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Posted in Articles by Rob Chant. (Last activity on Monday, May 24, 2021 at 15:52:57 ADT.)

ARTICLE: A case study in the minimalist approach

There was some talk on a Facebook group where I am a member about taking a minimalist approach to layout design. I welcomed the debate because it is a trend that I do believe should be followed when designing a layout. As others had mentioned during the discussions, taking a minimalist approach can be very rewarding, if you also take the time to explore prototypical operations, and try to mimic them as closely as possible. With that in mind, I think the first step in mimicking the prototype is duplicating the actual track work as closely as feasible.

For some time I have been searching for a layout design that is highly adaptable (universal?) for many modern prototype situations, and I think that I'm finally getting there. If you're anything like me, you spend a lot of time on Google maps looking at prototypical track configuration. And after designing a lot small modern layouts, I have come to the conclusion that a good subject for such layouts usually consists of a single medium-sized industry, and one or two smaller industries in the same location.

After viewing many locations, I actually started to see a pattern in track arrangements that could be easily adapted to a small room. In most cases, the medium-sized industry was on a spur by itself, and the other industries shared a nearby spur. Usually all turnouts faced in the same direction, to reduce or eliminate run-around moves, which also makes this much easier for us when adapting to our small spaces.

It was a past client that first introduced me to this small slice of the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad in Oconto Falls, Wisconsin. When my client sent me a map of the line, it was a track arrangement that I had seen many times before, and no doubt will look familiar to you as well. (Please see the map included below.)

I ended up helping my client firm up his concept drawings based on this location, and that layout will be presented on my blog in the future. However, after seeing my client's finished design, I wanted to take even more of a minimalist approach to see what could be done, and if the end result would make a good layout.

I used the same standard and restrictions that my client had shown on his list of Givens and Druthers. He modeled in S-scale and wanted to use 36" as a minimum radius, and #6 turnouts. His layout also had to hug three walls of his 10'6" by 12'0" space on shelves less than 18" wide, so the middle of the room was left open.

Trying to squeeze Oconto Falls into the footprint restrictions using S-scale with a 36" minimum radius was a bit of a challenge. However, eventually I found a minimalist design I liked that used only four turnouts (not including the one for the abandoned spur.) Of course there was no run-around, so all locos came from staging pushing their trains as they would on the prototype after the run-around move had been completed.

If you study the design closely, you will see that it is very adaptable to many situations and locations on modern day prototypes. Using the corner was the key to making this work, and that would be the location of the medium-sized industry when adapting this design to other locations. The other smaller industries that could be more easily compressed into flats, would go along the thin shelf along the north wall. (In HO-scale this design could be adapted to a 7'6" by 9'0" space, and the curves could still remain at least 24", or slightly above.)

Each of the four industries has at least two car spots, and with two trains of six cars each, it should easily keep a crew busy for 45-60 minutes if you duplicate two days on the layout. As you will see from the screen captures, the layout is very relaxed and the non-congested scenes should be easy to build and detail. I think it is a design worthy of some consideration, but I would like to hear your feedback as well.

Track Plan:

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Map of Prototype Line:

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Overall views of the layout:

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3D screen captures from the layout:

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TAGS: Design Feature: Based on Actual Location(s), Theme: End of Line Station, Design Feature: No Run-Around Track, Theme: Regional / Short Line Railway, Theme: Single Station / Town, Layout Size: Small Layouts, Design Feature: Staging Yards, USA (States): Wisconsin, American Railways: Escanaba & Lake Superior RR, Articles: Minimalist Approach to Layout Design

User Comments:

Posted by Ryan Sabo on Friday, January 10, 2020 at 10:04:15 PM.

These types of layouts really call to me. It's refreshing to see something prototypical and relaxed, without any of the 'usual tricks' to get as much action as possible into a certain square footage. There have been several interesting blog posts recently regarding what's 'enough' layout, and I really think that your E&LS in S scale is on point. Well done, Rob.


Posted by Robert Chant on Saturday, January 11, 2020 at 1:44:59 PM.

