The Incredible Expanding Layout

Almost overnight I feel as though my layout has doubled in size, all of this without adding a single turnout or section of track.   It’s becoming apparent that I probably have a lot more model railroad than I actually need to keep me entertained.  What happened?  In the past year I’ve learned an enormous amount about how the prototype crews actually go about their job, the speed with which they do it, and the tasks that are necessary.   To the extent that it’s practical, I’ve tried to represent as many of these tasks as possible in model form simply because I  find doing so to be enjoyable.  The end result is it takes me a lot more time to spot a car now than it did last year when I knew less.

Let’s say that the most common style of operation is a solo session running roughly sixty to ninety minutes.  The way most model operators prefer to run is what I call the car movement checklist.  By that I mean the operator runs at a moderately slow pace and the only objective is to place a car in the proper location and check the task off as ‘done’.  It becomes an exercise in ‘finishing the list’ and the better you get at it, the more items you can get done in a given time span.   Many modelers find replicating most of the operational tasks of the prototypical switching crew as boring and therefore they skip them.  No harm in that as the goal of a session is to do it in a way that the owner finds most enjoyable.  That said, operating under this style you can spot an enormous number of cars and work a LOT of industries.  It takes a lot of layout, track, and industries to fill up those sixty to ninety minutes.

However, the flip side also applies and that is what happened in my case.  If you enjoy representing all of the tasks a switch crew performs, it will take you MUCH longer to spot your cars.  The end result is it takes a lot less track and a lot less layout to keep you entertained for those sixty to ninety minutes.  A year ago, I would have switched four or five industries during an hour long solo session.  Now, I only get two done.  Unlocking gates, unlocking turnouts, setting up fusees, stopping at crossings, setting hand brakes, and air tests, all add major amounts of time to the task of placing a car.

Should you model all operational tasks in detail?  It would be easy to come across as self righteous and say this approach is best.    It may not be in your situation.  It’s only the best if that approach increases your enjoyment of the hobby.  If you find it boring, it would be crazy to go to that level of detail simply because somebody stated it was the ‘right’ way to operate.

Since layout size and complexity (turnout and industry count) is such a major planning decision, you owe it to yourself to make a totally informed decision as to what is involved with each approach and which  is most satisfying for you.    Take the time to educate yourself and run a session or two where all of the prototype tasks are represented.  One of the fastest ways to do this is to find a professional railroader to come over and operate with you.  With a little searching you’ll discover that finding such a person is much easier than you would think.  Read books on prototype switching operations.  Watch switching videos on YouTube.  If after a few sessions you find such a detailed operating style is flat out dull, then back off and gradually eliminate prototype tasks until you get the pace you find the most enjoyable.

Just remember though, the more detailed the operational style, the less layout it takes to fill a given amount of time.    If you enjoy detailed operations, at the earliest planning stages you need to come to grips with how long you want your operating sessions to last.  If you’re like most people and generally run solo for an hour or so, you might really want to rethink designing that twenty industry switching layout.  You’ll never be able to utilize its full capacity.  Conversely, the more you move towards the ‘car mover’ style of operations, the more model railroad it will take to entertain you.

Another psychological aspect that factors in is sound.  It’s purely anecdotal, but my experience has been that the higher the quality of the sound system, the slower people tend to operate.  I’ve noticed I’m running at an even slower pace since implementing my headphone sound system.