Sunday, October 26, 2008

Alameda and Galveston – Inspirational Locales #7

For something a little different in this series, two real-life locales that continue to inspire me in model railroading. Both were covered in magazine articles with accompanying model railroad layout plans, but it's the prototypical locales themselves that had the lasting influence. These are the places that helped set the stage for my later interest in rail-marine and portside railroading.

The Alameda Belt Line on its namesake island near Oakland in California has been in the back of my mind since reading about it in Barry Wood's article in the April 1980 Model Railroader. This little line had a lot of interesting elements: ownership by, and interchange with, the Santa Fe and Western Pacific (via car float and car ferry for much of its life); character-filled industries; an interesting competition with the Southern Pacific; and a reasonably compact scope. My interest in it has only increased since moving to the Bay Area.

Wood's article included a track plan, primarily focusing on the Alaska Basin area of the prototype. While it's a pretty good plan, it was set in an era after the car floats and ferry had stopped running and did not reflect some of what I feel were the signature elements of the prototype, like the dual interlaced wyes. The area Wood focused on is still pretty interesting, with a wide variety of industries, some quite large:

I've been including some aspects of the ABL in my plans for my own N scale Oakland Harbor Belt Layout for some time. For example, the Alaska Basin area will look something like this when I get back to the garage version of the OHB.

Click here to read more about Alaska Basin on the OHB.

One of my friends has said, "Byron, you're obsessed with the ABL. Why not just model it instead of making something up?" Fair question -- and if there were decent Alco S-2s in N scale who knows if I might have taken that path -- but then again, the freedom of proto-freelancing offers the chance to include more traffic and other engaging elements lacking in the real-life ABL.

Galveston Island, Texas is another fascinating rail-marine environment, well described in Cyril Durrenberger's and Tom Eishenhour's May 1983 MR article on the Galveston Wharves Terminal Railway (GWT). While this article also includes a reasonable track plan, the real attraction to me was the map spread across the top of two facing pages: huge industries, wharves, piers, grain elevators, and container facilities; four major interchanging roads (SP, ATSF, BN, GH&H [MP-controlled]); and wide variety of commodities.

The concentration of railroading created by the port facilities makes for an amazing variety and scope of potential modeling. Maybe a little too much scope, in fact … while the ABL might be too small, Galveston is probably just too big. I've done one custom design inspired by Galveston so far, but it's hard to capture even a hint of the signature elements of the prototype on a mid-size or smaller trackplan. Maybe another opportunity will present itself one day. Today the GWT is known as the Galveston Railroad (AAR reporting marks GVSR). Those reporting marks are seen on thousands of Golden West Service cars across the country.

So, while it wasn't the model railroad track plans that appealed to me in these cases, the attractions of the real-life rail-marine prototypes were definitely a huge inspiration to my modeling concepts and vision today.

Next time, I'll conclude this series with a layout that, while far from perfect, puts many of the elements described so far into practice. Anyone have a guess which layout it might be?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rick Mugele's "City Belt" – Inspirational Layout #6

If you were to combine an innovative design imagination, the experience of real-life railroading, an interest in small-space operations, and an intriguing locale, you might, if you were very lucky, end up with Rick Mugele's HO 42"X80" City Belt switching layout. Besides the visible trackage seen here, one double-ended and two single-ended tracks are tucked below the visible yard, providing interchange and additional industries assumed to reside "beyond the benchwork".

Click here for a better view of the HO City Belt switching layout

Rick Mugele is a real-life railroader (now on the BNSF), and for years he has cranked out amazingly compact designs that challenge conventional thinking and stretch the envelope of what's possible. By 1995, when I encountered his City Belt design in a back issue of the Layout Design SIG's Layout Design News (LDN-8, August 1991), I was beginning to realize that model railroad operations could be a lot more engaging than I had imagined. Mugele's article described the real-life concept of "sure spots": cars aren't dumped willy-nilly into sidings, rather in many places they are required to be placed at a particular door, over an unloading grate, or below a discharge spout. The City Belt was provided as an example, based on real–life industries in Oakland and Richmond in California served by the (then) ATSF.

