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The “Thirty Minute/Three Hour” Rule

When it comes to model railroad operations, I’ve noticed what I call the “thirty minute/three hour rule” or, as Captain Jack Sparrow would say, “guideline”. It has to do with how long the average person can run before burnout, boredom, or both sets in and they’ve had enough.

The thirty minute guideline applies to running solo on your layout, something I encourage for a few reasons. When running trains by yourself I’ve found that after about a half an hour you’ve had your fill. You may want to have another go at it later in the day or again the next day but that’s about the limit in one sitting.

The three hour rule refers to more formal, more organized group sessions. Even then, after two and half to three hours the novelty has warn off, you’ve had your fun, and you’re ready to take a break and go out to dinner with your group.

These attention span limits have a direct bearing on layout design, specifically how much operational capacity we design into our model railroads. If you plan to run primarily by yourself, which is generally the case, and you have a thirty minute attention span, do you need to build in enough capacity to host a five hour session? You may want to have enough action to support an occasional group session but even then it’s easy to go overboard.

By “capacity” I mean track arrangements, train counts, and turnout and industrial quantities. It makes sense to build in some cushion for variety but, if you go overboard, you pay the price in a few areas. First, the track will become overly congested, the scenes will be too close together, and realism will suffer. Then there’s cost. Extra track and structures cost money. Finally is build time. No layout is every totally “done” but taken to the extreme overly dense plans run the risk of the builder getting bogged down trying to build a vision that, even if completed, can’t be absorbed. You can all too easily hit the point of diminishing returns. Be aware of that during the design phase.

With a little forethought in terms of industry selection it doesn’t take an enormous amount of track or turnouts to spin out a three hour session. Selecting industries that are car spot dependent (requiring that a car be dropped at a specific “spot” within the industry) adds interest and time. Implementing just a few prototype practices such as splitting trains for crossings, brake tests, etc. adds time as well and you don’t need to take to the extreme where enjoyment suffers. (I go into more detail on prototype practices in my operations book).

Shown above is the track plan for my Downtown Spur layout. Some of its stats may serve as a helpful guide. Note that there are only thirteen industrial switches plus two more on the run around. There are only eleven industries (many on the plan are no longer rail served) plus some team tracks. Surprisingly, this relatively modest turnout count still spins out a very pleasant, leisurely three hour operating session. Had I incorporated any additional industries the appearance of the layout would have suffered and the capacity they would have added would have gone unused. In summary, be cognizant during the design phase of the types of industries you choose to model as well as the total turnout count it takes to create your desired operating session length. Build in a small cushion for variety and then leave it at that.

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