Sunday, December 07, 2008

Beer and Dekaohtophyllia

No, it's not the title of the next Jerry Springer show. "Beer" is a reference to Model Railroader magazine's interesting new MILW Beer Line project layout series (beginning in the January 2009 issue) and "dekaohtophyllia"* is my pidgin Greek for "love of the number 18".

The Beer Line layout is an intriguing and welcome departure from the more typical "Plywood Central" 4X8 HO model railroad designs that have often been featured by MR in past layout construction projects. David Popp's thoughtful track plan is divided into sections that can be combined in multiple configurations. In fact, they are a bit more like modules since there is a consistent location for the "main line" at the section edges.

MR has chosen mainly real-life industries and locales for the layout, and it promises to be more advanced than some of their project layouts in that kitbashing specific prototype structures is suggested. And of course, the emphasis on switching vs. endless round-'n-round is inherent in the choice of prototype line.

By merely taking saw to plywood 4X8 "sacred sheets", MR broke out of one of the strictures of the traditional "beginner" layout. And it appears there will at least be a suggestion of a separate staging yard to be attached, another nice element often lacking in project layouts of the past.

In my mind, all of these elements are very welcome. MR is encouraging beginners to look beyond the traditional HO 4X8, to cut some wood (or have it cut), and to consider real places and industries as subjects for model railroading. All of this may make for a more engaging and satisfying long-term model railroading experience. So far, very good.

And yet, the design sticks to 18" radius HO curves for most of the "main line", even taking the curved side of Atlas Snap Switches in a couple of locations. And why does this "love of eighteen" frustrate me a bit? It's simply this: MR broke the mold in so many positive ways with this project, and in theory could have used any radius for these curves. So why perpetuate the myth that 18" radius is perfect for newcomers to HO layout-building? Elsewhere in the design, significant use is made of PECO Code 83 #5 and #6 turnouts. A somewhat broader curve and the elimination of the Snap Switches would have brought the rest of the layout in alignment with those components. (OK, and they could have done without the switchback industry spurs that require clearing one industry to switch the adjacent one – but I digress.)

My best guess is that it was just too hard to break out of the four foot width dictated by the standard sheet of plywood. Instead, the design requires only one lengthwise cut of a 4X8 sheet and the addition of a couple of "Handy Panel" pre-cut 2X4 sheets. But it would not have taken much effort or space to increase the size of the end sections and permit the use of 20" or slightly larger flextrack curves. Why would this matter? Well, shoving cars through the curved side of a Snap Switch and around 18" radius HO curves can be a bit of a challenge if the track is not laid with care. A slightly larger radius offers more room for error in building and more reliability with a wider variety of equipment in use. It just seems to me to be an opportunity lost to demonstrate that once one is willing to take saw to the sacred sheet, it opens up many alternatives impossible on an unsullied HO 4X8.

My view on this appears destined to be unpopular. When I mentioned it on one forum, I was attacked by a rabid pack of MR defenders. "Beginners don't have room for 48" radius curves, you know!" Yes, I know, but this straw man argument is moot. I'm not talking about changing the 18"R to 48"R. Maybe 20" -- or 19" -- or 23". "Beginners already have 18" sectional curves from their train set, you can't expect them to throw those out!" Huh? Saving a handful of track sections that could be replaced with ten bucks' worth of flex is a reason to potentially compromise operation and reliability for years to come?

The irony is, I'm a big fan of MR generally, and of this project specifically, just not the 18" radius in this case. (By way of comparison, the beginner's project published as an insert this month in Railmodel Craftsman cuts the plywood and uses broader radii but is perhaps the worst beginners design suggestion I've encountered in print in years.) I even used some 18" radius (with easements) recently in an HO custom design that will be published in the New Year where those sharp curves replicate some tight-quarters real-life harbor trackage and contrast with broader curves elsewhere in the design.

The Beer Line project was an opportunity to show the hobby something different and flexible that could give many people a fresh way to approach layout design and construction. In so many ways, it succeeds. But the tie to 18" HO trainset curves and Snap Switches fails to fully capitalize on the opportunity, in my humble (and apparently unwelcome) opinion.

* Yes, I know the actual Greek root would be spelled "-philia", but thanks for the emails. I just thought this spelling was funnier and that's why I called it "pidgin" Greek.