Sunday, July 26, 2020

Piercing the Fourth Wall

In the week since my presentation last Saturday on Valley Line operations, I've been giving a lot of thought to how to operate the my layout as prototypically and realistically as possible, but without having to also recreate all the work actual railroads had to do to operate. This initially took the form of asking over at the Model Railroad Hobbyist forum whether there was a "3rd way" to do operations that wasn't traditional Car Cards & Waybills (CC/WB) or switchlists (spoiler alert: turns out the most realistic may be a combination of both, but I'll save that for another post).

The MRH discussion (d)evolved, perhaps inevitably, into a debate about where to draw the line between "realistic/prototype" operations on our model railroads and actually having fun. Coincidentally, Tony Thompson posted recently about a similar discussion about realistic waybills versus CC/WB. Heh - posting a link at MRH to his post just seemed to stir the pot further.

But it also took the discussion to a different level, which is what I want to talk about a little bit here. These are admittedly rough notes, since my thinking on this is still developing, but here are my thoughts so far...

First and foremost, I think the main question here has to be "Where do you draw the line on realistic operation?" Is "prototype" paperwork, really necessary? If so, are you then going to have - for example - different types and colors of waybills for all the different commodities, armies of clerks to handle all that paperwork (or at least a few buddies willing to do it during an ops session)?

As Dave Husman essentially put it over at the MRH thread, the closer you get to realistic prototype operations, the closer you get to lots of hard labor and intensive work - work that folks actually got paid to do - and they certainly weren't doing it for fun.

So the answer probably depends on what your intent is with your model railroad. To outline two possible extremes: Is it to enjoy the mental exercise of switching puzzles, and the "railroad" is only incidental? Is it to simulate an actual railroad's operation as realistically as possible? Is it to have fun? Or to simulate actual work?

If "Model Railroading is Fun" - how are you having fun in the hobby?

The ultimate answer is as varied as we are as individuals, but for most of us the line of realism is probably somewhere in the middle, either by choice (we'd rather build models than model paperwork, for example) or necessity (we don't have the resources of space or time to model the railroad as realistically as we'd like).

Rob Spangler suggested drawing the line physically rather than mentally: right at the edge of the fascia. Prototype paperwork generally, and how waybills look in particular, doesn't really matter since it's all part of the "stuff" we need to operate the layout - along with "throttles, fascia labels, paperwork organizers, etc." What's most important is that "the PROCESS is realistic on the modeled portion of the layout..." And then he - perhaps unconsciously - alluded to Frank Ellison's Art of Model Railroading, but in this case, Rob likened what we're doing to showing a movie rather than putting on a play. And everything on the aisle side of the fascia (paperwork, etc) is only important to the extent that it allows us to put on a good show. Otherwise, it's just seats, lighting, and other spectators.

In theater, there's an invisible line called the "Fourth Wall" that would be located where the fascia is on our layouts. Effective theater - and, I would guess Rob would agree, an effective layout - wouldn't "pierce" that Fourth Wall. All the focus would be fixed and remain on the action happening on-stage.

Drawing the line at the fascia makes things a lot cleaner - your focus is 100% on the layout itself and you don't have to go down all the rabbit holes of prototype paperwork, etc.

But aren't we all already piercing the Fourth Wall with modeling "jobs?" Sure, we have to model "engineer" so the trains actually run. But what about a separate "conductor?" (ok if you have 2-man crews), or "dispatcher?" (depends on how complicated your layout - your show - is). What about "freight agent" - and the paperwork attendant to that position?

I think it all essentially boils down to what show you're trying to put on and how immersive you want the experience to be.

Theaters themselves have been pursuing a more immersive experience ever since at least the 1950s with 3D movies and seats that gave you a jolt during certain scenes. And even today MX4D makes you more and more a part of the movie. Pretty soon, I suspect - in some sense - audiences will somehow become actual participants.

But aren't we participants in our own show? Doing the same thing with the ProtoThrottle and more realistic paperwork? Putting switch locks on the fascia? Using G scale switchstands to operate turnouts? Including small brake wheels you have to spin to simulate setting the brakes on cars?

These are all examples of where we're already blurring the line created by the Fourth Wall.

Of course, you have to keep yourself from falling down the rabbit hole - which is apparently what's happened to me this past week with regard to prototype paperwork %^) - and you must draw the line of realism somewhere, if only to allow yourself enough time to actually build models and work on your layout - so you actually have a show to put on.

So the best place to draw that line will ultimately come down to an individual's personal choice - and that will ultimately depend on the type of show they want to produce.

Heh - I still don't know yet what I'm going to do about "more realistic & prototypical" paperwork for my model railroad. But I'm glad there are others in the hobby that find such discussions at least entertaining if not ultimately providing any firm answers.

You get your fun out of the hobby where you find it - and for some, the more immersive the experience the more fun it is. But trying to achieve that immersion uses valuable hobby time, so for now I think I'll take a break from all this mulling and go do some modeling.


  1. Joe Green in Sequim, WA has been doing just what you propose - a hybrid approach using waybills (the semi-prototypical Tony Thompson kind) in car cards to make up switchlists for his crews. It works well, but your question from NMRAx still stands - what is a good way to have a computer, not the owner, generate the waybills in a realistic manner, rather than a random number generated manner. [That's my re-wording of your question, anyway!]

    1. Yes, the search continues.... and based on lengthy discussions with my buddy Randy Hammill ( such a software program would be near impossible to code/program well enough. There are just way too many prototype variables that we (if we know enough about car forwarding rules, etc) just know in our heads and can do for the session much more effectively than any current computer program. That's the kicker of it - just means we need to be clerks on our own railroads! So much for automation....

  2. Well now, this is a disappointment. I just "knew" that you were going to present the answer not just define the question. This is a question many of us are interested in, finding a sweet spot for our railroads without letting experts try to define it for us. Our model environment is as unique as we are, I want to replicate a rural Grainger line on my branch line and the mesh of railroads working urban interchange and industrial canyons in my "city". So I keep listening to the experience of others so I will enjoy following your journey.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Ken and for taking the time to share your thoughts as well. Heh - yeah, an answer is definitely elusive - because it *necessarily* all depends on personal preference. I can only hope to help folks (and myself) think through as many implications as possible of placing the line at certain points. I can't tell anyone where to put the line - I haven't even been able to figure that out for myself yet! %^)