Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ten Model Railroad Myths

How's this? In the seminal movie classic "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", the knights' quest takes them to a towering castle facade. Each knight exclaims in turn...Camelot! Camelot! Camelot! A realist, the coconut-clopping patsy named Patsy, played by Terry Gilliam, derisively speaks his only line in the entire movie, "It's only a model." Finally, a realist. 

And this? Our local newspaper includes the jottings of a religion columnist - a retired minister - who doesn't write about religion so much as he writes about his doubts about religion. In the spirit of both these viewpoints, I present my derisively-doubting realist approach to ten model railroad myths that are held up to us as the holy grail - but are really only facades.

I humbly present each myth, followed by a likely comeback from a hypothetical proponent, and my comeback to that comeback. 

Myth 1: First, prepare the room! Paint. Install lighting. Hang valances. Build benchwork you can have a barn dance on. Lay roadbed, thereby forever condemning yourself to not easily changing your trackplan. Build fascia that dominates the scene and may diminish viewing of the trains. By the time all this is done, your enthusiasm is gone as is the chance of ever changing your trackplan. Build fascia that dominates the scene and may diminish viewing of the trains. By the time all this is done, your enthusiasm is gone and the chance of ever finishing this model empire is Slim to Nil. And Slim just left town. 
Comeback - a beautifully-appointed layout room begets a great layout. 
My comeback - a beautifully-appointed room can still house an incomplete, unsatisfying layout.
Myth 2: Big staging is critical to good operation. Noooo! 
Comeback - we need staging to organize our trains before we 'bring them onstage.'
My comeback - unless yours is a really large layout, no ya don't. Build a yard, call it a yard, use it as a yard.
Myth 3: Acquire your entire rolling stock fleet first. Don't do it. It's like diving in feet-first. You'll have shelves of locomotives and cars that you will never use and will have to offer them at remaindered prices on Ebay. 
Comeback - these are limited-run items and I don't want to miss out.
My comeback - buy one locomotive and five cars. Have fun with them first.
Myth 4: Multi-level layouts provide more realistic-length train runs and operation. No, they may make you into a contortionist who has to bend down to knee height or stand on a step-stool to reach your train. Every layout does not need a helix! 
Comeback - I need multiple levels to have more operation. 
My comeback - Have you ever seen a multi-level prototype? OK, here's one, a copper mine:
Myth 5: Kadee couplers and uncoupling tools are the most realistic means of coupling and uncoupling. Have  you ever seen a giant uncoupling tool come down out of the sky on the prototype?
Comeback - You use X2F couplers and I've never seen a giant 0-5-0 hand come down out of the sky and lift a car up to uncouple it!
My comeback - well, that's true. But I don't have to  look for an uncoupling tool every time I am switching.
Myth 6: Pie-in-the-sky, super-sized prototype local incorporation. usually comes across like this: "I am looking for prototype photos and detailed information about operations for my proposed layout. I will be modelling CN's mainline from Toronto to Vancouver in N scale." This can never happen!  Bet it will look like track glued to a board, like many other layouts. Keep it small, do-able and local. 
Comeback - why limit myself? I want big scope and the ability to model areas that are widely-separated geographically but still interest me.
My comeback - nobody will believe it, unless you are building a Disney-sized attraction in a building the size of Costco.
Myth 7: Great layouts need to be replicated on my layout. Be careful of this one. Are you creating your own layout? Or are you reproducing someone else's locale, concept, trackplan and/or the 'look' of their layout?
Comeback - the experts have some great ideas that I want to incorporate.
My comeback - do so! Just don't let your layout use someone else's layout as a prototype.

Myth 8: I am still refining my layout's trackplan using software brand X, specifically created for this purpose. Don't spend too long - you'll get bogged down as you drag curvaceous curly-cues all over your computer screen, and you won't even make it to the step in Myth 1 above. Either draw it on a cocktail napkin or just start building it. 
Comeback - I need this computer-generated design so that I can guild my ridiculously-cetailed cardboard mockup of my layout room - the next step in the design process.
My comeback - that will keep you farther away than ever from reaching the step in Myth 1.

