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Modeling Gaffe 1- The John Allen Disorder.

February 8, 2009

John Allen, a great modeler with 50 years of poor imitataion

John Allen did it right, and the final product looked good. Hundreds of modelers attempt to put “eleventeen” bridges across one little puddle of water and it looks stupid, cliche and poorly designed. Why is this so?

The main thing that 99% of model railroaders who attempt to emulate this  don’t realize about this reasonably unrealistic situation is that John Allen built the scenery first, then SCRATCHBUILT the bridge to fit the space. It looks natural, and the bridge actually looks like it was built in-place, not as if a modeler took a kit out of the box and plopped in the chasm.

The other main thing to consider is that a railroad would much rather fill in the water feature if it was shallow and narrow, and provide drainage than waste the money it would take to order, place and maintain a bridge.

Think about it: If you were a railroad structural engineer working with an accountant, would you decide to build an impressive array of truss-bridges to span a 70 foot gap of water for your 6 track yard? No! You would probably either sight the yard along the banks of the river or fill it in and provide adequate drainage pipes to move what usually would be seasonal water.

Railroads avoid water crossings at almost all costs. That’s why when they do build a bridge, it’s either eventually replaced with a fill (if it was originally a low, long trestle.) or the most direct route across the obstacle. They’re usually overbuilt to last, and some bridges are still doing their job over 100 years later. Multiple crossings of the same body of water typically would be consolidated into a single, Strong and wide bridge when possible.

I think (and I’m guilty of it too) that the Atlas bridge kits have made modelers lazy. One bridge I’m constantly shocked that most water features on a model railroad tend to conviently fit the width of the bridge instead of kitbashing the bridge to fit the river width. Most people don’t even bother mixing types of bridges to correctly fit the needed application.  The scourage of most model railroads is the ATLAS “curved chord truss bridge”. This was based on an Austrian prototype, and this particular type of Curved-Chord bridge is extremely rare  in the US. (There are many different types, some of which are much more common.) Here’s the bridge I’m talking about:
Atlas Curved-Chord Truss

 The other problem is that there’s no “breathing space” between the river crossings, it would be like rafting through a tunnel if you went under all those bridges!

There isn’t a prototype for the photo above, and for these good reasons, It would be best to avoid this horrible modeling cliche.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2009 3:09 am

    I would argue that your text defeats your lead in figure of 5 bridges across the same chasm. The photo looks somewhat contrived.

    BTW, the submit button on the comments form is impossible to see — black text on a dark blue background?

  2. February 10, 2009 3:25 am

    I wish the photo were a fake actually, but I was so shocked that some model had done this I had to take a photo of it.

    I’ll probably rewrite this article in the future, making my point more concise and in favor of a more realistic approach to crossing multiple mainlines over a body of water.

    Sorry about the button, I’m still working out the kinks with PHP script. One of the problems I’ve been having is color allotment. It’s rather unusual for both colors to end up on the same button. I aim to get it fixed.

  3. Bikerdad permalink
    March 19, 2009 6:06 am

    Well, some folks like bridges, and they like to see trains MOVING over bridges. Scenic realism isn’t necessarily their goal.

  4. Galen gallimore permalink
    December 5, 2009 6:36 pm

    As someone who has built a timesaver, another John Allen creation of considerable controversy, I am a die hard G&D fan. The bridges at French Gulch (and the other 126 bridges on the railroad) are indeed, as you said, built to fit the site.

    But perhaps the greater fault in this gaffe is not simply trying to copy JA’s work, but in failure to plan. Allen said that planning, for him, was almost a hobby in itself. He loved to plan, especially when there were many options to consider. He planned wiring for his streetlights, burying them in cement beneath the layout, 16 YEARS before the lights went in.

    Likewise, he had a strong mental picture and probably a few sketches, of all the various types of bridges needed to cross the span. The fact that his layout was oriented for operation in the space given gave rise to the four parallel tracks. Vertical separation, plus variation in bridge style, plus his innate artistic talent made it work…on the G&D. Planning made it possible to begin with.

    The slapdash way so many modelers go at their layouts may have more to do with a lack of consideration for things like roads, etc. which you mention in another gaffe.

    Thanks again for another stimulating article.


  5. August 30, 2015 9:50 am

    I can’t agree with “I’m constantly shocked that most water features on a model railroad tend to conviently fit the width of the bridge instead of kitbashing the bridge to fit the river width.” – I think it’s needlessly creating work for yourself if you’re designing a layout from scratch and you change the width of water features to be arbitrarily inconvenient sizes. Nobody is going to scrutinize the length of the bridge and compare it to a hobby shop inventory.. Built properly, both results should look as though the bridge fits the span.

    As far as Galen’s Dec 2009 comment, I see way too many layouts die a fate of TOO MUCH planning – as in, all planning, zero execution, “Plywood Pacific” – so I think someone who builds a layout with “cliche” bridge spans still has a superior layout to the armchair modeler who passes away and has nothing but a giant pile of never-used modeling kits for the next of kin to part out on eBay. Perhaps John Allen took 16 years between the time he wired his wiring and the time he implemented street lights, but I don’t think that’s a good representative model for most modelers to follow.

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