Monday, July 18, 2016

Great Model Railroads 2016

     Kalmbach Publishing Co. Great Model Railroads 2016 It’s time to review another of these special annual Model Railroader issues. Model Railroader is a strong proponent of operations: the owners of all the layouts featured here either designed them for operation, or added operations after exposure to the entertainment value of the railroad game. They also want a stage for the trains, the actors in the drama, as Frank Ellison described it in his articles about the Delta Lines, a showcase for railroad-like operations in the 1940s and 50s. So the layouts look good, interpreting or echoing some prototype and set in a recognisable time.
     The articles generally follow the “How I Built My Railroad” format, which will be helpful to the novice. Since the magazine is intended as inspiration and showcase, this makes sense. However, I sometimes wonder whether page after page of basement- or garage-sized layouts might not overwhelm the new modeller, who more likely has a small bedroom or a corner of a family room available. The layouts here range in size from 299 to 1800 square feet. Most are in the 400 square foot range.
     That being said, the photography is excellent, the concepts are interesting, and every builder has solved some common problem in an unusual way. The most successful layouts, to my eyes, are those that use a minimalist approach. That is, design a track plan based on the prototype, which disliked spending unnecessary money, and so tended to build just enough track to get the job done. Use enough scenery to give the trains a setting. Avoid cluttery detail, but set up scenes that tell a story. Use colour and lighting to create the ambience desired, which is of course the illusion that we are looking at a miniature universe. Give the operators what they want while giving the mildly interested hangers-on something to look at and enjoy.
     While these layouts are large, they not complex. They all provide a full evening’s operation, some with a half dozen, other with a dozen or more players. The make playing at railroading easy enough to avoid frustration, and complicated enough to hold interest.
     A few faves:
    The Shasta Route (HO, Southern Pacific), a well thought out train-watchers layout with grand vistas and some switching to keep the puzzle-solvers busy. There’s enough staging to allow for a satisfyingly busy day down by the tracks.
     The Appalachian Route (On30, fictitious), which creates a nice early 20th century ambience for the nostalgia buff who likes to see small trains in large landscapes, and lots of laid back switching in towns and villages hosting small and medium-sized businesses.
     River City (HO, Minneapolis & St Louis), which recreates a few miles of small town railroading, with enough operation to keep a half dozen or so people busy for relaxing evening. The builder kept close to prototype track arrangements, but fudged a bit by including some defunct businesses to increase work for the peddler trains.
     This issue is no longer in print, but back issues are available from Kalmbach, and many hobby shops will still have a few copies on their racks. ***

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