Weekend Reading: Track Planning for Realistic Operation by John Armstrong

TPfROIf there is a model railroading book that does not need a review, Track Planning for Realistic Operation by John Armstrong is it. It is not an overstatement to assert that all layout planning in the North American tradition is based on this book. I found my backup copy in the course of the ongoing shop cleanup and I am moved to share a few thoughts on this treasured book. Originally published in 1963, it is still in print and widely available.

I acquired my original copy from the Lewiscraft store in Kingston, ON in the late seventies for $5.99 which was a princely sum for a twelve year old. If only all my youthful purchase were so rewarding. John Armstrong was a master explainer and I avidly absorbed his ideas through his friendly prose. I still enjoy re-reading sections although I think I have the thing mostly committed to memory.

While I consider John Armstrong’s influence to be enormously positive on the model railroading hobby in general and myself in particular, I do wonder if this influence caused our general obsession with cramming as much layout as possible into the available space. John’s “by the squares” method starts with the minimum acceptable radius and is used to see how much will fit. Many of John’s inventions or inventions he popularized focus on getting yet more into the space: double decks and mushrooms, vertical turnouts, helixes, and inverted return loops come to mind. To this day, Model Railroader’s layout at a glance sidebar will tell you things like how big the layout is, how long the mainline and so on.

Is bigger necessarily bad? No, of course not. I have had the pleasure of operating on some large layouts with a large crew and it is intensely rewarding. But those large layouts are the product of a great deal of effort and resources. Usually, the layout owner is supported by a crew of dedicated helpers. I wonder how many maximum sized layout efforts have died under the weight of excessive ambition for everyone achieved. I know I have a few monsters in my past. Most never go beyond the planning stage but I still tend to go from a simple plan to three decks and eleventy-miles of track in rapid short order. My approach to Comstock Road and choice of 1:48 scale is a deliberate effort to rein in that tendency.


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