Sunday, October 26, 2014

The omni-circulatory streetcar layout

In the past I’ve posted a bit about the omnivagant model railroad concept first proposed by Linn Westcott back in the May 1940 issue of Model Railroader. To me it’s an interesting way to look at building a layout that incorporates trolley, tram, interurban or streetcar elements. All of the posts in the omnivagant series are tagged with the word and can be found here.
[Some slotcar layouts seem to exemplify the omnivagant concept more so than model railroads - to maximize the fun :-) This ad appeared in a 1960s issue of Boy's Life.]

I find that the word ‘omnivagant’ often trips people up. Like myself when I first encountered it, I thought it was spelt wrong, and was sure it should be omnivagrant, with an ‘r’. With omnivagant being an archaic word even when Mr. Westcott first mentioned it in 1940, that missing 'r' seems like a natural mistake. Some internet searching cleared things up. One of the more interesting findings on omnivagant and its relations is at The Inky Fool which has a post on noctivagant (wandering around at night), omnivagant (wandering absolutely everywhere) and extravagant (wandering around outside), and suggests how Shakespeare had a hand in changing the meaning of extravagant from its original one of ‘out-of-bounds’ to today’s ‘out-of-budget’.
[Not to be satisfied with merely a flat, omnivagant slotcar layout setup on the rec-room floor, Glen Wagner in the Nov. '66 issue of Boy's Life showed how to build this multi-level twister through mountainous terrain.]

Vagrant also has the connotation of not having a home, job or any fixed connection to a place or activity, as well as wandering. That makes being vagrant somewhat different from merely having a penchant for wanderlust. A railed vehicle can indeed be vagant, but it likely follows its geographically wandering path with a purpose, and repeat it in accordance to a schedule. It would hardly be vagrant.
[This is the Flat River Railroad and Union Traction Co. that appeared in the Feb '57 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman by 'the layout doctor'. This layout is the most omnivagant setup I've seen published so far. It's got streetcars, interurbans, trolley buses and a railroad all in 6 x 14 foot space. Linn Westcott's Union Bay Railway is still the most stylish and best thought out omnivagant layout I've seen. the layout doctor's layout pushes the boundary between spaghetti and omnivagant setups, but it stays in the omnivagant envelope and excels in sheer scale, density and integration. Sophistication of integration of the various transportation systems being modelled is what distinguishes the omnivagant from the spaghetti. ]

This is especially true for an urban streetcar system. I was thinking about how Mr. Westcott’s concept applied to a setup like the one in Toronto where streetcars plied streets laid out on a grid. In the Decatur, Jackson and Newton layout where Mr. Westcott introduced omnivagancy, the setting is small town and rural, and the tracks and streets conform to the terrain. In grid cities the geography is more-or-less beaten flat and sliced up into a Cartesian plan. There’s still omnivagancy, but of a particular kind.
[This is the Toronto Transit Commission's streetcar network in 1973 (sourced from Transit Toronto). It weaves together many streets as does an omnivagant layout, but it does so in a way that more-or-less conforms to the street grid.]

The omnivagant plans I've developed didn’t quite get to the core of what the particular kind was. Streetcars were going everywhere and making all kinds of places accessible as a good omnivagant layout should; however they didn’t remind me of the streetcar lines in Toronto. I guess they couldn’t. Classical omnivagant designs seem better at integrating pre-1950’s North American rail transport where interurbans play a big role along with passenger train service. 
[These postcards - by JBC Visuals - I bought at a train show a few years ago resonated with me as they succinctly summarized a lot of my memories of riding Toronto's streetcars. That rush hour streetcar traffic on the left reminded me of my trips downtown, and that image on the right conjured up memories of riding the streetcar with my mother to visit my grandmother. Yes, those are PCCs, but the TCC ran them until 1995, and in the '70s they were still the backbone of the fleet.]

My omnivagant designs weren’t passing my personal nostalgia test. There were many non-Toronto elements I wanted to include – experimental farm, observatory, ocean beach, archeological dig, etc – but the core, the long straight streetcar runs, that could hang a tight 90-degree turn when the route demanded, that I remember riding, weren’t there.
[This is Toronto's street railway in 1921. (sourced from Transit Toronto) More extensive than in '73, but the long gone pieces were still following the city's grid.]

I failed to consider the grid and that the streetcars circulate through the grid. The element of that grid most amenable to compact modelling – that is, via a shelf layout -  is the long, rectangular loop, which was often short-cut with smaller, inner loops. It circulates amongst all the streets; so, it's omni-circulatory.
[A late-19th or early-20th century idealization of the most basic streetcar circulation system for a large urban area (sourced from somewhere in the Street Railway Review)]

I suspect the ‘ideal’ streetcar layout for me has some sort of omni-circulatory, rectangular loop in the urban core, and a more free-form omnivagant arrangement on the outskirts.
[This is a Walther's ad from the 1950's. It's true that a setup should go beyond the simple loop, but for certain omni-circulatory layouts, a square loop would be a better starting configuration than a kidney :-) ]

Kato Unitram track isn’t the perfect medium for building an omni-circulatory layout, but it’s pretty good. On the plus side, the track is high quality and precision made, so it has the quality needed for use in kitbashing projects.
[This is the Cincinnati streetcar route map. It's simple and has the basics of the omni-circulator with a twist around Twelfth and Race that makes it a simple figure-eight.]

Unitram track is excellent stuff. I suspect for its intended use – modelling Japanese street trackage - it’s ideal. What I have in mind – old-fashioned Toronto and more North American style layouts – is outside the intended market for this item, so it’s no fault of the product. So far I’d say the most significant downside is that the curves are rather wide for Toronto, whose streetcars must be able to negotiate a 11 m radius turn (around 69 mm in N scale) . The Unitram curves have a 180 mm radius. Using Unitram means approximations to the look of the streets will be in order. But, I think with the long runs that N-scale makes possible, this shouldn't detract from making the thing omni-circulatory.

On the other hand the layout shouldn’t be just a land of nostalgia. I’d like to have some space for playing and thinking about things. Layouts are great for that sort of activity.
The lead photo for this post isn't my layout, the one above is. The lead photo is just digital trickery to use what I've got to figure out where I'd like to go. I think some creativity is going to be needed to keep costs within reach.

A couple of final thoughts. This whole omnivagant vs omni-circulatory rambling is likely obvious to professionals who design these things, and modellers who pay closer attention than myself, but it seemed important to me to try and wrap my head around what makes a streetcar layout different from a model railroad. Also, although Unitram might not be ideal for a omni-circulatory North American streetcar layout, it might be perfect for a Launch Pad Layout. :-)

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