SMALL LAYOUTS & SHUNTING LAYOUTS
"...I would like to build a layout - but I just don't have any room for it..." - Small layouts are big fun - Operation: the key to sustaining interest in a small layout - Operational concept: what a small layout is all about
Operational concept: what a small shunting layout is all about - Traffic flow: what goes where and why - Basic switch list Specified car switch list (Card and waybill system) - Scenario lists - From a shunting layout to a shunting puzzle
|"...I would like to build a layout - but I just don't have any room for it..."|
are: this statement will sound familiar to you, no matter
whether you're a seasoned railway modeller or a newcomer
to the hobby. In fact, it's probably a key theme of
railway modelling - even just browsing the internet or
trough books and magazines on railway modelling will
quickly reveal that this is one of the topics which keeps
coming up again and again, often under such headings as
"finding room for your layout" or "small
layouts which fit anywhere".
There's few railway modellers who don't marvel at those grandiose layouts which take up the better part of (or have indeed taken over completely) a spare room or a spacious basement. However, it is a simple fact of life that few of us could replicate such huge model railway empires. The immediate conclusion that we could never ever find the space for anything like these layouts graciously saves us from having to consider whether we would also have the spare time, financial means and artistic creativity to build a large model railway layout - and actually get beyond the barest stage of initial construction.
Basically, this leaves you with two possibilities: either you forget about railway modelling because you find you can't model London's Victoria station or the Pennsy's Horseshoe Curve in full and won't put up with anything less, or you reconsider your initial plans and start thinking more in terms of what type of layout will fit the space you have available.
One point often considered if space is restricted is to opt for a smaller modelling scale, such as N or Z, but sometimes, even this doesn't really help - the layout will just simply have to be really small. But as in so many cases, necessity for some turns out to be a virtue.
|Small layouts are big fun|
European modellers have seemingly always been plagued
more by a lack of space than their American colleagues,
who - if the cliché is to be trusted - all have entire
basements at their disposal. Naturally, that simply is
not true, as space quickly becomes a premium in any urban
area (witness the Japanese modellers' strong traditional
leaning towards N scale).
However, differences remain, even though the concept and definition of what makes a layout "small" has seen substantial changes over the past twenty years.
|With generally far less spare space available in their living quarters, British railway modellers developed small and minimum size layout concepts very early on, and the resulting "shelf layout" formula became accepted mainstream practice for those who wanted a layout but lacked the space and/or the inclination to build a fully blown mainline setup. As a result, small layouts featuring backwater branchlines almost became a cliché of British railway modelling.|
|Even smaller - in fact just one little step up from a static diorama - is Tony Wood's Barber's Bridge (which was featured in the January 2000 issue of Rail Express Magazine).|
|The micro and the minimal space layouts really form a special category of small layouts (which often also allow the use of larger modelling scales in spite of the small overall layout footprint, such as e.g. Jim Read's O Gauge 7mm micro layouts), but Carl Arendt's early internet presence along with his books no doubt helped to make the concept more popular with North American modellers.|
|Operation: the key to sustaining interest in a small layout|
a big layout, you can just sit back somewhere and watch
the trains fly by - and because there's 50+ of them, most
people will be kept happy for as long as a session of
running trains will take. But what is going to sustain
interest on a small layout, where train movement, quite
obviously, is restricted? In other words: what happens
after 5 minutes, when the locomotive has traversed the
length of the layout ten times?
Apart from playing with trains (which in fact is what we're all doing but we'd never admit it in public, and the verb "play" is therefore an absolute no-no amongst modellers), there's the possibility of either running trains or operating them.
"Running trains" obviously is a broad concept. All it really indicates is that model trains must be moving some way or another. At one end of the spectrum, they might just be orbiting on an oval of track at top speed, and the train might consist of an American diesel locomotive, a couple of Australian passenger coaches, one Swiss restaurant car (complete with pantograph for overhead electrification), and last but not least a British guard's van. However, in railway modelling lingo "running trains" usually indicates something at the other end of the concept, namely aiming at creating a coherent picture of both the trains and the environment they run through. This would mean that American locomotives of a certain period pull American rolling stock of (more or less) the same period while running through an American landscape of (more or less) the period in question. The amount of compromise allowed may vary, but in general "running trains" means that a layout will reflect some amount of coherence and accuracy.
