Does this sound familiar?

I need a long mainline.

I have to have two yards.

I have to have as much operation as possible.

Slavishly adhering to these beliefs among many others has led modelers to embrace ridiculous solutions, like multiple decks that are optimized for everything but the operator’s enjoyment. Visual compromises that reduce a scene to a cartoon like caricature. Operation so dense that people have no time to enjoy themselves.

Your beliefs about layout planning are why you find it so hard.

At this point someone will scream that they want and need these criteria and many more to enjoy themselves. Fine by me. Do your thing and thanks for stopping by. This post, indeed this entire blog, is for modelers who are tired of twisting and contorting themselves into somebody else’s mold.

We’ve been sold the idea that a satisfying layout has to include the entire transportation cycle from one yard to the next.

I model a modest branchline yard. I don’t care how the cars on my interchange track got there. I accept the pretense that they came from a different part of the country. I accept they were interchanged, classified and reclassified in and out of various fictional trains on their way to the track I modeled. Operationally, I’m only interested in what happens to those cars within the confines of my layout scene. That’s the tangible, here and now, touch it, see it experience I interact with. All the other stuff is just mental gymnastics that may or may not add relevance to the modeled reality in front of me.

When I tell people about the scene and modest scope of operations I model, I get the blank stare or the barely audible: “Oh”,  which is model railroad speak for booooooooorrrring!

Here’s the thing:

Who wrote the rule that you have to model the entire railroad transportation sequence from one yard to the next?

Being married to that narrow construct drives people to design and build projects that far exceed any realistic expectations. Invariably, reality has its way and the builder has to scale back, or worse, scrap it all and, poorer but wiser, start from zero again.

Modeler Matthieu Lachance makes a wonderfully cogent point when he observed on his blog recently that if you had 140 acres of land, you wouldn’t build a 140 acre house on it. No, you would look at your actual needs and resources and build accordingly. In that same post he goes on to cite how we’re conditioned to assume that available space automatically translates into space that must be used. Through a marvelous journey of reflection, and bringing his architectural space planning and design skills to bear, Matthieu challenged that assumption in designing his own layout.

He discovered that the scope of the project he thought he wanted was actually too big. This insight came as a direct result of understanding what he truly enjoys about railroading. In other words, he’s planning a layout that fits his needs and other resources.

Why do we treat layout design practice as exempt from such commonsense thinking? Because it’s easy to be influenced by eye candy layouts, editorial musings and popular views. Build a helix around the water heater or furnace? Sure; if you get the precious long mainline, why not? The odds are you won’t need to worry about access to the equipment. Tunnel through walls or stair risers? No problem, if doing so provides a way to squeeze in extra staging capacity. You can always patch the hole later, right? We’re happy to imitate rather than do the harder work of thinking for ourselves because we value the opinions of others more than our own.

My argument here is against the blind acceptance of a mass market mentality that drives people to make ill-informed choices. Choices they often regret over time. Choices that are completely unnecessary.

It will soon be 2016 and the mass market will continue on just like it has for the last eighty years. You can imitate it or you can believe in and follow your own path.

Happy New Year.
Mike