Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Change of Plan ?

I've always found the phrase "The Devil finds work for idle hands" a bit creepy, but I have to admit that it can sometimes be true. Well, metaphorically at least.

You may recall that work on my LEGO City layout came to a grinding halt a month or so back as I was waiting on some specific pieces that I needed to proceed. Then came the frantic rush to complete a number of LEGO Star Wars UCS sets in time for the Brickish Association LEGO show at the UK National Space Centre. That's now done and dusted, however, so my mind has returned to the work at hand, namely making some progress on my City layout. Problem is, the awaited Light Bley bricks still haven't arrived, and thus my 'idle hands' have had to busy themselves with something else. More specifically, I've started to re-examine some of the layout design choices I made initially, and as a result experiment with some alternatives....

Firstly, the track layout. The original plan was to have a completely enclosed lower loop of track running within the lower level of the layout, with an independent upper loop of track plus sidings etc. running at ground level. Then some bright spark suggested that it would be really cool if there was some way of linking the lower and upper track loops together so that a train could travel between the lower and upper levels of the layout. While twiddling my thumbs waiting for my missing pieces to arrive, I started thinking this suggestion over, and decided that it would indeed be cool if I could carry this off. It was however quickly evident that it probably wouldn't be as simple as it sounded.... After picking the brains of a few people on the Brickset Forum, the consensus seemed to be that in order for a LEGO train to be able to reliably negotiate a gradient, it would be inadvisable for the track to rise by more than one plate in height for every standard section of track. Given that the upper level of my layout will be around 13 bricks higher than the lower level, that's nearly 40 track sections required to get a train from the lower level to the upper level. Still, I sensed a challenge, so got cracking trying to see how it might work, and you can see the results of my experiment below; click to enlarge the pics.

......and after !

As you can see, a whole circuit of inclined track was required to raise the level by just 13 bricks ! The gradient looked pathetically shallow to me, and I initially thought that the "one plate per track section" advice would turn out to be too conservative, but I soon discovered that it was spot on - my Emerald Night struggled to negotiate the curved track sections at anything other than full speed due to insufficient traction between the wheels and the track. You can see Emerald Night hauling herself up and down the slope in the short video clip below.


In practice, Emerald Night won't be used on the lower section of track - she won't fit comfortably within the tunnels which will enclose the lower loop, and hence wouldn't have to negotiate the gradient anyway. My choice for the lower loop is the train from Set 7938 Passenger Train with a couple of extra coaches bolted on for good measure, and it's this train which would have to scale the gradient if I decide to go with it, so my next job is to unseal the box, build it, and see how it fares on the uphill section.

Set 7938 Passenger Train - my choice for the underground tunnels
Including a link between the track loops might seem like a good idea, but it would substantially impact the design of the layout above ground. As the train negotiates the gradient, more and more of it would appear above ground level, meaning that I'd need to somehow accomodate a cutting running pretty much the entire length of the uphill section. This in turn would dramatically reduce the usable area for building on at ground level unless I can find a way of adequately landscaping over the cutting and building on top. It seems a daunting prospect for a relatively modest reward, but I'll keep mulling it over, and if anyone has any good ideas then I'd be delighted to hear them....

The other potentially significant design change I've been contemplating concerns the road system at ground level. Early on during the design process, MOC builder extraordinaire legoloverman aka Pete asked me whether I'd be using brick-built roads in my layout. My response was that it'd be nice to do, but that I wanted to try and keep things relatively simple to start with so as to maximise my chances of actually getting the layout built. I won't quote his response here, but suffice to say he was not in agreement..... Even so, I went ahead with the plan to use standard LEGO road plates in my design (click pic below for a reminder).

I've recently started to question that decision, however. Occupying a maximum area of 2.25m x 1.25m, my layout really isn't that big, and use of road plates would I think waste precious space, particularly as a result of excessively wide pavement areas. Also, the road plates are very inflexible - if you don't want a straight, curve, 'T' junction or crossroads then tough..... Finally, brick-built roads would look less generic and, I suspect, just better full-stop (or 'period', if you're an American). So time for another experiment, then ! There are a number of useful resources on the Web for anyone considering brick-built roads, and a number of techniques from simple to highly complex (you can get a taste here). After some enjoyable messing around, the result of my road building experiment can be seen below (click pics to enlarge).

Experimenting with brick-built roads, with help from Green Grocer...

Emerald Night pays a visit

So will I change tack and use brick built roads instead ? Well, I'm not sure yet, to be honest - they certainly look good to me, and the section I attempted wasn't too hard to build or integrate with other aspects of the layout (although to be fair I haven't attempted to build a junction or a curve yet...). It would however require one hell of a lot of Dark Bley bricks, not to mention a handy number of white and yellow plates, all of which I'd have to source. I'm definitely leaning towards doing this, however....

