“That sounds boring”


The Indian Creek Railroad is just under five miles long. It is operated by its parent, the Kokomo Grain Company. It owns one locomotive: a former Southern Pacific RS11 that the ICR bought in 1982. Described as an “agricultural products company” Kokomo uses their railroad to move stings of railcars in and out of their facility in Frankfort, Indiana.

The Wikipedia article I am paraphrasing above is about as brief. There’s just not much story to tell about a railroad like this or their lone locomotive that feeds an endless loop of cars through a single customer. Drag ’em out. Shove ’em back. The track is damned near a perfect straight line punctuated by only a few turnouts. The locomotive is flat black. Wearing various shades of this season’s lease fleet grey, the parade of covered hoppers duals with plains landscape that begs a sense of “we’ve gotta get out of this town”. Yet somehow I feel something in this scene that attracts me. I have expressed this attraction before but failed to find the right words to express or communicate this here and I’ve been trying to find the words I missed before.

What distinguishes the locomotive at the grain elevator is that once the locomotive is hooked onto the train, that’s it. Doubtless, this is also why the hobby of model conveyor belts just hasn’t gained the mass market popularity that model railroading has. For The Operator, model railroading is more than just model trains. The factors of their layout include miniaturizing and replicating the relationship the railroad has with its customer. The Operator gains an initial high from completing a puzzle and a second high when their actions please the customer. You feel good and you have proof of the good job you did in that stack of waybills in your hands.

Scott Thornton posted the above video in 2015. I’m not sure how often I’ve watched it but the count is probably enough to qualify as “regularly watch it”. My first question was: how could we design model railroads that showcase model sound?

  • Starting the train from a dead stop…then straight to eight;
  • Shut down the throttle and coast to the next cut of cars;
  • The train is heavy and our locomotive is “down on its knees”;

Any of the above three scenarios could be replicated with a simple length of straight track on a tabletop. During a typical model railroad operating session it’s very difficult to find the time to really enjoy what it feels like to just watch our models move through a scene or listen to that wonderful sound system. We’re too busy ordering car cards or negotiating the next few feet of trackage rights. We’re too busy. Something has to be ignored and it’s probably our actors so that we can focus our attention on the work. Like on the Indian Creek, I’m not planning much in terms of track design. Despite its proposed ten foot length it’ll have about two turnouts and only one of which I really need in a typical operating session. That operating session is not made more enjoyable by the complexity of the moves but from joy of watching it unfold. I’m hoping to compose an operating session the way we might compose a song based on a pleasing arrangement of notes in a sort of “model trains as a miniature orchestra” sort of way of thinking. The first of the design objectives for track planning is based on this theory of composition that places the trains on the stage like musicians. In process steps it’s advancing the next hopper into place but what this does is invite us to indulge one more time in how nice that sounds. To do this: Track design that facilitates pleasing aural experiences.

  • Track or siding lengths long enough to coast down;
  • Track or siding lengths long enough to place enough cars to provide a load to start;

Just as that first design objective prioritizes the track planning to create an environment where the right combinations of locomotive sounds can be played I want a space where I can enjoy watching the models move. The above video is from fmnut’s channel on Youtube and features a vintage Alco switcher leased to Continental Grain by Relco. With my head buried in a switchlist there’s little time to look up and watch the train move through the scene and how nice it feels to watch that movement. It’s a strange thing to be operating a model railroad for four hours and be unable to recall what the models looked like.

We have added supplementary steps to represent real life activities like setting brakes on the cars and made meaningful advancements to easily add more trains on one piece of track than we’ve ever had before. At the core of our current methodology is the belief that there is a divine relationship between the number of turnouts, car moves, and joy. The length of the operating session, in time, is still determined by the number of car moves but excluded from this calculation are the extra steps of setting those brakes, ringing the bell, or blowing the horn. To provide a unit of time to blow the horn, we could exchange that for perhaps a car move. The net amount of actions remains constant yet now they are distributed between changes in the train’s consist and how the train is operated. Without this balancing I find the operating session takes on a sense of urgency that’s easy to feel and hard to describe.

