Backing into Port Rowan

Achievable Layouts is a term I’ve picked up while talking with layout designer and author Lance Mindheim – best known for his two layouts depicting modern era industrial spur railroading in Miami, East Rail and The Downtown Spur.

I highly recommend Lance’s series of books, especially How To Design A Small Switching Layout. I reviewed this book in the August 2010 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, and what most impressed me about Lance’s approach was the emphasis he placed on what he calls Strategic Planning. This is the stuff that surrounds the layout planning process – the things that are not directly related to our hobby but are very influential on how we enjoy it. They include one’s hobby budget, one’s hobby time, the number of people one can realistically expect to help build and help operate the layout, and so on.

As hobbyists, we’re often aware of these but we don’t appreciate just how much they influence our ability to enjoy model railroading. To paraphrase Lance, if we only focus on layout design issues such as turnout size and curve radii – if we do not take these Strategic Planning factors into account at the layout design stage – we may correctly design the wrong layout.

The “wrong layout”? You bet. There are many reasons this could be the case, but here’s one example that relates to my decision to model Port Rowan, Ontario on my home layout:

It could be the layout design fits one’s space perfectly but the appropriate equipment is not available. Or perhaps the equipment is available, but there’s another issue:
– The equipment may be rare and therefore too rich for one’s hobby budget, if one can find it at all
– The equipment is in the form of complex, craftsman kits that will take considerable time to build, perhaps far more time than one can devote to the hobby

This can be an issue in any scale, but it can become a real problem in a niche scale such as S.

I actually backed into modelling Port Rowan. I’ve written about this before on my layout blog – I’ve discussed why S scale, why the Canadian National in S scale, and why Port Rowan in particular. But what may not have been clear in those postings is this:

If I had not already owned most of the appropriate S scale equipment it’s unlikely I would be building the CNR Port Rowan layout in S scale.

Having that equipment already to hand – namely, the two CNR 10-wheelers and CNR caboose I had acquired for use with the S Scale Workshop exhibition layout – is what prompted me to consider building a CNR-themed layout in S. If I had not already owned it, and I went looking for it today, I might have decided that the CNR in S was not for me. What’s more, even though I had the equipment on hand, I picked as my modelling subject a very small segment of a modest branchline – a pin-prick on the Canadian National map – because I recognized that I would be building almost everything myself:

– I’m handlaying all my track:
Number 10 photo 10Turnout-03.jpg

– I will be scratch-building almost all of my structures, including the very complex Port Rowan station:
Port Rowan station - 1965 - Dick Otto photo PortRowan-DO-1.jpg

– Many of my key pieces of equipment are either limited-run custom-builds or craftsman kits (and I’ve farmed out some of this work to my friend Pierre Oliver at Elgin Car Shops, because he builds rolling stock for others for a living – and between my layout-building goals and various other commitments to family, other interests and work I would not have time). And much of the rest is modified from rolling stock that is now out of production, such as CNR boxcars converted from kits from the late, lamented Pacific Rail Shops. There’s very little equipment on my layout that will be out of the box, or built from stock kits without fiddling and fettling.

Setting goals for an Achievable Layout – in this case, two towns totalling just eight turnouts and roughly a dozen structures, served by a single, short train a day – means I will have the time to build all the required track and structures plus some of the rolling stock, such as my CNR baggage-mail car (a project I really, really enjoyed):
CNR 7792 photo CNR-7792-Finished.jpg

At the same time, I’ll have the hobby budget to pay professionals to do some of the other stuff, like building brass locomotives and combines:
CNR 1560 photo CN-1560-01.jpg

CN Combine 7176 (post 1954) photo CNR-7176-Finished-01.jpg

Port Rowan in S is ideal if “building everything myself” is one’s goal, and one is willing to be patient – to spend years, perhaps, hunting for a key piece of equipment. But if you want to build a larger, more complex layout with higher traffic volumes and greater equipment variety – say, the CNR in Collingwood or Simcoe – I think you would find S to be frustrating.

This is not meant to discourage anyone – and it must be noted that each modeller brings unique abilities, patience and resources to the hobby so what wouldn’t work for me might work for you. But it’s important for every modeller to ask the right questions at the idea stage: Even a small layout – in any scale or gauge, and of any theme – is a significant investment of one’s time and, likely, one’s money.

That’s why I recommend that anybody considering a new layout – of whatever theme, in whatever scale, gauge or era – start with a copy of Lance’s book, How To Design A Small Switching Layout. Read the first chapter on Strategic Planning and draft an honest list of one’s abilities, interests, time, money and other issues that are not related directly to what trains will run where, but are related to whether your dream layout is really the right one for you to build.

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