Rethinking Sumida Crossing


Well, that was a long break. Two months without a post. No, it wasn’t anything serious. In part, just life getting in the way of this hobby, but more a realization that I’d lost my motivation somewhere. Not really intentionally, I took a break to clear my head.

It was really longer than two months. In March of 2011, about 40 months ago, I took apart the wiring for the functioning DC-powered Sumida Crossing and began the conversion to DCC. The railroad had been designed for this. It should have been simple. It turned into a nightmare. I distracted myself by focusing on other (important) aspects of the layout, and kept the two outer tracks live as switchable DC/DCC, but without all the bells and whistles of DCC I’d planned, so I could continue to run trains. And for a time I kept working on the conversion, but less and less got done there.

Last year I set out to make a short tram layout, something I’m still interested in, but that was really a distraction, and my latent unhappiness with the main layout colored that work. As did my tendency to perfectionism; I kept not doing things while I tried to work out the One True Way to do them, and that never works. After a burst of activity in April, that all came to a halt.

I’m still interested in Japanese passenger trains. I still get excited when something new goes on sale that fits my interest, although since I have an extensive fleet now, that happens less often.

So what’s the real problem here? I wasn’t happy with something about the main layout, but what? It took some time to think things through, but a recent post on Quinntopia helped clarify my problems. As usual, Jerry has some insightful thoughts. This time he’s rebuilding his layout, and looking at what went wrong with the old one. And that helped me see what wasn’t working with mine.

The trigger problem I had 40 months ago wasn’t really my main issue. The problem then was that I couldn’t get Transponding to work reliably, and I’d been counting on that for some of my control functionality. A nuisance, but one that can be worked around. A secondary problem is that I wanted LOTS of occupancy-sensing blocks, and using the BDL168 for this entailed a huge amount of soldering: hundreds of joints, most of them in very cramped quarters. I don’t really like soldering, and being hunched over for hours practicing fine motor control and sharp vision gets harder as you get older. I can do it, but it’s not in the least enjoyable. I really wanted detectors with screw-terminals, not solder joints. This led to some rethinking about the power system design, which I never finished doing, but all worked stopped while I didn’t do it.

The real problem was that as the layout moved closer to being “done”, the compromises and errors of design I’d made became more obvious, and I began to wonder if I was going to be happy with the result. Not consciously at first, but in hindsight I can see that coloring my decisions and sapping my motivation. This is, in part, my tendency to perfectionism at work. There’s no such thing as “perfect”, and I know that. But I still want the layout to be the best it can be, and when I’m falling short of that, it bothers me. And I had some real problems.

For the last two years, I’ve been thinking of starting over, with a different design, although what I want hasn’t gelled for me yet. There was also a nagging thought that I’d put so much into the layout, and starting over made it all wasted effort. It wasn’t, really, I learned a lot and had fun both doing it and with the layout. Doing a new layout means more work on basics I’d already done, but it doesn’t eliminate the value of the first effort. But it took a long time to come to the realization that what I’d built wasn’t really what I’d wanted and to accept that it wasn’t going to be fixable without essentially starting over. And if I was going to do that, I might as well completely start over, and fix all of my problems.

I had some general ideas of what to do, but Jerry’s post made me think that I could be trading one set of problems for another. I needed to re-examine what I’d wanted, and why I wasn’t happy.

So, time for a re-think: what’s wrong with the layout?

The layout is divided into three above-ground scenes, a subway station (and track) and the “unsceniced” end I’ve been gradually converting to a fourth scenic area. I’m not happy with any of them as it turns out. The root problem of all is “too much track, too little layout”. This was a problem with my old HO layout, and I swore I’d not do it again, then I did.

On the Urban Station scene, the elevated station dominates everything, blocking the view of the street behind it and completely hiding the planned tram line. The main reason for this is that it’s at the front of the scene, when it should be near the back, perhaps with one row of structures to separate it from the backdrop. The “street scene” needs to be in front, where it’s visible. Giving it six tracks was probably too much for the available space as well; I wanted that for operational reasons, but perhaps I should have compromised on four.

