One turnout layout variation

The May 2013 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine included an article, written by Lance Mindheim, describing a “one turnout layout”. Instead of choosing a variety of small businesses he proposed a layout consisting of the main track and one single siding for a single customer who could receive different car types in several car spots. In terms of the game of operating this layout the focus shifts from completing a Tetris-like puzzle to arranging them in the correct spot order. It is a concept that feels a lot more like real railroading and a lot less like an artificially complicated game. Here’s a link to the article in case you haven’t had a chance to read it yet:

A lot of what Lance describes in his example appeals to me but I doubted that the work would be done on that siding, right at the industry. Indeed Lance pointed out that, in real life, the train crew might opt to pull the full set of cars from that siding and take them to a smaller yard where the actual working of sorting them would be completed. Once cars have been removed or added, the full set would be put back into place.

“Why not model that yard instead?”

The yard wouldn’t need to be any more complicated that the single siding that started this conversation in the first place. In real life, I’d be looking for a siding long enough to help me sort the few cars I needed at that moment. If my whole train doesn’t fit, that’s okay, I can just work the half I need to right now. Further, this siding in its convenient location is probably one I use for sorting most of the cars we’d work in this park.

“Maybe that siding is the better option?”

I found some scrap paper and a pencil and worked up this sketch:

one turnout layout

How it works

The approach here is to really think in terms of that theatre metaphor we like to use in model railroading. The play we’re staging isn’t delivering to the customer but in how we get ready to serve them. As my sketch illustrates, the concept remains simple: our trains arrive from West Staging and all of our industries and shippers are represented in East Staging. Where the staging at the other end could be little more than a length of plain track, the East Staging yard needs to be able to move a train between the main track and the siding to complete a runaround move or switch cars from one track to the other “off-stage”.

Three decks of cards compose our script

In terms of setting up that operating session, we’d need several decks of cards:

  1. A set of cards describes the shipper: what cars they have, what they need moved, what they need delivered.
  2. A second set of cards describes the same three states from the “yard” end in terms of what cars are in the yard (at East Staging) that we need to deliver to a shipper, what cars we’re expecting back in the yard, and the trains they’ll arrive or depart on.
  3. Finally, there’s room for a third deck which is the work we use this siding for in the first place. Beyond just modelling one single siding we’re modelling a role on the railroad and in a small part the job we do as the crew for the train that works these locations.

What happens on stage

A train can just roll completely through the scene, either shoving cars or with the engine leading. Alternately, a light engine could just run through the scene to pick up some cars. When it returns through the scene, those cars are the train headed in the opposite direction.

Lance’s example industry is still in play here and our light engine could run down there to lift the full cut of cars. It arrives back at our siding and then uses the siding to break off the cars we need to remove and then shoves the remainder of the string back into place.

We could arrive with cars from East Staging and use the siding to re-order the cars before heading off into West Staging where these cars are delivered. Speaking of inbound cars from East Staging, we could also bring in some cars for shippers who aren’t ready for them yet and we can leave those cars in this siding (“off-spotting” them) for a future delivery.

Time and place are still important

In terms of modelling appeal, this layout still benefits from making some decisions with regard to locale and era. With those decisions made, we enjoy the freedom of not having to settle on that one single industry and finding the cars for it. This layout represents a focale point in a typical industrial park and any car for any industry radiating from this point could appear in this yard. When I first thought of shifting the location of Lance’s single turnout layout I kept it in the same style as he proposed: modern CSX operations in Miami, Florida. Really though, this siding is everywhere. Keeping it inside an industrial park we can move the siding further up the coast and way back in time, placing this siding inside Bush Terminal where cars are sorted for nearby industrial lofts in 1920’s Brooklyn.

Just as we can find a place like this during a favourite time that is of greater significance we can shift the time to tell a more seasonal story: One day we’re using this siding during the grain rush and we’re staging hoppers or grain boxcars for nearby elevators but as the seasons wears on and the rush slows we’re now dealing with a few cars during a slower period.

Then it occurred to me that this same scenario happened in so many examples right here in Prince Edward Island.

Most towns on the Island had a single siding. These sidings were typically long and double-ended. They were installed to provide a place where a train could leave a couple dozen cars for loading potatoes during the annual harvest. When the harvest was in full swing the Island would be stuffed to overflowing with empty cars ready to be placed for loading. What room, on these sidings, not required for a farmer loading at this town, would be quickly filled with empty cars being staged for a nearby siding to make it easier for the next train through to lift them and move them to where they were required.

In public?

