How Story Influences Layout Design

by Oct 30, 2019Storytelling, The Modeling Conversation, The P48 Experience, Uncategorized4 comments

My primary enjoyment of the railroad is that of a spectator. To this day I’m content to park my bones in one spot and watch the action unfold in front of me. As I’ve written before, sometimes the locomotive is close by; at other times it’s quite a distance away. It’s all the same to me because I’ve learned to appreciate the railroad in a given location whether a train is present or not. There is always something of interest to study and always a special feeling from being in a familiar place once again.

Years ago, when the local worked in Centerville, I would often chat with the brakeman as he protected the crossing at Morton Avenue. Standing in one place, there was a sense of anticipation as the train worked its way up the siding with the outbound cars from the paint factory. Moving past my position, the noise and visuals were intense but gradually faded as the engine and cars receded into the distance. Occasionally I would keep pace on my bicycle along Water Street as the train went up and down the siding. The sensory experience was far different, as I’m steering my bike and watching for traffic, all while trying to watch the train. I could only do this for two blocks and it was like a roller coaster ride: short-lived but intense.

Pacing the train burned off a lot of youthful energy but staying put proved more satisfying in the long run. I could enjoy the symphony of sound as he passed, study an infinite number of details and watch the dance of freight cars swaying along that decrepit track.

From Morton Ave the engine disappeared from my view as he backed down the siding. There was an interval of time in which I could hear the engine in the distance and guess about what he was doing. The time he was gone equated to the distance traveled and the work involved gathering up the cars at the paint factory. The same thing is possible in a modeled scene, where the train is out of view.

Much layout design is driven by the idea of following a train along its route. Given the extreme amounts of compression we’re forced to employ it’s a wonder anyone thinks a train has traveled anywhere. With everything right there in plain view, there’s no place for the imagination to go. My experience of the train arriving, doing its work, then leaving suggests that a more convincing scenario is possible. It has taken me decades to understand how these memories wanted to shape my practice of the craft.

In designing for a fixed viewpoint, consider how narrow our field of vision actually is. True, we can turn our heads to look up and down the track, but really, our main sense of the action will be limited to our immediate vicinity. The scene I’ve modeled is 12 feet long in total, which in quarter-inch scale translates to 576 feet. Not a lot of real estate in the grand scheme of things but enough, based on my own experience, to provide the operational and visual interest that I want.

The action at Mill Road will constantly move between onstage and off. Visually, these transitions will be disguised by changes in the light levels rather than hard scenic breaks. I agree with Matthieu Lachance’s assessment that our conventional view block trickery would be out of place and contrived. With the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t aspect of the locomotive coming and going, there is room for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the missing pieces.

With nearly all the layouts I’ve built, I always lost interest after a certain amount was completed. My former Indiana and Whitewater was no exception. Readers may recall my frustration with the eight-foot section over the workbench that never felt connected to the well-defined scene on the rest of the layout. I reached the conclusion that I could reduce that layout by a third and it wouldn’t have suffered at all.

With Mill Road I’ve discovered that eight feet or so is the sweet spot for my tastes. I am expanding the scene by another four feet for a more graceful transition into the staging cassette but, truthfully, a nagging voice in my head wonders if I’m diluting the power of the original scene by doing so. We’ll see if that’s true or not and, thanks to the design flexibility I outlined in the last post, nothing will be lost if it is.

In my view this is the power of understanding the why behind your modeling. My design choices for Mill Road are strongly based on the experiences and memories outlined above. The modeling reflects those times when I could wander around at my leisure and simply enjoy the railroad as it was in a particular time and place. Like watching the local appear from around the bend east of town, I don’t need to know or see what the train did before it arrived here. I’m content with the experience that will unfold in this spot and that’s more than enough for me.






  1. Simon


    I am reminded of the words of the late Richard Chown, back in the February 1978 Railway Modeller which featured his then incarnation of his O scale Irish prototype layout. He was talking mostly about disguising entry/exit points on his layout, of which there many as the layout consisted of a number of small scenes. On of his devices was to have a hole in the scenic break, then some trees and a small feature such as a road crossing the railway at grade, about a foot into the scene. As a spotty 13 year old the sense of this passed me by, but I have always remembered his comment that human beings have quite a narrow focused field of vision, about 60 degrees. At 4 feet from the layout – and we are usually closer than this – this means that we can perceive about 4’ of layout at a time, and he was attempting to stop the eyes about 12” from the end of the scene by providing something to focus on and to distract the mind.

    Allowing for movement in the scene, and the eyes following that about, then 8’ seems a good length for a scene. (I am not a great fan of “micro lays, with just a few exceptions.) I have noticed that personally speaking, layouts less than 6’ long tend to lose my interest, and more than 16’ then my attention tends to either wander, or I start breaking the layout down into visual subsections, e.g. the point work at each end, the engine servicing terminal.

    Your 8’-12’ section may well be the sweet spot: exactly where within that length will probably vary according to personal taste but also depend on subject matter and composition.

    About 15 years ago I shared with a friend an idea for a small British yard in 1:32 scale, which would fit into 12’. It more or less broke into 3 sections, equally spaced into spur sidings, yard throat and shunting neck – the latter on a low embankment to show off Proto:32 wheels. He was very keen, and I now wish I had followed up on this!

  2. Matthieu

    Interesting Simon! I found the same result about two days ago when planting a forest on the club layout. The optical effect you described started to operate. Our eyes would focus on the tracks and foreground trees while the rest of the scene became completely blurred in our field of vision, effectively creating a sense of depth and distance that didn’t exist prior tree planting. Initially, I thought a very dense and opaque forest was required to obtain this same effect, but in fact, given you provide a compelling center of attention (a grade crossing as described in your example), the rest falls into the fog of the mind. Certainly, in photos, the same illusion hardly apply has I discovered when editing later my pictures, but this is indeed an interesting fact of life well-worth exploiting to our advantage.

  3. Jeff

    Someone asked if all things were unlimited (time, space, money), what would you build? My first thought was a gymnasium sized building with an O Scale layout. Then I recalled the basement sized Frankensteins I’ve either built for myself or participated in helping others and recalling all the work after the work – troubleshooting, repairing, prep work for operation and what’s seems lately to be the inevitable “this isn’t doing the trick anymore” or “I just bought a bigger basement” and the ensuing teardown watching 5+ years of work go out the door and I answered one scene with staging on both ends. Why? As you noted Mike, we stand in one spot, sometimes a favorite, to railfan. We don’t chase trains over an entire subdivision to watch them. That place where you first discovered your love for trains. A favorite landmark like Horseshoe Curve or Tehachapi, you sit there and enjoy the show. The anticipation, the ever-increasing volume of the approaching train and the decrease as it passes, that golden moment as the show unfolds in front of you then moves on. Right there in your field of vision, just like a stage production. You related your tale with the brakeman. I’ve had similar experiences with some of the local crews out of Baltimore. Once I know where they’re headed, I’ll pick one spot and wait to watch. The players may never change but the show is just as exciting as it was the first time.

    Again, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  4. mike

    Good comments as alway guys. Thank you.



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