Friday, September 26, 2008

Westcott's "Switchman's Nightmare" – Inspirational Layout #2

Although I wasn't actively doing any model railroading in the late 1970s, I was still reading books and magazines and thinking about layouts. Like probably everyone in the hobby at that time (and many today), I owned a copy of Kalmbach's 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders. Once, while visiting out-of-town friends, I came down with a nasty flu bug. While my friends went out for the day's activities, I resigned myself to the TV and reading, including another pass through the copy of 101 Trackplans I had brought along on the trip.

I had been through the book a couple of times at this point, focused mainly on the larger layouts in the later pages. So I decided to take a look at the smaller plans in the front of the book. Loop. Loop. Loop. Hey, wait a minute. Maybe it was my somewhat febrile state, but I started to see something different in plan #6, Linn Westcott's "Switchman's Nightmare".

For the first time, I pictured how cars placed in the yard at the right might be delivered to industries and vice-versa. And for some reason, the tracks at the lower left struck me as a large industry this time, rather than another yard as I had seen it before. Grabbing some scratch paper, I drew crude representations of short trains and tore the paper into little bits. As I moved these around the diagram in the book, I started to really understand what a runaround was, why those switch leads at the upper left and lower right where there, and how even a small layout without a continuous run might be fun.

Although the fever (both literal and model railroading) passed, the concepts of the Switchman's Nightmare layout stayed with me. As I learned more about multi-spot industries and prototypical operations, I began to see possibilities for more complexity and interest in Westcott's compact shelf switching layout.

Part of the appeal of this layout is its structural simplicity: runaround; yard tracks; and industry tracks, creatively overlapped to make the best use of the limited space. This basic structure has been used in hundreds (maybe thousands) of layouts, including John Allen's more-famous but less-realistic (in my view) Timesaver switching game. (It's interesting to me to note that the Switchman's Nightmare predates the Timesaver by about a decade.)

Even though regular readers know how much I dislike the traditional HO 4X8 track plan, an interesting exercise is to use the Switchman's Nightmare configuration as a an HO 4X8.

I've used similar configurations in a number of small layouts or as part of larger layouts, including the 1'X6' N scale Alameda Belt Line design from Model Railroad Planning 2005. Another interesting adaptation I've done was an HO version sized and configured much like Westcott's original but set up as a diesel service facility for a client with only a modest space but a mess o' engines to display.

The basic Switchman's Nightmare layout can be improved, where space permits, by the addition of a bit of length to allow for longer and more useful switch leads and runaround. I've seen a version on the web built by a club that had removable extensions to be added to the switch leads at each end when used at shows. Designating the tracks on the lower left as the multiple tracks of a large industry (factory, paper mill, brewery, etc., etc.) with sure spots could provide a lot of operating interest. And yeah, the switchback industries at the upper right bug me a little but could be easily addressed.

That a very simple trackwork configuration could offer such richness of operation was, and continues to be, a delightful surprise and ongoing inspiration. Just proves that "there's almost always room for operations" -- and that definitely places Westcott's little gem in my list of Inspirational Layouts. When the series returns, something completely different.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Whither the NMRA National?

I've been thinking a bit lately about the NMRA National Convention concept. I've attended three now, beginning in 1996 in Long Beach, then 2005 in Cincinnati and recently this year's event in Anaheim. The NMRA National is a bit of a model railroading smorgasbord, and I tend to graze the offerings, rather than indulge in all of it.

But that still leaves a lot of activities for me during the convention. Because I operate a modest model railroad-related business, the convention offers a chance to connect with current, past, and prospective clients, although much of that can be done through other means. I enjoy catching-up with friends from distant parts of the country and globe. I've always liked layout visits, but since I'm not one for bus tours, I usually only see layouts on the Layout Design SIG self-guided tours. It's fun to offer some short layout design help sessions as part of the LDSIG's activities. And with all of these, the thing I enjoy most is presenting and attending clinics.

The Host Committee of the Los Angeles Division of the Pacific Southwest Region did a fine job of organization and I enjoyed the events and activities of the convention. I also took a brief turn around the National Train Show (held in conjunction with the convention) and saw a few interesting things, including the modular layout set-ups that are my favorite part of any train show.

I'm not well-connected with the volunteer leadership of the NMRA (now there's a thankless job!), so I am not sure what their expectations were for attendance at the convention and participation by vendors at the National Train Show. But a few people were talking about the fact that the convention was more lightly-attended than hoped and that there weren't as many vendors at the train show as hoped-for. Part of this is probably that it was held on the west coast. I've certainly heard anecdotal reports that some attendees and vendors don't like to venture west of the Mississippi. (Of course, they don't mind asking those of us who live on the west coast to make the reciprocal trek.)

