Common Errors and Oversights Made by Beginning Trackplanners
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How Not to Reinvent the Square Wheel
So youíre tired of watching your train go around an oval, and youíre ready to design the ultimate layout — one whose trackplan alone will make the model-railroading magazines fight for the rights to your article. A plan so good that youíll never have to revise it or improve it. Sounds good to me! But if you havenít done much trackplanning, how do you know your grand ideas will work? Iím not here to tell you how to do it, but how not to do it. Trackplanning is a skill that improves with experience, which comes from making mistakes, and that can include other peopleís mistakes. Why make the same errors that others have already made? This article is a partial list of the most popular trackplanning goofs. If you heed this advice, you can at least be sure that your mistakes will be original.
Iím not addressing issues of execution here — things like kinked rail joints, bad solder connections, out-of-gauge track, and so on. The problems Iím describing are problems with the track plan itself, problems that would doom a layout to failure even if Allen McClelland and Tony Koester built it for you. The saying, "Thereís never time to do it right, but thereís always time to do it over" doesnít apply to laying down the basics of a model railroad, because we barely have enough time to do it once, never mind twice. A little planning at the outset can save you huge amounts of time, effort, and frustration.
Iíve divided the common trackplanning errors into four categories: mechanical, access, visual, and operational.
Mechanical problems are physical errors that will keep the layout from working properly. The most common ones are:
- Curves tighter than they need to be. This is a questionable way to fit more track into your space. Okay, youíve run tests, and all your engines and cars will run on a tight curve. The problems here are that (a) just because it runs doesnít mean it looks right, and (b) what will you do on the day you bring home something new, long and gorgeous, then discover that wonít quite make it around your curves? Make your minimum radius a little bigger than it absolutely has to be, and youíll have no regrets later.
- S-curves. John Armstrong covered this train-killer in detail in his excellent book, Trackplanning for Realistic Operation. If you donít own a copy, get one. In brief: s-curves tend to sneak into the best plans, they can be murder to fix if you donít get them early in the game, and if you donít eradicate or minimize them, your trains will not stay on the rails.
- Track too close to the edge of the table. Itís tempting to push the limits of your benchwork in order to squeeze in a little more track. But youíll regret it the first time a train takes The Big Dive. It might be a stray elbow, an inadvertent jolt to the benchwork, the aftermath of a simple derailment, or a 1:1-scale earthquake if you live in California, but if thereís nothing stopping an engine or car from going down, then down is the direction it will go until something stops it (like the floor). Those stray elbows will also play havoc with your carefully ballasted track. And itís a fact that trains look longer if they sometimes move behind trees and structures, which is impossible if thereís no room for trees and structures between the track and the table edge. Youíll be happier in the long run if you give up a little track space along the edges, both for scenery and for safety.
- Overly-optimistic turnout "templates." This mistake will never derail a train, but it has derailed many a track plan. Put simply, it means your pencil-and-paper plan hasnít allowed for the fact that the curved leg of a turnout is a lot broader than you think. Iíve seen hand-drawn plans where the turnouts almost looked like right angles. Then you try to convert the plan into roadbed and rails, and youíre dismayed beyond words that it wonít fit. No harm was done, but a lot of effort was wasted. Measure samples of the actual turnouts youíll be using, before you start, and you wonít have to start over.
- No tangents for coupling & uncoupling. This one is so commonplace, even in published plans, that I suspect that very few trackplanners do much switching. All couplers, in all scales, work better on straightaways and very gradual curves than they do on hairpins. Automatic uncoupling just doesnít work on curves. Yes, you can do it manually, but itís still a lot harder than on straight track. Trying to couple on curves is even more difficult. If your yards and industrial parks are for switching and not for show, make sure they have straight sections where the action takes place, or you may soon give up on switching altogether.
- Grades too steep. The sight of trains straining upgrade and crossing over other trains on bridges has strong visual appeal. As hobbyists, we tend to minimize the "straining" part. But a 2% grade can cut your engineís effective pulling ability by half or more. Add the extra effort needed to pull around the curves we usually put our grades on, and itís a wonder our engines ever reach the summit. Downgrades add their own complications; the engine will buck and race as it tries to hold the cars back, and Iíve seen at least one train jump the tracks because the weight of the cars trying to roll downhill was greater than gravityís ability to keep them on the rails. If you donít have room for a grade that your trains can handle, you may be better off keeping the layout flat.
- Benchwork the wrong height. This usually means itís too low. Bending over to work on a low layout will give you back trouble, and wiggling beneath it to work on the wiring will give you a bad attitude toward model railroading in general. Also, trains look better at eye level, and how many model railroaders have an eye level of three feet? Unless youíre constrained by double decks or similar restrictions, a permanent layout shouldnít be lower than 42", with 48" a better height; some will go even higher. But donít go too high, or the layout will be equally uncomfortable to work on, and youíll drastically reduce the area you can reach. If you have frequent visitors, keep their heights in mind, too — children and vertically-challenged adults donít get much enjoyment from a layout thatís too tall for them to see.
