Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Time and distance

One of the difficulties model railways have is in dealing with time and distance.

Layouts that want an operational focus will have to come to terms with the fact that the scale distance between towns on the model railroad can in no way approximate the prototype. We already seek to compress towns and yards to fit within our defined model railroad space as best we can. Trying to actually compress real distance between towns is even more difficult due to limitations on model railroad space.

And when the distance between towns is relatively short on our model railroads, the amount of time a train takes between those towns is also relatively short.

For the most part we get by with using fast clocks. Fast clocks seek to reduce "real" time to model time so that we can have some useful timetable operation. It's no good using real time when the time it takes for your train to travel between Town A and Town B is ten seconds! By using a fast clock we can pretend that the train took ten minutes or forty minutes or whatever between towns.

The time factor, even with a fast clock, also faces the problem that it is often the case that as the head of the train arrives at Town B, its tail is just leaving Town A! While the distance between towns will depend on overall layout size, I have operated very large model railroads in the US where this is still a problem.

In essence, if we want to try and replicate time and distance on the model railroad based on the prototype, it is damned hard to do well. This leads to compromise and ingenious proxies (like the fast clock) to help us manage as best we can.

However, I am thinking of an alternative solution. I haven't calculated the exact times to use just yet, so please just stay with me at the conceptual level at this stage!

On my proposed US layout, one option for my layout plan is to have a key junction station as the starting point, a large station and yard in the middle of the layout footprint for interchange, and then continue along the branch to another junction station for the remainder (including modelling a couple of the intermediate towns here).

In this scenario, the first "half" of the layout will be the first station and the middle station with no modelled towns/yards in between. I am therefore skipping 2 intermediate towns from the prototype because I don't have the space and they aren't operationally interesting enough to warrant inclusion on this part of the layout. What this means is that I would have two stations close to each other on the layout but on the prototype they are actually 60 miles (97km) apart. Using a fast clock in this scenario won't really work.

There is a peninsula between the two towns and I want to enclose this curved section in a shadow box. It is not considered part of "the railway". It won't be scenicked and the top of the box will be used by the dispatcher for his paperwork. As such, this curved section on the model railway does not really exist! This section will also need to be long enough (and hidden) to hold a complete train so train length becomes an issue too.

My idea is to hold the train in this "hidden" section while I run a real time/scale time sequence that will represent the time and distance between the two major towns I am modelling on the layout, but representing the 60 real miles apart on the prototype.

The travel of my model train (distance and time) will be represented by four lights, each representing the four towns on this section of the prototype. The first light goes on when the train leaves the first modelled station and yard (the junction - Town A). The train enters the curved shadow box around the peninsula and stops, being now fully enclosed and not visible at either end. A second light now comes on and the first light goes out. The second light indicates that the train has "arrived" at the second (unmodelled) station. After (say) thirty real seconds, the second light goes off and a third light goes on, representing the next unmodelled town. After another thirty seconds, the third light goes out and the fourth light comes on to indicate that the train is now (under power) entering the fourth town which is the mid-town on the layout that is actually modelled. We have now used a proxy for the time and distance between two modelled towns, including the two unmodelled intermediate towns.

I appreciate the fact that we will have the train operator/s waiting for over a real 60 seconds to get his/her train from Town A to Town D. And most of this real time is actually just waiting for some lights to go on and off before moving the train into the next station and yard on the model railroad. I figure that if I had the space and had actually modelled those two small intermediate towns, then the real time factor of the train moving between Town A and Town D would be the same or more. So pretending to run the train through those unmodelled intermediate towns shouldn't be much of a strain.

By holding up the train off-stage between modelled stations (or in the space-time warp I would prefer to call it), I am using a proxy for the time and distance between two towns, some 60 real miles apart on the prototype.

Comments welcome....


  1. saatkamp@iw.net22 May 2012 at 13:29

    I think I understand your idea, Brad. It reminds me of John O'Brien's layout in the TC (we did not visit or operate on it, but Tim Smith did, I believe). He has trains sit for 10 real minutes to represent distance. They used to be under a deck. I'm going to forward your message to John to see what he might contribute. If I were you, I wouldn't bother with the lights, I'd just have the engineer stop behind/in the shadow box for real time minutes.
    The dilemma with engines in one town and cabooses or ends in the next adjacent simultaneously can be somewhat diminished by making sure the engineer is facing a different direction (e.g. around a wall corner) so their attention is on the new wall/town. That way, their peripheral vision isn't looking at both towns simultaneously.

  2. Alan,
    Good to hear from you and thanks for your comment. It was fun running trains at MinnRail last October and in Sioux Falls.

    It's true what you say about the head and tail issue and it will probably confront me as well. As you say, making the viewing such that only the front of the train can be seen by the operator (engineer) helps overcome that visual problem.


  3. Hi Brad,

    Here's a Tunnel Stretcher circuit which has been around for a quite a while. The circuit is designed for the type of running you describe above. The train stops automatically in the hidden section, taking the whole delay scenario out of the operator's mind and making the illusion of distance more realistic.




  4. Martin,

    Now that's a great idea. I like the automatic aspect to this, although the dispatcher will have to be on his/her toes when the train automatically pops out at the other end of the tunnel box.


  5. Brad, IMHO I reckon this suggestion to stretch the times is dead wrong... my reasoning is that I primarily like to operate as a train driver - so ANYTHING that is not prototypical I HATE! I think MRP had something on this re getting in and out of hidden staging. On this basis I detest helixes, operating hidden fiddle yards and artificial pause rules or mechanisms. I LOVE Ron Cunningham's layout where towns are in bays so I can't see the rest of the world (ie layout) and I had headphones on so surrounding sounds are heavily muted. The distance between towns was disguised by heavy curves so there was no sight lines between towns.

    Also, if the train is hidden, what is the driver meant to do in the meantime - look at some really artificial lights? Sorry to be negative - just something I've noted on a number of layouts.... cheers nick

  6. Heya Brad, great to chat... yes ok if stopped, but the driver can still see and feel part of the train (which is not the case if hidden). I like the idea of the newspaper btw...

    Yes re fast clock - but that tends to become ok as your internal time-keeping sense adjusts and it becomes the norm.

    Yes re town spacing being too close because of layout size constraints - but the point I'm making is because towns are located in the 'bays' of an E topology, you only see the train in front of you - most of the time you CAN'T see the next town - so you focus on the train in front of you and the scenery nearby. Consequently, town spacing isn't a big issue to me. cheers nick

  7. I have to agree with Nick - if I was the engineer running your train, then to have the train held up for minutes is effectively wasting my time. If you are trying to improve the dispatchers view, then I suggest you invest in a computer program, and run virtual trains. If you are eliminating stations on your layout, then embrace what you have left. So what if boring stations are eliminated. NSW Railways does this all the time. The hidden siding you have proposed could oterwise make for some neat scenery. Regards

  8. I am quite a fan of spirals and hidden fiddle yards, especially on exhibition layouts where the focus is to engage the outside viewer. I think the operator is always going to fully aware of the compromise. It will largely depend on the individual's taste and patience as to whether the time scaling method is satisfying.

    Looking at the proposal as a point to point layout to be operated by more than one operator, the "stopped/in-transit" train needn't be totally dead time. The hidden section could easily include "un-modelled" but scheduled stops where the consist might be changed. It could also allow multiple trains to operate on a single line using a staff exchange system.
    While one operator's consist is in transit/hidden he can observe the other operator working. I also think that it would probably work well with smaller consists that are consistant with a branchline operation.