Layouts through the decades
Martin Brandt gives us some personal reflections on how the philosophy regarding layout design has varied through the decades. These descriptions were originally published on the Märklin Mailing List (MML) in June and July 2001.
In West Germany, Model Railroading during the fifties fought against the lack of space and money. This is one reason why the typical passenger train was a three car consist. (Another reason is that it appeared sufficient to make it look like a "train", which can be achieved with three cars.) Together with the loco it was no longer than a meter. Most layouts were built on the floor for an afternoon or a weekend.
Accessories like houses, cars and trees were available, but they did bite into the budget, so many things were built in do-it-yourself manner and not necessarily to scale. Usually you would find a station building, however. Although the monthly "Miniaturbahnen" is published since 1948, a feeling for credible proportions on a layout's limited space had yet to be developed. Track plans usually were neither credible nor prototypical; as a rule they made best use of the multiple routing alternatives which the sectional track's geometry would hold.
If the track plan grew beyond the oval, it would typically include an outer and an inner circle, which were operated independently and _not_ seen as a double-track main line. Märklinists made use of the center rail system by adding return loops, e.g. an "X"-formed structure inside the oval, be that with an ordinary crossing or with a horribly expensive double slip. (Two-railers could not do such loops easily and thus were forced into more prototypical layout plans. So, their early advancement into that field was actually caused by a deficit ;-) Along one side of the oval, the arms of the "X" were more or less filled with the station tracks. Other tracks were added according to individual desires. Turntable and crane were added (squeezed in) by those who could afford them.
The layout might typically hold an express train, a local passenger train and a good handful of freight cars which more or less often assembled into a freight train; maybe also an additional electric (Swiss) express train. In the latter case, probably the outer circle had overhead wire.
Some years ago I built a fifties style layout as a Christmas Time display. I used the old-style center-rail track and set up an oval - with a passing track along one side and two stub-end tracks entering the oval from the other side. Both tracks crossed each other by an ordinary crossing, just to make the thing look more complex. The oval had overhead wire. You could run the old Swiss electric train, plus an ordinary passenger train behind a BR 23. A BR 89 could do some shunting on the stub-end tracks, and there also was the big crane to be operated.
The whole thing was mounted to a big table with a white table cloth, and in between the track the very table was laid for Christmas dinner with exquisite white porcelain, the butterdish also serving as the freight depot. Talking about kitsch.
The layout was set up in a hairdresser's saloon throughout December; certainly the worst environment imaginable for old metal equipment and a hairy thing for small electric motors. But nothing broke down or got stolen, even the catenary masts held, while the customers played with the trains. I should add that the saloon was across the street from the State Ministry of Environment and Transportation, so the players (which came over in big numbers during and around lunch break) were certainly professionals.
To the average German, the sixties were an era of "more of everything", although not yet a time of affluence. To the modeller, they mark the victory of realistic landscape elements over symbolic elements - "Papa, no, I only wanted a tunnel for my train, but what you built is a real mountain with just a hole inside!"
Attractive accessories become available and the general idea is to use them all. Outside the station building a small city is erected with medieval houses, skyscrapers and a romantic church, not too far from the water mill. Trees and bushes form a forest right behind the farm house next to the freight depot. Snow caps a mountain which is almost as high as the Faller skyscraper.
The oval track is now sometimes called a "mainline", and inside will be an "8"-shaped over-and-under branch line which may even reach out into the mountains with a grade at least (!) as steep as the engines' drawing power will allow.
4-car passenger trains are now the norm. Still there is one baggage car and one restaurant car, but there will now be two coaches - a green one and a blue one. Sometimes a sleeping car will be added, but this means that the train no longer fits into the station track.
There is now more than one train for each function: Enough cars for two or three freight trains, besides the D-Zug you'll find a TEE in long distance service, and a Schienenbus or a silverfish train supports the thunderbox or compartment car local service. Locos begin to outnumber their potential assignments. In total, there are more trains available than the layout can digest.
More people can afford the crane and the turntable. BZZZZZZZ - they disturb radio and the now much worshipped TV for at least 20 meters around; in the tight housing situation of post war Germany this annoys many neighbours. To the distaste of many users, the turntable goes at prototypical speed, i.e. slowness. Thus, turning the loco takes much longer than running a train around the usually still small layout. We had an according debate on MML lately.
All in all, except for the small size and the often overly tight crowding of too many elements, the sixties layout already looks rather modern.
In the seventies the hobby went through an identity crisis. Previously, almost all model railroading had been more or less about modelling the present. Remember the slogan "FLEISCHMANN Bahn, das praeg' Dir ein, ist die Bundesbahn in klein!"? It could be transfered as "Fleischmann Bahn, remember well, is the Bundesbahn to scale!" But with steam disappearing, the various prototypes diverged and the existing models no longer really fit into the same era together - the slogan had to be dropped.
