Track planning is easily my favorite part of the layout building process. It requires a lot of careful consideration but it does not need to be messy, dirty, or finished in a specific amount of time. Track planning should be a slow, deliberate, and precise process. Despite my enjoyment of track planning, I no longer see it as an art form, but rather more of a science.
Science is a method of better understanding the world around us. In this, track planning is most definitely a science as a model railroad essentially replicates the operations of prototype railroads in the real world, which are shaped by economics and logistics (both are considered science).
A good track plan must take into account these aspects of real railroads in order to seem realistic or to be considered historically accurate. Track planning has another aspect though which prototype railroads don’t generally have for a limitation, and that is space. Yes, there is only so much real estate a railroad can take up and there are certain situations where real railroads need to carefully consider how much space every section of track takes up. However, with model trains we are FAR more constrained by space, even accounting for scale.
A 10×10 ft room (3×3 meters) at 1:87th scale (HO scale) is the equivalent of only 870×870 ft (260×260 meters). With modern freight car lengths, one wall can only hold a maximum of fourteen 60 ft boxcars with a couple inches to spare. Therein lies the ultimate challenge with track planning, replicating prototype operations inside a limited space. Perhaps this is where people get the idea that track planning is an art, but really a good track plan is achieved not through artistic license, but rather by measured compromises and mathematics. I’d like to expand on this in a future article/video but for now this is as much as I need to say on my opinions of the subject in regards to the Little Creek Mine project.
Operations up Little Creek
Before putting pencil to paper (or mouse to CAD program in my case) I needed to consider what I wanted the Little Creek Mine to accomplish and the operations that would be required. At the same time, I had to narrow down what I wanted to do inside a space of just over four square feet. These considerations can be broken down into two major categories, prototypical and operator requirements.
- Both a mine and a camp need to be serviced
- Trains need to run from the base of the gulch (staging) to the top of the gulch (also staging)
- In keeping with the chosen historical era and setting, all rolling stock will use link and pin couplers
- A method of turning the locomotive is not strictly required, but always beneficial
- A place to make repairs on mine equipment and railroad equipment is also not strictly required, but beneficial
- Ability to run and operate trains from both the front and back of the train layout
- Interesting but simple track arrangement that makes operations engaging
- Accessibility of trains at all points along the route
- Easy method of adding or removing cars from the layout
The operations I which to replicate is to have my little porter locomotive crawl out of bed every morning at the mining camp and run up and down the gulch shuttling cars of ore down to the ‘big’ 36 inch gauge railroads running around Lead and Deadwood. The ore is taken down into the valley to be processed and refined. Alongside carloads of ore, the little locomotive needs to shuttle freight up and down the gulch since the wagon roads are difficult to use 9 months of the year. Occasionally the locomotive will transport some people too on an extra flatcar or gondola.
Because of the small space and tight radii that will be required for continuous operation, all rolling stock will have to be two axle designs. The tight radii also makes the use of link and pin couplers more reliable than knuckle couplers, but that element is also historically consistent for an industrial railroad around the turn of the century.
Meanwhile, the operator (me) needs to be able to run the Little Creek Mine from the front or the rear. At home operations will be from the front and at train shows operations will be from the rear. This not only affects the bench work, which you can read about here, but it also affects what I can and can’t do with a track plan. Incorporating all these requirements means considering a couple of track planning experts and their respective philosophies.
Layout Design Element or Compact Layout Design
As model railroad writer Tony Koester would put it, there are three or four layout design elements (LDE’s) for the Little Creek Mine; the mine itself, the camp, staging, and a maintenance area. All these elements require track to service those areas and connecting them together is basically what the track plan is all about. However, one area Koester’s method doesn’t always consider is the needs of operators. He certainly does consider this when he built his railroads, but Tony’s LDE is focused on replicating the prototype’s track plan as closely as possible.
Tony’s method of cramming in LDE’s into a limited space is called selective compression. By condensing areas of the prototype that are less interesting, more operation potential is achieved in a small space. This certainly works when the space is a large room like a basement or garage, but in a really small space there is no amount of compression that would realistically replicate the route of even a small narrow gauge tramway. In such situations, I’d argue it’s better to follow Iain Rice’s methods of track planning.
