Shunting Puzzles

One problem that I have with model railways is that I find operating them is not as much fun as building them. Once built, a lot of layouts seem to become processions of trains, with lots of similar movements for the operators to replicate. Twinned with this is the problem that complex layouts take years of part time work to finish – so they often feel like they will never be complete. I’ve had several starts at building layouts, and none have progressed well. They can seem uninteresting to operate after the track has gone down, or never seem worth getting stuck in – progress is hard to see toward the ‘finished’ goal.

Small layouts fix one of these problems – it is easy to see how to get a simple layout to a finished state – but I’ve never really appreciated that they could solve the first as well. A recent discovery was the ‘Micro Layouts’ website by Carl Arendt which contained many inspiring small layouts. Often good looking, the bold claim was made that many were interesting to operate too. Two plans stand out, and even have their own website maintained by Alan Wymann. Ingelnook Sidings and Timesaver are not new, and both present a shunting game to the operator. Wagons are placed on the layout in a starting position, and the game is to move them to randomly assigned end positions. Each plan limits carefully the lengths of the sidings, to make the puzzle harder to solve. This makes them unlike the real railway (which is engineered for ease of operation), but it makes them more compact and more interesting for the model maker.

How I’d spent around 20 years reading the model railway press, and missing the significance of these two plans is amazing. Perhaps it was simply the lovely presentation on the web – you can even try them out – that got me to notice them this time.

One other feature I liked is that they don’t require a fiddle yard, and lots of manual handling of the stock on-and-off the layout. They both run self contained, and with automatic couplers, completely hands off.