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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Small Railroads

A while back I posted a short article on small model railroads, titled, "Small Layouts."  It was a simple post about how small sized railroads can be better than larger railroads.  To date, it has been one of the most popular posts on the site, which tells me that the people want to hear more about these little wonders.  This post will cover these little lines in greater detail.

Most model railroaders dream of having a large, basement sized railroad; but find that they lack one or more of three essential things:

  • money
  • space
  • time
Money is a major issue for this hobby, trains aren't cheap.  They never were, and never will be. This is what hinders the growth of any railroad, real and model.  So across the board, money is important.  Small model railroads are cheaper than larger railroads, therefore, smaller railroads are easier to build to your specifications.

How do we make these railroads cheaper?  Besides obvious things like lumber, foam, and metal being cheaper because a small railroad uses less than a larger railroad; there are things like what you have for motive power, or what buildings you place on the layout.

For instance, let's say you want to model a large railroad like the Union Pacific.  On a large railroad, you would need to have a dozen or two engines just to keep the layout looking full.  But on a small railroad, you might only need two or three switchers and a road engine to operate the layout.

For buildings, on a small railroad you need to choose more carefully what you want on the railroad, simply because you don't have enough space to model everything.  

Speaking of space, on a small model railroad everything needs to be "scenically compressed."  That's a fancy word for saying that you are going to choose what you want to model on a line. Let's refer to the diagram below: (For computers with small monitors, you may need to click on the image to enlarge it.)

This is a good example of what scenic compression is.  'A.' is the model railroad, while 'B.' is the map of the actual line.  The little breaks in the railroad main line in 'A.' is where some trimming of the main line took place.  On 'B.' it becomes evident that large portions of the line are missing.  In fact, the only parts saved are the ones inside the black boxes.

From a modeler's standpoint, this is both a blessing and a burden.  Congratulations, you now have a mainline railroad in your spare room.  But now you have to have yard crews scrambling to get trains ready before the trains get there, which is now only a short distance away.  So the problem is that a train can go from A-B in a matter of minutes, but it takes a half hour to get the train ready.  essentially, by compressing what you have, you've changed the ratio of time in the yard to time on the main line.

For example, let's say that for every 5 minutes in the yard, a train is out on the main line 2 hours in real life [1:24].  On the model, through scenic compression, the ratio is now 5 minutes in the yard to 5 minutes on the main line [1:1].

Therefore, yards become parking lots while the mainline is still a highway.  You see the problem?  if you don't, trust me, and other modelers with even more experience than me when we say that you don't want that.

So, how do we bring the ration closer to 1:24?  There are several solutions that you can use:

  • Make the mainline speeds slower.  Doing this means that the trains need to take their time rather than race from one town to the next.  But the distance is still very short, so let's say you bought the yard crew another couple of minutes to get that train ready.
  • Make yards highly efficient.  This is a subject that can be a game changer on a layout.  You should experiment to see what arrangement for yard tracks will work best on your railroad.  When the switcher can easily move around cars, then the process takes less time.  Things like outbound tracks, inbound tracks, yard leads, and more tracks than 'necessary' help with this a lot.  
  • Park trains en-route.  When worse comes to worse, you can always have a staging yard where a train has to wait for about five minutes or so.  Great for a coffee break, and it gives the yard crews more time to work with.

Finally, we have time.  When building a model railroad, time is premium.  Working 40 hours a week, and having kids in school activities takes away a lot of time.  A smaller railroad simply takes less time to build than a large one.  I think that pretty much explains that part.

So what have we learned about small model railroads?  We know now that model railroads are more expensive when they are larger.  We now know that time and space for both constructing, and running a model railroad are important.  But one thing remains, how do these things relate together?

If you read closely, you might have noticed that time, space, and money depend on each other to work towards a small, efficient railroad.  Time determines how big of a railroad you can build without overwhelming yourself.  Money determines not only how much of a railroad you can have, but what you can have on that railroad.  It can also determine how much time you can take from other activities to build the railroad.

So each influence the other, and it's your job to balance these three things to create a good running railroad.  Here is yet another diagram showing the influence of these three things:

I'll review it again just to be sure:  

  • Money determines how much space can be created to build a railroad.
  • Money also determines how much time you can spend obtaining materials for the railroad. 
  • Time determines how big of a railroad you can create without overwhelming yourself.
  • Time also determines when you can run the railroad once it's finished.
  • Space determines what you can have and what you can't have on a model railroad.
So there you are, a little bit more about small railroads.

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