Thursday, April 3, 2014

Who are we trying to please there?

A short essay...

I seldom go editorial in my writing, but as many of you have guessed, I’m actually in a layout design spree since two weeks which question my involvement in the hobby. I’m pretty sure my fellow club members are watching this thinking it’s another “bipolar attack” at works! Maybe they are right.

Some would say it is ill-timed. Limoilou yard new concept was really taking shape and it could be a stupid move to throw away all those efforts. Some real nice ideas were quite interesting (Allenby CP-CN interchange in particular). However, I’m inhabited by this recurring doubt I’m working on something that doesn’t thrill me or hardly can take place in my overall long term interest in Quebec City area railways.

The Dominion Textile experiment was a study-case of serendipity. Not that it was simple luck. Far from it! The area bothered me for a very long time and I was not alone. Things were just ready to move on. At some point, I almost regret it because it was like opening Pandora box. But some comments by Jérôme in the last couple of weeks really prompted me to wonder if we were actually answering our model railroading needs or those of expected operation-minded guests that never materialized in the last 7 years.

Our actual layout concept, based on Limoilou and Bassin Louise, works around the idea two people work actively building trains in both yards while other operators shuffle freight trains between them. Sounds cool and interesting at first, but seriously, it never materialized once. Jérôme remarked most “foreign” operators don’t last more than 45 minutes. If you give them a switchlist, they barely follow it. In fact, operation sessions are rare and always end up as a big social meeting about railroading in general. That’s how they are. Is that a bad thing? Not really, but we have to accept the layout is more or less an interactive conversation piece during those meetings. Under these circumstances, it is like trying to insert a square shape into a round hole (you know, that famous child’s toy).

When you accept that fact, you free yourself from a lot of self-imposed constraints. Does it mean the previous layout is bad? No. But maybe it was the wrong answer to our needs. My practice as an architect taught me that a good design isn’t about flashy solutions and new feats, but more about being coherent with the conditions you work with. And that means taking in account the human factor from the beginning.

For various reasons, I’m not gifted with a great health and I’m not alone in the club. You live with what you have and try your best. That means not pushing the body to its limits, but getting an enjoyable ride toward a goal your find meaningful to some extent. If you convert that in cold hard facts, it means we have each of us about 3 to 5 hours per week to spend together building a layout, which is not that much, but that’s what we have. At home, I’m the only one pursuing modelling endeavour. As many of you already know, my output is somewhat irregular. I can do nothing worthy for months then end up building ten models in 2 weeks. Hard habits die hard and I’ve been trying to be a little bit more “responsible”, for the last 20 years or so. No, nothing improved, but I know myself better and how to get the best from my personality. When I was a kid, my father often told me I lacked focus and should complete one thing before moving to something else… I guess he was quite right!


I’m at this point I think we should focus our effort on something smaller but more achievable… sounds like Trevor Marshall? In part yes. I would have come to the same understanding by myself, but when I look around at great layouts I admire, they all have in common their utter simplicity that helps their owners to reach satisfying results because they are focussing their efforts on what matters. There’s no place for crumbling under unrealistic endeavours.

Applied to our own very case, this means asking people who enjoy running less than 10-car trains and have 3 to 5 hours free per week to build a basement filled railroad empire designed to run transcontinental grain trains is a joke. And a bad one to boot! You get nowhere with that mindset, at least myself. Time to move on!

That said, I’ve often advocated less rail is more fun in the recent years. Preaching is something, applying it is something else. In my attempt to make something worth of this layout, I’ve had to sacrifice things I like. Or should I say, I tried to get the best from two worlds, sheltering my dreams and serving two masters.

We often forget that selective compression is about being “selective” and not cherry picking. It’s about essentials, not “must have”. I also question that mentality of “must have”. Make no sense at all. Each project is determined by how it takes in account particular inherent circumstances. “Must have” are an expedient, a wishful thinking recipe. It’s as shallow as following advices about the perfect life: “your life partner must be […], your income must be […], your car must be […]”. We all find these things stupid in real life, but apply them like a bunch of blinded fools in our hobbies. I’m not into model railroading to please the crowd or get a NMRA achievement award, but to bring to life, in miniature, a passion that inhabits me as far as I can recall. Enough with that mentality of “watch me, I did it”. No, as Mike Cougall once said, “stick to your guns”. In fact, the biggest obstacle in my road isn't designer block, but being the model railroader I am and not the one I think I "must" be...

