Placeholders and Stand-Ins

Placeholders are a concept in computer programming or writing that are used to occupy a location that the creator intends to come back later with other data and replace once new data or information is available.  That’s a rough definition.  In modeling, we often see placeholders used for models that aren’t available or the modeler hasn’t had time to scratch build the prototype for, but they needed to have something there.  Stand-in’s in film or television are similar concepts, they substitute for the final actor and are used to get lighting and other setups done before the final shots are taken with the actor.  In either case, placeholders and stand-ins are useful tools.  They allow work to continue toward an overall goal, while in both cases the final version is essentially absent.  Everything else can move forward while and the final version arrives later.

In a world as vast as North American railroading has been, with the variety of designs for locomotives, we often see stand-ins being used to hold the place of a final model that will eventually be built, or sometimes the placeholder becomes close enough and is never replaced.  The stand-in then still represents the model, but efforts are put forth toward other things until such a time as the modeler might desire to go back and replace that stand-in.  This isn’t the same, in my mind, as “close enough”, but is related.  The “close enough” model is a stand-in intended to be temporary.  Many close enough models simply remain in service and aren’t replaced.

From my collection of YVRR materials. This 1987 cover photo from Model Railroader. The locomotive pictured, lettered as YV 23, is a stand-in, the best available at the time. This model was later replaced by a closer-to-prototype stand-in modeled on a Spectrum 4-4-0. Unless you were told it was a stand-in, would you have known?

In struggling with our Norfolk & Western coal fleet for 1927, there are few options on the market at the moment that fit the needs of building cars.  Westerfield models has hoppers, and that’s about it.  The N&W did not own USRA 55 ton hoppers which would be easily available as models.  There are not the “battleship” gondolas available right now.  The other larger hoppers, the HU class, are not available either.  Having built one HPb hopper last year, and knowing the speed that I build that kind of car, I can probably build 3-4 of those a year.

11 car coal train on the “Wauconda Central”

Take a look at this drag of coal that I spotted on a visit to the Lake County Model Railroad Club’s “Wauconda Central” back in November.  The train has 11 hoppers pulled by one locomotive, and a nice caboose tacked on at the rear.  If you watch the short video of this train rolling by, you’ll see a few things. The closer you get to the models, the harder it is to see the front and the end of the train all at once.  Second, this train is actuallYy long enough that standing next to the layout, I had to find just the right spot to shoot the actual overall photo.  The rest of it’s run, getting the locomotive and the caboose in the same shot was nearly impossible.  It works the same way with vision.  If you can’t see the front and the rear at the same time, your brain processes the train as being longer than it actually might be.

I know I’m still in the process of track planning, but let’s assume for right now that I have one large mine, with 3 tracks, and room for 20 hoppers.  If I have a morning train and an afternoon train servicing that one mine, and I want to switch out 1/2 of those cars each time, I need how many hoppers?  Roughly 40 or so hoppers.  If I don’t want the same mix moving just back and forth, I need probably to aim for about 50 hoppers or cars to carry coal (because gondolas can count).  If I build 4 or so hoppers a year, it would take me over a decade building the resin cars to fill that.  I need other cars, after all, and the layout, and structures, etc… 

The solution I’ve arrived at is to employ stand-ins.  It’s not my first choice, but it will get things running.  I know, you’re not supposed to tell folks as a prototype modeler that “hey, I’m building these cars as placeholders”.  I share this with you, though, because it’s an important part to getting things moving.  If I can build 5 or 6 cars in a weekend session at the workbench, I could conceivably build enough equipment to be hauling coal within a month or two.  Later, when the layout is up, when things are operating, I can start to shuffle in the models of actual cars.  It’s not perfect, but I highly doubt that anyone is going to pop up and offer HP or HU hoppers that are Ready To Run in the short term.

The easiest choice for stand-ins is probably Accurail 55 ton USRA hoppers.  There are about 20 cars in the “As Delivered” series (2400 series cars) that are lettered for railroads that would be plausible connections that I could change a few dates on, build, and press into service as foreign-road visitors.  That’s not terrible.  The number could rise to 25 or so if I renumber a couple for some of those connectors.  25… that’s half the battle right there already.  Then there’s the Accurail 2497, data only, as delivered, USRA 55 ton hopper.  They’re black, they have period data on them.   A few quick decals like car numbers and some road initials, and some stand-in N&W hoppers can appear.  Likewise, Accurail’s 3700 series gondolas, with some slight modification, could be used as placeholders for eventual battleship gondolas.  

It’s not perfect.  I’ll know, and you’ll know.  Other N&W fans visiting the layout might know.  However, over time, as the massive undertaking that we all face in building a layout starts to overcome the hurdle of getting things up and running, and as I have time, I can replace a few hoppers here and there.  I can build jigs to make the Westerfield cars assemble faster, or I can CAD and 3D print my own cars.  In the end, though, figuring out how to get something up and running is a huge mental hurdle and, as with the last post where I discussed abandoning a moving helix, this has also been a huge weight off in unblocking the planning dam.  

Time to find some hoppers to build!

-JD

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