Monday, July 11, 2016

Thinking Out Loud - Part 4

Steve Boyko (Confessions of a Train Geek) asked me in the last installment of Thinking Out Loud when I knew the moment was right to switch from design to building. He referenced the too well-known problem faced by so-called armchair modellers. Steve, you ask a very good question! Which I can only provide a part of an answer…a lenghty one indeed!

To be fair, I believe some armchair modellers are fundamentally spectators of this hobby. They are fascinated by it but I’m pretty sure building something themselves isn’t so much important to them. Why I say so? Because you can’t stay in a hobby which doesn’t prompt you to take action for a long time, excepts if you are a spectator. That kind of people is the same as sport fans. They love the game, think about it a lot, make predictions, but in the end, they will never run to the court and play it to their heart content. In my mind, it isn’t a bad thing. They have their own way of participating to the debate. In my case, the urge to build and participate in the hobby is too much strong to stay sitting at my desk doing nothing. When working on Hedley Junction took a break a few weeks ago, I had no other choice to put my energy on Harlem Station and now I’m planning what will come after this one is done.

But back to the question. The particular moment you switch from planning to building is not cast in stone. It’s far to be a rational process, but I think at some point you reach a level when the operational aspect of the layout is well-defined and working nicely. Lots of people reach that level but feel they absolutely need to know the exact minute detail of everything... or worst, they think the layout won't support interesting operation. This is a slippery slope because there’s no end to that and new information flowing in can paralyze you until exhaustion. This is why I believe many things should be determined in 3D because they are much more about composition than pure design. When done in 2D, they use up a lot of time without providing adequate answers. Lance Mindheim stressed that point more than once and I totally agree with him.

Down to the basics, a layout is an intricate board game. You must design workable rules first before committing yourself to a design (which is nothing more than giving shape to the rules). You must decide what kind of trains, traffic and consists length you want to run. You have also to determine the length of time you play the game (building and operation are equally “playing time”). Once you have that in mind, you can start to make provision for your future physical plant (siding lengths, track arrangement, etc.). That’s exactly where your effort should be put to make sure the tracks reflect what you want to accomplish with your trains. Mark my words, this is exactly how a real railroad do things and it’s probably why the choice of a prototype or inspiration source can have a huge impact on what you can realistically achieve.

When you follow a prototype, it’s easier because the real railway engineers did the work for you. By example, Temiscouata’s Connors terminal was designed for train consists no longer than 7 cars. When I reproduced the track plan, I was careful to not compress the prototype to make sure I could run the same consists on the layout. Remember, this is layout “design”. We make sure the board game is viable in the long term. Once you got to that point, you are ready to jump into the 3D world.

That step is scene composition where you tweak your draft into something more definitive. Doing it in 2D is hard. We always underestimate or overestimate how things will look in real. Even for people in the design trade (architecture), it can be extremely tricky. This is the reason why we test bench ideas in 3D (mockups, models, digital modelling, etc.). For most folks, working with a real-life mockup is easier because what you see is what you get. There’s no place for interpretation and misrepresentation. When I was a teenager, I often resorted to this design process intuitively. My recent Quebec South Shore (QSSR) switching layout was designed directly on the benchwork with few pieces of track, some rolling stock and the structure I wanted to use. The game board was designed on the spot using common railroad practices.

It’s interesting to note that when I designed the Temiscouata track plan a few months ago, I found it absolutely boring. I came up with other “spiced” ideas and built scale mockups for all of them. In the end, the real Connors was the most attractive in 3D. From a very plain 2D plan developed a sweet rural station where you could imagine the mainline crossing a natural meadow. There are a lot of lessons to learn here because I could have missed the opportunity to make an iconic scene if I had stuck myself in the 2D design. In the case of QSSR, the composition and design process all occurred at the same time. It’s probably why the result was extremely convincing and not forced. Remember, it’s only when a scene is rendered in 3D that you can start to compose it. Composition is hard to describe because it’s based on perception which is greatly affected by the viewing environment. You play with mass, colors, solids and void. Yes, void, which is the essence of railroading.

