Monday, September 3, 2018

Learning how to approach Layout Design

The revised concept of Clermont is basically built around what I would call "operation stations", which are areas dedicated to intense interaction with trains. As previous described in a recent post, these stations are located where high concentration of turnouts or mechanical devices can be found and act as verses of a song to tell a story.

Murray Bay in a nut shell

Such stations - and I think this is the right word for this concept - are places where an operator is generally standing without moving that much while his focus is on what's going on. These are perfect spots to "railfan" the train crawling at slow speed and it wouldn't be that hard to imagine such part of the layout as a self-contained switching or cameo layouts. This concept finding its way on a medium sized basement filling empire is probably not surprising to regular readers. In fact, I think it isn't a bad thing to implement such an approach to a larger layout if the goal isn't about running fast trains but rather on appreciating them from the trackside. None of these approaches is better than another, it's only a matter of making a well thought choice relevant to your interests, habits and resources.

As such, I made a remark to Louis-Marie on Sunday afternoon about how our layout had been so badly thought and built upon wrong premises. The entire project was plagued by whimsical decisions, mood swings and a poor understanding of how we like to run a layout. Important decisions about how we interact with trains for "real" were an after thought. It seems to me we put so much effort trying to replicate iconic scenes or well-known rolling stock that we completely forgot to respect our theme. No wonder it became a frustrating checklist instead of a coherent story. The most frustrating part is I was already refining my approach to model railroading at that time. But it seems my grasp was better on smaller designs than larger projects.

Larger projects are hard to manage because they forces you to make choices among many, many possibilities. There is also the illusion that if you don't implement a certain amount of iconic elements, your rendition of the prototype will be a failure... which is not the case.

To be honest, dealing with a very small layout is far much easier. From the start, you know you will have to only keep a few relevant elements and build around their strengths instead of creating a collection of vignettes. This "collection" effect is generally what will kill the coherence of a larger design.

In the case of Hedley Junction, it is clear we took a long time understanding what we really wanted to do. For a long time, we thought running long trains on the mainline would be the big element. But in fact, the switching of very specific industries quickly took hold and eclipsed everything else. Unfortunately, we couldn't conceive representing an entire subdivision with only a few very spots. If I learned something from designing switching layouts, it's that you don't require to model the entire story. Only a few glimpses, in the same fashion when you railfan a specific line, you will only see a fraction of scenes and actions, but nevertheless relevant ones that have a significant impact on your imagination.

If your goal isn't about replicating a complete operation day, which is rarely the case or possible, things start to be more clearer. Murray Bay subdivision was basically a shortline hauling newsprint and lumber products. All the other stuff was extremely marginal. Most action occured at Clermont yard where inbound and outbound trains were built or broken and Donohue where an industrial switcher served the paper mill. Wieland was a satellite location where lumber was loaded and MoW performed occasionally. At Beaupré, the paper mill was similar, thus irrelevant on the layout at this point. Some lumber was picked up in Château-Richer and finally cement cars at Ciment St-Laurent. In between, nothing really happened.

In the case of a layout, what matters are only a few key elements. Donohue must be replicated as close to prototype as possible to make sense. The yard is also a key element for smooth operation. Wieland doesn't require to be fully modelled to get a good picture of the area. As long as you can pick up and set up flat cars, you're in business. As for the cement plant, it's not bad to do it as close as it was since it is home of intense activity. In that regard, someone could simply choose to represent the Abitibi-Price paper mill in Beaupré. This one wouldn't need to be fully depicted, only the tracks where the train set out the cars on a siding. The plant switcher wouldn't be required to be modelled since it is irrelevant to the story and Donohue can be done in a far more compelling way. However, this second paper mill is a good way to reinforce the layout theme based on newsprint hauling. And truth to be told, this being a customer located on line and not at a terminal, the work isn't done in the same way as would be with Donohue, bringing a welcome variety. That said, it must be noted operation at Ciment St-Laurent isn't really different from Abitibi-Price.

As you can see, a story emerge... a local train serving paper mills in quite scenic areas that are visually interesting with their strong railroad flavour. We have a sense of slow motion, large masses of steel being shuffled around, bridges over powerful rivers that once powered generic small industrial towns. And from there, we can start to design a track plan based on a story, with its chorus and verses. And, I believe, get a result that is manageable, but also compelling and that draws you into the scene and action. This is what I call layout design... this is what I call setting up a stage for our trains. From there, making choices is far easier, because we already know what matters and what are our goals. Depending on the song you want to write, you'll get a very different set of parameters and themes, but you'll be able to reach a goal worth of your efforts and that will pride your intellect.

And that brings me to my last point. Layout design is hard... really hard. Countless and useless books have been written about that. Most of them spread between the "I Want It All" mentality and the mostly useless Givens and Druthers (which are basically things you start to really care about only when you have a decent idea of what you are trying to do). My main complain is that very few people step out of their hyped bubble to look at things for what they are. Everything is driven by pure passion - which is fine to some extent since it is a hobby - but most mental efforts are wasted on "How" to do things rather than "Why"... we generally end up with a lot of stuff done and bought... and still crying we didn't accomplish anything. Sad isn't it? Yes it is... I would seriously feel bad if I approached my professional practice with such an attitude. Yet, I still do it with railroading.

My goal isn't to discourage anybody... on the contrary! But rather to encourage people to develop courage to go beyond their first epidermic reaction with this hobby and seek truly what is the essence of what they like about it. The good thing is we are all different and thus great diversity makes this hobby a fascinating place. But also a good thing is that all these half-baked efforts aren't for nothing, as long as we learn something from each step, becoming more proficient at each iteration. I made a lot of mistakes myself yet I'm happy to have made them because I had the courage to share them with you and try to find out what happened... and just for this reason, I consider blogging about this passion was probably the best decision I took because it forced me to put in words and articulate my feelings, helping me to see what was worth and what wasn't...

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