the reach/circulation

My time trackside is typically here in Halifax and one of my favourite compositions is this view looking up Ochterloney Street. I like the way the train bisects the scene as if somehow this transverse or perpendicular view makes the contextual elements like the street, the waiting cars, the buildings into static items and the only actor, our train, appears on stage to deliver its monologue. An act of motion portrayed by the main actor shuffling one heavy foot at a time from left to the near and far right. Spoken by motion not words and I love it. It’s also the same sort of way we design and most often look at our model railways. A long thin shelf along which the track runs basically parallel to the straight front seam of the layout. So we don’t break the facade of pretend we never penetrate this line, breach this imaginary wall, and enter into this scene. It’s sort of like a television isn’t it? Kind of flat and less interesting maybe?

When we tell the story of the railway we build our story of rails as tools of motion, the rail way, so from there it’s interesting to see a train in the distance and look into it as it comes to you. When our view is perpendicular to the track it is passive in terms of the direction of the train’s motion so equally passive in terms of seeing the path of the train but viewed from the end there’s a certain kind of more personal observation familiar to watching a friend walk toward you. Eyes connecting to eyes.

So, I’ve been playing around with a simple sketch of a layout based on the same premise. Exploring the idea of inviting the railway to break free from containment on the wall to enter into the room and host a train that moves into the space we normally occupy alone to join us on new terms. It sort of reaches out like a fashion show runway into the audience instead of trains traversing the scene as in traditional design.

Silo is at E

Out in Bedford there’s a cement transload. You can watch the train shunting into and out of this location but you never see that end point where cars are collected from or placed at. To observe this operation your vantage point places you viewing into the scene.

I think it would be visually interesting to add a second siding, off the cement siding, where some random railway cars could be stored. A track not so much for operations but a track to reinforce the line cast by the mainline and cars, placed on it, whose vertical presence further contributes to the divide between one main track that diverges in one direction and one track to another.

Operator stands at F

You stand at F most of the time while operating. The layout disappears behind you and you have the ability to work those two on stage turnouts but also circulate within the audience.

Public A and B fill in both sides

Viewers can explore the sides of the layout, from either side, and their exploration is as much discovering the model as the feeling of space cohabited by model and maker.

Once a mainline (C)

The mainline used to continue on past C but was truncated to here when the branch was cut back and it ends providing just a headshunt into the cement sidings. The best view of operations here is not at the side of the layout but instead to sight down its length and watch out model alternating between tracks and exploring the space between its endpoints. Our locomotive connecting between actions but its movements sewing together panels of space flanking its track, its track the thread, connecting a view from left to a view from right.

The distant town of H

I see a small set of dense “town” buildings at H. Their detail, textures, and colours are muted. As noted our operator is standing in the middle of the scene so these town buildings contribute a distant view but the view of them is interrupted by the person moving in front of them. Theatre is the study of conflict and resolution and our operator is acting a role here in how we interpret and relate to this scene which is more than the typical identity of secret puppeteer.

Off stage

When I first started sketching this I was thinking the backdrop would be moved through to reach hidden staging for both the cement siding and the mainline track. I even contemplated a pair of sector plates that fed into each other to move cars from one wing to the other like a kind of loads-in-out scheme. Also providing that earlier sketch because I had included some further sketches showing the layout’s basic shape (footprint) and the simple plan to support it from three folding legs.

If you did include a backdrop then I suggest slicing into its sides to show the cars stored off-stage. These off-stage cars become focal points forming the parts of the identity of the layout and why this exists. the cement plant “window” count have some notes written around it to detail that part of the story just as the mainline’s window might simply have lettering like “next stop Claremont”.

Worth it?

I enjoy conceptual design sketches like this. I see this working as a display because it offers more faces to the audience inviting them to collect more contact points and the circulation feels more social than perhaps the screen-like shadowbox we’re used to. Granted this does take more space to do and I’m not sure how this fits into the home and if this presentation style is worth the way it uses space. Most of the layouts I have drawn for our Halifax home are in the long, thin, linear style and this form satisfies my need for a model railway at home–the anticipated 16mm scale layout to replace the current iteration of Victoria will also be a long thin shelf because that’s the space I want to use the way I want to use it. What this exercise has provided is a chance to explore alternatives and my relationship with the design decisions I make. That conversation is always worth it.

Related thoughts

Those photos of the CP boxcar are from the “1, 2, 3, 4. The mockup edition.” study model where I was exploring a series of extremely focussed scenes from railroading in an urban area:

Categories: How I think, model railway design

Tags: , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. What about turning this on it’s head? Don’t piece the backscene with a ‘hole in the sky’, rather put the staging in plain view? If a backscene or back cloth exists it’s separate to the base board?

    • I wonder the same. A thread through the last few layouts I’ve built has been no backdrop at all. I’m of the opinion that the shallower the scene the less help the backdrop; that sometimes its closeness to the viewer is more a reminder of the harsh conflict of media between what’s on display on the layout in contrast to the way the backdrop is made. We tend to screw a backdrop onto the back of the layout out of habit without wondering why we do it? Why have we added one?

      Part of the answer is the framing aspect wherein this acts as a viewblock hiding something behind the layout that only distracts from what’s happening on stage.

      Another response is context–using a backdrop to extend our space so elements not modelled in the space can be referenced and contribute to the story we’re telling. So I wonder if we can completely separate them?

      In “tokonoma (床の間, toko-no-ma) – The Wing, 3” the idea was to collect like things in the same space as related items but disconnected physically. There’s no need for a hole in the backdrop when it’s far enough removed from the scene we just don’t need to cut the sky.

      ‘Why is?”. I had seen a beautiful painting on @brycebarry’s Instagram and loved how it looked. Building on the idea of disconnected layout and backdrop we could play with the “scale” of elements so that they are thematically-connected but there’s no need that the backdrop is HO scale just like the models on the layout its connected to. Just as in the photo included in that scene that painting hanging behind the layout would be just as powerful a statement echoing the message within the layout. Using the example of the layout in this post maybe its a beautiful painting of industrial-era Halifax? It doesn’t even need to be in colour.

      Out in the garden, your beautiful tramway’s backdrop is the scenery around where it runs. Here in our house my Vicitoria lives in front of large windows. I can’t think of a backdrop more beautiful than either example. I can’t help but think that the natural light the outside contributes into the space coupled to the layout itself is something I want to explore more.


  2. A friend of mine has done a similar thing, the (exhibition) layout is a peninsula that can pretty much be viewed ‘in the round’. No background of any type, the lighting and presentation draw you into looking at the layout, rather than notice the lack of a traditional framing.

    • That’s a fantastic example of this style of presentation. Thanks for sharing it. I like this idea of instead of looking at something, exploring around it. As if somehow this invites a sense of being more involved in the work because we’re somehow closer to it.


      • I think one of the key elements with Peter’s layout is the build quality. It’s presented as something pleasing to look at, not just the models but the layout structure too. If it were rough and ready I’m not sure the presentation would work, and it is a PITA for exhibition managers, to find a ‘space’ for it. In the Uk shows most halls are divided into regular four sided shapes for exhibitors, so sometimes a challenge to show it to its best.

      • So, there’s some fascinating conversations:

        It makes sense that exhibition organizers would have default spaces per exhibitor. Here in Canada that space is generally based on the typical folding display table halls are often equipped with. I like how there’s a segment of layout builders who build particularly for exhibition and I’m sure they do this but if this footprint exists as a framework I wonder how they’re exploring it to see what can be created in here in terms of length, width, and height. How can we modulate the experience of the layout viewed within this space (volume)?

        We think of the level of finish of a layout relative to a hierarchal position of importance to the layout’s story. This is the dawn of that “three foot rule” but also we arrange things on the layout so certain ones inevitably have one level of finish other models in that same layout might not because view of them is restricted by the backdrop interfering with the view. If we remove the backdrop and invite viewers to look around the layout do we have to finish more of it? Can we modulate levels of finish as a way to almost guide the eye? This modulation would be akin to controlling any other kind of noise within a space to calm the space and its voice so we can focus on its message to the audience.

        All this makes me want to play more with these concepts.


      • The spacing at a Uk show is hugely variable, it’s possibly easier to call it a ‘plot’. When you agree to exhibit the key dimension is the footprint. The manager then knows how much space in his venue that will occupy regardless of shape, eg an oval. There’s not really an average layout size as such, the larger ones are generally speaking club or collaborative efforts.
        There isn’t a great deal of thought processing on height, think average waist height, and you’re pretty much there. Similarly on the depth of the exhibits, it’s probably a good generalisation to say that depends on the track plan, and the rest falls around that.
        Backdrops vary hugely in their effectiveness in all aspects, as does lighting. I still find it surprising that many exhibits don’t really pay much attention to that.

      • So, on space, there’s not really that much difference to how we manage a show floor. When organization for a show starts the organizer contacts the local layouts to see who is available. As our layouts tend to be modular the next questions are who is available from the group to attend and how many modules are they bringing. The conversation flows collaboratively from there as space is negotiated and shared. Given the unspoken need to draw people into the show there’s always going to be that need to make the right choices in terms of who is invited and how space is allocated.”

        When we talk height we are usually establishing a track height from the floor. In N scale the layout itself is almost a very thin seam of vertical interest. Models an inch tall occupying a band of vertical interest maybe only six inches tall. Against a context of an eight foot (ninety-six inch) tall wall that six in pinstripe of model railways isn’t much. I don’t have an answer but almost all the structure of the layout visually dominates over this thin seam of trains. More sky or more fascia isn’t really the answer to seeing what we can do with the presence implied by considering the vertical dimension but how can we use this element of space as part of the viewing experience?

  3. I just found your note about building a Huntsville and Lake of Bays rectangular switch stand. The pdf doesn’t appear to be available any longer. I am trying to construct similar stands for my G-scale layout. How do you actually attach the throwbar to the vertical shaft on the stand? Can you provide a sketch showing how you did this?

    • Hi. When I tried this what I did was mount a short length of small diameter tubing through which I ran the same piece of rod that was formed, in place, as both the handle and then bent into a J shape at the base of the stand to act as this lever that, in turn, connected to the throwbar of the turnout. I’ll try and find a sketch for this.


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