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This section will be used as a soap box to discuss model railroad design. If you wish to express your views or extend the discussion, please feel free to Email me. Replies will be posted on the Workshop page.

Selective Compression
Typical Types of Compression
The British Model
The American Model
Making Small Scenes Make Sense
Visual Integration
Selective Compression

Any model railroad, no matter how large, cannot possibly duplicate a prototype mile for mile. Nor should it. There are a variety of reasons why this is so, but probably the most important is that it would be just plain boring. Not every scene along a railroad's right of way is scenically exciting or worth modeling. In order to achieve the best results, it is desirable to include only those scenes that would best describe your modeled prototype. The purpose is to capture the essence of the railroad in order to best represent it in modeled form. The concept used in modeling a railroad is called "selective compression". It is, in its best form, the art of selecting and compressing the most representative scenes from your modeled prototype and making it work next to other selected scene.

Take for example a station platform that in real life measures 100 feet. In HO scale, this translates to 13.8 inches, which at first sounds reasonable, but if you take into consideration the lengths of a typical HO locomotive (9 in.) and 2 passenger cars (12 in.) which measures in at 33 inches, you can quickly see how ridiculous this might look when modeled. Selective compression assumes that there will be compromises, the extent of which will be determined by the amount of floor space you have at your disposal. The general principle that applies dictates that the smaller your layout is, the harder compressing reality is going to be.

Typical Types of Compression

When you are working with a small layout, you will have to accept compromises. Most railroads travel from "A" to "B" and if you have, for example, only 7 feet of linear space to work with (and bearing in mind that a HO-scale switcher with 3 cars and a caboose measures about 30 inches) it's going to be a very short trip. There are two solutions to this problem, the British model and the American model.

The British Model

Many small layouts in Britain elect to model only the depot (station) area of a railroad, typically at the end of a branch line. The end product focuses on the activities that occurs around the depot, and when well executed, provides for a truly operationally orientated layout. The main line is usually represented by off scene trackage such as a pivot table or a train cassette. This type of layout works well to model prototype British railroads, which does in many situations have to accommodate tight spaces and there are many real life examples from which modelers can work from. This type of layout can be very economical on space, and excellent results can be had even in an area only 2.5 feet long.

The American Model

The British style of modeling does not usually translate well to an American railroad, and the reason is quite simple. Most American railroads are characteristically linear. Even the smallest stations, because of the availability of space can sprawl over a fairly extensive area. The greatest challenge is that in the American modeler's mind, they expect to, and get far more enjoyment from seeing trains run. Thus, from the smallest to the largest American layouts, there is usually some provision for some sort of continuous routing, just to allow the trains to run.

As with all things in life, there are exceptions. American short-line railroads, logging lines, narrow-gauge and mining railroads often times, due to local geographic constraints often had to cope in situations where spaces were tight. These types of railroads are ideal candidates for the "British" style of modeling.

Making Small Scenes Make Sense

With a small layout, the greatest challenge is to make everything visually work together. How do you blend one scene into another? Here we need to take into consideration how people see imagery. With a small layout, chances are that when someone first perceives it, they will see all of it. The trick is to use visual cues to coax them quickly to focus on what you want them to see.

On a small model railroad layout, depending on what you are trying to represent, it is all right for it to be busy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is even desirable. Organize your scenes carefully, so that they will blend into each other and yet work separately on their own. Use plenty of detailed vignettes. One of the advantages of a small layout is that you can spend a lot of time and attention on details. Carefully select your colors, make sure everything blends in. Try not to allow anything to stand out like a sore thumb and this should include your railroad equipment.

Visual Integration

Ultimately, the key to success lies in one phase: "Visual Integration". All visual elements, and on a small layout that includes everything that can be seen, should keep to a common theme. Repaint even the controllers if you have to. You should have a corporate identity for your railroad and everything else should be based on the same geographic area. Weather everything. If your railroad is based in the western USA for example, stuff should have that "dusty" look.

Approach the design of your railroad like you would a painting. Use "leading lines"; this is something else your rails can be used for other than running trains. Use elements at the periphery to contain the viewer's attention. As your train makes it way around your layout, what it really does is transition from scene to scene. Design for this; include "scenic spots". Make it possible for the viewer to see your layout from different view points. Keep most of your layout at eye-level, this above all else can really help create a sense of reality. Few of us will be looking at trains from above. If you have your railroad at eye level, remember to always include a backdrop, even if you only paint the wall behind your railroad a sky color.

Updated: 06-28-2001
 Sean Lim 2001
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