Saturday, October 17, 2020

Home Layout: Working Out the Approach

During the long Thanksgiving weekend, I started building my new home layout, namely the Quebec South Shore Railway Mark V. Interestingly enough, it became apparent the first ever version of that layout built several years ago was the right thing for me. But while the track plan is similar, the intentions aren't the same.

Designing a layout for someone else is often easier because we have the leisure to approach the subject from a distance that enables us to make hard choices without tampering with emotions. In my case, I've drawn several hundred layout concepts. One of my hard drive is saturated with them since 2006. 

Most of the time, my approach was to replicate a peculiar location and trying to make sure a maximum of things could happen and that my favorite freight cars and locomotives would have a role to play within it. This is the general approach most of us take and which is often underlined by the hobby press. Basically, choice a prototype, an era, a location and a room then try to make the best out of it. Some will fill it, others will restrain them. Over the years, something caught my eye in the work of many talented modellers and it was their ability to recreate a landscape in which the trains could "travel". While we thing travelling is coupled with the idea of a length of main line run, I believe it is rooted in the feeling the train come from somewhere and goes somewhere else. I've often wrote about how I felt an immersive scene didn't need to much larger than 7 to 8 feet. I think this concept is linked intuitively with the idea of travel.

Take a well-known exemple; Mike Confalone's Allagash Railway. It is basically your typical basement empire at first glance, but in fact, it is a series of extremely well connected scenes with a definite immersive power. Most of these scenes could live by themselves as diorama. More interesting, they are quite simple yet have a vibe that the trains do come from somewhere, cross a piece of land, then move far away to some unknown location. Certainly, the main line is long, but you don't actually have to follow the train because you can get the bigger picture from standing in one spot.

Back to my own layout, it came to my understanding that what I wanted at home was an immersive scene to display trains in action. I was less interested in modelling a particular location than modelling trains themselves in a scene that would put them on the stage. This had a huge impact in my decision because I know I'm not that much of a layout builder at home. I take solace in replicating freight cars and locomotives, sometimes buildings which are generally small rural structures. Recognizing that meant I didn't need a "proper" layout. At least, not for now. What mattered to me was modelling a CP freight consist from 1976 or a Central Vermont local freight in 1976 with shared DW&P power.  Modelling the MMA rust bucket era did appeal to me as was classic CNR steam locomotives. I didn't need a layout, but simply a proper stage to railfan my work from the trackside.


Since the layout is so simple, I wished to explain how it is intended to work because there is more than meets the eye. The operating scheme is based on British diorama practice, meaning the main scene is where the action happens while the outside world is basically a large staging area. This decision was bolstered by several factors including:


-The desire to model only one versatile scene

-The need for continuous run (both for fun but also for break-in motive power)

-Enough space for staging trains over my storage drawers

-To keep the modelled scene as a framed piece of art in the center of the room


As you know, I like rural settings and small local freight trains. The decision to go with the feed mill scene was an obvious choice. The track plan is based on several dozens of real locations I’ve seen over the time: a feed mill on the main line by a rural road with a few sidings. I’m not trying to follow a prototype but prototypical practices.


The runaround track serves several purposes. It Is possible to stage meets between local trains and higher priority passenger or freight consists. It also permits to operate the layout in a point-to-point fashion. It can also serve as a storage area for extra cars that can’t be handled by the sidings.


The feed mill siding is relatively long. It should hold about 2-3 grain cars and a few other cars for the builder supplies warehouse and the oil dealership. The team track is relatively short, about 3 cars maximum and is accessible by a gravel road. Virtually any load can be handled there.


Now, why the layout is so simple? Because, as I previously said, I have a lot of motive power and rolling stock that have never seen the daylight (I no longer care to count, but probably several hundreds). I’d like to use them, I’d like the layout to be a neat canvas to stage them in the “real” world. The Quebec South Shore is generic because it can be almost anything. It is designed to be a bridge line between Quebec and New England. Some days, it can be CP Richford Branch under CP Rail or MMA management, it can be the International of Maine under CMQ or Quebec Central in the 1950s. It can also be NTR Monk Subdivision or even the St. Lawrence & Atlantic or the Central Vermont in the late 70s when CV, GTW and DW&P motive power made for a striking motley crew. It can even be the CN or CFC Murray Bay Subdivision from the mid-50s up to nowadays. And if I really fancy it, it can be Temiscouata or Canadian Northern or classic pre-merger Grand Trunk Railway. It can also be Maine Central and, probably, Erie if I wish to put some mileage in my stuff from Harlem Station.

This simple layout would also provide a realistic avenue to stage passenger trains, local freights, railiners and through freight consists. Almost any train wil pass by a rural grade crossing with a feed mill.

You will say I’m pushing my luck a little bit far and trying to bite more than I can chew. Indeed, you can’t cram a century of railroading in the Northeast without having to make inacceptable compromises isn't it? Well, I think otherwise. Having learned and observed railways for decades, I’ve came to discover how some elements are absolutely fundamental and don’t change over time. By modelling a backwater railway, I also increase my chances to get more coherent results since infrastructure is limited and generally mundane… and that’s the key.


