Sunday, November 25, 2007

What's in a Name?

With apologies to the Bard of Avon (whoever he or she may have been), one of the recurring questions on forums and in casual model railroad conversations is what to call a freelanced model railroad. Although I personally find them trite and unconvincing, there still seems to be quite a following for the cutesy-poo names such as "Bumpkin and Booville Lines". Another group goes for dynamic sounding names like "Sidewinder Railway". And yet another subset chooses a name to yield a clever (or naughty) acronym (toilet humor seems, unfortunately, to be particularly favored here).

But most real railroads' existence depended on investors and customers viewing them as reliable transportation organizations. Although real railroad names were sometimes ambitious, even aspirational, they tended to communicate a business-like sense of purpose. Even if they never reached the end points their names suggested (e.g., "Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient"), these names provided a promise to which investors and the general public could relate.

I talked about synchronicity in my last post about model railroad layout analysis in terms of the track design and operations. And naming can certainly play a role as well for freelanced designs. A realistic name communicates purpose and can help anchor the layout in a place and time. But what makes a name realistic?

Bob Warren undertook a survey of 100 real-life railroad names from the classic era in the Layout Design News LDN-13, April 1995, published by the Layout Design SIG. Bob found that the majority (nearly 70%) had a geographical term in the name (Pacific, Atlantic, Central, Western, Eastern, etc.). 56% had a city name in the title, 29% a state name (of course, there were many combinations like New York Central).

More modern times have seen names that lean toward the anonymous acronym ("CSX", anyone?), yet even these tend to have geographical meanings and roots, even if only from the names of the merged fallen flags.

So when comparing freelanced names, "Utah Colorado Western" (Lee Nicholas' fine layout) just seems more compelling to me than "Higgleytown and Busterville". One feels like a real business to me, the other like something from a storybook. On the other hand, a freelanced layout depicting a struggling backwoods logger might well have a more modest name, suggesting its lesser aspirations. Maybe not something silly, but more "Sierra Lumber", as opposed to "California, Oregon, and Idaho".

When chosen carefully (mindful of the generalities of real-life names), a freelanced railroad name can communicate much about the imagineered prototype and its locale, era, and purpose. To me, that gives a freelanced line a head start in the viewer's mind and allows the track plan, scenery, and modeled industries to be viewed in context. Choosing the name of a freelanced railroad is fun, but it's also an easy place to go wrong.

Most of time I mention music in the blog, it's commenting about an entire album that I really enjoy, not just a song or two. Under the Covers, Volume 1, by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs (everyone's favorite Bangle) is not a breakthrough concept -- it's a collection of mostly-familiar late '60s covers. I actually bought the CD for my wife and didn't expect to be too excited about it. But the interpretation and execution of a few of the songs is just terrific. Their cover of Lionel-fan Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" is one of the coolest pieces of power-pop you'll ever hear. (Sweet's standout guitar work on this number is hardly an imitation of Young, much more of a retro revival.) A number of the other songs on the album just aren't my cup of tea, but the presence of a few standouts was a really pleasant surprise.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Track Plan Analysis, Part 5

I'll close this series on model railroad track plan analysis with some thoughts on three topics that are much harder to define objectively. If a plan has made it this far, there are few (or only easily correctable) mechanical flaws and we're ready to get down to very serious subjective analysis.

10) Layout Vision

As I noted earlier, this is usually where I start when I ask prospective clients about their layout ideas, yet it comes late in the process here. Vision in a model railroad context is a little difficult to define. Some brief vision descriptions from layouts and plans I know well might include: "mainline Santa Fe in the Texas Panhandle", "a sampler of classic western railroad scenes", "shortline railroading in the Olympic Peninsula", "the Santa Fe in California in 1973", "terminal rail-marine operations in the '50s", "upstate New York in the depression", "making connections with convoys in WWII", "plausible setting for eclectic model collection", and many more.

