The I&W has been essentially finished for several years now. In fact it has lasted longer than almost any other layout I’ve ever built. It is the only layout I’ve ever built that has reached a state of completion (99.9%). Mind you, I’m not complaining. I enjoy the layout more than ever. What I’m trying to understand is what is different about this layout that allowed it to thrive when all, yes all, of the previous attempts wound up in the trash. Is there a different thinking process at work, or did I just decide to see something through to the finish for once?

As I’ve written many times, this layout is prototype based, but so were some of the others that failed to hold my interest. Different modeling scale? (Changing to quarter-inch from HO.) That might have something to do with it, however I doubt it was that big a factor. I’ve worked in different scales before, given up and gone back to HO. Is my age (56) and stage of life a factor? Yes, I think both contributed to my thinking process and objectives on this layout. Maturity? (Be nice now.) Possibly. I do know what my real interests are and I’m really not tempted by the one-of-everything syndrome that many of us are a slave to. As I try to figure this out, some different questions come to mind.

Most of the literature on layout planning focuses on the technical issues: How much space do you have? How much track can you stuff into it? How do I do this, how do I do that? What curve radius can I fit, what turnout size is best? These are valid questions and based on my trolling of the ‘Net, they’re uppermost in the minds of many modelers, experienced and novice alike. I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that they are premature in nature and lead to less than satisfying outcomes when followed as a first line of planning.

Consider a different thought: What kind of layout is worth building? This is something each individual has to answer personally. But seriously, are there layouts that aren’t worth building? For me, the answer is yes. I suspect that the answer is yes in most cases. For the majority of us there are certain types of layout designs that simply aren’t worth pursuing because they don’t fit our interests. Someone will say this is just another costume to dress up the old givens and druthers exercise. Maybe. To me the question puts the emphasis squarely where it belongs: settling the issue of what really matters. What is worth doing in the hobby for me? Instead of the  socially acceptable status quo way things are done.

Hand-in-hand with this is the question: What kind of commitment am I willing to make? Most of us gloss over this without giving it any kind of serious thought and wind up with a nightmare of complexity and wasted resources. Realistically, is the basement sized, multi-level, multi-person to operate, multi-whatever layout best for your situation, life circumstances, financial and time resources? Or have you just been sucked into the idea because you have the space and that’s what is promoted as “normal” for the hobby? Very few layout planning articles will lead you to seriously consider that maybe “normal” isn’t the best choice. Even experienced modelers can grossly underestimate the amount of time and resources such a large layout will require. I see posts online all the time from people who have one of these monsters on their back, and are so far into it that simplifying things seems like too painful an option to even consider. Is this what the hobby has come too? Is this what you want from it? I chose my answer a long time ago.

A third thing to consider is: What crossroad have I reached at this point with the hobby? The reasons usually given for tearing out an existing layout center on issues of boredom. The challenge has gone or perhaps it was never there in the first place. The question points to the idea that there is a challenge, or if you prefer, a learning curve to this hobby that in itself provides a level of satisfaction. I’ve found this to be very true for me and most of my friends share in this feeling. Engaging in a pastime that challenges our intellect and develops skills and knowledge can be very satisfying for a Lifetime! When we succumb to the notion that the hobby is more about stuff rather than skill and learning, our enjoyment can grow stale quickly. What many have forgotten, or have never learned, is that meeting the challenges the hobby can provide is what gives it meaning and keeps things fresh and interesting.

Based on my observations, we seem to be at a turning point with the hobby today. There are several large, and often hotly contested, questions about where it is all going versus where it has all been. There is an assumption now that the hobby should be expressed in terms of having fun. Hard to argue with that, but how far can the mindset of having fun carry you? Few of us want to live in an amusement park, and I submit that few will stick with a pastime that doesn’t add something good to their life. Of course, what that “good ” entails is up to the individual to decide.

The way this all translates into layout design issues boils down to a matter of focus on some core decisions that need to be addressed long before the questions of HOW are asked. Taken as they come, the questions posed here guide us to a deeper understanding of why we might be in this hobby and of what that knowledge might bring to our enjoyment of it and life in general. There is a lot of what is called social proof in this hobby. By that I mean we do many things a certain way largely because we see others do them this way. The questions put the responsibility for the answers where it belongs, in our hands. Maybe that’s what’s different about this layout for me.