Sunday, May 12, 2024

Comments on layout goals and achievements

At this year’s Prototype Rails meeting in Cocoa Beach, Florida, I greatly enjoyed a presentation by Bill Darnaby about his layout, including comments considering both his original goals, and lessons learned. It was very illuminating for me to absorb these kinds of ideas from a layout builder with one of the great layouts (in my estimation). Incidentally, for more on the Cocoa Beach meeting, see:

This made me re-examine my own goals and accomplishments, along with thoughts on what I might do differently had I known then what I know now. I don’t mean to suggest that I am unhappy with my layout; in fact, I think it has turned out much like I really wanted. Here’s an example of what I enjoy: the Santa Rosalia local, having finished its work on the branch, returning to Shumala.

But I do want to write a few words about goals and lessons learned. I’ll begin with initial goals. Having had a double-deck layout in a 16 x 19-foot space when I lived in Pittsburgh, PA, I had already encountered the need for a fair amount of maintenance. And some of that maintenance was in hidden or double-deck track areas, not really fun. Accordingly, one resolution about a new layout was to keep it smaller, minimize hidden track, and maximize accessibility. 

That Pittsburgh layout also had 2 percent grades between the two main line levels, which naturally limited locomotive performance on the main line, and also made any derailments in hidden track much more dramatic. Thus a second resolution was to eliminate such grades as much as possible.

The Pittsburgh layout was E-shaped, and the main part I salvaged was the peninsula in the middle of the E, on the upper level. That layout was described in the cover story for the June 1990 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. Here is the plan of the upper level of that layout. Note that the fictional short line, the Lompoc & Cuyama, left Jalama through a tunnel to climb up to Ballard on the other side. Note also that the L&C beyond Ballard traversed a wye and climbed up to a kind of third level at Cuyama staging.

The old peninsula, center of the drawing above, became the main part of a new layout after my move to Berkeley, CA. So now the layout is T-shaped (the old peninsula became the upright leg of the T), see below. The view below exaggerates the nearest part of the layout because it is so much nearer the camera, but it does show half of the “crossbar” of the T in the left distance, called East Shumala, and the other half at right, the town of Santa Rosalia.

The SP tracks at what was Jalama (now Shumala) were extended around the peninsula under Ballard, making a perfectly level SP main line as a loop underneath Ballard (see: ). The track from the mainline junction climbed up to Ballard in both the old and new versions. This met the accessibility and minimal hidden track goals.

I began to feel that the imaginary short line wasn’t a great idea, and turned it into a fictitious Southern Pacific branch line in the same area. This of course means that the locomotives, cabooses, depots, paperwork, etc. etc. are all from a familiar railroad rather than an imaginary one, increasing the perceived reality for visiting operators.

I’ve never had any urge to model mountains or deserts or forests or wide plains of farms. I think each of those is pretty difficult to accomplish convincingly in a limited space, and usually will have limited switching opportunities, and I enjoy switching. I think dense urban environs, with plenty of switching, can be modeled in limited space, but that in turn limits options on track arrangements, as well as requiring modeling of numerous large and tall structures.

What I have chosen is to represent somewhat rural towns, but with a little industrial content. Such places do exist, and I have been happy with my results in this direction. My towns have agricultural components like packing houses, along with a few manufacturing industries and typical small-town businesses like bulk oil dealerships and wholesale grocers. This means varied traffic in and out of each town.

My chosen prototype has always been Southern Pacific; I grew up with both SP and Santa Fe in Southern California, but always liked SP best. I have often remarked that I wanted to model the late steam era along with early diesels. That led me to the year 1953, as that was the last year on the SP’s Coast Division that steam locomotives outnumbered diesels. After that, steam declined precipitously.

I feel that the era choice has worked out well, and I think it’s useful to recognize that choosing a specific era is usually liberating: developments in later years are just not your problem. I am sorry not to have orange ends on cabooses, a wonderful look, but it’s a look that arrived in the late fall of 1955. Other examples could be cited, but I have stuck to my chosen era. 

So looking at a scene like this one, with Harriman Consolidation 2575 (complete with “whaleback” tender) spotting a reefer at the ice deck in my town of Shumala (formerly Jalama), I’m entirely content with what I have chosen to do.

I continue to evaluate my various accomplishments, and to refine my own understanding of my layout design choices, most of which were instinctive at the time they were implemented; it’s taken some time and thought to understand what I was actually doing. But I think I’m getting there.

Tony Thompson

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