David Barrow’s vision

David Barrow
(David Barrow discusses his model railway with a visitor during the self-guided layout tour for The Austin Eagle 2018 convention)

If you’ve been around the hobby for any length of time, you know of David Barrow – especially if you have any interested in layout design. I obviously do have an interest, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit David’s model railway during The Austin Eagle – the 2018 convention held by the Lone Star Region of the NMRA in the greater Austin TX area earlier this month.

David emerged in the 1980s with a number of articles featuring his proto-freelanced Cat Mountain & Santa Fe Railroad – a layout that would go on to become highly influential in the hobby over the past three decades. Perhaps more than any other layout, David’s CM&SF promoted the benefits of a linear, once-through-the-scene, walk-around layout. If you Google “David Barrow layout plan” you will find – in addition to plans for his own layout – many plans by others that clearly demonstrate Barrow’s influence.

Barrow - layout tour
(The upper yard at Lubbock, Texas on the right with Posey across the aisle)

Beyond the layout, the room in which it is located demonstrated the design advantages of narrow peninsulas with scenes on each side divided by a backdrop. With its barren West Texas setting, the layout also proved that it is possible to effectively model wide open flat spaces – a lesson that many people are now applying to other settings such as the Prairies.

Barrow - layout tour
(Burris at left, with the lower yard at Lubbock on the right)

David also introduced many hobbyists to the idea of presenting the layout in a space that minimizes distractions – for example, by eliminating clutter under the benchwork and paying attention to things like valances and lighting. (Rather than delve on this too much here, I encourage you to read what Lance Mindheim wrote about his visit to Barrow’s layout in 2013. Pay particular attention to the quote from John Pawson on minimalism.)

David also taught many of us that staging yards did not have to be hidden on a subterranean level or behind a backdrop – that, in fact, it was advantageous to leave them exposed (albeit in a space away from the main layout) for both ease of operation and maintenance.

Barrow - visible staging.
(The benefits of visible staging, on display. A wall along the left edge of the photo visually separates the staging area from the rest of the layout space, with door openings at each end)

In addition to his home layout, David is the architect behind “The South Plains District” – a project layout he built for Model Railroader magazine and documented in a series that ran in the September-December 1996 issues. This series is among those frequently cited by modellers as inspirational.

But David is also known for creating a bit of a tempest in a teapot back in 2004, when he revealed via the pages of Model Railroad Planning magazine that he’d torn out his traditional, scenicked, version of the CM&SF and replaced it with a sectional switching layout built on bare plywood, with no ballast or scenery and ofttimes just mockups for key structures. Many who were fans felt betrayed by this new, minimalist direction – one that emphasized operation by minimizing, or eliminating, any elements that did not directly support that. (Remember that quote from John Pawson? That’s what’s happening here.) His current layout backs off from the switching district theme in favour of mainline running (see plan, below). But as the photos in this post show, he’s maintained the minimalist aesthetic he introduced in 2004.

Barrow plan
(Plan of the current layout. Staging is in a separate space at the right)

I was intrigued – I wanted to know whether the minimalism did, in fact, focus one on operation or whether it was actually a distraction. So David’s layout was a must-see stop on the self-guided layout tour.

The visit did not disappoint. I must admit that David’s approach is not one I would take. I like scenery and structures – not only for the construction challenges they present but also for the context they provide. This is just a personal view, but I found the lack of structures somewhat disorienting: like looking at a schematic of a railway instead of the railway itself.

As an example, I’m currently considering building a new layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway – an interurban line in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. I’ve collected a lot of material on this line (which I’m sharing via a separate blog), including official railway track diagrams and vintage photos. The image below shows two ways of looking at one of my favourite locations – Ontario Street in St. Catharines:

Map vs Reality
(CNR track diagram versus a 1951 photo of switching operations on Ontario Street)

The track diagram is a lot like David’s layout: It shows me what was there, and what I need to model from an operational perspective. But the photo places everything in context. The vehicles, the utility poles, the stores and restaurants on the the right – none of that is required to switch the auto plant that is the reason for this piece of trackage. But for me, it adds so much to the context that I cannot imagine modelling this scene without it.

To be fair, I did not participate in an operating session on this layout (that was not an option). Perhaps I would have a different feeling about the importance of context if I had. But I would be surprised if I did.

Regardless, I was very glad to see David’s layout – and I believe his thinking is an important contribution to the hobby. But for me, the important lesson was in confirming that this is not the approach for me. That’s as important, I think, as visiting a layout that reinforces one’s preferences.

In addition to his HO layout, David has more recently dabbled in O scale, with a shelf switching layout built in a room adjacent to his crew lounge.

Barrow O scale

Barrow O scale

This layout models the same prototype (AT&SF) and exhibits the same aesthetic as his HO layout – something I found rather curious. I would’ve been tempted to use a change of scale to explore a different prototype or region of the country (or even of the world) – but, again, that’s a personal preference.

Thank you, David, for opening your layout to the tour. I’m really glad I made the time to visit!

If you want to know more about my trip to the NMRA Lone Star Region convention, visit my Port Rowan blog.

8 thoughts on “David Barrow’s vision

  1. As a professional graphic designer, I very much understand and appreciate David’s emphasis on minimalism. As he is an architect, minimalism is a very strong aesthetic within his professional ranks. Add to that his major interest in operations and I can see why he has gone that direction.

    Many “right-brained” (ie: creative) individuals can use their “mind’s eye” to effectively fill in the missing scenery. For some, this may be difficult to understand or even seem ridiculous. But believe me, many creatives can use their imaginations to great affect and basically “fill in the blanks” with total satisfaction.

    I seriously considered adopting David’s minimal aesthetic approach when initially designing my layout, but when I made the decision to model prototypically it became an easy decision to include scenery to faithfully represent the real thing. Plus I really enjoy craftsmanship in miniature and wanted to develop my modeling skills.

    • Hi Scott:
      I absolutely understand where he’s coming from as well. That’s one reason why when I said his approach is not one I would take, I emphasized that it’s just my personal opinion – and also noted that I might feel differently about it if I’d had an opportunity to run on his layout.
      I’m very glad that he’s doing what he’s doing, for a couple of reasons.
      First, it’s his hobby and he’s enjoying it – so he’s doing it right.
      Second (and equally important), he’s almost single-handedly offered people another approach to the hobby – one that may appeal more to certain hobbyists.
      While his approach is minimalist, that should not be confused with “unfinished”. What he’s done, he’s done very well. It’s not only finished, but finished to a high degree. To cite a few examples, his signalling system is excellent… his locomotives and rolling stock are well detailed and weathered… and his track work is perfect. That makes a huge difference. He’s not justifying laziness or sloppy work by saying, “I’m taking a minimalist approach”: he’s actually executing the design the way an architect would craft a modern, urban luxury home.
      I suspect, too, that he has applied the same degree of thoughtfulness and care to the design of his operating sessions.
      But, like you, my personal preference is to build the entire scene. In my case, part of that decision meant reducing the scope of my layout projects to something manageable… which might be the seed of a new blog post. (Thanks for that.)

  2. It reminds me of early Microsoft flight simulators I would play on a 386SX or 486DX2. Bare-bone scenography, but just enough to give you the idea of where you were and what you were doing.

    It’s comforting to read that this is not your approach: I needed that validation as I explore how I want to go about my first layout. I still am at a crossroad. A more traditional crossroad, but one nonetheless.

    Having said that, I believe it was e. e. cummings who noted that one needs to know how to write real good before you can write badly. David has already demonstrated himself a capable modeller and has nothing left to prove other than to focus on what interests him, period.

    It’ll be interesting to see where I am at in a few years once I’ve explored my entry into the hobby. Perhaps this minimalist look could appeal to me.

    Until then, time to learn some basic scenery techniques.

    • Great thoughts – thanks for sharing them.
      And I agree. David has figured out how to do a traditional layout, and that experience has informed his minimalist approach. He also has not bastardized the concept of minimalism, using it as a synonym for sloppy or incomplete.
      Furthermore, he can – and should – do what makes him happy in the hobby. It is a hobby, after all. Which is why I emphasized that my thoughts on his layout are simply my personal opinion, that I’m projecting my own interests and prejudices onto his work. (I would expect the same from anybody who visits my layout, too.) It was definitely worth the visit to David’s layout: I feel I know more about layout design, just from my brief visit, than I did before.

  3. If I remember correctly, this layout space has hosted several iterations of the same sort of railroad and it would be interesting to be a part of a conversation to learn how each satisfied its builder’s vision for the end product. We tend to look at layouts as the end product but I wonder if this layout is an expression of the relationship the modeller has with his muse, where the focus here is not exclusively the modeller or his work but the intersection of both? What does each iteration resolve and what questions did it create or add to the conversation? (Oddly enough, the only other layout that has lived in progressive iterations I can think of is Jim Kelly’s Tehapchapi – what is it with modellers who model Santa Fe and set it in the 1970’s? I’ll have what they’re having please.)

    I’m such a fan of how well executed this vision is. It’s not a half-finished layout stalled in its construction but something that was designed to look the way it does, where the design focuses on the train where the track ties together that focus like well-tailored seams. In this way, it’s a very clear vision. I wonder what we could do to practice this to represent other railroads? Is it better suited to one prototype or style of railroad than another? Come to think of it: having achieved this complete style of layout is it harder to visualize it with a more classically scenicked style?

    Does this minimalist presentation style cause the layout to be a little, to borrow the advertising line: age defying? It’s easy to date the age of a model railroad sometimes in terms of its construction techniques or how a scene is arranged so by choosing to exclude them do we also delete those age rings?

    Sorry for having rambled so far as a comment. I’m a fan of David Barrow’s work and it’s been so hard to throttle my excitement to comment and share some thoughts with someone who actually got to see the real thing. That’s so cool!


    • You are correct, sir! This space has hosted several iterations – variants on a theme – from fully scenicked first-generation railroading to the more modern, minimalist treatment David currently favours, in at least two different approaches (mainline and industrial district).

      Certainly, the barrenness of West Texas is conducive to the minimalist treatment. It would be more difficult to take this approach to represent, say, Colorado three-footing in the mountains or the Canadian National through tree-rich southern Ontario.

      One of David’s decisions is to not ballast the track. I believe he chose this path because it’s easy to lift track to rework arrangements, or even tear out and start building anew, using his Domino-style benchwork technique. That said, another person pursuing a minimalist design might opt for ballasting – in part because it would help blend the track into the (minimalist) scenery. Given that the rest of the layout is presented in a non-distracting style, I found the bare ties to be visually cluttered. A thick layer of ballast – one that buries the ties, even – might help with that. But then of course one would lose the ability to quickly adjust track arrangements.

      As for age-defying, I think the layout is definitely a reflection of its era. Even choices for benchwork/legs, fascia, lighting and valances will define an era – remember wood panelling as a fascia material? How about low-pile carpet? (It was a thing at one point – around the time that modellers discovered Velcro.) Perhaps in 10 years, we’ll be back to wood panelling, or onto something else? Or, florescent tubes will give way to LEDs for lighting. Not that those things can’t be updated, of course – but as the layout appears today, there are plenty of cues as to when it was built.

      Glad you enjoyed the virtual visit.


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