Friday, October 25, 2019

How Much Layout Do You Need?

As introduced in my previous blog, I’m actually in the process of developing a final vision – or should I say framework – for my Connors layout. I’ve found over the years doing justice about a prototype wasn’t always replicating perfectly a prototype. Some artistic license must be used and this license isn’t about doing going loose and veering toward indulgence, but rather trying to understand what matters and how to push it forward in a coherent fashion.
Framing a subject is a complex and subjective task. No wonder I’ve been pondering a central question this year more than once; how much layout do you really need? I feel this question is absolutely central to our understanding of our hobby as I suspect, for many of us, the railway empire is both an improbable pursue but also one that would thin down our vision of this hobby. It would also be a preposterous assumption to believe everyone shares this goal as if it was a mandatory objective per se. That’s the funny thing about North American values in general, this idea that sky is the limit can be both an enabling force both also a crushing goal to try to reach.

This isn’t an easy question and I’ve never found a compelling answer over the last three decades I’ve been dabbling with this hobby. The only thing I know for sure is it’s better to have some kind of layout rather than none. The physical existence of a layout is a key element to make sure you are actually doing something and not only thinking about doing something. Take away the material manifestation of this hobby and you fell a sad feeling of underachievement. It may not be perfect, but at least it is a canvas to paint on a picture and that very picture is probably not the last one you’ll paint. Indeed, it may lack accuracy but it is a continuous learning experiment.

With that said, I gave a lot of thoughts about my longstanding personal home layout in recent days, revisiting yet again several basic concepts. This prompted me to make a serious distinction between what I can build and want I want to build. More than just a question of semantics, this raises several important issues and my personal way to interact with my hobby.

What would be best? A larger layout set in a dedicated room in the basement, or something smaller and more personal in my office room? What kind of interaction I want with my models beyond simply running them? In fact, the layout appears to be only a cog in a much more complex mechanism.

Until recently, I felt a layout in my office would feel contrived and also out of place. Being a railway modellers since my youth, I know this hobby comes with a despicable reputation and social stigma. I know more than one guy taking great care to hide their involvement with trains and certainly can understand.  Recent conversations about layouts with people of the common taught me the stigma wasn’t that bad nowadays. Trainsets are no longer a staple of childhood and many, due to 3D modelling and video games, are now more open to this craft. It was evident that more people admire the sophistication involved than I initially thought. If they have a good grasp of workmanship, technologies or simply creative arts, they generally recognize immediately the merit of the hobby. It’s not a matter of hiding it, but rather showcasing it in a proper way that makes people fully appreciate this piece of art and technology.

It also made me recognize my own interaction with this hobby. How I often wished the layout would be at hands, ready to be put into action. Small enough to care about details and scene composition while staying achievable. Able to take apart a part of the layout, work on it under optimal conditions then set it back in place.

Also, the layout shouldn’t be far from the workbench and reference material (both books and online). Building and operating are activities going hand in hand. Given these criterions, I feel it is better to build small but in the right place where the layout can be displayed, built and operated eagerly in a comfortable environment rather than waste time hiding it in a subpar and distant room. I have no doubt this could be done with taste and look great both as a game board and an artistic diorama.

Certainly, such advantages come with restrictions. The best spot in the room is on top a set of Ikea Kallax shelves. These have been hacked several years ago and create a nice 102” long 15” wide continuous countertop. While I could use more space, it would look good in the room and the idea of a nice diorama sitting on shelves would be lost. Such space is more than adequate for a small switching layout given a 45” small and unobtrusive cassette can be attach without ruining the room.

Indeed, this kind of setup would be neat for Connors, but obviously, I can’t cram everything there. I must cut some corners and if I do so, better think about what matters. According to various written sources, I was able to trace down a typical timetable for the early 20th century operations. It was both extremely simplistic and yet eye opening. It really put things in perspective in my mind.

Back then, the daily mixed train left Edmunston at noon and reached Connors in the afternoon. The locomotive was then stored in the engine house and serviced. On the next morning, the train came back to Edmunston, reaching the station before noon. Quite simple isn’t it? Certainly, I have no details about it, but given the tight schedule, it seems the small yard and sidings could only be switched in late afternoon since the morning train left Connors quite early and starting a steam locomotive needs lengthy preparations. This simple fact helps to understand what matters if I ever operate a small Temiscouata layout. What does matter in a typical day at Connors? What can fit the bill for a regular 20 to 45 minutes operation session? What fits my interest? What doesn’t? Lots of question I can now start to answer.