For folk like me, steeped in what we often now refer to as a British style of model railway construction, I started to see some opportunities for this layout in the public space. Standing alone, the scenic section would be a great diorama. It is set in a real location in a specific time, making it a great static model. With the help of several operators the diorama comes alive to tell the story of why this place on the railroad was important. This makes operating the layout important not just to entertain those playing trains but also in the way it relates the special knowledge that it conveys to the audience watching it. If you lived there or went by this place on the way to work every day you may have seen the train; this is what it was doing.

“You use what you got”

I remember hearing James Barber using that “you use what you got” line at so many points on TV. When we describe these simple layouts we use them as examples where we can have something than can be up and running quickly, yet host successive refinement as skills and experience grow: we can replace the turnout with one built to finescale standards; we can upgrade scenery; since we’re not spending as much time building a zillion cars for our model of the entire Clinchfield Railroad we can build, rebuild, and upgrade our fleet too.

The other joy in this plan is the opportunity to “use what you’ve got” when it comes to the size of the fleet. This layout works just as well with two or three freight cars as it does with twenty. In terms of footprint I could see it built in a very small space but then using the proportions described within the design, expanded as large as the space permits.

Storage and construction options

It would be great to have this layout permanently built and installed but it need not be. Both staging yards could fold out of the way or otherwise be removed between operating sessions. Having them as removable options not only makes it easier to find room in the house to store the layout between work or operating sessions but also encourages the builder to created different staging options. Your options here are not just along the lines of “do I use both yards or just one today?” to “Hey, what if I made an alternate East Yard that is longer than the first one I built and I could move longer trains through the scene”.

Categories: How I think, Track plans

Tags: , , ,

12 replies

  1. A great idea, Chris – and of course the presentation reminds me of the Richmond, Indiana scene that Mike Cougill is currently exploring on his blog at From the POV of the punter, they could be looking at a short slice of a railway, framed to either side (in Mike’s example, by brick factory buildings… but in your case it could even be trees).
    I look forward to seeing where you take this idea, so keep us posted!
    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

    • Thanks Trevor

      “For the punter” it could well be modelling where he goes to watch trains and modelling that experience.

      I sketched out the idea to help me work through a question I had with Lance’s original proposal and I didn’t expect to get as interested in its potential as I find I am.


      • A further thought on this…
        There’s a story in the current issue of Model Railway Journal about an exhibition layout that has been expanded over the years.
        Originally, it featured the station/terminal area, with trains disappearing under a road bridge to a fiddle yard. One problem that the builders encountered was that a train would have to pull into the fiddle area fairly frequently when switching the terminal. This move could be interpreted by viewers as a train leaving town – and the builders found that this confused the narrative about what was happening on the layout. Their solution was to expand the layout by adding enough distance between terminal and fiddle yard that the station moves could all be accomplished on scene. This could’ve been simple, “open country running”, or – in this case – it involved adding a spur to a factory that was reached from the station area (so that it could be switched from on scene).
        In looking at your design, I wonder if it would have the same challenge: When sorting cars, how would a viewer know whether you’ve left the scene to go to the industry, or to a yard, or to a storage track, or to simply run around a train? And more importantly, would not knowing be a problem for you?
        – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

      • That is an extremely salient point Trevor. I don’t have an answer but I love the question, so here goes with some first thoughts…

        Part of the problem is that we’ll never find a cure for the “one more inch” syndrome. Eventually the train leaves the scene and we don’t know what that means. Sure we’re pretending it’s going to Montreal but really it just disappeared behind a piece of plywood into the closet.

        What I think we get out of that extra distance, as in the example you shared, is more time watching the train running between staging. Instead of the train just suddenly arriving we get to follow it. We’re model railfanning and as we see that train arrive we wonder what it will do. Watching it roll into the station we’re as amused by it as we would watching a chess opponent as he reaches out to move his next piece or as the actor walks to the stage from the wings. How do we or how should we create that anticipation? How do we feed it so it builds?

        I should have done a better job of that sketch or even made a note in the post about it. I intentionally left the drawing dimensionless. I didn’t want to talk about the length of the sidings or the width of the scene in any term broader than ideas like how the siding “on layout” should approximate the length of the staging yard feeding it. What I failed to include in this proportional approach to design was a suggestion that we centre that turnout in a place where we can provide as much room for our story on both sides. Worse, I implied the location of the turnout to be right at the break between the staging and the layout. (“You had one job Mears…”)

        So there should be some track in front of the turnout. I think it should be equal to the siding length plus an engine. Exactly how much might be better determined by mapping out how much of the story of switching this siding we need to tell from that side of the stage. First thoughts:
        – I think we need the train to arrive at “road speed” and slow down. We need enough room here for this to happen so a viewer only looking into the scene can observe this approach and the adjustment. For the public this helps distinguish between one train passing through and one slowing to do “something”.
        – On a practical level, does it need to be long enough to work the siding and do so completely in view?
        – If our engines are sound-equipped and we use a scenic view block to mask the entry to the staging yards we’d still hear sound from a place on the stage so do we still need to see it too?

