The Lifetime Layout?


By Nicholas Kalis


In some model railroading circles, the term Lifetime Layout has in the past few years gained currency. Lifetime Layouts are those whose end result in terms of fidelity to the prototype or some credible freelance railroad requires years of planning and perhaps decades of construction time even with help from numerous assistants. Those building or designing a lifetime layout seek a layout whose construction or operation will engage its owner for a lifetime. Underlying their approach is a quest for perfectionism and a belief that fidelity to prototypical railroad appearances and operations demand nothing less than a lifetime of effort.  Advocates of the lifetime layout would add that it avoids ill thought out additions when interest wanes. My caution is not directed at perfectionism nor at lifetime enjoyment of one’s layout. Rather, I fear there are certain inherent traps for the unwary embarking on such lifetime layouts.


In the modeling press, I have read of far too many layouts whose builders never even approach a finished layout because a work transfer required selling their home. I should also like to stress that when I caution readers regarding a lifetime layout I distinguish those from another type of layout that could engage one for a lifetime. A well-planned smaller layout can and should engage one’s interest for a lifetime; this is fine and good.


It is the lifetime of planning and construction about which I have many qualms. First, I fear that one adapting the lifetime layout as his goal may be committing himself or herself to perhaps many years of research and layout design efforts that take away from perhaps the more concrete goals of layout construction, operation, and, not to be overlooked, fellowship involved in the last two efforts. Don’t get me wrong, the design phase of any layout project can and should be enormously satisfying. Similarly, research into the prototype is also enormously fulfilling, and should continue throughout a layout’s lifetime. What I fear is that when one chooses as one’s goal the lifetime layout, one is easily distracted into pouring an inordinate amount of time into the design phase and never constructing the lifetime layout could be a distinct possibility.


Another problem I see, after having myself embarked on a lifetime layout in my basement, is biting off more than the average modeler can chew with such a project. This overreaching can take many dimensions; modelers may attempt more than their skills, pocketbooks, patience, circle of friends, and family can support. Embarking on a lifetime layout is particularly dangerous for those of us who are neophytes to this wonderful hobby.


A lifetime layout may also require a work crew conversant in all phases of layout construction. One embarking on such a layout must ask himself whether he now possesses such a crew or has the personality to assemble such a crew in the foreseeable future. Worse yet, can one hold together or replace such a crew as personality clashes, job transfers, and moves take their toll on one’s crew. Not to be overlooked is whether one’s spouse can tolerate a crew invading her home every week; a schedule that a lifetime layout commands at a minimum.


A lifetime layout is just that; measured by a lifetime. The only problem is that no one has yet devised a way of foretelling just how long our lifetime will be. Particularly if we set out on a lifetime layout in our 40s or later, a lifetime layout just may not get even near complete in our lifetime. Furthermore, family obligations, career requirements, retirement plans, or simply spousal preferences may necessitate a move way before a lifetime layout is even near complete.  While I understand that no layout is ever complete, I am talking about  completeness in the sense of finished layout room, scenery largely complete with no bare spots, and track work that is finished and fully operational.


Even model railroaders possess a finite amount of patience. Lifetime layouts, as defined by some, poses the real risk in too many cases of stretching that patience. Instead, I would suggest that much more modest layouts can keep one’s interest alive for a lifetime just through operations, super-detailing scenes, keeping what you have built clean, historical research, photographing the layout for publication purposes, tuning rolling stock for optimal performance, scratch-building motive power and or rolling stock to define the layout, replacing original rolling stock with more detailed offerings from manufacturers, and perhaps upgrading all phases of electrical operations such as control, signaling, and electrically-operated cross-bucks, turnouts and other accessories. Even a change of era can be implemented should boredom set in.


A lifetime layout, with its lofty goals, may also serve as a temptation to reject valuable design concepts. Instead, a behemoth masquerading as a lifetime layout may draw one into utilizing duckunders, helixes, narrow aisles, and benchwork deeper than one’s reach.


My thoughts are not offered in the light of  “I am right” and “You are wrong”. Rather I hope that for those for whom these words of caution resonate, a lifetime layout will only be attempted after considering all its implications. A lifetime layout best suits those with great health, little chance of job-imposed transfer, extraordinary patience and commitment, an abundance of skills and friends, and a clear vision of what they are attempting. If after reading these words, a lifetime layout still appeals to you, may your efforts meet with success? Be sure to send me an invite to see the fruition of your efforts.


Nick recently tore down a lifetime layout after spending some eight years constructing it with the help of friends. Nick’s interest in model railroading can be traced to the proverbial Lionel Train set found under the Christmas tree. His interest in trains goes back even further to when, at the age of three, he was photographed with New York City’s last trolley car as it prepared to make its journey to a trolley museum. Nick has been an active member of the Mid-Eastern Region of the NMRA, in whose Potomac Division he belongs. Nick’s son, Peter, has, with his father’s encouragement, entered and won several awards for his construction of a hopper car.  Nick, himself, has earned the NMRA’s  Author Certificate. Nicholas is a retired attorney in McLean, Virginia and is encouraged in his hobby by his wife Mary and three young children.