Achievable Layouts and the ongoing problem of the Time Saver

15 tile game photo 15-Tile-Puzzle_zps4ffc480b.jpg

I’ve written about this before. The Time Saver is a venerable and well-loved railway switching puzzle invented by one of the pioneers of the hobby, John Allen.

As hobbyists, we owe a lot to John, who published many articles and in the process opened people’s eyes to the possibility that a model railroad could actually have things like, oh, extensive scenery and something approaching realistic operations. These are things we take for granted today – but they were radical ideas in an era when a model railroad was essentially a bigger version of a train set.

However, the Time Saver is one of John’s ideas that has about as much to do with modelling railroading as the game of Clue has to do with solving murders. It is first and foremost a puzzle with a railway theme – in the same manner as this:
Puzzle-Scotsman photo Jigsaw-Scotsman_zps1f812d12.jpg

(Interestingly – but perhaps not surprisingly – I’ve just found a blog devoted to railway jigsaw puzzles. Click the jigsaw to visit it.)

So I was pleased to see another blogger I follow – Hunter Hughson – has tackled the Time Saver as well. On his Ontario in HO Scale blog, Hunter notes that he struggles to see the direct connection between the Time Saver and real railways, and reminds readers (including me) of Craig Bisgeier‘s excellent critique of the Time Saver. Click on the Rubik’s Cube to read more:
The Cube photo Rubik_zpsf6096575.jpg

I think any discussion of the shortcomings of the Time Saver should also offer alternatives. There are many excellent resources online, but here are three worth looking at:

First, of course, are the realistic switching layout designs that Lance Mindheim describes on his website. I recommend reading through his blog, and acquiring his trio of books:
– How to Design a Small Switching Layout
– How to Build a Switching Layout
– How to Operate a Modern Era Switching Layout

Second, Greg Amer has a blog called The Industrial Lead on which he is describing his plans for a switching layout based on the industries he works as a professional railroader.

Third, another professional railroader ā€“ Jack Hill ā€“ was writing a great blog about his New Castle Industrial Railroad. Here, he documented his O scale switching layout. Unfortunately, Jack stopped blogging in January 2011. I have never figured out why. Fortunately, his blog is still active.

These modellers – and others, including (but not limited to) Byron Henderson, Bernie Kempinski, Mike Cougill and Jim Lincoln – have influenced my thinking about layout design. In particular, my thinking has evolved to embrace two principles:

First, I appreciate the beauty of simple designs. Most layouts I see in magazines, online or in person are over-designed for the needs of the builder. On most of these, about half of the track could be removed without affecting the entertainment value of the layout.

Second, I appreciate the elegance of prototype track arrangements. A layout designed from a prototype track map rarely looks like – or operates like – a typical model railroad.

On this blog, I am offering up layout designs or prototype ideas that – I hope – embody these two principles. I call them Achievable Layouts. These layout ideas are, admittedly, all bigger than a Time Saver – but not necessarily more complex to build. And I know they will be much more satisfying in the long term.

8 thoughts on “Achievable Layouts and the ongoing problem of the Time Saver

  1. Aside from noting the fact that Flying Scotsman is running on the wrong line (we run on the LH side on our railways as we do on our roads, and the signal is correctly placed for this), it is possible to combine the two principles of simplicity and elegance into one: elegant simplicity.

    I think it comes from a simple appreciation of the fact that railways are businesses, and as such wish to arrange tracks, sidings and spurs to make sure that all operations take as little time and effort, and as few movements as possible. A lot of modellers haven’t grasped this, despite raving over such things as Lance Mindheim’s Miami shelf layouts…

  2. To Simon’s point, it’s likely because we get the bulk of our information about operations and design from modelers’ conjecture rather than from professional railroaders. Once you start talking to these men and women, a whole new perspective begins to open up.

    Mike C.

  3. John Allen gave a lot to the model rail hobby. The Timesaver is a classic layout in the sense that it is a model rail version of a board game. But Craig Bisegier has raised some good points in his blog. To me, the Timesaver is the model rail version of the childrens’ ditty “the song that never ends”.