"Operating trains" goes one step further, although it doesn't necessarily imply a higher degree of prototypical accuracy in terms of rolling stock and all that goes with it. The word "operating" is used, above all, to indicate that models are run to reflect one very important and central aspect of any real railway: there's a purpose to it.
|Operational concept: what a small layout is all about|
the real rail transportation system's way of functioning
requires a concept. This doesn't mean that things have to
be complex or complicated - in fact, a simple concept
usually works best. A good basic way of starting is to
establish where the model railway system is located, the
era, and how it is connected to the rest of the world,
because these few points determine the traffic patterns
of a layout and thus provide a reason for its
existence, because on the real thing, traffic pattern
means customers and revenues, and without those, railways
usually grind to a halt and disappear very quickly.
There are a number of operational concepts which can be applied to a small layout.
|All of these options are feasible, but in practice layouts which have a strong emphasis on what can be seen as "localized operation" (i.e. so-called "shunting" or "switching" layouts) feature a predominance of freight operations or are even freight-only.|
|Every country has its own approach and philosophy regarding railway modelling, which often reflects the basic characteristics of its own prototype railway system.|
|The layout also featured a system of automatic coupling (really an essential feature for a shunting layout) which later on was marketed by Tri-ang, became known as the "tension lock coupler" and is still used as standard coupler on many UK ready to run models today. In terms of British railway modelling history, Wakeley's layout can be regarded as the ancestor of all UK shunting layouts, as it concentrated entirely on freight (thanks to Morgan Lee, longtime librarian of Wimbledon MRC, for much of this information).|
|In the end, the three modellers found 3.5mm scale to be the ideal modelling ratio - and H0 scale was born.|
|However, shunting layouts need not necessarily be small - they can be enormous too, if they incorporate large classificiation yards, for example. But even when you go for a small, shelf-type shunting layout, it's not necessarily the lack of space which provides the motivation for this. A number of people opt for this kind of layout because it provides interesting operational possibilities - although, traditionally, far fewer in the UK and Europe than in the US.|
the early days of the internet, web pages featuring
shunting layouts were still a rare feature. One important
example serving as a source of inspiration for many was
Scot Osterweil's NYC Highland
Terminal switching layout. The original site
(launched in 1994, last updated in 2001) no longer
exists, but thanks to the internet
archive at least parts are still accessible
today, illustrating not only the history of switching
layouts but also, in a way, of the internet itself (Scot
presents an update in the 2015 How to Build
Small Model Railroads mentioned above).
Naturally, things have changed radically. Searching in Google for "switching layout" yields approximately 39,100 hits (September 2013). The string "shunting layouts" is less frequent, but around 4,440 webpages will still keep you busy perusing their content. Plus, layouts depicting shunting yards or switching areas are popular topics in many online discussion groups.
|Operational concept: what a small shunting layout is all about|
|However, as with any small layout, a small shunting layout requires an operational concept to sustain interest in running locomotives and freight stock on it. A good basic way of starting to build up a concept is to establish the geographical setting and the era of the shunting layout as well as how it is connected to the rest of the world. These few points determine the traffic patterns of a layout and thus provide a reason for its existence in the form of its traffic patterns, customers and revenues.|
|The four customers here are represented by the first four letters of the alphabet, but you could just as easily use the four suits of a deck of cards, so that A = Hearts, B = Spades, C = Diamonds, D = Clubs. In fact, this is a variant of operating shunting layouts such as the "Timesaver". A deck of cards is shuffled and a card drawn for each freight car on the incoming track (e.g. the lower right hand track in the diagram above). Thus car 1 may draw a card of spades and be required to be moved to industry B (= spades), car 2 hearts (industry A = hearts), etc.|
|In this following example, still based on the "Timesaver" layout, the entire layout serves just one customer, a paper manufacturing plant.|
this is obviously a simplified layman's idea of how a
paper manufacturing plant might work, it provides the
shunting layout with a clear concept of what is and what
may be moved where and why. On the basis of this traffic
flow concept, a detailed list can now be drawn up,
indicating which type of rolling stock may be used where.
