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.