Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Chicken, the Egg, and the Sacred Sheet

No, this is not a joke about the three of them walking into a bar …

I'm always pleased to have an article in Model Railroad Planning magazine. The magazine looks great and inevitably has a number of interesting articles. I must confess to having slightly mixed emotions about my contribution to the 2011 issue, however.

It's an HO 4X8 switching layout based on Linn Westcott's Famous "Switchman's Nightmare" shelf switcher. I've published a similar HO 4X8 version on my website.

In the article draft, I tried to make the point (as I do over and over) that the HO standard gauge 4X8 is not the ideal layout form-factor. But combined as it was with about a dozen other 4X8s published in the last few months in MRP and Model Railroader magazine, a newcomer to model railroading could be forgiven if he comes to the conclusion that experts believe that the HO 4X8 is the perfect layout format.

Some at commercial model railroad publishers (though not all, to be sure) feel that they need HO 4X8s because "readers want them". But from whence does that desire spring (beyond the fear of cutting wood)? Is it because there's an innate human longing for HO curves that are too tight and awkward monoliths of benchwork that dominate a mid-sized room?

Or is it because these newcomers are fed a steady diet of HO 4X8s from books and magazines? Which is the cause -- and which is the effect?

To their designers' credit, some of the recently-published 4X8s are pretty interesting, especially those that are not HO standard gauge. But of the good ol' "Sacred Sheet" HO 4X8s published in the last couple of months, there are number with nearly impossibly steep grades that start as abruptly as a hockey stick, overly tight curves, and the usual litany of HO 4X8 woes.

That's not doing a hobby newcomer any favors, in my humble opinion.

Look, I recognize that HO 4X8s are popular. Of the over 24,000 unique visitors to my website last month, nearly half came looking for HO 4X8s. But hopefully the ones who stayed and read more than a page or two (and there were lots, thankfully) got some idea that there are HO alternatives that look better, work better, and are a more efficient use of space.

It’s just a shame that newcomers don't always receive the same exploration of alternatives in everything that they read.

In the end, some HO 4X8 track plan was probably going to be published in the pages my article occupied in MRP 2011. I certainly do appreciate the opportunity to include my design -- one that at least makes some effort to mitigate the Sacred Sheet's well-known shortcomings while providing an engaging operating experience.