In any case, some of this discussion got me to thinking about the NMRA National Convention and what I would suggest to the NMRA if they were my marketing client and my task was to increase participation in the Convention. Now I don't know if any of the things I am going to mention are even possible to change or eliminate, or if there are reasons I'm not aware of that things are the way they are. So, unburdened by the constraints the NMRA likely actually faces, I'll blithely proceed to give my observations and opinions on four main points.

The hobby has changed

First, I think the hobby has changed in a fundamental way from the time that NMRA conventions began in 1935 and even from the 1960s and 1970s. There are a vastly broader range of interests, scales, backgrounds, products, etc., etc., than even a few years ago. This specialization of the hobby means that fewer of us are doing the exact same thing. There was a time when it seemed model railroading was almost entirely slightly whimsical western layouts. Then came the HO Appalachian coal haulers.

But today, we have eye-popping variety and more information than ever to let each of us explore our personal interests within the hobby even more deeply. Not just operations, but the intricacies of Time Table and Train Order. Not just diesel modeling, but duplicating exact phases of particular locomotives at a specific time and place. Not just a general interest in western prototypes, but participation in historical societies dedicated to preserving information on the day-to-day activities of a specific real-life railroad.

The NMRA National Convention is very tentatively beginning to become a "big tent" under which a number of specific groups offer activities, such as the Layout Design and Operations Special Interest Groups, the Railroad Prototype Modelers, and others. This is a terrific change from a decade or so ago when the SIGs were seen as rivals to the NMRA (sometimes, by both sides!).

But these SIG functions are still ancillary activities, in some cases exclusively for existing members of the groups. The Convention could be a chance for the NMRA to highlight these groups and many more, better communicating the diversity in the hobby and attracting more participation though partnerships with the SIGs, historical societies, and the like. Why not work to bring the Toy Train fans, the Narrow Gaugers, the N Scalers together in some way for a "Convention of Conventions"? Bigger buzz, bigger crowds, bigger benefit for the hobby in the long term … even if each of these constituencies has to give something up in the short term.

The world has changed

Second, I think it is important to acknowledge that the world has changed. The growth of the Internet has implications for the Convention and the Train Show. With forums and email, meeting and staying in touch with like-minded model railroaders does not require a national face-to-face get-together once a year. We can instantly connect with other modelers and see images of what they are working on – even on a daily basis, if we choose. And the same is true of model railroading vendors. Even the smallest garage-shop manufacturer can put up a website for practically nothing and be accessible to modelers around the world. No need to spend the significant time and money on travel and a booth at the Train Show.

In both cases, the Internet removes some impetus for the Convention and Train Show but conversely creates a terrific tool for promotion and partnerships. I can't remember seeing a single on-line ad for Anaheim in 2008. It's a huge effort, perhaps too much for a volunteer organization, but the NMRA could do a much better job of reaching out through the Internet to the many varied constituencies to bring them together for a more engaging and interesting Convention.

The seasons change

Third, it's always seemed odd to me that the Convention and train show are held in (usually) July. July! Not only is the weather a bit unpleasant (hot and/or muggy) almost anywhere in the US in July, it is the nadir of model railroading activity for most people. Typically people's model railroading juices get flowing in the fall and through the winter. I've been given two reasons for this date. One explanation is that this allows teachers and students to attend the Convention, which takes place during the week. The other is that convention facility costs are at their lowest in the middle of summer, when most people are on vacation.

Whatever the reasoning behind the July choice, I'm pretty sure that it doesn't make sense in today's world. People are more mobile, and even teachers can take time off in the fall and winter. Yes, students would have trouble participating during the week, but who says the Convention must take place primarily Monday through Friday (see below)? And most students would be better reached through the web and other activities than a convention that very, very few of them can afford, especially when travel is included. In my opinion, the Convention should move to the fall, when general modeling interest is higher.

Time for a change?
And the fourth topic to address, perhaps the elephant in the room, is the National Train Show. The Train Show dominates Friday and the weekend, which could be the prime days for people to participate in the Convention. It seems to me that the Train Show is the tail wagging the Convention dog. Now it may be that the fees the vendors pay to exhibit at the train show are an important component of the NMRA's operating budget, so maybe you gotta dance with the one that brung ya.

From its website, the National Train Show describes itself thusly: "The show's only purpose is to promote the hobby in a professional manner, to the hobby industry and to the public at large." Is this a mission that should still be carried out as a commercial show? Couldn't that be, indeed, shouldn't that be, the purpose of the Convention? Should the NMRA with its Train Show be in competition with the other train shows around the country?

