Does this sound familiar?

I need a long mainline.

I have to have two yards.

I have to have as much operation as possible.

Slavishly adhering to these beliefs among many others has led modelers to embrace ridiculous solutions, like multiple decks that are optimized for everything but the operator’s enjoyment. Visual compromises that reduce a scene to a cartoon like caricature. Operation so dense that people have no time to enjoy themselves.

Your beliefs about layout planning are why you find it so hard.

At this point someone will scream that they want and need these criteria and many more to enjoy themselves. Fine by me. Do your thing and thanks for stopping by. This post, indeed this entire blog, is for modelers who are tired of twisting and contorting themselves into somebody else’s mold.

We’ve been sold the idea that a satisfying layout has to include the entire transportation cycle from one yard to the next.

I model a modest branchline yard. I don’t care how the cars on my interchange track got there. I accept the pretense that they came from a different part of the country. I accept they were interchanged, classified and reclassified in and out of various fictional trains on their way to the track I modeled. Operationally, I’m only interested in what happens to those cars within the confines of my layout scene. That’s the tangible, here and now, touch it, see it experience I interact with. All the other stuff is just mental gymnastics that may or may not add relevance to the modeled reality in front of me.

When I tell people about the scene and modest scope of operations I model, I get the blank stare or the barely audible: “Oh”,  which is model railroad speak for booooooooorrrring!

Here’s the thing:

Who wrote the rule that you have to model the entire railroad transportation sequence from one yard to the next?

Being married to that narrow construct drives people to design and build projects that far exceed any realistic expectations. Invariably, reality has its way and the builder has to scale back, or worse, scrap it all and, poorer but wiser, start from zero again.

Modeler Matthieu Lachance makes a wonderfully cogent point when he observed on his blog recently that if you had 140 acres of land, you wouldn’t build a 140 acre house on it. No, you would look at your actual needs and resources and build accordingly. In that same post he goes on to cite how we’re conditioned to assume that available space automatically translates into space that must be used. Through a marvelous journey of reflection, and bringing his architectural space planning and design skills to bear, Matthieu challenged that assumption in designing his own layout.

He discovered that the scope of the project he thought he wanted was actually too big. This insight came as a direct result of understanding what he truly enjoys about railroading. In other words, he’s planning a layout that fits his needs and other resources.

Why do we treat layout design practice as exempt from such commonsense thinking? Because it’s easy to be influenced by eye candy layouts, editorial musings and popular views. Build a helix around the water heater or furnace? Sure; if you get the precious long mainline, why not? The odds are you won’t need to worry about access to the equipment. Tunnel through walls or stair risers? No problem, if doing so provides a way to squeeze in extra staging capacity. You can always patch the hole later, right? We’re happy to imitate rather than do the harder work of thinking for ourselves because we value the opinions of others more than our own.

My argument here is against the blind acceptance of a mass market mentality that drives people to make ill-informed choices. Choices they often regret over time. Choices that are completely unnecessary.

It will soon be 2016 and the mass market will continue on just like it has for the last eighty years. You can imitate it or you can believe in and follow your own path.

Happy New Year.


  1. Chris Mears

    Another terrific post, Mike. Thank you.

    I could not have found the words to express this sentiment myself and the paragraph “Modeler Matthieu Lachance makes a wonderfully cogent point when he observed on his blog recently that if you had 140 acres of land, you wouldn’t build a 140 acre house on it…” or one like it should be the opening paragraph for every model railway design article. It is so obviously true that I wouldn’t build that 140 acre house. Further to that, I would walk that 140 acres as often as possible to learn the shape of that land and how it behaved over time. The house I would build would be placed within the land, hopefully situated where the gift of that land could best be appreciated. How big is the house? Certainly not 140 acres. As much thought as I’d try and invest in the placement of the house and it’s orientation I would invest in understanding how my family uses sheltered space and what our requirements are. The hardest part is building a house for me; for my family; for us. Where we so often go wrong is building a house for others; for them to visit; to meet their expectations. Lost in this decision is that it is our home and not theirs.

