The wrong way to think about “minimum”

Yeah – “wrong” is a strong word and it’s bound to cause some grief.

But I’ve been designing layouts for myself and others for about 40 years, and based on that experience I would argue that most people in the hobby think about the wrong things when they think about the term “minimum”.

I saw examples of this in several threads I followed online this week. The discussions were on various fora and newsgroups – and they dealt with various scales, gauges, eras and so on. But they all shared a common thought:

The person who started the discussion was trying to figure out how to get away with using a smaller minimum radius or a smaller minimum turnout size for their layout.

 photo Arborist-07_zpsbc614a83.jpg
(The largest turnout on my S scale layout – a Number 10 at St. Williams, Ontario – is large enough that it looks like a turnout on a real railway. If ever I build another layout, I will use more of these. My minimum turnout is a Number 7 – a size I only use for freight-only spur tracks.)

Presumably, the people who started these discussions want to maximize the fun factor of their layout by maximizing the amount of layout they can fit into their train room. The theory is that the more track one packs into the space, the more fun the layout will be.

(Track manufacturers certainly like this theory because they sell more track that way. And many of their layout-building customers demand Number 4 and Number 6 turnouts – so those are the most common sizes produced. Fewer manufacturers offer a Number 8 – and I don’t know of any that offer a Number 9 or larger as a ready-to-use product.)

But quantity isn’t the only way to measure the fun in a layout. Instead of trying to determine the minimum radius one can get away with, a better approach – I believe – is to determine the maximum radius one can accommodate. If one insists on considering a minimum, here’s a good place to start:

What’s the minimum amount of trackage I really need to create a satisfying layout?

Real railways maximize curve radius and turnout sizes. Broader curves and larger turnouts translate into higher track speed and less wheel wear. At the same time, real railways minimize the amount of track they build, paring it down to the essentials – because track costs money to build and maintain. A real railway will never use two turnouts where one will suffice.

Now that's long! photo 10Turnout-01.jpg
(The Number 10 turnout for St. Williams – under construction. Look at how long that frog is, when compared to the caboose.)

Those who are interested in building train sets will continue to focus on minimum track standards, to pack the most track into their available space. But what they’ll end up with is a train set. Even the largest layouts will look like a train set if the curves are too tight and the available real estate is packed to the edges with ties and rail.

At the other end of the spectrum, those who are interested in replicating a real railway in miniature would do well to pay more attention to maximizing their track standards – and minimizing the amount of track they plan to build in their layout space.

There are many good reasons for this approach. But here’s one to think about:

Nobody ever tore down a layout because the curve radius was too large, or the turnouts were too big.

But lots of layouts have ended up in the bin because curves and turnouts were too small.