At places like the Indian Creek Railroad the operating plan is so completely stripped down that it doesn’t demand attention to distract me from the stress of my day. Instead it promises something that works in a more meditative way. Before the operating session begins I have invested in time considering the movements I want to act out in this one locomotive narrative and once the operating session begins my attention is focussed on the stage; the actors as they move through their story. It’s a musical of sorts scored by the orchestra of a vintage locomotive and acted by a cast of railroad equipment moving through their dance – perhaps more ballet than theatre?

In citing the Wikipedia entry for the Indian Creek Railroad I suggested their story was simple. Mundane? Yes. I like that.

The promise of a single locomotive pleases my minimalist sensibilities. So often we read a comment reacting to the price or some other attribute of the new model as being troublesome because that modeller “needs” a hundred of that thing. I’ve been through that and these days I really mean it when I remark that I’d be happy with one really nice operating model locomotive. For me it’s an opportunity to invest time in learning how to appreciate the model. For example: I have only limited experience in tuning a DCC decoder and less in model sound and considering this one model locomotive, what a wonderful platform for that education.

If I were literally modelling the Indian Creek there’s a story that runs richer than the Wikipedia entry suggests. ICR’s lone RS11 started out at work for Southern Pacific. Kokomo took over operations on the Indian Creek in 1980 and this engine landed in 1982. The above video was taken in the l998. A locomotive is a machine and even in these sixteen years can you imagine what it has been like relying on it alone to move those hoppers. That’s a story of a relationship maturing over time. Each time I see the model I would remember that story.

I am planning a colour palette for the whole layout that spans from the fascia, across the scene, and affecting each component of the layout. Indian Creek’s RS11 wears a humble coat of flat black. I hope most of the hoppers on the layout wear neutral tones but wouldn’t mind the occasional pop of Illinois Central orange or Grand Trunk blue but out of respect for the host, even those brilliant colours muted by the passage of time. Since 1980 little has changed on the Indian Creek but it doesn’t take much to wonder how the hoppers themselves have changed. Certainly, the rules of how we operate trains have changed to. Other modellers have adopted means of changing the era of their layout and I think there’s potential here to consider this in my project too. Moving the layout from one harvest to another we might do so to explore the effects of a bad crop, the challenge of finding enough cars, etc. These are the stories we’d consider and the evidence of these we’ll see in the hoppers the big railroad delivers to us before the operating session begins.

When I consider my fascination with the idea of constructing a model railroad designed around the big grain elevator I see only potential and an enriched operating experience.

The simplified built environment provides a place to invest in the quality of the models I’ll build. Those models can be iterative. “Iterative” is a buzzword I feel I’ll be using a lot on this layout. I’m excited about not completing the model and moving on but having something I can return to and rebuild. “Now that I finished. How would I do it differently if I did it a second, third, fourth time?”

I have an opportunity in this layout to really invest in my education as a model railroader in new (to me) fields like control and sound. By prioritizing these in even the track design I am investing in a platform where I can really explore the potential of layout design for sound equipped models.

Feeding a string of grain hoppers, one at a time, across an elevator is repetitive but not that much different from any other switching. It’s still a loop of stop the train, position the car, start the train again. The car types are more homogeneous and there’s fewer turnouts to through but I’ll argue as much work.

It’s not that I don’t want operating this layout to feel like work but I want it to feel less like competitive problem solving and more like creating an experience that is therapeutic, bordering on meditative. A pleasure to operate by the quality of the operating experience and not a sense of achievement from yet more paperwork fulfilled.

I’m still not sure I’ve communicated my thoughts here but this was sure enjoyable to write. As I often end: thank you for making it this far with me. I appreciate it.




Categories: Grain (commodity), How I think, model railway design, model railway inspiration

21 replies

  1. Great article Chris. Gives me a whole new perspective on model railroading. Now I can stop drooling over the 30’x30’ layouts that so often show in the RR magazines.

    • Every time you turn someone on to the possibility of a model railroad that is less than a basement filling, life consuming layout, you do everyone a favor.

      It isn’t that people shouldn’t build big layouts but that most of us don’t think of the other possibilities.

