I’m working with a friend on a story about layout design and it’s interesting to me because the hardest choices to understand and make have nothing to do with layout design, or trackplanning or any of the usual stuff we default to. In fact, my view is this: given all the factors that influence a layout, trackplanning is the least important.

In terms of the language, I can think of three instances where someone fundamentally changed our view of the work:

  • Frank Ellison’s concept of trains as actors on a layout stage
  • John Allen’s images of floor-to-ceiling scenery, weathering and operations
  • Allen McClelland’s transportation system concepts

There may be others but I feel these three shaped the larger concepts of the hobby we have today. I hasten to add that these people never set out to change anything. They simply followed an idea(s) that seemed obvious to them.

The default discussion about each focuses on the layout forms and operational concepts. The bits and pieces, the physical stuff, the nuts and bolts. I suggest that framing things in that way limits the real impact each had. True, their ideas altered our thinking about the physical forms but far more importantly, these ideas altered our perception of what the craft could encompass. In a word, they altered our experience of it.

After Ellison and McClelland, we were no longer content to watch a train mindlessly chase its tail. They helped us understand that these models could be used and enjoyed in a purposeful manner. John Allen’s vision showed us there was more to scenery than a tabletop. Scenery could encompass an experience for the operator. One could be in the scene, or surrounded by the scene instead of just viewing it. Models could be weathered; boxcar floors could sag and show wear. Finishes weren’t bright and shiny.

Our perceptions were changed and so too, our experience.

In my view, there is a huge amount of complacency among US hobbyists that I attribute to our vocabulary and mindset. We have the hobby we do because that’s all we’ve been presented with. It’s been imitation upon imitation.

Chris Mears shared a little jewel of a UK layout concept that intrigues me as well. It is so thoughtfully conceived that one could explore it for some time and still not grasp the implications of what the designer accomplished.

Here is the link to the overall blog entries: http://www.rmweb.co.uk/community/index.php?/blog/1909-thurso-722/

You may read through the three individual posts but I encourage you to pay close attention to the first and second as they focus on the design. Here is the post showing the cardboard mockup he created:


As Chris mentioned in an email, what this modeler has done is control the viewer’s experience of this layout. By enclosing the front fascia and defining our view via the shape and position of the selective openings, he has brought us to that station and shaped our experience of the scene in ways our normal US design practice never could. That’s what Chris and I find so interesting.

Most North American modelers will look at this and dismiss it as too small or simplistic and cry: “Not enough operation for me.” In our lexicon, this type of layout is something one would have to “settle for” when all other options have been wiped out. We consider such compact designs as a throw-away or a last resort, rather than something one would deliberately pursue. Our design language and space hog mentality simply won’t let us see it any other way.

And that’s the problem. It’s why so many find layout design such an impossible chore. Modelers routinely dismiss perfectly interesting concepts and spaces because they don’t have the design vocabulary to see the potential in them. More to the point, they don’t have such stunning examples to look to for inspiration.

How strange do our multi-deck contrivances look to the rest of the modeling world I wonder? Probably as strange as their compact designs look to us.

Since I have subscribed to the Model Railway Journal, the leading finescale oriented magazine in the UK, I’ve become more familiar with this design aesthetic and language. As a result, my views of layout design have shifted greatly. I’m more aware of the emphasis on aesthetics and recreating an experience that is prevalent over there and I find it increasingly appealing.

What might the fourth turning point be for this craft? I have no idea really but I would hazard a guess that how we experience the craft will be at the core of it.



  1. Simon


    I am afraid that multi-deck operations-focused layout ideas are gaining ground over here in the UK: higher quality RTR means less modelling time need be spent improving running and upgrading fine details, which means more time spent on using the models.