Thanks Ryan! I always leaned more towards a minimalist approach as well, but a lot of my clients insist on more congested track plans. I try to broach the subject of adding prototypical operating practices, but it seems the majority of modelers just aren't quite there yet. However, I still think it is the direction the hobby will eventually embrace.

Posted by Ian Leadbeatter on Sunday, January 12, 2020 at 8:19:14 PM.

I really like this design. I generally build micro/small layouts due to restricted space, budget and too many ideas floating around in my head. This would be great at eye level using electro magnetic uncouplers so you didn't need to reach over cars to spot on rear tracks - you could almost get away with just a backscene and track if you wanted to keep the budget down and it would be a snap to swap flats/backscene etc to give it a whole new look. Love it!

Posted by Robert Chant on Monday, January 13, 2020 at 9:13:22 PM.

Thanks Ian, I'm glad you like it. Your swapping out the backscene idea isn't something I have explored before, but it does have a lot of merit on layouts built in restrictive spaces. I assume you have designed layouts for yourself using the idea?

Posted by Steffen List on Friday, July 31, 2020 at 2:59:20 AM.

I am exploring your layout designs in search of a matching concept for my planned indoor G-scale switching layout. The walls have a length of only 11', so it is clear to try a minimalistic approach. Your E&LS-concept is a very balanced and well done one I will try to adapt for my Mexican narrow gauge. Thank you for your input.

Posted by Robert Chant on Wednesday, August 05, 2020 at 8:25:08 PM.

Hi Steffen ... I only designed a few layouts in G-scale but still know the challenges you're facing with an indoor layout. I think a minimalistic approach is probably the only way you cam fit something in a small room ... so good luck with you project!

Posted by Ed Vasser on Saturday, December 19, 2020 at 7:57:35 AM.

This is one great plan! I really love the fact that it's based on an actual spur and location and as you said, it's quite typical of what you found all over the country. Although my current freelance switching layout (18in X 20ft long) includes a runaround siding to allow the locomotive to lead the train arriving/departing, I really think I prefer the push/pull type operation. Over the past few years since my retirement, I'm experimented with and operated several different track plans and themes, I find I keep coming back to this type of track arrangement. Just works better for a switching layout with the often limited space we have. After seeing this plan, I find I'm seriously considering going back to the push/pull type industrial spur operation.

Posted by Robert Chant on Saturday, December 19, 2020 at 6:32:42 PM.

Thanks Ed ... much appreciated. This has been one of my favourite design since I mocked it up ... and I can really see the potential in adopting such an operating scheme. It doesn't take a lot of track and structures to keep a crew busy if done prototypically ... and I think copying the paperwork is also another added no cost option. Good luck with the next version of your layout.

Posted by Ed Vasser on Friday, May 14, 2021 at 5:46:57 AM.

This is certainly my favorite track plan on your site and I find myself constantly revisiting the plan! Looking at the the prototype location both in aerial and street views, I noticed that the "abandoned" spur at the Bay Lakes/United Cooperative facility, is in fact not abandoned. It leads to what is probably a fertilizer storage shed (a facility found at most large grain complexes) and there is also room on that spur to possibly hold empty covered hoppers for later loading of outbound grain. Were I to build this layout, I'd rearrange the grain bins so that the fertilizer shed could be added - giving you one more car spot location. Would really be nice to model this spur in HO scale using roughly the same benchwork footprint and increase the length of the spurs at McDermid, ST Paper and the Team Track, to give you a little more working room at those industries. This plan has caused me to give up on my freelance end of branch one town layout theme and go back to modeling an industrial spur with just two or three industries, which as you noted, is quite typical of industrial spurs all over the country! My basic plan will probably be just a much longer version of Lance Mindheim's Palmetto Spur plan, which is probably one of the most versatile track plans for a model railroad switching layout and can have any industries you like on it. I also like the idea of having two staging tracks, representing the end of a siding, so that you could stage two trains and will try and incorporate that into whatever plan I come up with. Love your site and track plans!

Posted by Greg Amer on Monday, May 24, 2021 at 3:52:57 PM.

I prefer a simple plan myself. My layout has 2 industries and a single on layout “staging” track. No runaround. Keep it simple. This is a really good plan in my eyes. Lots of opportunity to make it realistic.

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