Never downplay the existence of the mundane when planning a scene because nothing makes a train stands out better than a mundane but faithfully depiction of scenery. Thus, you should compose and execute them with care because they have the potential to become signature scenes without resorting to artifices such huge bridges, tunnels and mountains. I think our Maizerets scene on Hedley Junction speaks a lot about telling a story without too many “words”.

The good thing about composition is that it can be grasped easily by most people because of its tridimensional nature. Most model railroaders and railfans have a good knowledge of real railroads and developed an instinct about what’s right and what’s wrong. Unfortunately, that instinct is too often burdened by unrealistic needs and optimistic perception of what can be achieved. There’s a race to implement too many features that clouds their natural judgement.

I’ve seen too often people submit ideas on forums about a specific track plan. They reach a certain level and stall. Sorry, but at some point, you have to make a leap of faith if you want things to take shape. Most of the time, I believe the composition aspect of layout planning come in handy to test and refine ideas beyond the armchair. The fact you play with trains, mockup structures and tracks is extremely motivating and much more efficient than doodling 2D lines for eternity. It costs almost nothing and makes use of whatever you have on hand. It’s another step that helps to move beyond the design block.

On the other hand, some projects require very little planning. It was the case with Harlem Station because I was following an existing track plan to the letter. There was no space for interpretations; I only had to follow the instructions. I knew the prototype was great, there was no place for hesitation. In that respect, the planning stage took a few days and I started to build the layout in less than three weeks.

We can say trying to cram a lot of ideas is the best way to hit a wall during the design process. You are flooded by conflicting information which is hard to deal at once. At this moment, you have to hierarchize your priorities which can be tricky too. It’s the time when you go back to designing your “board game” rules. “How you play the game” is a benchmark to decide if things should stay or not. You’ll then have a clear mindset that will allow you to see that many things can hardly be pieced together into your grand scheme. They should simply be abandoned for the sake of having the chance to play the game… a fun game that makes sense to you.

Space and TIME will also dictate the amount of scenes you can realistically model. By time, I mean time to build, but also time to operate. With experience, we get an idea of what we can do with our free time. Personally, my output is erratic at best (like most other modellers). We are fuelled by passion, we burst in great ideas to later fell into hibernation. If understood correctly, that’s not a bad thing because it gives us the chance to step back and reevaluate our work. Only a handful of persons are clockwork mechanism with a steady output. Most aren't.

In that regard, Rick De Candido is a good example. He's an organized man which can tackle highly organized tasks such as running an engine terminal. He found exactly what suited his personality. This is the first step in human psychology: “Know Yourself”. Once again, we should compute the fact we aren’t superhuman when dealing with layout design (if you are one, that’s another thing!). Personally, it means I love to build structures but not on a regular basis. If you look at Hedley Junction, you’ll see I kept the number of structures extremely low. I made sure I had enough interest to feel a challenge to build them or that they meant something special for me and the layout concept. Be aware they aren’t exceptional prototypes; most are mundane in fact, but they do tell a story about the layout setting and its rules.

Thus, we learn another lesson: plan what you can truly do and wish motivate you. It’s the best way to make sure your design will translate into a fine looking and running layout instead of frustration. That advice may sounds extremely miserable and low key, but this is the true essence of achievable layouts. It will probably mean that out of ten good ideas, you’ll probably keep one, but that’s OK. You’ll probably build other layouts in your life time and you’ll have plenty of occasion to revisit these ideas in due time.

And take my advice, you can come up with any workable game rules, maybe it’s a clear indication you are trying to play a game not set for you. Design process that takes an eternity to come to fruition without no tangible results is a good indication you're playing the wrong game. Nobody starts a game of Monopoly or Risk when there’s only 30 minutes left before they leave. Be coherent with yourself and your limitations, the answer will come easily. Anyway, I highly doubt you are only fascinated by ONE prototype and ONE specific location, there's always options left! It’s time to try one of your other 9 ideas you flushed the first time just as I did with a Charlevoix-themed layout (cool, not playable, cumbersome…).

