Thursday, June 1, 2017

Lessons Learned

An important lesson all sailors learn in bootcamp - ways to stop water from getting into the people tank.
Lessons Learned are a big thing in my work life.  We’re perpetually looking at things that didn’t go as planned (and even those that did) in an effort to identify and repeat the things that worked and to avoid repeating those times, as one of my old bosses was fond of saying “The water got into the people tank.”*
So, although I was pleased with the layout’s scenery and performance (once the initial teething pains were worked through) I find myself asking if the layout was “successful?”
The stated purpose of the railroad was to “model the equipment, structures, operations and setting of the Central Vermont Railway in the late steam-to-diesel transition era.” 
Measured against that standard, I’m not sure the railroad didn't fall short.
Here's just a few of the lessons learned:
Focus: I need more of it, and I need to stick with something once I drive the stake in the ground. "Modeling the Central Vermont of the 1950s..." is a large canvas. As I've relayed in this blog, I started modeling the Southern Division of the railroad on a double deck layout, then tried to shoehorn White River Junction and the Northern Division (with it's larger engines) into a single-deck railroad, only to later remove WRJ and install Essex in its place. The basic footprint of the layout never really changed all that much, but I think we built, and rebuilt, every section of the layout at least twice. 
My approach to layout design?

In essence, I was chasing the ever illusive squirrel - the hope of a "perfect" layout design to overlay on my theme. In the end, "perfection" became the enemy of decisiveness. That's all on me, and I truly appreciate the grace and tolerance shown by my friends throughout all this! 

Modeling the Operations:  In general, the individual operating sessions were a success (I always had a good time).  But let’s look at it from the viewpoint of return on investment.
I started construction of the layout in December, 2008.  It took several years of building (and yes, rebuilding) the layout.  In total, I ended up hosting 17 “official” operating sessions throughout the railroad’s 8.5 years of existence.  That’s averages out to a session about every 7 months.  An aside, if you really want to depress yourself, consider the following formula:
Total Cost of the Layout (in $) / Total # of Sessions = Cost/per session ($) 
No matter how it's broken down, it doesn’t seem like the time, effort, and money to build the layout was worth it when you consider the total time spent performing its main function was a fraction of the time it existed.
We didn't operate as much as I'd hoped, but Christine made sure no one left hungry!
Modeling the Equipment:  It’s great fun to tell yourself you’re going to model the railroad’s operations, six or seven towns, complete with scratchbuilt replicas of all the buildings, and run through them trains populated by accurate, detailed cars pulled by equally accurately detailed locomotives.
If you asked me what my favorite part of the hobby is I’d tell you it's building detailed freight cars. 
The one resin car I've gotten built in the last 24 months...and it's not even lettered yet!
If that's the case then why I have gotten exactly one – that’s one – resin car kit built in the last two years?
 Instead of doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, I’ve been stuck in a do-loop of sorts - “feeding the monster” – that large layout looming in the basement that required track, wiring, static grass, structures, trees (my God, the trees!), in massive quantities.  I kept telling myself I’d get the thing to “looking finished” and then turn my attention to the projects I wanted to work on.  But there was always another bunch of trees to install – or some piece of track to ballast.
I'll conclude with this. I'm not "down" on large layouts. I'm also not "down" on small layouts, or anything really. I don't think  the layout was an absolute failure. I had fun, shared some good times with friends, perfected some techniques and learned a lot about myself. My purpose in writing this is not discourage anyone else from pursuing their approach to the hobby (Lord knows, the above isn’t going to encourage anyone to do anything other than take up knitting!). Instead, I'm trying to quantify the good and bad and hopefully apply those lessons learned to the next railroad. 
 *To get the joke it helps to understand he was a submariner. And the #1 rule of all submariners is to keep the water out of the people tank…(Hey, it’s not my line, submariners are weird, everyone knows it.)


  1. Hello Marty,
    How about the next layout as a yard so that you can focus on modeling what makes you most happy - the freight cars. This could be a smaller and more manageable layout, although large enough to be satisfying. Staging could be double-ended or be at only one end. Operators could be solo or more. Scenery could be minimalized to what you feel necessary. There would be lots of operation as it is a universal industry. Some specialized operations could be a car weighing station, RIP track, well you know better than me what goes on in a yard. This could be built relatively quickly, then time enjoyed adding the rolling stock.
    Anyway, Best Wishes to you and Thanks for linking my Fillmore to your blog.

    1. Rick,
      First of all, I enjoy reading your blog and learning about your layout.
      A layout completely focused on a yard isn't a bad idea (in fact it's a good idea)and you make a strong argument ...

