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The 'magic' way to design a layout

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  • The 'magic' way to design a layout

    Thanks to Charlie Comstock for this write-up!

    Ok, since you want to know the 'magic' way to design a layout let me try to help a bit.

    1. Measure the space you'll be using.

    2. Measure the space you'll be using again.

    3. Draw the room walls first. I do this using the draw line function. By holding down the shift key while moving the mouse the line will be either perfectly horizontal or vertical. I draw the first wall. To trim it to exact length I draw a line perpendicular to it, then use the copy parallel tool to set 2nd perpendicular line then I use F5 (cut) to trim the first list to exact length.

    4. I try to make an important corner of the room start at an even 1 foot grid intersection to make transferring the plan to the physical room easier.

    5. I also setup the grid so the every 5th foot gets a darker grid line. Makes it much easier to quickly see disances.

    6. If you have a room with right angles in the wall this is relatively easy. Using the cut tool and copy parallel tool the room walls go up quickly. I assume walls are 6" thick unless measurment shows otherwise.

    7. If there are non-right angles in the room I triangulate corners then draw circles with a center at the triangulation points. The funny point is where the circles intersect. Basically think back to high school geometry.

    8. Mark all windows and doors in walls impacting the trains.

    9. Add all funaces, water heaters, pipes, support columns, etc.

    10. Double check your work. If any of this stuff is wrong you won't be able to transfer your design from the computer to the train room without big problems.

    Once the room is drawn correctly I start thinking about the general track configurations. Where do I want corners. Where will the benchwork go. How wide will the aisles be. Where can I put towns.

    11. I find the easiest way to doodle track plans for me (and it's easy enough that I don't bother much with paper/pencil anymore) is to select either a minimum or typical radius and draw a bunch of track circles where I think the curves ought to go. At this point I'm imagining the straight tracks connecting them and the benchwork around them. Once the circles are roughly in place I start using the connect with easments tool to connect the arcs with straight track. If the min radius is over 30" I set the easement length to 'short'. Easments won't need to be exact, the bent stick approach works fine. Masonite splines automatically make nice easements.

    12. Now that the mainline is roughed in I look to see if there are logical places for sidings, towns, yards, and staging. Using the make-a-path tool I check the length of these segments to see if they are long enough to support the train lengths I'm envisioning (did you make up a list of givens and druthers before you started track slinging?). I also think about the style of operation I'm designing for - a layout for one train at a time operation is waaaay different from one for 15 guys at once with 7 trains moving at a time. The things I look for are:

    * are there enough sidings for the trains to get around each other?
    * is there enough room so a double track mainline won't violate min radius on the inner track?
    * is there enough space on a more or less straight location to place a yard (if there will be one) in the desired position on the track schematic?

    If any of these answers are NO then it's time to think about what changes could be made to make these answers YES. If after several days of brain storming the answers are still NO then either you're trying to fit more railroad in the space available than will fit or you need an epiphany of some kind.

    If the railroad will have grades and especially if it will be on multiple decks it's time to set all the grades. 3pi is a bit clunky here. The way I do it is to use the make-a-path tool to highlight a piece of track that will be on the same gradient (or flat). Then hit cntrl-e to bring up the elevation tool. Sometimes it's easier to set the elevations of the flat places and then do the grades when the top and bottom elevations are already set.

    It's almost always a good idea to have several layers you're working with. My current track plan for the Bare Creek has layers for dimensions, upper labels, track elevations, structures, upper track, upper tunnels, benchwork edge, backdrop, benchwork, lower benchwork, main staging, aux staging, staging lead, roads, creeks, lower track, lower tunnels, lighting (for 3pi 3d lights), and walls (and I'm leaving out a few layers).

    If you're doing a double deck design you will lose your mind quickly if you don't have multiple layers. They'll let you isolate on those parts of the layout you want to see (no sense having upper deck track work cluttering up the display if you're working on lower deck stuff - except for the upper to lower transition of course)

    Once the grades are set I double check to make sure they have a degree of sanity, that is that I didn't accidently do some 5% gradients. And I check for misaligned ends. The misaligned ends seem to come in two forms - vertical misalignment where a short piece of track has 0" elevation and one where the ends are disjoint from each other. The latter will show up in the make-a-path tool when the tool announces you can't make a connection between the segments. If this happens I use a binary search technique to locate the problem connection. If I can't make a path between points A and Z I try a path between A and M, if that's ok then I try between M and Z, if that fails between M and T, etc. Yup, its a bit of a pain but I don't need to do this very often so I live with it.

    The 3d view is the easiest way to locate vertically disjoint track segments. If you see a place where the track does a roller coaster death drop then you've got this problem.

    Assuming this is taken care of now its time to look into actually adding sidings (or the other main line track(s)). I use make-a-path to hilite the place where I want the siding the copy-parallel to move it. Holding down shift with copy parallel will let you specify the distance between parallel objects. I prefer to use inches for parallel distances, feet and inches for the lengths of stuff and inches for elevations. Sadly you can only have one unit of measurement at a time for all measurements (are you listening Randy?) rather than a different unit for different styles of measurements. But it's something I have and I can live with.

