need for lots of engine service facilities, classification tracks, and other space-consuming elements. Not to mention that the typical layout is a scale mile or two or three long.

After some discussion, it turns out what people are really saying is that they would like to do some classification of cars, maybe originate and terminate a couple of local trains, stuff like that. And they think the way to get that is a Division Point Yard. But in fact, there were (and are) lots of differently-sized yards on real railroads -- and some of these are small enough to be very modelgenic. Considering a branch junction yard, industry-specific yard, or interchange yard might be "just right" to fit into the typical layout space without overwhelming the rest of the operation.

Tricky Trap #8: The Straight Line Straitjacket

OK, this is more of a serving suggestion than a Tricky Trap, but I think it bears mentioning. Real railroads, to be sure, are mostly straight. And long. After all, most real railroad surveys are done as a series of straight lines joined together by the minimum number of curves necessary. That made the real railroads cheaper to build and to operate. There are certainly exceptions like mountain railroads and terminal areas, but compared to the typical model railroad, which has to keep turning back on itself repeatedly to avoid crashing through a wall and into the neighbor's side yard, real railroads are characteristically and (mostly) unremittingly straight.

So what happens when we try to put these long straight things into our confined rectangular (usually) layout space? All too often, we run them in straight lines exactly parallel to one of the walls in the room. Or exactly parallel to the line on another lobe of layout across the aisle, all of which screams "model railroad here!".

It's much more interesting, in my view, to set the long straight runs of track at slight angles to the room, to the benchwork edge, and to each other. These angles, even very subtle ones, help create a feeling of real locations. Gentle curves can work well here, too, but they somewhat compromise the feeling of realism that comes from having at least some segments of the layout on a straight line, hewing across the landscape as if that landscape came first.

I hope you enjoyed these Tricky Traps of layout design. I may add a few more over time.

Click here to read an introduction to the eight tricky traps

Click here to read 1-4

Click here to read the latest blog posts