What would be the best use of the weekend of the Convention, if the goal is to increase the hobby? Wouldn't it be to put the best parts of the Convention into these prime hours, when more can attend? Aren't there enough other opportunities for manufacturers to communicate with the trade through the Internet, the annual iHobby Expo (Rosemont) Show, and other venues? And aren't there plenty of opportunities for manufacturers to communicate to their customers though magazine ads, the Internet, and the multitude of other train shows that have sprung up in the last decade or two? The National Train Show only dates to 1988 and I don't know what preceded it. But I wonder if it isn't time to consider its relationship with the Convention and make some changes.

It won't change overnight
I recognize there is plenty of inertia to keep things as they are and I am not naive enough to think that this blog entry will change them. But even small steps toward creating a "bigger tent" of partnerships, using the Internet more effectively, changing to a more appropriate date, and considering how better to use the weekend days for the Convention itself could pay dividends. I've enjoyed my three NMRA National Conventions so far and hope to enjoy many more. These changes might make it attractive for many more to enjoy the Convention as well.

Thanks for reading all the way through. The Inspirational Layouts series will return in the next post.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Smaus' "Port of LA" – Inspirational Layout #1

By 1990, I was thinking off-and-on about building what would have been yet another generic model railroad – but there was no real "spark" to my ideas. My coworkers and I frequented an Italian restaurant located in a shopping center alongside a hobby shop. After lunch, I would often wander into the shop and take a look at the magazine rack. What I saw while leafing through the December 1990 issue of Model Railroader literally froze me in my tracks. I actually momentarily felt as if I was in one of those scenes in a movie where a crucial newspaper headline whirls suddenly into view.

Bob Smaus' "Port of LA" project layout as described in Model Railroader Dec 1990-Mar 1991. Photo from the A-line/Proto Power West site.

Bob Smaus' photos of his 30"X72" HO module hit me hard. Here was a slightly gritty, workaday setting, down by the docks. Tracks purposefully crossed one another in a bustling industry scene. And all in a few square feet.

Click here for a better view of the HO module track plan

This was the firm, swift kick I needed to jump back into thinking seriously about the hobby. Real industries with real work to do — not generic-looking quaint little fantasy factories covered in novelty siding. And it seemed, well, buildable.

As I followed the project series over the next three issues I began to think more about why real railroads exist – to move goods from industry to industry, not just run around in circles. It helped that the Port of LA project was set in my home region of Southern California. So much of the rest of what I had been seeing in the model press at the time was Appalachian coal hauling and creaky Colorado narrow gauge. Smaus' little layout felt more like something to which I could personally relate. And although I didn't realize it at the time, the nascent seeds of a port railroad that had been planted years before were beginning to sprout. (More on that later in this series.)

Bob Smaus is a supremely talented modeler, skilled photographer, and a great writer (his day job was as an editor at L.A.'s major daily newspaper). He used all those skills to bring the Port of LA module to life in a way that affected me deeply. It's not an overstatement to say that I am in the hobby today because of seeing this series.

The Port of LA was also featured in the Kalmbach book 6 HO Railroads You Can Build. The module itself eventually found its way to A-Line/Proto Power West, where it has been used in promoting their products. And of course, Bob went on to build his fabulous SP Southern California themed layout (MR, July 2006, et al). [His very first layout effort hadn't been too shabby either: MR, Oct 1989.]

Of course, packing all of this action into 15 square feet of module that can also function on its own makes for a lot of compromises. In looking at the track plan now with more experience, I recognize the significant limitations of the multi-switchback scheme, where some industry tracks must be emptied before others can be switched. In fact, some industries would probably be disrupted just to use the convoluted runaround path. A container yard track only about 16" long in HO is pretty limiting, and it would certainly be more realistic to extend the layout into more space, creating "breathing room" between the different industries and easing some of these issues (as Mark Lawler did in building a representation of Smaus' Port of LA into his N scale layout).

But those practical layout design considerations and concerns were for another day, far down the road. As an inspiration, a motivator, even a slightly adrenaline-fueled model railroading jump start, Bob Smaus' Port of LA module takes a leading position in my list of Inspirational Layouts. And that crystal-clear San Fernando Valley Fall day in November 1990 when I first saw the layout article still ranks as one of my favorite model railroad memories.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Inspirational Layouts -- Introduction

Model Railroader magazine's year-long series on Landmark Layouts has been interesting. For the most part, I find the editors' selections hard to argue with. Most of these layouts and/or their builders changed the hobby for the better. In addition, most of these layouts are/were of very high quality (for their time) and advanced new ideas and concepts, from scenery to operations to replicating prototypes.

