The Model Railroad That Saved My Life (1999-2002)

Back in March of 1999 I started work on this (my first) N scale layout. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going with it, but at the time I had just quit smoking cigarettes (after 25 years) and desperately needed a way to channel all of that nervous energy. Basically I just needed something to keep my hands busy and my mind occupied, and the multi-faceted activity of building a model railroad turned out to be just the thing.

Apart from simply providing a pleasant (and desperately needed) diversion, I also viewed constructing this layout as a learning experience and a gateway to future layouts. Consequently, I didn't make any real effort to model a specific time, place or railroad. My only real goal was to learn as much about railroads (model and real) as I could, and get all of my mistakes out of the way. And I certainly wasn't going to let anything as mundane as "reality" interfere with my enjoyment, so logic was often left on the wayside when it came to adding stuff "just 'cuz".

Now the layout is gone, but then again so are the cigarettes. And although the whole thing looks a bit silly to me now, I guess we all have to start someplace, eh?

Things I learned...

When I decided to build this model railroad I had a lot of definite ideas in my mind about features that I wanted to include. Most of these notions were holdovers from the model railroading days of my youth when lack of funds, tools and talent prevented me from fulfilling very many of the model railroad daydreams that I'd fomented while poring over old Model Railroader magazines at the public library.

Among other things, I wanted -

- A turntable and roundhouse
- Lots of mountains, tunnels and bridges
- Water
- Wall to wall turnouts and sidings for endless operating enjoyment
- A giant switch yard
- The ability to continuously run multiple trains
- The ability to automate the entire operation with a computer
- As many remote control turnouts and accessories as I could get my hands on

Once finished, I did manage to include just about everything on my list and try my hand at just about every aspect of model railroading (with the exception of insanities like handlaid track and whatnot). And what I discovered was that some of what I wanted to include worked out and some didn't, and that for future layouts I'd be doing things a little differently -

- To hell with turntables. They're a pain in the neck to keep clean and operating. And anyway, they don't fit in very well with the more modern era that I prefer to model (yah, I know turntables and roundhouses are still used today, but they are few and far between).

- To hell with long tunnels and sharp curves. I read early on that one should use tunnels to hide sharp curves. Wow, great advice considering 90% of my derailments occurred on my sharp curves (and thus, inside tunnels). Best to stick with 90 degree curves (rather than 180 degrees). And if 180 degrees is unavoidable, at least make them broad curves. And in either case, keep them out of tunnels!

- To hell with wall to wall turnouts and sidings and "operations" in general. I guess I'm fairly typical insofar as I get most of my enjoyment out of building my model railroads, and once they're finished, find the idea of operating them fairly unmoving. I can't deny it, I like to put trains together in a big yard and then watch them go 'round'n'round. Dropping cars off and picking them up from little sidings just doesn't do much for me. To make matters worse, all of those dead-end sidings are a gigantic pain in the ass to keep clean. And we all know how miserable life can be when trying to perform delicate switching operations on dirty track. And don't get me started on that special brand of operations insanity where we all breathlessly run around pretending we're railroad clerks, filling out waybills and train orders and switch lists and god knows what other crap. No offense and god love ya if you get into that stuff, but you couldn't pay me enough to perform those menial tasks in real life, why the hell would I want to do them for a hobby?? My future focus will be on roundy-round operations, and with a minimum of dead-end sidings.

- To hell with remote control turnouts. I wound up with about 100 Atlas remote control turnouts on this layout, and I'd say about a third of them didn't work worth a damn. And it's just so much fun to have one of your switch machines flake out and melt its way through several layers of foam base! Best to stick with ground throws (hell, they look 1000% better, anyway), and only use remote controls when they are needed. Y'know, like for the turnouts that you can't actually reach with your hand?

- To hell with remote control accessories. I kidded myself that I would use these things as part of general operations, but I didn't. They just became a lot of expensive joojaws and white elephants taking up space on the layout.

I am still interested in the notion of remote control automation via computer, and I've written enough DCC-interface software to know that from the computer side of things it would be pretty simple. However, until they come up with something better than magnematic couplers for N scale it's unlikely that I will ever achieve this goal. Uncoupling with magnematics is still more art than science and trying to automate that kind of operation would be very near impossible. But who knows? Maybe someday someone will come out with DCC couplers. Then I can revisit the whole idea of automation.

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