Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Layout Design Musings

My last visit at the club layout was a strange affair. It seemed everybody was kind of disheartened by the news our CFC SW1200RS project would go back on the shelf until all the missing parts are collected. Work was slow and I only managed to partially paint a few derails and wheel stops in a faded yellow color…

The reason for this lack of enthusiasm is grounded to a deep frustration with locomotives in the DCC age. Lighting, decoder, sounds… it is a never-ending task of tweaking, fiddling and tuning, with no results guaranteed.  Talk about fun!

To change my mood to something more positive, I felt I would operate a little bit with a locomotive a reliable locomotive in good order. From the glass display shelf, I grabbed a custom decorated Bachmann GP9 with an old Tsunami decoder. Nothing shiny, just a passable stand-in for the real things. Like all my locomotives when I was a kid.

No surprise, the locomotive stuttered and stalled every inch… making for another round of what could be a very tiresome evening. But I wasn’t in the mood to be defeated and the urge to run some trains won in the end. My trusty MDF board covered in 600 grit sandpaper would polish these dirty rails and probably restore some semblance of flawless electric conductivity. It was late and only the Donohue plant and Clermont yard were cleaned.

It was now time to set my newly weathered boxcars, departing quickly D’Estimauville and reaching Clermont rather quickly. No switchlist, only following my instinct, I decided to only pick up empty boxcars and switch the newsprint warehouse… Minimal work at best, but something that was a common occurrence on the prototype… 4 loaded cars where picked up at the factory, the off-spot boxcar was placed inside the factory and the new 5 empty boxcars were spotted, leaving two of them outside the warehouse, until a next working shift.

Back to Clermont, the locomotive spotted the loaded cars on the departure track then proceeded to Wieland where it was shut down and stored for the night on the wye north leg... It was now time to call it a day. I had my fill and felt much more positive than when I started.

It is in these moments I start questioning how we design our projects and their final size. We often frame the question from an outside perspective. We ask ourselves “how to make the best out of what we have in front of us”. A room is available, and we really want to make a statement, create a compelling vision, as if we were producing a piece of art or an engineering marvel to present the world. This approach can mean we will fill a basement with extravagance. In other times, we will fill it with restrain, going for subtly. The idea is generally to create something we fill coherent with our vision. Unfortunately, we often forget we are the sole spectators of our creative endeavour. This does matter.

Given a layout is a generally a self-serving project, it is interesting to see how we take too often in consideration design goals that aren’t really required (thought quite neat). Basically, a neat idea isn’t necessarily the best idea in a given situation. Hell is paved with good intentions, and I can assure you my professional practice proved me this old saying more than once.

As a matter of fact, in the case of Hedley-Junction, I would probably be more than pleased with Clermont. If I had to start again this project, I would probably keep only one room, ready to sacrifice almost half the layout. And while it’s not my intention to back track on what has been done and which I’m proud of, I must recognize some patterns in how we handle our hobby.

So far, it seems to me we rarely stage large operation sessions. Funnily enough, we often go solo when handling trains. One of our members has a urge to run some trains, grab a DCC power cab, then start switching Clermont while others work on the layout. Sessions last from 30 minutes to 1 hour most of the time, which is generally considered a decent time for one person. I have yet to wonder why I never thought about this cold hard fact when designing the layout…

Why it does matter? Because I’m trying to figure out what can be done with my future hobby room. I know operation will probably occur as small and short switching sessions. Staging must be quick, self-evident and cleaning fast and efficient. It also means if the layout is a continuous run, each segment doesn’t need to be a statement in itself. You probably recall when I compared layout design to a song structure last year. The sequence of generic but thematically strong scenes and small burst of intense interest not only provide focus from a storytelling point, but also make a rational use of time, resources and space.

I’ve yet to explore more this idea, but it is really starting to shape – once again – my perception of what makes a layout truly achievable.

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