The Timesaver -- An Example of How Bad Design Gets Promulgated

By Craig Bisgeier

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If you haven't already heard of the Timesaver, read the next paragraph, otherwise skip to the next.

The Timesaver was a switching puzzle invented by either John Allen or Frank Ellison (I have to check my sources, if you remember please write and tell me) in the 1960's for competitions at National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) meets.  It was designed to be a standalone unit, about 12" x 36-48" (today we'd call it a module) with exacting clearances between tracks and switches that would only allow the switcher and one or two cars enough room slip between adjacent tracks.   In operation it is something between a Rubik's Cube and a Time Trial.  An operator is given a starting position with a single switcher engine and a few standard boxcars, and is told where the boxcars and switcher have to end up to finish.  The clock starts, and the operator is timed on how long it takes him to get to that solution, and the number of moves back and forth are counted (coupling / uncoupling is counted as a move).  In the end the operator with the fewest moves and / or the shortest time is awarded a prize.

The Timesaver in itself is not evil.  When used for it's designed purpose, it is a challenging and difficult game that tests the operator's ability to think ahead and plan complicated switching moves.  The game was a bit hit, it was talked about in the hobby press at length and plans were published so that other modelers could make their own Timesavers.  Many folks did just that, and there were Timesaver modules all over the place for people to play on.  

As long as the Timesaver remained a small module that sat under the layout and only got brought out for modeler's meets or practice, it was fine, it threatened to one.  Unfortunately, this is the story about something good that got perverted into one of the worst layout design mistakes ever.  I imagine it went something like this...

It started when some bright guy got the idea in his head that if he hooked his Timesaver up to his layout, he could practice his moves without having to set it up on the wife's dinner table.  He took his module and attached it to the end of his layout, so he could play with it but also run trains onto or off of it, just to vary the engines or boxcars used.  

A little later, a friend of his comes over and sees what he's done, and thinks this is a great idea.  He goes home and decides to build one into his layout too so he can practice.  But this guy is a little more inventive, and decides not only to drop in the Timesaver, but to disguise it as a town so it won't look too odd on his layout.  Not much trouble to drop in a small factory here next to one track, a station there, and presto, it's a town with a complicated switching.  Oh yeah, this guy's isn't removable like the first guy's, he figures he'll just play with his friends' module when they go to meets.

The seed of evil has been planted.

Lo and behold, this guy is a pretty decent modeler and his layout gets picked to be photographed for one of the hobby rags.  The photographer dutifully photographs all the nice scenes on the layout, one of which is the town with the built-in Timesaver.  The photographer, who's tied into what's going on, recognizes the Timesaver for what it is, as do the editorial staff.  They include it because it looks good, and people have been talking about the timesaver for a while now.  Folks will recognize it, and folks in the know realize how clever the idea is.  

It works.  Lots of guys who have been to NMRA meets or even local train shows see it and get a good chuckle out of it.  A few even decide to do the same, figuring it's a good way to fill an empty space and get a little practice in once in a while.

But there are many other modelers out there who have never been to an NMRA meet, whose only exposure to the modeling world comes once a month in the mail, in the form of that hobby rag.  He's never really been down to the tracks to look around, besides to watch the trains go by.  The magazine is his link to that world.  He has have been reading it for a few years, marveling at the big names like Armstrong, Allen, Ellison and the like, always looking for something in the magazine they can use to improve their own layout.

Now here comes this guy with a nice-looking railroad in this month's issue, and "Hey, look at that town!  Looks nice.  Hmm.  Says here that John Allen made up that design.  He's a pretty good modeler, that John Allen.  If he designed it, it must be pretty good.  Timesaver, huh?  I think I remember reading something about that last year... Don't have that issue no more though.  Oh well.  Looks like I could make that fit on MY layout.  Hmmm..."

The seed of evil has taken root.