  2. Interesting discussion, thanks for sharing.

    That's a scary formula to me, given 14 years since starting the layout and having held 5 Op sessions. I'm not even going to estimate the cost to complete the formula. Definitely wouldn't share that with the wife either! This formula does set aside some of the personal enjoyment I've had simply working on the layout or running trains myself, as well as public open houses. But I get your point.

    I totally agree with your statement about "getting this basic stuff out of the way to get to what I really want to work on". I think this leads directly to me NOT having more of the layout complete after 14 years. Luckily my "squirrel" has not been in any significant layout design changes, but instead on other projects, like freight cars, locos, Free-mo, etc., some that apply directly to the layout, but most that do not.

    One thing I did learn in doing Op sessions was just how much there is to do and how long it takes. I was always worried my layout would not support enough "work" to keep 4 or 5 guys busy. But in reality, I have a session with 6-7 guys, and we have never gotten through the full plan of scheduled trains. Not because of issues (thankfully!), but because even seemingly small jobs take some time. And the guys enjoy it all.

    So I think this helps validate your thoughts along the lines of bigger is not always better, or necessary, to meet your ultimate goals.

  3. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I don't really expect anyone to come up with the "$ cost per op session" as some sort of measure of layout success. As you say, I didn't factor in the enjoyment we get from actually building the layout, or the individual models. Instead as you noted I was trying to make the point that sometimes we need to step back and ask if the resources we spend on the hobby (the money in the formula could easily be replaced with time, or square footage, or any other factor)paying off.
    And yes, op sessions while fun, take a lot of preparation.
    All of these are arguments for a simpler, more focused layout - and I have definite ideas for the 'next' railroad that I will be sharing here over the next few weeks/months.
    I appreciate the interest people show in my "thinking out loud."
    Take care,

  4. Marty, The Ops Session Calculus is sobering, especially for someone who desires to operate TT&TO which requires a larger amount of real estate to make interesting than local switching on any scale. That said, your earned value is more properly the sum of the time value of activity Xn times the time spent performing Xn. You know the relative worth of building that Resin Freight Car and hosting the ops session. It gets complicated as the value of an activity can increase or decrease if you do too little or too much of it or your needs change from a low effort diversion from stress to increasing your focus. Activities like making trees, detailing fiddly brake rigging, or socializing during an ops session can have equal benefit depending on your needs at the time. I've had to do a first order sort on where to put my hobby (and housing) dollars just to find the right place for me to live. I have three expensive hobbies: Model Railroading, Horses, and Flying Sailplanes and don't have enough deniro to do all three simultaneously without limitation. I've chosen a home that will accommodate the first two on-site, abandoning my earlier dream of flying from my own place. That's OK, I and my needs have evolved and I accommodated the first two with a relatively easy, if somewhat long, commute. The tele-commute option and the MARC train two miles away take care of that nagging detail. Do your own calculus, but don't neglect the value you gain from the parts of the hobby that facilitate the ops session. Hard as it might seem, you can't include your sunk costs. They are gone and you got what you got from them. Things you've saved help you avoid future costs as you have to pay full price/spend time replacing them in a different era/scale so staying with HO has some significant cost avoidances, but that can be somewhat offset by the "Salvage Value" of any disposals. You'll come out with a vision that will work for YOU. And never forget Rule One: It IS your Railroad.

    John Barry
    Starting Construction of the Alameda Belt on the North Bay Lines, Lovettsville, VA

    1. I wouldn't get too hung up on the parameters for the formula I provided - and I wouldn't over think it (I certainly didn't!). I was trying to make a succinct point. As someone pointed out in a less-than-friendly email I failed to account for the joy of building, the pleasure of modeling, hours spent doing same, my effort to make a (his?) planned large layout seem like a waste of resources. Sadly, he completely miss the point of why I included it.
      I believe there are other, equally valid reasons to build a model railroad that extend beyond the "op session." And one of the ongoing failings of the commercial and "design" press is that they constantly miss that fact.
      Frankly, I could care less if I never host another large, "formal" op session on any layout I might or might not build. It simply didn't float my boat. Visits with friends during which we might or might not run some trains? Working over the line with some measure of prototypical accuracy to the operations? Sure. Spending hours getting a layout ready for a large crew to descend on the basement? No thanks, I'll pass.

  5. The metric of op session divided by (cost, or time, or etc) is really only meaningful if your main focus was operating. In my case the metric is even worse as I have had zero op sessions on my Aquia Line in nearly ten years. But I still consider my layout a success, because for me the journey is the best part. I will eventually operate it, but I am in no real rush. The research, design, construction of my layout have been very enjoyable. I think you might be able to say the same.