If you ask me, I like the look of a locomotive entering a station and performing some work there. Shoving cars here, exchanging others there, rebuilding the train, etc. On the other hand, I have very little interest in servicing locomotives. Also, I’m not that much into building intricate craftsman engine house full of details and far too cute for my own taste. Given that, do I need to model entirely Connors? The answer is no. Connors has irrelevant sections that I don’t care about, add very little to my story and take up space and resources I don’t want to allow them. Maybe some readers will recall Lance Mindheim’s advice to crop a scene and not compress it. Well, I believe he is indeed touching an important point when building a layout. Connors is long but only a part of it frames a well composed scene and makes a compelling stage for trains.

Speaking of scene and staging, modelling must support my story and, according to my own biases, the arriving train in the afternoon is probably the most interesting aspect of this script. The morning train is a dull formality involving no switching and simply backing the train in front of the station after leaving the roundhouse. Given most locomotives were often refuelled before being stored for the night; the morning preparation would lack relief.

Knowing  that, only the trackage pertaining to this afternoon train matters. The rest is inconsequential. Anyway, I have very little good data about the engine house except bad front view photographs taken from a distance and an 1894 panorama leaving many crucial details blurred or in the dark. Remember, since day 1, the Connors station caught my interest and not the engine facilities.

From a practical standpoint, it means only the yard, station, fueling facilities and turntable matter in my story. It easily removes about 4-5 feet of irrelevant layout, providing a more relaxed and better framed scene. In fact, just like Mike Cougill and I discussed, maybe some end parts of a layout are better when they gradually fade away into darkness, leaving the mind to imagine what lies beyond this fuzzy boundary. In a few words, shadows can be used for modelling purpose, the same way they are in theater, museum exhibits, movies and dioramas.

Funnily enough, I recently discovered the old scale model of this layout I made many years ago when exploring this concept for the first time. You won’t be surprised the engine house wasn’t there, only the core project. Once again, my late grandmother would probably tell me “the first idea is always the best”. But I should add, it becomes the best only because other options have been evaluated before going back to the first impression.

Having reduced my scope and knowing I’m only interested in modelling the afternoon train and occasional freight extra, I can now take a hard look at reality. How much layout do I really need? A few technical elements set the track plan: siding capacity must be large enough to run around the train, the cassette must provide enough space for shoving to 50ft coaches. Finally, the leading track in front of the station must provide room to switch about 3 empty and 3 loaded freight cars at the team track. Fortunately, without compression, this can be done in exactly the space available.

Interestingly enough, without effort, most actions on this layout take place in front of the passenger depot, making for a compelling scene. Depending on train composition, a session can be straightforward or slightly more complex. In fact, some days, a coach and a combine will be required to handle sportsman and hunters while on other day, only a coach will do a fine job. Extra freight trains are also an option. Regular mixed freight train can pull from 1 to 4 freight cars, making for a lot of variety. Short 32’ and 36’ cars also help to keep some degree of variety. It is also possible to stage excursion trains from time to time since Connors used to be somewhat of a lesser tourist destination due to the presence of a deluxe hotel near the station.

Finally, the interesting thing about cropping this particular scene according to my available space and intended story is that I don’t have to make compromises on track work. When I asked myself if I could compress Connors, I instinctively veered toward using unrealistic #6 turnouts. Then, doing some maths, it was quite evident the intended #10 turnouts did have their place even if they took about 15” each. On a small layout such as this one, looking closely at operation is the biggest show you’ll see. A cute turn-of-the-century steamer crawling over the rail is a nice show and ruining it with toyish track parameters would defeat this purpose. Take my words for granted on this, my small Bachmann 4-6-0 looks absolutely great on a #10 turnout… Even from a technical standpoint, small steamers do perform better on large radius turnouts. There light and short tenders no longer randomly derail, which can be a real let down when operating with old time locomotives.  Don’t ask me with I know, but I can assure you the idea small rolling stock means small radius is the most laughable principle. Sure it can be done, sure it will look camp and whimsical. Some love that quaint old time look that never existed, but I’m not one. In the same regard, René Gourley was kind enough to remind me of his excellent efforts with prototypical turn-of-the-century modelling based on pre-WW1 Canadian Atlantic Railway. He also has to deal with these pesky issues and takes extensive care to ensure the end results is both artistically attractive and technically sound. Yes, there's is no reasons to take shortcuts when dealing with old time subjects. We wouldn't tolerate it with modern subjects, why settle for less when dealing with the past?