      I have a proto-nook like Professor Kyzler’s Chicago Forks. I am mocking up a Mindheim-style one turnout layout. I am still working on the I’d-sized an unmanageable. All are fun.

      Where I think I would go nuts on the Kokomo layout is having to build “a lot” of the “same” car, where “a lot” means enough cars that I don’t just think of the same cars shuffling back and forth. I could handle the work not changing but I would find the cars not changing to be unworkable for me.

      Others’ mileage will probably vary!

      • It’s weird how we define manageable as a function of layout size or complexity. I’ve failed at small (letter-sized) layouts and much, much larger ones. What I’m learning about myself is the importance of two things: anxiety and emotional investment.

        Anxiety is addressed in Kokomo in a way I’ll address in a future blog post. Often I sit down at the work bench, charged with the energy of an exciting new project, my mind starts to extrapolate that present model into something bigger. From there, fail points appear in the next thing I need to do to the point that, that simple model on the bench withers while my anxiety spirals. The track plan is simple because I can operationalize this. I want to handlay all the track but if that gets to be too much I’m going to buy track. All the while I’m trying to get the layout to a place of critical mass and then I can revisit those previous decisions to improve upon them. I’ve never given myself this permission before though it’s based on advice I evangelise: design-edit-design-edit…repeat.

        In its most complicated fashion, Kokomo will never be more than two turnouts. It’s easy to describe since I can refer to it as an Inglenook but the sidings are long. The layout will be at least eight feet long but given its design I really hope that in full bloom it will be closer to twelve feet. Same two turnouts but much more space to feed that line through.

        I hadn’t given this project a working title but can’t help but think we’ll start referring to this as Kokomo. That makes me smile and I like that. Thanks!


      • I’m sorry, I went off on a tangent and forgot to address something else exciting in your comment: a lot of the same car.

        For the layout to match my visual expectations it must be a line of the same grey covered hoppers. Yesterday I was in Sackville, New Brunswick, attending the Maritime Federation of Model Railroaders convention. On the drive home, I past the Co-op in Truro. The early evening sun cast a light on the mill that I could just not stop to admire and attempt to photograph. As luck would have there were five of these very same hoppers on spot at the mills. All five were newer Trinity cars owned by ADMX like the ones in this photo (http://www.greatlakesrailfan.com/2014/04/a-look-at-a-selection-of-adm-covered-hoppers/). They were all from the same car builder, all owned by the same company, all grey. Blah. I know.

        From across the room that’s what they are: a string of exactly what you described and I think I’ll get bored too.

        What was neat was how they rewarded closer inspection and this is where boring gets refreshing. Only one of these hoppers had the ADM logo on the side and the others had only reporting marks. Clearly they’ve lead different lives and run down different paths since, even though none were heavily weathered, the weathering patterns on each one was different. One car had new trucks under it and blue paint on the journals. The features that distinguish them were buried in subtlety and that’s where I think we’re relieved from a production line of building another hopper.

        As much as I wish I had the space to feed a hundred hoppers through I doubt I ever will and to stage the play I’m hoping for I don’t need it. Just a handful will do. The hard part will be managing the outliers in the mix.


    • Keep drooling. I still do. Heck, I spend a lot of time watching video on large layouts or collecting media based on these. I’m fascinated by how we interpret this simple hobby and express our relationship with it. What we share in common and how we individualize the parts that are different not totally unlike a language.


  2. It’s great to see you posting here again. I find your blog inspiring. And I’m another who won’t use Facebook.

    I’m currently working on a layout with themes from this and your previous post. It’s just a straight piece of track with a shallow trough on each side where I can sit buildings and pieces of ‘ground’. Iain Rice’s concept of jigsaw scenery.

    My background is sculpture, so working on the shapes and colours will be plenty for me.

    • That sounds cool Peter. I’d like to see photos of your project and learn more about it. We tend to reduce this sort of composition, in our hobby, but I believe the simpler the composition the more emotionally charged it is.

