BranchTrack Modules.

BranchTRAK Philosophy

HO Scale Table Top Module Standards

Track Plan At A Glance

Layout Theme: Branchline
Layout Type: Modular Layout
Size: Linear 16.5"x48", Corners 30"x30"
Scale: HO Scale
Era: Any
Track: Code 83
Turnouts: No. 5
Min. Radius: 24"

Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: March 1, 2016

For the last twenty years, I've been building modules for a traditional modular railroad club. (Learn more)  From time to time, I have thought about what could be changed or improved to the module standards, module construction, show operations, and club organization - to allow it to continue to evolve and thrive.  There is a lot of good to build upon with our current organization but there are some changes which could help improve upon the goals of a modular layout.

Over the last six months, several members of the organization, including myself, have been working on a new alternative modular layout which helps alleviate some of our perceived problems with the standard modular railroad.  This new layout we have dubbed "BranchTRAK" - a HO scale, single mainline, table top module standard.  These modules have been developed to broaden the number of members who own modules by focusing on simplified construction, cost containment, and promoting skill development amongst club members.  The BranchTRAK sets standards for two module styles - linear modules and corner modules.  Linear modules are 16.5"x48" with a mainline set 4.5" from the front edge of the module.  The corner modules are 30"x30" with a 90 degree 24" radius mainline curve.

Areas of Concern for Existing Modules

While our club, happily, has still been receiving interest from new and current club members to build modules, some concerns have been raised about the direction of the layout.  Each of these concerns can be summed up as follows:

Cost: As our club has improved construction methods and material requirements, the cost to build a basic module has risen dramatically.  For example, a simple four foot double track module, without back tracks, scenery, structures, or details, now costs a club member about $250-300.  This is a fairly high entry fee and since many members want multi-module sets - the true basic cost can run upwards of $800-1000 for a three section module set.  For a lot of folks, this is a high barrier to cross.  Add to that our club is only setting up the layout a few times per year, the cost hardly seems justified. Any new standard should aim to contain costs dramatically.

Simplified Benchwork: Our present benchwork plans - which in my opinion are fantastic - are a bit labor and material intensive to construct.  Part of saving money will also mean simplifying the benchwork.  While any benchwork system will still require tools like a table saw and chop saw - it should be possible to reduce material and the number of construction steps.  At present, we only have a small number of club members who can construct module benchwork.  A new plan should be possible to construct by a wider group of members.

Transportation: A number of us who have been building modules for awhile have bemoaned the shrinking size of the American automobile over the last twenty years.  Out of necessity, our modules have also had to shrink in size to keep pace.  Our club used to build 8' long modules.  These would fit with ease in a station wagon or minivan of the 1990s.  In the mid-2000s, vehicles were getting smaller so we moved to six foot modules.  This worked for awhile, but more and more club members started purchasing smaller vehicles when gas prices went through the roof around 2010.  This means our six foot modules were too big.  Now we are building four foot modules but, at the usual 30" width, it is tough to find sedans which will fit more than one module.  This means, we need to find a way to go even smaller.

Too Much Track: A number of members have complained that our traditional module sets have way too much track and not enough scenery.  Our current standards are for a double track mainline but we also have an optional third track (passing siding) which many members include.  Add to that a tendency for module owners to build yards and big industries - most modules become track intensive quickly.  A simplified alternative with as little as a single mainline would be preferred to the double track arrangement.

Besides the problems we wanted to address above, there were also a few guiding principles - which generally inform our traditional module design as well - which we wanted to incorporate into the alternative layout. 

Layout Mission: To promote the hobby of model railroading through the construction and public display of model railroad modules which reflect the highest level of craftsmanship in the hobby.

Show Operations Philosophy: A modular club has a wide potential audience - from the uninitiated to the hobby of model railroading to the expert enthusiast.  It is tough audience to satisfy as both appreciate different things in a model railroad display.  The novice is generally impressed with trains magically running around on their own - circling the layout with sounds and lighting effects.  On the other hand, the expert tends to want a highly detailed layout which is being run by CTC or TT&TO operation and would appreciate the nuances if they saw it.   This leaves a bit of trouble for the module builder as to how best to satisfy as many groups as possible.

For our club, the idea is to balance the two.  The operations of the layout for a show need to be kept simple - just keep abundant trains running smoothly in circles around the layout.  At the same time, the construction of the modules should be to the highest level achievable by the builder.  By keeping these two goals as the primary focus, the finished layout should capture the attention of the viewing audience and help to promote the hobby in a positive manner.

BranchTrack Sample Layout

A sample BranchTRAK layout plan. | Trackplan by Jim Spavins.

BranchTRAK Modular Layout Standards Philosophy

There are a number of different ways to approach module standards.  With much intention, the BranchTRAK standards discussed here are fairly restrictive compared to other module standards.  The idea is that there are only two module sizes - a linear 16.5"x48" module and a 30"x30" corner module.  A single track mainline connects all of the modules to form a loop - the only possible layout configuration.

While the size is intentionally limiting, it offers several advantages when constructing the modules as well as for the long term health of an organization displaying these types of modules.

Simplified Benchwork: In order to simplify and speed up module construction, the modules are similar in style to table top module standards developed for T-trak.  The entire layout is setup on standard folding tables (30"x8') which means that each module does not require legs.  However, there are some differences from the T-trak standards. 

First, while T-trak offers standards for many scales, N scale has been its primary focus.  The key to the system is the Kato Unitrak system which doubles as a module connector.  This system is also offered in HO scale and the T-trak promoters offer a standard to use the Unitrak as its major component. This offers some advantages but the Kato Unitrak - while very nice - doesn't really look good when attempting to build a higher level model railroad.  Since the goal of the BranchTRAK concept is to promote the highest level of craftsmanship in the hobby - as opposed to a true beginners foray into the hobby- the BranchTRAK standards go back to more traditional construction techniques and will require connector tracks between the modules. 