Now even Märklin itself was somewhat helpless about the gap between presence and past. In the early seventies, in an effort to bridge that gap and move all modelled vehicles into the "presence", Märklin Magazin asked its readers about the "third headlight": Should model steam engines always carry a third headlight, even if the prototype had been retired by the time of its introduction, thus assuming they were still in service? (Readers answered a clear "NO!")
Catalogue pictures of the mid-seventies show abstract landscapes in wild colours, as if the designer had sniffed too much "Seuthe". The few visible tracks run straight across the scene and include almost no turnout. Each train is out on its own circle: A historical Bavarian Express, a TEE and the propeller-driven "Schienenzeppelin". They seem to have nothing to do with each other.
But basement layouts still looked much like those in the sixties. Actually, I have never seen a private layout designed after those principles of abstraction as shown in the catalogue. Never before or after has the difference between the catalogue pictures and the actual private layouts been that big. Maybe this gap was typical of the seventies in general. Imagine how exhausting it would have been to live up to all the standards and expectations of that decade!
One big step forward was that German housing conditions were no longer as tight as in the post war era. In West Germany, a new law now donated your income tax half to your place of work and half to your place of residence (before, the place of work got everything), so towns and villages now competed in developing new residential areas. In East Germany, the "Platte", standardized multilevel apartment housing, allowed for layout space, although with limits which made most East Germans favor the somewhat smaller TT-scale (1:120). Generally speaking, there now really was space for layouts, resulting in less tight designs.
Correspondingly, the cars and trains soon got longer. Märklin offered the 27-cm car. With K-track, Märklinists could catch up with the 2-railers not only in track appearance (if they wanted), but also in large radii and flextrack.
Märklin as a mass manufacturer still aimed at boys as its main target group and thus stayed with robust designs. Companies like Liliput and Röwa already targeted at the adult with "Oops - now you've touched them!"-models which offered a new dimension of realism, plus easily broken handrails.
By the eighties the typical hobbyist has developed grey hair and a larger wallet. He also has more space. Model railroading is now seen as a serious hobby for adults. It makes a great step forward towards realism in the eighties by learning the lessons of the two previous decades.
The lesson from the seventies was that - for the sake of playing - somehow the trains as the "elements of the game" had to interact again. This means if you want more than just running them you must select and combine them by a well chosen common topic. To the extreme, this will be "a typical branch line in the Hunsrück area as of September 12th, 1963." Generally speaking, this marks the spreading of the idea that with your layout you've got to stay within a (tight or loose) era if you want the things to fit together.
The lesson from the sixties - that no matter how neatly detailed your scenes are, if you add too many of them the layout in total will look toyish - also was well learned. Now the ideal is a branch line between two shadow stations. The small town's station on the layout has maybe three tracks and sees few trains. The line runs through a magnificent hilly landscape. Each building is supposed to be kitbashed to fit its location perfectly and should be weathered. Funny after all that no "rain weather" spray was invented!
All cars and if possible also all trains are now supposed to be of prototypical length. Superdetailing is a hot item. So is lettering. The depot name on the side of the loco doesn't fit your area? Buy some correct scale sized sign boards from a specialist. No, not transfers - he offers you etched plates!
As a result, there was not much traffic really running on these remarkably realistic layouts. Much time was spent with improvements and repairs. Most of the collection still couldn't be used and traffic patterns got rather dull. Beginners were frightened by the level of perfection which set the standard.
Of course not everybody followed the described approach. As Prof. Dr. Bausinger, the renowned former Head of Empirical Cultural Studies at Tübingen University, pointed out: The actual behaviour of people changes rather little over time. What changes indeed, is the people's assumption about what is a "typical" or "normal" behaviour pattern.
Parallel to the progress in modelling, during the eighties the collecting of trains became a hobby of its own. The Stuttgart Insider group recently had a meeting to which everybody brought his Märklin E 03 / BR 103 locos. Incredible how many variations exist by now! But this is off topic here because it does not reflect in layout design.
The result of the eighties again was a dead end track: A rather boring traffic pattern on an extremely realistic layout. Truly, the landscape design had done a big step forward. But to combine all this into an interesting layout, a size would be needed which German basements (and wallets as well as time budgets) usually don't have.
As a conclusion, after the individualism of the eighties, model railroading was re-invented as a social game. Not collectively (the seventies are still over), but as a combination of an individual and a common approach: Modules became popular. Under a general topic each individual works on different (and partly independent) sub-topics.
The modules combine into huge temporary layouts with heavy operation and all possible realism, although just for a few weekends a year. The focus gets beyond that typical German modelling of one central station and now includes the whole full-size railway line. If there is an oval at all, it is so big that its form is no longer obvious. I should not forget to mention here, that many "modules" are in fact "segments" (they always fit into the same place of a sequence or a whole layout), while others, the "real" modules, can be combined more or less freely.
