Thursday, April 30, 2009

Operating styles

There are many ways of capturing operational complexity of a railroad. I have encountered three distinct ways in which "serious" model railroaders operate their layouts:

Realistic freight operations: This approach tends to be standard practice with those who model North American railroads and is nicely described here. The goal is to replicate the way American freight railroads operate on a train layout - the movement of freight cars from one location to another in a plausible manner. For example, moving a coal car from a mine to a power plant.
Typically, this involves the use of waybills to track consignments. A lot of switching (i.e. shunting) is involved. Trains are assembled in yards from freight cars collected from private sidings and loading docks. Road engines are then attached to the assembled train which is then dispatched to the destination. Along the way, the train may drop off or pick up additional freight cars from line-side industries. At the terminal, trains are disassembled and freight cars forwarded to the proper recipients.

Intensive traffic: This goal of this approach, favored by many European modelers, is to simply keep a lot of trains moving on the layout, usually under computer control. This may not sound realistic to American readers but if you have had an opportunity to do some railfanning in Europe, this does actually make sense. It is likely to appeal the most to those who wish to be "railfans" on their own layouts.
In April 1995, while in Nice in southern France for an extended business trip, I spent an enjoyable afternoon railfanning at a small station on the main line between Marseilles and Ventimiglia on the Italian border.
Most of the traffic consisted of passenger trains with some freight trains mixed in along with them. There were both local and long-distance passenger trains including some TGVs. Some trains stopped at the station while others passed through without stopping. This was purely a passenger station but one freight did stop in a loop line to allow a passenger train to overtake it.
Modelers who adopt this approach typically have large hidden staging yards from which trains are dispatched by the computer according to some pattern. Meets and overtakes are staged at stations in the visible part of the layout.
This video of the Märklin layout at the 2009 Dortmund train show is representative of this approach.

Timetable driven operations: The modeler uses a timetable to control the operations of trains. The main prerequisite is, of course, a timetable. In America, where most trains are not timetabled, this approach is not likely to find much favor. In my experience, I have seen this style of operation used mostly by British modelers. This is because they usually model small branch line stations usually based on actual locations for which time tables are available. It is possible to stage realistic time table driven operations .

In my next posting, I will describe how operational considerations governed the design process for my own layout.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Capturing complexity

As a child, I usually built "tail chaser" layouts - small ovals of track with trains running around at top speed :-). This does get boring after a while - nothing to hold your attention. After I built a tail chaser or two,  after returning to model railroading, I realzed that something was missing.
After some introspection. I came to realize that my interest arises from my desire to capture some of the complexity of the real world in miniature. Not all complex things are equally fascinating, of course - somehow I don't feel motivated to spend weekends studying the tax code on for example! 
What gets me interested are complex machines. Whenever I see a complex machine, I have the desire to take it apart and see what makes it work. Indeed, in my day job as a software researcher, I spend a lot of time trying to build and understand complex systems.
In one sense, a railroad can be viewed as a gloriously complicated machine with millions of moving parts. When I see a picture like the one above (north end of Vriddhachalam junction in India),  my mind gets to work right away trying to identify the pieces - the track, the catenary, the locomotives, the freight cars. Having understood the components, the next step is to understand how everything is organized so it all runs smoothly - signalling, communications, operating procedures.
Even within the model railroading community, there are groups of modellers that focus on capturing different aspects of the real world.
  • Accurate scale models of structures and rolling stock: There is a significant group of modellers who aim to replicate every detail of some part of a railroad. Although there are such modelers everywhere, I find that this approach seems to be dominant in in Britain. Driven by constraints of space, and to a lesser extent money, the British approach is to build small jewel like layouts that capture a prototype down to the last detail. One of the masters of this approach is Chris Nevard. In particular, his layout Catcott Burtle, which is only 5 feet by 18 inches size is a real masterpiece.
  • Operational complexity: If space permits a larger layout, it becomes possible to capture some of the operational complexity of a real railroad. That is to say, trains moving on the layout with some apparent purpose. This is my main area of interest and much of the design of my layout has been designed with operations in mind. In subsequent postings, I will go into operational issues in greater detail.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My model railroading history

I have been a model railroader for a long time. I was given my first train set when I was just two years old and have been playing with trains ever since. My parents bought me a big Triang-Hornby OO set in 1970 when we returned to India from a stay in America. It included a large oval of track, several turnouts and a big lot of freight cars and passenger coaches.  Not much remains of this set except for a Britannia Pacific and a few coaches.

This train set gave my brother an myself a lot of enjoyment but like many modellers, high school and college prevented me from pursuing the hobby. When I was a graduate student at Syracuse University in the 1980s, I attended a model train show by chance at the State Fair grounds and got hooked again. Of course, as an impoverished graduate student, there was no way to build a proper layout but I did manage to get a small oval of N gauge track that used to run trains around my Sun Sparcstation monitor.

I resumed model railroading in a big way after I started work at IBM in 1992. On my birthday, with my wife's encouragement, I bought a small Märklin starter set and and some additional tracks to go along with it. Why Märklin? I had always coveted Märklin trains as a child - my best friend Jayashankar Srinivasan had a Märklin set. Although my Triang-Hornby set was very nice, I felt that Märklin had a complete system that seemed to offer a lot of exciting operational possibilities. In particular, I was fascinated by the possibility of controlling trains by actual operating signals.

Over the years, I built a number of Märklin layouts, culminating in a medium size C-track layout that I completed in 2006. I used an Uhlenbrock Intellibox to control my trains along with JMRI-based custom software that I wrote myself. A video of my trains is incuded below

By 2007 however, I was becoming increasingly unhappy with Märklin for a number of reasons. In particular, Märklin uses a proprietary non-standard three-rail system - there is a central rail that is used to power the locomotives. Consequently, Märklin  is the sole supplier of tracks for this system. The geometries of the track system leave a lot to be desired in my opinion. I created a small switching layout to explore the 2-rail world. This little layout turned out much better than I had expected.

After much thought, I decided to switch to the two-rail system. I then dismantled my Märklin  layout and sold off most of the track and rolling stock. I have started building a new layout based on American prototypes. I will be documenting the construction of this layout in this blog.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My personal blog

This blog will complement my web site and my Twitter page.