The action in this photo, a preview from Vol. 02 of the The Missing Conversation, looks incomprehensible at first glance. Like some train set on steroids with trains going everywhere at once. However, when you know the track arrangement and what is going on, it makes more sense. Study the photo captions and you learn that things don’t have to be as complex as we’ve been led to believe in the past. The trackage in the photo is really quite simple. Given the choice between a simple prototype example and conventions of the last fifty years, I wonder how many of us would resist the temptation to add more track, more structures, more of everything.

When I designed the I&W on paper, I tucked in a siding simply because there was some empty space for it. As I laid out the track in full scale on the benchwork, I could see how crowded things were getting, so I left the siding out. Why did I put it there to begin with? Because I had the empty space. We’re always being told that there’s never enough space for the layout we really want and we’ve been conditioned to believe that every inch of space must be utilized to the fullest, with the fullest usually defined as more track, an extra building or some other feature. Not so in my view.

From my work as an artist I’ve learned how important empty space can be. Empty space allows the elements that are featured to have more impact by the contrast they provide. While there are many examples of crowded scenes on the prototype, when you look at most situations, you’ll find things are pretty sparse and spread out. Yet we still give in to the temptation to overcrowd our layouts. One of the reasons might be the lack of stellar examples for an uncrowded scene. As seen in this post from his blog, my friend Trevor Marshall has developed an excellent and spacious scene at Port Rowan on his new layout. Click on the first photo link in Trevor’s post. This orchard scene framing the entrance of the railroad into town succeeds because of the context it provides. Here the railroad is in the scenery, rather than dominating it as is often the case.

Notice how Trevor avoided overcrowding this simple scene with extra features. By allowing plenty of room for what many modelers would label “non-essential scenery” on his S scale layout, he strongly conveys the atmosphere of this rather isolated branch line. In addition he gives a nod to an important part of the regional economy, which translates into an seasonal source of traffic for the railroad.

It’s a myth that track has to take priority over everything else. It’s a holdover from the train set era. We don’t have to stuff every square inch of our layout space with track and structures. Simplicity doesn’t always mean simpleminded. A modest amount of track can provide some complex operation. While the trackage at Port Rowan looks simplistic, the validity of his approach was confirmed by a friend’s comments during a recent operating session, noting that switching these simple terminals requires some forethought. My sole advice about layout planning these days is simple: Forget the planning books and study the prototype, study the prototype, study the prototype. As I do so, I’m learning that there is an important relationship between truly operating like the prototype does and a much simpler, more achievable layout design. In that vein, I’ll take a long look at the industry served by the trackage in the first photo in a future volume of TMC next year.



  1. Jerry

    I love it when you grab conventional wisdom by its greasy lapels and toss it out the window. Every track plan I have ever seen has too much track. I just thought I was the only one who noticed it.

  2. mike

    Hi Jerry,

    You’re not the only one. Most plans are track heavy in my view. I don’t understand why and I obviously don’t agree with the practice, which isn’t earning me a lot of brownie points in certain circles. I don’t write to earn brownie points though. Thanks for commenting.


  3. tom sullivan

    I’ve been modeling small, narrow gauge logging rr’s for some time. Given that typical, struggling ng lines had to justify any financial outlay for track or roadbed, they were forced to maximize their existing trackage.
    You could make a lot of necessary moves with a simple runaround! Just takes a bit more time……
    Enjoyed issue #1, looking forward to issue #2.


  4. mike

    Hi Tom,

    Welcome to the blog, I’m, glad you’re here.

    Yes we tend to forget that trackage cost the railroad a considerable sum to build and maintain, often for decades. You’re exactly right, a modest amount of trackage can be operationally challenging, as more people are coming to understand.

    Glad you enjoyed Volume 01 of TMC. Volume 02 is coming soon.