        None of this resolves the challenge of communicating what’s going on “in” the scene with the world to the left and the right. As presenters perhaps part of our work is to be out with the viewers and try to focus their attention on the scene directly in front instead of looking to the sides. Instead of theatre maybe we need to take from a good magician and their ability to control our attention so we look where they want us to instead of where they don’t; we never ask where the card came from because we’re just so darned excited with the fact that it’s here.

        I hope this helps. Thoughts?


  2. Hi Chris:
    I don’t think it’s so much about the “one more inch” syndrome, or the opportunity to follow the train a bit before it arrives from staging – although that is a problem. The issue is really that two types of trains exit the scene – and on the original layout, there was no way to convey to the punter (or to oneself) which type was being watched. A locomotive hauling a rake of coaches might pass under the bridge because it’s heading out of town – or because it’s going to back in on another track. The group found that without a little more room to allow one to see – on scene – that a train had stopped and was reversing, that their story suffered.
    So the question becomes, on really small layouts where trains immediately leave the scene, how does one convey what type of activity they’re engaged in?
    Your answers, further into your reply above, help address some of those challenges. Well done. Some stories would still be difficult to convey in this “intermediate step” presentation, however – as you’ve also noted. For instance, a train leaving the scene could be finished its work for the day, and headed back to a major yard. Or it could be heading to the industry to drop the cut of cars it has just sorted. We’re not sure as a viewer (any more than we could be sure if we were actually standing trackside).
    This is a challenge that’s also faced on much larger layouts, too: one might model a classification yard supported at either end by staging – and that yard might feed several area branch lines that are not modelled – and it would be tough for a viewer to know whether a train leaving the yard is a manifest freight or a branch line assignment (and if the latter, which branch line it’s about to serve).
    Even on my layout, I find there’s something unsatisfying about ending the run in staging because I’ve only modelled the last three miles of a 17-mile branch that itself was fed by a much longer line (roughly 33 miles from Hamilton to Jarvis on the Hagersville Sub, then another 12 miles or so from Jarvis to Simcoe via the Cayuga Sub). My mixed train to Port Rowan travelled along approximately 60 miles of trackage before arriving on scene on my layout – and it didn’t just travel that line: it worked along the way. It served several stations with passengers, express and LCL, it met and passed other trains under TT&TO authority, it negotiated its way through yard limits, it may have switched carload freight… and none of that is represented on my layout, which means those who visit don’t really leave with an appreciation of the work that they’ve done. Nothing I can do about that. physically – I have neither the space nor time to build a larger empire – but I do wonder about whether I can help represent this in the paperwork that conductors receive at the start of a session…
    Great discussion as always!
    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

    • Thanks for further elaborating on your points, Trevor. I really appreciate it.

      The challenge of this layout like so many similar ones is that so much of the railroad, both in terms of the line and the operations, are disguised in staging. Driving home from this evening’s operating session I thought about this some more and wanted to share some of what I talked to myself about in the car:

      This layout could be presented to the public but it might not be as effective. It was proposed more to respond to my own curiousity than a desire to present something to the public. It’s not that it couldn’t be but some more thought is required. Before digging deeper here I thought about how to manage the operating sequence, here’s what I have:
      1) perhaps I need to not just divide cards for the session, for the cars, but also how they’re stored off-layout and outside of staging;
      2) the work of operating this layout really just a scheme of feeding cars through the scene;
      3) cars can move through the scene determined by the shipper and not the supply;
      4) when a shipper “demands” a car the operator has to look in their supply deck to see if they have the car;
      5) once it has been determined that the car is available maybe you toss a coin to see if the car is being shoved to the shipper’s siding or towed;
      6) an alternate for (5) is if the orientation of the car is changed on stage;
      7) once the car is finally delivered it’s card is placed in the “delivered” deck and removed from play until it is needed to be sent back

      As I worked through the above steps I thought more about how to communicate this to the viewer not running the trains and “how would they know what was going on”. Maybe this could be accomplished by having a simple schematic diagram for each of the shippers. Like drawing playing cards from a deck you could pull out one of these activity cards. The card not only dictates the car type required but also illustrates in a simple form the orientation of the siding. Further, if this location can receive more than one car do we need to marshall our train to make placing the car possible (i.e. it arrives as the third car in the cut but we need it in the fourth position).

