When visitors arrive… or is it?

Having read my recent post about the derailments experienced the last time I hosted a guest, reader Brian Woolven made an interesting observation in the comments – one that’s worth repeating here:

It always happens when you have visitors.
It’s the same as exhibitions, everything works when at the club prior to the show. Come the opening and everything comes to a stop.

We’ve all felt that way – that a layout somehow “knows” when we’re entertaining guests and that’s when it decides to misbehave. I’ve certainly felt that way, many times over the past few decades of being in the hobby. (I’ve had a similar feeling about cars and houses that I’ve owned – that they always seem to know when one has come into an extra large bag o’ money, because that’s when they suddenly need a new transmission, or brakes, or a furnace, or a roof.)

Layouts are many things, but they are not sentient. (Neither are cars or houses.) So what’s really going on?

There are a few possibilities.

I suspect that when guests are visiting, layout owners are busy juggling too many roles so errors get made.

This isn’t so much a problem with my layout, because there’s not much going on during an operating session – just one train on the line, and just one or two guests for me to host. But larger layouts with multiple guests running multiple trains simultaneously can be a real challenge for hosts.

Most of the hobbyists I know with a large layout that supports regular operating sessions tell me that they rarely get to run a train during such sessions because they’re too busy answering questions, solving problems, making executive decisions, setting up coffee or tea for afterwards, and so on.

And at exhibitions, the challenge of operating the layout and engaging with the punters can be overwhelming – so much so that many experienced exhibitors divide the roles: Operators stand behind the layout and run the trains, while interpreters/hosts stand in front of the layout and, well, interpret and host. Even small layouts – the single-person “shunting plank” sort, built by one person – will benefit from a second person at exhibits. (In addition to dividing the duties, it gives that layout builder a chance to get away from the layout when nature calls.)

Beyond that, I would suggest that layout gremlins have always been there but as layout owners we’re more sensitive to them when they embarrass us in front of guests. If we’re running the layout by ourselves and something derails, we may simply retail and ignore the problem, or think to ourselves, “I’ll have to fix that” – then forget about it, or get busy with something else.

I try to keep on top of these things on my own layout and not let them get away from me. One of the best aids in this regard is a stack of notepaper in one of the pigeon holes that I built for the slide-out work desks at each station:
 photo TroubleTickets_zps61b727b5.jpg
(Click on the image to read more about the pigeon holes)

Whenever I have a problem, I grab a slip of paper and write it down so I don’t forget. Or, at least, I try to. I’m not always good at doing this during an operating session with friends. I am very good about it when I’m doing things on the layout by myself.

But the best way to do that is set aside time each week for operations or work sessions – and I’ve been less diligent about that over the past few weeks. In fact, I had ample notice that my friend Hunter Hughson was showing up – we made the arrangements a couple of days ahead of our get-together – and I should’ve taken some time to run the layout and look for any issues.

Lesson learned. Now, time to look at those notes and start checking things off the list.

(Brian: Thanks for your comment – it obviously got me thinking!)

4 thoughts on “When visitors arrive… or is it?

  1. Trevor,

    I am a long time push pin user. If something jumps the rail, or doesn’t throw properly I grab a push pin and mark the location or switch hand throw. Then I have a reminder that must be physically removed when fixed. It helps. This is not an original thought, but it does work. When all the holes from the push pins because to become noticeable and needs new scenery, it is a candidate for a rebuild. You might not have done it correctly the first time.

  2. You are welcome!
    I’ve got to get a list done of small niggling things that need doing too.
    I know where they are so I tend to avoid using those tracks, but as it doesn’t affect running the local pick-up freight, then I tend to ignore it!

  3. Hi Trevor! Long time listener… first time caller, as they say. I used to hold monthly operating sessions on my S scale layout and can relate to the problems that seemed to happen when the guests were running trains. My solution was to include a few simplified “Bad Order” cards on the Conductor’s clipboard, along with timetable and switch list. Any car or track defect they ran into would be written up and turned in at the end of their run. If the problem was with a piece of rolling stock, it would be set out at the first available siding in prototype fashion. I would go through the Bad Order cards in the weeks following and attempt to correct all problems before the next scheduled operating day.

    Love reading your blog. Currently working on a new “Achievable Layout” in S scale set in depression-era Ohio. Your layout has become quite the inspiration for me. Hope to share pics of it with you someday.

    Bill Hanslik Jr.
    Uhrichsville, Ohio, USA

    • Hi Bill:
      Welcome aboard – thanks for speaking up. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog – and your Bad Order card is a great idea.

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