In conclusion, I’d like to stress out an achievable layout have nothing to do with size or theme. Mike Confalone is a good example of a man who had experience in model railroading and had a clear idea of what kind of board game he wanted to play: long consists, dispatching, big time railroading. Mike is visibly an energic and enterprising man which could have been a railroad CEO back in the late 19th century. Not only he was up to the challenge, but visibly, this is his own nature. His layout fill an entire basement, but take a look at his design and you will find he didn’t cram a lot of stuff in it. However, he was clearly aware of what was required to play the game by the rules. In his case, moving large trains meant he needed “destinations” for his traffic. Thus, the number of on line stations and towns on the layout is abysmally small for such a large empire: only two “real” towns and they are backwood locations at best. On the other hand, there are a lot of destinations: customers, off layout staging towns and interchanges.

Mike was also careful to model void. A lot of void, because the nature of Maine is empty, beautifully empty, and this is why long consists looks great against nature’s wonders. Allagash’s most iconic scenes are all dull non-descript locations beautifully crafted. Even Holmann Summit, which is a masterpiece, isn’t overwhelming because it is naturally blended in a forested layout. We are bound to believe any railroad running in such a mountainous area is bound to have a dramatic rock cut.

Another interesting thing is that Mike did the basic 2D planning to make sure the track arrangement was coherent with the game rules he set. But he didn’t care to waste his time deciding exactly where each track should be precisely located. He’s a man of action. Have he waited to set every detail before building something, he probably would have given up the hobby and pursued other more proactive interests of his. On his own account, he made a lot of mistakes in the process – he was bound to – but he also learned a lot. And the reason he learned all that was because the goal to achieve was clear to him and he had enough humility to revisit the means employed to reach it. Sure his layout isn’t perfect – there is no such thing – but it’s going somewhere, it has a clear and well-defined purpose and suits the man who built it. It’s why I consider he has a good influence for down-to-earth people and others too: yes, you can achieve significant things without walling yourself in endless design if you care enough to set achievable rules. Does it mean we must build an empire? No. It only means he’s a good example because what he did was a practical answer to his needs and aspirations. Yours are probably different and will lead to a different result… just like many other great layouts of all size out there. This is why I consider model railroading is such a fascinating hobby, it reaches far beyond building and playing with models.

And beware: excellence and perfection are too different beasts: excellence is achievable while perfection isn't. Too many people stall in the design process because they want to attain a chimeric perfection. Excellence has more to do with practice making you "perfect".


  1. Hi Matthieu, thank you for such a long and thoughtful response to my simple question.

    I was nodding along through your response, as I agree with you, but I am taken by your encouragement/insistence on a 3D model prior to layout building. I haven't done that in the past, but after seeing your recent 3D representation, I think it's a great idea!

    "I’ve seen too often people submit ideas on forums about a specific track plan. They reach a certain level and stall."
    These are the people I was really talking about... the planners who never move past planning. At some point they have to "just do it".

    I've helped a few people with their planning. The best ones have their "givens and druthers" already figured out and just need to fit things into the space they have. The ones I cannot help are the ones who want you to design it from square one. You need to know what you want in a layout first!

    You mentioned "void" a couple of times. This is very important and often missing in layouts. If you look at old Model Railroader layout plans from the 60s and 70s you will see spaghetti bowls of track with no void at all. The move to shelf / linear layouts has helped create a realistic void where trains have a place to "be" and you can switch one town without the tail of the train in the next town.

    A lot depends on what you like. If you are the type of railfan photographer who likes close-up / roster shots then void may not be important to you. But if you are a photographer who likes to show a train as part of a scene, then void should come naturally.

    One comment - your response is from that of an operations-oriented modeller (like me). For those who are interested in scenery, schedules and destinations are not important.

    1. Steve, indeed it was from an operations-oriented standpoint. But even for a scenery-only layout, if you want it to look good, you can't toss out the "purpose" of a railway. In fact, the Temiscouata layout I'm planning will be done with the idea scenery completely overwhelm the single track. I'm now at a crossroad where I don't see anymore a separation between operation-oriented and scenery-oriented layouts. And one one the reason why I'm reaching toward such an heresy is because I longer think a layout type can be determined on track density.

    2. And a last point, building a scenery oriented layout or diorama is also a game. Just a different board game. Chris Nevard's work is a formidable example of that.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Simon. Now it's time to reply to your "old tim" challenge!