“Simple” + “Satisfying”: not “Settling”

X80 West arrives with two for Port Rowan photo X80-Barn-01_zpse5a6f3bc.jpg
(Extra 80 West arrives at Port Rowan with a short freight: The switching work will be straightforward yet satisfying)

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating. Simple layouts – such as mine – can be very rewarding.

Ages ago, a reader of this blog advised me to stop building my layout and rethink my plan, because he didn’t think there would be enough switching to hold my interest. Since I’d been operating the layout for some time when this warning was issued, I knew that this person did not understand my goals or preferences in the hobby. But it does highlight a problem that many hobbyists face, which is this:

We get so worried that our layouts will not be interesting enough when they’re built that we tend to make them overly complex.

A couple of recent developments reminded me of this.

First, my friend Terry Smith – a fellow enthusiast of Maine two-foot gauge railroads and the modelling of them in On2 – called my attention to the January 5th, 2014 blog entry by Lance Mindheim. To read it yourself, go to his blog and look for “Why Layouts Fail: The Three Headed Monster”. But here’s the argument in a nutshell:

1 – the layout was too large
2 – the design was too complex
3 – the layout was uncomfortable to build and maintain

Lance makes some really good points to explain why these three factors often lead to layout failure. And I agree, 100 percent. These are lessons I’ve learned from my own, previous layout-building experience, and from watching many hobbyists grow disenchanted with their large, complex, difficult to build/maintain layouts.

In his post, Lance suggests that hobbyists engage in a design exercise to put one in the mindset of simplifying their plans. I won’t rob him of visitor traffic by explaining what it is – you’ll just have to read his blog to find out more. But I am curiously pleased to discover that if I were to take up his challenge, I would actually have to double the complexity of my layout.

Thanks, Lance, for another thought-provoking read.
(And thanks, Terry, for alerting me to it!)

Related to this, I recently read the following observation on a newsgroup I follow:

“Branchlines should be at the top of the list for those without a lot of time or money.”

I appreciate what the author was trying to say: If you’re short of hobby time or disposable income, you might want to rethink modelling the Northeast Corridor, Horseshoe Curve, or Toronto Union Station in favour of something more modest. But while layouts based on branch lines do offer a choice to those with limited time or money, describing them as such suggests (to my mind, anyway) that those who choose to model a branch line are somehow “settling for less” – that if we had more resources, we’d focus on a larger, more complex prototype.

That’s not always the case.

Another way – a more positive way – to look at it is that a layout based on a modest branch line allows the hobbyist to devote more time and money to each element of the layout. To cite two examples:

– If the layout only needs one or two locomotives, the enthusiast can invest more into each.

– If the layout needs only a dozen or so structures, each can be carefully detailed to a higher degree than on layouts that need a couple hundred.

I did not choose to model the Port Rowan branch because of either a lack of hobby time or available coin. Rather, I wanted to enjoy building each element of my layout without worrying about how many dozen more of something I needed to realize my vision.

I’m a process modeller: I like to figure out how to do something once. I’m less interested in doing it five or six times. This is one reason why I’m unlikely to model a subject that requires big blocks of identical cars – whether that’s coal hoppers, intermodal equipment, or commuter coaches. I understand the appeal of this type of prototype – moving lots and lots and lots of the same thing is part of the economic argument for building a railway in the first place. And I admire the perseverance of those who can build two dozen identical kits, assembly line fashion. But I know I can’t do that, and don’t want to.

I also know that as I get into a project I look for opportunities to add details. I’m particularly susceptible to this when it comes to structures. It’s not about detailing but about understanding – and properly representing – the construction of a prototype and how to model it. I engage with this hobby in part because I like to learn about the world around me, and learning how a building’s intended function influences its design is something I find fascinating.

The five tobacco kilns I plan to add to St. Williams are a good example of this. A couple of summers ago, I went on a field trip to measure and photograph the prototypes. When I did, I was fortunate to find one with a wall that was partially missing, allowing me an opportunity to photograph the interior. I’m currently debating whether to model all five kilns as shells with closed loading hatches, or do one with open hatches and a full interior… or do all five with full interiors. Doing the full treatment on a single kiln will require a lot of hobby time – probably more time than it would to build all five as shells. I’m more likely to enjoy the prospect of this if I don’t have to build a couple hundred structures for a layout.