That said, I’d like to discuss a few things I’ve observed over my model railroader life. Sometimes, a thing you really love in real life isn’t that great on a layout. I’ve been recently quite disappointed by my prototypically accurate Bunge grain elevator and my Canardière Road overpass. I’ve invested a lot of time in both project, but don’t find them as cool as the real deal. In another hand, I’m not disappointed in trying to model them. I’ve learned a lot about building large and intricate structures, got to know better the prototype themselves and also about Quebec City fascinating untold history. Those will be invaluable in my other endeavours.

While designing the actual Murray Bay Subdivision proposal, I’ve had to ask myself what was essential. I’m perfectly aware it won’t please other club members and it’s not my intention. I see it as an experiment to push the limit of my train of thoughts.

Particularly, I’m questioning the need for returning loops for people who seldom run continuous loop trains. We never run more than a local switcher freight train!

Also, are yard that truly needed? I am not alone to think they are gimmick for most people. Then end up clogged with a display of useless cars. Most guest operators don’t understand how they really work with the layout concept, thus making them again useless. Worst, they eat a lot of real estate and cost a lot in rail investment. And honestly, I prefer to see my train run swiftly across a few feet more of nicely rendered mainline than get an unprototypical yard ladder crippled with derailments (using small turnout to get “more” space and issues…).

I’m also starting to think the smaller the yard is – reduced to an operable staging – the more chances there is “real” interchange will happens because you lack space and truly “need” to remove cars with others if you want some variety. I remember doing that as a child and a teenager on my 4 feet x 4 feet diminutive one turnout twice around layout. It never bothered me at all; in fact, it was thrilling to have to make room for a car I liked. It was true staging… like theater. If a car was on the layout, there was a reason, a purpose. It was a special moment that would last a short but rewarding moment. Running train on that ridiculous layout was truly a railfan experience… Remember the word “staging”, as each car, industry, siding was cast in a role.

Over the years, I came to think that my childhood diminutive layout was something shameful not worth real model railroading (even the proverbial 4 feet x 8 feet plywood was unreachable). A thing you never talk about in front of fellow hobbyist. But let me tell you something: I never was ashamed of the pure fun I got out of that layout. And I tried 7 times to revive it!!! The last time was the ill-fated St. Achillée Railway, a lumber-themed layout that caught our interest wildly for a few years ago. I can still recall hours watching the train running at different speeds over that bridge or switching the one-car only siding, turning off the light to see dim lights glowing on car sides…

So let’s be blunt, who are we trying to please there?


  1. Hi Matthieu:
    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I'm glad that my own blog posts have helped you and of course I agree with what you say here. Over the past four decades, I have designed many layouts and even built a few of them. For about 20 years, they kept getting bigger and more complex - peaking with a double-decked design which included a lower-level, hidden staging area ON EACH DECK.
    I got as far as starting the helix between the two decks when I realized it was absolutely wrong for me. The decision came, in part, because I was a member of a round-robin operating group that already had a couple of large layouts in it, and I realized that for the people in the group, these two layouts satisfied the need to operate large, complex railways. With the demands of work and home life, other hobbies, and so on, it would be impractical to ask the group to find more time in their weekly schedule to come operate my large, complex layout.
    That's when I realized what I really needed was a layout that I could operate by myself - but one that would also have enough to do to allow me to host one or two guests on those rare occasions when our schedules aligned. My layouts since that double-deck monster have become simpler and simpler with each new project - bringing me to the present day, and Port Rowan.
    I'm really glad I changed my focus. And if you design your layout to please yourself first and foremost, you will be too. Others will as well - because they'll enjoy your enthusiasm for the project.
    Happy modelling!
    - Trevor (Port Rowan in S Scale)

    1. Hi Trevor,

      Thank you for sharing your own personal experience. The evolution of your involvement in this hobby is extremely pertinent and I suspect many modellers with such prolific background as yours are also moving into the same direction.

      I particularly appreciate how your Port Rowan project is stunningly detailled, but in such proportion it isn't a burden. You have the possibility to push forward a specific aspect (operation card, turnout control, workable signals, etc...) without it being overwhelming.

      Your layout may seem very small and empty at first sight, but in fact, it never seems (from my flawed virtual perspective) that you have to "fill" useless open space. That means every little task you are doing DO have an impact on the final result, which is a progressive reward.

      Finally, your layout in interesting from an operating point of view because it tells a specific and unique story. It's screams Ontario all over the place, which is what I expect from an "atmosphere-oriented" layout like yours.

      Once again, thank you for sharing your interesting thoughts on the hobby. It is more helpful that you may think!