    A theatrical thread runs through all three of your examples: Eliason talks of the actors, Allen of the stage and McClelland of the wings, plot, script and direction – why are the actors there in the first place? Is this some existential crisis, or are we observers of a static stage, with a snapshot of actions, with a set of scenes being used to remove elements of time, I.e. the intervals between periods of thought, encounter, dialogue, decision and action? I extend the analogy on purpose: the stage set can be changed between scenes and acts (somewhat easier in a film, when it is not live) which parallels having meaningful settings for the trains (layouts!) and off-scene staging and fiddle yards provide the outside world concealed by the wings, with the transportation system representing the context of a play, the TTO analogous to the plot, with elements such as waybills providing some direction to what has become a slightly improvised play – shades of Ayckbourn, Leigh and Stoppard creeping in here? I think a lot of the “big basement” layouts are very fine examples of this sort of grand show, and the amount of improvisation can be controlled and permitted to taste: it can certainly stop things from getting boring! If you want a different experience, you can try seeing the same production on a different date, and sit elsewhere. It will not be the same – and if you wait for cast changes, then it can get really interesting.

    But careful layout design steps beyond this. We can control and restrict the viewpoint, to show only the one view, possibly to strengthen the focus on a key historical or operational aspect of the subject, or we can provide several viewpoints so that the same scene can be experienced from different vantage points: that of the engine crew, the rest of the train crew, the dispatcher, the agent, etc. or just different physical vantage points. Careful use of view blocks is, I think, essential for this. Without those breaks, it all blends into a continuum, but having to shift one’s standpoint is never a bad idea – things may look better when looking back, rather than forward.

    I wonder if the next stage is not already here amongst us? An example of a layout which combines several authentic scenes providing a variety of physical viewpoints, and at the same time a way to experience some of the differing functions on a railway. Something with enough to keep one going, without it being daunting. Something with a number of ideas that can be adopted and adapted to suit other spaces. Something achievable. Something which obviously provides a great deal of satisfaction to its builder/owner as well as enjoyment to numerous visitors. Something backed up with a superb website which may not explain how every track spike was inserted, but which explains how a train crew went about switching cars on a freight extra. Even on-line from a few thousand miles away, my experience of this layout is unlike any other.

    I refer, of course, to that remarkable and still growing holistic layout in Ontario, Trevor Marshall’s Port Rowan, a masterpiece if ever I saw one.

    There is something similar in the UK: Jas Millham’s Yaxbury Branch. I was fortunate enough to operate this a few times when it was on the exhibition circuit, but its larger permanent configuration has expanded things considerably. It was pre-web, in original format, and was not really “mainstream” material, so Jas has not had the same impact as Trevor, maybe.

    But what was the original Yaxbury branch, if not a simple branch with small station along the way, operated ith a simple card system? Just like Port Rowan.

    Maybe the features in common for these lines are the fourth turning point
    Sufficient Stock, Sufficient Scope, Satisfying Simplicity?

    And of course, they happen to Share Scales: Spendid S.


  2. Chris Mears

    Terrific comments Simon. I’ve really enjoyed reading them and they way they extend Mike’s thoughts in the initial post. I hadn’t thought of the three modellers Mike suggested in the roles you’ve provided but they make perfect sense. Further, adding Trevor’s name to the list as an example of a modern master is something I completely agree with.

    In thinking of the stage analogy a little further, I wonder if the room for the next modern master is made by asking if the play itself is something he creates for himself, to explore something internal, or something created for others for their enlightenment? In our examples we delineate between the layout for our enjoyment and one to invite others. What about one for both? An audience participation question where we have the opportunity to include ourselves in that crowd and create for our own enlightment, engagement, and enjoyment.

    Finally, that’s a lot of “S” there Simon…or just the right amount of subtlety?



  3. Simon

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Truth be told, I did write a lot of verbiage which got chopped, as I had trouble expressing myself. Also, I am not sure quite how well it equates to a new stage in the story, rather than a technological development which is here, but not really at a state of maturity. I am referring to tiny cameras, placed on board equipment. I wonder how long it will be before I can run a train on Port Rowan, from my home in England? Using a web browser, I could have a forward and a rearward view from the engineer’s seat in the cab, and a few simple controls. Another party could be the conductor, and as his turnouts and couplers are hand operated, Trevor will be both the brakies as well as the host. (I am using PR as an example: I have no idea how Trevor feels about these concepts.)

    There are several pluses to this. The obvious one being that I get to experience the layout without having to make the journey there and back, but it would be an interesting way to learn about operation in a North American style. From the layout owner’s perspective, well, thy get a free show on their own stage.