And we won’t even talk about the number of trees I’m building from scratch.

I also chose to model a branch line so that I could do it in a larger scale than HO, because I wanted to work on what my friend Chris Abbott has coined “larger models of smaller prototypes”. I’m working in S right now, but have previously worked in O scale in my layout space. I could have opted to build a more complex layout in HO in my layout room – or an N scale layout worthy of a club effort. But that’s not what I wanted. In fact as I’ve said previously on this blog, if I had 50 percent more space than I do, I’d build the same layout but with larger radius curves and more open-country running between St. Williams and the staging area.

Rather than consider simple layouts and branch line themes as our second choices – rather than revere the massive and the complex – how about celebrating the opportunities for craftsmanship that such layouts offer? My friend Mike Cougill has written about what he calls a Freedom Layout. It’s a great term: A very positive way of looking at simple layout designs – regardless of the space, time and money one has for the hobby. As I interpret it, a Freedom Layout is not about settling for less – but about deciding what we actually need to enjoy the hobby, and ignoring the rest.

If you’ve made it this far, then thanks for reading! More to come, as always…

18 thoughts on ““Simple” + “Satisfying”: not “Settling”

  1. Trevor: This post plus Lance’s blog you referenced should be mandatory reading for all model railroaders who have been brainwashed to accept the “bigger is better” mantra espoused by some.

  2. Thanks for putting this concept into words and very understandable words at that. Modeling a reasonable area and doing it well makes the task so much more enjoyable.

  3. As an adult in the late 1960’s I decided I wanted to model Raton Pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border. I researched the line for about 15 years and wrote a book about it that was published in 1983. When the book was finished I realized I would probably never have the right combination of time, space and money to build Raton Pass in HO. Through a bit of luck I ended up with a lot of materials on Santa Fe’s Alma branch in Kansas and have been researching it ever since. I could probably have built Raton Pass in the space I have devoted to the Alma branch, 22 1/2’x30′, but I would never have had the time and money to acquire the needed models–structures, locomotives, and rolling stock. Building the Alma branch was an attainable goal, a model railroad I could build to completion.

  4. Thanks Trevor for this perspective of our hobby. Even though I’m retired I think life needs to slow down some, and what better way than modeling a rural branch.
    The nostalgia and the pace of these railroads help people to unwind. I know some in this very diverse hobby like a complex layout and schedule for trains, but after trying to build a couple of layouts in HO that were packed with more than I could handle, I’ve come to the conclusion that a simpler layout is for me.

  5. Over here in the UK, this is, to some extent, less of a surprise. Although WWII ended in 1945, rationing of food and austerity measures continued long after, and the economy did not show any signs of affluence until well into the 1950s, if not the 60s. (We didn’t finish paying our war debt to the USA until early this century!) Because of this, a lot of railway modelling was limited to branchlines, but often in a confined space as the postwar housing boom was largely about creating more houses in less space, to maximise the efficient use of land and also profits for landowners, I suspect. When “finescale” started to take hold in the 1970s, the standard of RTR was a mere shadow of what it is now, and this meant extensive conversion/upgrading work, building kits (sometimes horrible artefacts of variable quality whitemetal) or scratch building. All of these take time, plus supplies were erratic and not very bountiful when made, so again the branchline made sense.
    Many still take this as their subject matter, but with the growing quality of RTR and kits, scratch building is less common, and upgrades and kit-builds take less time. Plus we have, generally, become more affluent and relatively speaking there is more discretionary income available today than 60 years ago – current economic conditions notwithstanding. We often see very full fiddle yards at exhibitions!

