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

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