The no turnout layout?

I recently shared my discovery of Matthieu Lachance’s Quebec South Shore blog. In amongst his recent posts was a proposal for what is a operations and prototype modeling based layout with no turnouts. Here’s the blog post:

By eliminating the turnout he’s able to devote the full scene to presenting the industry itself. By devoting the full length of the scene to the mill siding, he’s able to use the full six feet so that his model industry can move the same number of cars as the prototype. If he includes the turnout, he is then forced to divide that same space into one scene where the siding meets the mainline and the other part where the industry is. In terms of presentation, the viewer’s attention is on the story at this industry. For layouts that live in very public places, like mine, this is a good thing. Imagine the effect this has on communicating your vision, of that scene, to the viewer? Not only does this feel like a really great approach to rationalizing the space he has available but also unifies the presentation into a more solid presentation.

In terms of operating interest, I don’t think that the elimination of that final turnout really has any negative effect on the entertainment value during the session. Our focus remains on car spots and placing cars on the siding in the correct order as the customer requires. That games remains the same here. In fact it gets better since we’ve got more track to play with and with that extra track, a few extra car spots. That off-stage switching lead could also be of a variable length since it isn’t required to be fixed to the layout or left in place between operating sessions – if you need room for three cars, easy; if you need room for twelve feet, do that too.

This is a novel opportunity to consider the layout from a different perspective. Instead of HO scale Chris, trackside with his HO scale camera; or HO scale Chris up in the cab feathering that throttle trying again for the perfect hitch; I’m HO scale Chris on the loading dock finishing the paperwork and making sure that the car I need at door three isn’t at door one…again. This simplification in track layout pushed the focus back on the scene and the way the train actually operated.

I had never considered this perspective before or this design approach. I believe this is truly innovative. I’m having fun contemplating my reaction to it as a design piece and from that reflection I’m discovering what I like and don’t like in terms of design. This feels really exciting.

Categories: How I think

10 replies

  1. Hi Chris,

    Yes, those are good points about such a layout unifying the presentation and putting the focus on the scene being modeled.

    English layouts sometimes use this strategy because there is not much space for the layout. Here are some favorite small examples of mine:

    1 – This is about 22 inches long, feed from a one-track traverser. A great sense of place:

    2 – This looks good, though the main emphasis seems to be operation:

    3 – And this is a neat concept, fed from 2-track staging with one turnout just visible in the scenic part of the layout:

    Interestingly, in the last two the staging its not hidden in any way, but is painted black.

    Peter Hopcroft

    • Hello Peter. Thank you for the comment and the layout suggestions.

      Those Farthing Layouts are beautiful examples of small layouts finished to a standard that we don’t always get to see. In the example you suggested, it was interesting to read his thoughts on colour, texture, and tone and how we approach them when what we’re making models of. I really like the idea of the layout being inside the warehouse.

      Ah, Chicago Fork. The Prof has produced some truly remarkable layouts. In each, I’ve seen something that illustrated his way of seeing or understanding what needs to be included to achieve something we might normally use much more material or area to achieve. We need more people doing stuff like this. We’ll never have enough. (Every time I look at this, I catch myself glancing over to my space and thinking in scales larger than I typically work in. What temptation!)

      I always enjoy Bob Hughes’ enthusiasm for small, very creative projects. I love his ability to identify and then cultivate neat prototypes into unique layouts. Yes, another great example.

      In Matthieu’s, as in your examples, we see options for space utilization independent of the amount available. While all are examples of smaller layouts I’m so impressed with how each builder chose to use the space they had. In these we have lessons that any one could benefit from, no matter how big or small your space is. Certainly, I’m learning for how to use my six square feet!

      Thanks. Great to hear from you.


  2. Chris;
    The idea of having the turnouts ‘somewhere’ in staging is certainly not new, and was generally driven by those modellers with very limited space, such as the Brits, who still wanted to be be able to switch cars.

    I think that if you have a limited space, by choice, or by necessity, that these types of layouts are absolutely workable, after all, it is about being able to recreate in miniature what railroaders do in real life, and so long as your slice of the viewable area is doing that, does the lack of a turnout really matter?

