Bad advice

What follows is a review of two recent publications, that promise more than they actually deliver. One is something I would have bought out of interest, the other I bought out of curiosity. I leave you to work out which was which. It won’t be difficult.

Wise fellow that he is, Mike Cougill refuses to comment on others’ layout plans. I used to think this was odd given that I think he has a finely honed ability to strip plans back to the essentials, but he is quite right: these things are personal.

Not being quite as wise as he, I am inclined to make the occasional comment, but more via a question. E.g. “What are you trying to achieve?” or a question linked to a statement, “You said in your preamble that you wanted to create a rural scene. Given that, do you think that you might have too much track?” Now, there is a certain irony in this as I have a reputation in certain circles for churning out plans by the dozen hundred, but actually I have simply been searching for something which ticked my own personal boxes. In amongst that check list has always been something which is plausible, realistic, and not too cramped. If a plan has too much squashed into the space, or cannot be operated in an authentic way, then it goes out of the window. (As it happens, I have recently had some success in trying to squeeze quarts into pint pots, and who knows, after a nearly 20 year hiatus since I started the last one, I may soon start on another layout.) To that end, about 10 years ago I invested in a copy of Templot (back when you paid a small fee for it) and spent time learning how to use what is a very sophisticated piece of software. One of the first things you learn from using it is that sketches on a piece of paper are often rather too optimistic. The second thing you learn is that help comes via the extremely effective user forum. The third thing you learn is pretty much like the first, in that plans published in the modelling press (magazines and books) are also optimistic about what you can fit into a space: only trust a plan which shows something which has been built!

Be that as it may, I am still fascinated by track plans, and how the layout of the track is deployed to represent railway operations in a given space – I am also all in favour of viewing the track plan as just part of the bigger picture, as espoused by Iain Rice. So I made a couple of spontaneous purchases: the “BRM Guide to Trackplans and Layout Design” and the “Hornby Magazine Design Manual – Volume One”. They have differences, they have similarities, and they both have defects.

Firstly, the major difference is that the BRM Guide is essentially a series of layout designs from past issues of the magazine, with some accompanying text written by the BRM staff. (Presumably this avoids any royalty payments to the original authors.) The HM Manual has a variety of plans, some of which are based on layouts that have been constructed in the past, and some of which are planning suggestions. I use that phrase as I have seen it used in self-defence by one of the contributors to Hornby Magazine, when his layout plan was criticised on a forum as being unbuildable. So, the BRM plans are proven. Some of the HM plans are proven: many are not.

Similarities next. Both magazines are pitched at the right market, I would say: people moving beyond the train set, if you like. Quite possibly, the Hornby Magazine Manual is more closely targeted at beginners than the BRM Guide. There is no real point aiming at the finescale market: this market is smaller, and more likely to design it for themselves or turn to other established works aimed specifically towards them – the aforesaid Iain Rice’s works come to mind, but also Barry Norman’s two lovely oeuvres, as his Scenic Modelling book does have a very interesting appendix on layout design. This is all fine and dandy, and both magazines tend to play safe and talk about traditional (heavy, cumbersome and crude but effective) benchwork/baseboards, and also about ready to lay track. This is understandable as building your own requires its own works. The BRM Guide has many layouts within it which have obviously used homemade track, and makes brief, passing reference to it but sticks with SMP plastic based point kits and PCB alternatives: no mention is made of the plastic chairs which have been on the market for nearly 30 years. Not so the examples in the Hornby Magazine, where moving from set track to flex-track is seen as a major step. (It was for me, too. But I wasn’t even 10 when my father – more interested in puppetry than model railways, truth be told – introduced me to flexible track. I remember this vividly because in my excitement I sat on the track and bent it beyond use!)

