We wrap our dreams and aspirations around countless design methodologies; often to the point we let the methodology dictate what’s possible rather than our imagination. Getting caught up in minutia so early clouds our thinking with the false hope that it will all work out in the end. Sometimes it does but more often it just leads to frustration because we ask for more than the process can deliver.

Here is a simple truth: whether you have a bookshelf or an aircraft hanger, you will never have enough space for the layout you think you want. A lot of the pain that people experience with this craft is from reconciling unrealistic desires to an unbending reality. The real world is much bigger than a basement or spare bedroom and the layout compromises these spaces require are tough to swallow. All the focus on track planning and best practices ignores the most important factor of all: the context and perspective we bring.

The experts, with all their tricks and techniques, can’t know the specific details of your situation. Furthermore, they ignore that creative work is about ideas not methodology or tools. Yet we cling to these tools and generic advice, elevating both to the status of model railroad canon that is applicable to all circumstances. It isn’t that the tools are bad, it’s that we rush to them too quickly and use them poorly. A collection of random LDEs that you have no connection to does not take your unique situation into account. A list of givens and druthers might soothe the brain but it doesn’t speak to the heart. We have created a paint-by-numbers version of model railroading. A formula or recipe is useful when you want consistent, reproducible outcomes but is predictability what a creative pursuit is about?

What Do You Want To Say About Trains?
Modeling is often compared to other art forms and I agree with the comparison. Like other forms we exercise aesthetic judgment, not only in what we model but also in how we model it. What is less understood is the idea of saying something about railroading with our choices. Rather than express what railroading means to us personally, most simply default to the standard notions of operations or scenery extravaganzas.

The art of the late Andrew Wyeth exerts a strong influence for me. He had a deep understanding and connection with his subjects that developed over many months and years of studying the same landscapes. I most admire his skill of getting to the emotiontial core of a subject by stripping away unnecessary distractions. Studying his work, I see a parallel benefit for modeling.

A first principle to consider is this: It’s easy to add complexity but hard to reduce things down to their essence.

I have written many times of my childhood memories of watching the local tiptoe its way along Water Street. These memories were immersive by virtue of the vantage point I had. As much as I speak of these memories though, I have no plans to model Centerville or Richmond. A model is not the memory and any effort would be a poor unsatisfying substitute. I am not a child anymore and my understanding is deeper than a child’s. The insight is in knowing that what captivates me from those times can be applied to many subjects.

Slow, deliberate, even intimate train operations are my “essential why.”
It took me a long time to understand that following slow deliberate motion from an up close vantage point provides the most impact on my enjoyment and satisfaction of trains.

Given this, do I really need to model the entire yard-to-yard operation sequence, with a mainline, multiple town sites and other trappings that eat space and add complexity? I used to think the answer was yes but now, with a better understanding of this insight, my answer is a solid no especially with 1:48, where the strength of a close up viewpoint can be exploited for all its worth. This suggests a much smaller and simpler layout could be equally satisfying if not more so. I would have never reached this point by drawing track plans or compiling countless givens and druthers lists. I arrived here by looking beyond the limitations of these tools and looked at what spoke to my heart about trains. Instead of a narrow focus on operations as entertainment or a grand exercise in scenery, I want to share that immersive viewpoint I knew then and appreciate even more today.

The failures of my previous layouts were all based on the fact I was reproducing pretty images or copying others without their depth of understanding and connection to the work. It’s a path many follow because it’s the only one we’ve been taught. We don’t take the time to probe our own interests deeply because it means we have to think, rather than follow somebody else’s formula. We’ve lost the art of questioning. I firmly believe that the quality of our understanding is directly related to the quality of the questions we ask. If questions of what if are about imagination and how is about doing, then questions of why are about understanding.

We are conditioned in this hobby to want more and more. Thinking of a layout only in terms of its entertainment value, we go overboard in a futile effort to stave off boredom. Boredom doesn’t come from outside circumstances it’s an internal judgment we make. As we constantly focus on what we don’t have: more room, more operation, more of everything, we can’t appreciate or fully exploit the opportunities we do have that are right in front of our eyes.