Using Givens and Druthers to guide the process

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An Exercise in Compromises

The idea of modeling a railroad brings the typical modeler immediately to a problem. While someone might really like the idea of recreating a transcontinental mainline (let's say the 2500 mile Northern Pacific line from St. Paul to Seattle) in HO scale, reality hits hard. That line, modeled in 1:87 HO scale, would be about 29 miles long. Moving to 1:160 N scale, it shrinks to a mere 16 miles. I don't know about you, but I don't have a 16 mile long basement (especially with the 60 foot ceiling the room would need to house the Rockies and Cascades).

So in order to recreate the prototype, we need to decide which aspects we're most interested in, and those on which we're willing to compromise.

Every layout based on the Santa Fe looks different, even though they're all based on the same prototype. Some focus on the double track mainline across the flat (yeah right) Midwest. Others conquer Cajon or Tehachapi passes in California. Others portray the long granger branches in Texas. Some may have but a single town, others may have one end called Chicago and another called Los Angeles.

Why are all of these different? Because in the Givens and Druthers of each layout design, the builder has chosen (or been handed) different values, and thus the end result will be different.

The Basic Definitions

The Givens are the parameters that can't easily be changed. Druthers are the choices that need to be made, from a wide variety of possibilities. That's all. They're useful terms when we speak of the compromises that will be made.

So What Can I Do?

Out of all the possible elements of layout design, there is no fixed list of which fall under Givens and which constitute the Druthers. I'm not going to attempt to create such a list, as I believe that each modeler needs to answer these questions for their own layout.

The selection of some choices will affect the likelihood of some of the other choices, which will affect... and so on. These aren't often "this or that" kinds of choices, but move along a spectrum of possibilities between the two endpoints. There's no magic formula, into which we can plug all of our choices and get a single answer for our layout design.

Some of the most common questions

*What kind of space do you have?

This is probably most often considered to be a Given. Most people seem to have a certain fixed amount of space to use for their railroad. At best, one or two of the boundary lines may be political in nature, as opposed to a solid, immovable wall. But give consideration to the fact that moving some of the structural elements around in your basement is often quite possible, and the expense and aggravation of doing so will be outweighed by the benefits over the many years of your layout construction and operation. Many people have designed and built additions to their house in order to house the layout, allowing them to build to exactly suit their needs (wiring, room size & shape, and more).

*What scale are you modeling in?

Many times this is also considered to be a Given, especially for second (or later) layout designs, since there is often a significant investment (both in time and money) in existing rolling stock, buildings, and the other scale specific items. However, there seems to be a greater incidence of modelers who are willing to switch scales to suit their current needs. This is not a step taken lightly, but if you're switching eras and will be buying or building new equipment anyway, building in the new scale often isn't a great insurmountable leap.

*What prototype (if any) are you following?

Knowing the prototype gives many clues and suggestions for design ideas. You might select a railroad and then choose a specific location on that road, or just some representational area in a fictional setting. Or you might select a region of the country and choose a railroad from those that operate in the area. Another possibility is to select a type of operations and then select a prototype that matches the needs (if you like passenger trains, find a railroad or area that runs a lot of the sort of trains you like).
Note that the selection of a prototype need not be made from a list of actual, real life, railroads. Many of the most famous model railroads have been "freelanced". The key to successful freelancing is having a solid understanding of railroading practices, so that you can make appropriate decisions for your own railroad. Taking good ideas from a real railroad is certainly common among freelancers.

*What timeframe are you recreating?

This will affect some elements of the design. If you model a specific prototype, the scenes you create will place the viewer in time. A Horseshoe Curve with two tracks is a modern scene. Track pans for water show the late-steam era. CTC signal equipment didn't exist until the 1920's, and wasn't common everywhere until much later.

*What sort of equipment do you intend to run?

This definitely impacts the sizing of your layout. If you intend to run long passenger trains full of 85' cars, pulled by articulated steam locomotives., then you had better make the appropriate plans for this. Your minimum radius will be much larger than that needed on a layout where the largest piece of equipment is a small Heisler and the cars are 4 wheel log flats. If you're not sure what your future desires might be, and you have the space for it, choose a minimum radius that's somewhat larger than you need today. It'll look better on the shorter equipment, and may well be sufficient for the future needs of your layout.

*What construction techniques are you willing to use?

If you intend to use SnapTrack or some other form of pre-fabricated track sections, that imposes some notable restrictions as to what size curves you can use and how the different pieces fit together. Using flexible track sections and a wider range of pre-fab switches increases your flexibility dramatically, while hand laying the track ensures that if you can build it, it will fit.
The tradeoff is between work and appearance. Yard throats laid by hand, with switch angles that flow beautifully into the ladder tracks, smooth curves with crossovers between adjacent tracks, and other hallmarks of do-it-yourself tracklaying is also a sign that a great deal of time has been spent in the layout room.

*What do you want to do with the trains?

This is one of the continuum choices, where two fairly nebulous terms are the endpoints. So have some fun trying to choose between mainline running and switching. I hear you saying "But I want both". That's why it's a range, not an either/or situation. You certainly _can_ have both, But it's not always easy to do this.
For example, take a starter layout on a 4x8 sheet of plywood. A simple loop, maybe a figure eight, and a few small spurs into the middle of the board, and that's about all you can fit into the layout. Continuous running is certainly possible, and switching is as well, but I'd call the emphasis more towards running. One example of this is the Carolina Central in the December 1996 Model Railroader.
On the other hand, David Barrow's South Plain District (Sept. - Dec. 1996 MR) is slightly smaller than a 4x8 in terms of square footage (just barely, but it is smaller). And yet the switching capabilities of this layout are vastly greater than on that 4x8 loop. David made his choices much further towards the switching side, since there really is no capability for continuous running, and without staging on either side there's no room for those mainline run-through trains to live.
While it's very possible to create a railroad that has a good balance between these two, if you're not interested much in switching, then you can avoid a lot of design and construction effort for tracks that you're not going to use. Conversely, a beautiful long double-track mainline isn't as useful when you're running a single train and performing local switching in every town.

*What does the layout scenery include?

Another continuum choice, often described as a tradeoff between tracks/operation and scenic realism.
A scene that very faithfully depicts even the smallest of towns, with the proper amount of trackage and distance between the various elements, will consume a huge amount of space. One can compress these features, increasing the operational capabilities, but at the expense of the true-to-life nature of the scene.
An example of this would be a grain elevator. Even the smallest elevator will have a track for 6-8 cars, with most having room for 15-20 or more. But that's a LOT of space (7'-10' in HO scale) to dedicate to a single industry. So build the siding with room for 3-4 cars, taking 1-2' to do so, and you'll capture much of the feel, at the cost of some realism.
The spaghetti bowl 4x8 might be way to the track/operation side of the range, while a representation of 2 miles of AT&SF mainline across the middle of Kansas, where there are no industries, and the only operational interest is a siding (if even that), would sit way to the right (scenic realism).

Some people would like a simple way to represent all of these choices as variables in an equation, and then come up with a single layout design that meets all of the requirements. That dream is just that, a fantasy. Two people with all of the same "high level" design criteria will still generate different designs and different ideas.


About this content:
Original author: David D Zuhn. Last revised in 1996.
This LDSIG article is ©1996 by David D Zuhn (email ).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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