Myth 9 - I need car reversible car-cards with those little mini-cards showing lading, one for every car, so that each car has a believable origin and destination. Why limit yourself? Come up with your own operation system that is flexible and fun, easy, and likely much cheaper. Are you a gamer, or are you a model railroader, after all?
Comeback - I need my car cards, the fascia pockets to put them in, I need to hold them, my uncoupling tool and my throttle in my hands at all times. 
My comeback - you are not a squirrel gathering nuts here. The train will run whether you have all the car cards in hand or not.
Myth 10: It's only craftsman structure kits for my layout. Expensive ones with excruciatingly exact detail. Are you building a diorama or a model railroad here? Decide!
Comeback - I enjoy building scintillating scale structures and they're necessary for prototype fidelity. 
My comeback - build structures that represent your interest and add inexpensively to the feel of your layout. And for goodness' sake, if you do build nice kits, especially back-dated period structures, don't use Helvetica rub-on lettering to add the company name. This goes for cutesy names like I.M. Offal Meat Packing Company!
So that's it. Consider false-front buildings. Lots of western towns had them. They made buildings look imposing from the dusty street, but in reality they were just regular buildings with imposing fronts. Look past model railroad myths, just as you would a false front building. Get behind the facade and think. Consider whether it's a myth or reality, then really enjoy your model railway!

I can operate the Super Continental on the floor with my cat watching, capture it on video and post it on Youtube. This is actually true. A loyal Trackside Treasure reader has done just that, and it allows him and his viewers alike to relish the memories of the early VIA Rail era while getting scale wheels rolling. Well done!

Full disclosure: I've been a model railroader for decades. I've read and re-read stacks of model railway magazines. I've clipped articles about modelling ideas that interest me. Lots of stuff that doesn't goes right in the blue recycling box. I've built a few HO-scale layouts. They're not the world's best, but I have run thousands of trains, around and around or back-and-forth. And I've loved doing it. You don't have to be exactly like me, or share all my opinions, but consider some of the above. Keep moving along the mainline to modelling enjoyment!


Zartok-35 said...

Thanks for the shout out, Eric! The floor operations I record are actually the direct result of unsatisfying layout construction. I'd rather run the trains and watch them, than use all my enthusiasm building carpentry projects and installing scenery; my primary interest right with the Super Connie is the train itself, instead of the environment its in. And this way my cat can watch, too!

Unknown said...

Good reminder to all of us not to get too obsessed with planning and miss all the fun!

Eric said...

Thanks for your comments, Elijah and Malcolm and for keepin`it real, Elijah. Hope other modellers will follow your example and just have some fun, for Pete`s sake!!

Canadian Train Geek said...

I love operations and I'm still deciding on car cards vs switch lists vs whatever, but in the meantime, I just run trains! :)

Eric said...

Agreed, Steve. Whatever is simplest and keeps you as organized as you want to be.

I know that some large layout hosts spend a day or two in pre- and post-op session organization. I guess they like that sort of thing, as they do having a cadre of folks building structures or scenery for `their`layout.

I started model railroading running the train around, but quickly got into operations, based on Frank Ellison articles in MR.

I guess operation appeals to the organized-side of our brains. Then there is the run-around the layout-side of our brains! But in the end, setting out or lifting that one car at that one industry is how most trains begin and that`s what I find most interesting, enjoyable and prototypical about model railroading!

Thanks for your comment,

Michael said...

I would agree with any point that stresses that bigger isn't always better. I face a limited space issue and have for years. My solution was to build a tiny N-scale branch line operation. It's on a former JYSK four-seater table, but it's my own little world and it's immensely satisfying for me.

Eric said...

Sounds like roughly the same proportion that works for me, Michael - about 10x10 feet in HO scale. Any bigger and I realize I really don't like doing 'laps' as much as I do switching. Of course, I learned this the hard way, building then downsizing from a 23x10-foot layout. It was still fun to operate though, with 10-15 car freight trains!

Thanks for your comment,

BArailsystem said...

Great points Eric. I find most of the time people forget the #1 rule that it is supposed to be fun. I've yet to use a fast clock, formal operating plan, car-cards or radio headsets.
You just can't beat a few friends shootin' the breeze, cold beers and casually running trains.

Eric said...

I've read about fast clocks, formal operating plans, headsets and car-card systems and have also decided - no thanks!

Breeze, beer and boxcars...yes!

Thanks for your comment, Ben.

jeff said...

You ought to submit this as a Reverse Running to Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine...