When it just takes longer

When joining friends to operate on larger model railways I tend to gravitate toward yard work. Switching is a lot of uncoupling and, in HO, I feel pretty adept opening couplers with bamboo skewers, toothpicks, small screwdrivers, or even the sharpened pencil I’m using to record my work for the night. In N, I’m not so diverse in choice of uncoupling “tools” and rely on the toothpick as my favourite. Because the models are smaller I do have to pay a little more attention and work a little more carefully to uncouple two cars than I would breaking a train apart in HO. It takes a little longer to do the same thing in N.

Part of moving toward a more relaxed operating session is incorporating more activities that are mechanical or administrative and pad out the train’s movements; ultimately we feel like we slowed down the operating session because our train didn’t have to do as much. It feels like that because we did things that weren’t so throttle-centric.

It was that moment that I conceived a new theory about switching speeds versus modelling scale: Model railroaders don’t operate their layouts at a speed that’s relative to scale. Instead we tend to operate the locomotives at the same speed regardless of scale. Most model railroaders DO operate a locomotive at the same actual speed regardless of the scale.

Jeff Kraker, Model Railroad Planning 2016

That was one of the neatest things I think has ever published in a model train magazine: that study of how we perceive speed, relative to time and the scale we model the trains in.

  • Three feet of flex track is the same length regardless of the scale of model operating over that distance.
  • Even if speed is a constant the model feels like it takes longer to move that distance because of how we relate to the model in motion.

On the one hand we can slow down an operating session by building in new activities that are associated with running the train. If our measure remains the distance covered by the train’s movements this does expand that aperture. We’ve slowed down the progress of the train by amplifying a kind of administrative burden but we aren’t slowing down the operating session in terms of its feel. This is where my observation about it taking me just a little longer to uncouple N scale cars compared to HO scale ones:

If the total time for my desired operating session is a fixed length than how I spend that time is represented in what I’m doing during that time. If it takes longer to uncouple a freight car than I can do less of that during the operating session. “Less” in this context is not describing the quality of the experience, simply coming to terms with what can be realistically completed during that amount of time.

I enjoy working through paper switchlists, shuffling car cards, and completing train registers. I think the possibility of hooking up air hoses sounds like piles of fun too. Both those are examples of real life things I could be planning for as things I can do in twenty minutes. Planning a model railway is often presented as a function of aesthetic decisions like “what kinds of trains do I like” or “what was my favourite memory from real railroading” but I think there can also be a more analytically driven design method. Analytics and data aren’t just a emotional wasteland of dead data we can’t relate to as living beings. If we treat “the data” as being the evidence of our lives and how we live, exploring an analytically driven design toolkit into layout design could be interesting. If we’re trapped in a cycle of not knowing what feels like the right aesthetic decision we could ask the data for some guidance.

I still like the “5-20-5” idea of an operating session. If moving an engine in either direction is one unit of time; if coupling or uncoupling a car takes a unit of time; if throwing a turnout is a unit of time; then the sum of those activities should be around twenty minutes total. I can therefore divide twenty minutes by combinations of that time to see how many of each I could do in the time I have. The result of that equation can then feed into a decision making model that identifies combinations of industries that suit that number of operations (maybe a steel mill is too many moves or the team track isn’t enough?) but as we wade through that data some options become easier to evaluate. It’s not an exclusive activity because data is of living things so is enriched by exposure to life so we can then fold back in our aesthetic preferences and maybe we find out that in twenty minutes that working in West Lebanon is something we should be thinking about more and more often.

It takes me a little longer to uncouple two cars in an N scale train. That’s the only difference between operating in N scale and in any other scale when we strip down to the work we do. It’s funny how the “more of” thing as the scale got smaller was time. DCC is proving to me that I can control the train as well as in any other scale and accepting that it takes longer to work the train itself is like a way of slowing down the operating session without doing more work. I thought that was interesting and it felt different to think about N scale in these terms.

Categories: How I think, model railway design

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