    But it’s easy to say that filling the space is wrong. It’s easy to envision since the full basement or that spare bedroom provide a natural boundary defining our area. It’s a limit and something we can respond to. I agree that too often, we build to that exact limit. We stuff in multiple levels of benchwork and cram in tight aisle ways. We forget about providing a place to stand back and appreciate the work we created. We ignore our relationship with the space – those three players in the room who each deserve to be a part of the room: the layout, the room itself, the people for whom this whole lot was created in the first place.

    I never know the answer but wonder, as I read your opening statements, could we just append a “Why?” to the end of each; such that

    If I need a long mainline. Then why?
    IfI have to have two yards.What do I need them for? If two are required could three be better?
    IfI have to have as much operation as possible.What operation do I want to do by myself here?

    The good start is to list those assumptions. They are part of our shared hobby language. They might not be wrong. Questioning them might only prove their value but hopefully in doing so we learn why we’re making the decisions we are and we start to make a commitment and investment in the decisions – a place to refer back to when the enthusiasm starts to wane before the next high hits.

    Sorry for rambling again, Mike.


  2. Simon

    Interesting view point – one that is very different from the eastern side of the North Atlantic (or at least, the anglophone fines ale part of it).

    During post-war austerity, modellers had little choice but to build their own, and the idea of modelling a branchline terminus took strong hold – it was going to take some years to accumulate/build the two engines, short passenger train and 12-20 wagons required, as well as build the layout. This was a godsend to the Proto4 brigade, as frequently a similar situation took hold – UK RTR was usually a somewhat vague approximation to the prototype until well into the 70s, and converted kits or scratch building were the only routes to an authentic model. Space is also an issue: this is a crowded island with far too much money tied up in real estate, so property tends to be expensive and small, with little to spare. Small and/or portable layouts became an obvious solution. Sometimes this is taken to ridiculous extremes (by which you can deduce that I am not a great fan of micro-layouts, although there are a few exceptions) and it can get implausible, but as you say, thanks for stopping by; cheerio…

    The idea, then, of off-layout storage (usually via an active fiddle yard) is not a new one to these shores, but there are still many modellers stuck in the “I need” mindset. In fact, the same points you raise above still apply. As I have read, and quoted, if you are doing it properly – focused on quality of movement – then how many trains can you run at a time? There are people who disagree, and rose who run something “in the background”, but as I have found out to my personal embrassment at an exhibition, you can only truly concentrate on one engine/train at a time. Engines churning away at the stop blocks, tenders in turntable pits, short circuits, trains appearing from “hidden” staging: I have done them all.

    If one has the space, has the requisite number of friends, and the interest, then a multi-station, multi-yard layout is a good solution: but only if building this is one’s main interest. When I read of some of the truly impressive layouts such as Tony Koester’s or Mike Confalone’s creations, I am always impressed but notice that apart from one 4 hour or so session every few weeks, the layout is apparently not operated, except to return trains to starting points for the next session. Nothing wrong with this, if that is what you want and you can so arrange your life to achieve it, but this isn’t for everyone. In fact, I think it is not even for the vast majority. And this is where other thinkers come to the fore: Lance Mindheim, Trevor Marshall, Chris Mears, and some bloke called Mike Cougill. (I am aware of others, but that will do for now.) Something small, satisfying and realistically achievable. Something where we build a few good models and enjoy operating them, because we treat track as a model, and the requirement for engines and rolling stock to move smoothly and precisely and reliably as a pre-requisite of good modelling, and enjoy the work involved in achieving all this.

    Chris has recently made some interesting observations about operations on the Claremont and Concord, where hoppers loaded with salt were unloaded one bay at a time: the engine must needs stay coupled to the freight car(s) and then move it(them) forward one bay at a time. Similar processes can take place at quarry and mine loading points: remotely controlled B-units, for example, might be coupled up to a rake of hoppers, and used to push or pull them under the loading screen/dumps, or the train engine might be thus employed.

    Lance has recently blogged about the “advanced beginners”, and how we can best help them. This blog, Chris’s blog, and Trevor Marshall’s blog, all show how little is needed to achieve enjoyment and satisfaction.

