Some railway modellers are critical of using John Allen's Timesaver as a layout design because they consider the track layout to be "too artificially complicated" and therefore unrealistic. No railroad, they argue, would ever build anything like the Timesaver (or any other type of "switching puzzle") because real railroads try to make industrial trackage as simple as possible.

In terms of a general principle, yes, real railroads try to make industrial trackage as simple as possible, because it's one way of cutting expenses. But ruling out a Timesaver track layout as a conclusion is based on wrong assumptions on how model railroading is related to real railroads.

  Railway modelling is not simply a scale reduction of the "real thing", but rather an extrapolation of various specific aspects and characteristics of what we see on the prototype. In fact our interpretation may even be wrong in terms of true and factual functionality, yet it will be our interpretation of what we perceive railroads to be.

We see a rail yard and interpret what we see, trying to deduce a schematic. For some, this is already enough, whilst others will try to do some additional research to better understand what it is they are seeing. In both cases, however, rendering this scene in model form will require some substantial reduction in complexity as well as compression in terms of spatial size.

Strictly speaking, there can be but very few layouts which are "realistic" in the true sense of the word. One example is Angela Halliday and Tony Caine's Hayling Island which is a dimensionally accurate 4mm finescale model of a small branchline terminus in the South-East of England.

"Dimensionally accurate" means that the track plan strictly conforms to the official British Railways station plan of the 1950s, i.e. it's all there. Needless to say, Hayling Island was a fairly small affair, but the layout has a length of 20 ft (6 m) and a depth of 7 ft (2,10 m), and trains enter the fiddleyard almost immediately after leaving the station area. In other words: on a layout measuring 8 ft (2,40 m) in length (as with the "standard" US 8 x 4 ft layout), you can "realistically" model a stretch of railroad line measuring approximately 680 ft (205 m) in H0 scale.

Obviously, model railroading doesn't work that way, because if it did, few modellers would have layouts which would be of much interest. One of the most important aspects (and indeed the basis of) railway modelling is selective compression, which really is comparable to the technique of forced perspective in visual art olr the suspension of belief in fiction. Essentially this means that certain things on a layout are as close to scale as possible, whereas others are deliberately underscaled (i.e. compressed) - most importantly distances as well as curve radii and grades.

John Allen's Timesaver is a showcase of maximised compression. Anybody looking to find a prototype location fitting or resembling the Timesaver therefore can't expect to find the layout's trackage unfolding within a few hundred yards - there could be intermediate lengths of track to the Timesaver anywhere between the turnouts, and the strictly linear character of the trackplan could be broken up by tracks curving away in any direction.  
Bearing in mind that what we are looking for will be stretching out much more on the prototype than on the Timesaver layout, it's even possible to find locations which can be considered prototype examples of John Allen's classic switching puzzle - not in terms of operation of course, but certainly in terms of track layout.

Operations of the Canton RR at the Seagrit Marine Terminal
(picture is and courtesy of the Canton RR)

  Take, for example, the Canton Railroad, a class III shortline switching road located on the east side of Baltimore, in the middle of one of the city's most heavily industrialzed areas, serving the Baltimore area’s waterfront facilities, warehouses and industries.

Its stock is owned by the Maryland Transportation Authority, but the railroad operates as an independent, private enterprise with no state subsidies or state participation in railroad operations.

Needless to say that the Canton Railroad, chartered in 1906, is an efficient railroad serving warehouses and distribution facilities for several significant industrial concerns. Switching cars is business, and the Canton RR certainly has no interest whatsoever in "switching puzzles".

However, looking at the system map of the Canton RR and applying some "decompression", the trackage to the West (around Haven St Terminal) doesn't look that far removed from the Timesaver.
The only truly unrealistic aspect of the Timesaver is the fact that the track layout is aimed at deliberatly causing difficult switching moves. Naturally, any real railroad would avoid this, but sometimes even they can't quite iron out everything, especially if the area is built up and generally features tight clearances, as is so often the case with industrial tracks in urban surroundings.

Some critics argue that the Timesaver is, quite simply, an example of bad layout design because it causes artificial complications which will put modellers - and especially those new to the hobby - off, no matter whether the Timesaver is a standalone design or integrated into a bigger layout. These critcis maintain that much simpler track designs (which they also see as being more realistic and thus prototypical) offer at least as much fun in operating the layout.


Map of the Canton RR [click for larger image]
(map is and courtesy of the Canton RR)

These points are actually all very valid arguments - as long as they are not put forward as absolute truths. Operating a Timesaver layout is not a one-layout-fits-all formula for model railroading fun. If you don't particularly like solving puzzles, you should clearly think twice before starting to build a Timesaver. On the other hand, if you enjoy moving rolling stock around and face a challenging move every now and then, the Timesaver may just be right for you.
Different model railroaders with differing interests will build and operate different layouts in different ways. It's as simple as that - or as complicated, depending on how you see things.

Which is why some modellers, authors and bloggers perceive the Timesaver as something which could easily have come straight from a 1950s horror comic book.

Others, however, see the Timesaver as a clever way of adding some extra operational challenge to their model railroading. And contrary to what some critics claim, their source of railroading entertainment is not entirely without connection to the prototype.


Prototype Timesaver locations


U.S.A.: The Hoboken Shore Railroad featured a Timesaver track configuration at the Port of New York Authority in Hoboken, New Jersey, but that's not the only aspect of the HBS RR which makes this a perfect prototype to model for a switching puzzle layout.

U.S.A.: The Effingham Railroad Company features a Timesaver track configuration within the Effingham Business Park - a perfect prototype for a real-life modern shortline operations Timesaver switching puzzle layout.


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Page created: 18/OCT/2002
Last revised: 04/OCT/2013