Why I don’t like switching puzzle layouts

15 tile game photo 15-Tile-Puzzle_zps4ffc480b.jpg

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.

11 thoughts on “Why I don’t like switching puzzle layouts

  1. In the UK magazine Model Trains International, the one turnout layout would be called a tuning fork. Well covered with examples from the “real world”. A two turnout layout could serve as an Inglenook switching puzzle while the rest of the scenery and structures are in the making. I highly recomend MTI for some great ideas in simple, small layouts for those who have minimal space and maximum enthusiasm.

    • Hi Pieter:
      Thanks for mentioning Carl. The Small Layout Scrapbook that he edited is indeed a treasure trove of interesting information and inspiration. Micro layouts have also popularized innovative concepts such as the sector plate I’m using in place of a traditional staging yard on my Port Rowan layout.

      And, some of the featured layouts on Carl’s sites are based on prototype track arrangements. But only some.

      Micro-layouts are an important part of our hobby. They are great ways to get people off the couch and in front of the workbench. They’re also ideal for those who like to build in a variety of scales/gauges/eras, or who are highly mobile, or who really get fired up by displaying at exhibitions. And some of the best modelling I’ve ever seen has been done on micro-layouts.

      But from an operational point of view, most micro-layouts suffer the same short-comings of the Time Saver and the Switchman’s Nightmare. Few are designed with realistic operation in mind: They are either switching puzzles, or feature no operation whatsoever.

      What I like about Lance’s writings – and the writings of others such as Mike Cougill – is the argument that understanding how a real railroad operates, and figuring out how to adapt that to a layout, allows one to build a satisfying home layout with a relatively simple track arrangement – such as the Port Rowan layout I’m documenting on this blog.

      Reducing complexity means the layout:
      – will be up and running sooner
      – will be easier and less expensive to build and maintain, and
      – will likely have more room for non-railroad features such as scenery, offline structures, realistic roads and highways, and so on.

      So, I really do like what people are doing with micro-layouts, but they’re in a completely different category of the hobby. My argument with the Time Saver, the Switchman’s Nightmare, the Gumstump and Snowshoe, and the like is that in the same square footage, one can build a layout in which the track arrangement is realistic, yet still provide the layout owner and visitors with a satisfying operating session.


      (BTW, I’ve updated your comment to incorporate the URL into the body of the text).

  2. Two of my all-time favorite places to watch trains at work involved the maneuvering at a single switch serving an industry with multiple car spots. These were not large industries. At both these locations, spotting/removing one or two cars could take the crew around thirty to forty-five minutes to get the job done, and both were located on dead-end industrial spurs exactly as portrayed in LM’s one-switch example layout.

    • Hi Ricardo:

      Good examples – thanks for sharing them.

      I recently came across an interesting blog about a layout that’s a lot like what you’re describing. It’s The Industrial Lead by Greg Amer.

      Greg’s current plan is to model two railroad customers with minimal trackage, that each require a lot of switching. Greg is a professional railroader so he knows how to make this interesting from an operations perspective.

      I look forward to watching his layout progress.

  3. One of the locations I referenced was in North Chicago, Illinois just south of Waukegan on the EJ&E. Coleman Cable Systems (mfr. of vinyl-clad electronics cables; i.e. coax) got their PVC pellets in big covered hoppers, and blew the pellets into storage tanks located in a building that looked like an industrial ruin. It looked as if it may have been casting sand storage at one time for a large hardware foundry that was located adjacent to that site many decades ago. The Waukegan local (in the ’90’s typically a SW1200) would pull the loaded hopper(s) from a siding approximately a quarter-mile away, and then shuffle the Coleman Cable spots, sawing back and forth to get everything properly spotted. For several years, the lead for all this shuffling also served as a spur for old boxcars and gons serving an EPA Superfund site at the abandoned Fansteel plant. The approximate location was near the intersection of Commonwealth and ML King Blvd. (22nd Street) in North Chicago. At one time this was all surrounded by the CNS&M (North Shore) Pettibone yard and North Chicago Junction. There was a dangerous little bar called Bud’s Two-Two a few feet from the switch leading to Coleman Cable where the Waukegan Local crew would get “lunch” every now and then. It likely wasn’t the safest place to railfan, but I watched the action three times per week on my lunch hour during the ’90’s. It’s all gone now.

    • Hi Ricardo:
      That’s really neat. Thanks for sharing the story. It sounds like a great prototype for a modest yet entertaining switching layout – the kind advocated by Lance Mindheim, Mike Cougill, James McNab… and me!

      • Hi Trevor – Thank you for this very cool page, and also for inserting the photo! I may build a little layout based on the North Chicago Switch. In N scale it could be done pretty respectably in approximately 40″ X 10″, plus whatever staging cassette one wanted.

        For whatever reason (operating rules?) the locomotive was always on one end or the other of a cut of cars (which was rarely more than two cars). Therefore, the crew would pull the Superfund Site cars and then return pulling the Coleman cars to be spotted. The Coleman empties were then shoved back to the siding, and any cars for the Superfund Site were shoved into position. So the locomotive would make three(!) round-trips from the siding into this little switching area if both the Superfund Site and Coleman required switching.

        I really enjoy what y’all are doing with solid operation on just a little bit of track. Ricardo

        • Sounds like a great theme for a layout Ricardo. Thanks for contributing your comments to my blog.

          If you do build the layout you’ve discussed here, be sure to blog about it – let me know the URL and I’ll add it to my Interesting Links list.


  4. Just found this. Fascinating and took some of the words right out of my mouth. If one really wants to play Inglenook there is an App for that – free on Android. Less mess and expense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.