As compact as it is, the City Belt layout contains a couple of dozen "sure spots" – offering the same operations interest as much larger layouts that lack this added sophistication and realism of precisely spotting cars as on the prototype. This small layout includes key realism-boosting features that are lacking in the majority of the switching layout designs proliferating unchecked on the Internet (and even in the commercial press).

These all-too-seldom-seen desirable features include interchanges and yards – places for the loads and empties to travel to- and from. Industries are (relatively) large, with multiple tracks and multiple spots on many of those tracks, just like the real thing. Even in these tight quarters, there are no double-ended switchbacks that would require one industry to be emptied before another may be switched. For example, the "Safeway Lead" (my designation) extends into the lower right corner to allow room to work without disturbing cars already placed at other industries. And a pair of run-arounds allow everything to be shuffled as required to be placed into spot order for the facing- and trailing-point industries.

It took me a while to fully appreciate another interesting feature: Mugele's use of double-sided backdrops. Combined with the different levels of trackwork, it allows a clever and efficient "overlap" of layout space. For example, the lead into the Safeway building passes below the visible yard directly above it and the Safeway complex's walls form an industrial building bay at GATX as well as creating the backdrop between the scenes.

Beyond these design elements, Mugele's City Belt radically changed my thinking about operations. Besides just transportation (moving cars in trains), there was also the idea of distribution: efficiently picking up and placing cars at individual industries. And the idea that cars came from, and went to, "somewhere else" was clearly more realistic than moving a car from the vinegar plant three feet to the pickle factory and back again. I could see that even a small urban-themed layout could offer operating enjoyment by replicating some of the tight quarters and intricate switching of the real thing. (And Denton's Kingsbury Branch a couple of years later just added fuel to the fire!)

As much as I admire the City Belt, it's probably packed a bit too tightly to be practical for most builders as drawn. Curves wind down to less than 15" radius and grades are a stout 4 to 5% or more. But building this same layout in a 5'X8' or 5'X9' in HO would allow one to ease many of these issues and improve accessibility to the hidden track. Or, as suggested by Frank Jozaites in LDN-8, the yard could be swung off to the side as a shelf on an adjoining wall, a very nice improvement if space is available. In N scale, the layout might fit well on a hollow-core door (and would be a real improvement over many of the switching layout designs proffered for that space).

The most creative layout designers not only render innovative track plans, they show us ways to make whatever layout space we have more engaging and satisfying. Rick Mugele certainly falls into that category, and his City Belt still inspires me today.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Old" Media or "New"? The Answer is "Yes"

Model railroading media is a bit of a two-headed beast. On the one hand, many model railroaders tend to be technology-savvy. OK, let's face it, we're geeks (at least many of us). On the other hand, the hobby also attracts an older demographic that is often not as computer-friendly. So for every cry of, "Just publish everything on­-line", there's an answer of "I like my paper magazines".

Personally, I don't think this is an either/or question. Certainly, circulation for all genres of printed media (not just model railroading publications) is down with the advent of the Internet. But I don't agree with those who claim that printed magazines will disappear in the next few years. And the reason I believe printed media will survive is that there is still an important difference in user experience between on­line media and printed publications. That difference might be described as "hunter" versus "gatherer".

In my experience, using on-line media is a hunting expedition – I'm usually looking for specific things that pique my interest. I'm not likely to read every forum posting, for example. Instead, I'll look through the topics to find the two or three that interest me and look only at those. Part of this is the sheer volume of chaff, but some of it is just the times, places, and tools that pertain when I am consuming this media (sitting in front of the screen).

Conversely, for me the printed publication lends itself to a "gatherer" approach. I'll thumb through all the pages of a magazine and linger briefly on a wider variety of topics, including some that might not otherwise interest me during a more purposeful "hunt". I can browse through a book or magazine while waiting at the dentist's office, before retiring, or while in the euphemism. For me, this less-structured, more exploratory way of consuming media is vital: it exposes me to new ideas and different approaches I wouldn’t necessarily delve into through more directed on-line reading.

And importantly, much of the on-line material is inherently self published – there usually are no editors for web pages (more's the pity). For me, editors often add value by contributing rigor, context, and focus. I appreciate printed publications partly because most have passed through an editorial step (although sometimes with the smaller publications it's hard to tell!). I also think there's value in the structure of a book or printed magazine. The author's and editor's construction, pacing, and organization add flavor and meaning to the objective facts.

