Sunday, October 07, 2007

Track Plan Analysis, Part 1

"Don't ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to." One of rock's more clever lines, penned by Peter Green in the early days of Fleetwood Mac. This phrase has been echoing in my mind recently after a couple of experiences trying to help newbie layout designers on the Internet.

Regular readers will already know my concerns about the simultaneous proliferation of cheap or free CAD software and weak layout designs on the Internet (some CAD, some pencil and paper). Undaunted, I still occasionally find myself trying to help people with their ideas (yes, I'm a slow learner). So both on-line in the forums and off-line in private emails, I've tried to offer design advice.

The outcomes are almost always disappointing. I think it's often a case of mismatched expectations and experience.

There's one group of folks posting designs who are looking only for adoration of their "baby", not for advice on how to make it better. Good luck getting these savants to incorporate needed changes. Another group possesses very little background on model railroad layout design principles but insists on pressing forward with their own design regardless. These situations can be very frustrating, because there's no common language to use: if the newbie doesn’t know what constitutes a runaround or a switchback, it's darn-near impossible to help them understand what you're trying to point out.

A final group just isn't serious about what they post. After many helpful respondents offer advice, the original poster replies, "Oh well, I'm not moving out of Mom's condo for at least two years anyway, so I'm not really sure what space I'll have." Thanks a bunch, Junior!

I enjoy helping people, but the individual interactions often seem unsatisfying for both parties. So what to do? Perhaps an answer is to spend a little time and effort in a few blog posts describing what I look for in analyzing a plan, in print, on-line, wherever.

I've written indirectly about some of these ideas before, in earlier blog posts about the 8 Tricky Traps of layout design (here, here, and here). But this is looking at things from the other way around: how to analyze a model railroad track plan when considering it for long-term enjoyment, space efficiency, ease of building, maintenance, and operation, etc.

I'll list these ideas in a (very) roughly sequential order, but I don't follow this order rigidly in my analysis. I might skip around if there's a glaringly obvious shortfall or an evident highlight that merits priority focus. I'll present the first three ideas in this posting, with more to come in future blog entries.

1) See the space, not a table

Typically, the very first thing I like to understand when considering a model railroad layout design is the space it will occupy. What's the overall size of the room, how does one enter the space, where are the windows and other obstructions, etc.

Many plans are drawn and presented without any indication of the space which they occupy. And very often, these are drawn as one or a couple simple rectangles. For example: 6'X6'; two sheets of 4'X8' plywood in an "L", a 12'X12' monster with "Prairie Dog Village" pop-up holes, or the "sacred sheet" HO 4X8 (and regular readers know how I feel about those!).

I'm willing to bet that 9 out of 10 times, designing a model railroad layout solely to fit building material manufacturers' preferred sizes of sheet stock is a mistake. It's easy to see that a more-interesting layout will fit in the same sized room as will a 4X8, once one considers the aisles necessary for construction, maintenance, and operation.

It's certainly more challenging to design a layout that makes best use of the available space, but the rewards of greater long-term interest and better access make the extra effort worthwhile.

While considering the space, I also think about aisles, duckunders (if any), and overall reach required. Lots of plans flunk out at this stage, or require substantial rethinking and rework.

2) Thematic schematic

A model railroad schematic is the unwinding of the track plan to show the relationships between the various elements and connections. When I consider the schematic of a plan, I am looking first to see if it is logical and comprehensible (not the same thing!). Next I am thinking about what themes or concepts this schematic can support from an operating and/or model railfanning standpoint.

The image below is John Armstrong's Pennsylvania and Potomac from 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders.

When we unwind this plan into its schematic, we discover that it's basically a continuous-run with a reversing connection.

With this type of schematic, it's possible to support a decent amount of operation, even in a relatively small space. Layouts with a lot of odd alternative routings and short-cuts can be hard to understand and operate and may not prove interesting in the long run.

I don't always sketch out the schematic when looking at a straightforward track plan, but it's a step I will take when trying to analyze something more complex. Since many designers either don't understand schematics or don't bother to check them, many plans are offered up for discussion (or even published) with inherent routing flaws.

3) To stage or not to stage

Personally, I like staging. I include it in most of my designs because I like the idea of trains leaving the visible layout to go "somewhere else" and for trains to arrive on the visible layout from "somewhere else". This gives me the feeling that the visible modeled scene in front of me connects with, and is influenced by, the larger unmodeled world.

Having said that, I'm not one to insist that every model railroad track plan requires staging, although many more could benefit from staging than are drawn with it. It depends on the owner's desires for the layout. An interest in operations or model railfanning seems to me to suggest staging, while a layout designed instead primarily for display of models might not suffer through lack of staging. (And some model railroaders just can't see the point of placing any track where it's secluded or hidden.)

What I am looking for in this step is to see if the owner's desires are reflected in the plan. Assuming there is staging, I am next looking for accessibility, capacity and the flexibility in the way the staging connects to the fully modeled scenes. Are the staging tracks sufficient in number and length to support the owner's desires and/or rolling stock inventory? Can trains from staging run only one way around the layout with no way to return?

I recently saw an HO layout design posted with a number of staging tracks that appeared to be about 18" to 24" in length. Unless it's an interurban or streetcar layout (and this was not), those clearly aren't long enough to be useful. Yet the design was greeted with the standard "Great, you’ve got staging!" litany of comments from the forum peanut gallery.

Track plans that survive this first round of analysis pass on to the consideration of more subtle, but equally important, elements. More on those later.