Beyond the basement and what it does for you
Most everyone who gets into model railroading starts off in a similar way -- an oval of track around the living room floor during the holidays. And nearly as often, the first layout they create is an extension of that first experience, a loop of track on a sheet of plywood. Sometimes it's a bit more elaborate -- a figure eight, or a twice around -- but the trains still go round, and round, and round. That's entertaining for a little while, but inevitably the modeler loses interest. The layout gets abandoned fairly quickly, sometimes even before the scenery gets started. And modelers who might have gone on to have great fun in the hobby get frustrated and take up another hobby like R/C planes or cars instead.
Why? This type of layout has been popular since the very first trainsets were made and up through the present day. Literally dozens, maybe hundreds of layout books have been written showing endless permutations of the venerable four-by-eight loop, and a few larger or smaller designs also based on the loop plan. These books are still sold today in hobby shops, marketed as beginnner books. It's entirely possible more loop layouts have been built than any other type of layout in history. So why does it fail to hold out interest once we start running trains on it? What's wrong with it?
Well, nothing -- if a loop layout is what you really want, and you really like watching a train circle a loop of track again and again. The problem is most people today get bored quick with a simple loop design, and lose interest in playing with or operating the layout. Loops are boring. Unfortunately, many beginners don't realize that. Beginners mostly build loops because that's what they know, it's what they start out with on that living room floor. Because it's simple -- they already have that loop of sectional track that came with the trainset, and it fits really well on an easily obtainable 4x8 sheet of plywood. Because they buy layout books full of loop designs cover to cover, giving the concept apparent validation. And finally they build loops because they just don't know there are other choices available to them, or why they should consider them. (For more information on different types of layouts you can choose from, see primer section XX, what kind of layout should you build?)
Birth of Beyond the Basement
The "classic" loop layout's flaw isn't obvious to the beginning model railroader, although if you think about it the answer is plain as day: Real trains don't travel in loops, passing the same location over and over again. Real trains go someplace. They appear from the horizon, snake past a location just once, and continue on to unseen far off destinations. We all know that real trains go somewhere, and we know after the sixty-third time around that loop that the California Zephyr really isn't getting any closer to California. Real trains don't go round and round -- toys do.
One of our most infuential modelers of the 1970's (and today), W. Allen McClelland, identified the loop problem -- very common at that time -- and offered a solution. He advanced an idea called "Beyond the Basement". It means to make your layout seem to extend beyond the physical boudaries in the space, to actually appear to be a working part of the nationwide U.S. rail network. Trains on your railroad appear to originate from some unseen place, pass thru or perform work on the modeled portion of the railroad, and then continue on to some other unseen place.
McClelland showed that by more closely simulating the actual movement of trains on the visible portion of the layout, a more realistic experience is created on the model. To this end, he found a way to include hidden tracks on his layout where entire trains could be hidden from view. During an operating session, trains were driven off these "layover" track, as they were called, and onto the layout. These trains then performed whatever work they were assigned to, and eventually returned to a layover track out of sight. Layover tracks in this era were often extra sidings routed around the outside edge of a hidden turnback loop. It was adequate, usually, for the shorter trains popular in that era, on what were usually modest-sized layouts.
Today, we call these layover tracks "Staging Yards". This name came about to describe the "off-stage" location of these tracks, and the change from siding tracks to yard tracks also describes the different philosophy and design today. Staging yards, which are usually hidden, are most often located at the "end" of the railroad, and usually have more tracks and capacity than the layover tracks on a loop ever could. They are most often located at the extreme ends of the modeled railroad and represent the continuation of the right of way beyond the modeled portion, or nearby interchanges with other railroads. Either way, they represent the unseen connections to the world beyond our modest plaster and wire models.
It's true that it's easier to provide permanent staging for a medium to large-size layout, but it can be done on a 4x8 as well. As long as the train comes from somewhere and eventually leaves, you can take advantage on the beyond the basement idea. A pair of layover tracks inside a hollow rock face along the back edge is one idea. If you can work with a removable extension or drop-down leaf that works well too. A staging extension, for instance, can be represented by a removable car float or ferry that mates with the edge of the layout. there are many possibilities, if you look around you too will get many ideas.
Adding some staging or layover tracks to your design will allow you to hide trains offstage, and enter the layout as though from locations beyond what's visible. They perform their work as actors on a stage you control, and finally disappear into the wings, to travel off into the sunset with their freight and passengers bound for far-off places. It's much more realistic and satisfying than watching the zephyr wear a ring into the living room carpet, right?