In a week or two this guy has a Timesaver (or something like it) installed on his own layout.  He doesn't really understand what it is for, all he really knows is that it looked good on the other guy's layout in the magazine, and that right smart fella John Allen made it up.  And by gum that's good enough for him.  He didn't quite get it right either, but that's OK because he doesn't really operate much beyond watching the trains go round and round on his loop layout.  So the fact that it is a pain to switch it doesn't really faze him.

After the first article there are others who take the ball and run with it.  Many know full well what the Timesaver is, and include it even though they never actually intend to play with it -- it's just a trendy thing now.  The Timesaver starts appearing in the magazines every few months, scenicked in many different ways, long after the initial hubbub about the game has trailed off.  Editors stop including references to the game that inspired it because that ground has already been covered many times.  And the legend of the Timesaver begins to grow.  It picks up steam every time a picture of it is shown, every time the thing gets mentioned along with its inventor.  

Eventually, the original game concept becomes so blurred that the plan becomes accepted as a convention many modelers feel they need to include on their own layout, because so many other folks have it.  It becomes a badge of acceptance, showing you are 'hip' to what's going on.  "Look!  See, I've got a Timesaver too! I'm with the IN crowd!  I know what's going on!"  And of course, they really don't.  It is so ubiquitous that it even becomes accepted as a good bit of layout design -- maybe the first real LDE (Layout Design Element) ever.  People stick them in layouts without even really thinking why -- it's just that everyone else is doing it so I need to have it too.

The seed of evil has now bloomed into a poisonous plant.

So all these folks have these Timesavers of all shapes and sizes built into their layouts all across the country.  And eventually, some of them get bored with watching the trains chase their tails, and want to do something else with their layouts.  They start to do some sort of basic operations, which is working great until they get to the Timesaver.  And after an hour or so trying to move a boxcar in and out of the mess that is the Timesaver, they get frustrated and decide to go fishing or watch TV instead.  I wonder if this isn't one of those things that has given operation as bad name for so many years.

That's the real problem here -- the Timesaver was never, ever meant to be used as the track plan for a town or industry on a model railroad.  It is an interesting game but it is an extremely BAD plan for a switching district.  Anyone who has ever tried to do real switching in one (as I have) will tell you it is both frustrating and discouraging.  It bears NO resemblance to any type of track plan you would ever find in the real world, and there are few people who understand layout design who would get behind it and recommend it to anyone.  It will bring all but the most determined operator to his or her knees.  Owners will avoid working it and those who come to help operate will quickly refuse to take that job again.  In short, it's no fun to operate a Timesaver as part of an operating layout.  And sadly it isn't until it is far too late to easily change it that the truth is discovered.

And yet -- because of the magic and mystique of John Allen, and all those years the Timesaver was shown in print over and over again, you still see it popping up in layouts being built in the 21st Century.  I have to think these folks don't really understand what they are doing.  If they had any idea of the abuse they are inflicting upon themselves I'm sure that plan would quickly be round-filed and some other -- any other -- solution would be in the works.

Now, the truly scary thing about all this is that the Timesaver isn't the only pitfall that is out there for the uninitiated designer.  There are many other conventions out there that you may have included in your plan without even realizing there are not only alternatives, but quite possibly better and more realistic solutions.  For instance, have you considered a point-to-point shelf switching layout for a narrow space, instead of trying to shoehorn an oval loop layout into your 8' x 10' rumpus room?  Have you considered that you might have alternatives to thick, wide turnback loops at the ends of your peninsulas?  That maybe there's a better way to reach the middle of your layout than that 3 foot deep crawl-under? 

Think about it.  What have you designed into your plan that could come back and bite you later?  Have you considered every alternative before you pick up a saw and nails?  Better think some more, my friend.  Wood isn't cheap, and your time costs even more these days.

So now that you have been enlightened about the trap of the Timesaver and other design horrors, I hope you will abandon any foolish notions about putting them in your own design, and will caution any other unwary neophytes on the dangers of including things you don't understand on your layout plan.  Question everything.  Don't just do things because everyone else is doing it.  Don't be afraid to try something different -- or at least don't be afraid to ask if it is a good idea or not.  Try new things.  Make NEW mistakes.


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