Go run your trains – often!

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(Full staging on my Port Rowan layout: Click on the photo to visit my layout blog)

I really like Lance Mindheim‘s thoughts about layout design, layout operations and the hobby in general. I encourage as many people as I can to check out Lance’s blog. (Unfortunately, the blog does not appear to have an RSS function, so one can’t have new postings delivered automatically. One has to remember to check in regularly to see what’s new.)

One posting that I’m thinking about a lot lately is his September 30, 2012 entry, called How to “Play” with Trains. Lance notes that somewhere in the evolution of layout operation, modellers started embracing the idea that operating sessions had to run several hours, involve many trains, and require many operators. Operating the layout solo is almost (or entirely) impossible because moving any equipment outside of the formal, multi-hour operating session would disrupt the traffic flow on the layout. In essence, everything would need to be reset before the next big session.

At the same time, when he’s hosting these big sessions the layout onwer/builder (the brass hat) is so busy looking after the layout and his guests that he doesn’t have time to pick up a throttle. The end result is that the the brass hat never gets to run his own layout.

How messed up is that?

What’s more, fear of messing up the layout can inadvertently lead layout owners to leave a negative impression of the hobby on others. I’m reminded of a friend’s story about the time he was invited to visit a Famous Model Railroader (it doesn’t matter who, so I will not name names). My friend took along some beer as a thank you for imposing on the FMR’s time and after a tour of the layout room tour in which he ooohed and aaahed appropriately, my friend asked, “So, FMR, why don’t we run a train or two?”

The answer was, “No, I don’t think there are any trains scheduled to run on the railroad today.”

As you can imagine, my friend was ready to take back his beer – perhaps to help wash out the sour taste the experience left in his mouth. Now imagine how this attitude would go over with someone who is not already in the hobby. After an experience like that, chances are they never will be.

So, what’s the solution?

Lance’s answer is to design a layout that can be operated frequently, in brief sessions. Without consciously setting out to do that, it’s what I’ve done with my Port Rowan layout. Now, having read Lance’s thoughts on this, I’m making a point of ensuring that I run the layout four or five times per week.

Now, The Daily Effort takes about 75 minutes to complete a run from Simcoe (staging) to Port Rowan and back, with work in Port Rowan and St. Williams. And I don’t have 75 minutes, four or five times per week. But the thing is, the entire run does not need to be completed in a single session. Instead, I am splitting the run over several sessions. Five 15-minute sessions will get it done. (So will one half-hour session plus three 15-minute sessions, or three 20-minute sessions, a 10 and a five, or…)

(Note that even larger, more complex layouts would benefit from having a section that could be operated in this way with minimal disruption the overall traffic flow – perhaps a branch, connecting shortline, waterfront area, or industrial park would serve the purpose.)

When I run out of time to run trains, I simply make a note of where I am in the operating cycle, shut off the power and walk away. The next time I can run, I can quickly pick up where I left off. Having done this for a couple of weeks now, my goal is to never again run a train back and forth at random – even when non-hobbyists visit. Instead, by replicating the real work on the Port Rowan branch – even just a little bit of it – I can help explain to casual visitors why so many of us find this hobby so compelling.

In addition to keeping my interest high, these short but frequent operating sessions help the layout too: They keep the rails clean, they keep the switch mechanisms and switch points limber, and they help me identify any maintenance issues that need to be addressed. That’s good news for when I am hosting formal operating sessions with a friend or two, because it means the layout is always in the best shape it can be. And if I want to give friends the full experience of running a train from staging to staging, that’s easy enough to set up at a moment’s notice.

That’s why I encourage everyone to read Lance’s blog entry on how to play with trains. And then, I encourage you to head to the layout room and do just that. Have fun – I am!

Why I don’t like switching puzzle layouts

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Switching puzzles such as the Switchman’s Nightmare and the Time Saver are often suggested as small layouts that one can build while waiting for the time, space and money to tackle a dream layout.

And, having operated on such puzzlers, they can be fun games to play.

That said, I have to admit I do not like them – not at all. In fact, I wish they could be interred in the Museum of Model Railroading along with pop-up hatches, dyed sawdust scenery and other examples of “How We Used To Do Things Before We Learned Better Ways”.

Did I mention that I don’t like them? 🙂

I do believe that waiting for the space or time (or both) to tackle a dream layout is a fool’s game. None of us can predict the future – and that space or time (or both) may never happen. In the meantime, the hobbyist waiting for that uncertain future to arrive is missing out on the opportunity to do something that he or she can enjoy today – and may find, having built a layout that fits current space, time and financial constraints, that it provides plenty of operating fun and construction challenges.

So I’m a big fan of building small layouts. I just do not think the Switchman’s Nightmare and the Time Saver are good choices.

The problem with both of these is that they are artificial switching puzzles. Real railroads avoid puzzles – so shouldn’t we? Instead of puzzle-layouts, I encourage people to look at the many modest yet operationally-satisfying track arrangements to be found in the real world that one could build instead. They are just as much fun as the puzzles and are better choices for creating realistic settings to which others can relate – especially, those who are not part of our hobby.

I’m a big fan of Lance Mindheim‘s writings on this subject. Lately on his blog, Lance has been tackling subjects such as a one-turnout layout. Look for the September 17th, 2012 entry on his blog for the writeup, but here’s a direct link to the layout plan.

How can that be as fun – or more fun – than the Time Saver? The key, as with so many of Lance’s plans, is his choice of industry. Here, we have a bakery with specific spots for various in-bound cars of ingredients. Pulling empty cars, spotting loaded cars, respotting partially-unloaded cars, dropping cars “off-spot” for future spotting, and shuffling everything into correct spotting order will take a surprising amount of time.