- Biting off more than you can chew. This means youíve designed a layout that you donít have the resources to build. Those resources can be money, time, or energy, but if you donít allow for ways to get a small part of the layout working, youíll probably lose interest before you can finish the whole thing. Better yet, if this is your first "real" layout, start small. Build a layout that doesnít fill your entire space; use it as a chance to hone your techniques for track laying, scenery, and wiring. You may find that the small layout is all you need, or all you can handle. If so, great! Thereís no rule that says a layout has to be huge to be fun. But if you still want to build The Big Dream, youíll do a much better job of it if youíve constructed one or two "practice" pikes first.
Access problems are issues of not being able to reach things.
Everything works as planned, but the humans canít interact with the layout properly.
This kind of problem results in a layout that doesnít get enough maintenance, starts to act balky, and gets abandoned because itís more frustrating than fun.
- Too much hidden track. The issue here is track cleaning, which is hard when you canít see or reach the track. The hidden sections will get dirtier than they should, which results in stalled trains. Some hidden track is often a good thing for a track plan, but make a way to get to it easily, both for cleaning and for retrieving the inevitable derailed cars.
- Turnouts in tunnels. Some swear by them, some swear at them. Turnouts are tricky critters under the best of circumstances. Hide one in a tunnel, and you multiply the problems of cleaning and maintenance, and perhaps add the excitement of not knowing for sure if itís thrown the right way as a train approaches. The consensus is that turnouts in tunnels can work if thereís no other way to make your plan fit, but there are no guarantees. For a beginner planning his/her first layout, they probably are not a good idea.
- Operator canít reach what he needs to reach. I did this to myself as I planned my own Big Dream. An industrial park was serviced by a long passing siding. One end of the siding was close to where Iíd stand while doing the switching, but the other end was four feet away — far out of reach, unless I walked all the way around to the other side of the peninsula. How could I uncouple a car I couldnít reach? Could I even read a car number from that far away? And forget about throwing a manual turnout from that distance. Mentally put yourself in each place where a train operator must stand to do his/her work, and verify that everything needed to do the job is close enough.
- Benchwork too wide. Donít kid yourself here — we arenít talking about how far you can reach to get a fingertip onto something. Weíre talking about how far you can reach to manually uncouple two cars, solder a wire to a rail, or adjust the throw rod of a turnout. For most people, at typical layout heights, thatís about two feet, and your reach gets shorter as the layout gets higher. Donít plan on climbing onto the benchwork to fix things; even if you make it strong enough to hold your weight, you wonít want to kneel on your finished scenery just to clean your track. Pop-up access holes can be a solution, but will your knees be up to the challenge twenty years from now? The best answer is either benchwork that is two feet wide or less, or benchwork that can be reached from both sides. Remember: if you canít reach it, you canít maintain it, and if you canít maintain it, trains wonít run on it.
- Aisles too narrow. This one is a judgment call, based on how you expect to run your railroad. If youíre a lone wolf with few visitors, you can probably get away with aisles less than two feet wide (assuming your waist is less than two feet wide and will stay that way). If you expect guests, or if your layout is meant for more than one operator, experts will strongly suggest giving up some train-table space in exchange for some people space. Three feet is about the minimum width for two people to pass each other without being very good friends. An access aisle doesnít have to be full width, but your main viewing areas should be at least that wide.
- Problems entering the train room. How do people get to your layout? Duck-unders will work, as long as you and your operators and guests suffer from no back or leg ailments. Lifting, dropping, and swinging bridges pose no limits to access, but they add construction, tracklaying and wiring problems. Check the published plans of the big, successful layouts; almost all of them are walk-in designs. Why? Because the simplest solutions are often the best.
- Human-traffic bottlenecks. Say you want a long mainline, and you can fit another loop of track into your space if you shrink an aisle at one point. Will it work? If the shrunk portion is smack in the middle of a high-traffic area, the answer is "no," because people wonít be able to pass freely through the one area where theyíll do the most passing through. Donít short-change the aisle space around the places where operators must stand to do their work. Also give space around the interesting areas where spectators will gather and linger — engine facilities, industrial parks, long bridges, and tunnel portals. And never make a dead-end aisle too narrow for two people to pass comfortably, or people may get trapped at the end, waiting for someone else to move so they can escape.
- Walk-around control issues. Tethered walk-around throttles are a great way to enjoy the trains and to troubleshoot distant track problems. If you intend to take advantage of them, make sure to allow for them in your plan. Are there enough jacks for the throttles? Are they in convenient locations? Will two operators get their cords tangled as they follow their trains around the layout? If your throttles canít be unplugged, are they placed so you can reach all the important parts of the pike? Will a cable block other peopleís access to an aisle? Mentally map out where the throttles can go, where they should go, and how they will affect human traffic.