    On the downside, ths all strikes me as rather lonely: one of the great things about Trevor’s blog is the clear indication of his enjoyment of the social side of things. I can’t pop down to Hardbord House after a running session if the running session was conducted remotely.

    As an occasional thing, remote driving/conducting does not get an automatic negative from me, and it might excite many, but it is little more than a 3D version of a train sim, displayed in 2D.

    What people like Trevor and Jas, and Mike, are doing is providing a scene not just for trains, but a way to experience part of a day in the life of a train, or trains. On Port Rowan, we pick up with “The Daily Effort” after it has departed Simcoe and get o experience an abridged version of events at St. Williams and Port Rowan. With the Yaxbury branch, the whole journey is self-contained. In both cases, the train crew moves with the train, and replicates operations such as bending the iron, switching to a switch list, and so on. With Mike, it is slightly different as he turns up to see what has been left by the proceeding crew, and carries on from there.

    What they have all shown is that one can change the focus away from lots of trains within an authentic setting, to running a single service which is part of a larger transportation system rather than trying to replicate the operations of a subdivision of that system. This is far more achievable: a smaller layout space, smaller stock, and less of it, and therefore better quality equipment can be bought, and more time can be spent creating individual models – and yet as Trevor has recently posted, one can still have multiple examples of common items.

    Mike, you brought in British fine scale to the topic. I wonder if the compact nature of our layouts has led to more thought about the off-stage area. If you mention “staging yards” over here, unless it be at a BRNMRA type event, you will get blank looks. Yes, we have storage yards, but these are frequently at the back of a continuous run, and having exited storage, trains run through a scene and back to the same storage road, ready for the next run. Not the same as staging yards on, say, the V&O or AM. No, what we have specialised in is the “off stage costume change”, better known as the “fiddle yard”. on multi-operator layouts over here, the make up of the next pick-up goods (“way freight”) may be a complete surprise to the driver/operator at the destination station.

    I wonder if the idea that when a train is hidden, it can be altered to become something different (or removed completely) is the fourth idea? The rest of the world can be represented by an active fiddle yard.


  4. Simon

    Finally, that’s a lot of “S” there Simon…or just the right amount of subtlety?

    I have no idea what you mean.

    (I think it is more the case that in S, you have to be more individualistic and self-reliant, to be honest. It creates a different mindset: “How could I use this all too rare example of a good boxcar as the basis of a model?” rather than, “I am waiting for an RTR release.” One is an active question, the other a passive statement.”)

  5. Chris Mears

    Hi Simon,

    Thanks for the follow-up.

    We’ve had some iterations of commercially and home-based onboard camera systems. The earliest commercial one that I recall with any clarity was Lionel’s system though I feel like I remember an advert in Model Railroader from a more specialized company from an earlier period. No doubt the cameras are getting smaller and more readily available and certainly invite one to consider this view. I wonder if it’s too far? I believe it is for me. I think that we like to relate to our model railways much as we do now. There’s something to be said for just towering over the scene and reveling in it in its entirety. Of course, with so much advancement in the caliber of the models and layouts we create, the ability to enhance that scene with detail that encourages us to see it at ground level increases too.

    As I type this I think the direction I’m attempting to take it is to describe a limit to what we expect of the layout or the models – that we’d like to retain that distinction between miniature and prototype. That it is satisfying to own a beautifully constructed and accurate miniature of the real thing and those emotions are different and we might prefer them. Thinking back to the roots of the hobby the models weren’t as accurately detailed and the layouts were seldom more than rings of track on the floor or a sheet of plywood yet we still seemed to develop an attraction to and affinity for them – much more than any other toy we’d have. I think that same fascination is still with us and it is still more powerful than the ability to relate to the models as we would real trains. I can see my own tangent starting here and I’ll curb it.

    I agree with your thoughts on remote operating a layout. I think I remember a website for a layout in Germany that one could operate, over the internet, from home (memory from perhaps a decade if not well older than that). It’s neat and a fun spin on the train simulator software but, for me, it still doesn’t deliver on the enjoyment of having the trains where I’m at. Further, as you point out, an important part of visiting and operating on another layout is the social experience.