So my basic premise is that print won't die anytime soon – partly because it provides a different kind of experience (at least for those like me). What I think will happen is continued evolution of both on-­line and print media in model railroading. As an example, I think Kalmbach has done a decent job of extending their Model Railroader and Trains brands into cyberspace. This is challenging for a publication that has historically depended largely on print ad revenue to survive. And make no mistake, business plan transformation is orders of magnitude tougher than the nuances of on-line fonts and formats. [As an aside, one of the major issues roiling the newspapers isn't primarily that readers are abandoning them – it's that Craigslist and eBay took the classified advertising!] Kalmbach has had some on-­line stumbles along the way, but the company is miles ahead of its model railroading publication competitors. I think they have done a reasonable job of bringing some of their editing and publishing strengths to the Internet. (And it's interesting to note that as Kalmbach incorporates more ads to create a viable revenue stream on­line, there are complaints from users. We do want it all, and all for free, don't we?)

On the Internet side, consider Joe Fugate's new ad-supported electronic magazine, Model Railroad Hobbyist, set to premier in January. On the surface, it's a pure "new media" model. But Joe has a long history not only as a video and web technology practitioner, but also as an editor and publisher of enthusiast printed publications, both in model railroading (the LDSIG's Layout Design Journal in the late '90s) and in other fields. I think (and hope) that Joe will bring some of the editing discipline typical of the print world to his e-zine venture. In my mind, Joe has the skills and experience to build this into a unique and successful publication.

I think we'll find that the ultimate result isn't wholly either/or, on­-line or print. We'll see blending and crossover. As a writer, I've got a foot planted firmly in each camp, with future articles scheduled for publication both on-­line and in print. I do spend a lot of time looking at the screen … but there are times to settle down with a great printed book or magazine, too.

The Inspirational Layouts series returns in the next post.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sperandeo's San Jacinto Dist. – Inspirational Layout #5

When the student is ready, the track plan appears. Or reappears, in this case. When I first saw Andy Sperandeo's 9X12 HO ATSF San Jacinto District plan in the February 1980 Model Railroader, it didn't make much of an impression. (Especially compared to the Carrabasset & Dead River in the same issue).

But by the time I encountered the plan again in the early 1990s, in Kalmbach's Track Planning Ideas from Model Railroader (1981), I had learned enough about model railroad layout planning to see and appreciate the track plan's innovative points.

The modest amount of trackwork that had seemed sort of boring before now looked much more realistic. Linking the plan to real places and the actual types of industries found in those locations created more interest. A layout based on out-and-back branch line switching, rather than endless round-and-round, seemed attractive. And the accessible staging, which had seemed like a waste of perfectly good layout space to me earlier, now enabled the engaging flow of traffic to- and from the "rest of the world". (This might have been the first time I was exposed to the concept of a fiddle yard, where consists might be reset between sessions.)

The San Jacinto District was not the first layout I had seen with most of these elements, but I was beginning to see how creating a track plan was an exercise in balance. Sperandeo's track plan was one of the few "theoretical" designs in that era to realistically address the need for adequate aisles, for sufficient staging to create the desired operations intensity, and a variety of operating schemes to address seasonality (and add operating interest). Sperandeo's track plan also exuded a personality – the atmosphere of southern California branch line railroading. This was a refreshing change from many of cookie-cutter layouts I had been seeing that seemed to all be set in the same generic eastern burg.

I was getting an inkling that there was more to model railroading than packing in loops of track. (Would that the masses posting their sorry CAD creations on the Internet might learn the same lesson.) Operating trackage, staging, room for scenery, operational theme, aisles for crew members, etc, all had to be considered in coming up with the track plan. Andy Sperandeo's relatively modest San Jacinto District plan inspired me to build my own knowledge of the myriad subtleties of layout design – a foundation I call upon nearly every day.

