The following article was originally intended for publication. It was first sent to Model Railroad Planning and then, some years later, to Model Railroad Hobbyist. Unfortunately it was not accepted by either publication so I decided to present it here.
DESIGN TIPS FOR CONTROL PANELS
Designing a layout involves more than just locating tracks, structures and scenic features, or at least it should. The needs of the people who will ultimately operate the layout are certainly of equal importance. How easy will it be to move around? Do the controls make sense? Is the layout enjoyable to operate?
Control panels can have a great impact on the overall success of any model railroad. Their locations can determine where people will tend to congregate and how well traffic will move throughout the layout room. Well designed control panels will ultimately improve the operators’ experiences, while poor ones will increase their frustrations.
Over the years I've have seen over 600 model railroads and have operated on over 100 of them. With those experiences I think I have developed a good sense about what works and what does not work with control panel design and I'd like to share my thoughts with you.
But first I need to mention that the control panels used as examples in this article are from the HO scale layout of The Model Railroad Club in Union, NJ. The newest panels you will see are about 20 years old and many are considerably older. Needless to say they were installed during the era of conventional DC cab control and their designs reflect that.
The club operates the layout approximately 50 times a year and trains are run for the public on most Saturdays, during open houses and on other special occasions. Over time the panels have received quite a workout and, to be honest, look pretty worn. But, despite their appearance, they continue perform well and most are expected to remain in service for many years to come.
The layout includes three fictional railroads, the Class 1 Hudson, Delaware and Ohio, the Trenton Northern, an interurban and traction line, and the Rahway River, a short line. Each railroad interchanges with the others but has its own operating crew, procedures and control panels.
The layout originally measured 40 x 40 feet but is now in the process of being expanded, a project that will keep members very busy for the next decade or two. It was converted to DCC a number of years ago so it is safe to assume that future control panels will look very different than the ones in place now.
Okay, let's get to the design tips!
1. Include control panels in the overall layout design process.
This first tip is the most important! Too often the design and placement of control panels is not considered until the end of the process, a big mistake, in my opinion, and one that could lead to real problems.
2. Control panels need not be fancy, just functional.
You can add as many bells and whistles as you like but it is more important that your panels work properly, be well designed and clearly labeled. Including important information such as town names and tower designations will help orient your operators. Indicating railroad East and West (or North and South if your prototype runs that way) will be particularly helpful, especially if some or all of the panels have East to the left and West to the right.
In Photo 1 you see the Summit Tower panel for the Hudson, Delaware and Ohio (HD&O). At first glance it may appear a little confusing since there are a lot of lights and buttons but it is actually pretty easy to learn. Let's take a closer look.
On the upper left you see a row of square white buttons. These operate the phone system that allows the tower man to communicate with the HD&O dispatcher, the towers located to the east and west, the Rahway River Railway since there's an interchange here, and the mainline engineers. The black rotary dials and buttons were used to select cabs before the conversion to DCC, future panels will not need these. The blue buttons are used to kill the power to specific sections of track. Once again, most, if not all, of these can be eliminated in the future. The red buttons on the track diagram control the turnouts and are illuminated to indicate the switch position. The yellow lights indicate occupancy. The green buttons will be used to control signals in the future. And, finally, the row of red buttons along the bottom are for electromagnetic uncoupling ramps which have yet to be installed.
3. Make control panel design consistent throughout the layout.
Once you find a good design stick with it, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. A consistent design will not only look better but will make all of the panels easier to learn.
Photos 2A – 2D show a few of the many local panels used by the Trenton Northern (TN). In general the TN’s panels are smaller and do look different than those used by its Class 1 neighbor, the HD&O. But as you can see they share a consistent design and are done in the railroad’s colors, even including the line's logo.
4. Install control panels so that their faces are perpendicular to the operator’s line of sight.
That's a fancy way of saying have each panel face the person who's using it.
