Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dull Plan, Engaging Layout?

A wrote a while back about my inexpert first model railroad layout design, criticizing myself for the model railroad cliché of "an industry in every corner". In response, my friend Robert Bowdidge asked me later if I thought a good design must always look visually interesting and unique as a track plan. Robert, who is building a fine Southern Pacific based HO layout, noted that he had tried some exotic-looking benchwork shapes in his design before concluding that a more common U-shaped approach ultimately yielded a better configuration for the layout in the alotted space. And having operated on Robert's layout, I can vouch for the fact that the longer, straighter legs of the "U" make for better representations of the switching areas and an appealing operating experience.

Certainly I have seen this is also true for many of my own custom model railroad design projects. Sometimes my clients seem a little disappointed that the benchwork outline is so plebeian. But real-life railroads sought to have the longest, straightest tangents possible, using only the curves necessary to join those tangents. The model railroad benchwork shape that yields more of those straight areas will often be a good choice. There are exceptions, of course, especially for mountain-crossing routes. But even in those real-life situations, the most interesting operating areas (towns, yards, etc.) were often located on relatively straight stretches.

The same goes for schematics. A lot of the newcomer layout design efforts we see posted on the Internet serve up a multitude of routes and cross-connections more akin to a pasta bowl than to creating a plausible model railroad. But unfortunately for the real-life railroads, there are no secret hidden paths between Chicago and Los Angeles that cut off the intervening mountain states. So the more realistic schematic tends to be sequential and not variable.

A layout designed with a relatively straightforward benchwork footprint and a linear schematic can still be intensely engaging and visually interesting when built, even if the 2-D track plan is somewhat plain. Thoughtful track arrangements and operating patterns along with the skillful use of viewblocks and scene separators can make the actual layout a very satisfying experience to visit and/or operate. It's the subtleties of layout design that set apart engaging layouts from random collections of track. I wrote about some of these in my series on the Tricky Traps of Layout Design and Track Plan Analysis.

So for me, wild benchwork footprints, tricky multi-path routes, and a visually intriguing track plan diagram are usually secondary to more understated, but critical, design concepts that create long-term interest and enjoyment.