    I would like to present a UK based example of advanced modelling suitable for inspiring the beginner, which was started in the late 1980s and still survives in a museum after 20 odd years on the exhibition circuit over here: Barry Norman’s “Lydham Heath”, in S scale. This was – is – an authentic rendition of a simple terminus, further reduced when Barry realised that one of the turnouts could be dispensed with as it didn’t add much to the operation, but did add to the required length of the layout. It was replaced by a “train table” used as staging. With nothing more than a turnout for a junction between two routes, a turnout to allow engines to run round via a loop (and the staging) and a single long multipurpose siding (effectively a teamtrack) operating the layout became an exercise in satisfying delicacy. He had two engines, one coach, and about a dozen wagons…

    Maybe austerity taught us a valuable lesson, one which we have forgotten in subsequent times of plenty?


  3. Ctown

    Interesting thoughts once again Mike. In my dreams, I hope to faithfully model an entire subdivision (over a 100 miles long), the four locals that ran over the territory, and have everything built exactly to scale. Now, my reality says something completely different. To model something that large would require massive investments of time & money. I doubt that it will ever happen. My more realistic desire is to simply model 1, & maybe 2 towns being completely faithful to the track arrangements, size of turnouts, scale and size of surrounding buildings non-rail related etc. To me, completing 1 specific location, and having that as my railroad makes the most sense in terms of time and money, and offers the chance to have frequent operating sessions. Less becomes more in this case, as it limits what I need to build, purchase, and assemble. Instead of having to build/purchase enough motive power to replicate 4 different local jobs, instead I only need a couple of units, etc, etc.
    If time/money allows, and I get one town section done, I can move on to the next most important one, if that one is finished, than move onto the third…

  4. mike

    Hi Chris,

    Sometimes we don’t see the obvious until it’s framed in a different context. Matthieu’s example states it so clearly. You make an excellent point about how our thinking is driven by the physical boundaries of the space at hand. The discussion we’re all used to is framed by the very criteria you mentioned. The fact that it’s so difficult to reframed things illustrates just how deeply ingrained our thinking is. As you suggested, many never consider why they want what they want. Too many things about this work have become assumed rather than chosen. Is it wrong to utilize all of the space available? I would agree that no, it isn’t, as long as one makes that choice fully informed rather than from the default of this is what you’re supposed to do.

    Good thoughts as always,

  5. mike

    Hi Simon,
    It’s interesting how the cultural differences have shaped the craft, not only in terms of products but the common beliefs about what’s possible. Your housing stock has driven the design equation as much as ours has. I don’t know how it is in the UK but we see two distinct views between modelers and operators. Each has their criteria for how things are to be done and what is and isn’t possible and or practical. The operations side has driven the design discussion for some time now. Not making a judgement about that, just acknowledging the impact their criteria have had. It’s been a mixed blessing as many people now see operations driven design extremes for what they are. That said, the operations focus has enlightened us all to possibilities we wouldn’t have considered in the past.

    The balance isn understanding it isn’t an either/or choice. Sadly people always seem to think it is. It isn’t of course, which is why I keep hammering away at it.


  6. mike

    Hi Craig,

    Yours has to be one of the most unusual and interesting projects I know of. I’d really love to have you share more about it with folks here on the blog. Let’s plan on doing that in 2016. Email me sometime and we’ll talk about it.


  7. Ctown

    Will do, I’d love to bounce my crazy ideas off someone else… I think a lot of this desire stems from working with the prototype everyday, and seeing how the railroad fits into the surrounding areas. Railroads don’t operate in a vacuum, like we tend to see in the modeling world. Plus, the research aspect of this type of modeling can be just as challenging and interesting as actual modeling.

  8. Simon

    We do get “creative tension” between operators and builders, but in a slightly different direction. It tends to be more between those who want to fill every square inch with track, and those who wish to create a realistic scene. As it was once put, between those who have a model railway and those who wish to model a railway.

    A good selection of photos of Lydham Heath at an exhibition, featuring Barry Norman and the late Robin Fielding (Bob is the taller of the two) can be found on the Uckfield MRC’s site: 2005 exhibition.

    (I hope I got the HTML code right!)