Pro and cons of the helix
Few modeling subjects, apart from that of scale, have the power to elicit stronger opinions than that of helixes. Had I not once built and run one in a prior layout, this author would have not felt up to the task of attempting to dissect this subject. Given the passions that helixes inspire, there may be no doubt as to why hitherto fore no other author has attempted to tackle this subject for The Primer. With that out of the way, let's begin. Who the first modeler was to incorporate a helix into their layout escapes me. Yet, helixes have been around for many years now, and are no longer the novelty they once were. Time flies fast. How far helixes have come might best be seen on Rich Weyand's N-scale N&W Pocahontas Division (see Model Railroad Planning 2002 starting on page 76. Rich's multiple staging yards made possible by an awesome helix can be seen on page 80)
Helixes were invented to allow multiple-deck layouts where the decks were connected. Double deck layouts, to step back further, came about as model railroaders sought to create larger layouts in the space available to them. To step back even further, hobbyists sought larger layouts to enhance operating possibilities. Some may quibble with this chronology and with my perception, or interpretation, of motivations, but the picture presented is largely accurate when all is said and done.
So, what are the pros of helixes? First, they allow one greater operational possibilities in a given area. Second, helixes allow for a larger layout because they facilitate a double-deck or even multiple deck layout. Third, they often are used to facilitate access to a upper or lower deck used exclusively for staging yards. In sum, the helix, used as a solitary aid to layout planning/construction/operation or in multiples, can provide many benefits to modelers in most scales.
This begs the question whether some of the benefits of a helix can be derived from any other device. We shall explore that question when we get to the topic of the Cons of Helixes.
One might presume, given the previously enumerated benefits of helixes, nearly everyone seeking a larger layout would want one. But there is an undeniable price to be paid for the benefits of helixes. The Cons of helixes can be divided into three categories: operational problems; construction demands; space consumed; and cost. Operational problems include that access to derailed rolling stock or motive power can sometimes be difficult unless great care has been taken in the design of the helix. A second problem and one that inspires perhaps the most complaints is that trains can be hidden for a great deal of time while they travel through a helix. Operating crews can get very anxious about a train that is traveling throughout the layout yet is not seen. These crews worry whether the train is actually operating. Has it derailed? Is the consist still intact? Patrick Lawson, writing in Model Railroad Planning 2002 reminds us that helixes can also confuse visitors with trains disappearing for long periods of time and then reappearing in places that were unanticipated. There are partial solutions or possibly complete solutions to this problem but they entail added expense and work. Solutions can take the form of cameras strategically stationed at points through the helix or helixes; mirrors; operating crew stationed at the helix; and occupancy detectors. Under operations, I should also include some warnings about maintenance. Modelers must keep a helix clean. Of course, this goes for all other track work on a layout as well. The difference here is that the helix will generally be less accessible than other parts of the layout and so make cleaning more difficult. If one wishes to have ample separations between decks one might find that a helix must make so make circles that one must get on one¹s knees to get into the middle of the helix. I had a scenery hatch in the middle of the scenery above my helix. When getting on my knees to get under the bottom "rung" of my helix, I managed to cut my wrist with the Exacto® knife I was carrying to work on some scenery. Suffice it to say that the paramedics were soon on their way.
While some of the benefits of a helix can be lost by omitting scenery from atop a helix, some of the cons can thus be avoided as now there is greater flexibility as to the location of the helix and greater access to its workings.
Construction cons to a helix basically can be summarized as: additional work. A helix must be well planned; it must be constructed carefully; track generally must be laid as the carpentry phase progresses not after; construction can be time-consuming; track work must be bullet-proof, as they say. One had better have a few fit and handy friends to help them with their helix.
A helix can take up a great deal of space it takes the form of a blob to use John Armstrong's term. Of course, N-scale helixes may be a bit more economical of space. Nevertheless, remember you will want broad curves in your helixes, no matter what the scale, for operating reliability. You will also likely want two-track helixes for operational flexibility. Don't forget to take into account clearances between curved tracks and supports. Taking these facts together, don't be surprised to find your HO scale helix has a diameter of some six feet. Some of the cons of a helix take the form that a double-deck layout does not actually double the amount of layout space. However, any further discussion of the pros and cons of a multiple-deck layout will be left to the authors of other sections of this primer.
Cost cannot be ignored with helixes. Helixes consume lumber (both for the final helix and any that are discarded during the modeler¹s upward climb of the learning curve); hardware; tools; electrical wiring; and track. Any occupancy detectors or surveillance cameras one decides to use should be included in any cost estimate. Anyone considering a helix would ignore these costs at their peril. While we are on costs, readers should know that as of 2002 at least one firm now markets helix kits. Trainstyles, LLC of Suite 200, 115 East Freistadt Road, Thiensville, Wisconsin 53092 , EasyHelix.com advertised their Easy-Helix Standard Set for $229.95 plus $36.40. This author has no idea how effective this product is so look for reviews in the modeling press. Perhaps this product can effect a tradeoff between your hard labor to construct a helix from scratch and the cost of buying one pre-fabricated.
A helix may not be the only way to achieve a multiple deck layout. Some layouts incorporate a long gradual incline from one deck to the other. Others have simply built double-deck layouts with no connection between decks. Others have used a vertical turnout or transportable cartridges to hold a train.
Helixes are here to stay. They have proven themselves effective in most scales. They have proven quite popular at least among some of the finest layouts to be seen in the modeling press. Many great layouts would have been impossible without a helix or two. Yet, helixes are not right for everyone. I would be accused of "hiding the ball" if I failed to reveal that I would not repeat my own experiment with a helix. As I consider myself an average modeler, I must say that between barely avoiding a trip to the hospital; having thrown away my first attempt at building a helix before getting my second attempt up and running; and my posse of friends who are of an age when they look at getting on their knees to get under a helix with some trepidation, I will, without meaning to exclude women, leave helixes to better men then me, so to speak. After reading a long recital of their minuses, one should not be dissuaded from using one or more helixes on one's present or future layout. Simply stated, try a helix if you have a mind to but be aware of their sizable drawbacks and you will be more likely to have a satisfactory experience with your helix.