      So, and I’m struggling to illustrate this concept, but I’ll ask you since you reminded me of this thought but here goes an attempt: In a typical model railway scene, no matter how complicated, there is a main element in each scene, Even in the complicated railroad yard most of those tracks filled with cars are secondary to a main track. If we ran a line of track down the middle of a scene and lit, detailed, and finished it to be our star and major objective than we could fade the scene in terms of colour, light, and texture as we move away from it toward the front and back. Mike Cougill (ostpubs.com) has been doing some inspiring work in this way in his new layout and it was, inspired by his thoughts, I wonder if the buildings too could join in? A building adjacent to this main track in my idea here is fully detailed in colour and texture. As we move forward or backward from the main track the next tier of buildings has a little less detail and their colour is fading progressively toward the horizon’s or the fascia’s so much so that the final tier of scenery including the buildings is merely massing models that contribute texture and shadow but no colour.

      It’s an abstract I really need to work up into a more complex idea. As I get to this point in my reply I think the question designing the model railway like a campfire. At the fire there’s light, heat, emotion, and activity. We see the aspects of people and things near the fire but as we move back those features become less distinct.


      • Yes, I can imagine fading out the details before and behind the track. False perspectives too. Though on a narrow shelf I think the illusion might easily totter and fall over. I see so many layouts with photo backscenes that look great on the internet, but I wonder if they would be so great in real life.

        When I look at videos of switching, like the one you posted after this post, the foreground is often just flat and the background one layer and fairly nondescript. As you said, mundane.

        Years ago I saw a layout in an English model railway magazine that was just two parallel tracks. The baseboard was dark, with no scenery as such and the backscene was painted dark grey at the bottom and got lighter towards the top. And there’s this modeller, https://atsfinroswell.wordpress.com/, who has fun with a minimum of scenery. I love how when his shelf gets too narrow for the scene he just sticks a little bit on the front.


      • I agree with the question about the application of this fade on a narrow shelf layout. Certainly it might be more effective on a wider layout than a narrower one. I bet that viewing height and angle have a lot to do with it too.

        As I say that, maybe that’s a further interesting variation. What if these foreground nondescript structures obstruct our view and we must look past to see the highly detailed, vividly rendered, main scene?

        I remember a layout like the one you described. I can’t remember the name of the layout but recall that it was in an issue of Railway Modeller and an early 1990’s issue. The layout was two lines in a cutting. Across the back of the layout a set of row houses. The purpose of the line was to provide a running track for trains of BR regional DMU’s.


  3. Well, I sold my brass RS-11 and various hopper cars earlier this year, to help me focus down on fewer projects. Maybe that was a mistake!
    Made me think of this: https://ewjr.org/2016/03/12/its-a-kind-of-magic/
    But also I am reminded of a conversation with the owner/builder of the micro layout “Ruyton Road”, in EM gauge: https://www.rmweb.co.uk/community/uploads/monthly_03_2010/post-281-126763411872.jpg . He was bored with operating, and got bored very easily and quickly with the layout: operation was little more than start-reach speed-stop.
    I was operating the S scale layout “Lydham Heath” at the time, which is basically the same track plan, but proportionately twice as long and wide. I was not bored at all. I could get an engine moving, then allow it to coast along at a low scale speed before stopping it. This gave me time to enjoy the movement. With sound, it might be even better!

    Good post, Chris. Very though provoking….

    • Simon, completely wonderful to hear from you. Thank you!

      Forgive me for quoting your words back to you but “I could get an engine moving, then allow it to coast along at a low scale speed before stopping it.” precisely nails the style of operation that is at the heart of my operational goal for this layout. Lightning strikes twice in your comment with the link back to your previous blog post and re-reading it again now I see another coincidence: I’m hoping this project provides an operating session that is more sensory or emotional instead of appealing to the problem-solving parts of my brain. By basing the scheme on a series of repetitive tasks, I have this feeling that I’m free to move around the layout to appreciate how it plays out from varying vantage points. “start-reach-speed-stop” is what it’s like a lot of the time. There’s no way it can’t get boring over time. We can address that potential for boredom by either reducing the length of the operating session, timing it so it ends moments before it gets boring, or we can annotate it with activities to stimulate the mind in other ways. I’ve done a lot of reflecting on what I need and feel the need to explore the latter option in a more tangible way: hence this plan.