Vision can include an idea of era, locale, economic health, and viewer and operator perspectives or job roles. Is the passage of flashy streamliners what you picture from looking at the track plan? Or decrepit backwoods make-do logging gear struggling up stiff grades? Far too many plans include a pinch of this and a soup├žon of that, blending (blanding?) together into generalities without personality. Vision is challenging to define and even more challenging to reflect in a track plan -- but when it works, the effect on realism and engagement is amazing.

Extracting this vision from only a track plan is a matter of looking at track configurations, industries, likely scenery elements, etc. Long sinuous passing sidings and wyes for turning helpers suggest a mountain-climbing railroad. Tightly packed and complex trackwork reflects the expensive urban waterfront property on which it is built. Long tangents and "prairie skyscrapers" help set the scene for a granger line.

And within these broader schemes and definitions, there will be emphasis on certain elements. For example, a 4-track Pennsy mainline may serve primarily as establishing scenery for gritty parallel industrial trackage where lowly shifters dodge real or simulated mainline Clockers. The vision here is of the local work, not the glamorous varnish, yet the infrastructure of the well maintained mainlines helps accentuate and define the layout's industrial-switching focus by contrast.

The old model railroad track plan books often concluded the description of a particular layout with a line like " … or replace the grain elevator with a mine and sprinkle on some pines and your granger railroad can be a mining line in the old west!" Ummm … no. If you look at a plan and it would be easy to change its place, time and purpose merely by applying products from Woodland Scenics, that plan may not be reflecting a unique vision very well.

11) Story Telling

This flows naturally from Layout Vision and some may not find it especially useful to make a distinction. But to me, story telling comes from small vignettes, trackwork elements, or operating practices that help communicate the vision. A derelict interlocking tower and pulled-up crossing tracks communicate something specific about place, time, and purpose. A covered turntable or long train sheds with a siding for a fire train speak volumes about fighting grades (and the occasional wayward spark) in the high country. Milk platforms. LCL freight houses. Flood loaders. These kinds of layout elements express another bit of information about the layout vision.

Story telling, of course, is easier in terms of operation, by assigning job roles or even attitudes as does Jim Senese on his Kansas City Terminal Railroad. But I think well-designed vignettes and track configurations can also play a vital role. Layouts that tell stories well just "feel right", drawing the viewer and operator into the vision of the owner and/or designer.

12) Synchronicity

Simply stated, do all the layout elements coordinate and support the vision of the layout and the goals of the owner? For example, if the vision is recreating Timetable and Train Order operations, are there sufficient staging tracks, adequately and well-placed passing sidings, space set aside for dispatchers and operators, and enough mainline length to allow for orders to be written and take effect?

Twenty staging tracks at each end of the layout won't create a steady parade of traffic if there are only one or two places to meet and pass in between. Cramped aisles and impossibly long reaches to uncouple cars don't support a vision of two man crews simulating real-life railroad switching practices. If the vision is for a bucolic backwoods logger, how does that double-track mainline fit in?

In this final step, individual elements that may be perfectly fine on their own are considered together to see if they mesh into a coherent whole, and if that whole, in turn, is in sync with the layout vision and purpose. A lack of synchronicity is one reason I caution folks against blindly stringing unrelated prototype design elements together as a model railroad design strategy. Yes, it's hard to argue with the fact that you collected your station scene, yard, and industry trackage from real railroads. But if it’s a Northeast Corridor multi-platform station, a coal marshalling yard, and a paper mill, it's no better than cobbling together a motor from a Mustang, a tranny from a Cadillac, and a differential from a Jeep and calling it a well-designed car.

Insuring complementary elements in the overall layout is much easier during the design process -- obviously, it’s hard to analyze more synchronicity into the plan after the fact. But if I'm analyzing a plan that otherwise seems acceptable in all the forgoing characteristics, in this final consideration I don't want to leave out the vital step of making sure all the great parts form an even better synergistic whole.


Whew! That’s a heaping helping o' verbosity, to be sure. It was interesting (and a little surprising) for me to break down my layout plan analysis into these multiple interrelated steps in order to write them all down. I hope it was also interesting for you all to read them.

Index to all five trackplan analysis posts