- No workspace. Itís so tempting to fill your train space with nothing but trains! And the benchwork is a convenient place to work on projects, as long as the benchwork is just bare wood with a few tracks on it. But once the scenery is down, where will you assemble your kits and lubricate your locomotives? Be wise and leave some room for a workbench or desk in the train room. If your benchwork is tall enough, you can fit the work area partially beneath the layout — youíll be sitting down to work anyway.
Visual problems are issues of the layoutís appearance. Everything works, but it doesnít quite look right. This kind of mistake usually goes unrecognized for a while, causes mild annoyance when itís discovered, and keeps you from really being pleased with the layout from that day forward.
- Missing Christmas tree. In other words, your plan consists of loops of track that go around and around... and around. Maybe you need two or three separate loops for multi-train action, or a twice-around for a long mainline. Maybe you really like watching trains in orbit. But if the looping is too obvious, youíll never convince anyone that youíre running anything but a toy train set that ought to have a Christmas tree in the middle. There are many ways to visually break up a race-track: scenery or structures between the tracks, tunnels, track at varying heights, gentle curves instead of parallel straightaways, spur tracks into the middle of the layout. The idea is to make each loop look like itís in its own scene, somehow separate from the other tracks, and to minimize the fact that each track connects back onto itself.
- Too much track along the edge of the table. If most of your mainline runs parallel to your table edge, it looks just like the oval of track on the 4x8 that youíre trying to get away from — toylike. Let the track undulate in gentle curves (like the prototype does), or set the whole mainline at a slight angle to the benchwork.
- Not enough room for the scenery. This is especially hard to avoid on small layouts. Do your buildings fit between the tracks? Did you allow for the width of the roadbed before you said "yes" to that question? And how do your miniature workers get to each building — is there room for a road that leads to it? Itís also easy to not leave room for vertical scenery. Suppose you have two tracks next to each other, one low and one elevated. How do you join them scenically? A retaining wall? A rock cliff? Do retaining walls or rock cliffs make sense in the area youíre trying to model?
- Undersized structures. Itís tempting, especially on a small layout, to fit in more industries by reducing their size. Yes, thereís such a thing as selective compression. But when your factory is barely bigger than the boxcar next to it, it will look decidedly odd. Youíll also have a problem convincing anyone that such a small industry could fill a boxcar a day for your railroad. One or two decent-sized industries will look a lot better, and you can spot several cars on their spurs at once to generate as much traffic as a bigger number of smaller industries could do. Building flats are a great way to pull this trick off.
- Clashing scenery types. We sometimes want to put too much on our layouts,
without considering how the various elements will look next to each other.
This was beautifully illustrated in the Atlas book, Seven Step-by-Step HO Railroads. Thaddeus Stepek drew a picture of track running across a pond on a viaduct. Half of the pond was liquid, with sailboats; on the other side of the viaduct, it was frozen, with skaters. Nearby, a lone mountain rose straight out of the plains, and a tunnel ran through it instead of going around it. These are extreme examples, but the problem is real. If you absolutely have to have radically different locations or seasons on the same layout, it can be done with scenic dividers or carefully planned transitions. Skimp on the planning here and, to paraphrase the Atlas book, "you can decorate your layout so it would look better if you hadnít."
- Trying to include everything. Wouldnít it be nice if you had enough room to model the entire coal industry, from mines in the hollers to the seaports? Or the whole Pennsy four-track mainline from New York to Chicago? I have yet to see or meet anyone who had that kind of space. Itís tempting to try to have a little of everything, but if New York is only ten feet away from Chicago on your pike, youíve strained believability beyond the breaking point. And if your New York and Chicago are the size of Podunk and Jerkwater, forget it. As with scenery types, you can do it with careful use of scenic dividers. But for a first layout, youíll be much better off if you choose one or two scenes of reasonable size.
- Features you donít need. Is a model railroad still a model railroad if it doesnít have a yard, a roundhouse and turntable, a mountain with tunnels, and a river with bridges? Of course it is, but you wouldnít guess it by looking at a lot of published plans. We tend to assume that every pike must have these features, and a few others you can probably think of. If your kind of railroading needs them, then use them. But these space-eaters can devour your layout, crowding out other features that might be more important to you. Look at every major aspect of your plan and ask yourself: does my railroad need this? How would it suffer if I didnít have it? Would I be happier if I omitted it in favor of something I like better?
Operational problems are errors in planning how the trains will run.
Thereís nothing wrong with the plan or the way it looks. But when you try to go beyond toy-train running and do something realistic on your new layout, you discover that it canít be done.
As you browse this list, Iím sure youíll think of other problems that might arise,
or that have arisen in your own modeling past, which I neglected to mention.
Thatís great — it means this article has started you thinking about how to avoid trackplanning problems. An ounce of prevention goes a long way, even if the ounce is reduced to Z scale. And youíll enjoy your layout a lot more if itís free from basic problems at the outset. Keep 'em running!