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The Tragedy of CTS Syndrome
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The scourge of a growing epidemic
 
How often have you seen this exchange on an Internet forum?

Newbee:

"I'm interested in model railroading. Can anybody recommend a track plan?"

OldHand1:

"Well the first thing you need to do, young Jedi, is download one of those track planning CAD products and learn to use it."

Our eager tyro disappears for a couple of weeks, presumably immersing himself in the arcane nuances of the recommended software program, then emerges triumphant.

Newbee:   

"Hey all, check out my design. 40 hours of work just learning the program, but I bet you've never seen a layout like this!"

[This post includes an incredible spaghetti bowl of track, lacking runarounds, full of unmanageable S-curves, and including yard tracks that have only 6 useable inches of length. In HO.]

OldHand1:

"Looks great!"

ForumAddikt:

"Lotta track, gotta love it!"

WannaB2:

"Go for it, Newb-dude!"

Sikofant:

"Can't wait to see it! Great job, Newbee! Next stop, MR! Jack Armstrong, eat your heart out!"

VoxOreason*:

"Well, you've certainly packed a lot in a small space. But I think you'll have some trouble with no runaround, since half of your spurs face in one direction and half the other. And I'd be concerned about those S-curves, especially with your (apparently) 13" minimum radius. In HO. Is that a 6% grade? That 5 foot reach to the main yard ladder may prove problematic. And with no staging, have you thought about how traffic will flow when you operate?"

Newbee:

"What's a runaround? Anyway, I already bought the foam and I'm laying track this weekend … I spent two solid weeks on this (thank goodness for Red Bull, LOL) and it's already Revision 34. I'll post pix later on. Thanks for all the support, guys!"

* The character "VoxOreason" was played by Byron Henderson. Other Forum IDs have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

Yes, another victim of CAD-Too-Soon Syndrome (CTSS). CTSS often strikes the ill-informed; the unaware; the eager newcomer. And it's all the more tragic when the condition is enabled by those around the victim, all infected by a beautifully-rendered image of a terrible design.

But it's even worse when CTSS strikes not just a 4X8'er, but the builder of a large layout. Years ago, a design was published in the model press including a discussion of the use of model railroad CAD (Computer Aided Design) to create the track plan. When I looked at the design in the magazine, I saw a number of potentially troublesome S-curves -- especially the subtle ones that result from combinations of turnouts. At the time, I wrote it off to the fact that most magazines use general-purpose drawing programs to generate the track plan graphics and assumed that these S-curves had been introduced during the magazine graphics process.

Some time later, I had the chance to visit the layout, by then well under construction. I remembered the areas where I had seen S-curves in the design and was eager to see how the actual track work had been done.

I was surprised and concerned to see that the design's S-curves had been built into the layout. Apparently the owner/designer did not fully appreciate some of the subtleties of layout design and had inadvertently created several of these situations. Since CAD let him do it, he drew it that way … and built exactly what he drew. Trains were operating during my visit and there were multiple derailments at a couple of these locations with long motive power. The owner and crew huddled over the locos and rolling stock and fussed with the turnout points with each derailment. And it may be that with perfect equipment and track, the configuration could have been made to work. None of the regular crew mentioned the fact that it was a clear-cut S-curve, so I didn't either. Sometimes CTSS is a conspiracy of silence.

Contagion spreads through the Internet

Model railroad CAD is a very useful tool in knowledgeable hands. With the availability of low-cost or free model railroad CAD programs, many more neophytes to layout design are using software to crank out track plans. Because they can work the program with some facility, some even fancy themselves authorities on track planning and offer (bad) advice and plans to others, creating and publishing dozens of truly dreadful designs on the Internet. The CTSS epidemic spreads rapidly over the Internet, infecting many innocent souls.

One temptation with CAD is to dig deeply into the details too soon in the planning process. Many hours may be spent tweaking ill-conceived yard throats and heavily switchbacked industrial areas while little or no thought is given to the overall function of the plan. Perhaps understandably, CTSS sufferers are reluctant to face the kind of systemic changes needed to salvage their plans, even when these issues are pointed out. After such a huge time investment, they're reluctant to go back to square one. And so the bad design ideas live on, revision to revision, until they end up as costly mistakes in plywood, flextrack, and plaster.

Many of these designers would surely be better off with pencil and paper and sketching techniques like John Armstrong's squares. The rush to precision enabled by model railroad CAD short-cuts the traditional design steps that included thinking about a schematic, considering flow of traffic from one location to another, and taking one's time between revisions to consider changes. As a result, hundreds of precisely-rendered but poorly-thought-out designs are created every day.

Appearances are deceiving

As is so often the case (think Snow White and the apple … or the Baywatch cast), many things that look good actually aren't very good at all. These CTSS plans include many unbuildable or inoperable features, but both the designers and viewers are misled by how good they look. Truly, it pains me to look at some of the designs that are being offered up on the Internet and to see how readily newcomers are beguiled by these precisely-rendered disasters-in-the-making.

CAD is merely a tool, so it's not inherently good or bad, of course. But like other tools, it can be used incorrectly with costly results. In my opinion, we should all be less eager to suggest that newcomers leap directly to CAD without spending some time learning the basics from sources like John Armstrong's Track Planning for Realistic Operation, the Layout Design SIG, and others. Building a true foundation of track planning knowledge takes time and lacks the immediate gratification of blasting out a spiffy track plan with CAD. But the resulting designs will be more satisfying and engaging in the long run, I believe.

Ending the heartbreak of CTSS

So let's stop sending every Newbee down the path to the tragedy of CAD-Too-Soon Syndrome. Instead, let's encourage them to spend a little more time in learning, visualizing, and planning before they leap into the rendering stage. And for the true Newbee who's anxious to just build something, maybe it isn't such a bad idea to recommend a quality published plan. That would probably lead to better results and more long-term satisfaction.

 
Copyright 2006 by Byron Henderson

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