Second, to allow for more refinements in scenery, the benchwork is a bit more involved than a typical T-trak module.  For the most part, the basic T-trak module and the T-trak kits which are commercially available tend to be just plywood construction.  This makes creating negative scenery impossible - without custom building a module.  With these BranchTRAK standards, we started with the assumption that module builders will want to add negative scenery (think drainage ditches, streams, fills, etc), and build in the foam to allow for easy construction of these features from the start.

Finally, an electrical harness to carry track and accessory power will be required on all modules. The original T-trak standards just relied on rail joiners between the modules.  Adding a harness will ensue reliable power to each module and with the addition of a 12V DC bus, an easy way to add accessories to each module without each module needing its own transformer.

Focused Construction Effort: The idea for this modular layout is that each individual who contributes to the layout should be focusing on constructing a scene to the highest level for which they are capable and further developing their modeling skills.  With the restrictive size, a fair amount of time can be spent on each phase of the modules construction.  This will afford the builder an opportunity to try new projects or new techniques without having to commit substantial time or money to see some results.  If something doesn't work, it wouldn't be a big deal to take it out and try again until the results were satisfactory.

Cost Containment: The strict size contains the potential cost of building a module.  This makes it a practical project for most potential members.  While a simple base module with only mainline track and scenery may end up costing a few hundred dollars, it is doubtful that one could spend thousands on a module.  This puts the cost of the module around one to two DCC/sound equipped locomotives.

Transportation: The size of each module makes transportation easier as most vehicles can handle a module of this size.  In addition, the module section is fairly light weight - which allows almost anyone to carry them from a vehicle to the setup space.  Our standard modules can be a bit heavy and bulky - which are tougher to move as our membership ages.  In addition, when attending a show, module owners shouldn't need to bring many extras - maybe a train or two and a small box of tools.

Storage: Storage is easier as a module of this size can be tucked away in a closet or in the basement or out in the garage or maybe even put out on a shelf on display in the family area.  In addition, the size is small enough that most people should be able to find some space to do the initial construction or perform maintenance work in their home.

Club Responsibility Sharing: It is expected when it comes to shows each attendee will only be allowed to display one 16.5"x48" module with the layout at a time.  An individual may build more than one module section - however, each module must be able to operate independently of one another and each individual will only be allowed to bring multiple modules to a show if all other individuals who want to bring a module to a show have been included in the proposed layout plan. While it may be tempting to build two together, this will limit the total number of people who can setup at a show.  It would be preferable to have as many people participate as possible.

By restricting each individual to one module per show, an organization will not become too dependent or dominated by one particular person or group of people.  At one time, our club was down to about five module owners in a club of 50 members.  This wasn't by our (the module owners) choice but we ended up building enough modules combined to fill a 200'+ long mainline layout.  It also meant if we (the module owners) couldn't attend an event, the club did not participate.  By design, as long as enough members can attend a show, a layout can be taken to the train show since each club member would have at least one module ready to display.

Show Space: By placing a one module per member limit on the show setups, the overall size of the possible layout which can be setup is also restricted.  This is important because many places aren't big enough to handle extremely large module setups.  For example, a 12 member club with each member having one module set could set up a layout that is 25'x25'.  This layout is about average, or maybe slightly above average, for the typical modular club space at a train show.  In my club, some individual members own module sets which may stretch from 24' to 36' in length.  This means a similar space may only accommodate as few as two members.  In this case, it's possible that some members who want to bring modules to an event might be shut out.  In addition, some shows may only have small spaces to squeeze a layout into.  In this case, a smaller layout could be displayed - down to 11'x11' - admittedly with fewer modules.  While limited, at least the group is able to participate in the show whereas with the larger layout - they'd be stuck at home.

Aligning Module Use with Design: For the most part, many standard modules which are constructed are only used at train shows.  This means they are really only operated and setup for a day or two a few times a year.  In addition, at most train shows, the folks visiting the layout will only have a short window to view and enjoy each module.  At many shows, there are multiple layouts to see as well as plenty of vendors to visit.  When you consider that most one day shows are only open for about 6-8 hours, that doesn't leave a whole lot of time to observe a layout. It means each module might be viewed for a minute or two by each visitor.  It makes sense then to compress the module sets to a size where the detail and craftsmanship can truly be appreciated.  A very large module set might be impressive, but it is hard to really dig down deep into the details in just a minute or two.

Ease of Show Setup: Having been the HO Module Coordinator at my club for many years, one of the challenging responsibilities is determining the layout plan for each event.  Our current standards allow for a wide variety of sizes and shapes for modules and the members who have constructed modules have taken advantage of everything.  We have short 2' modules to huge 36' long module sets.  Some modules contain an optional third track called a passing siding.  Naturally, all the module owners with this third track want to be grouped together. Then, each module has its own look and feel, so we try to group like modules together so as to create some flow within the layout.  Of course, there are the people who are friends who want to be grouped together (and of course the people who want to be separated) which needs to be accommodated so show day goes smoothly.  It can become complicated and ends up taking a lot of time to prepare a layout plan for the show.

My guess is that for a big show like the Amherst Railway Society Railroad Hobby Show where we display an 80 section layout, it takes 20-30 drafts and about 80 hours of my time to pull the logistics together for the event.  While I enjoy the challenge, its not something that can be done for more than one show a year and when you think about it - is more than five times the amount of time the show is open to the public (15 hours).  As I discuss in the show setup section, this BranchTRAK style of layout is very simple.  It might take an hour or two to deal with the logistics of this type of layout since everything has to be the same! Just figure out who plans on attending the show, figure out which size layout can work - and you're off to the races.

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