Jim Spavins Track Plan Logo
Build-Maintain Time Graph.

Layout Building - Maintenance Paradox

Layout Design Thoughts

Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: August 18, 2015

Having seen the complete layout lifecycle while building a personal home layout from start to finish, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about how the relationship with a layout changes over time as well as how this might impact the design of a model railroad.

The graph above shows a generic plot of how hobby time is divided up over the lifespan of the layout.  At the beginning stages of a new project, the vast majority of the time spent is on building.  As progress is made, eventually more time can be spent operating but also time will need to be spent on layout maintenance.  In theory, the amount of time to work on a layout is capped (you can't spend more than 24 hours a day working on your layout).  This means that as more of the layout is constructed, more time will need to be devoted to keeping everything in working order - like cleaning track, fixing broken items, dusting, etc.  How quickly this happens, as well as how much of the total available hobby time is devoured by this task has a lot to do with the complexity of the project and the initial design.  Let's consider some examples.

I was fortunate to be a member of the Rensselaer Model Railroad Society a few years back. If you aren't familiar with the club, it is worth looking in to. The layout is fantastic and shows what focused effort over 40 years can create. The layout had been started in the 1970s and progress on construction was rapid for the next 15-20 years.  By the time I arrived in the early 2000s, the club members were spending most of the work time on the layout on maintenance activities as opposed to building new scenes. Even though 80-90% of the scenes were completed, we couldn't focus on completing the last 10-20%. We just didn't have enough time.  For example, just cleaning the track for an operating session took several hours - with a three to four person crew.  Imagine the construction progress which could have been made if those man-hours were spent building the new scenes. However, with a fixed amount of time to complete tasks, completing the layout becomes difficult.  As a caveat - this wasn't to say that the layout wasn't enjoyable - quite the opposite - it was fun to operate - but almost all the effort needed to be devoted to that activity as opposed to "finishing" the layout. 

I found the same to be true with my layout over its 12 years. In the beginning, I spent all of my work time building new scenes, buildings, and equipment. Over time, I would have to spend more and more of my time on maintenance activities. At some point, it takes so much time to maintain the layout, there is no time left to build anything new or operate.

This brings up two points. The first is that your layout design should address potential maintenance issues up front so that either they don't become large problems or it doesn't take long to keep the layout operating. For example, I had lots of problems keeping the hidden track on the layout clean. Since it wasn't easily accessible, it just took longer to clean those areas. If I reduced the amount of hidden track, this task would have taken less time. Also, during the construction phase, neatness counts everywhere - even the places under the layout you can't see. I almost never had wiring problems on the home layout. I had taken a lot of time to neatly place and label every wire under the layout so if anything happened, it was easy to discover and fix the problem. However, I also stored lots of items under my layout - not very neatly. Naturally it was in these areas were turnout motors would burnout. Moving everything out meant the task took longer. By keeping the time to handle maintenance activities down, the layout will last longer.

The second point is that at the time where maintenance activities over takes building and operating activities is where, I believe, most layouts end their effectiveness and most layout owners start dreaming about the next layout - if not doing what I did and tear it down. I think this means most layouts have a lifespan which can be predicted based upon its complexity to maintain and the amount of time the layout owner has to (or wants to) work on the layout.

My guess is that if one person was to build a simpler layout where maintenance activities were considered, the layout would last substantially longer than a complex layout in the same space. My other guess is that the simpler layout would probably come closer to the elusive point of completion compared to the complex layout and keep the layout owner more satisfied. How long the time period is will depend a bit on how much time the layout owner has to spend on the layout as well as the execution of the construction.  Something to consider for your next layout design...

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.