      The more I think of it the less I think running a train straight through the scene would likely be little more than a distraction.

      In a more traditional layout design the towns are in plain sight as are the sidings in that town. We can literally see what is happening since those transactions represent the complete game and the simply plan I proposed here acknowledges this activity but presents only the preparation for it to the viewer – in doing so we really ask more of the builder to explain their vision and that back story. Comparing this idea to the more traditional one makes me wonder about staging on that traditional layout. On your layout you have the intermediate station at St. Williams but not the one at Vittoria. Vittoria had a trailing point siding and, just looking at the map, would a car for Vittoria be taken all the way to Port Rowan to be delivered on the return trip? If “yes” than we need to include that car but if “no” we can delete it’s place from the layout altogether since it doesn’t directly support a part in our play. Thoughts?

      Thanks for the great conversation. I’m enjoying this.


  3. Chris;
    You wrote: “… I think we need the train to arrive at “road speed” and slow down. We need enough room here for this to happen so a viewer only looking into the scene can observe this approach and the adjustment.”

    I’d question that, and you’ve done the same a couple of points below that with your comment about sound. The human mind already knows that there is more beyond what we can see. So for John and Jane Doe and their kids, if we immerse them in the scene (Brooklyn 3am comes to mind) do we need to distinguish between one train passing through and one slowing to do “something”? So long as their are visual clues to the auditory responses they hear I’m not sure it matters.

    If the punter hears a train approaching, the engine drop to idle and the brakes apply as they see the diesel, or a set of cars, intrude onto the scene can they put the bigger picture together? I think they can.

    Additionally if we give them more audio clues (radio traffic between the engineer and the conductor, before the cars and loco move, I think they’ll understand what’s going on.

    In most cases your line of sight, is limited by buildings, terrain, smog and other factors (such as your height) that all determine what we can see in our surroundings in any given area. In more built up areas that is lessened by building height and density, terrain and whether the roads are straight, T-Junctions or crooked, twisted or dead ended.

    Either way, line of sight is limited. And that is all that matters. So long as we don’t overload the line of sight limitation for the viewer, there should be no cognitive dissonance in the way they consume the scene presented.

    Trevor wrote: “… a train leaving the scene could be finished its work for the day, and headed back to a major yard. Or it could be heading to the industry to drop the cut of cars it has just sorted. We’re not sure as a viewer (any more than we could be sure if we were actually standing trackside).”

    And to Trevor’s point I’d say there is nothing wrong with leaving the story not quite finished. When a viewer sees a train go by, one way or another, do they care? Unless an avid train fan I’d guess not. If they know where they are geographically most people will classify that as the 2 o’clock Ballarat to Melbourne train for example.

    The real art to getting where you’re going is to know where you are. So if we want the viewer to know where we are going they have to know where they are. Signs on the fascia, more information (for example about the facility being served and the lay of the land will help the interested.

    Everyone else will hopefully ooh, and aah, and after 60 – 90 seconds move along to the next layout at a show. The really interested ones will hopefully consume the information you’ve presented, take a few photos and then maybe ask a question or two.

    I hope I’ve added to the conversation, and not detracted from it.

    • These are excellent points, Andrew. Thank you for sharing them here.

      When I first conceived of the layout idea it was more something for myself but then as I elaborated on the design, I started to perceive some potential as a public layout too. Were I just to operate it at home, I already know the story but that is not the case when it’s on display and the person seeing it for the first time doesn’t. Our challenge is to create a story that is either easy to intuit or suggestive enough that the one the viewer makes up in their mind is close enough to suit.

      The premise of the layout is to deal with only the steps that are going on in front of us. Though, in real life, if I were trackside I could watch the train leave until my eyes could no longer follow it and I could do the same as it arrived. On the model, it just exits through a hard backdrop wall or does it? I think this is where sound could play a role (and bear with me, I’m thinking out loud here).

      If the staging yards are hidden from the public view we can’t see the trains but when we turn the train “on” we hear it. Anyone who has been trackside waiting for a first generation diesel or steam engine knows the thrill of hearing it in the wind long before you can see it. If we could find a way to lower the volume while the train is offstage we might recreate that same sensation. Then, on that introduction, the train rolls onstage and this is where our play begins.

      I am a very big believer that when we display a model railway we should be out there with the crowd on the same side so we can interact with the viewer. Since we’re standing there anyway we can talk through each step of what’s going on. Since this simple layout really only supports simple moves we don’t want any rambling story just a quick extra to keep the story alive. Something like what we might expect from the train crew as they rolled into town in real life along the lines of: “We pullled into Kinross and the Visser’s had loaded two reefers. We’ll grab those cars and get them on their way to the mainland and ultimately to Toronto” or “Our train is mixed freight and passengers and even though we don’t have anything to do here today, we could”…in the latter we could recycle that story when the train is turned and runs back through the scene later and stops to lift a car from the siding.