On the Riverside Station scene, it became obvious I hadn’t left enough room for platforms between the tracks of the station, due to the need for foreground space for the canal and front express tracks. I like the visual layout, but again the space just didn’t support what I was trying to do. The transition to the subway and storage tracks at the right end was also badly planned, and hard to realize in a way that looked good.

The River Crossing scene was the best of the three, but I had problems fitting structures into the irregular space between the tracks and the river. See the photo above for one of my space-planning mockups, with trees filling in for parks in irregular spaces that couldn’t fit a building. I liked the lack of regularity, but I really needed a few more inches of space. And the tracks right up against the backdrop in the center had visual problems. Those were less apparent from the usual viewing distance of six-plus feet (2m+), and I could have lived with them, but it was a problem.

The Subway had its own problems, but those were mainly access ones: I’d planned to have the “roof” removable for cleaning, then I built track over most of that roof, making removing it into a major project even with Unitrack. The result was it didn’t get cleaned, and thus didn’t get used. Again a “too much track, too little space” problem at work. Had I put the subway under a street or a lift-off block of buildings, access would have been much more practical.

At the “unsceniced” end, now being transformed into a Hilltop scene, when I added a backdrop I discovered yet another problem: there wasn’t space for it, so trains on the outer track were brushing up against it. This depended on the train, and for most it didn’t derail or stop them, but some did. Fixing this would entail moving the whole layout several inches away from the wall it abuts, and redesigning how the backdrop is attached. It can be done, but it requires dissassembling the whole layout to move it. The structure isn’t solid enough to pull it laterally, even if I had a winch that could move it.

There were operational problems as well: sections of track that didn’t align perfectly, clearance problems along the platforms of the Urban Station, and my use of non-glued foam roadbed in that station causes track to not be level, which both looked bad and caused problems. The roadbed issue could be fixed by throwing the current roadbed away, cutting new pieces more carefully to size, and then gluing them down. But the way the station was built, that could make it hard to separate the two halves, which is required if I ever need to move the layout.

I also had recurring electrical problems, which are partly due to Unitrack not aligning perfectly, and in some cases due to problems with the track not maintaining a consistent “level” from one segment to the next due to irregularities in the roadbed (foam over rough plaster in some places). Sectional track works much better on a flat table than it does with grades and surface irregularities. Of course flex track doesn’t work with surface irregularities either, but it’s more obviously a problem to be avoided there. With sectional track, I could fool myself that it was “level enough” when it wasn’t.

An absence of storage space and working space has also been a problem. Unbuilt kits and parts are piled everywhere, filling what shelving I have, sitting in plastic storage bins on the floor, disorganized and hard to find. Where did I put the extra crimp splice connectors? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I have some, somewhere.

I also ended up with my workbench cluttered with half-built things and more storage, and various things stacked on the idle parts of the layout itself. Clearly I need to allocate more working space and better-organized storage space.

This all tells me it’s time for a new layout design. But what?

I’d experimented with smaller layouts, closer to my original Kitchen Table Layout in scale, twice. Once with the Urban Tram layout, which I never got beyond the loose-track-on-plywood stage, and then with the back-and-forth One Point Five Meter Line tram layout, which still lacks a real name. A small layout like that has its uses, for one thing as a place to experiment, but it’s not the big layout I want.

Both of those fail to meet one of my main desires: I want to see long commuter trains run through urban/suburban scenery and around sweeping curves. That’s one reason the River Crossing scene is my favorite. The curves may not be huge, and the scenery isn’t the best, but it’s an approximation of my ideal.

My thoughts now are running along the lines of a more conventional around-the-wall layout, perhaps with a peninsula for added scenery. I’m pretty sure I don’t want a multi-level layout, and I definitely want to minimize hidden tracks, so storage needs to be some kind of big yard, or yards. But I need to be careful not to make the layout too deep, or I’ll be unable to maintain it. At the same time, I need to avoid choking it with tracks or putting subway lines (which I still want) under things I can’t remove. Realistically, I’m probably going to have to compromise on one double-track commuter line and a somewhat limited double-track Shinkansen line, the latter perhaps only in one area. Perhaps I’ll make the commuter line “underground” in one place rather than having a subway, although I still like the layering you get with tracks under tracks.