      Having just returned from a model railway show yesterday, I can assure you it’s easy to replace models sold with models new in case you ever need to find another RS11…


      • Hi Chris,
        Being quoted is a delightful way to be flattered, so quote away!
        Actually, what you wrote reminded me very much of the kind of layout I was dreaming about 25 years ago, albeit in an English setting and involving a railway ballast loading point from a quarry: a loop, a siding (for loading) and a handful of 16ton “rust bucket” mineral wagons, plus a brakevan and a class 24 or 25 diesel… Similar idea, similar focus (was going to fit a friction clutch and very large solid flywheel to enhance the running) but as is all too usual for me, I got sidetracked by some other daft idea. (The flywheel was 30mm diameter x 40mm long: just setting it up and giving it a gentle spin in its bearings was hypnotic!)

      • Gosh Simon, I “get” that. That ballast loading point would be an amazing example. Hacking even a proprietary model with that massive flywheel would be an easy hack. I can hear that Sulzer – not a bark but not unlike it either.

        I got sidetracked by a lot of own daft ideas and what I’m embarking on here is only the latest. What empowers this “go ’round” is that it feels like me and not my interpretation of what sounds right.


  4. Terrific post, Chris – I’ve been meaning to respond since I first read it, but wanted to give myself some time to mull it over. In the interim, I see many others have addressed the things I hoped to contribute – and did a better job of it. So I’ll simply add to the chorus and say it’s great to see you posting these longer, thought-provoking pieces again. I suppose that has something to do with building the benchwork sections and preparing to build a layout on top of them? There’s nothing like Doing Something to get the creative juices flowing.
    Looking forward to the next one…
    – Trevor

  5. Mike Cougill over at at OST publications had a very similar blog entry last September or October on a cameo layout he called Sycamore, IN. I found his concept very interesting, as I do with this one of yours. Relco 601 was running into the early 2000’s. I have one undecorated. Just maybe I could…….


  6. Chris,

    Such an excellent blog post! You very eloquently describe what, I believe, will take model railroading to another level. With decoders offering prime mover sound effects independent of speed, and technology like the Proto Throttle, I think we’re going to see increasing emphasis on the immersive experience of micro operations. It’s a perfect match for those of us who lack the space, funds, time, or desire for a room or basement sized “empire”. I’m really looking forward to following your blog and seeing where you take things!

    • Jack
      I am (was) a big fan of you NCIR and am really enjoying your two discussions you have going on over at MRH. I absolutely agree with your comments and how much I enjoy this blog. Unfortunately, the “mainstream press” doesn’t get it. I threw this years 2020 Railroad Planning Annual in the trash. I think about half of the layouts were multi-level. Just out of touch.


      • I’m sorry to read your disappointment in Model Railroad Planning (I’m guessing this is what you are referring to). The magazine is a good contribution to the language of design, why modellers have made the choices they have, and as designers how they navigate the boundaries imposed on their design vision by where they are working or an element of the real thing that conflicts. I think we need more like it because the alternative is too shallow. As a kind of entertainment we always have the right to move away from things that aren’t our favourites but like our friends sometimes we’re made better by inviting a new experience or asking how something different is actually not unlike what we know.

        The choices we make create the evidence of how we approach things in the hobby and they humanize this hobby. Too often, the hobby’s media is too focussed on the cold pursuit of fidelity or the pile of stuff we have but miss that the real railway exists as the model ones do: to serve a need of its people that they can’t resolve any other way.

        Maybe not what we build but why and then how it helps us connect?


    • Thank you Jack! That’s too kind.

      The hobby is metamorphizing into its next life. The quality of sound and ready access to models that just work so very well create something truly enjoyable to just watch working as much as we enjoy watching the real thing. I think they invite new opportunities in design that go from track planning to designing for the experience and maybe even change how we operate.

      I’ve always been attracted to the mundane. Watching this RS11 or HH660 shoving back one car at a time just sounds (no pun intended) like paradise.



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