For example, tank cars will only be dropped off at
"D", whereas covered freight cars may go
anywhere (possibly arriving full, dropped of at
"C" first and then, once unloaded, moved to
"B" for loading). Special consignments
(delivery of heavy machinery or spares) may allow for
special freight stock.
Here are four views taken in April 2002 depicting the internal rail service at the cardboard factory in Deisswil (Switzerland), illustrating typical aspects of this type of traffic (since shut down along with the factory).
|The advantage of an operational concept governing traffic flow is added realism and an extra challenge when switching. The setback is just as evident: the example above is definitely not suited for a layout which boasts a collection of 20+ coal hoppers - unless the plant actually runs on coal.|
|Traffic flow: what goes where and why|
|Once an operational concept for a switching layout is drawn up and established, the only thing needed to finally do some interesting and challenging switching is to generate the traffic flow. Over the years, a number of systems doing precisely this (generally referred to as "car forwarding systems") have been established. To the best of my knowledge, they have all originated with American prototype modellers, and adaptations for other prototype modelling have been rather scarce - which is a shame, because all of these systems work equally well for any kind of standard railway system.|
|Basic switch list|
is probably the most basic system of all (described in
the May 1984 issue of Model Railroader) and
really is just one small step up from the operational
concept of a layout which already determines specific
spotting locations for designated car types. The basic
switch list simply provides the specific number of cars
by type to be dropped off and picked up.
Even if the system is enhanced by adding reporting marks (i.e. identifying specific cars) and special handling instructions, it won't be able to sustain operational interest over a longer period of time on a small layout unless this features spotting locations which require all sorts of types of rolling stock (which doesn't sound very realistic).
|Specified car switch list (Card and Waybill System)|
specified car switch list generates instructions for
freight cars on a layout, taking into account their type
and potential delivery locations. The basic concept of
most car card systems goes back to a system developed by
Doug Smith and described in the December 1961 issue of Model
The most popular specified car switch list system is the Card and Waybill system as improved upon by Don McFall. It works on the following basic principles:
|Obviously, these physical cards can be - and to an increasing extent are - substituted by virtual cards or screen output on a computer system or handheld device which will also take care of the chance car selection and load distribution.|
the card and waybill system centers on identifying
individual freight stock and linking these with
destination orders, the Scenario List System
focusses on customers, i.e. locations and industries,
where freight may be picked up and/or delivered.
Each industry on a layout is analysed in terms of possible scenarios. For example, one customer on an American prototype layout, the "Consolidated Tooling Co.", may mainly receive and ship products in boxcars, but occasionally also receives goods transported on a flat car. The possible scenarios here are: Customer receives 0-2 boxcars, ships 0-2 boxcars, receives 0-1 flat car. From the total of possible combinations, a selection is made to produce the scenarios given as example on the right.
|Due to its flexibility regarding choice of rolling stock to be used, this system may not produce challenges in the sense of asking you, by chance, to switch the most awkwardly placed boxcar to the tightest spot on the layout - but there's always the possibility of creating additional rules if things seem to get too easy.|
|From a shunting layout to a shunting puzzle|
of the systems of operating a shunting layout discussed
above have one purpose: to generate traffic flow.
Although they may come up with some awkward shunting
moves, they are not designed to introduce such
complications deliberately. Most of the time, things will
A shunting puzzle, however, is a shunting layout which deliberately introduces complications which need to be solved in order to get the shunting done. Usually, these complications are generated by a set of restrictions or rules. For example, sidings can be short and thus require the operator to think ahead of his moves unless he wants everything clogged up, or rules may require a certain specific order into which freight stock must be shunted.
Text, photos and illustrations not
labelled otherwise are © Adrian Wymann