Achievable Layouts and the ongoing problem of the Time Saver

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I’ve written about this before. The Time Saver is a venerable and well-loved railway switching puzzle invented by one of the pioneers of the hobby, John Allen.

As hobbyists, we owe a lot to John, who published many articles and in the process opened people’s eyes to the possibility that a model railroad could actually have things like, oh, extensive scenery and something approaching realistic operations. These are things we take for granted today – but they were radical ideas in an era when a model railroad was essentially a bigger version of a train set.

However, the Time Saver is one of John’s ideas that has about as much to do with modelling railroading as the game of Clue has to do with solving murders. It is first and foremost a puzzle with a railway theme – in the same manner as this:
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(Interestingly – but perhaps not surprisingly – I’ve just found a blog devoted to railway jigsaw puzzles. Click the jigsaw to visit it.)

So I was pleased to see another blogger I follow – Hunter Hughson – has tackled the Time Saver as well. On his Ontario in HO Scale blog, Hunter notes that he struggles to see the direct connection between the Time Saver and real railways, and reminds readers (including me) of Craig Bisgeier‘s excellent critique of the Time Saver. Click on the Rubik’s Cube to read more:
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I think any discussion of the shortcomings of the Time Saver should also offer alternatives. There are many excellent resources online, but here are three worth looking at:

First, of course, are the realistic switching layout designs that Lance Mindheim describes on his website. I recommend reading through his blog, and acquiring his trio of books:
– How to Design a Small Switching Layout
– How to Build a Switching Layout
– How to Operate a Modern Era Switching Layout

Second, Greg Amer has a blog called The Industrial Lead on which he is describing his plans for a switching layout based on the industries he works as a professional railroader.

Third, another professional railroader – Jack Hill – was writing a great blog about his New Castle Industrial Railroad. Here, he documented his O scale switching layout. Unfortunately, Jack stopped blogging in January 2011. I have never figured out why. Fortunately, his blog is still active.

These modellers – and others, including (but not limited to) Byron Henderson, Bernie Kempinski, Mike Cougill and Jim Lincoln – have influenced my thinking about layout design. In particular, my thinking has evolved to embrace two principles:

First, I appreciate the beauty of simple designs. Most layouts I see in magazines, online or in person are over-designed for the needs of the builder. On most of these, about half of the track could be removed without affecting the entertainment value of the layout.

Second, I appreciate the elegance of prototype track arrangements. A layout designed from a prototype track map rarely looks like – or operates like – a typical model railroad.

On this blog, I am offering up layout designs or prototype ideas that – I hope – embody these two principles. I call them Achievable Layouts. These layout ideas are, admittedly, all bigger than a Time Saver – but not necessarily more complex to build. And I know they will be much more satisfying in the long term.

It’s past time to dump the Sacred Sheet from the hobby

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I was more than a little disappointed to see a popular hobby magazine run a feature at this time of year highlighting several plans for HO layouts based on the tried and tired four-foot by eight-foot sheet of plywood (hereafter called “the 4×8”).

I’m convinced that the 4×8 – often offered as a first step for beginners to take beyond the “train set under the tree” – does more harm than good in the hobby.

I have several problems with the 4×8 from a layout design perspective, all related to the fact that a 4×8 takes more space than people think:

– A 4×8 layout needs access on both long sides and at least one short side. If we assume a fairly tight 24″ for each aisle, that means at a minimum a 4×8 layout requires a space of 8’x10′.

– If we allow for a more comfortable 30″ for each aisle, that increases to 9’x10.5′.

Running a layout around the perimeter of an 8’x10′ space (or 9’x10.5′), with the operator(s) standing in the middle, enables one to design and build a much better layout. There are many reasons, but here are three:

– If the layout builder wants a continuous run, the curves on a 4×8 must be so tight that they restrict the type of equipment that can be run. What’s more, the tighter the curve, the more precisely it must be laid if operation is to be reliable. Track switches are also often limited to smaller sizes. Many published plans feature 18″ radius curves and Number 4 switches. By contrast, a layout built around the perimeter of an 8×10 space can take advantage of broader radius curves – 24″ and above. There’s also room to use larger switches: For example, all turnouts off the main and all crossovers can be Number 6.

– It the layout builder wants switching, a 4×8 places some serious limits on the design of sidings and spurs. Often, plans are forced to introduce diamond crossings or unrealistic switchbacks to make spurs fit. By contrast, a layout built around the perimeter of our space has room for more industrial spurs, longer spurs, longer run-around tracks, more thoughtfully designed yards, and so on. There’s even room in an 8×10 space to incorporate more sophisticated layout design concepts, such as staging tracks. This would introduce new hobbyists to the concept that their layout is part of a larger system.

– The 4×8 pretty much fills an 8×10 space. There’s not a lot one can do with a room that has a slab of plywood taking up the middle. By contrast, a layout built on narrow shelves around the perimeter of this space leaves the middle of the room open. And the space under the layout’s shelves can be used for anything from bookcases for one’s collection of hobby magazines, to rubber tub storage of seasonal items, to a workbench and tool storage for the new hobbyist.

Why is this something that should concern us? The limited possibilities of a 4×8, coupled with the engineering challenges of tight curves and switches and the space-hogging nature of the slab, can create multiple causes for frustration and disappointment for new hobbyists. It’s very possible that those frustrations will drive most of the new hobbyists that we pick up, especially at this time of year, back to the TV chair or to another hobby. And that’s a shame because we might be losing someone who, with a different start, could have become a great model-builder, or layout designer, or author, or club organizer, or NMRA association volunteer… or even just a person who loves the hobby and helps support manufacturers, publishers and others by buying lots of train-related stuff over a lifetime of engagement with model railroading.

This is why I feel the only thing a 4×8 sheet of plywood is good for is raw materials for a better layout design.

I’m not alone in thinking this way. Many modellers would like to see the Sacred Sheet excommunicated from the hobby. But one of the best arguments I’ve seen against 4×8 layouts can be found on the Layout Vision website of my friend Byron Henderson. Here’s his take on the issue, called Why Waste the Space on an HO 4×8?

So what can be done about this?

For a start, those who create layout design article for the popular hobby publications can pledge to ban the HO scale 4×8 from their design language, and instead submit articles that offer alternatives that are appropriate for new hobbyists that fit an 8×10 (or smaller) space. We also need to explain to new hobbyists – whether they’re people we meet at the hobby shop, a train show, online, or in the pages of a magazine – why the traditional 4×8 is a bad idea, and why the alternatives we propose are better choices that are just as easy to achieve.

Byron’s website offers many examples of 4×8 alternatives to suit all tastes – from around the walls, to dog bones, to point-to-point shelf switching layouts.

Meantime, Scott Perry is another advocate of alternatives to the 4×8. Scott has designed a beginner’s layout (in HO) that I think does a much better job of introducing new hobbyists to the full potential of model railroading, even as it allows them to build the skills they will need once the bug has bitten and they’re ready to tackle a larger empire. It’s called the Heart of Georgia Railroad (The HOG) but with a swap of paint schemes and some industries it would work for almost any short-line style operation across North America.

I interviewed Scott about the Heart of Georgia on Episode 51 of The Model Railway Show.

Scott maintains a blog about the HOG, and runs The HOG Newsgroup. Both offer details on building the layout, as well as places for those new to the hobby to ask questions.

Byron’s web site and Scott’s HOG RR are two great places to start thinking outside the 4×8 box: Have a look.