Heresy against John Allen and The Model Train Rubic’s Cube

I found this interesting article by Craig Bisgeier that promotes heresy against the model railroad orthodoxy.  Interestingly, it aligns with exactly what I felt when I first became familiar with John Allen’s model railroading in general, and his “timesaver” puzzle layout.

Bisgeier’s essay questions how a model railroad puzzle became so revered.  I’ll go a step further and say that John Allen’s layout was impressive, but I don’t afford it the same reverence it receives in the hobby press.  My position and Bisgeier’s align because, I think, we both struggle to see a direct connection to real railways.

The hobby of model railroading is often divided into two camps: prototype and freelance. I think this kind binary is simplistic and fails to account for the multitude of approaches to the hobby.  I think it’s much more accurate productive to imagine a continuum where unattainable ideals exist on both ends: utterly imaginary, pan-era layouts at one end, and the most strictly realistic models at the other.  I doubt that the ends of the continuum can be defined by specific examples, but it’s not too difficult for us to imagine where some of our favourite layouts fall on the range.  I like the notion of a continuum because eliminates the possibility of imagining good guys and bad guys, and it might even open a dialogue for serious discussion about promotion of the hobby.

People visiting this site will recognize that I’m a (so-called) prototype modeller.  I’ve written elsewhere that I approach every modelling project resigned to the fact that, unfortunately, I will have to make compromises along the way with every model I build.  I’m driven by a desire to push my ability toward this ideal, but I accept and welcome other ways to enjoy the hobby.  For evidence of that, have a look at the links that I posted on the right side of my Home page.  There are some supremely skilled freelanced model railroaders out there, and I aspire to be seen as one of their peers.

So, without the intention of offending anyone’s reverence for John Allen, I want to share the link to Craig’s website where you will find a short essay about John Allen’s Timesaver.  I like Craig’s theory of how the timesaver became so revered, but more to the point, his essay gives me comfort.   While I was always wonderstruck by the magnitude of John Allen’s accomplishments, I just didn’t “get it” when I looked at pictures of his Gorre & Daphetid.  It always seemed so fantastical to me.  I love fiction, and I’m an avid reader.  I even fancy myself an aspiring fiction writer.  Those of you familiar with that world will understand me when I say that I have a similar deference to Tolkien, but his work simply doesn’t do it for me.

With no disrespect intended to either, I’ve never been compelled to be a fan or follower of Tolkien or John Allen.  I find their art to be too far on the other side of the continuum.


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12 thoughts on “Heresy against John Allen and The Model Train Rubic’s Cube

  1. I had a chance to build an N scale timesaver. While I had fun building the layout, I soon found that the layout was more frustrating than amusing to operate. After a few sessions it became hard to ignore how many moves it took to get a car across the layout; the economics of moving a car this much over such a short distance really undermined the layout’s charm.

    Trains are just such amazing things. I think that designing our railways to look and operate in a fashion which closely replicates a prototype isn’t so much a function of dedication to a prototype as an investment in the future of our interest in this hobby. In hindsight I regard my experiences with my own timesaver as support of this argument. I didn’t matter that the trains were or weren’t accurate models of real trains and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t modelling a prototype scene. It was simply that the darned model just didn’t work in the way that a real railway worked. I lost interest in that layout quickly. Luckily this wasn’t my first layout and the experience didn’t cause me to leave the hobby but I do wonder if there are other modellers who unfortunately did set the hobby aside. If we’re going to do anything to influence the future of this hobby it’s to nurture new modellers to create things that really get them closer to what they want to be doing and keep them active well into that future. Prototype or freelance, I think we all want to be able to squint our eyes a little and watch our models rolling past and for a minute, privately pretend we’re trackside watching a real train. That’s keeping us in touch and turned on.

    I find the discussion over layouts built in the Gorre and Daphetid style quite interesting. Thanks for putting up your post and also citing Craig’s great post on the same subject.

      • “…elevating the content on my blog…” I really enjoy following your blog and you’re doing really great work. I like the balance between prototype background and then the modelmaker’s how-to. As I mentioned, the subject you raised in your post is one I think about a lot and enjoy discussing so thanks for raising it.

  2. Just an FYI, it looks like you typo’d Craig’s name into Chris.

    As for the prototype v. freelancer, I don’t like the binary distinction either and I try really hard to balance my own approach to the hobby. Smaller things I can count the rivets on, so to speak, but the big things where information and pictures doesn’t exist or two big to fit my constraints I can get my creative juices going in building something that is entirely my creation but would not look out of place if you were to scale it up.

    Specifically to the Timesaver, it’s kind of like the game of Monopoly. It’s fun once in a while but to keep on speaking terms with friends and family you shouldn’t pull it out that often.

    • Thanks for alerting me to the typo. In the process of fixing it, I discovered that I left the final version of this post in my ‘draft’ file and posted a previous, unfinished version. Regardless of all that, I still had Craig’s name wrong in my best version. I think I’ve fixed it all up now.

      Your experience of being creative with the things you can’t know speaks directly to the compromises I mentioned. I don’t mind the compromises, but I thoroughly enjoy those instances when I’m able to close the gap and make things one increment more believable.

  3. Great piece, Hunter. Thanks for sharing it here.

    I think more modellers with experience need to speak up about the shortcomings of the Time Saver, the Switchman’s Nightmare, and other Switching Puzzles, to help newcomers to the hobby avoid them.

    I also linked to Craig’s piece – in an early posting on my own blog ( on why I chose S scale for my current layout. I had originally hoped to work in O scale, but found that the larger scale would limit me to artificially complex switching districts and I wanted to avoid that Time Saver look.