One of the more intriguing streaming audio channels I've come across is Frank's Americana on Live 365. Self-billed as "Cooking the music of the world in the melting pot of American life!", the channel mixes a wide variety of styles and eras. While bluegrass and newgrass are strongly represented, one might also hear Swing, Big Band, Jazz, and Rock. Ralph Stanley to Flying Burrito Brothers to James Gang to Louis Prima would not be an unusual set. There are occasional clinkers (some '60s Top-40 hits I just don't need to hear again -- ever), but there are far more nuggets than dross.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Denton's "Kingsbury Branch" – Inspirational Layout #4

1996 was a pretty stressful year: new baby; pressure-packed job at an Internet giant; and an impending household move. It was clearly going to be a while before any layout was started, but I was still planning on building the proto-freelanced N scale Midland Pacific* once things settled down. And then another seed was planted that would eventually shift me away from the branchline/secondary mainline concept to a more urban terminal-switching theme.

Kingsbury Branch layout photo from Bill Denton's former website

Bill Denton's Milwaukee Road Kingsbury Branch in the January 1997 Model Railroader was another revelation. In a very compact space – and in N scale – Denton had created an appealing replica of a real-life area that worked as an operating layout. The urban scenery was realistic without requiring scale acres of benchwork. And the concentrated activity typical of a real urban terminal provided plenty of engaging operating potential without unduly straining plausibility.

Track plans from Bill Denton's former site
The Kingsbury Branch is built in two portable sections, each measuring 21 inches deep by 6 feet long. An unscenicked 4‑track staging yard connects at the left of the upper section shown here (which also provides "room to work" for the industry tracks at the far left of that section). Denton's original inspiration came from an article by Randy Willis in the April 1975 issue of Model Railroader on the real-life area. From photos in that article and visits to the area, Denton developed a track plan that emulates the real thing in many respects, handlaying code 55 turnouts and code 40 industrial tracks to maximize appearance. He also decided to kitbash and scratchbuild, rather than using off-the-shelf structure kits, to try to replicate the buildings more accurately.

Looking at the layout photos, I realized that the urban buildings were strikingly effective as backdrops, towering over the railroad passing below. The busy trackwork intersected the street grid at interesting angles and suggested a real business with real work to do. And the many sidings, sufficient runarounds, "off-spot" tracks, and numbered door "sure spots" added realistic operating interest without resorting to tedious switching puzzles. Denton described the operation of the layout in a follow up article in the May 1998 MR. He has taken the layout to various train shows and events, a real benefit of the sectional approach. (The original intention was that these sections were to eventually become part of a larger home layout, but I don't know if that ever occurred.)

Of course, it didn't hurt that Denton is an excellent modeler and photographer. The images in the MR articles showed me that N scale urban railroading could appear very realistic in a very small space. While I didn't give up the Midland Pacific idea immediately, a new concept of urban railroading began to form. Bill Denton's Kingsbury Branch completely changed my perception of N scale and opened my eyes to the possibilities of urban railroading in a very inspirational way.

*My layout design and operating plans for the Midland Pacific were covered in detail in the Layout Design SIG's Layout Design Journal # 35, December 2006.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Hayden's "C&DR" – Inspirational Layout #3

One might be reminded of the Sesame Street ditty: "One of these things is not like the others …" Bob Hayden's proto-freelanced HOn30 Carrabasset and Dead River Railway (C&DR) layouts might seem unlikely inspirations, given my current personal focus on industrial urban layouts intended for operation. Sometimes, though, an inspiring layout is one that tells you not only something about your dreams, but also something about your inescapable realities.

View of the Carrabasset and Dead River from Allen Keller's Great Model Railroads #26.

I discovered the C&DR on the cover of the February, 1980 Model Railroader. The story inside described the development of the first C&DR, from a rented garage in San Francisco to Dave Frary's basement near Boston. Although I knew nothing about the Maine two-footers at the time, the layout photos were amazingly evocative of a unique time and place, separated by gauge and locale from the rest of North American railroading.

Trains were short and engines idiosyncratic. And the idea that a layout could evolve so dynamically over time as the builders' ideas changed and experience grew was a very new and exciting concept.

For a brief time, I was enthusiastic about modeling in HOn30 myself. "Brief" as in about a week -- once I discovered the paucity of commercial offerings in the local hobby shops, my ardor quickly cooled. And more importantly, I began to realize that it took a special combination of skills to make such an unusual prototype believable. Those early C&DR layouts benefited not only from Hayden's vision, but from both Hayden's and Dave Frary's exceptional modeling and scenery skills as well (thus the C&DR is justifiably one of MR's Landmark Layouts).