Finally, another neat aspect of the layout is it can be stored easily as modules. I know that at some point, I'll have interests in other eras and locales. I could easily imagine this pre-WW1 layout being used half the year and another one, sharing the same physical parameters taking its place later. Once again, Mike Cougill's concept of dissociating the substructure from the layout seems to be a sensible approach. In my case, the Kallax shelves acting as a structure to support various dioramas/modules following the evolution of my tastes without having do deal with wall anchors and such. Once again, it seems my intuition kind of overlapped with his own, though I'm glad his post made me see the benefit of something that was only a blurry concept in my mind. As they say, nothing new under the sun!


  1. Hi Matthieu,

    Thanks for the shout-out.

    Here are a couple of things for you to think about as you work through your design. First, the cost of a #10 turnout is measured to its fouling point, which is somewhere around 30 or 36 inches from the points. That’s actually a lot compared to your 102” length. My turnouts are all #7, but look longer to modellers due to their scale points.

    More importantly, when I initially had only one turntable on Pembroke (in staging), I found operations unsatisfying, as I had to run light engine to what was conceptually the other end of the line to reverse direction after arriving at the station. I quickly prioritized the visible turntable, so now I run from turntable to turntable, which I find gives the feeling of going somewhere, even though the two are only twelve feet apart. The play value of a turntable on the visible part of the layout is about the same as another engine, which is significant when you have only one engine in steam. Indeed, I’ve designed an even smaller version of Pembroke for show purposes, and it is centred on the turntable, cropping out the station itself.

    Finally, if you want to come out and try operating your designs with our Brio, you’re welcome any time 🙂.

    Looking forward to seeing this project progress!


    1. Hi Rene! Thanks for the thoughtful imput. I was indeed favouring a visible turntable since I wrote that post. Makes more sense and at the end of the day, it will basically take the same amount of effort. It would be foolish to hide it, particularly if I want to run extra freight or passenger trains.

      Indeed, the fouling point has to be taken into account. I have a few #10 on hand and when my baseboards will be completely assembled, I intend to play with a track arrangement a little bit until I find a satisfying solution. So far, I've already drawn the track plan to scale with the actual component and the runaround should be able to hold a complete train (3 freight cars and 2 coaches/combine).

      As much as possible, this layout will be operated in the same fashion British layouts are. Action is centered at the station and we have very little knowledge where it comes from. I know it have it's own limitation, but based on the available space, I believe it is a sensible way to handle it. Also, as I gain experience with Hedley Junction, I come to realize I prefer to work on smaller footprints.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Matthieu.

    Will this still be in S?

    Wasn’t the siding at one stage a spur, using the visible turnout but not the hidden one? Would that not be even more suited to your idea?

    Also, by convention, we put the buildings at the rear of the layout, so that the trains are not hidden. If you rotate your plan by a half-turn, then the freight house helps to hide the break in the scene, the depot building becomes the focus of the setting - as it would in real life - and you could, perhaps, model the front and first few feet of the engine house, with the building acting as a wing to counterbalance the freight house at the other end?

    These are just ideas and questions please don’t take them as “the advice”!

    1. Dear Simon, once again you put your finger on the sore spot!

      These are interesting suggestions and questions, well worth taking in account. Let's just say I'm half agreeing with you, but certainly think you've got a point about scene composition. However, while visually compelling, various constraints such as room characteristics, fiddle yard location and accessibility would hinder the project.

    2. And that, mon ami, is why I cannot offer “the advice” - and neither can anyone else!

      You are too thoughtful (in both senses, heck, every possible sense) to simply create a layout on a shelf. There is more to it than this, and how the layout integrates into its surrounding environment is as important as anything else.

      I have found that sometimes, a building that appears to be in the way, such as a freight house, can serve another purpose: to provide a rest for the wrist when manually uncoupling!

  3. Matthieu,

    I agree with your comments regarding the Social Stigma of model railroading. It still exists but I think that if you're confident in your hobby and genuinely "don't care what others think" people won't really look down on the fact we play with toy trains. I usually just show pictures of a completed scene it always generates interest rather than repulsion.

    I also agree with your comments regarding layout size and amenities. People seem to have this idea that bigger is better. I prefer a nice, simple generic type scene where I can run whatever I like in a nice clean environment, with tools and reference material at hand. I like a room with a layout in it, not a layout room.

    1. You are indeed right. I've never seen people react to well executed modelism, be it trains or otherwise. Most humans (if not all) are sensible to things done with passion and well presented.

      Yes, the more I dabble with prototype modelism, the more I find it interesting yet limitating. It may seems odd, but documenting and replicating a scene or a prototype is truly an immersing experience. However, nothing beats a generic, realistic and uncluttered scene. With my hobby room nearing completion, I recognize such a simple layout would indeed meets my needs better.