    ” This is the song that never ends.
    It just goes on and on my friends.
    Some people started singing it not knowing what it was,
    And they’ll continue singing it forever just because ..”

    And about as annoying when repeated on numerous layouts!.

    I have seen prototype track layouts that rival the Timesaver in complexity. And have also had the dubious “pleasure” of switching a few of them in 12″=1′. (Including at 3 am in the rain.)

    On this blog, you know that you’re preaching to the choir, right, Trevor?

    • Hi Steve:

      On this blog, you know that you’re preaching to the choir, right, Trevor?

      I’d agree with that for the most part. However, I also expect there will be people surfing the ‘net, Googling “Time Saver”, and I hope my blog (and Hunter’s, and Craig’s web page) turn up high on the list of hits. The Time Saver and other switching puzzles certainly have their fans (some have even responded to this post) but for those that don’t know about its shortcomings – chiefly as an idea to incorporate into a layout – I think it’s important to share contrary opinions.

      A couple of people – including you – have mentioned prototypes that rival the Time Saver in complexity. I bet they exist – but I also bet the following is correct:
      1 – There’s a reason for them
      2 – They’re not pointlessly complex
      3 – They’re not at all common
      4 – The railroads wish the situation didn’t exist

      The Bronx Terminal layout being built by Tim Warris comes to mind as an example of a prototype that has an incredibly complex track arrangement. And yet, it makes more sense than a Time Saver.

      The track is tight because space is at a premium. The terminal is hemmed in on three sides by roads and the fourth by water. And yet, most switching can be accomplished in two moves (pull from one track, spot on another.)

      Good points as always – thanks for wading in!

  4. Craig’s hysterical rant about timesavers is nothing but a house of cards – its just not the real world at all. Timesavers simply do not show up in layouts all over the place, in fact they appear very, very occasionally at best

    If you don’t like timesaver, you don’t need to have anything to do with them, but in my personal experience with having a portable Timesaver and casually showing it in a lot of non-model railroad places – that layout got a lot of people actively involved in model railroading who probably never would have otherwise considered it as a hobby.

    • Hi Arty:

      Thanks for contributing. I wouldn’t call Craig’s posting a “hysterical rant”, though – I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate the same treatment from him.

      I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that Time Savers “show up in layouts all over the place”. I do, however, think they show up more than they should. I’m confident in saying this because I’ve encountered several of them in layouts I have visited – and every layout builder I have spoken to who has incorporated a Time Saver into their layout has regretted the decision in the long term. Most of them get pulled out. Others just get abandoned in place.

      While a Time Saver has the benefit of portability, so do lots of other – more realistic – designs that also operate a switching puzzles. To provide but two examples:

      – UK modeller Paul Allen has built an Inglenook Sidings on an ironing board. He takes it to shows and it could be used to introduced many, many people to the hobby. Like the Time Saver, Ingleton Sidings is a classic (UK) design for a switching puzzle. But by being built around a track arrangement that’s more typical of what one finds in the real world, it’s a better stepping stone towards the hobby within the hobby of model railway operation.

      – Lance Mindheim has posted many great examples on his blog. His entries from December 18, 2012 and January 8, 2013 show a two-switch layout with a single, multi-spot industry in eight feet, that could easily be built as a multi-section exhibition layout. He’s also offered up a one-switch layout (September 17, 2012) that could be similarly adjusted (and probably reduced in size somewhat) to create a viable layout for public display.

      The point is, there are better alternatives to the Time Saver – whether its purpose is as an exhibition layout, part of a home layout, or a tool to recruit people into the hobby. I feel as a group, experienced hobbyists can do more to promote those alternatives.

  5. The conclusion seems to be that more complex is not neccessarily more fun. You are spot on with your observation about layouts based on actual prototype arrangements operate like the real thing. It is a rare designer who can come up with a totally freelance design that works well and if it does it is well-founded on prototype practices.

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