A whole set of norms is invented to make the individual work fit into a larger layout: Electrical standards, module size and height as well as colours for track, grass and trees. You no longer have a layout, but you are the proud owner of five independent meters of meticulously decorated straight track.
"Digital" is the norm by now - this means chances to exchange locos freely, which comes handy with the ever-growing fleets owned by the hobbyists. Shunters wait where they are needed and are no longer parked on scattered pieces of track which the layout owner had once decided to isolate - more or less erratically - when laying the tracks. Short trains now stop at a convenient place somewhere along the platform, they don't rush through all the way to the signal.
Several locos can be parked (and operated) on a single track of the layout. So, a depot now can be designed with less turnouts but longer tracks, and generally speaking, the depots are growing faster than the rest of the layout. Although there is still no track space available for the whole wagon collection, at least the locos now found their way back to the track.
Additional 30's and 40's scenarios...
A Short Story has to concentrate upon ONE aspect, and I picked mine. There would be more to say (history books easily get quite fat). I am _not_ implying that MML-members or visitors to marklin-users.net who have been into Märklin during these years have acted the way it is described here.
Little Brother has set up an oval on the table and runs his train around. Big Brother brings his huge not-to-scale car with the "Führer" standing in the back and runs it across the table:
"Stop your train! The Führer crosses the track."
"No, the train always has the right of way!"
"Ha, we will see!" (Presses his car to the track. The train bumps into it and stops.)
"Papa, he stopped my train!"
"Will you let your brother's train pass!"
"See, my train has the right of way, right, Papa?"
"Yes, trains always have the right of way. Drivers learn it at driving school."
"Papa, does that mean the Führer has not been to driving school?"
"Well, hm, eh, you know, if the Führer wants to go by car, he has a driver anytime."
"The Führer has no Führerschein (= driver's license)! The Führer has no Führerschein! Get off my track!"
"Father, I must say! The way you talk about the Führer will not be appreciated at my Party Youth unit." (He presses the metal car to the track until it causes a short.)
Father (turning very pale): "You won't tell them."
"Waaaaah, Papa, he has spoilt my train!"
"I promised always to tell the truth to the Führer and his Party. Don't forget that we live in a new era. I cannot listen to your old fashioned individualist wishes, and it seems that this is not yet reflected in the way you educate Little Brother."
Father (suddenly turned into an old man): "Say, you want another cannon for your collection? Or a tank?"
"Maybe a cannon and a tank would help me to understand that you try your best in the new era."
"Papa, I wanna tank car for my freight train."
Both children learn quickly how to handle daddy's deadly fears. The railway soon expands almost as fast as the military collection, until a big air raid of 1943 or 1944 wipes out both.
Note: In the late thirties, an electric overland railway (Berchtesgaden - Hallein) really had to close down because the Führer was so much angered that his car had to stop for a streetcar.
Dad: "I've brought from Germany the thing you wanted most for your birthday. Guess what!"
"I get a toy train! I get a toy train! Finally I get a toy train!"
Mum: "Look, here it is. Aren't they cute? All these small trains!"
(The son throws a short look at them, then covers his face with his hands and cries bitterly.)
"Hey, what's wrong with you? Didn't you want trains? Here they are!"
"NOOOOOOO, they are only HALF SIZE! My friends all have BIG ones! Can't show them! Don't want them! Waaaaaaaaah!"
Dad: "But they came all the way from Germany! You know, where I have been fighting for so long!"
"But I want no Germany! I want a REAL TOY TRAIN!"
"You know, everything is smaller in Germany. The apartments, the cars, the real trains."
(Son stops crying.) "Really everything? Even the Mississippi?"
"Eh, what? Well, somehow. Theirs is the Rhine. And yes, it is smaller. Look, I brought some figures from Germany, too."
"Oh, whow, a small one, a fat one, and look at this one, hey, it's Charlie Chaplin wearing a uniform!"
Mum: "No, that's not Charlie Chaplin."
"But, see, he really has a mustard!"
"From now on we'll call it a moustache! Dad, say, why did you have to bring these Nazi figures along?"
"I can move their right arm! Hey, great! Mum, Dad, look! I can move their arm! What are they doing with their right arm?"
Dad: "Well, how can I say, eh, ... I've got it! They are stationmasters! One for each train. If they raise the arm, the train can move out. See? The fat one will get the freight train."
"Let ME run the train. Hey, I want to play with the train. I move the arm, here comes the train! Must show that to all my friends. Come on, give the short train to the small guy with that big mouth! And Mum, you run the Charlie Chaplin train. Whow, that's fun!"
Note: During the late fourties, Märklin produced mainly for export, and of course there was a second hand market. Many allied soldiers brought home these trains.