    Once the siding track is in place it's time to add some turnouts. I typically use the NMRA turnouts (because I mostly handlay turnouts). You can select your favorites from the list and make it the default turnout. I use the draw-turnout tool to add a turnout onto the main line then the connect-with-easement to connect it's diverging leg to the siding (or other mainline). The crossover tool is also helpful here.

    Perhaps the #1 mistake made by newbie track plan designers is the use of turnouts that are too sharp. 3pi will keep you honest (that is prevent you from building a yard ladder with #2 turnout frogs).

    In the yard I start by making a lot of parallel copies of the main track and connect them using the connect-with-turnout tool and the connect-crossover tool. As the yard begins to take shape I keep an eye out for tracks that will be too short for there purpose or tracks that can't be easily accessed from the switch lead (but yard design is a whole 'nother discussion -Look for the 'Ten Commandments of Yard Design' by Craig Bisgeier for a ton of useful information:

    Now I start getting serious about where industries and spur track will go. If I'm going to have interchange tracks these should be added prior to the industry tracks. In fact, interchange tracks may require revision to you town, siding, and yard tracks.

    As all this is happening I draw in proposed benchwork edges. Make your benchwork edges a very different color than other stuff (set in the layers dialog box) so you can easily recognize them. I also use a 'bold' line thickness for them. I draw the benchwork edges mostly the opposite of how I draw tracks - that is I draw straight lines then connect them with curves.

    In 3pi to draw in a new layer select that layer in the top toolbar dialog. If you forget to do this you can hilight the objects (shift-click or make-a-path) then use the object description box (upper right corner) to select a different layout for the hilighted objects. If you mess up and draw benchwork edges as track then you can get rid of the roadbed and ties by going into the properties and appearance then deselect the 'track object' box. (crtl double click to bring up the properties box). If there are a bunch of 'em try grouping them into an object (F9) then set the object properties to not track.

    With the benchwork edges in place now its time to ensure the aisles really are wide enough and that you can reach all parts of the layout (ESPECIALLY the track) from the aisles. I do this by drawing some circles and setting their radius (click to hi-lite, then type over the new radius in the object box in the upper right corner of the 3pi window). I often use 12" radius for my 'can I reach it' checking and 18" for my "aisles are wide enough" checking.

    Then I drag these circles around the track plan looking for tight aisles and trackwork that's too far away from an aisle (or a popup access location).

    To enhance 3d viewing I'll sometimes build rectangles next to the wall lines. Then I tilt them up into position. I used copy-parallel to set the wall height (copying the wall line the wall height distance away from the wall base) then I double click a rectangle and ALT drag the rectangle vertices to the wall's base line and height line before tilting it up. If you do this be sure to use a DIFFERENT layer for the tilted up walls.

    To finish off the 3d look, specify roadbend and subroadbend width, thickness, and colors in the layer dialog box (click the modify-layers tool, then double click the desired layer in the layers list dialog, then select the ballast & roadbed tab.

    Speacking of roadbed I build creeks by adding a light blue, flat roadbed to the creek bottom line. The make-a-path and ctrl-e (elevation) tools make setting the height and slope of a creek bottom easy. I set the creek bottom width to between 2" and 6" depending on if I'm trying to do a rivulet or a river. Use a seperate layer for each kind of creek.

    I may use 3d mode to visualize vertical clearances by snapping the camera to the track with a height of about 3.5" then running the camera around the layout like I was the engineer of a track. Any low clearances are pretty obvious this way (although the newer versions of 3pi can automate checking for substandard vertical clearances).

    I don't bother with building 3d scenery until Ive done a whole bunch of track plans and have gotten past the 'gosh this is wonderful' stage with them. No point investing in 3d scenery only to tear it out again. And it's completely superfluous when designing a track plan to build.

    I also don't bother with running trains in 3d. If you're thinking you can verify operation by doing this I'd say 'not likely'. If you keep track of siding lengths and the lengths of any switchbacks leading to industrial spurs plus the lengths of wye tail tracks you're not likely to have too many nasty surprises from sidings etc that are too short. And to verify multiplue user operation (which is really what needs to be verified you'll need a much more ops oriented program than 3pi). But if you like to build virtual scenery and run a virtual train through it then have at it. But if your goal is building a layout, 3d train running is more of a distraction than a help (in my opinion anyway).

    Sometimes 3pi does weird stuff. Like announces that two objects can't be joined because they are facing different directions. Yep, that's pretty bizarre, but I work around it by deleting the offending objects and replacing them then doing the connection again.

    Sometimes 3pi draws a circle next to track where a connect is made. I remove the circle and connection then try connecting without easement.

    If you have concrete repeatible examples of these in a reasonable size .3pi file, try zipping the .3pi file and emailing it to Randy with a precise description of what is going wrong and what you did that resulted in the problem. Send the .3pi BEFORE the problem can occur. My experience with Randy is that if a repeatible test case is proivded so he can reproduce the problem it will be quickly addressed.

    Sorry, I'm not going to get into construction of 3d objects here. This just a rather brief (well not quite so brief) dissertation on how I use the program to design layout trackplans.

    Be aware though, if you are a newbie track planner, 3pi will produce newbie track plans for you (except for those #2 turnouts). If you have some idea of what you're doing then expect to get good output.

    I climbed up the learning curve of 3pi some years ago without much of a manual (and without having Randy come sit next to me). If you're persistent I believe you can too. Keep it simple at first, then worry about complex stuff later.