And as for linking the upper and lower track loops ? Well, once again it's a nice idea, but I'm wary of the impact that this would have on my building area at surface level, so unless I or any of you can come up with a viable workaround I'll probably not run with this idea. We shall see !

<-- LEGO City layout : previous blog entry        LEGO City layout : next blog posting -->


  1. have you tried putting a motor in both ends of the passenger train? The you could make the gradient 1/3 of that .. Or maybe just build a shunter for 'uphill pushing'?
    Great roads by the way, but damn expensive!


  2. Anonymous4/8/11

    Can you build two parallel tracks straight up the centre, like a > in profile, to bring the train up? You could move it in to a siding half way up and reverse it up the next section. Then your raised track is in the centre, more out the way?

    Or build a lift. :)

  3. How about leaving the lower level separate and treating it as a 'proper' subway system. Then you could design some MOC subway stations which link to the upper level via stairwells and rather leave it up to your minifigures to get between the levels?

    This way you could save space on your upper level, add some features to your lower level and overall integrate the levels together rather nicely.

  4. Cheers, guys - some interesting ideas to minimise the ground level impact of the link section. I'm certainly inclined to experiment with a shorter, steeper link and a second motor, although still feel the impact on the surface building area will probably be more than I'm willing to accept.

    @Dax, the current layout design includes a subway station with access to the surface level; this will remain regardless of whether or not I link the upper and lower track loops.

  5. Anonymous4/8/11

    y not simply turn on station into a dual station like wimbledon or St James etc where the station is both underground and over ground station then place some victorian houses or other on a brick cutting with a small garden or none and they there is no problem of a large cutting needing to be provided. so it would look like the houses as you come into east waterloo or southampton

  6. I don't post frequently on your blog, but I do enjoy reading it very much.

    I for one, love the brick built roads, but they are truly expensive to do. It would be a labor of love... however, there is so much more than can be done, and considering you have already determined that this is a "build as you go" project with plenty of room to grow and evolve (and who knows how long Lego will continue with their modulars!) - you could build it up over years and will probably not regret going for brick-built roads.

    As for the interchange from subterranean level to ground level - it may be as simple as sourcing additional wheel rubber bands that come with the official sets, or you can find comparable ones at a hardware store (I have located some in the right size at Home Depot here in the USA). More traction theoretically should equal an easier time getting up the grade. As the previous poster commented, an additional motor should do the trick as well.

    There are so many examples here in the Western USA of light rail or subway trains that alternate between above and below ground - to me it seems natural to want to make it work. I think you would find it would open up lots of interesting possibilities for compatible scenery/varying types of stations, etc.

  7. Forgot to add that you could also try the old rails with grips on them e.g. pre 12v. I sed them for my gradient and I found it helped.

    I also went on a weight reduction programme with the tram to lighten it up, although not sure what you could do to the passenger train short of taking out the 2x green bricks in the base.

  8. Anonymous5/8/11

    As much as I would love to see the two tracks linked. I vote you keep them separate. Integrating the slope would radically change the look and feel I think you are trying to accomplish here.

  9. Savage Steel8/8/11

    hey, it's coming along well Dave. I think our grand schemes are on a par (size wise) though I've still not really committed to a layout of any kind, and really can't decide on one or 2 level train.
    looking at this my inclination is to go with 2 seperate levels for your lay out.
    And the roads do look great. I'm back to wondering about that vinyl dye people have been on about. Using all my cheap red/yellow/not very white any more bricks and sending them bley with that to create affordable roads.

    I'm thinking for my train lay out, half will be above ground, then half will go below ground, with the town/farm built on top of it. A castle on a hill is also needed of course!

  10. ^ Cheers, Savage Steel - I'm almost certainly going to stick with 2 separate levels I think; if at some future time I have more room to expand then that's a different matter, but for now I need to maximise the surface area for buildings etc.

    What an inspired idea to dye all your old unwanted LEGO for road buliding...! if you do this then please let us know how it turned out.

    As you may have seen from some of the LDD screengrabs I've posted, I'm planning on buliding a sizeable tunnel on the surface, complete with rock face. Unlike you I don't plan to put a castle on top of it, however - I'm seriously tempted to put a Vestas Wind Turbine (Set 4999) on there !

  11. Anonymous1/9/11

    If your still looking for a option to connect your two levels. I would move the sloped track sections as close to the center as possible, as it appears this area of your lay out will be hard to use anyway. Then place the junction under the rock tunnel yo are planning to build anyway. The larger mountain area would then give place for a castle or seaside cliff with scenic inn of some sorts.

  12. ^ Unfortunately, on account of the LEGO track radius, even moving the sloping sections towards the centre would occupy half the width of the layout. Some interesting ideas, though, including siting the junction under the rock tunnel - I'd not thought of that.

    Final decision time is approaching - the bricks I need to continue on the layout will be arriving soon; I suspect that joining the 2 levels will have to wait until I have more space to play with. I do however have an interesting new idea which might make up for this, but which could prove expensive - more details in due course....