However, I still want sweeping curves, and at least one of them needs to be four tracks (more would be nice, but probably not achievable), and I want them wider than Unitrack offers. I could switch to Tomix track, but I think I’m going to end up going back to ballasted flex track. It’s a pain to build, but more reliable once you get past that, and I can do proper easements and sweeping banked curves with spacing to allow catenary poles and fencing between tracks, something that’s always been a problem for my River Crossing scene curve.

Jerry’s post made me think of one more thing: aisle space isn’t just about one person moving around. There needs to be space for visitors to have a good view or access to run trains, even if you normally operate alone. And I need space for other things like storage, paint and photography booths, not to mention work tables (plural, because I never work on just one thing). Maybe I need to sacrifice some of that layout (like the peninsula idea) for more workspace.

There needs to be space to work on the layout too, both in the aisle and over or around layout features. I need better under-layout access to wiring as well; wires on the underside of tables are painful to work on for any extended period. Wires and associated devices really need to go against a back wall below the layout, with only the feeders running up to the layout.

This isn’t going to happen quickly. And for now, the old Sumida Crossing will remain, with it’s two mostly-operational tracks so I can run trains. I’m also expecting to have continued lack of time for the next six months or more, so work will be in fits and starts.

I need to consider what I enjoy about the hobby and what I want to achieve. My answers here will be different from someone else’s. One of the great things about this hobby is that it’s really a number of hobbies wrapped together, so anyone can find parts they like.

I enjoy learning about the prototype, but that’s really separate from the layout itself except as it informs the design. I want to continue doing this website as a record of what I’ve discovered, as well as documenting my layout(s).

I enjoy benchwork (carpentry, painting) and to an extent doing the wiring. It’s simple, physical work, and a good change from my day job, which has me sitting at a desk, as long as it doesn’t involve sitting at a bench for four hours.

I enjoy running trains. Not “operating” them, just running them. I’m not one of those modelers for whom recreating the job of a dispatcher or engineer is a goal.

I’m less a fan of model-building, but I do enjoy a limited amount of that. This is a problem given the huge number of structures an urban layout needs, so I’m going to continue to focus on use of out-of-the-box structures I can plonk down, and then go back and detail when the mood strikes me.

I don’t enjoy scenery work, or ballasting, but that’s an inescapable part of building a layout. Sometimes you have to take the bad to get the good. I’m going to aim for simple scenery here: streets, buildings, the occasional park or temple grounds. Photographic backdrops are my friend, as they suggest scenery I didn’t need to make.

I enjoy electronics and programing. I want to find more time, and reason, to do things with Arduinos as embedded controllers, and layout busses to tie systems together. I want a JMRI panel showing where my trains are, and I want electronic (DCC) control of things rather than wired switches for blocks and turnouts. I want a realistic signal system based on occupancy detection. I don’t need automated train operation, although having some out-and-back and simple station-stopping behavior for the Shinkansen, Subway and Tram lines would be nice.

And I still want to depict the complexity of an urban transport system. That means commuter, Shinkansen and hopefully a Subway line, and perhaps a tram line if I can fit one in somewhere. It means one big urban station with associated bus/taxi parking and lots of pedestrians. It means “layering” things, with roads above roads, tracks above tracks, and similar. I want an elevated expressway somewhere, perhaps above a small river (common in dense urban construction in Japan).

Refining that to an achievable design in limited space isn’t going to be easy.

But I’m going to try to make at least one post per month here, to keep myself motivated and to work on the want list and think about how to realize it. I need to guard against perfectionism and endless delay here. But I also need to give myself the time to think things through and come up with a workable design. I expect it will be at least a year before any construction starts, maybe two. But that’s okay. It’s a hobby. I don’t have any deadlines. As long as I enjoy what I’m doing, and fortunately I do enjoy design, it’s a win.

Next up: my ideas on how to do under-table wiring are relatively firm, so I’m going to try getting those down on paper (electrons) before I get pulled away to other things.