    Others have taking a more divergent path. I am going to bring an obvious bias to the table as I talk about S scale, but it is not the sole preserve of the scale, but by its nature in the UK, it is proportionately more likely to be this way. Take, for instance, Jas Millham’s Yaxbury branch. This started as a one-engine-in-steam layout based around a small 0-6-0, running a short branch line from a station at a junction to a terminus, via a small way-side halt. The junction portion acted as staging, and a waybill system was used at home. The layout was designed to fit into a standard UK garage of 16′ x 8′, was built in stages, and was portable and appeared at several exhibitions. Because of this, a second loco was required to cover breakdowns, and Jas has gradually added more locos over time, as the whim has taken him. The layout has now moved into his loft, and is on two levels, connected via an ingenious train lift. A small portion does still go out to shows, but he is building a new, linear, layout for that purpose. This is exactly the sort of set-up you are describing, albeit in a more modest space, and having been privileged enough to have had a few sessions operating it at exhibitions, I can only echo your comments about the joy of simplicity. http://www.s-scale.org.uk/gallery5.htm

    Another example would be Barry Norman’s Lydham Heath layout, which was not large (about 9′ x 3′, plus a 3′ single track trainable fiddle yard. It only had three turnouts (the fourth was represented by the fiddle yard), one coach, two locos and maybe a dozen wagons. This was an eye-opener at the time, and still serves as a model of what to do in a smallish space – as little as possible. Operating Lydham Heath was a joy and very restful, although I have to be honest and say that after a couple of hours, one feels compelled to wander round the rest of the show, or have a meal and a chat. As a home layout, it has a lot going for it. http://www.s-scale.org.uk/gallery10.htm Another layout with an identical trackplan, but squashed up into a small space, drove its owner to distraction within 30 minutes: it is possible to over-compress.

    Most people over here, given the space, will fill a large room with as much track and trains as possible, so I have one more example from the UK: Neil Rushby, a Yorkshireman living in Wales, recreating railways of his childhood holidays. Ne has produced quite a few small layouts, mostly but not all in 4mm scale, and latterly EM gauge (18.2mm gauge). But he is also slowly building a very simple loop around a large room in his converted church, with all of three visible turnouts, plus staging. It is worth a look, to see what is going on: http://morfa-em.blogspot.co.uk, and there are also a few snatches of video on Youtube. He has characterised his approach as “more of less”. In fact, as lots more of less. Whilst not everyone’s cup of tea, his work is inspirational and worth a visit.

  6. Simon, thanks for the great examples. I especially enjoy Neil Rushby’s. As our home sizes have exploded in size here in the US, so has the allocation of space for layouts. As I see it on this side, modelers get focused on power, on this leads to collections of massive motive power well before a layout is ever built. One then needs hundreds of coal, box or other frieght cars for those 4-8-8-4’s or SD90’s to pull, huge yards to put them in and scale miles of double and triple mainline.

    As this is what has been advertised in the railroading magazines for decades, it has been reinforced as the norm. Standouts such as Trevor, Lance & Mike Cougill have given many of us great examples to learn from. Aside from presenting fine examples of smaller and/or simpler (the latter doesn’t have to be the former) and setting the foundation for understanding what one may really want in a layout, we should continue to re-emphasize research before starting to give focus to locomotive and frieght collections before they drive massive layouts and, in Jared’s example, find out the first goal is or is not achievable.


    – Rick.

  7. Such a great outlook. I have always felt that a smaller layout lends itself to better modeling and better use of time. Spend many many hours at my LHS more and more people seem to be heading this was as well.

  8. Rick has already said it, simpler does not always equate to smaller. After all, Lance’s layout is 21′ x 17′. Not exactly small. My own one is simple too, albeit 13′ x 12′ but is just as satisfying (to me!).

  9. Trevor,
    I’m inspired by this blog entry, and no longer feel guilty that I don’t want a double-deck layout with double-ended yard(s), double track main lines and 100 car staging capacity for at least 2 places. Several of my friends have very large and ambitious layouts that seem to be taking decades in building, and appear to be needing more decades to finish. Your blog readers may be interested in a very nice article by Lance Mindheim in the 2014 issue of Model Railroad Planning, by Kalmbach Publications, which follows this very theme you have called to our attention.
    Thanks again,
    Phil Gliebe

    • Hi Phil:
      The article you cite is excellent. Those who want to know more about the layout that Lance presents in MRP 2014 should pick up his book, How to Operate a Modern Era Switching Layout. You’ll find more information at Lance’s bookstore.
      The layout presented in MRP 2014 is The Gateway Industrial Park – his working example from this book. In the book, Lance walks readers through the operation of a typical day of switching on this layout.

