model train set on track

How Did We Ever Get Along?

e*Train Issue: Nov 2005   |   Posted in:

By Brady Burdge

There’s an e-mail floating around the internet that asks how we ever survived as children – we rode our bicycles without wearing helmets, we climbed trees, ate dirt, and watched TV only when the weather kept us inside. No video games, DVD players or computers, we went outside to play and we used our imaginations, our toys were uncomplicated.

So it makes me wonder, how did toy train operators survive without software driven, digitally enhanced trains? Now I like and appreciate all the newest products the hobby has to offer, but I wonder if the technology itself is becoming the focus. Take command control for example, it’s a great advancement that was adopted years ago in HO scale as a solution to a specific problem – block wiring and cab control isn’t very realistic on a medium or large multi-operator layout. But command control really came to O gauge looking for a problem to solve, since very few of us have the room for a multiple operator layout. Soon there were calls for newer versions of command control – more features they cried. Never mind that few operators have the kind of layouts that could use the existing systems to their fullest potential

“Does it serve us, or do we serve it?”

So before we get to the point where we convince ourselves that we can’t run a railroad without all the latest technology, let’s take a look at one layout that may have benefited from a lack of technology. It was called the Blue Smoke RR, back in the toy train dark ages of the 1980’s.

The Blue Smoke RR was an O gauge hi-rail layout featured in the 1987 book Great Toy Train Layouts of America, the video series of the same name, and in a June 1990 Model Railroader article. The Blue Smoke was somewhat of an oddity for its day – an O gauge layout with realistic scenery and prototypical operations. The track plan (designed by Steve Brenneisen of Ross Custom switches) was excellent. In a 25′ x 25′ room it had everything that most of us would want in a layout – a long double track main line, passing sidings, industrial spurs and a yard. The layout had two control panels; one for yard operations and one for the mainline, each panel was separated by a high mountain reaching almost to the ceiling.

On the Blue Smoke each engineer was also a dispatcher. They contacted each other by telephone and during the course of operations they passed orders back and forth for cars – hoppers for the mine, lumber cars for the sawmill, etc. The Blue Smoke’s builder specifically wanted a dispatcher oriented operation; that desire may have been partially driven by lack of hand held remote controls, but since you were tied to a control panel the illusion of distance was maintained in a relatively small space.

Fast forward to today and a layout like the Blue Smoke RR could certainly take advantage of the new digital technologies, but as an enhancement to what’s already there. The lack of command control, hand held remotes (and while we’re at it – no massive scale locomotives) worked well to produce a great model railroad.

Looking at the concepts used in “older” layouts like the Blue Smoke has me taking a fresh look at layout design and the role of technology to support that design.