      Regardless of the town’s size or stature, most on the Island had a siding like this. Even to the early 1970’s our 200 mile railroad would move ten thousand carloads of potatoes plus the regular traffic. The only way we could do this was to use the entire railroad as one unit so a siding like this one is every bit as important as any other at any other point. Maybe it’s that sense you’d have if this was the track where you live and where you always watched trains at and wondered where they went when they left?

      I hope this helps frame out some more ideas around such a simple plan. I really appreciate the way these comments help me understand the idea.



      • Chris;
        I absolutely agree with you so far as creating a mindscape, with audio. In radio we called it theatre of the mind. This has a lot of commonality with the theatre concept for exhibition layout running.
        When combined with a sequenced timetable, and with layout operators out front with the viewers I think that you could make a very convincing presentation.
        For example:
        A pre-recorded voice over (very easy to do with Audacity, a Lavalier microphone and your smart phone) running in a sequenced MR operating scheme would provide a highly convincing soundscape for that theatre of the mind.

        The first thing you hear with any train is the horn or whistle. And you hear that a long time before you hear the steam or diesel engine sounds. So you have that sound play in advance of the train entering the scene, the VO notes that ‘the engine is whistling for the grade crossing at Sanders street 1 mile west of here’.

        Then goes into your idea of describing what will be happening later in the ‘operating part of the session’. All the while gently at first the sounds of a steam or diesel engine working away begin to drift into the conscience of the listener.

        A second horn blast, this time much closer, and with the fading of the horn you now have the sound of the diesel or steam engine working in the background. The voice over notes that ‘the track climbs away from the Sanders street grade crossing up a 2% grade to the West 5th street grade crossing’, just 200 yards west of our scene.

        The VO goes on: ‘Once they’ve crested the West 5th street grade crossing the engineer backs off on the power and coasts down to the switch opposite Visser Manufacturing directly in front of you.’

        The loco sounds now coming from the DCC & Sound equipped locomotive come on as we move from staging and the sounds from the soundtrack fade quietly in the background. The train now out of staging noses into the scene, drifting with momentum, and with a squeal of brakes comes to a halt.

        The VO continues: ‘With the locomotive into the siding the crew can now begin the work for the day at Visser Manufacturing. Today they’ve got two loaded cars of widgets ready to be shipped. In addition we’ve got three empty cars going back in to their siding to keep their operations going.

        All of this can be shown to the punters using a flat panel monitor built into the fascia, as I’ve seen in the past, or can be totally auditory, depending on your preference.

        Were I doing that today, I’d bring a laptop, powerpoint presentation and a spare monitor and a set of cheapo speakers to give the full presentation. That way you could run the whole layout from the front should you so choose and still give everyone enough sense of what is happening even before, and after the actors leave the stage to get them totally engrossed for the 1-2 minutes for the average punter; 1-3 minutes for the more interested, and for the longer term watcher, more interested in finding out how you did this that or the other then you have a handout to your website with all of the information on how you achieved the scene, the sounds and the display.

        My thoughts, worth everything that you paid for them. As always I hope that I’ve added to, not detracted from the discussion.

        Does not cover misuse, accident, lightning, flood, tornado, tsunami, volcanic eruption, earthquake, hurricanes and other Acts of God, neglect, damage from improper or unauthorized repair, incorrect line voltage, broken antenna or marred cabinet, missing or altered serial numbers, electromagnetic radiation from nuclear blasts, sonic boom vibrations, customer adjustments that are not covered in this list, and incidents owing to aircraft crash, ship sinking, motor vehicle accidents, dropping the item, falling rocks, leaky roof, broken glass, mud slides, forest fire, or projectile (which can include, but not be limited to, arrows, bullets, shot, BB’s, shrapnel, lasers, napalm, torpedoes, or emissions of X-rays, Alpha, Beta and Gamma rays, knives, sticks and stones, et al.)*

      • Wow! Terrific comments Andrew. Please keep them coming.

        I’ve had the pleasure of listening to The Prof describe his work and the opportunities that sound and presentation can genuinely add to the user experience with the layout. It’s amazing. I thought of those while reading through your comments and how the question of design should incorporate those. If not directly, at least to form a response to so we can help understand why we did or didn’t.



      • Plus, superb caveat. I can pledge that I’ll attempt to respect it though I’m already running away with imagining the scenario in which these things occur.

        “WHY NOW?!”



  1. The invisible mill | Prince Street

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: