Working With A
Professional Track Planner
Before retiring in 2001, I spent over three decades running a retail service business, dealing with customers’ wants and needs. In many ways, being a professional “fee-based” track planner is not that much different. First, you identify the customer’s needs, then you set in motion a series of events that fulfill those needs.
Wants vs. Needs
In my previous profession, many customers “needed” my services. This raises an interesting question: do my current customers “need” my track planning services or do they simply “want” my services? Based on the thousands of published track plans available in the public domain, you might think the answer is that customers “want” my services. But customers who contact me usually have specific needs and wants that published track plans cannot address. In those specific situations, yes, they do “need” my services.
Let’s ask the question in a slightly different way: should individuals “wanting” to build a model railroad use the services of a professional, fee-based track planner? Now, here is a question that does not have a simple yes or no answer. From my perspective, if you are new to the hobby, you absolutely want to hire a track planner! The monies spent with a professional track planner pay dividends throughout the construction phase and operating life of the layout. A professional track planner can eliminate 99% of the design errors and construction miscalculations that a newbie invariably will make. But if an individual is building his or her fourth or fifth layout, he or she may already have learned from mistakes on the previous layouts; such an individual may not need the services of a professional.
I know of no official statistics that show the number of model railroaders who have used professional track planners, but my gut feeling is that probably less than 1% have done so.
There are a few designers out there who do not charge a fee. I assume that they enjoy designing layouts and view it as a hobby within a hobby. If you are one of those designers, I commend you; it takes a lot of time and effort, but without the monetary compensation. It is my opinion that the main difference between a fee-based designer and one who does not charge a fee is accountability. In my opinion, designers who do not charge a fee conceptualize model railroad designs. On paper, these layouts look great, but has the designer taken the time to make sure all the critical elements that go into a track plan will work as drawn? Keep in mind, designers who charge no fee are under no obligation to guarantee you anything.
I have studied numerous non-fee-based plans. Many are very good, but I’ve also seen plans that won’t work as conceptualized. Why? The most obvious problem areas are grades that are too steep, curves that are too tight, and distances between multi-level layouts, resulting in lower levels that are set too low. Such problems can cause the builder serious headaches during and after construction. The designer who charges no fee has the advantage of designing what the modeler wants, but many times what the modeler wants is not the best approach.
A fee-based designer, on the other hand, has an obligation to design a plan that works; simply conceptualizing is not an option. Fee-based designers must deliver a workable product. They must understand how real railroads operate and how to incorporate real railroad operations into a miniature transportation system. The fee-based designer also must understand all of the limitations associated with designing and building a model railroad.
Based on the average number of plans I design in a given year and extrapolating that out over the number of fee-based designers who serve the hobby and approximating the number of layouts that are started each year, my earlier estimate of 1% who seek professional advice may be too high.
Many of my clients have started designing and building layouts but have never taken one to completion. Why? There can be numerous, sometimes unavoidable reasons: lack of funds, health issues, relocation, or simply loss of interest, to name just a few. If none of the above apply, one must wonder why the layout wasn’t completed. Usually, it is because of poor pre-planning and/or a seriously flawed design. Add to that the overwhelming desire (by the modeler) to get trains running as soon as possible, and you have a recipe for failure. Poor pre-planning and a flawed design usually happen because the modeler doesn’t have a good, basic understanding of how real railroads work and how to translate that to a model.
Unfortunately, in their rush to get trains running, thoughtful pre-planning takes a back seat. In many cases, they don’t understand the importance of setting minimum standards for grades, radii, etc. These can lead to avoidable mistakes that don’t always show up until well into the construction phase. Using a professional, fee-based track planner will eliminate those kinds of mistakes. A high percentage of my clients realize – sometimes too late – that poor pre-planning and a flawed design were the real problems; a house without a good foundation eventually is going to collapse. The same can be said for a poorly designed model railroad.
The Trials and Tribulations of a Professional Track Planner
Now let’s take a look at some of the trials and tribulations that almost all of us fee-based designers run into and how we deal with those and with client expectations.
Not Allocating Sufficient Funds
Compared to those in other hobbies, many who are new to the hobby of model railroading – for whatever reason – tend to try to do things “on the cheap”. Please understand that I’m not demeaning anyone; we all like saving money. But, this is something that doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in other hobbies. A good example is photography: you don’t normally see the photography enthusiasts going out and buying the cheapest camera. I also could probably name a half-dozen other hobbies, where trying to do things on the cheap doesn’t happen.
That said, many model railroaders don’t think anything about spending $300 on the latest-and-greatest, sound-equipped locomotive. But, suggest to the same modeler that they should spend their dollars on a custom-designed track plan, and a high percentage will resist. For whatever reason, they see value in the locomotive, but they don’t see similar value in a well-designed track plan. I firmly believe that a well-designed track plan can save a modeler hundreds of dollars over the lifetime of a layout.
How does someone like me get them to change their minds? I don’t; you can’t tell someone how to spend his or her hard-earned money. The best that I can do is to try and educate them.
Expectations That Are Too High
Before starting any design, I have the client answer approximately two dozen questions. The way the client answers those questions gives me insight into his or her thinking. Is the client being realistic in his or her wants? Does the client understand the complexities involved when designing a custom track plan? Does the client know what is possible and what is not? Is the client letting emotional decisions override common sense?
These are the things I need to understand about my clients. I never start a plan until I’m comfortable that the client and I are on the same page. The fee-based designer must take emotions out of the equation, knowing that most model railroads are built for emotional fulfillment. Doing it for emotional fulfillment is fine, however, problems start popping up when emotional fulfillment supersedes reality. I wish I could count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase, “but I like it and I want it.”
Fee-based designers cannot let a client’s emotions dictate or determine the direction of the project. Fee-based designers need to deliver a product the client will want, but the designer must always base the design on tried-and-true practices.
Clients Cannot Measure
This is one of the more unusual trials and tribulations designers deal with. When beginning the design process, I let the client know that the number one, most important element for starting the design is getting accurate floor plan measurements. The basic style of the track plan and the shape of the benchwork are secondary issues as compared to accurate room/space measurements.
Of all the of track plans I’ve designed over the last few years, there have been fewer than a half dozen for which the client gave me correct measurements on the first try. Many clients think if their measurements are close, everything will work out. Not true! In most cases, I need measurements to be accurate within 1/4-inch!
Compounding the measurement issue are obstructions: stairways, doors, windows, support posts, sewer pipes, electrical boxes, sump pumps, foundation jut-outs, etc. It is vital that I get accurate location measurements for all obstructions. Obstructions – as their name implies – invariability affect benchwork, aisle widths, and track routing.
How do I solve the measurement issue? In extreme cases, I suggest the client go to her or his local hardware store and purchase a digital laser measuring tape. That always solves the problem!
This is one of the harder elements to deal with. Some clients have trouble visualizing three dimensions when viewing a two-dimensional drawing. And adding railhead heights and grade percentages at key points on the drawing doesn’t always help.
“I’m having trouble visualizing the design,” is a comment track planners don’t like to hear. This is where 3-D renderings really help. The software that I use has steadily improved its 3-D rendering capabilities over time. With the latest version, I now can capture a 3-D rendering and send it to the client. In many cases, that solves the visualization issues.
For example, one of the hardest areas for a client to visualize is tracks that cross one another at different elevations. Recently, I had a client add on a 20'x12' extension to his layout room. He envisioned the extension containing a double track mainline running through various mountain scenes, with the mainlines separating and crisscrossing back and forth over themselves three or four times.
When I explained to him the amount of linear distance needed to have tracks crisscross over and under each other, the client was mildly upset, stating, “with all this additional space, I thought I would be able to have three or four places with elevated crossovers; this is very disappointing!”
The problem was two-fold. First, the client was standing in his newly-enlarged, empty space, thinking he could do whatever he wanted with it; empty space always looks bigger until you start adding benchwork and aisles. Also, the client did not have a good understanding of how grades affect track routing. After explaining and physically showing him the problems, he still wasn’t happy, but he understood.
Grades and Track Routing
Getting clients to understand the effect that grades have on track routing is not easy. The example given above is a case in point. The additional space the client added was larger, in square footage than most clients have for their whole layout. But, as soon as he asked for double mainlines that would crisscross three or four times, the available space shrunk exponentially. Realistically, he would have needed almost twice the square footage to get that effect! Let me explain what I mean.
When tracks need to crisscross over one another in HO scale, I allow clearances of 4.25" to 4.5", taking into account sub-roadbed; this assures that modern rolling stock have the necessary clearance under the elevated crossovers. To get to the 4.5" height – and assuming a normal 2% grade – the elevated track needs to start rising 18.75 linear feet from the crossover. If we drop the clearance to 4", the distance gets reduced by about two feet to 16.67 linear feet. So, for the mainline to rise and then return to its starting height, we need a total of 37.5 linear feet (with 4.5" clearances) or 33.33 linear feet (with 4" clearances). It’s easy to see why the 20' x 12’ room got smaller very quickly.
Remember, the client’s original thought was to have mainlines crisscross over themselves three or four times; and he also wanted to include mountain scenery and add several rural towns with industrial switching sidings.
The bottom line for this client was this: it simply wasn’t possible to include all of these features and still have the layout operate correctly.
So, should you retain a professional, fee-based track planner? In my opinion, absolutely!
If you chose to use a non-fee-based designer, keep in mind that you are receiving a “concept” plan; I doubt the designer can afford the time and effort to exchange 40-60 emails with you or to make the numerous version changes that invariably are requested by the client. One cannot expect a designer who charges no fee to devote the time and energy required to deal with all the issues, concerns, changes, and questions the client will have.
It is not unusual to have 60+ emails travel between the client and myself during the design phase. In isolated cases, I have spent as much time answering client questions as I have spent designing the plan. While it’s a big issue, it is an essential part of the design process and one of the reasons I charge the fees I do.
As I stated earlier, fee-based designers are obligated to deliver a product that works as designed, and if it doesn’t work, the fee-based designer is obligated to adjust the plan to the satisfaction of the customer.
In closing, my major wish is that someday model railroaders will see the value in hiring a professional, fee-based track planner; my second wish is that model railroaders will understand that in the long run, they will be saving money.
About the Author
Bill Beranek - The Track Planner has over forty years in the model railroading hobby. Bill enjoys golfing, traveling, and of course designing “prototypical operations” focused track plans. He has been a member of a local 135+ member model railroad club since 2003 and has served twice as the club’s president, twice as a board member, and is currently serving as the club’s treasurer.
Bill is currently working on his latest triple-deck HO scale layout depicting the SP&S (Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway) in southern Washington and the OTL (Oregon Trunk Line) on the upper level in northern Oregon in the mid-50s.
You can find out more about Bill—The Track Planner at www.thetrackplanner.com.