We generally tend to see a layout as definite in terms of scenery, trackwork and structures, but in fact, the reality is more complex and on a small layout, this can be used at our advantage.


Basically, you can separate elements on a layout as embedded (permanent) and simply laid over it (non-permanent). The first category is stuck on the layout, glued, nailed, painted and almost impossible to change once done. It relates to track work, ground cover, ramps/platforms, roads, vegetation, topography and whimsical stuff like the season of choice and the backdrop. Other elements that aren’t permanent are structures, vehicles, telegraph poles, railway and road signs, building signs, etc.


With care, we can decide to make our embedded elements as generic as possible to blend with any prototypes that shares a common set of characteristics. It’s the reason why a layout set in Southern Quebec with the lower Appalachian Mountain can fit many railways. A rural gravel road doesn’t have tell-tale details. They have existed for a very long time and are still part of the landscape. On the other hand, an asphalt road will set you in a specific era and depending on road markings, it can be even narrower than you think. A non-descript generic backdrop that is evocative will fit many locations too. If too dramatic, it won’t work. Don’t expect to make us believe your Midwest landscape can pass for Southern California! So the key here is “generic” in the sense that it is a common and prototypical occurrence on several railways that share a lot of things in common.


It leaves us with our non-permanent elements which can be permutated to create distinctive eras or locales. An old bilingual wooden crossbuck will set the layout in Quebec up until the late 1980s in some era. Modern ones with reflective red stripes will put us in Canada in the late 70s up to now. English crossbuck or the yellow round ones will send us on the other side on the boundary. Maybe in Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont. Telegraph poles with 2 or 3 crossarms set us on a busy line while smaller poles with 4 or 6 insulators will be a good indication this is a small branchline. Plant them crooked and you are in the modern era. Keep them well maintained and you are back in the steam era. As for road vehicles, they are self explanatory and a good way to pinpoint a specific era. Loads by the sidings can also tell a lot.


The last part of these non-permanent elements is the structures themselves. The idea is to use a common footprint for several buildings. A wooden-clad feed mill will set us in the first half of the 20th century while more modern doors, windows and claddings will set us later. Faded paint will also make a similar statement. You can then model a few structures that can be permutated from time to time to create new location. Signage on the building can also be installed with hidden magnets. Then, an old Robin Hood Flour billboard can be replaced with a 1980s Shur-Gain one or something more modern or American if required. There is also a catch behind that idea. If you are like me, you like to build something new from time to time. By sharing a common footprint, several structures, industries or prototypes can be modelled. You aren’t bound to a specific type of industries. It could be a potato warehouse, a creamery, a lumber supply, a saw mill, a food processor or anything that can realistically fit the bill. As long as your initial footprint is realistically sized, it will fit many possibilities.


The last thing is to keep thing simple. The simplicity enables you to go further with realistic modelling because you don’t have to cram the place with extraneous details that would make it impossible to switch from a prototype to another. In this regard, it’s why I would probably set the layout from the early 1960s to the early 1990s in Quebec because it would require almost no notable change.

This approach is also tailored to not feel pressured to replicate a perfect prototype and then, when it's done, feel there is nothing else to do. I want something that can evolve and be improved. Maybe partially replaced or refurbished without losing its core principles and purpose.


If I could boil down this concept, I would say it’s all about understanding the common language of railroading over the eras and identify the fundamental truths behind it. This kind of model railroading isn’t about replicating a CN or BNSF specific location that screams CN or BNSF, but rather to understand what makes railways universal. It is a different approach I took because I wanted both realism but also freedom when dealing with a continuous run home layout. Its purpose is pure enjoyment, small-time operation and providing a stage for my models. I will certainly continue to model specific locations, but I consider them to be another thing with its own sets of rules. Both are worth endeavours, but one has simply to recognize they have different design goals. The mistake would be to fail to see the differences and create something that answers none of both premises. Been there, done that… and it ended up in the dumpster!


  1. This is an excellent read, and as I'm in a position to begin another layout a poignant timing. I've come to some similar conclusions, and as a British modeller already practice the 'scene/off scene' layout type. Some of your other comments about prototype, as well as the way we 'start' a plan chime with pitfalls I've fallen into before as well. I enjoy the blog, keep writing.

  2. Matthieu, This approach reminds me very much of the late Richard Hendrickson's Rivera layout. He didn't have as much space, but the idea of a simple scene and a huge amount of staging was central to his theme. You may recall he was an avid prototype freight car modeller; so the point of his scene was to provide a stage on which to watch and display his cars. The reason for choosing Rivera was that it was the end of a pinch point - a narrow bridge with perhaps a gauntlet track. This gave him an excuse to stop trains while they awaited their turn to cross the bridge, and while he could examine and talk about the consist of the train.
    There are many ways to practice this hobby, and it's important not to follow the herd if the herd is not going where you want.