    More than a year later, I again tackled the issue of the Time Saver in a couple of postings called “Modelling jobs – not industries” ( and “Why I Don’t Like Switching Puzzle Layouts” ( These were in response to a comment from a reader who insisted that I “needed” to add more industries and switching opportunities to my layout or there wouldn’t be enough for operators to do. Having run several sessions with a variety of guest operators – and dozens of solo sessions – I know that’s not the case.

    My reader made a mistake that’s all too common in this hobby, which is to equate complexity with challenge. The reality is that by studying how the prototype works, then applying that to a layout, a paucity of track actually makes the job MORE challenging.

    I think any discussion of the shortcomings of the Time Saver should also offer alternatives, so I’d remind your readers of some excellent online examples.

    First, of course, is Lance Mindheim’s CSX Miami layouts and the many examples he offers of realistic switching layout designs on his blog and in his trio of books:
    – How to Design a Small Switching Layout
    – How to Build a Switching Layout
    – How to Operate a Modern Era Switching Layout

    Second, Greg Amer has a blog called “The Industrial Lead” on which he is describing his plans for a switching layout based on the industries he works as a professional railroader.

    Third, another professional railroader – Jack Hill – was writing a great blog called the New Castle Industrial Railroad. Here, he documented his O scale switching layout. Unfortunately, he stopped blogging in January 2011. I have never figured out why. Fortunately, his blog IS still active.

    There are many others, but I’ve probably included enough URLs to end up in your spam filter so I’ll stop there ;-)

    Thanks agin for posting this – keep spreading the word about alternatives to the traditional designs that certainly served their purpose but should now be retired to the Model Railroad Hall of Fame.


  4. I don’t like the binary division, either, but in the UK there have been several very accurate models of specific branch line termini, for example the Bodmin layout of the North London Group of the ScaleFour Society: this still appears on the exhibition circuit over here.

    As for the other end of the continuum, my seven year old’s collection when placed on the dining table comes close…

    PS With you on Tolkein. Great story, badly told…

    • I’ve seen some very impressive model trains from the UK.

      I’ve been most impressed by the fine-scale people building military models. I don’t know if that hobby is in decline as well, but the model railroading hobby may have a thing or two to learn from them

  5. I was having a bit of a conversation on the definitions of terms for “prototype” vs. “freelance” modelers.

    IMO, there are [at least] three distinct areas of discussion: 1) equipment modelers, 2) location modelers, 3) operations modelers. It’s possibly to be [reasonably close to] strictly prototype in any of these categories by itself and not the others. For example, some guys detail engines and rolling stock but don’t even have layouts. And a strict operations guy doesn’t actually need to model a real railroad to model realistic ops (see Allen McLelland’s V&O).

    I would suggest that to truly call oneself a “prototype [railroad] modeler”, one at least attempts all 3 to at least some extent. By which I mean you don’t have to model every pipe and rivet, and reasonable (inevitable) compromises and stand-ins are allowed, but you do try to base everything off of reference photos.(Note that this is simply for definition purposes; I am not making a value judgment for or against anyone who is or isn’t a strict prototype modeler, and even within that definition, I believe there’s a fair bit of room for movement even within that limiting definition. My definition is primarily based on INTENT, not execution.)

    However, “Freelance modeler” becomes very hard to define, because it’s almost a catch-all for “everything else”, hence some people have started using the term “proto-freelance” (or sometimes “protolance” for short) to denote a fictional railroad, or fictional line of a real railroad, but modeled using prototype concepts and practices. It’s a very muddy thing to actually define, and even with a strict definition of “prototype modeler” as above, there’s a lot of room for overlap.

    For example, one could use only off-the-shelf ready-to-run equipment (selected for era appropriateness) and code 100 track and basically be a prototype modeler if you’re modeling a real line and location(s). And conversely a superdetailed fine-scale model of a fictional railroad is still freelance.

    Are all of the above simply model railroaders? Absolutely.
    Is one approach better than the other? No. I know what _I_ prefer, but what’s right for me might not be right for others. (On the other hand, I’m not required to be impressed by a loop of track on a 4×8 sheet of plywood, but if the guy’s having fun he’s not wrong.)

  6. Wow, that was a house of cards, sour grapes and faux hysteria built on Craig’s strongly held belief and nothing else. In the real world:

    1. There simply aren’t timesavers built into layout all over the place… they turn up very, very occasionally.

    2. There were (now mostly gone) real industrial switching sites that are much “worse” than a timesaver to operate, so get just over it!

    In terms of the timesaver track plan as a game…. if you don’t like the game you don’t need to play it!

    • “…house of cards, sour grapes and faux hysteria…”

      Yikes, Arty. Uh, welcome to my blog.

      Sorry if you didn’t pick up on the irony in my post’s title and first sentence. Irony is that thing where a writer gets all smart-alecky to make fun of smart-alecs or just for effect, sort of like sarcasm, but a bit more highfalutin. Ugh, maybe I’ve been reading too much Vonnegut. Hey, here’s another cool irony: my post was at least partly about becoming more inclusive and accepting of all the possible ways to imagine the hobby. I’ll leave it to you to sort out wherein lies the irony.

      Thanks for the suggestion; rest assured I’m well “over it” and I’ll soon be blogging about some other thing that, when placed against the backdrop of global economic inequity, widespread famine in Africa, and the threat of nuclear war in Asia, will amount to little more than inconsequential and self-indulgent palaver. We are, after all, talking about various ways of playing with trains, right?

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