The low-key imagineered C&DR prototype encouraged space between scenes and uncrowded towns. But for that concept to succeed, the scenery had to be top-notch -- which in this case, it was, the builders having literally written the book on model railroad scenery. Even though the idea of an isolated and charismatic little railroad was very appealing, I began to recognize that pulling it off successfully would require space and modeling talent that I currently lacked. And the absence of meaningful interchange is an operating limitation that I could see would be unsatisfying.

So in a roundabout way, my interest and enthusiasm for the C&DR has translated into a focus on a more achievable (for me) concept: an industrial switching-oriented layout, the Oakland Harbor Belt. The OHB concept can justifiably cram more operating interest into my limited space and may not be as demanding of scenery skills to pull off convincingly.

The appeal of isolated little railroads continues for me, of course, in the form of my recurring infatuation with Hawaiian railroads. As I have read and enjoyed the many articles on the C&DR, I still find the layouts very inspiring and motivating. Hayden's unique concept and the builders' masterful implementation (aided and abetted by Frary's fine photography) always encourage me to get building. And certainly that qualifies the multiple instantiations of the Carrabasset and Dead River concept as very inspirational layouts, indeed.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Rule #1?

There is an old adage in model railroading that describes "Rule #1" as: "It's my layout, I'll do what I like". Folks invoke "Rule #1" to justify double stack container trains pulled by old-timey 2‑6‑0s and French TGVs blasting around 1950s Pennsy layouts. Some folks also call upon "Rule #1" to rationalize all manner of dubious model railroad layout design choices: weird switchback industries, convoluted multi-path routes, etc.

For me personally, it's all good. If those are choices someone wants to make for their own layout, more power to them. One of the best parts about model railroading is the creative aspect that results in no two layouts looking the same. I do think it's a shame when a newcomer with questions is assaulted by one of these "Rule #1" types. "Who cares, it's only a hobby – we're all playing with trains – do whatever you like" is a common refrain.

Even stipulating that model railroading is indeed a hobby and not brain surgery, I think that is a disservice to a newcomer who doesn't know the best practices of the hobby or the whys and whens of real-life railroading. Personally, I think it's good to have some background on what works best in model or real-life railroading before deciding on a path that's really divergent. But hey, if you want to build a multi-path spaghetti bowl with four passes of track through each visible scene, knock yourself out!

What's been interesting to me is the number of Rule #1-ers who want me to agree with their choices. A byproduct of my modest little model railroad layout design service and published articles in the model press is that some folks seek me out to accost me with their "innovative" design ideas (many of which are throwbacks to 50-year-old modeling practices, by the way). These folks seem almost desperate to get my approval for their choices.

First, it's pretty silly to think that my approval matters. I'm just an opinionated lunkhead with a blog. (Wait … is that redundant?) Second, they've already chosen something they know I won't agree with – does it really seem likely that their pitch will be so persuasive that I'll be converted? "Oh gee, you're right, an 18" radius helix in HO is a great idea. And I'm sure the resulting grade will be no problem for your UP Big Boy hauling that Amtrak Superliner consist!"

One fellow (details changed slightly to protect the unconvinced) showed up at two of my clinics at the recent NMRA National Convention in Anaheim. Gripping his precious CAD HO 4X8 layout plan printout, he buttonholed me after each clinic to show me his unique approach. When I gently explained that the 6% grades and 15" radius curves seemed an unlikely match for his heavy mainline theme, he tersely responded with -- wait for it -- "Well it's my layout and I'll do what I want!" Fair enough. But if that's the case, why ask metwice?

The same thing happens in forum and email exchanges. I try to suggest to folks that there is a reason some trackwork configurations are unsatisfactory: they've been found not to work as well as others. It's not some shadowy model railroad-industrial complex that's conspiring to keep them secret. But still, people seem anxious for me to agree with these poor ideas, especially if they first saw them in a published track plan.

Bottom line, if you're going to invoke Rule #1 for your own layout, fine by me. But if you feel some trepidation about the path you're on, maybe it's because there is a reason for some concern. Spending some time learning about model railroad layout design best practices and real-life railroad practices will help you make an informed decision when you decide to diverge from the well-traveled path.

Next post, the Inspirational Layouts series returns ...