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.

No comments:

Post a Comment