I should start by saying I know nothing at all about trains and how they work.
Before I started this project I assumed when you built a model train you made a loop, added some scenery, put the train on it and let it run until you got bored with it. I was mostly wrong.
Because I have the need to over think and suck the fun out of everything I did a lot of research. I scanned internet sites, I read books, I (or rather, The Boy and I) subscribed to Model Railroader Magazine, and we visited train shows. It turns out there is so much more to this hobby than watching a train go around the track.
I think it’s safe to say that most serious model railroaders don’t even make loops. Loops aren’t very realistic. Other than the Monorail at Disney World, have you ever actually seen a train that makes a loop? What would be the point of that?
A “model railroad” is just that, a model of a real railroad. Most of the bigger layouts are point-to-point and operate like the real thing. Some of the bigger layouts (and there are some amazingly huge layouts in clubs and basements all over) have dispatcher booths and might require several people to operate them. They use actual schedules and waybills and move freight (or at least model freight cars) around on schedule, building trains, hooking up two boxcars and making ’em run right.
Some layouts might model an industry, such as coal. The operators will move coal cars from the mines down to whatever customers need coal. Occasional loads of wood will come down from the mountains and maybe a boxcar or two of supplies will need to go up to the mines. Because the layouts are smaller than the real thing, the schedule will operate on a clock that is designed to run fast so that the operators have the pressure of time to deliver their loads.
When I started looking into this hobby I went deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. I started with the basic train set and found an entire world I never knew existed. I guess any hobby is like that.
I don’t have the time, space, money or interest to build a point-to-point train all over my basement. I don’t have many friends (that I know of) who would be interested in coming over for an operating session where we spend the evening moving pretend freight around the tracks. The Boy wants to watch trains run. So do I. We’re looking for something a bit more simple.
Still, the idea of switching cars around, building trains, and generally doing more than watching appeals to us. We want to watch trains run but we might also want to do something. We’ll build a little bit of that into our layout.
The first thing we had to do was find a place to put the layout. A while back I’d identified a corner of the basement where we could set it up. After clearing out the space we first decided a 6’x6′ “L” shape would do. Then we got around to planning it and realized we really couldn’t do much with that size. It grew to a 6’x8′ layout. Then we added a 2’x’4 peninsula. It’s growing.
The space we had was against the wall of a storage room on one side and a concrete wall on the other. Taking up half the storage-room wall was a modeling bench I’d recently set up and I really had nowhere else to put the bench. After thinking about it for a bit I realized if I could build a short wall separating a sink from where the train would go I could put the bench against it and we’d have at least twelve feet for the layout along that wall.
Before we knew it we had a 12’x8′ L with a peninsula and I’d have to construct an additional wall in the basement. In over our heads? Just maybe.
In order to help us plan the layout we purchased a copy of RailModeler for the Mac. It has its quirks and it can be very frustrating to use, but it was adequate for our needs. Planning a layout of this size (actually somewhat small in the world of model trains) is an exercise in compromise. We wanted it all: tunnels, bridges, switches, grades, overpasses, roads, buildings, towns. Everything. It soon occurred to us that we couldn’t really have all that.
We bickered a bit. The Boy is at that age where he feels just because he wants something, it will work. I’m The Grown Up, otherwise knows as The Ruiner of Fun, so I would have to point out that a particular grade was too steep for an overpass to work, or that a tunnel would be inaccessible, or that we’d have no room for buildings if we had too much track, or that we had to limit the number of turnouts in order to keep the cost down.
We both learned to compromise and we’re still on speaking terms. Phew.
Eventually we settled on a loop with an overpass, a peninsula, and a couple areas with switches. A real model railroader would probably tell us why it isn’t realistic, why it’s impractical, why we’ll have trouble operating. That’s ok, it’s our layout, we’re new at this, and we’re just a father and son who want to build something.
Now we just have to build it.