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!