    I enjoyed your thought on staging and the role of the train changing. I don’t enjoy the idea of staging representing the “rest of the world”. It just seems a bit hard to believe. What I do like about the role of staging is the punctuation it brings much the same as the punctuation we see on stage when an actor moves off stage for even a second. We know they didn’t really go anywhere but we have that same grounding point to terminate the previous scene and make sure we’re all back on the same page, ready for the next.

    Terrific thread. Thanks.


  6. Chris Mears

    I was trying to be funny. My apologies if my attempt at wit failed.

    I think today’s S is attracting a modeler who enjoys that balance. While current production may not rival HO’s variety there is certainly enough product on shelves from the past and it’s amazing how thorough the selection is for American models at least. More than just measuring the scale in terms of what’s available I find the community very inviting. The scale seems to attract a type of modeler who really seems to feel satisfied by making models. It’s an attractive scene and after a lot of gentle prodding likely the direction for me.


  7. mike

    I am here but haven’t chimed in because I really have nothing to add. Besides, you guys are doing fine.

    Fiddle yards are used in the US, in fact the 2016 issue of Model Railroad Planning is essentially about staging and fiddle yards with articles on both.

    My thoughts about future developments are more along the lines of seeing that a layout is not just a collection of parts but also an experience for people that can be crafted.


  8. Simon

    Chris, I got the joke: I was being dead pan. Which doesn’t work very well on the web: your wit was well on target – bullseye, in fact.

  9. Simon


    I view it as creating a small world into which I can escape, whether that be in the creation of it, or the enjoyment of it.

    This is possible for anyone, no matter what their “level” of personal input. An authentic arrangement of ready to play structures around an authentic arrangement of ready to lay track, running authentic ready to run equipment, operated in an authentic manner, is one way to achieve this. This require some knowledge of real railways, and a discerning eye in selecting the authentic items. What a great opportunity for the “experts” out there in magazines and on the web. Did I mention that the key to success here is for things to be authentic?

    Personally, that doesn’t float my boat, and from what I see in magazines, at shows and on the web, I am not sure of how many actually are bothered about authenticity.

    Back to your point about craftship, if I may create the word. I want an authentic scene, modelled to a consistent standard, with everything in harmony. At the very least, this means that a constant “finishing touch” is applied to everything – a degree of weathering using a limited palette or at least just a touch of a “unifying tint” added to a top coat of varnish. But over the past few months stretching into years, I have realised that the less I have put into something, the less it interests me. There are a couple of obvious exceptions in my collection: one is a memento mori of a friend who passed over 9 years ago, and another a “gift of encouragement” (“I’ve built most of it, but there is enough left for you to do in finishing it off for you to feel that it is yours.” Gee, thanks!) The personal relationship here is of vital importance to me.

    Quite simply, conversations such as this thread have, over the past three years, brought me to a point of greater self-understanding. When I see a layout, I am looking for the craft that went into it – and that could be nothing more than careful and thoughtful assemblage of ready made items – but what turns me on most is something crafted from a few key components and raw materials. And the same applies to my own modelling: the closer to this, the more satisfied I shall be.

    On another forum, I had a little motto, which probably sums it up neatly: better to do little, well, than lots, badly.
    I need to listen to myself more…


  10. Tim David

    As a Brit, I don’t have room for a basement empire. Before children I had room for a small permanently erected layout of the type that your stereotypical North American would see as a last resort but apres kids I have nowhere.
    At first this depressed me, but I had a sudden realisation, this has actually freed up my layout planning, I no longer have space constraints. As it has to be portable the boards cannot be too big and I can put two up in the sitting room or dining room in the evening to work on them, if I need to put them all up to test running I can put them up in the garden. Thus the layout can be as big as it needs to be to fit what I want in it.
    The disadvantage is that can never just have a ten minute running session, but I couldn’t anyway.
    The other part my enlightenment was the discovery of the pleasures of modular. I enjoy running trains from ‘place’ to ‘place’, making sure my self contained layouts have standard ends means that I have somewhere to run them!

  11. mike

    Hi TIm,

    Welcome abroad Tim. I like the viewpoint of opportunity rather than loss. Please sign you post as a courtesy to everyone.