Iain is a master of replicating short lines and industrial railroads in spare bedrooms. Iain and Tony’s methods certainly run parallel to each other and Mr. Rice has been known to use the LDE concept, he also puts a lot of consideration into the practicality of a track plan, only putting in what adds to operations while throwing out what doesn’t. Rice also isn’t afraid to make industries larger or smaller to adjust for the size of the space. There are few, if any, grain elevators that serve less than 13 carloads at a time but sometimes in a small space it’s better to service 3-4 cars rather than none.
I have yet to see an actual name given to Iain Rice’s layout design method so I’ll steal one from the title of a book he has published, Compact Layout Design or CLD. Unlike the use of LDE philosophy, CLD puts an emphasis on achieving a fun, practical track plan that fits the space. There is a more technical word for this, ergonomics. A train layout that may not have the most industries or most prototypical track plan can still be enjoyable so long as the design accommodates the ergonomic requirements of the operator.
There are plenty of other philosophies to layout design out there and all work beautifully depending on the situation. In this case, I concluded that CLD is the best track planning philosophy for this particular situation. A minimalist, simple approach is also an option worth considering when designing a compact track plan. To learn more, I would look up Lance Mindheim and visit his website.
Little Creek Mine Track Plan
I’m going to skip over the actual development of a track plan and the evolution of design. There will be other opportunities in the future to show how a design goes from an idea to a physical creation. In this case, the track plan is very simple and only took a bit of editing and refinement to come up with what I have now. The track plan I will be following is a pretty simple one that uses a couple of unusual tricks to make the most out of the small space.
As I was browsing the preserved micro layout website authored by the late Carl Arendt I ran across a page in the design gallery dedicated to the use of turntables for small layout design. I knew the page existed but it had been a few years since I last checked in on the scrapbook. Anyways, while the turntables were being used to save space I couldn’t help but notice a couple of common issues.
First, the turntables were WAY too long to be realistic. Turntables generally wouldn’t hold both a locomotive and a piece of rolling stock. Even on little mining trams the portable turntables used down in the mines would only rotate one cart at a time. Basically, the turntables used on these micro layouts operated more like a sector plate or a transfer table, both being substitutions for tail tracks. The second problem was that the designs relied too heavily on a turntable to be operated properly. Yes, turntables would be used often but the prototype didn’t put them right on the main line!
However, I realized that a turntable can be used as a substitution for a double slip turnout or a crossing and this became an important feature of the track plan. Since I have a mine and a mining camp to serve, there needs to be two spurs going in opposite directions. To get the longest length possible I needed these spurs to cross over each other in an X pattern. But substituting the crossing for a turntable, I not only could align each spur track up to be serviced but I would have a useful way to run around the cars parked on the mainline.
On top of that, the turntable allows enough space for a locomotive servicing track (not shown on the plan). Now the porter will have a place to be parked before and after each operating session! To achieve the same operation with only turnouts, I would need to build five. Now I only need to build two!
The second feature of the track plan that I really love is the use of a hidden track along the side, allowing a space for staging when the layout is at home and is being operated from the front. The hidden track will be underneath a steep slope that separates the spur from the scenic portion of the train layout. During train shows, this same track will be visible from the front via a small window and will be an underground mining scene. This feature is therefore also doing double duty!
While not strictly prototypical, these features meaningfully add to the operation potential of the track plan and should compliment the other features of the train layout whether it be set up at home or at a train show.
It would have been easy to either focus solely on operations and have a point-to-point track plan with hidden staging behind the backdrop. It would have been equally easy to just add a turnout or two to a loop of track and make the whole train layout a nicely looking diorama with a train moving through the scene. But instead I’ve come up with a track plan that should satisfy both without sacrificing too much real estate or historical accuracy. There is a bit of creative license taken, but this is just the sort of solution a mining company would have done on the real thing under the right circumstances.