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 ...