Monday, January 26, 2009

New Track Plan Articles

I'm pleased to have two articles published this month in the commercial press. By coincidence, each of the articles deals with a smaller shortline or terminal prototype, each of which was once under wire! Each of the layouts was also designed primarily for switching operation by a small crew.

The Visalia Electric (VE) is the subject in Kalmbach's Model Railroad Planning 2009. The VE was a Southern Pacific subsidiary that once operated interurbans under wire, but later was a freight hauler primarily serving the citrus growing areas near Exeter, CA. The layout design is for a fairly large basement, but with the odd protuberances and access needs typical of these spaces. As John Armstrong often recommended, a long room-filling spiral proved the best way to capture some signature prototype design elements and use the space efficiently.

Joe Fugate's new Model Railroad Hobbyist mediazine issue #1 features a design for the Hoboken Shore Railroad (HBS), an interesting little terminal shortline serving shoreline industries in its namesake New Jersey city by the Hudson. This little railroad had both car float and on-rails interchange, unique industries and operation, even a setting with some topography. The layout design is the third HBS track plan for this client, who had to deal with some (happy) changes in life circumstances and domiciles along the way. The layout was a bit compressed to fit the spare-bedroom-sized space, but managed to capture some of the signature scenes and a flavor of the prototype's operations.

You can also read more about this HO switching layout track plan on my web site.

Writing for the commercial press is always a lot of work, but I seem to enjoy the finished product enough to do it again (and again). I hope you'll enjoy these, too.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

That Empire Has No Clothes

One thing that frustrates me when I see folks ask for layout design help on the Internet is the apparent unwillingness, or inability, for people to give direct, constructive, negative feedback. It's almost as if we've all been so conditioned by the Little League everybody-gets-a-trophy attitude that we are afraid to offer people the "tough love" they need to make their plans better. (Full disclosure: if not for everybody-gets-a-trophy, I would have received darned few in my meager athletic career). Instead, it's "attaboys" all around, even when the plan offered for comment has serious flaws.

Partly it's an unwillingness to ruffle feathers, but part of it may just be a lack of attention or experience on the part of those giving advice. I see this again and again. A plan is posted, unfortunately with serious flaws that will impact reliability, operating enjoyment, or appearance. The comments start rolling in, some of which may even be on topic. But a day or two and twenty comments later and nobody has addressed the obvious lack of concentricity of the double-track curves or the 2-foot long HO staging tracks intended to hold twenty-car trains. Just like the story of the "Emperor's New Clothes", nobody seems willing, or able, to state the obvious.

When someone (like me) finally does mention these issues, our empire-builder is frequently (and understandably) crestfallen. Rather than depend on a forum Geek Chorus, I often encourage these neophyte designers to build their own understanding of layout design through layout tours and study before tackling another CAD revision. Few take that path, unfortunately, instead opting for the ear-tickling pleasantries dispensed by their forum mates.

To use the psycho-babble terms du jour, that's enabling, not empowering. If we are going to offer help to these folks, we owe it to them to invest a little time and focus in our study of their plan – and to have enough integrity to tell the truth respectfully.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

No Visible Means of Support

Over the last few years, I've had the opportunity to design a number of multi-deck layouts. Sometimes one of the major challenges is figuring out how to hold the dang thing up. The areas around the walls are straightforward, of course, some sort of bracket usually works well. But the island and peninsula areas can be a bigger puzzle.

This becomes even truer when I'm working with upper and lower decks somewhat independently. It's easy to make a change on one deck, forget to reflect it in the other at the moment, and only discover much later that you've created "no visible (or invisible) means of support".

There are oodles of doodles on the Internet where layout design neophytes posit extensive gravity-defying multi-deck islands and peninsulas. Not only does the 3D model railroad layout design CAD allow these folks to draw untenable decks, but also to view them from impossible angles. This makes these unbuildable designs appear deceptively practical.

But it's not just limited to layout design tyros. I've been involved now in a couple of large layout projects where an otherwise innovative design lacked only one thing: a way to support the upper deck! Eventually, these layout owners resort to all manner of skyhooks and other appurtenances when the ¼" wide masonite backdrop on the lower deck proves unable to bear the weight of a few hundred pounds of plywood and plaster. How much easier it would have been to design in proper support from the beginning – but even experienced designers hate to give up lower deck real estate for upper deck stability.

For my own part, I've learned to use CAD to my advantage. I often use a straight or curved studwall to support backdrops and upper decks in island and peninsula areas. Once the general footprint of the design is defined, I'll draw in a rough location of the studwall in its own CAD layer. By keeping this layer visible and on top of the other layers most of the time, I avoid paining myself into an overhanging corner (to mix my metaphors.)

Multi-deck designs have been a great addition to the layout designer's toolbox. But applying multi-deck concepts thoughtfully includes always keeping track of what's holding them up.

I've written before about one of my favorite streaming Internet audio channels, Devlar Surf Sessions on Live365. Modern instrumental ("Instro") Surf music includes such subgenres as Spy, Space, and Tiki along with terrific band names such as the Atomic Mosquitoes, the Aqua Velvets, and the X-Rays. I thought this stream was being discontinued, but I've had the good news that it will carry on. So an even heartier "Thanks for the cool waves, Dude ", to programmer Ray Dukes. Definitely worth a listen.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

"What Size Shirt Should I Wear?"

Ridiculous question, right? Why would an adult ask someone else what size clothing to buy for themselves? It's a matter of personal preference and what fits, isn't it?

And yet, similar questions are asked and answered again and again on model railroading forums. For example: "What scale should I choose?"; or "What railroad should I model?" Some of this is the inevitable impact of new people joining the hobby – as many do at this time of year (and that's a good thing).

Back to our shirt analogy, I think it's important that these newcomers get the best advice we can give. After all, a bad fit, whether in the collar or on the layout, is uncomfortable. But because it's really about personal preference, I wish folks would be more inclined to give advice that encourages the questioner to explore his or her own preferences by seeking out layouts to visit and trying equipment on for size in a hobby shop or at a train show. That would be better than the N supporters touting 1:160 and the HO fanatics proclaiming the superiority of all things 1:87.1.

There are benefits and limitations to every scale and gauge combination. So helping folks explore the alternatives to let them choose their trade-offs would be a real benefit. Having said that, I have no patience with the whiners who lament, "Well I really like O scale, but it's so expensive … and HO won't fit in my space … and N is too fiddly … and maybe S but there is so little available". That's often just a bored cry for forum attention and unfortunately does not often enough receive the stony silence it deserves.

When people are truly looking for guidance (and not just for eyeballs), I hope we can all think of helpful things to suggest that would give newcomers ways to experience the pluses and minuses of the scale(s) they are considering with a minimal investment of time and money. Handling equipment at a train show or hobby shop, building an inexpensive kit or two, visiting club layouts, etc., etc., would give these folks a better idea of their own preferences and interests. That should help them find the best "fit" for their long term comfort and enjoyment.