By the nature of the designation, the Landmark Layouts MR selected are something of a "best of" list. As I considered them, I found myself thinking about a handful of layouts that I have personally found uniquely inspirational. They are not the largest, most finished, or necessarily the most innovative — and some might not find their way onto anyone's list of top layouts for those reasons.

These are layouts (in some cases track plans only) that motivated me to build, that opened my thinking, and that helped me develop the vision and concepts for my current personal design. Note that these are not necessarily "perfect" designs. Many have elements (one might call them quirks or flaws) that would annoy me over time and I certainly wouldn’t choose some of those configurations for myself or a client design. But there is something about the overall approach that influenced me greatly when I first saw them and still does today.

There are many other fine layouts which I admire, an amazing number of which are within driving distance from me in the bay area (and one within walking distance!). They offer many lessons to be learned and operating experiences to enjoy. But the inspirational layouts gave me a creative whack on the side of the head and caused me to see the hobby, and my potential path within it, in a new way — even though many of these layouts and plans are much more modest.

I'll cover these inspirational layouts in blog entries over the coming weeks, sometimes with a track plan, and discuss the reasons they grabbed me and didn't let go. I'll try to communicate the positive and, well, inspiring elements of these designs, along with perhaps a few comments about their weaknesses. Watch for the first Inspirational Layout blog post later this week.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Bridge (Route) too Far?

One of the interesting things about working with people on custom model railroad track plans is seeing the hobby from others' viewpoints. Sometimes it's a window back in time. A fellow has been conversing with me about a layout he'd like to set in the desert West, basically from Las Vegas to Reno. A look at a railroad atlas shows no railroad on that route – and a look at a highway atlas shows why.

This is pretty sparsely populated territory, to put it charitably. In fact, Darius Ogden Mills, one of the backers of the real life narrow gauge Carson and Colorado (which eventually became the SP's famous last remaining narrow gauge in the area) remarked that they had built their railroad "… three hundred miles too far or three hundred years too soon". And my prospective client's proposed survey seems just as remote, seeing as it mostly follows Route 95, called by some the loneliest road in America. (Nevada's connecting Route 50 vies for the same dubious honor).

OK, there would probably be some mineral and military business along the way (maybe the odd classified shipment of parts from downed UFOs to Area 51), but hardly enough to justify a four- or five-hundred mile rail investment in real life. When I met with the prospective client at the NMRA Convention in Anaheim in July, I asked, "So what were you thinking of as traffic generators on this layout?"

He looked at me as if I could not possibly have asked a dumber question. (For some reason, this happens to me a lot, so I am familiar with the expression). "Why, it's a bridge route, of course," he replied. "It connects the Union Pacific in Las Vegas to the Southern Pacific in Reno." Then he went on to name a number of well-known layouts based on the premise of connecting two Class 1s, noting that he could justify dozens of trains a day across the high desert based on the size of the two connecting roads.

Ah, yes, the pure bridge route. Famed in model railroading lore and relatively rare in real life. As I thought back, I remembered that when I was reading model magazines in the 1970s and 1980s, the bridge route concept came up a lot. Sometimes as an excuse for trackage rights (which is not the same thing as a bridge route, strictly speaking), sometimes as justification for heavy through traffic in an area otherwise lacking in on-line sources. And it's certainly true that this has been used as the basis for many layouts over the years.

Nowadays, many people recognize that the Class 1 railroads would rather keep traffic on their own rails as much as possible, so cars will be hauled hundreds of "extra" miles in a roundabout fashion to where the Class 1s have an existing connection and interchange. While there are a few true bridge routes that existed over the years due to accidents of ownership history or geography, they are pretty rare. Shortlines and smaller railroads are much more likely to exist as feeders to one or more Class 1s than as an alternate routing between them. I've mentioned Central California Traction and the Modesto and Empire Traction in the blog in the past. These railroads have connections to multiple Class 1s, but don't typically bridge traffic from one of those large railroads to the other. Instead, they connect their on-line industries to multiple Class 1s through interchange at multiple points.

This realistic pattern makes for a more interesting justification and concept to me than straining credibility with a bridge route, as well as creating more of the industry switching and interchange activity I enjoy. But hey, that's just me. And my client? Well, he's still itchin' for that dry and dusty bridge route, so we'll see how it all comes out. (And he's good-natured about seeing these musings on the blog) It will be a little time-travel for me back to the layout concepts of the '70s. Just hope I don't have to wear the clothes -- again.