And, unlike the Switchman’s Nightmare or the Time Saver, Lance’s one-turnout layout replicates real work.

(While I’m not a big fan of real work – it’s something I do to pay the bills and pay for my play – I am a big fan of activities that replicate it. This is why I’m modelling a specific prototype location. My operating sessions replicate real work done in Port Rowan. This is also why I’m training my eldest border collie, Mocean, to herd sheep. He and I did some training for Agility and I’m very impressed by the skills and dedication it takes to train a dog to do this. However – even though I may never make it to the Canadian herding championships or even get to combine my interests in working sheep dogs and steam trains – once I tried herding I decided I preferred how it uses the dog’s instinct, bred and honed for a couple hundred years, to perform real work. But I digress…)

In fact, a quick examination of the plan for Lance’s home layout shows that it actually consists of a number of one-, two- or three-turnout layouts connected end-for-end. The lesson for hobbyists aspiring to that basement-filling empire should be that it’s possible to build a small switching layout – based on prototype practices – today, and then expand it if and when the time, space, money and desire permits.

Now, this is a hobby and therefore there’s no right way to do it. If the Time Saver speaks to you – go ahead and build it. And I’ll be happy to run trains on it (if, after reading this, you give me the chance).

But if you’re open to ideas for a small layout – or if you’re looking for an alternative based in reality – I highly recommend Lance’s books on designing and operating small switching layouts.

Modelling jobs – not industries

I recently received a comment on a posting on my Port Rowan layout blog that suggested that I should add more industries and switching opportunities to the layout. I believe the reader is concerned that there will not be enough for visiting operators to do during sessions.

It’s a fair observation so I thought I would address it in a posting.

The truth is, I have thought a lot about the operating potential of this layout. In fact, I started thinking about it even before I started building the layout, just over a year ago. I chose the prototype I did – after much consideration – because Port Rowan offered engaging opportunities for realistic, satisfying operation while fitting in my layout room.

My experience with my previous layout – a Maine two-foot gauge line in O scale – confirmed for me that a lot of satisfying operation can be had on a layout with relatively few sidings and spurs. It’s my experience – having built a number of layouts for myself over the years, and having helped design, build and operate dozens more – that a complex design often adds construction and maintenance headaches without adding much by way of operating fun. In extreme cases, additional trackage may actually reduce the amount of operating fun by reducing the need for careful planning before starting to switch a customer.

“Careful planning” is a phrase that needs defining. This is not the type of planning required to master a switching puzzle, such as the Time Saver. I am not at all in favour of switching puzzles on layouts – and neither are prototype railroads, which do everything they can to avoid them.

But prototype railroads make do with as few tracks as possible, because every additional switch is an additional cost to maintain, and another opportunity for a derailment. For example, instead of adding a second track to serve an industry, an existing spur may be extended. Spotting order – the arrangement of the cars, in order, before shoving them into the spur – then becomes important.

There’s a lot more operation on my Port Rowan layout than at first appears. Almost every siding and spur on the layout does double-duty – from the three- and four-spot team tracks in St. Williams and Port Rowan to the end of track at Port Rowan, which also doubles as the spur for the JC Backhouse feed mill.
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(Click on the plan to open a larger version in a separate window.)

Assessing the operating potential of any layout based solely on the number of spurs and sidings drawn on the plan also ignores the reality that switching even a single spur is a lot more involved than throwing the switch and banging the car into place. It’s only through studying the prototype and how it worked that the full potential of any layout is revealed.

For starters, there’s proper operation of a steam locomotive. I have been fortunate enough to experience this first-hand, having volunteered as a fireman during Santa Fest and Polar Express events at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Portland.

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(That’s me, in warmer weather. This wet job is a lot less fun when it’s freezing!)

Understanding how a locomotive works has absolutely changed how I approach the hobby. It has affected how I set up the various functions, variables and performance characteristics of sound decoder-equipped models. And it has affected how I operate those models. This has extended the amount of time it takes to perform even simple switching moves in St. Williams and Port Rowan.

Working those events in Maine also gave me a real appreciation for the roles that various crew members play to build a train and get it over the line. Safety trumps speed, every time. Crews consult to plan their moves before the throttle is cracked. Those on the ground confirm that they have the attention of those in the cab before they step between freight or passenger cars to do their work. And so on. Again, on the layout this attention to modelling the jobs of railroading – a phrase I first heard from Layout Design SIG founder Doug Gurin – adds time to any operating session.

Those who want to build their knowledge of how to translate prototype operations to a layout do not have to join a steam crew at a museum – especially if they’re interested in replicating more contemporary operations on their layouts. It’s as easy as standing trackside – on public property and at a safe distance, of course – and watching a real train crew do their work. If you’re looking for a primer on what to expect before you head trackside, I highly recommend the book How to Operate a Modern Era Switching Layout by Lance Mindheim. (Visit Lance’s online bookstore for information on ordering.) Lance presents a compelling case for an alternative to the more is better philosophy of layout design and operation.

The point Lance makes – and I agree – is that “more track, more industries” does not necessarily translate into more operating satisfaction. But an understanding of how real train crews perform their duties does – every time.

Back in the 1950s world of Port Rowan that I am recreating in my layout room, I have already run a number of operating sessions on the layout – with friends and by myself – and I’m more than satisfied with how the layout comes to life during these sessions. I continue to explore ways to enhance these sessions – not by adding track and industries, but by focussing on modelling the jobs of railroading in 1:64.