What is the ideal design for a model railway layout? I suspect that there are as many answers as there are modellers, both active and armchair, and that for most, design is constrained by available space. But what if we narrow the question down to general types, rather than down to the position of each point and siding? To adapt Dean Swift’s terminology, maybe we can divide modellers into two camps: the Endists and the Rounabouters. The first group tend to be the purists, championing end-to-end layouts, on the grounds that “real” trains go from somewhere to somewhere else, and disparaging the circuit as a glorified train-set oval. The second group can retort that most end-to-end lines provide very limited runs and operating potential. Both camps are of course subdivided, and although the classical Endist design is the terminus-fiddle yard, with the hidden sidings representing the other 99.9% of the prototype network, with more space one can develop refinements like intermediate stations or even an independent branch. Some modellers will favour a through station, with fiddle yards at each end, especially if they have a very long, thin space, such as the top of bookcases. However, at this stage some two thirds of the layout may be hidden behind back-scenes, and a neater solution may be for the “snake” to swallow its tail, producing a continuous line, with one set of hidden loops at the back. Indeed, this is a common exhibition layout, but rather than tail-chasing, most operate with a sequence of alternating clockwise and anti-clockwise services.
In the early model railway press, a fair amount of space was devoted to layout designs, and at one stage, I think the old Model Railway News offered its readers a guinea for any of their ideas it published. Three things strike you about these designs of fifty years or more ago.
First, they set out to invert the old Euclidean rule about a line being the shortest distance between two points, by deliberately devising the longest run in a restricted space, typically six or eight feet by four feet. The resulting “point to point” design was often a sort of spiral, with the two termini close, or even adjacent, but possibly on different levels, and the train completed a sort of two-twist cork screw to get between them. Other variants were the “out and back” where a reverse loop (assuming you knew how to wire such a device), or a line diagonally across the circuit, allowed a train to leave the terminus in one direction, and come back pointing the opposite way. Incidentally, although in full size practice true circuits are limited to such oddities as the Circle Line, there are a number of “out and back” loops, such as the Cathcart suburban line and the North Kent. Another common design, was a circuit with a junction and a terminus, possibly high level over the fiddle yard, or if space permitted two termini, with the junctions arranged do that a train could run from one to the other, with as many runs round the circuit as the operator desired, plus “short” working (on many of these designs very short workings) between terminal and junction stations. Similarly, the classic end-to-end scheme can be twisted unto L and U configurations to fit specific sites.
The second observation is that many of these schemes were quite complex, in terms of laying out curves, calculating gradients and building embankments and bridges, to carry one line over another. Edward Beal produced a very sophisticated design in the Railway Modeller for May 1950, which packed a 00 system, incorporating a terminus, medium sized locomotive depot, out-and-back circuit, reverse loop, passing station and intermediate sidings to a factory, into 12’ x 8’ folding baseboard. Which brings me to the final point: although occasionally the magazines might feature a layout of the month which was derived from an earlier published plan, these projects rarely progressed from paper to construction. I suspect that the designs, however sophisticated and tempting they might look in terms of operation, were just too daunting in civil engineering terms for most modellers who stuck to their orthodox terminus-fiddle yard or circuit layouts.