Anyone who has read my writings in O Scale Trains Magazine over the last 4-5 years, knows that I’m a contrarian where the hobby is concerned. I constantly questioned the practices most hobbyists consider “normal.” In doing this, I managed to upset the old guard of the hobby, especially in O scale, who often thought I was being unjustly critical of their way of doing things. Well, yes and no.

Yes, I was being critical of many practices and conventions that have outlived their time. O scale is steeped in this type of tradition and I strongly feel it is a significant reason, one of many I hasten to add, why the scale hasn’t reached it’s full potential. I also answer no, in that I was not criticizing anyone personally. If you read my words closely, I usually made the point that this is a hobby of personal choice where each can follow their own muse. I never want that aspect to change.

I take this stance because I want to see the hobby and quarter-inch scale modeling grow. For example, it’s my objective that our publications break the mold of traditional hobby publishing. I’m doing this by covering aspects our colleagues in the hobby won’t, such as finescale modeling. Our books also break ground with page design and layout, as well as different media formats like digital. My next book on landscape modeling will question scenery modeling conventions without mercy or apology. Questioning the status quo is how growth usually happens.

Consider: Two-rail DC power was considered a pipe dream by the establishment just a handful of decades ago. Someone questioned that assumption and pushed it forward. The same thing happened with command control and is now happening with battery power.

Using plastic for modeling was roundly criticized by the old guard who favored wood and cardboard, metal and so on. Then Athearn came along and the rest is history. Eventually resin casting took a bit out of plastic. Soon 3D printing will do the same to resin, adding another option for modeling obscure one-off prototypes. All of this leads me to the photo and the question that follows.


Switching cars for spot order

In all seriousness, how much layout do you really need for realistic operation? Answer: It depends.


It depends on what you consider realistic operation. For some that only means mainline trains, a few or many. Others consider switching to be the ultimate. I read over and over in various magazine articles about how way freights or a large industry switching scenario is the most coveted job on someone’s layout.

So back to my question: How much is enough?

The answer, of course, is going to be unique to the individual; their objectives, the budget, in both time and money, along with a host of other factors. There really is no one-size-fits-all answer. As I study prototype railroading more closely, I’m discovering that many of my life-long hobby assumptions are not holding up anymore. Assumptions like the need for a run-around track at every town site. Yes, there is a run-around shown in the photo. But the crews seldom, if ever, use it the way the typical model railroader would. They use one track as a switch lead and the other to store empties until the rest of their work is done.

Or how about the now half century old sacred cow thinking that says one needs as many switching sites as possible for “realistic operations so that crews won’t get bored too quickly.” ┬áMy response? Baloney.

If I were to begin another layout (and I’m not going to) it would be even simpler, with less track than my current one. I’ve watched the NS switch crew in the photo sort and pick cars for an hour or more just so they could spot them for proper unloading at the plant. This is a far cry from the typical “operating scheme” many of us grew up with where the switch crew had to rush in and rush out before the next fast freight came roaring around turn four in the oval.

To each their own is part of the joy of this hobby and I repeat, I wouldn’t change that for anything. However, whether it’s multi-train mainline operations or a switching site, how much do you need? Given where the costs of this hobby are going, it’s a question worth thinking about.




  1. Matt


    I could not agree with you more about operations. As I have started working on the design of my On2 layout, the discovery of less is more when it comes to switching has hit my like the proverbial freight train. Having become a fan of the British style exhibition layout over the past several years, the layouts that a many of the modelers create in England, whether in 4mm or 7mm scale are unbelievable in the scale and depth of detail and interesting operations. I have seen several layout plans for something as simple as your plant along the NS that can keep the “operator” busy for some time and built within the “confines” of a very attractive scene overall.


  2. mike

    Hi Matt,
    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m noticing a trend toward smaller, simpler layout designs in many places: magazine articles, personal blogs, forums, etc. At the risk of ticking people off, I think hobbyists have been sold a bill of goods regarding the bigger layout is best ideology. Just one guy’s opinion here.

    Again, I acknowledge that everyone has their own set of ideas about what makes the hobby fun. However, it’s becoming harder to sustain and finance a large layout. Who hasn’t been affected by the economy since 2008? Who’s job is secure these days? How many people will move several times by choice or necessity? None of these factors bode well for building a monster size layout. A smaller layout can offer so much in terms of ongoing enjoyment. We just have to adjust our expectations for what can be included. Joe’s forthcoming editorial in issue #62 of OST covers this idea nicely.