And now, the defects. Here there are a number of similarities. There are errors in the selection of photographs (I am not sure why there is a photo of Albion metal works purporting to be the signal box at East Lynn), in the text (guys, we might be in the digital age, but you still need to read the proofs) and worst of all, in the published track plans. Both publications have errors in matters such as the placing of slips on diamond crossings: in the case of the BRM guide, this can be seen by comparing the photographs of the finished layout with the trackplan but in the case of the HM Manual, this will only be seen whilst looking at the trackplan, or worse still, discovered once construction has commenced (if built as drawn, then Padstow would be unworkable, for example, but there are numerous such examples). It is also clear that the BRM plans have been “lifted” straight out of the original magazine articles, as the hidden sidings on “Borchester Market” remain hidden, although the exit points from the main layout are given reference letters which are not used any further. In the case of the HM Guide, many of the “plans” really are suggestions – although drawn for 00, they might work well in the designated space in N gauge, but even there the paintwork might be rather tight. (I would love to see a model of Hawkhurst in 00, using say Peco track, which fitted into the allocated space.) Use of basic, simple software such as Anyrail would have provided a check on the feasibility of the plans (I have never used this, but am aware that it is one of many products out there). The output from the software could have also been used as the basis for the layout artwork. Indeed, the plans – together with a shopping list – could have been made available as a download.

And then there is the indication of signalling on the plans. Which is worse? No signalling, or incorrect signalling? I can see what HM are trying to do, by supposedly showing the rear view of signals for one direction of traffic. Unfortunately, the arms are coloured for the front view (red with a white band, as opposed to white with a black band), so they look a touch odd. OK, I worked out what they were doing, but then again I have had an interest in proper signalling for over a third of a century. What hope a new recruit to the hobby? Also, whilst it is perfectly normal to have two equal height arms on a bracketed signal post, serving as platform starters, both would be “stop” signals (red arm, red or green lights) the combination of one “stop” signal and one “distant” in this situation is frankly fantasy. I also have a dislike of personal opinion, for example that terminal layouts are limited in their operation, expressed authoritatively as it it were a fact. True, you don’t get to see an express running at speed, but not everyone wants that. For many, the operations at a steam age terminal in the UK are truly fascinating.

But the shame of it is that some of the ideas in the Hornby Magazine Manual really are very good, and very thought provoking. Some of the plans are full of great ideas, too – if suffering somewhat from optimism over turnout length and radii in a few places. Some of those ideas, particularly those presented in the “Main Line” section, would make for a cracking “exhibition layout” for a club, or indeed a dedicated individual. Let’s take design I. How about two unconnected lines on separate levels? The upper one is double track, served by a small number of storage loops, and consists of plain track in the visible section. A procession of trains at different speeds can pass by on this level. The lower level is also double track, but has platforms set against loops (so that express trains can run straight through, and freight trains can be halted to allow stopping passenger trains to overtake them) and also a local goods yard and a local industry (say a gas works, or chemical works.) Within a standard UK garage, a really interesting layout could be created, and modifications made to various features to reflect different eras: a modern setting might see the local goods yard used for the civil engineering department, or as a car park, but the chemical works could be going from strength to strength, and the through passenger lines might have been removed – maybe even one of the platforms rebuilt against the previous through line, and the loop removed to allow this. Showing how the plan could be changed to reflect eras would surely have been a really interesting and illuminating piece for the beginner?

So, what can I say? If you like looking at layout plans, then you may as well go ahead and spend the equivalent of 3 or 4 pints of beer buying both. If you are looking for inspiration from layout plans that actually work, then buy the BRM Guide but be wary to check photographic evidence against the drawings. If you are in the early stages of the hobby (in which case, I suspect that you are not reading this anyway!) then the BRM Guide to Trackplans and Layout Design might help by showing you a variety of layouts in a variety of scales and sizes, and open your eyes to what could be achieved now, and in the long run. But the faults and errors of the Hornby Magazine Design Manual – Volume One make me think that its intended audience would be well advised to avoid it, as by their very nature the lack of experience needed to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the hyperbole from reality, will simply not be there. I hope subsequent volumes are more thought out, and more practical.

I am sorry, but newcomers, beginners, etc, need to be given simple, sound advice about the options open to them. I really don’t think that anyone is helped by bad advice, even those who can spot it. This isn’t “elitist“, by the way. I just happen to think that if a publication is aimed at helping people to get more involved with and more out of the hobby, then it really does need to be, well, helpful. Leaders (and almost by definition, claiming to be “Britain’s Fastest Growing Model Railway Magazine” suggests that such a position is being assumed) need to lead.