Track Plan At A Glance
Layout Theme: Freelance Railroad
Layout Type: Permanent Layout
Scale: HO Scale
Track: Code 70
Turnouts: No. 5
Min. Radius: 20"
Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: January 10, 2017
A few weeks ago on the way back from a train show, one of my friends was grumbling about a classic track planning book. His complaint was that the designs were too "traditional" and the book shouldn't be published anymore because it doesn't fit with more contemporary track planning philosophies. This resulted in a rather lively conversation on the topic with me attempting to convince him that the styles of track plans presented in the book were simply a different tool in the toolbox of track planning ideas and could still provide an enjoyable layout experience in the right situation.
Evolution of Layout Planning
Layout planning has evolved over the history of the hobby. Through the years there have been some inflection points in time where layout design has undergone a change and offered up new ways for model railroaders to enjoy the hobby. The plans in the book my friend was commenting about came from what I'll dub the first generation of layout designs - roughly the period from the early 1900s to the 1960s. In these early days of the hobby, the focus was more on the building of models. Since almost everything needed to built by hand (either through kits, kitbashing, or scratchbuilding), the focus tended to stay on modeling railroad equipment and track. Structures and scenery were less of a focus - although still a part of the hobby - simply because there wasn't enough time left to build these items after building trains and track.
In addition, control of the trains was still fairly basic with stationary throttles used to run trains. This necessitated layout designs where trains could be observed from a single control point. This resulted in the large "bowl of spaghetti" style plans with a central control station overlooking the entire railroad. At this stage, realistic operations was a nascent thought in the hobby.
As technology improved - so did the offerings in the hobby. Electronics were evolving and miniaturized during the space race allowing for the development of walk around throttles. This allowed operators to leave their static control panel and walk around with their trains. This changed the experience with the layout and ushered in the evolution of walkaround layout designs starting roughly in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Around the same time, kits were evolving which were faster and easier to put together and produced more reliably operating equipment. This made replicating real railroading operations - like slow speed switching - on model railroads a lot more feasible. In addition, with the time saved in constructing the rolling stock and locomotive roster and the more realistic scenes resulting from the linear style design, more time was available to complete scenery and structures. This in turn led to developments in structure kits and scenery material offerings creating ever more and more realistic layouts. Anyone who has been in the hobby for a while would agree this style of layout became the predominate form of layouts desired over the last 20 years.
A Plethora of Layout Options
With current technology changes happening around us, I believe we are entering another one of these transition periods of track planning philosophies and a wider spectrum of layout styles are being adopted by modelers. For example, a lot of styles of layout from modules to micro layouts to TOMA (The One Module Approach promoted by Model Railroad Hobbyist) are gaining or have gained a following over the last decade.
As computing power increases and gets smaller, there is the potential for another style of layout to develop and garner more widespread adoption in the hobby - automation layouts. One of the common threads that has bound the first and second generation of layout designs has been that someone has to have control of the train. In the first generation, the control of the trains was from a stationary point. The second generation untethered the operator and allowed people to walk around with their trains. Today, computer technology has become so inexpensive and ubiquitous that more layouts can possibly follow an automation route where no one has to run trains (See the Mystic, CT track plan for an example).
At the same time we have even more developments in how layouts are built. There are so many ready to run models now available that an entire rolling stock fleet can basically just be purchased (if that is a desire) which saves an enormous amount of time which can then be reinvested other portions of the layout. In addition, 3D printing has become economically viable meaning that formerly hard to build, unique features are just a few clicks of a computer mouse away from existing. A full basement layout filled with precise prototype features now might be obtainable in just a few years instead of a lifetime.
What this all means is that there will be a layout style for everyone - even the "traditional" model railroad designs popularized many years ago. In my opinion, this is exciting for the hobby as we are going to start to see more and more variety of layout styles being constructed. Some will continue to embrace the first generation traditional layout construction, some will build basement empires complete with near professional level operating groups bringing the layout to life, some will continue to promote the hobby with portable and modular layouts, and some more will build automated layouts. This will allow people who are interested in taking up the hobby to be able to find a style of layout they find interesting and start building.
Space for a "Traditional" Model Railroad
As I have written about elsewhere on the site, at the present time, I don't have a space to build a permanent layout. Instead, I have built a portable layout - a Tribute to Springfield - which can be stored out of the way when it is not under construction. After the discussion with my friend about classic track planning styles, I began to look around my current living space to try and identify an area for which a layout might work.
One space that has potential is where my computer is setup. The location is in a heavily trafficked room in the house but this one corner has been staked out as my "office" area. In theory, I could build a layout above my desk and bookcases. Since the room has to be shared with busy walkways and cannot be attached to the walls, the choice for which style of layout to choose becomes difficult. For example, the more desirable walkaround style layout would be tough to arrange in the space since any sort of duck under or lift gate is impractical. A linear or L shaped switching layout is certainly possible. However, I tend to prefer layout with a continuous run option. The only way to make this work and stay in HO scale is to tighten up the radius and start looking at "traditional" model railroad plan styles to fit the space.
Around the Railroad
The layout at the beginning of the article is inspired by the classic up and over folded dog bone style layouts which were popular many years ago. Set anywhere from the 1930s to the 1950s, the base of operations on the layout is a small yard with an enginehouse is located along the main walkway at the lowest elevation on the plan. Leaving the yard to the left, the mainline swing around a loop and starts up grade (approx. 2%) passing a small industry. The mainline then passes over itself on two bridges and reaches an upper level along the wall. Here is another small industry which can be switched a local working the mainline. Continuing to proceed along the wall, the mainline swings back along the wall and starts to drift down grade through a farm scene and over a river. The line then enters a tunnel under the upper level before re-appearing at the other end of the layout.
While the track arrangement and style are a bit of a throwback, the layout can certainly take advantages of today's technology. For example, DCC would be the preferred control system and most likely a wireless throttle system can be installed. I'd imagine the layout would go heavy on the detailing and certainly a more urban setting could be constructed compared to the scenic layout shown above.
Operating the Railroad
Operations on this layout are meant to be fairly simple affairs. A set of cars can be pulled from the yard at Dovertown to build a train to run around the railroad. Working along the mainline, the train can switch the three industries on the mainline before being returned to the yard. Of course, trains can just simply be sent to run around the continuous loop when visitors are around or just to have the layout builder kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Track Plan Analysis
As I discuss a lot in these track planning articles, this style of layout would probably be most appreciated by someone who tends to favor building over operations which drove the "traditional" layout designs. That, however, is the point and what underscored the conversation with my friend that the more layout planning philosophies available - the better it is for the hobby. Our layouts should reflect how we wish to spend our time and money. My guess is that if one follows their interests, more energy will be put into the layout and the end result will be a remarkable model railroad - no matter what the style - which might inspire others to build something remarkable of their own. It's a win for the layout builder as well as the hobby to have so many avenues of enjoyment.
For Track Plan Tuesday's, I am digitizing all of my old track planning notebooks and sharing the designs here on the website. To see all the plans, visit the track plan home page at: jimspavins.com/jimstrackplans.