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.




  1. RS-2

    Hi Mike,

    This is very thought provoking. I’ve had to reread it several times because every time I read it, my mind goes off in multiple directions at the same time. And I know I’ll be reading it again.

    Yes there are railroads/layouts that I’ve come up with that never got started. The Hopedale & Barre began as the Hampshire County a few years ago after working in On2 for many years.(Our friend Trevor Marshall and I met threw On2.) The first design was to be simpler than today’s plan. It would require two 70 tonners to operate it and it was set in the early 70’s. Then David Stewart and his Appalachian & Ohio RR came along and I got swept up in his online group of followers and the HC got changed. After seeing his F-3’s pulling long trains I went bug eyed and want that.

    I designed a new railroad called the Housatonic Ry. It was to be a north/south railroad based on the New Haven’s Danbury, CT to Pittsfield, MA line It was to serve the lime quarries in Western Mass. It was to be an all Alco line with four FA-1’s kitbashed from Weaver FA-2s and two RS-2’s, the one I’m building now was one of them.

    I kept designing and designing the stuffing out of it. It finally rushed over me to the point where I had to stop and say “STOP”. It had gotten so big and complex what I had created a monster. I knew this was not what I wanted in the long run.

    Another factor to consider is how many and who will be operating the railroad with you. As I’m a lone wolf here, it’ll be mostly me operating it and showing it. There are other model railroaders in the area, but their mind set is completely different than mind.

    For instance, in operating mine or anybodies else’s railroad for that matter, is in injecting time delays to account for the people to do their work.

    Connecting air hoses, walking from the locomotive to the switch stand, unlocking it, throwing the points and re-locking it, depending on the railroad rules, the brakeman can either walk back to the locomotive or signal it ahead and climb aboard as it rolls by. Their all in a big hurry, smash & roll. Got to get everything done now. But that’s not me.

    There are many things that define the design of my railroad and its direction. Most of them I’ve carried with me threw all of my designs and years. Others are much newer, mainly because of the Internet. It was much harder to meet people back in the days before the Internet. Making friends in the local O Scale community was much slower then it is today also. I guess that’s why I’m a lone wolf.

    Thanks for listening.

    Hopedale & Barre RR

  2. mike


    I understand how easy it is to be influenced by another’s work. I’ve certainly been there in the past. I worked with an Appalachian coal road theme for years before and after the V&O series was published.

    Even after I settled on the Indiana & Ohio branchline as a prototype (in HO at the time) I found I kept wanting to add more stuff to it (tracks, industries, scenic elements) to the point it wasn’t the branchline any longer. As modelers, we’re convinced, by ourselves and others, that a simple layout theme or trackplan just won’t be satisfactory in the long run. Maybe there is something to that notion, or maybe we don’t just understand the prototype well enough to resist it. The more I watch real train crews going about their work, the more it dawns on me how little credit we give them.

    I recently watched the crew switch the plastic plant in town, sorting out empty cars from the string of loads, then repositioning the fresh inbound cars into spot order. They used just two tracks to sort cars. Two tracks, one turnout and an hour of real time switching. Another thing that has struck me watching this crew is how seldom they do a run-around move. There maybe one to get the engine positioned right, but that’s it. We feel the need to have a run-around track at every town and use it continuously for every move. That’s not how things happen in the real world as I’ve observed it.

    Bottom line is that the more I learn about prototype operations, I see how much simpler a layout can be.


  3. Matt


    An interesting essay and agree with Chester, very thought provoking. Chester and I have similar stories, having seen different model railroads, operations, etc you tend to run out and think I want something like that one. In the end though, comes down to commitment, type of layout you want, and style of operation.

    After many starts and stops over the past few years I came to a similar idea. Other “life events” allow me to have time to switch a few cars along with connecting air hoses, spotting the car etc. Narrowed down what I needed to model, and really what freight cars and engines to use. The added bonus is the other part of the hobby, learning about and building rolling stock and structures. Another benefit, the level of detail on the layout can be much higher than a hug multi-level type of layout.


  4. mike

    We all have to decide what works for us and until recently the press hasn’t done a good job of emphasizing that decision making process. In my view the assumption behind many layout planning articles has been that fitting in the biggest or most amount of layout for a space is a given. I obviously have a different viewpoint.

    At this stage for me, less is definitely more, and has proven very satisfying. As the saying goes: “your mileage may vary.”


  5. RS-2

    Hi Mike,

    I came across this video,, which has got to be one of the best switching videos I’ve watched in a long time. The best for two reasons, the first is, it’s an Alco S-2 doing the work and second because it shows not only the work being done, but it shows the locomotive coming to a stop after passing threw a gate and waiting for the ground man to close and lock the gate before proceeding down to the switch. That is what a lot, and I do mean A lot of modelers fail to include in what they call operation.

    Also, while I’m operating my railroad, I will visualize the crew men doing their work and follow them with my eyes as I would watching a real crewman going about his or her work. A lot of that come from an over active imagination when I was a youngin’. This too has also helped me in the designing of my railroads all the way back to my teenage years. Yikes, that was a long time ago.

    While I’m designing the railroad in my thoughts, I try to visualize what the railroad will look like in a 3D view. My work as a mechanical designer really helps here as my work involves using 3D cad for my design work.

    That’s basically my design method, an over active imagination.


  6. mike

    Hi Chester,
    And further, there are no wasted moves to add “interest” to the operations, as would certainly be the case on a layout “planned” for operation according to the conventional wisdom of the past.

    Of course these crews work the same job daily or weekly, so they develop their skills, but still, the difference between how they do it and we typically do is staggering. Nice video.