The best angle to mount a panel will vary depending on how high it is off of the floor and whether it is designed to be operated while seated or standing. If the panel is to be operated while standing then the eye level of the operators may also be a consideration. Unfortunately there is no consistency in operator heights so some compromise may be needed. Thankfully, perfection is not required, getting close will usually be good enough.
Photo 3. The Trenton Northern's Dispatcher's panel. The wrap-around design makes all of the displays easy to see and the controls easily accessible.
Photo 4. Back to the HD&O, we see the panel for the Pittsburgh engine facility. It faces up at a near perfect pitch for the operator who is usually standing.
Photo 5 shows the Gilberton Panel, the biggest serving the HD&O and one of the largest at the club. In addition to Gilberton, site of a major freight yard and passenger station, the panel also handles the town of Ashland and at one time a hidden staging yard.
This panel is angled only 20 degrees back from vertical. At the height it is mounted an angle of about 45 degrees would have been more desirable. Any increase in the pitch, however, would have meant sacrificing more layout space or encroaching upon a busy aisle. Neither option would have been acceptable. The extra large track diagram helps to make up for the less than perfect viewing angle.
5. Panels designed to be operated while seated should be high enough so that the operator’s legs can fit easily underneath.
This tip may seem obvious but, then again, maybe not.
Photo 6 shows the Ringoes control panel on the TN. This position is usually operated while seated. The panel is high enough but as you can see there's no space for the operator's legs. Not a disaster perhaps, but not real comfortable either.
6. Place control panels in line with the part of the layout being controlled.
Many layouts today have controls mounted all along the fascia, in essence making it one large continuous control panel. This approach makes it easy to keep the controls in line with the appropriate parts of the layout. It works especially well when the fascia is high enough to be viewed easily, and in areas with limited numbers of tracks and switches. In yards, terminals and other areas with higher track concentrations conventional panels still work better.
Photo 7. Since the Gilberton Panel controls such a large part of the visible layout it is impossible to have all of the controlled areas in your view while looking at the panel. This can often be a problem when panels cover so much real estate. The situation is improved by the addition of repeater panels, such as the one shown here. These extra panels provide both better sight lines and access.
7. Avoid locating control panels in aisle space.
This is especially important when aisles are small. Remember, when a control panel intrudes into an aisle, that space is no longer aisle space.
As you can see in the photographs, all of the club's panels on are built into the layout. Many are disguised as structures making them almost invisible when viewed from the opposite side. Photos 8A and 8B show the buildings that hide the Summit Tower panel and the Bellefonte repeater panel respectively.
By the way, I was a member of the club for close to two years before I finally realized that the Delco Battery building (Photo 8B) looks like a car battery. Who says I'm not observant?
8. Consider the locations of control panels in relation to other panels.
Once again, this is more important when aisles are less than spacious. When panels are mounted too close together overcrowding problems are almost certain to occur.
On the HD&O the town of Gladstone is located on the opposite side of the same aisle as Gilberton. When short handed one operator can easily reach both control panels since they are directly across from each other. On the other hand, when each has its own operator, as seen in Photo 9, the aisle is completely blocked. A different location for one of them would have prevented this problem.
Thankfully this aisle is fairly wide, if it was smaller then you would have a situation where the two operators, in this case club president Bob Nalbone on the left, me on the right, would want to be in the same space at the same time, making things uncomfortable for both. A similar problem would exist on a multi level layout where a panel for an upper lever is mounted directly above a panel for a lower one, in which case a larger aisle would not help.
9. Be creative!
In Photo 10A all you can see is a brick factory. In 10B the control panel that handles the quarry sidings in Ashland is revealed. Paul Pruess added it long after the building’s installation. This clever space-saving design is a favorite of many members and guests.
Even with careful planning and adherence to good design principles, it may not be possible to have every panel perfectly located, mounted at just the right height and at just the right angle. Compromise is inevitable. But including the control panels in the design process early on, as opposed to relegating them to afterthoughts, will help to ensure superior results in the end.