In Mill Road, I wanted to reduce a scene to its essential core, both visually and operationally. Such a focus gives the layout a strong sense of place and power for the imagination. Similar to how we interact with the railroad, you are here, in this place and there are things to see and explore. As for the rest of the line, that’s unseen for now. Thinking about these criteria, I achieved the result I wanted.

Recently I’ve considered adding another module. However, I’ve struggled with the design, as none of the various ideas for extending the layout seem like a good fit. It finally dawned on me that there is little to add or take away that would improve on the experience that’s already in place. The scene as I originally composed it is complete. This urge for expansion raises some interesting questions about how much layout is actually enough.

I grew up in an era when the railroad all around me was in decline. Service was reduced or cut, the physical plant left to moulder away until it was finally pulled for salvage. Sad though they might have been, such images had their own kind of beauty that still influences my modeling.

Although I made slight changes during the build (a name change and removing the storage track), the layout follows my original plan.

The allure of empty wall space is a strong influence we seldom question and if someone does, the trite, knee-jerk answer is nearly always that space is a terrible thing to waste. Well, maybe. I firmly believe that space is a terrible thing to waste on useless clutter built just to fill a void that’s as much inside of us as it is outside.

A tightly focused layout like Mill Road, confronts our expectations and assumptions of the craft. It forces us to pause and consider both the meaning we bring to it and what we expect from it. The real issue I’m confronting has less to do with the layout and everything to do with the conversation going on in my mind.

Instead of appreciating what I have in front of me, I fell victim to the trap of not trusting my own judgement, and of believing there was something better I was missing out on.

We go to great lengths to hide the entrance to staging areas. The layout defies them all by putting the transition in  plain sight.

A valid question to ask is what do I think an expanded layout would provide that the current one doesn’t? Is it more operation? Have I run out of stuff to build? Not hardly. As you should know by now, operation isn’t a driving force for me and I have an embarrassing number of unfinished modeling projects waiting for my attention.

My views of the craft have matured and I want the work to reflect what a layout means to me now. Mill Road does exactly that even if I don’t see it clearly at the moment. While some of my views may have matured, many of my expectations are still from an older paradigm.

A Language Is More Than The Words
Is there more to the language of layout design than curve radius or turnout sizes? Yes, of course there is. Learning a language involves more than just knowing the words, it’s also learning how to think with the culture and meaning behind those words.

As a good friend pointed out, we now live in a different time and culture and our craft is not isolated from these changes. I believe we could expand the vision of the craft well beyond the basement empire mentality. There are far more spare rooms or single wall spaces that could easily house a modest but satisfying layout. Could we embrace a design language that sees the opportunity of such spaces instead of treating them like poor last ditch choices? Could we learn how to make simpler layouts elegant, beautiful and as captivating as a larger one? To do so involves a change in mindset about what the craft means to each of us. Mill Road is not a static object. There will be changes in the future as my vision of the work continues to mature. For now though, I want to appreciate the simplicity and grace of form the layout offers.

A post like this is offered to spark your thinking, not provide a roadmap to follow. Your path and choices are likely to be different from mine and I wouldn’t have it any other way.



  1. Simon

    That grade crossing makes for an ideal focal point. In the real world, we might wander up to such a location and see the daily (weekly?) service switching out loads for empties, etc, shuttling back and forth across the crossing. As a 1 ½” high person standing there, my viewpoint is limited to little more than your modelled scene – if that much – but this is undoubtedly where the action is. Nice one.

  2. mike

    Hi Simon,

    It is. It’s aligned with the room entrance and the first thing you see. It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for commenting.


  3. Chris Mears

    Simon’s comment is exactly what I was thinking. We build layouts sometimes to be all the things of the railroad we want to carry us on that journey. We assert that “place” describes the sum of this collection but place is only where we are such as this grade crossing. I love the idea of the intention of the model being to create a layout where this grade crossing is the focal point and then the plan for the balance of the layout fades as you move further from this point, much as it would in real life. Enough of the rest of the layout to support this place but not so much that we’re taken away from it.

    For a layout that shares living space in our home it’s not only powerful for the experience during an operating session but if this layout is something we create as a medium to communicate by than this focus is a clear connection point with those we want to share it with.