    Having said that, I like having a turnout on the viewable portion of the layout, but I’ve always been lucky to have the space I need to do so, in some cases enough space to do it several times over.

    All the best

    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

      I’ll confess that, on the surface, I distinctly remember a period in my life when I would have been really skeptical about this style of layout. I would have had a lot of trouble seeing past the lack of turnouts. To be honest, some of that reaction was still there when I first saw the layout.

      What I’ve really gained from this was some very enjoyable introspection. If he’d included that one turnout “on stage” we might not even be having this discussion. When he moved it off stage and, frankly, could have left it out altogether and used a sector plate instead, I caught myself defending my own need to have that turnout – why? Maybe I’m over-thinking but do I “need” that turnout to make the siding into the siding? How important to an operating session is the role the turnout plays?

      I like building turnouts. I like watching them move. I’m not sure if I’m ready to not include the model of one on my layout.

      I’m really keen to grab some flex track to mock up a version of this layout to try operating it…just to see what it would be like.



      • Cjris
        I understand what you’re feeling and saying. My understanding came one day watching a loco work a small station yard in Western Sydney as a young man of about 14. Standing on the foot bridge after school above the tracks and watching the loco go about its business. I chose to not watch it go behind me to the turnout and the other end was obscured by the station building and distance. That boyhood image stuck with me all these years and was reactivated when I was looking to build my last layout in the USA before returning home to Australia. I cannot remember the layout in Model Railroader but the loco came out between the store fronts, crossed the road and then into the small yard to do its work. I thought then and do now that it is all about sight lines. If the right view blocks are there the viewers will never know that the switches are not included.
        There few places in real life that let us see the God like perspective we have as model railroaders.

      • Excellent points Andrew. Thanks for sharing them.

        I count myself inside this thought but we tend to think that in all that we build we’ll create a place to find that memory instead of intentionally designing for it in the first place. Yet, we’re not there yet.

        Your example of the engine appearing between two storefronts is an excellent one. I believe we need to start exactly there at that railroad crossing and then design around it. If that crossing was a place in real life and we’re building a model to provide a focal point to return to emotionally, what happened that we watched from there?

        Basically to start from where you hope you’re going.


  3. I think your skepticism is understandable. We have had certain forms of layout design ingrained in our minds for decades. When something truly breaks the mould, it’s natural to compare it to what we already know rather than judge it on its own merits.

    During my own rail fanning I note that I’m more focused on what the crew is doing and the moves rather than the track arrangement. We tend to make track planning an end in itself instead of treating as a means to achieve the larger purpose of serving a customer.


    • Thank you Mike for the comment.

      We’ve developed a hierarchy, in this hobby, where we place track planning at the beginning of the development cycle. This is fine, after all that track is the floor of the stage on which our actors might walk, but, when did we build that direct relationship between the turnout and the “fun” as if one equals the other?

      There are some important design lessons in that zero turnout layout that reach beyond just running trains. I know I’ve been thinking about it more and what I think about the idea.



  4. I don’t think the lack of a turnout makes any difference to the functionality of the design. It’s only a means to get from one track to another and that function is provided for in the design.

    As you noted in your post, there is actually more usable area without the turnout and the lost space needed to reach the clearance point between the two tracks. This is an excellent example of how layout design can enhance operations rather than subjugating the operation to accommodate a form factor. Make no mistake, I like turnouts as much as the next guy but the fact that some may find the solution off-putting only serves to show how deeply we’re bound by tradition.

    I actually see a lot of potential for large scale modeling in a design like this.


    • Including the turnout in the design effectively divides the scene into that around the turnout and that for the industry. In terms of managing the space on the layout we might be significantly better off by pushing that turnout off stage so we can then devote the entire scene to the industry. In this example, the entire six foot scene is available to represent the feed mill at Saint Pie. If that turnout were included, from that six feet we’d have to subtract the length of the turnout plus the transition trackage to get from the turnout to the siding – in HO, this would subtract around a foot from the available area. As you’ve pointed out, and I agree, the presence of the turnout has no bearing on the operation here but the decision to include or exclude has, I feel, a major effect on the scene presented.


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