Monday, August 5, 2019

Thinking Out Loud Again...

It seems the month of August always makes me approach model railroading with with a philosophical grain of salt, Once again, I'm back at thinking out loud, letting ideas flowing freeling even if maybe they means nothing, knowing perfectly that writing them shapes them into more concrete concepts that can then be measured to their true value...

Designing a home layout can be quite a tricky issue. Many hit that wall and books about the subject are, indeed, abundant. While they are all helpful in some way, most of them tackle the issue of a first “serious” layout… but don’t really dabble into a layout for a well-seasoned modeller. It assumes we will find our groove or niche at some point and will stay stuck in it for the rest of our lives. Such a thing isn’t true.

Most of us have evolving goals, tastes and interests. A core of permanent things will stay in place, but honestly since we are builders, once things are done, we need a new challenge. Managing these fleeting feelings within the design process isn’t always quite clear or easy. Our obsession with efficiency leads us to believe everything that is wasted or scrapped it a pure lost while it shouldn’t be seen that way.

In my mind, the moment you tackle a hobby project, you know you are in waste territory. You are definitely not there for the money or to make the most rational choices. If it was the case, no layouts would be built because they are, basically, pipe dreams. However, what we are seeking is generally a challenge, a sense of achievement and to pursue a somewhat artistic vision or sets of goals.

In my case, my core interests are well-defined after almost 3 decades in this hobby. However, it is extremely hard to let coalesce all these conflicting and time-consuming goals into something satisfying.

Should I define my interest by a single prototype or should I rather try to focus on a general vibe that fits my goals and vision? For at least a decade, I’ve been hunting for a prototype that would give a comprehensive answer to my questions and aspirations. Some came close, most failed. It seems to me it was not the way I wanted things to be done. On the other hand, going completely loose felt it wouldn’t be “honest”, “prototypical” or even “adequate” due to my experience in this hobby. In my mind, a voice was telling me a serious modeller must be serious in his approach to deliver inspiring and well researched results… Presumptuous I know, but such is peer pressure, the one you imagine and that doesn’t really exist.

I know for sure I don’t need a lot of layout to be happy, nor a complex track plan or operations. I also know I have fondness for poorly managed railroad infrastructure and small-time railroading. I don’t care for mainline and neat larger locomotive – whatever the era – I want character and story-telling. Maybe it takes its roots in the fact I had to live with 4’ x 4’ layouts for almost 15 years… That said, basement empires depress me… nice to see, not for me. I have enough of Hedley-Junction on my plate to not start another never-ending enterprise. That said, I also know my interest lies mainly in freight cars. I fondly love them as much as I don’t care for passenger cars which I find absolutely boring and devoid of industrial ugliness. Finally, I have a short span of attention when dealing with projects. The smaller they are, the more I deliver.

Remark how so far, I didn’t even spoke about prototypes, eras or locales. They are, indeed, mainly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

Two recent trips in Vermont and Maine helped me to open my eyes to a reality. Maybe I don’t need a prototype-focussed layout, but simply a layout as a canvas. A realistic and practical track plan, a decent enough size to feel it’s a real place without feeling overwhelmed and the opportunity to model with care things that matters to me.

The layout I have in mind isn’t great, compelling or impressive. In fact, it is absolutely boring by all common set of values held by this hobby. I can see short trains, low density industrial trackage, derelict team tracks and a few structures. All of them can be easily replaced, rebuilt, enhanced over time. The canvas supports projects and frames them, giving them a goal and a sense of purpose. A prototype? I don’t care. I know I like roads that could be seen in Quebec and Northeastern states. CN, CP, CV, MEC, VTR, BAR… Fair enough for me…

I kind of recall my child days, when my layout was extremely simples. Some days, I felt I wanted to run CN trains and set the right locomotive and caboose on the track and simply adjusted the number of CN freight cars to recreate the right vibe. Some other days, it was CP and small variations were done to comply with the theme. This is something I miss. A freedom not associated with the “I want it all” mentality, but rather about how you feel about your hobby and what you want to craft.

Too often, I’ve slaved over a prototype only to find out that when it was done, it was the end of it. My shelves are loaded with specifically scratchbuilt and kitbashed projects that never saw a decent amount of use because they were simply no longer relevant or motivating when done. Do I advocate for a whimsical approach? Not really. My interests are quite clear in my minds, I simply don’t want to tie me to some ultra-specific goals that hold no more interest once achieved.

That brings me back again to my vision of a small home layout. Small trains, small operations, small footprint. If I want to run a CV local switcher, let it be… If it is CN, I wish I can do it as fast as taking a CN locomotive out of my shelves and putting it on the rails. As for industries, generic warehouses, a feed mill and a team track are all I need. Wants to back date the layout, simply replace one structure by another built to a similar footprint. Maybe the late 70s steel industrial warehouse can be replaced by an older brick one, completely changing the layout theme. Modern Canadian crossbucks at the grade crossing are replaced by American ones and we just moved a few miles south of the border. Since all my favourite roads interchanged between them in a relatively small geographical area, most freight cars can be used whatever the layout theme is for the day. Remove a few modern ones and you are in 1975 or add a nice NSC newsprint boxcar and you are now firmly in the early 1980s.

Such is my vision. A canvas that fits my inspiration and not that rigid frame the hobby promote. It doesn’t mean sloppiness. Not at all! Simply flexibility to acknowledge moving interests… In fact, it would be better to compare this to an atom. Consider the various hobby interests to particles forming an atom. From afar, they look almost monolithic and form a easily recognizable element. But from a nearer vantage point, they are distinctively vibrating and moving within a strong field of common influences. Such should be my home layout… something that can survive the passage of time without ending in the dumpster when interest is gone!


  1. I seem to think somewhat similarly to you, and for me aspects of my prototype paralysis lifted when my mindset shifted from "picking my forever prototype" to "picking something that I enjoy that works for the space I have now". In the UK they often seem to view their smaller layouts as projects and objects to be enjoyed until a new project becomes enticing. In North America there seems to be a viewpoint that choosing a prototype/theme is a life decision on par with marriage, but for those of us with smaller layouts there is no reason at all to think this way.

    Separately, I think your idea of a "generalizable" industrial model has great potential. The potential pitfall of this approach might be to fill the layout with generic kits, but I suspect that you would take the far more interesting approach of making well-observed and unique models that are "generic" only in the sense that they could exist anywhere in your region.

    1. Yes, as you stated, for small layouts, a more "per project" approach makes more sense. British modellers understand it and we can think of Lance Mindheim who generally makes small layouts for himself to pursue some interest of the moment.

      I feel going full prototype works if your goal is replicating something or operating at a grand scale. In my case, the club layout being prototypical helps to streamline the design process and focus our efforts while providing a compelling back story. For a small home layout, I'm not sure that logic applies.

      Yes, you perfectly understood how I use the word "generic" in this context. It is about going for the mundane according to an area. I have some real locations that are inspiring me and my goal isn't to mash them up together, but rather seek what would be a common denominator in Northern New England and Southern Quebec. I have no plan to buy kits, it would take away a good deal of fun and leave the layout without life and personality.

      Thanks for your input!