  10. Hi Trevor,
    Thank you for sharing this article with its useful and interesting links!!
    With help from some dedicated friends, we have just completed track and wiring on a 12 turnout branchline, which is proving to be more interesting to switch than the main layout which has been under construction for many years.
    I always enjoy reading your blog
    thanks again John Green

  11. I completely agree, Trevor. I remember being powerfully drawn to Irv Schultz’ very simple shelf layout “St. Clair Northern” in the early days of my modeling. I wish I had followed that concept instead of pursuing many grandiose projects, all of which fell to the “Three Headed Monster”. My current shelf layout is simple, but deeply satisfying. Not coincidentally, it is also the first that I will have ever brought to operational and scenic “completion”. Thanks for your reminder!

  12. As we have this discussion, it is interesting to note that Lance included the following in his post last night (18Jan):

    “As much as I enjoy the Downtown Spur, it really is more model railroad than I really need.”

    Taking a swag at his grid scale, the contemplated new layout is 10′ x 18′, not counting the “East Rail” siding.


    – Rick.

  13. Trevor:
    I was struck by your comment about being a “process modeler”. This is a factor that is little discussed in the hobby press. I, too, am a process modeler — I can get really enthused about a project — researching the subject, developing a modeling plan, and finally building the model. When I am finished, I am very pleased with the model, but I have no desire to build another one. Other modelers seem OK with setting production lines to build multiple models at the same time.
    When thinking about the type of layout that will be satisfying, a modeler should ask themselves if they are a “process modeler” or a modeler who enjoys repetitive, similar modeling tasks.
    Thanks for your insights.

    Dan Vandermause
    Ellicott City, MD

  14. I didn’t read your post until after our discussion about this very thing on the weekend. As you know, I’m at the point where my vision for the layout I will build is probably the thing that’s occupying most of my hobby time right now. That’s a good thing, because I like thinking as much as I like building models.

    The point made about the North American fixation with motive power is interesting. I wonder how much of my planning and research is influenced by the possibility of having a place to run range of locomotives. I’m not sure that’s a bad approach for me, but it’s certainly noteworthy.

    I’ve been trying to sort out my priorities before I commit to spending my limited hobby time on a layout project. I’m also alert to the possibility of planning paralysis. There will come a point where I have to just take a gut check, make a decision, and start building something. If it turns out I don’t like it, I’ll do what others have done and move on to something else, knowing that I approached the concept thoughtfully.


  15. Hi everyone:
    My goodness – I turn off the computer for a day or two, and look what happens. Great – great – commentary, everybody. Thanks for taking the time to add your insights to the issue.
    I have more to add – but in a future post.

  16. It’s always a pleasure to read your thought about achievable layouts. I think most of us went through many iterations over their modeller’s life. At some point, you have a better understanding of what is needed and what is superfluous. That may vary according to people’s own interesting and personality.

    I must admit I’m following a similar train of thoughts as yours. Your layout process, and many others, have helped me to put words on things I was intuitively finding out. And thanks to that, I’m actually rebuilding my layout (a project with two other friends we started back in 2007). Many people recently had harsh comments about this project, thinking I was going nowhere and was crazy to cut back many turnouts and industries. In fact, just like you said, I also enjoy building things once. I know myself, I can have an incredible modelling output on short notice but can stall for months if I feel I have to do lots of the same boring thing. For that reason, I kept the same prototype but moved the time frame from 1957 to 1975. These two decades say a lot of change, mainly a simplification of infrastructure which is quite good to achieve a satisfying layout concept.

    I also agree when you say it’s not a matter of branchline or class I if you want a small layout. It may sound crazy but the rebuilt ISL is still focussed on yard operation. That part was a success of the previous layout and I felt is was, in itself, correct to build a class I switching layout. No fancy switching district, only a very few selected industries that existed, where rail-served and – the most important to me – can be modelled in full scale and help to set the locale.

    Since I reduced my ambitions – or maybe, better understood them – I feel more positive toward the hobby. The layout looks now like a handful of funny and rewarding projects instead of tiring chores. It also changed how I look at a railway facility and try to understand it. I feel we put a lot of pressure on ourselves when the answer if often very, very simple and accessible.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with the community.


    • Salut, Matt:
      Great thoughts – thanks for sharing them. And I’ve just had a chance to check out the Hedley Junction blog. Well done! I look forward to reading your archives and following your progress. I’ve also added it to my Interesting Links list so others can find it, too.

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